Concern for the Golden Toad

| 7/18/2008 5:04:00 PM

Tags: environment, climate change, biology, human nature, positive visualization, human history,

Lady Grey

In one sense it’s a terrific time to be human. We’re here to meet our biggest challenge so far – bigger than bipedal locomotion; bigger than the domestication of plants and animals; bigger than the invention of the wheel. We’re here to confront our own biology, the essential nature that tells us to keep reproducing and expanding. If you could view the entirety of human experience from the dawn of our evolution to the present, if you could pick the human century you’d like to witness first-hand, you might choose this one. I think I would. I would want to watch us tackle this problem.

The suffering, if we don’t get it right, will not be humanity’s alone. Already we’ve destroyed thousands of species. In just the last few years Africa’s Western Black Rhinoceros, Europe’s Pyrenean Ibex, Costa Rica’s Golden Toad and North America’s Pearly Mussel have, so far as we can tell, passed into oblivion as humanity has destroyed their habitats. The scientists of the World Conservation Union estimate that 99 percent of recent extinctions and currently threatened species have been or will be destroyed by human activities. Conservation International reports that, as of the middle of 2008, a plant or animal species was becoming extinct every 20 minutes.

Extinction is normal, of course. The vast majority of species that ever lived seem to have disappeared somewhere along the line. What’s not normal is the rate of extinction. The rate of extinctions has been accelerating since the beginning of the 20th century and we’re responsible.

It’s no great tragedy that any particular species becomes extinct, unless of course it’s us. Generally, it has been part of nature’s way and each extinction opens opportunities for other species.

The greater tragedy is the fact that we’re taking a healthy, resilient and rich natural habitat – the only planet we know where life thrives – and degrading its ability to support life. New species can’t evolve fast enough to replace the diversity we’re destroying, even if we hadn’t made the habitat inhospitable. We’ve inherited the best planet in the known universe, only to squander it. And if we don’t change course soon, the planet could very well end up unfit for human habitation or at the very least damned uncomfortable.

7/23/2008 10:49:11 AM

Here's the rest ... I got a little carried away I guess. If the world is ever to experience declining ... or even stable human population numbers, it will take both resource distribution and sufficient cost associated with reproduction, I think. Or, perhaps we need the cataclysmic event, the evolutionary bottleneck to get the ball rolling. But if we rely on the natural population controls, there's no guarantee that some other humanoid monster won't result. Paraphrasing the late Stephen Jay Gould: replay the evolutionary videotape and you will get a vastly different outcome every time. I think you are on to something that's very important, Bryan. If we don't take steps to envision how we want the future to look, and if we don't make some huge, fundamental adjustments, we're going to crash and burn. Thanks.

7/23/2008 10:29:33 AM

Bryan - The concept of redefining our self interest is a fascinating one. Our mainstream institutions chafe at widespread distribution of resources. Hoarding is religion for many. Improved distribution is now pretty much relegated to charities and individuals who are often labeled "humanitarian" or "benevolent." In a way, these organizations (and individuals) are like much of the current GREEN movement. They broker absolution and money (or goods). If mainstream society gives them money, then society gets to offload its guilt. I believe that the concept of carbon credits and the popularity of "green" products has little to do with saving the earth. I think it is more about smart people trying to buy their way into the good earth-stewardship club. I am in no way against the "green" movement's efforts, however I think the solution is more comprehensive; more difficult. Darwin would argue, and I tend to agree, that the "desire" to procreate is hard-wired at the DNA level in all biological organisms. Darwin knew nothing of DNA, but he offered gemmules as hereditary particles in his pangenesis hypothesis. That word "desire" is perhaps a poor choice, since it is difficult to imagine a bacterial cell feeling desire. Of course, it's also difficult to imagine a bacterial cell dividing when resources are limiting (this is when they enter survival mode as spores or cysts). Humans have evolved to a place where the desire to procreate has been clouded with emotional and physical pleasure. Our tool using skills are so profoundly developed that we can (and thankfully many do) enjoy the pleasures, while controlling the reproduction. If the world is ever to experience declining ... or even stable human population numbers, it will take both resource distribution and sufficient cost associated with reproduction, I think. Or, perhaps we need the cataclysmic event, the evolutionary bottleneck to get the ball

7/22/2008 6:07:09 PM

Thanks, Salix. I completely agree that our current economic models are going to need an overhaul if we're going to create systems that are sustainable, even for the next century or so. Our current systems will bog down if population growth stops - or reverses. What might the new economic system look like? I don't know, but I have some ideas. We are already paying a premium for goods and services that are created with sustainability in mind. I think we may pay even higher premiums. A product's contribution to the habitat will become an intrinsic part of its value and quality will be judged in terms of the product's social and environmental provenance. Eventually, we'll have to acknowledge that if anyone in the world is starving, then we don't have a sustainable system. Starving people are, by definition, alienated from the rest of human society and they won't join in the consensus we need to form to create and maintain a sustainable habitat. So improved distribution of resources must be part of any new economic system. And experience will be valued over property, I think. Most of our acquisitive tendencies are rooted in the feeling that we're building genetic dynasties and providing them with the wealth they'll need in future generations. In a world with a shrinking human population, there are more raw resources available to each succeeding generation and our genetic projection is limited, so the whole notion of endowing our progeny is less relevant. In that world, we'll pay a lot for great experiences, somewhat less for brilliant possessions, I think. I'm a capitalist, don't get me wrong. I think self-interest has to be a fundamental consideration in the economic system. But in a world with a shrinking human population, we'll need to re-define our self interest. I think that's a fascinating notion. - Bryan

7/22/2008 10:00:14 AM

Mr. Welch -- I have been thoroughly enjoying these last several blogs. I have been a long proponent of having our species accept the fact that we are part of the system. Of course as part of the system, the rules that govern it, also govern us ... but we don't seem to want to accept it. Writing as a westerner, our entire economic system appears to rely on continuous growth. As long as "things" are growing, life is good ... for us anyway. Benevolent capitalism certainly feels comfortable to me, but I don't think it is sustainable, and I don't believe it will be part of the long-term plan. If we are to survive comfortably, and with a nurturing environment, what do you think our economic system might look like?

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