Friday, January 31, 2014

 

TOO SMART FOR OUR OWN GOOD


While blogging about The God Species, I ran into another very compelling book, finely and clearly argued, which draws the opposite conclusions, not only about this particular iteration of the civilization experiment, but about the viability and fate of our species. Written by Canadian Craig Dilworth, Department of Philosophy at Uppsala University, Too Smart for Our Own Good argues that ever since our first tool use, we have extended population to exhaust increases in food production. This pattern accelerated with the invention of the plough and irrigation, leading to rapid declines in health, size, and longevity. Following recent anthropological theory, he cites findings showing that with each technological advance, we became less fit and more vulnerable. There is no variation of this pattern in human history.

Twentieth century advances in agriculture, and the new ones on whose cusp we precariously stand, have brought this pattern to a climax. Thus, Dilworth argues that the kinds of advances which Lynas enthusiastically supports will in fact change nothing, and probably hasten a doom that has been postponed through each wave of technological improvement, ever since we left the hunter-gatherer stage of human livelihood. He calls this tendency the Vicious Circle Principle, and claims that it is a provable aspect of our evolutionary history.

Indeed, the pattern runs even deeper into prehistory, for megafauna extinctions follow the vector of human migration since the late Pleistocene, certainly to 40,000 BP, but perhaps as far back as 100,000 BP. That pattern continues now with our finishing off the remaining top predators in the beleaguered oceans, wreaking further havoc in the mother of all biosystems that we are imperiling through ocean acidification. The Economist writes that the proportion of calories from farmed fish will overtake that of wild fish by 2020.

Dilworth goes through each period of evolutionary and cultural transformation, patiently demonstrating the Vicious Circle Principle with each shift. He cites evidence that quality of life in industrial countries peaked in the 1950's and 60's, declining since then, despite the continuing binge in resource use.

In terms of sustainability, especially of biodiversity, the earth's greatest treasure, Dilworth agrees with anthropologists that the Pleistocene, with the exception of the megafauna extinctions, was the last time that our presence on this planet was in equilibrium with the biosphere. The peak population was 10 million. If we extrapolate the population density of Europe and Africa then to the rest of the inhabited world now, the figure rises to 35 million. In absolute terms, we passed the threshhold of fully exhausting global annual biotic production in 1986, when the global population was 4 billion. Conventional estimates for a maximum “sustainable” population are from 2 billion to 3.5 billion, but as Lynas points out in The God Species, we have already passed the planetary boundary for loss of biodiversity. My own gut figure in the November blog of 2 billion implicitly assumes our primacy on this planet, accepting the inevitable loss of biodiversity. As my old friend Joe Hollis says, “We have replaced natural diversity with human diversity.”

Lynas' argument is more complex, and from Dilworth's point of view, obfuscates the essential problem: we have been in overshoot ever since the neolithic revolution. Collapse is only put off for a time as each technological advance is made. Lynas and Dilworth agree that we are in dire straits, but Lynas believes the gifts of the human karyotype, namely our cleverness and ingenuity, continue to give us an edge, perhaps enough to buy time for minimal sustainability (what that means on the other side of crossing the planetary boundaries of biodiversity loss, CO2 limits, and nitrogen poisoning are yet to be defined).

I have devoted considerable space in ecospirit to my reluctant acceptance of nuclear power as a bridge fuel to a future that needs to rely primarily on renewables. The next blog will further address the other of Lynas' major contentions, that GMO's may allow us to feed 9 billion people on the same amount of cropland currently under cultivation, while conserving water. Meanwhile, if you want to join the discussion at Cabin Fever University of the two books, head-to-head, come to “Playing God or Playing Job?” at my house at 7:30 on Monday February 10. You can confirm the event on the Celo List if you are a subscriber (robindreyer@gmail.com).

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