Make humanity great again


I’ve long been uncomfortable with the high level of arrogance inherent in Western Civilization. Through the ages, humans have been inexorably downgraded in terms of cosmic importance, but it’s done little to stem our collective hubris. Every religion that’s ever existed provides no empirical reasons to believe in any of their metaphysical tenets, many of which place humans above the rest of Creation. Divorced from a providential sense of importance we are only special from a global perspective due to our canny abilities to take massive quantities of raw materials and turn them into massive amounts of manufactured eventual garbage, as well as the creation of technology that is capable of destroying tremendous amounts of human and nonhuman life.

This is admittedly a bleak and pessimistic overview. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that some of the “manufactured eventual garbage” has enabled us to, among other things, transport our bodies at fast speeds to faraway places; systematically investigate and understand the cosmos at the largest and smallest scales; share, store and transmit vast amounts of information; diagnose and treat diseases; and travel beyond our planetary confines. Not to mention other fun and awesome things like literature, music, the arts, and skateboards. More seriously, some of us have developed empathy and compassion for unrelated humans, and perhaps more notably nonhuman animals, which I think is one of our more admirable traits. [1] Unfortunately, empathy and compassion are often reactions to monstrosities perpetrated by other humans. On the whole, any and all positive characteristics need to be considered in light of our 8-12,000 year onslaught against each other and the rest of the biosphere.

We are destroying ecosystems and extirpating entire species and only recently beginning to grasp the true extent. [2] The only other biological comparison on par with our illustrious death march is Proterozoic oceanic cyanobacteria, which produced enough oxygen to wipe out much of earth’s anaerobic biota eons ago. The obvious difference is we are aware, though, I’m not sure that’s an entirely accurate way to phrase it. One can’t be certain to what extent the individual humans (not to mention humans in charge of other humans) participating in direct and indirect ecosystem disruptions are aware of the harm they are doing spatiotemporally. Did a Canadian fisherman trawling in the North Atlantic in the 1950’s necessarily know they were destroying the local cod population? Did a mining company CEO in the 1990’s know on some level the devastation that mountaintop removals cause, the cessation of which would hurt their company’s bottom line? Did they just not care?

Certainly there is a large difference between a working class fisherman in an industrialized nation and a CEO of a transnational mining company. The former does such work as part of their livelihood and likely noticed diminishing returns but still continued fishing, with the hope that the cod would return. The latter is, in my mind, more grotesque with regards to power and responsibility. They largely don’t give a shit, their transparently disingenuous corporate website environmental propaganda sections notwithstanding. The point is, in an age where information is widely available some of these individuals must know or have been made aware of the idea that their actions in some capacity have negative impacts. Those negative impacts aside, it’s patently obvious that extractive industries will eventually run out of things to extract in a discrete area, which necessitates the movement to a new area, be it fish or coal. On a finite planet with finite resources, eventually we’ll run out nonrenewable resources and are largely reliant on the ecological resilience of harvested wild animal and plant communities (not to mention the vagaries of agricultural systems and its associated environmental factors). [3]

Overall, those who derive the most profit off of organic life and abiotic phenomena care about the aforementioned in terms of how to best utilize it for their own narrow-minded ends. [4] We are a culture that richly rewards this type of behavior. If the Bramble cay melomys in Australasia goes extinct due to ecosystem mismanagement so fucking what? If there’s no monetary or utilitarian value for humanity, or something we don’t find to be cute or iconic, the vast majority of people won’t give it a passing thought in the unlikely event they are even made aware of it. This is summed up well by Paul Kingsnorth:

Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens [Latin: ‘wise man’], though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

“It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet.’ In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total — at the price of its soul.”

Anthropogenic climate change has finally been accepted on a large-scale, resulting in paltry global attempts at mitigating its effects. However, despite this newfound acceptance we have yet to collectively take meaningful actions to lessen our consumptive lifestyles. Fossil fuel extractions continue apace with no end in sight. The prospect of the imminent accessibility of the Arctic’s seabed has wealthy, powerful humans falling all over themselves for the privilege of plundering, environmental concerns be damned. There doesn’t appear to be much standing between them and their greed.

I often wonder how such blatantly harmful actions can be curtailed. As long as there’s money to be made, nonexistent or hard to enforce laws, and a dearth of options for a percentage of the world’s population to survive in a global economy, it’s hard to see things improving [5]. This is not to entirely disparage incremental progress, but in terms of environmental destruction and ongoing human caused extinctions, it’s fair to ponder the futility of conventional environmentalist tactics in the face of continuing and irreversible damage. [6]

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t express a sense of admiration of those fighting the good fight against the ongoing assault against nature, even if their methods haven’t had a lot of success historically. However, the power disparities appear insurmountable. No one, for the most part, is getting rich off of doing the dirty work of fighting the dominant culture, and many are content to blog, retweet and argue online as part of their armchair activism (like me!). It’s easy and requires little time, little effort and little danger to oneself. I am certainly not exempt from this criticism. On the other hand, there is a mass of humanity that couldn’t care less – they can be seen in shopping malls, on TV, in sports arenas, and soon, at rallies for the U.S.’s president-elect.

*****

Many nature/environmental/conservation writers spend the bulk of their writing describing the enormous problems we face and shoehorn a few reasons for hope into the conclusion. It’s hard not to perceive this as blatant wishful thinking, often in the form of “if we do x, y and z, with those variables being improbable pipe dreams, then maybe things won’t be so fucked up.” [7] The only solution my dumb brain can comprehend is a totalitarian world government that violently controls the world’s resources and severely punishes any opposition in the name of sustainability. In other words, we need to be stopped at gunpoint. Such a government would be highly repressive, and regardless of ideology breed a class of elites dominating the rest of society. This would obviously be a nightmare scenario. But as utterly ineffective as the UN is at preventing atrocities and the manifold failures of US hegemony, it’s hard to see the New World Order prophesied by conspiracy theorists coming to pass anytime soon. Perhaps, though, localized authoritarian regimes will materialize, as the depletion of nonrenewable resources continues. Or, I could be very wrong about all of this. I’m wrong a lot.

I think the hope that most have is for Science to generate magical solutions to wean us off fossil fuels while allowing the maintenance or slight decrease of our hyper-consumptive lifestyles (and just maybe, in the spirit of egalitarianism, allowing for the developing world to attain the Western standard of living). It would also be nice to develop technology to better recycle discarded metals and minerals. These solutions should be clean, cheap, safe, renewable and widely available to all. If Science isn’t able to do that, and if humans aren’t willing to stop destroying the environment, it’s hard for me to be optimistic about what the future brings.

Only by overcoming the severe and near innumerable issues we face environmentally, not to mention our vast array social problems, would conceivably make humanity great in my eyes. That is the essence of this overlong essay: we aren’t great, and we never really were [8]. I’d also add that during or after we tackle the aforementioned problems, we should maximize the possibility we can predict and survive cataclysmic events relatively unscathed. [9] Designing the means for enduring a gamma ray blast, impact event, or supervolcano eruption would be pretty damn impressive. We’d finally earn the translation from the Latin of our species name that we so humbly bestowed on ourselves. It’s too bad that, if any of it ever comes to pass, I’ll probably be long dead and unable to let my fellow humans know my very important opinions on the matter.

Like the environmental writers referenced above, I too will attempt to end on a positive note. It’s an appropriate encapsulation of how I mentally confront the enormity of what we face. From Derrick Jensen, who is admittedly a douche:

I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.” [10]


[1] It’s worth noting that we do not have a monopoly on empathetic and altruistic behavior. For example, humpback whales have been observed rescuing seals from killer whales, thought the degree of intentionality is uncertain. For more: Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.

[2] Not that anyone is unaware of this sentiment, but the most illuminating book I’ve read on this from a historical perspective is A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations by Clive Ponting.

[3] The following article on our dwindling resources is behind a paywall at Scientific American but here is a link to that issue as a pdf, pg. 56-63: http://elibrary.bsu.az/jurnallar/Scientific%20American_201009.pdf.

[4] I’m referring more to large corporations, and not the global poor and working class, as the latter groups harm the environment in order to obtain the bare necessities of life. A stark account of how this struggle is manifested can be seen in a recent article in Roads and Kingdoms that describes contemporary fishing villages in South Asia.

[5] And note I wrote the bulk of this BEFORE Trump won the election.

[6] It feels shitty writing things like that. Just to pick one example, there are good, courageous people fighting against DAPL. I really hope they win, but I’m skeptical. Oil and gas companies rarely lose. And even under the Obama administration, the state is decidedly on their side, as it always has been. At best, the pipeline will be moved from Native lands, but it’s still, in all likelihood, getting built.

[7] A brief example from the excellent Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina:

So to embrace a sea ethic we need not idealize or distort the ocean’s creatures. Indeed, up to now our view of the sea’s living inhabitants can hardly be more distorted. Instead, we have the opportunity to see them fully for the first time, as wild animals in their habitats, confronted with needs and dangers, equipped by evolution with the capacity and drive to manage and adapt and survive.

“Such a perspective frees the mind and opens door: to a lifetime of boundless inquiry, to a wealth of enriching insights and reflections, to the chance to be more fully human, to manage and adapt and survive.”

This was after 400 or so pages of some pretty depressing shit. It’s a nice sentiment but frustratingly abstract, though concrete solutions and techniques were dotted throughout the text. That book was written in 1998. Here’s a quote Safina gave to National Geographic this past summer:

Over my lifetime I’ve seen big changes; far fewer fish and terribly deteriorated coral reefs worldwide. More mercury in seafood.”

I should point out that the article does highlight success stories, but the referenced quote speaks volumes, as does another recent article of his with the optimistic title of “As salmon dwindle, whales die.” His comments would obviously be far different if his research and activism resulted in evidence that things have gotten better in the two decades since the publication of the book.

[8] Unless one counts our pre-civilized hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose existence encompassed around 90-99% of our time as a species, and didn’t trash the planet.

[9] It’s possible we’ve already done it once

[10] Endgame, Volume 1:The Problem of Civilization

Comments

  1. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Unless one counts our pre-civilized hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose existence encompassed around 90-99% of our time as a species, and didn’t trash the planet

    If you gave them enough time, they would have done that. IIRC, the death of many great land mammals, like woolly mammoths, was because of human hunter-gatherers.

    I think the hope that most have is for Science to generate magical solutions to wean us off fossil fuels while allowing the maintenance or slight decrease of our hyper-consumptive lifestyles (and just maybe, in the spirit of egalitarianism, allowing for the developing world to attain the Western standard of living). It would also be nice to develop technology to better recycle discarded metals and minerals. These solutions should be clean, cheap, safe, renewable and widely available to all. If Science isn’t able to do that, and if humans aren’t willing to stop destroying the environment, it’s hard for me to be optimistic about what the future brings.

    Regardless, IMO, if you look around the world, the countries that do the best by the environment are the richer countries. That’s because they can afford to spend resources (time, money, human labor, energy, etc.) on protecting the environment. If we want to protect the environment, we need to raise the rest of the world out of poverty, and that’s going to take a lot of cheap, clean, energy. Even if you assume better recycling, less consumption, better efficiencies, we are going to need to increase our energy usage in order to stabilize and protect the environment.

    Also, to protect the environment, we need to stop and reverse human population growth. Again, looking at the data, western countries (and other industrialized countries like Japan and South Korea) already are below the birth-rate for steady population. If immigration was removed, those countries would soon see negative population growths, and that’s what we need. As I said, the other piece of the puzzle is to raise the rest of the world out of poverty in order to allow them extra resources to protect the environment, and to stop population growth.

    Finally, the emancipation of women and easy and cheap access to birth control is necessary to reduce population sizes, again in order to protect the only environment that we have, and likely the only one that we will ever have. We should be doing this anyway for other obvious reasons, but this is another reason on top of that.

    Again, it all comes back to sufficiently cheap and clean energy. In short, we need something that is cost competitive with coal and natural gas. If it’s much more expensive than coal and natural gas, then the poorer developing countries will trash the environment in order for their own economic and societal well-being. For many poor people, getting a little bit of electricity is the difference between life and death. Drinking pumped water is much safer than drinking river water, for example. Also refrigeration, medicine, doctors and advanced medical practices, etc., all need energy.

    So, if we cannot find something that is cost competitive with coal and natural gas, then I am extremely pessimistic. I am extremely pessimistic that international agreements will actually work, when the only option is something much more expensive than coal and natural gas.

    Thankfully, I’m pretty sure that we’ve already discovered a large part of the solution, and I’m hopeful for the remaining bits. In particular, I believe we have a working solution for electricity, and I am hopeful for several of the available and upcoming technologies to replace fossil fuel for transport. With that, approx 86% of all human CO2 emissions would be solved.

    I believe that the biggest remaining impediment to implementing these solutions to our environmental problems is a political problem, and not technical problems. Unfortunately, this political problem is all of the so-called environmentalists and their adamant, misguided, irrational, and often dishonest opposition to nuclear power.

    • says

      You know, I actually debated adding something about the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis. It was covered a bit in a book I recently read: “Harvesting The Biosphere” by Vaclav Smil. He basically concluded that one should avoid attributing it to a single cause (i.e. humans or environmental factors). I’m inclined to agree and think it likely it’s a mixture of different variables. But I would acknowledge it’s certainly possible humans could’ve caused rampant megafaunal extinctions in the absence of severe climatic changes.