Homo sapiens may very well be the first species that must learn to live on Earth. It appears as though every other species that came before us, or exists today, has a population limited by available food supply or other environmental conditions. Human beings have consistently demonstrated their ability to eat about anything (or eat things which can digest the food we can’t); we can live in almost any climate on the planet, in every corner of the globe. Our insatiable desire for more has not stopped with the plant and animals which exist today; for some time now we have been feeding on the dead remains of Earth’s past, and not just the gas, oil and coal we think about, but also the metal ores, limestone, phosphate, and other materials that if they were not directly deposited by living organisms, their existence is owed to a biologic living process like the oxygenation of the oceans.
Humanity has not broken any rules which would set it apart from all the species past and present; the name of the game is still adaptation and growth. We simply adapt more quickly to the limitiations of our growth and continually overshoot our population and resource consumption, forcing yet more adaptation. A population overshoot in most species comes with a violent culling back or population collapse, possibly resulting in extinction. When food supplies dwindle or the environment is substantially altered due to a biologic process, a species can undo its own success without outside influence like climate change or geologic calamity. As I understand it, this may have happened on a large scale several times in the Earth’s past, a resulting cascading effect which would have caused a great extinction event. Humans may be causing the next event.
So there are checks and balances in the biosphere which, over the long term which keep species populations in a state of equilibrium. It is easy to get lost in the unmistakable beauty almost and inherent wisdom that results from 3.8 billion years of evolution. We must recognize that this process is a fundamentally violent exercise in survival. Life is a constant battle with the elements, with a stable food supply, with competing organisms, and with the environmental changes made by life itself. Without the struggle there would be no evolutionary success stories of change and adaptation; in the evolutionary failures — this is where the violence lies.
Yes, we are a clever species, but the short history of society where most of our inventiveness has taken place, is but a film on a shark tooth that belongs to a species that has remained unaltered for a million years. Our success is most certainly noteworthy, but we haven’t stuck it out for the long haul like other species. Even though the human population continues to grow and our resource consumption accelerates, we are in the midst of a collapse of epic proportions. The true test is our ability to adapt to the changes we have made to the environment. Because of our inventiveness, our evolutionary future may not be pivoted on biologic adaptation through natural selection, but our ability recognize the incongruity of growth with our survival and the well being of the planet.
The old a paradigm of feed, replicate and die, has led to innovation and unbelievable complexity in the natural world. Within that long and violent history, a new species arose whose keen adaptative skill made it into the dominant life form on the Earth. Our large complex brains and capacity to pass stories mimetically from generation to generation, allowed even a weak, almost hairless, and frail creature to grow like a cancer on this green planet. This new form of evolution, one of thought and culture, has far outpaced the slow and haphazard nature of biological evolution and the “deep time” associated with it. The planet has never seen anything like us, and we have ravaged her.
Mimetic evolution has been quite valuable to humanity, and I think I can argue that it is our defining feature. Nonetheless, we are butting up against the laws of physics; there is a point where the Earth’s ecosystem that spawned our species will collapse under the burden which we place on it. The violent characteristics of nature will continue to apply to us as long as we cling to the ancient paradigm of growth for the sake of growth. This can readily be seen in the sacrifice zones of the world where billions are threatened by thirst, starvation, flooding, crop failure, desertification, poor air quality, collapsing ecosystems, and other ramifications of an exploited planet. It will get worse before it gets any better.
What is to be done? As I wrote at the beginning of this article, we must learn to live on Earth. What if we faced a violent de-population due to over-consumption and climate disruption, and then after some time had passed for the planet to recover, our species again bloomed? I don’t think the planet could take such a cycle, not twice. We are smarter than that; it is up to us collectively to manage our population and our rate of metabolism. Our success must not be pinned to our population or the share of the Earth’s energy economy put to our uses. We must know that we are not the most important species in the biosphere and that without a healthy, stable climate, our future is looking bleak.
That being said, the human species and the rapid growth of the last 10,000 years will leave an indelible scar on the planet. The extinction event aside, the geologic changes resulting from mining, drilling, and the concentration of metals and plastics, should be apparent to any intelligent species for billions of years. We have moved mountains, cut passages, drilled millions of holes connecting rock strata and water bodies which may have never had communication. Then there are the climactic changes, the marks of which will be preserved in the ice and fossilized remains of creatures.
Is this the only legacy we want to leave, or shall we begin the stewardship of this green and blue orb floating through the vacuum of space? We can be the takers, the consumers of life’s long and difficult journey of energy management, or can we step up as the caretakers and protectors of the only place we’ve ever called home?