The Enlightenment came and Homo sapiens sapiens designed an entire philosophy all about themselves, Humanism. Humans, when properly educated and free from constraints such as the church, the state and nature, could achieve anything. Everyone jumped on board: educators, evolutionists, conservation biologists, agriculturalists, the United Nations, economists, political parties and governments. All of these signed up for the mantra that humans, and humans alone could build the future. The nations who got this were labelled “developed” while those still to be converted were called “developing”. Progress would deliver wealth, knowledge and health, along with increasingly wonderful technology. This was pure science after all, so it had to be good. For we were the wise, wise ones after all, weren’t we?
The combined forces of human-centric thinking and reductionist thinking have together destroyed much of the planet. Latest assessments conclude that 49% of the oceanic wildlife has been lost in just 40 years (https://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/living-blue-planet-report-2015), while river, lake and wetland wildlife has declined by 76%. These are serious numbers. We have failed, abysmally, and the damage is more likely to impact on one particular species more than all the others. The species likely to suffer most is… Homo sapiens sapiens.
Why is this? Here are five reasons.
1. Increasing intellectual vulnerability
The figure below shows how as we have become more specialized, relying more on technology for our existence, we have lost our ecological intelligence. Only a very few of my friends could survive without running water, shops, electricity and constructed shelter. If we stripped away our technology, a much more vulnerable scene would quickly reveal itself.
I’m not talking coal, nuclear and hydro here, but food. We often like to draw our food pyramids with us at the top and the plants at the bottom (see figure below). However in reality, these pyramids need to be inverted, as the energy flows from the sun to the plants, then filters down towards us. We are at the bottom of the energy pyramid, not at the top. Energy must pass through the rest of the biosphere before we get our go at the buffet table. The problem with this is that any failure above us will have significant repercussions. McDonough and Braungart (2002) point out that the total biomass of the global population of ants is greater than that of humans, yet they do not contribute to ecological degradation. However, they fail to take cognisance of the fact that humans are warm-blooded, large mammals that require much greater energetic flow-through to maintain themselves than ants do on a weight-for-weight basis. Secondly we need to use huge amounts of energy to maintain conditions around us that lie within the narrow range within which we can survive. However as wildlife declines, so ecosystem services decline, faced with an ever increasing human population, requiring more of these services. Our efforts to increase energy flow in agroecosystems directly destroy the organisms required to supply the ecosystem services needed for our survival.
While we are categorized as a species of least concern on the Red Data Book at present, this is an extremely artificial measure, because of the massive damage we do. Actually we are extremely vulnerable compared to other species. The graph below shows the impact of UV radiation on a bacterium, a yeast organism and a human. As we can see, we are hugely more vulnerable to damage than these other organisms. Yet as we destroyed the ozone layer in the last decades, we thought we would be unaffected, until cancer rates began to soar.
The lesson from this curve is straight-forward: simplicity is best. Why is this? Surely division of labour and specialization, principles that lie at the core of Adam Smith’s economics, are the most productive, efficient, advanced and progressive ways to operate? Possibly, in terms of raw economics this may be the case, but certainly not in terms of resilience. Lots of small units, communicating with each other and freely exchanging (genetic) information are far superior to huge multi-cellular organisms. The more complex we are, the more complex are our needs. Large species need large niches.
We can think of this in terms of a printed colour photograph. If you look at a photograph under a microscope, you will discover that it is made of thousands and thousands of tiny squares, called pixels. There are lots of different colours. These combine to give the impression of a smoothly changing picture. You can increase or decrease the resolution of the photograph by decreasing or increasing the size of the pixels, respectively. Now imagine that there is a picture of an apple. A large organism, such as an apple strudel monster, needs the entire apple to live on. It cannot see the tiny pixels that make up the apple. However a small bacterium can live on one of these pixels. There might be twenty different colours making up the apple, and indeed some of these pixels can be used to make other pictures, of tomatoes, strawberries and roses. However, only a particular arrangement of them in space and time will form an apple. Thus the number of possible apples is limited, compared to the number of pixels. Now imagine a catastrophe occurring. The picture is shredded up into tiny pieces, each only one pixel in size. The apple has disappeared, but the bacteria can keep living on their little pixels. The bacteria are much more resilient here than the apple strudel monster. We are not the uber-evolved superpower that we think we are, but rather a vulnerable, complex set of creatures prone to extinction if our environment was perturbed by some terribly irresponsible species.
The idea that knowledge is power, and therefore knowledge should be guarded, may work in political manoeuvring, and it certainly appears to, but it will matter not a jot in terms of our sustainable continuance on this planet. Sharers will survive, not keepers. Sharing takes trust. However, we are not being asked to trust an enemy, but, rather, the Biosphere from whence we came.
In terms of economics, there is a lesson too for large multinational organizations. Global disruption, as is likely to occur, will greatly threaten such huge creatures, whereas small, local units of industry will have a much better chance of surviving. What we need to do as a species is to reduce our pixel requirements. How can we do this? By reducing division of labour, focusing on generalism, not specialism, opening boundaries in order to share ideas and sharing resources. Resilience will increase with these qualities. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the graph.
Progress was the great battle cry of the Enlightenment. However, if we look at the graph, and judge how progress shapes up, then our modern concept of what progress is fails dramatically. It is the simplest, cottage industry that survives, not the huge, multi-national multi-cellular creature. Indeed the Enlightenment’s concept of progress has been a significant driver of the disaster that we have created, for ourselves and all other life forms on this planet. We have relinquished our options on sustainability and resilience in pursuit of this progress.
Ultimately, the conversation of the Biosphere is an energetic conversation. And if we perturb the energetic landscape, we must expect problems. Furthermore, we have recognized that resilience comes from simplicity, and so any move we make towards resilience should be towards simplicity. If someone suggests otherwise, show them the curve.
Technological innovation is celebrated as the greatest achievement of humankind, delivering the utopian promises of the Enlightenment. Yet recent work is indicating that this is a hollow success, and carries more existentialist risk for humans (i.e. is more likely to lead to our extinction) than anything else. A significant issue relates to the fact that many of the chemical elements upon which modern technology relies are running out. Lithium will be exhausted this century. Gallium and Neodymium are under threat. Indium (essential for LED flat screen technology) is thought to have 10 years of supply remaining, at current usage. Professor Stephen Hawking and Dr Nick Bostrom have been two of the many senior thinkers warning of another threat, that of technological failure through accident or sabotage. The figure below (from Skene and Murray, 2015. Sustainable Economics: Context, Challenges and Opportunities for the 21st-Century Practitioner) explains why. Each arrow represents an existentialist risk. Here we see the gradually increasing complexity of resource provision by humans. Initially the main threats came from nature itself, but then the industrial revolution added new risks – resource vulnerability. Finally, as technology delivered the Information Age, controlling healthcare, food production and energy supply, vulnerabilities from computer viruses, solar flares and geomagnetic reversals have become existential risks.
Perhaps the most pressing of all of our vulnerabilities is philosophical in nature. Because we have embraced the Enlightenment and Humanism as our philosophy, we cannot see beyond the bubble that we find ourselves in. We refuse to accept that a human-centric view not only led to all of the problems, but that it cannot fix them. Prioritizing human needs, as in the latest UN 2030 agenda for sustainable development (yes, the developed versus developing divide again) will not resolve the problems facing us. We need to build from an environmental starting point, not from a human one. Fixing the 3rd floor cafeteria will not save a building with collapsing foundations, as important as the cafeteria is. It is only by finding our place within the natural system and allowing solutions to emerge from the whole that we can save ourselves and much of the rest of the biosphere.
We are blinded by a reductionist science that says we can build and repair nature by putting together the little bits that make it up in the first place. Engineer the genes, re-introduce the species (though without their predators, because they are nasty), pump iron into the oceans to draw down carbon, cut down the rainforests to grow green fuels, replace petrol with diesel to reduce carbon emissions but poison our neighbours with nitrogen oxides. I could go on. And on. If we think the world is really made of little blocks, then we deserve to suffer a painful death at the hands of nature.
Because we are the vulnerable ones, and unless we waken up to the reality that the biosphere is an emergent system, our philosophical ignorance will deliver us to evil. We are Homo vulnerabilis. Say it out loud. We need looking after. So it makes no sense to kill the natural medics whose actions allow us to continue to survive.