Gaia’s Problem Children: Humans

Nov 30, 2018 10: 47 am

Also discussed during two podcasts: one here and another here.

Ecological engineering, and a keystone role, in any local ecosystem, is the human cultural adaptive niche. Maybe we should call this a “hyper-keystone” niche, since humans have managed their ecosystems by making use of a host of other keystone species like beavers, wolves, bison, and giraffe in the past when living as hunter-gatherers, in addition to reduced wildfire risks and creating ecological mosaics through the use of small controlled burns.The development of domesticates was an intensification of this hyper-keystone role, under conditions of increased seasonal risks and longer term risks of drought or other temporary decline in food supply. Boserup’s model addressed the next step; development of more intensification under conditions of denser population and more limited options to utilize wild species as these become locally extinct.

Boserupian intensification has helped explain land clearing even in the deep past (Ruddiman and Ellis 2009). At present, as human populations are growing and urbanizing, agricultural demand has increased so much that the most intensive agricultural systems are becoming dominant. The good news is that the most intensive systems tend to focus on the most productive land – marginal lands are increasingly abandoned and left to regenerate ( the “forest transition”; eg. Rudel et al. 2009). So even as we go off the end of Boserup’s chart, disaster is not the result and intensification continues- though the planet will never be the same- our agriculture has now transformed the planet for the long-term (Ellis et al. 2010).

So far, Boserup has been right and Malthus and Ehrlich have been wrong. And I would bet that the future will also be Boseruppian (Boserup 3.0). We humans will be around for the long term, adapting the earth to us, and then adapting to the earth we create. However, just like the paleolithic humans who once hunted and gathered on the land where you now sit reading this, we will never be able to imagine the Anthropocene world our progeny will create. But maybe Boserup could have…”

Intensified agriculture also was a response to inclusion in expanding states that had urban food needs, necessitating higher local surplus production to supply them. Humans, in other words, have until very recently, always raised the carrying capacity of every ecosystem they inhabited in ways that successfully supported a steady increase in population (averaging about .04 – .07 % per year).

There has not been, so far, any hypothesized carrying capacity that humans have not manipulated upward in their own favour eventually, given time.

The Green Revolution, especially use of improve varieties and chemical fertilizers and other inputs, is one such wizardry of ecological upward manipulation. Adding chemical fertilizers and other inputs to crop varieties vastly improved by the breeder’s art: experimental crosses and hybridization, was among the factors credited with averting starvation in the last decades of the 20th century.

I worked for a Green Revolution Institute, the International Crops Research Centre for the Semi-Arid Tropics, (ICRISAT) during the 1980s. There I found a common assumption that people in subsistence economies, in developing nations, were suffering frequent short falls of food production. it was also assumed they had hit a ceiling of carrying capacity: they were not able to keep up with their rising population.

Adding improved crops, augmenting soil fertility with chemical fertilizers, and yield improvement though other inputs like herbicides, pesticides and fungicides; these were the wizard’s gifts to prevent famine and starvation.

This chart explicitly links intensification and other changes in farming systems to growth populations. It ignores the recent role of improved sanitation, health care, vaccinations, and antibiotics.

Here is my own dilemma: I did not find starvation within the rural areas where I was stationed in Burkina Faso, which was then one of the poorest countries in the world (lowest $.day figures).

My genealogical data indicated a rate of infant and childhood mortality that was similar to that in another semi-arid environment: among the Kalahari people of Botswana – both the BaKgalahadi and the forager Kua and G/wi. It was close to 40%, on average. Annually, factored against the death rates for all adults, this gave a modest annual growth rate of about .07%, a bit higher than the .05% I found in Botswana. I also did not see evidence of extreme poverty – if families were put at risk by illness or the death of a parent, they were allotted sufficient cereal from the headman’s granaries (consisting of the collective surpluses of all households in the lineage) until they could recover. The youngest families in the genealogies, however, had much lower infant and childhood mortality. Their completed family sizes looked much larger. The differences appeared, to me, attributable to vaccination programs initiated in the country.*1 In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, there had been efforts through the WHO and Save-the-Children funded campaigns, and some had extended vaccination to rural areas such as those where our study villages were located. Before this there had been a general resistance to such campaigns among rural populations in French West Africa.

As a result of these observations, I am sceptical of the idea that most people, in traditional subsistence economies, go hungry because of inadequate yields. I found substantial surplus production was being concentrated in the granaries of headmen and village chiefs. These leaders traditionally deployed these surpluses when drought caused famine*2.

In my own view, the Green Revolution may have saved the lives of farming people on land degraded or marginal for agriculture but it was due to the fact that the better land had been take over by colonial plantations and later by commercial ranches and crop operations.

It was a nice idea – save the small farmer all over the world, in India, the Middle East, South America, and Africa but it was, I eventually concluded, in error.

Traditional small holder subsistence farming economies were perfectly capable of feeding the people within them, and systems like slash and burn were even sustainable and protective of ecological diversity.

Today, like other traditional indigenous economies, people in these systems are being systematically converted to a much riskier, unsustainable, and ecology-simplifying food production system that is creating socio-economic stratification. Norman Borlaug’s work – arising out of his desire to help people in degraded farming lands, has been turned to the further commercialization of the remaining landscape of the planet.

Of course some families in the ICRISAT villages appeared more prosperous than others. All human societies are marked by disparity of effort and luck, which sometimes manifests as a difference in family size, and may also translate as differences in conservative “traditionalists” and progressive “entrepreneurs”.

I observed this difference deepen through the extension of Green Revolution technologies to the rural Sahel villages. As chemical fertilizers became available, the primary effect was an increase the length of time a piece of land could be cultivated. Instead of being fallowed after a few years and thus returned to the commons, such land was now cultivated for decades with only brief fallows. And it was even being passed down within the family, as a kind of “farm tenure”. 

Secondly, the chemical fertilizers, and other inputs like herbicide and insecticide, were subsidized for farmers who were willing to grow a commercial cotton crop. This was done through policies of the agricultural extension services operating in Burkina Faso at the time. I am certainly not suggesting that all of this was down to the “green revolution” efforts of scientists at my institute. They were more interested in promoting cultivation of the sorghum and millet varieties they had been developing. The increased length of cultivation on any one piece of land, and the fact that this pattern was often tied to a commercial crop meant that “entrepreneurial” farmers generally had far more land under cultivation than traditional subsistence farming families. Only some, of the traditionalists, were able to afford the chemical fertilizers. Others often lacked the extra labour (being younger households or those with few sons) to tackle clearing extra land for a commercial crop, as well as for a food crop. 

Social stratification was beginning to appear, as well as a shift in land tenure. 

A few of the bigger and more entrepreneurial family farms enlarged their holdings from year to year, while everyone else continued to farm small and temporary plots. Some particularly small or older households began to work as additional labourers for larger households. When this was not arranged along lines of kinship, but rather as a contract paid “in kind”, they got some of the crop. If it was arranged by kinship, these households were provided for during the rest of the year from the granaries of their lineage headman. Essentially, however, a landless class of rural labourers was being created. The children of these landless families got discouraged and migrated out of the village to seek work on plantations in the Ivory Coast, or in the growing cities like Bobo-djuolasso or Ougadougou. It was among these migrants, in the poor neighbourhoods of these cities, that I saw some evidence of malnutrition.

Can it restore our place in nature – can we regain our hyper-keystone niche and save enough of our fellow travellers on this planetary adventure to see a common future? 

Of course. It is human nature: we are the ecosystem-manipulating and engineering species. 

If intensifying agriculture – as Boserup suggests – helped offset risks of hunger as population rose, there is still the the danger of the kind of catastrophic famine that Malthus foresaw, due to the exponential increase in human numbers outpacing the modest increases in crop yields: his calculation is mathematically flawless. But we know a lot more about niche construction now, and the human animal is the champion at that, using all kinds of other species to create intensified ecological productivity. Furthermore, human economies integrate the productivity of a variety of ecosystems: many populations exploit aquatic as well as terrestrial systems, and use a variety of ecological communities. I would suggest that such subsistence economies were not prepared, however, for human population growth rates resulting from vaccination and other modern health care practices.

In discussing this with other observers, I have subsequently realized something must be added to this picture. Bill Everett reminded me that what Borlaug encountered in Mexico might have been analogous to the the situation with the Irish potato famine. He point out that the poor in Ireland starved while the rich landowners, after appropriating the fertile land, were exporting food to England. The very desperate poverty and exhausted soils situation that shocked Norman Borlaug in rural Mexico was not caused by overpopulation but rather due to a long history of land expropriation and misuse, and this was the land left for the poorest peasants, especially the indigenous people, when the commercial uses became uneconomical due to soil degradation.

Gene Anderson also reminded me that bad governance, or even “deliberate policy”, was a frequent cause of starvation – it was not all due to overpopulation or actual food shortage. I thought immediately of Yemen. He suggested, furthermore, that we should be cautious about Boserup’s optimistic take on the raising of carrying capacity through intensification, because her model did not take into account the effects of increasing socio-economic stratification. Wealthier classes often did not support improvements and development efforts to improve the security or income of lower classes, since this inevitably increased their own labour costs. Since commercialized farming is done for profit, having to pay seasonal labourers higher wages was not welcomed. This effects other economic sectors too. As income for small family farms improves, off-farm wages had to keep up with these rising opportunity costs.

There has not been, so far, any hypothesized carrying capacity that humans have not manipulated upward in their own favour eventually, given time. 

International programmes through the United Nations and the World Health Organization, as well as development assistance from individual industrialized states, have helped initiate policy improvements in social assistance, credit, and opportunity were all helping to alleviate these problems in recent decades. However, loans and other development assistance became increasingly tied to foreign corporate mining, logging, and commercial agricultural production, and recently, with a worldwide recession in 2008, the situation is deteriorating as IMF and other creditors increasingly insist on government austerity programs and repayment of debts.

Governments in many places have begun to scale back on assistance to the poor. Under such circumstances, the elites gain not only income, but also political prominence. The development of a more parasitic role, where an increasingly concentration of wealth coincides with political influence, follows. Just to make the most of the metaphor, let us play with it: think about that parasite class. It is completely dependent. The parasitic behaviour of a tiny and apparently unaware and/or intractable minority slows down any investment in overall prosperity, directs government efforts more and more to control of crime and drug addiction – symptoms of distrust and insecurity, and often becomes not just cruel, but also corrupt.

Such excesses have in the past led to bloody revolutions, so that parasitic class can be terminated, temporarily, but that has been tried. Alas, it seems a flaw of the human psyche to swell into a hubris-soaked parasitic monster when presented with the illusion of superiority. We are all potential parasites if elevated above our fellowship. And once a culture of inflated self-justifying wealth and power is created, it tends to protect its own interests. Totalitarianism, whether right wing fascism or “communist” elites, is a tightening of the hold over the parasitic niche. The only other option is that the immunity of the parasitized host will be strengthened until the both can survive as they once did, as a kind of symbiotic dual organism. As it is, the “parasitic” classes were very threatened by the development of the United Nations and have done everything they can to undermine the effort to reduce poverty, warfare, and other abuses of power.

They prefer views of human nature emphasizing qualities of selfishness and even ruthlessness. These fit the paradigms of social Darwinism, of divisiveness and competitiveness, and will scapegoat innocent minorities. All the common tactics that are being manipulated to convince their nations – their hosts – that the wealthy are the patriotic saviours who will save them – even as the supporting economies of these countries are being sucked dry and the toll of human misery rises. The parasitic class, like all parasitic organisms, appears to be unaware this will mean total oblivion for itself as well: it imagines it will be safe in remote guarded bunkers or Martian colonies. And sadly, it seems most of the human beings who grow up wealthy or attain great riches and success are apparently the innocent victims of self-affirmation fallacies and the Kruger-Dunning delusion that their own prominence makes them automatically competent even in fields of endeavour they hardly know well.

In the past many moral parables have dealt with these twin perils as hubris and arrogance. We have been experimenting with this dilemma for longer than we know, it seems. What else was the meaning of Greek and Shakespearian tragedies? Even the parable of the tortoise and the hare hints at the same thing. Why else have all human societies traditions of sarcasm and shaming of corruption, as well as respect for the wisdom of elders? Why else do many stratified state systems, since the beginning of civilization, have mechanisms for airing grievances, for public hearings, peaceful protest, and even more aggressive measures, up to, and including, rebellion, revolution and even the guillotine?

Ethics, an admiration for courage, honesty, generosity, and simple compassion, and a kind of democracy based on universal human rights, all counter the tendency to let individual success go to one’s head. For all its faults, democracy that has resulted from these mechanisms, and even developed fierce watchdogs. That interesting concept of “balancing” powers, to avoid corruption, and to stop injustice perpetrated by authorities that become heedless in their arrogance.

Such institutional cautiousness is surely the root of democracy. I doubt that it is ever meant to bring about equality of outcome. Human beings have too much variation in potential talents and contributions for that to be a danger even in the most egalitarian of playing fields.

Can a devotion to democratic and humanitarian principles save us from our current crisis of mismanagement? Can it restore our place in nature – can we regain our hyper-keystone niche and save enough of our fellow travellers on this planetary adventure to see a common future?

Of course. It is human nature: we are the ecosystem-manipulating and engineering species.

Unsustainable mono-cropping with chemicals, I think, will be abandoned as soil degradation makes them untenable, but the destruction, of all the other ecosystems, is a disastrous departure from all past successful and sustainable niche construction methodologies.

 There are encouraging signs. We are already beginning to undo the damage, in small experimental forays. Reforestation, soil regeneration, the re-introducing beavers and other missing ecosystem engineers, preserving keystone species, and extension of the systems of rice intensification (SRI) to other crops, are all being developed. Mosaic food production ecosystems can be generated by forest gardening, various kinds of permaculture, and by regeneration of high biomass grassland savanna. These may be the only long term food production systems capable of mitigating the looming climate disaster. Similarly, giving marine and other water ecosystems a chance to recover, by severely curtailing industrial scale harvesting, might be enough to bring many back, although the corals may never recover.

To achieve sufficient coverage on these efforts, however, we face an uphill battle against the intrenched infrastructure and dense urbanization that has resulted from industrialization of the global economy. We also face the resistance of the wealthiest corporations and classes on the planet, who have derived enormous wealth and influence from the fossil-fuel driven energy systems that powered this industrial economy. What if Marion King Hubbert was right about peak oil? He seems to have been. It is increasingly uneconomical and ecologically problematical to prolong the peak with fracking and other desperate measure like mining tar sands. 

A quick look at the rate of oil consumption shows that it has continued to climb – it was 85 million barrels a day ten years ago, and today it is closer to 100. But the rate of new oil field discoveries is dropping steadily. Even if there is a huge pool of oil under the Arctic, as Russia and the USA oil corporations (among others) seem to hope, can we really afford to tap that, given that climate change is the only reason the arctic ocean is open to offshore drilling in the first place. I don’t think so.

This graphic is worth careful study.[1] It shows oil discoveries and oil consumption since 1930 to 2008. The black line shows oil consumption. Notice the peak in consumption in 1979 corresponding to the first oil crisis. The subsequent 5 year decline in oil consumption is attributed to more fuel efficient transportation and a slowing world economy. The grey bars show oil discoveries. Notable grey bar features include Kuwait’s big oil field, Burgan, which was discovered in the late 30s and Ghawar, the world’s largest oil field, which was discovered in 1948. Note that the discovery rate peaked around 1966. Note also that consumption exceeds discoveries every year since 1984. Now there is a large gap between discoveries and production. None of this is controversial–it is only history. Source:

I am concerned that there is so much vested interest devoted to industrial scale mono-crop farming systems that it will be tempting to just do more of the same, using genetically manipulated crops. Since these are generally just as dependent on oil and other fossil fuels as other aspects of the current industrial farming system, I doubt this can be a magic bullet to “feed the world”, let alone preserve sufficient ecological integrity to stop the frightening scale of species extinction now underway. 

I think George Monbiot already put it into better words than I could find, when he said “(B)ecause we cannot save ourselves without contesting oligarchic control, the fight for democracy and justice and the fight against environmental breakdown are one and the same. Do not allow those who have caused this crisis to define the limits of political action. Do not allow those whose magical thinking got us into this mess to tell us what can and cannot be done.”  This is quoted above from his essay “Hopeless Realism”.*3 

Truly, unless we can achieve regenerative food production systems, to generate positive trophic flows; unless we can convince governments to support a democracy of rights and opportunities, which to allow everyone to contribute to the pursuit of such initiatives; unless all governments make investment in sources of energy alternative to fossil fuels a priority; we will not meet targets that will prevent runaway greenhouse effects, we are literally out of better options. All of these efforts may involve short-term but very high labour intensity and even a fairly desperate struggle to initiate, however.

And personal danger. Political shifts toward more authoritarian control appear to be happening today, as increasingly right wing governments are elected, which tend to deny climate change and support the conservative elite agenda – business as usual. Business as usual does not appear to respond to awareness that the future does not belong to the fossil fuel phase of an industrial economy. It is dying.

We need all our courage to engineer the ecological revival and keep our caretaker pact with Gaia alive. We are already beginning to undo the damage, in small experimental forays. Reforestation, soil regeneration, the re-introducing beavers and other missing ecosystem engineers, preserving keystone species, and extension of the systems of rice intensification (SRI) to other crops, are all being developed… These are all, without exception, forms of ecological engineering that people all over the world are working on.

African countries are cooperating to build a great green wall to hold back the Sahara


*1 My own experience indicated that perhaps the take-off of population growth in these regions had more to do with the success of vaccination programs and the extension of other aspects of medical care and sanitation, which reduced infant and childhood death rates. I was particularly struck by an example of a couple who had lost all but one of a dozen children (born during the 1940s and 1950s) to what appeared, from the descriptions given, to have been tetanus infections following the cutting of the umbilicus; this was striking in contrast to their only child, a son, who had eight surviving children ranging in age from 16 years to 18 months, all born during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I interviewed this extended family in 1982. They had only lost two children during that time, both during an outbreak of some kind of fever, possibly dengue or yellow fever. I personally got dengue while I was in the field. It is still fairly common there.

*2 People who were promenant in these communities were not wealthy, except in the trust of other people. They were the peace-makers, the truth tellers, and the moral examples that the young modelled themselves after. “Big men” and chiefs were not so much exercising power over others as they were exercising responsibility to others.Let me give an example to show what I mean: I was interviewing households in an African village in Burkina Faso, on the subject of how much grain they had in store after harvest. Every one of them had cultivated more than they needed in order to contribute to the stores of the village headman. I then interviewed this headman, and he proudly showed me granary after granary.He told me there was enough grain in store to feed the village through seven years of drought.This was a moment of revelation for me. I had been thinking of him as a powerful and greedy man, who was enriching himself through his political position. Suddenly I saw the man for what he was – an ethical, methodical, and diligent person striving to live up to the great responsibility entrusted to him. He had to constantly monitor those granaries, checking for damage by rot or vermin, and carefully assess all withdrawals from this common fund. SOURCE

*3 “…I don’t believe that such a collapse is yet inevitable, or that a commensurate response is either technically or economically impossible. When the US joined the Second World War in 1941, it replaced a civilian economy with a military economy within months. As Jack Doyle records in his book Taken for a Ride, “In one year, General Motors developed, tooled, and completely built from scratch 1000 Avenger and 1000 Wildcat aircraft … Barely a year after Pontiac received a Navy contract to build antishipping missiles, the company began delivering the completed product to carrier squadrons around the world.” And this was before advanced information technology made everything faster.

The problem is political. A fascinating analysis by the social science professor Kevin Mackay contends that oligarchy has been a more fundamental cause of the collapse of civilizations than social complexity or energy demand.

Oligarchic control, he argues, thwarts rational decision-making, because the short-term interests of the elite are radically different to the long-term interests of society. This explains why past civilizations have collapsed “despite possessing the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve their crises.” Economic elites, that benefit from social dysfunction, block the necessary solutions. The oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster. Think of Trump and his cabinet of multi-millionaires, the influence of the Koch brothers, the Murdoch empire and its massive contribution to climate science denial, the oil and motor companies whose lobbying prevents a faster shift to new technologies.It is not just governments that have failed to respond, though they have failed spectacularly…” (quotes excerpted from George Monbiot’s moving article.)

Final note: Consider this .. it was not that “agriculture” was “made possible” by the stable climate of the Holocene, it was that the less turbulent climate spared many communities from the disastrous ecological consequences of agriculture.  

Even during most of the Holocene, most earlier ventures into more intense management of major food species of plants and animals still retained the profoundly important “care of the commons” – that maintained species diversity in locally vital “wild” ecosystems which continued to supply food, medicines, pastures, building materials and fuels.  

Only when climate stabilized was it possible to increase settlement size by overall ecological simplification. The potential for utter disaster is implicit. It is at this point in the archaeological record that we begin to see widespread deforestation around early “centres of civilization”, as well as local extinction of many larger wild game and predator species.

Hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and nomadic pastoralists all have held back from such danger, and instead tended to preserve both species diversity and an anti-fragile economy. It was deep-plow agriculture that drifted into a plant-food system, based on “permanent” stage-one succession. Such a pattern lead to unforeseen levels of soil erosion, deforestation, water table drops, and more extreme cycles of drought and flood. This was not something the culture-information system was prepared for, it was as unforeseen as the increase in infectious disease and malnutrition that accompanied many early “Neolithic experiments causing the drop in life expectancy, that the author cites in his paper. (By the way, it was not life “span” that dropped, it was life “expectancy”. Life span is a species specific variable, and is the same in all human populations. the drop in life expectancy was primarily due to increases in infant and childhood mortality.)

Presenting climatic instability as a limiting factor on human population and economic experimentation is all very well, but let us not ignore the fact that it was not “humanity” as a whole who moved in some kind of lockstep from hunting and gathering to agriculture at the start of the Holocene. 

It was only, initially, a tiny minority of humans who backed themselves into that corner. 

Agriculture, over time, is a locally disastrous resource use pattern. It was never enough to feed a growing “complex” and urbanized state. Such states needed to institutionalize regular warfare and even genocide to continue to expand the flow of goods and food to the urban centres. Urban populations, and especially the “political elite” (parasite) class, are always energy-consuming black holes. So every civilization had to keep enlarging the circle of the protection rackets. The most successful strategy that developed, in every agricultural civilization, was expropriation of surrounding ‘tribal’ lands that had preserved their ecosystems.

During the more tumultuous climate fluctuations of the Pleistocene, no human community could have dug themselves this deeply into such a short-sighted and fragile pattern of economic and political “complexity”. Shame on us.


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