(This piece was originally written for my good friend Adam, and earlier published on his blog, OccupyEssays)
“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)
This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house.
Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole.
There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.
Out of Africa and Out of Control
Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, various australopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe.
There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims?
Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west.
Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare. View full article »
The facts of catastrophic climate change have become so alarming that growing numbers of scientists feel they can no longer hide behind inscrutable jargon, masks of neutrality, professional decorum, and robotic objectivity. When paragons of affectless detachment and Spock-speak begin dropping F-bombs at prestigious conferences, undertake civil disobedience, and call for mass resistance movements to overtake the forces of planetary destruction, there is a sea-change in the scientific world, appropriately so, something that far transcends “value-laden” research to become thunderous calls for action, anger, and uprising.
It seems the top experts know something pacifists and delusional vegans (who can only talk of the temporary reduction of meat consumption IN THE US while ignoring soaring global rates and remaining mute about the severity of climate change) don’t — the earth is fucked, time is running out, ivy league vegan outreach adds insult to injury, and it’s too late for education. The courage and integrity of the new generation of activist-scientists to speak truth to power and lay their careers on the line also puts 99.999% of academics to shame, narcissists and cowards who would rather lose species and ecosystems over a career advance any day.
The choice is mass rebellion or catastrophic collapse. Despite the false impression given by the final sentence of this article, while vocal, confrontational, and politicized climate scientists could emerge as key forces of change, the true catalysts will be mass resistance movements erupting globally. But of that, we have no guarantee and as of yet, little hope to avert impending disaster on an unimaginable scale.
Why Earth and Atmospheric Scientists Are Swearing Up a Storm and Getting Arrested.
By Jonathan Mingle, Slate, Friday, Dec. 7, 2012
NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade during Climate Change Campaign Action Day in 2009 in Coventry, England
Many of us have wondered at some point in almost precisely these terms: “Is Earth Fucked?” But it’s not the sort of frank query you expect an expert in geomorphology to pose to his colleagues as the title of a formal presentation at one of the world’s largest scientific gatherings.
Nestled among offerings such as “Bedrock Hillslopes to Deltas: New Insights Into Landscape Mechanics” and “Chemical Indicators of Pathways in the Water Cycle,” the question leapt off the pages of the schedule for the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the more than 20,000 Earth and atmospheric scientists who descended on downtown San Francisco this week to share their research on everything from Antarctic ice-sheet behavior to hurricane path modeling to earthquake forecasting. But he’s the only one whose presentation required the use of censorious asterisks. When the chairman of Werner’s panel announced the talk’s title on Wednesday, a titter ran through the audience at the naughtiness of it all.
Why shout out the blunt question on everyone’s mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. “Not so much depressed about all the good science that’s being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds,” he clarified, “but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it.”
That’s probably an apt description of legions of scientists who have labored for years only to see their findings met with shrugs—or worse. Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, for instance, published a paper in Nature Climate Change this week showing that carbon emissions have reached record levels, with a 2.6 percent projected rise in 2012. In another AGU presentation, Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posed the question: “Will realistic fossil fuel burning scenarios prevent catastrophic climate change?” He did not seem optimistic. “We might end up burning 900 billion tons of carbon” from oil, gas, and coal, he announced. “We can have a managed path to lower emissions—or do it by misery.” A guy next to me in the audience gave a kind of hopeless snort. The head of NOAA and polar experts held a news conference at the conference entitled, “What’s going on in the Arctic?” This year broke all sorts of records: the lowest recorded sea-ice extent, the lowest recorded snow cover extent and duration, and the most extensive recorded melting event on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, among other milestones. “I’ve studied Greenland for 20 years now; I’ve devoted my career to it,” Jason Box of Ohio State University intoned somberly, “and 2012 was an astonishing year. This was the warmest summer in a period of record that’s continuous in 170 years.”
Werner’s title nodded at a question running like an anxious murmur just beneath the surface of this and other presentations at the AGU conference: What is the responsibility of scientists, many of them funded by taxpayer dollars through institutions like the National Science Foundation, to tell us just exactly how fucked we are? Should scientists be neutral arbiters who provide information but leave the fraught decision-making and cost-benefit analysis to economists and political actors? Or should they engage directly in the political process or even become advocates for policies implied by their scientific findings?
Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet’s critical systems, that may be quickly changing. Lately more and more scientists seem shaken enough by what their measurements and computer models are telling them (and not just about climate change but also about the global nitrogen cycle, extinction rates, fisheries depletion, etc.) to speak out and endorse specific actions. The most prominent example is NASA climatologist James Hansen, who was so freaked out by his own data that he began agitating several years ago for legislation to rein in carbon emissions. His combination of rigorous research and vigorous advocacy is becoming, if not quite mainstream, somewhat less exotic. A commentary in Nature last month implored scientists to risk tenure and get arrested, if necessary, to promote the political solutions their research tells them are required. Climate researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently made an impassioned call on their colleagues to do a better job of communicating the urgency of their findings and to no longer cede the making of policy prescriptions entirely to economists and politicians.
Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s foremost experts on glaciers and ancient climates, framed the dilemma in a speech he gave to a group of behavioral scientists in 2010:
Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.
That’s the sound of serious-minded scientists fretting out loud to the rest of us that the earth is indeed fucked, unless we get our shit together. More and more are willing to risk professional opprobrium to drive that message home.
Box is a prime example. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for export, thus facilitating the liberation of a vast quantity of climate-warming and ice-sheet-disintegrating carbon. “Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I’ve done,” he told me, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. “I’ve taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, ‘You’re wasting your time, you’re risking your career,’ ” he said. Such actions might one day keep him from membership in the National Academies of Science, he mused aloud, but he didn’t seem too concerned. As he sees it, he can pursue rigorous science and be an engaged, concerned citizen at the same time. “I have a 14-month-old daughter,” he explained simply.
The bulk of Werner’s talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a “preliminary agent-based numerical model” of “coupled human-environmental systems.” He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes. These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist’s domain. “It’s really a geophysics problem,” he said. “It’s not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities.”
Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the “coupled human-environmental system”—that is to say, if you’re interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is fucked—then, Werner’s model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element—environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.
I asked Werner what he sees as scientists’ role in contributing to this kind of resistance, the kind of direct action taken by researchers like Hansen and Box. Werner views his own advocacy as separate from his scientific work. “To some extent, [science is] a job, and a job I really like, and I have the good fortune and privilege to have,” he told me. “In my other life, I am an activist, but there’s a line. Both sides inform the other. And I think that that is healthy. But when I’m doing geophysics, I’m a geophysicist. When I’m doing activism, I’m an activist.”
Werner agreed that more and more scientists are now engaging in advocacy than in the past. “Even if you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to advocate anything. I am simply going to make sure that I am going to produce results which are useful and available to a broad range of people,’ that’s a decision that researchers have to make.” This is not just an academic question. Anderson and Bows’ work, for instance, suggests that economic growth in the short term is simply incompatible with the (nonbinding) commitments made by most U.N. member states to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This, of course, is not a message that is making any headway with the leaders of those countries. “The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions,” Anderson and Bows write. Getting relevant information into the hands of those more likely to ask those questions is, Werner said, part of his responsibility as a scientist.
Box agrees and is launching a new initiative called the Dark Snow Project, which aims to conduct the first crowdsourced scientific expedition to the Arctic, measuring how soot from North American wildfires might be accelerating Greenland’s ice melt. He and his colleagues plan to make their results publically accessible via video and other online tools, and he sees the project eventually growing into an organization that does rapid-response field science in the public interest.
As for the big question—is Earth fucked?—Werner announced in his talk that he has done some preliminary runs of his model. At this point I could sense the audience lean forward collectively on their seats. First he simulated the global economy proceeding into the future without the drag of environmental management decisions. “What happens is not too surprising,” he told us evenly. “Basically the economy fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage.”
Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that “it delays the environmental damage but it doesn’t prevent it.”
That’s not too surprising either. But it also implies we’re eventually, definitely fucked. Still, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”
In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite fucked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.
The nature of evolution is speciation — to produce diversity of life, even in the harshest and most challenging conditions. Indeed, after the five previous major extinctions events on earth, nature responded not only by restabilizing ecological dynamics, but by proliferating even more life and enhancing biodiversity such as happened during the Cambrian Explosion.
The diversity of life involves not only the proliferation of plant and animal species, but also of unique human cultures and languages. At all levels, we are currently losing the rich diversity of biological, cultural, and linguistic forms; in a profound sense, we can no longer speak of “evolution” but rather must understand that planet earth is undergoing a profound devolutionary process in the sense that diversity of all kinds is rapidly receding not advancing.
Thus, in the midst of the sixth extinction crisis in the history of this planet that is currently underway, we are also witness to the precipitous loss of cultural and linguistic diversity as well, as we leave the prior Holocene epoch and enter the new Anthropocene era. This new and emergent geological epoch is defined by the dominant role played by humans, not the natural world, in altering the planet, and clearly not in desirable ways. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the combined forces of the modernization, the Industrial Revolution, fossil-fuel addiction, a grow-or-die metastasizing system of global capitalism, the spread of agribusiness and rising world meat consumption, human overpopulation, mass culture, rampant consumerism, and other forces have brought about habitat loss, rainforest destruction, desertification, climate change, and species extinction.
In fact since the emergence of agricultural society 10-15,000 years ago, the now dominant mode of production began a war of extermination against hunting and gathering tribes that preserved traditional nomadic and non-hierarchical life ways, as opposed to the growth-oriented, hierarchical farming societies based on domesticating nature and animals, obsessive concerns with control, expansion, war, and conquest.
The war still being waged against indigenous peoples, first nations, and other non-modern/non-Western cultures certainly fully advanced with colonialism five centuries ago, but ultimately is a continuation of the exterminism agricultural society launched against all peoples who did not conform to the pathological imperatives of “civilization” and “progress.”
While from the standpoint of the earth and nonhuman animal species, the ideal would be for Homo rapiens as a whole to die off as rapidly as possible. But the alternative to what most humans find repugnant and nauseating, for those who believe we still have a right to inhabit this planet even if we prove we do not have the ability to harmonize our societies with animal communities and the natural world as a whole, is to do everything possible to resist global capitalism and its war against tribal and indigenous peoples everywhere.
For not only is it vital that indigenous peoples and ancient lifeways be preserved in their own right against the genocidal onslaught of global capitalism, and that we have more diverse languages, cultures, and lifeways than market societies and forces of cultural homogenization will tolerate. It is also crucial, if we want to preserve what biodiversity is left, that we protect and preserve premodern and non-traditional peoples.
One obvious reason — although this has often been overstated in romanticized ways — is that they retain a more reverential ethic toward the earth, they have a far deeper connectedness to life and land, they value tradition over novelty and create far more sustainable cultures, and that they are far more capable of caring for the earth and animals that predatory and rapacious capitalist societies.
Despite the fact that indigenous peoples (such as the Clovis Indians who first inhabited North America) have often throughout history overshot ecological limits and driven animals into extinction, they nonetheless are clearly more suited “custodians” of the earth than the IMF, World Bank, WTO, ExxonMobil, Shell, Monsanto, Cargill, Maxxam, Du Pont, Japanese whalers, NGOs, ignorant narcissistic Western consumers, and so on.
As the essay below makes clear, the areas now highest in biodiversity are the same areas inhabited by indigeous peoples (and this is partly so because plant and animal species are struggling to adjust to escape the ravages of climate change). Thus, the key to preserving what biodiversity remains amidst the rapidly unfolding sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet is to preserve the remaining cultural and linguistic diversity — to support, help defend, and sustain the indigenous peoples inhabiting the areas with the most dense and diverse plant and animal species.
Thus, here we see yet another vivid example of the politics of total liberation, and how the multiple struggles to save humans, animals, and nature from the devastating effects of the capitalist-dominated Anthropocene era are ultimately one struggle ad must be formulated in theory and practice accordingly.
So there are two main options to save biodiversity: either through the collapse of “civilization” and the extinction of the human species, or through advancing the only politics suitable for the twenty-first century and era of global social and ecological crisis — a politics of total liberation that preserves biodiversity by preserving cultural and linguistic diversity. And this, unavoidably, demands a total war against global capitalism and the sundry institutions and forces of destruction bound up with advanced market societies and this nihilistic world system.
An unprecedented study of global biological and cultural diversity paints a dire picture of the state of our species.
Like the amphibians that climb to ever tinier areas at higher altitudes to avoid being extinguished by global warming, most of the world’s species currently huddle in a tiny fraction of the Earth’s surface, and most human cultural diversity — as measured by the number of languages — occupies essentially the same tiny fraction of the planet.
We are dying.
A scientist would never say it quite this way. Instead, he would tell you that the world’s animal and plant species are disappearing 1,000 times faster than ever in recorded history. He might add that some areas of the world have lost 60% of their languages since the mid-1970’s, and 90% of the world’s languages are expected to vanish by the year 2099.
In Haitian Creole, we would yell “Amwe!” (Help!), and this would be right and proper.
As ever, the best scientific studies merely quantify what everybody has known all along. Life, in general, has suffered horribly from the runaway spread of European values and the notions of progress that began with the Industrial Revolution. A sharp bit of mathematics finally brings forth the maps that expose the poverty of the world’s major carbon emitters and the little wealth that remains in those parts of the world where the indigenous are making their final stand.
High-biodiversity wilderness areas
There currently exist very few places on Earth that could be considered intact. The researchers found only five such areas, which are numbered 36-40 on the biodiversity map and colored in shades of green.
These are, by number: 36: Amazonia; 37: Congo Forests; 38: Miombo-Mopane Woodlands and Savannas; 39: New Guinea; 40: North American Deserts.
Together these intact spots amounted to only about six percent of the terrestrial surface but were home to 17 percent of vascular plants and eight percent of vertebrates that could not be found anywhere else. The same areas were the refuge for 1,622 of the world’s 6,900 languages, with little New Guinea topping the chart at 976 tongues.
The only glimmer of hope from the study was the discovery that, contrary to what conservationists might presume, a place does not have to be untouched by humans to serve as a refuge for the world’s plants and animals. Instead, habitats must be handled in the right way, and more than anything, they must be protected from the kinds of blows dealt by industrialization.
The researchers additionally identified 35 “biodiversity hotspots” (numbered 1-35 and colored in shades of yellow to red on the biodiversity map), defined as places with a high density of endemic species despite having lost over 70% of natural habitat.
These were, by number: 1: Atlantic Forest; 2: California Floristic Province; 3: Cape Floristic Region; 4: Caribbean Islands; 5: Caucasus; 6: Cerrado; 7: Chilean Winter Rainfall-Valdivian Forests; 8: Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa; 9: East Melanesian Islands; 10: Eastern Afromontane; 11: Forests of East Australia; 12: Guinean Forests of West Africa; 13: Himalaya; 14: Horn of Africa; 15: Indo-Burma; 16: Irano-Anatolian; 17: Japan; 18: Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands; 19: Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands; 20: Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany; 21: Mediterranean Basin; 22: Mesoamerica; 23: Mountains of Central Asia; 24: Mountains of Southwest China; 25: New Caledonia; 26: New Zealand; 27: Philippines; 28: Polynesia-Micronesia; 29: Southwest Australia; 30: Succulent Karoo; 31: Sundaland; 32: Tropical Andes; 33: Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena; 34: Wallacea; 35: Western Ghats and Sri Lanka.
The biodiversity hotspots amounted only to about two percent of the Earth’s surface, but they were home to a whopping 50% of plant species and 43% of vertebrates that could be found nowhere else. Again, there was a stunning correlation of biodiversity with culture, with the hotspots being home to 3,202 of the world’s languages.
Biodiversity is being lost, but what’s far worse is that the ability to express this loss is vanishing. For example, 1,553 of the languages in hotspots were spoken by only 10,000 or fewer people, and 544 were spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Ironically, the American researchers who did this study are now regarded as experts on biodiversity, although the only real experts on how to maintain biodiversity in places occupied by humans are the world’s indigenous.
The logical conclusion to take from this study is that modern science, with all its sophisticated technology, is completely trumped by the thousands of years of experimentation by the world’s indigenous, although their findings have been transmitted by oral tradition and other simple means. To be fair, it isn’t so much the fault of modern science as the fault of the industrialized world, which worships power, greed, and the absurdity of exponential growth.
One cannot disdain all other living beings, grind mountains to extract minerals, build roads without a thought for habitat fragmentation, design gardens to please only human aesthetics, or harvest monocultures that serve solely human needs, and expect one’s world to continue for long. There is room for humans at Earth’s banquet, but only those who have lived in place long enough to have learned the contours of their terrain, the language of their plant and animal neighbors and, more than anything, the needs of non humans.
When a shaman leaves a lock of his hair where he has uprooted a medicinal cactus, it is not a bit of imbecility, but a humble acknowledgement that, for each living thing taken, one must give a bit of oneself, however small. For centuries humans have spilled their most beloved animals’ blood to the earth to acknowledge the cyclical aspects of life in preparation for battle and celebration of life’s milestones. These are not concepts that a pharmaceutical corporation could ever understand.
As for every other scientific report, this one concludes that yet more study will be needed, but what is needed, and urgently so, is more humility, because as the world’s indigenous cultures go, so does all humanity.