Monday, February 4, 2013

The Dominant Animal

Paul and Anne Ehrlich are respected thinkers in the modern environmental movement.  Paul achieved infamy in 1968, following the publication of his book, The Population Bomb.  It made dire predictions, warning of mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s, and won him the intense and enduring hatred of every fiend suffering from a loony obsession with perpetual growth. 
The predictions probably would have come true, but Ehrlich’s timing could not possibly have been more unlucky.  He was blindsided by the unfortunately lucky efforts of Norman Borlaug, who tried to eliminate world hunger.  His Green Revolution dramatically increased grain yields, leading to a dramatic surge in population, making the original problem far worse — progress!  Catastrophe was postponed for a few decades.
In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of The Population Bomb, Paul and Anne published The Dominant Animal.  They admitted that the original book had a serious defect — it was too optimistic.  The new book presents an extremely intimate “birds and bees” discussion of the facts of life regarding the immense challenges of the twenty-first century, including overpopulation, overconsumption, peak energy, global heating, toxic pollution, mass extinctions, and on and on.  It neatly describes the hominid journey, millions of years long, which led to what we have become today.
This book is special because of its expanded discussion of cultural evolution.  Genetic evolution is a slow motion process that modifies genes over the passage of many generations.  Cultural evolution modifies and accumulates information, and it can happen with dizzying speed.  Other animals learn behaviors by imitating their elders.  Humans learn behaviors and ideas, via imitation and complex communication.  Alas, cultural evolution enabled us to become the dominant animal on Earth, a backhanded honor, sodden with appalling consequences.
It’s not a book to read for pleasure, but it should be read by everyone on the planet, two or three times.  It fills many of the huge empty gaps in our education, and in the media coverage of our era.  You don’t have to be a propeller-head to understand it.  Hopefully, it will make enormous throbbing consumer fantasies go flaccid, and reorient minds to life in actual reality.
On the bright side, we’re not 100% committed to mass suicide.  There are people all over who think that self-destruction is totally unhip.  Most of them are far more interested in moving toward a survivable future.  The Internet enables ordinary people to make their ideas available to billions of others, and everyone now has access to a much broader range of ideas.  Sometimes the efforts of individuals succeed in sending cultural evolution off in a new direction — all that’s needed is a healthy imagination and good timing.
Ecological history has thoroughly compiled our major mistakes.  In theory, we could study this history, change our habits, and break out of the centuries-long cycle of repeated mistakes.  That might be fun.  When luck is in the air, large societies can make huge changes with dazzling speed — like the collapse of the Soviet Union.  We don’t need more technology; we need social change that’s inspired by clear thinking.
The authors recommend a number of rational things we could do, but make no effort to mesmerize us with magical thinking.  The Ehrlichs are not betting heavily on a future of endless “sustainable” growth.  They are sharing two lifetimes of learning with the younger generations, and that’s very thoughtful of them. 
Daniel Quinn’s work taught me that a segment of humankind went sideways with the transition to agriculture.  Everyone agrees that our problems grew explosively from that time.  In their 1987 book, Earth, the Ehrlichs wrote, “In retrospect, the agricultural revolution may prove to be the greatest mistake that ever occurred in the biosphere — a mistake not just for Homo sapiens, but for the integrity of all ecosystems.” 
Other writers, like Shepard, Livingston, and Crosby, understood that the roots of our problems were older.  They point to the Great Leap Forward, about 40,000 years ago, the cave painting craze.  The Ehrlichs agree that the Great Leap “greatly accelerated our rise to dominance,” but they also look even farther back.  Our ancestors began making chipped-stone tools about 2.5 million years ago.  “It was the start on the road to dominance that has produced technological ‘descendants’ as varied as books, blenders, SUVs, antibiotics, and nuclear weapons.” 
Other animals sometimes use tools, like chimps fishing for termites with a stick.  Hominids became increasingly innovative at making tools.  Without stone tools, life would have been a struggle for Homo habilis.  Modern consumers cannot survive without tools, but chimps without termite sticks would be just fine.
Further population growth, at any rate, is insane.  In Earth, the Ehrlichs discussed China’s one child policy, an impressive success that prevented 350 million births, and the corresponding environmental harm and social misery.  The Ehrlichs recommended that all governments implement fertility control programs — especially in over-developed consumer societies like ours — because it was the moral and responsible thing to do.  This notion was not repeated in the new book.  The authors deeply lament the fact that overpopulation remains a taboo subject among world leaders — inexcusable stupidity.
Just as destructive as overpopulation is overconsumption.  Billions of people, both rich and poor, have been programmed to believe that nothing is better than shopping.  I never watch horror movies.  Whenever I have an urge to get really grossed out, I go to a mall and observe the super-trendy shopping zombies.  Eeeeek!  The Ehrlichs recommended creating an organization similar to Planned Parenthood to help us plan our acts of consumption with utmost wisdom and responsibility.  Abstinence is usually the most mature option.
George Basalla now steps into the spotlight.  He pointed out that technological innovation was almost never motivated by fundamental human needs.  Everyone agrees that we were healthier and happier before agriculture.  Cars were not invented because people had lost the ability to walk.  What “need” is being met by cell phones, TVs, and computers?  Phooey on frivolous stuff.
This book devotes loads of attention to the many serious problems that have resulted from our experiment in cultural evolution.  One sentence hit me like a large stone hammer.  The authors are celebrating our glorious achievements.  Human brains have evolved capabilities “far beyond those of other animals, allowing us to become the dominant animal and (we hope) to remain so.” 
We hope so?  Dominant is cool?  Isn’t “dominant animal” essentially the one and only reason why we’re racing toward catastrophe?  Play with the notion of the “formerly dominant animal.”  What might that look like?  Could we live without tools once again, running around naked in the jungle?  Could we shut down the asylum and go back home, to the family of life, and live happily ever after?  That would be fun.  Have a nice day!
Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., The Dominant Animal - Human Evolution and the Environment, Island Press, Washington, 2008.


Riversong said...

Another author, younger and not yet tainted by apparently mistaken predictions, who similarly documents "the unforeseen cost of civilization", is genetic anthropologist Spencer Wells, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Professor at Cornell University, and director of The Genographic Project, with a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University, a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University and a research fellowship at Oxford University.

In The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (2002), Wells genetically traced the origins of modern humans from a common ancestor in Africa, and mapped human migration over the last 60,000 years to all continents. In Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (2010), Wells describes the scientific evidence of the biological, physiological and cultural degradation of humanity since the start of civilization 10,000 years ago, and suggests a return to our senses as a path away from the brink.

What Is Sustainable said...

Thanks! I'll take a look at Wells.