Remember, We’re Only Human

(Originally published on Skeptical Science)

Human consciousness dawned from an animal that instinctively responded to a dynamic environment. Here, there was little forward planning – little awareness of tomorrow – but simply eat and endure as long as an exposed organism can in a harsh and unsympathetic world.

Here, we woke to the abundance of life and thus food, to the idea of tomorrow, to the power of fire and of protection. The human became a nomad that could increase its odds of survival and could plan to follow the wealth of food that migrated or bloomed with the seasons.

The ingenious members soon realised that if a cave was not present, shelter could be built and by closely watching the species around them, they discovered that life could be controlled for the production of food. Humanity became the farmer, the villager and ultimately, societies sprung into existence which in turn paved the way for culture, study and intergenerational improvements.

We became the modern human.

We were, however, still fragile. The people of Pompeii; the civilisations that came and went along the banks of the Nile or throughout South America; the famines and plagues that tarnished the heart of every culture; we remained aware of how much we were dependent on the natural world. Nothing was completely within our control.

The Age of Enlightenment expanded the ideas of the modern human. Indeed, one could argue that over the past 500 years, we have begun to question our Gods and our kings, we have rebelled and we have produced wave after wave of fights for equality. The printing press, the locomotive, eventually modern medical science and telecommunication; all of this wonderful curiosity, investigation and modern education has swept many of our species out of the muddy squalors of ignorance and into the climate controlled office cubical of some city skyscraper.*

Many of our species now enjoy a life where nature seems a novelty and the comforts experienced by the kings of old are now easily affordable. The deep-dark foreboding forest belongs to the fairytale as does many of the past trials to the history books, void of lingering emotion. The advancements (largely over the past 200 years) have produced the assumption that we have truly become masters of this planet.

It’s difficult to think harshly of such an assumption; when combustible liquid erupts from the land and bigger nets pull in huge quantities of fish (apparent natural wealth provided for our disposal); when it’s no longer unreasonable for a middle-classed person to live into their 90’s and mortality related to childbirth is at an all time low; when mangos are delivered fresh to high latitudes and foreign delicacies are inexpensive on supermarket shelves. We have achieved amazing things and enjoy wonders that our great-grandparents couldn’t have even imagined. Such things, of course, encourage a certain amount of pride and arrogance.

This complacency towards ecology is obviously erroneous.

If you were to move into a new place which had a well maintained, fruitful vegetable garden in the backyard and quickly removed all the produce and neglected the patch, you would soon find that you have lost this resource. Likewise, with the initial (and continuous) removal of forests, the rapid burning of millions of years of collected carbon, the changes to watercourses and overall environmental polluting, you cannot expect that we could avoid a number of significant changes to the environment.

You often hear, with pride, that human activity is visible from space, but truly think about it; our activities are so immense in scale and impact that they can be observed outside of this plant! It’s staggering and is a true example of how we are, without a doubt, a force of nature. Such power demands respect from those to yield it.

John Cook, Peter Sinclair and Scott Mandia among many others have done an excellent job to provide the wealth of scientific understanding in a user-friendly fashion that demonstrates the evidence of why we believe that our activities are changing the climate. It seems, at this point, unnecessary to repeat their work. However, what I run up against is the idea that a warmer, CO2 richer atmosphere is beneficial for life.

We could first turn to Rosenzweig et al. (2008), who looked at over 29,500 data sets of physical and biological responses (from 1970 to 2004) and found roughly 90% were in the direction expected with warming. Deutch et al. (2008) looked at insects across latitudes and concluded that those at lower latitudes are already living near their optimum and are likely to suffer greater detrimental consequences (compared to higher latitude species) as climate continues to change. Long-distance migrating birds in The Netherlands have also suffered a decline in population size, which Both et al. (2010) conclude is the result of an increasing mismatch in timing of prey-predator events. Very recently, Cantin et al. (2010) showed that in the Red Sea, the coral species, Diploastrea heliopora, has suffered a colony decline of about 30% since 1998. They go on to suggest that warming of the Red Sea will stop coral growth before ocean acidification does.

All the above example organisms play an important role in the overall ecosystem to which they are involved, whether it’s as pollinators, transferring of nutrients, providing nursery shelter for other species, for example. All will decline with increasing climate change along with their ecological services to their environment and thus a degradation of the relevant biodiversity.

Climate change will hardly be beneficial to the biodiversity present on this planet.

This is all very relevant to our species, for we are not truly free from the humble reliance on nature of our infancy. If we look at water, we rely on numerous physical events and ecological services to treat and transport the substance. If we look at agriculture, we rely on numerous ecological services to produce fertile land, water availability, pollinators, legumes for nitrogen fixation, certain climate conditions and currently copious amounts of fossil fuel (peaking oil being the major concern). If we look at fisheries, we rely on sea grass and coral nurseries, water quality, limiting algal blooms, climate and again copious amounts of fossil fuels. If we look at the atmosphere itself, we rely on the photosynthetic qualities of countless species to produce air that is breathable.

I could go on – both in increased detail of the above examples and to highlight others – but I don’t think it’s really needed.

What is needed is a radical change in how we see ourselves and our place on this planet. Pride for the rewards of our curiosity is certainly essential. This, hopefully, will lead to greater appreciation for the scientific endeavours that have improved the standard of living immensely. However, the arrogance must be dropped and replaced again with a sense of humility for the ecological system that we are inherently tied to. We are as we are, not only because of great minds, or Newton’s giants, but also millions of other organisms that clean the waters, work and land and condition the air. We’re part of that system. We also yield tools capable to radically modifying that system and many modifications cannot be undone.

Humility and respect will promote caution in our activities, but also stimulate development that better suits multiple benefits, instead solely financial profit and other human based properties.

We truly are a remarkable species, but we’re only one of millions. We must remember that.

* I’d like to note that we have left many behind on this journey – who now many of the developed West see only in advertisements pleading for ongoing donations.

Both, C., Van Turnhout, C. A. M., Bijlsma, R. G., Siepel, H., Van Strien, A. J., and, Foppen, R. P. B. (2010) Avian population consequences of climate change are most severe for long-distance migrants in seasonal habitats. Proc. R. Soc. B. 277:1259-1266. doi:10.1098/rspb.20091525
Cantin, N. E., Cohen, A. L., Karnauska, K. B., Tarrant, A. M., and, McCorkle, D. C. (2010) Ocean warming slows coral growth in the central Red Sea. Science. 329:322-325
Deutsch, C. A., Tewksbury, J. J., Huey, R. B., Sheldon, K. S., Ghalambor, C. K. Haak, D. C. And, Martin, P. R. (2008) Impacts of climate warming on terrestrial ectotherms across latitude. PNAS. 105(18): 6668-6672. doi:10.1073/pnas.0709472105
Rosenzweig, C., Karoly, D., Vicarelli, M., Neofotis, P., Wu, Q., Casassa, G., Menzel, A., Root, T. L., Estrella, N., Seguin, B., Tryjanowski, P., Liu, C., Rawlins, S., and, Imeson, A. (2008) Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change. Nature. 453(15):353-357. doi:10.1038/nature06937

6 thoughts on “Remember, We’re Only Human

  1. Mr. Incarnate, thanks for another thoughtful piece. I would add this to your description of early history.

    Trouble started rearing its ugly head when societies began to grow large fields, often using irrigation from nearby rivers (Tigris, Euphrates, Nile). This created surplus agriculture which reaped surpluses and the need to guard them. Hence the need/opportunity for armies, generals, leaders, royalty, kings, political intrigue, serfdom, inequality, man’s inhumanity to man. Moreover, monocultures are inherently hostile to ecosystems. How much nicer is village life.

    Though we cannot turn back the clock, we might learn something about ecosystems and working within rather than against their basic framework; this I believe is the basis for resilience — since organisms and their ecosystems have had a much longer time to evolve and co-evolve than us humans (Johnny and Jane come lately). In nature what didn’t work got thrown into the trash bin along the way.

    Henry S. Cole, Ph.D.


    1. Well put!
      You should see some of the comments that have followed the post on Skeptical Science. There are many that seem to think that I’m dead wrong in saying such things – it shows just how young we are to ecological understanding and that we have a long way to go before we can begin informed policy discussions regarding sustainability.


    2. Just thinking about monoculture v. village and ecological sensitivity generally. Even though we must, inevitably, change our environments, we can always choose among a richer ecological system, eg the old English meadow and hedgerow, a low impact system like nomads only staying in certain areas for limited seasons / periods or we can just ignore the complexities and go for it.

      Impoverishing ourselves and our lands in the process. I know there’s a lot of credence given to indigenous people’s use of land, but for all the good examples, there are just as many bad examples of ignorant people not understanding the loss or reuse of nutrients or land area. I do think it’s ironic, or tragic, that highly educated societies can damage their soils and their environments more badly than the worst of the uneducated peasantry.


      1. I totally agree… I think the root of the irony is that modern western cultures are ever increasingly separated from natural systems so ecological degradation is ignored until overwhelming (and often too late for rehabilitation).
        I also feel that low impact life is a thing of the past – when population was much less. When you have a clan of less that 100, it’s relatively easy to be nomadic. A population of a few thousand often have the labour and resources to exploit the local environment and remain fairly sustainable. Millions… And our fair city – the queen of sprawl… In every way it’s a mess and unmanageable.
        I’d like to see higher density metropolitan nodes develop – accept that an area the size of a suburb is going to be radically altered into a multi-use human habitat. These should be separated by various open spaces; native veg, local ag, open space entertainment… Ultimately we can have it all, plus preserve corridors and ecological richness.
        I know I’m pretty hooked on TODs and PODs, but I honestly can’t see any other viable option and such developments could provide amazing benefits.
        We need think incredibly different, however, to handle such impact to our western societies.


  2. I do like the comparison to exploiting then neglecting a simple home garden. After all, this planet is our one and only home.

    At the individual level we can think that it’s OK just to leave our descendants enough money to live on, they don’t have to stay in the family home. But for all of us together, this planet is it. We can’t buy another planet or three to accommodate our lifestyle of use, eat, dig up whatever we want and dump any mess into land, air, rivers and oceans.


    1. I think the first comment and few that followed on Skeptical Science demonstrates just how far many people are for accepting our place on this rock and dependence on other species. New focus for me I think! 🙂


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