THE HUMAN IMPACT
By Roland Watson
In this series, I will consider the future of the earth. This is important not only to all of the life forms that inhabit it - meaning, if we are intelligently controlling our impact. It is of course also essential to us, as individuals, and even as a species. We must conform to the characteristics of our planetary ecology. Both individual and social prosperity are inextricably linked to the earth's health.
The cliff metaphor
I said in one of the very first articles that if you jump off a cliff, you know you will hit the bottom in a few seconds. This is not difficult to predict. Collectively, humanity itself has jumped off a cliff, and forced the rest of the life on the earth to do so as well. But, it is a very high cliff, so high in fact that the bottom is dim and obscure. We can't see it clearly yet.
It is worth remembering that the higher the jump, the harder you will hit, and the more it will hurt when you do.
A lot of evidence, including never-ending overpopulation, resource exploitation, habitat and species destruction, and the negative effects of out-of-control technology, from the very small - including atomic and genetic, to the very large - such as global warming and planet-wide pollution, suggests that it is a very, very high cliff. And, it is as tragically ironic as it is possible to be, that it is one of our own making.
Grassroots environmental destruction
All around the world, millions of people, quite possibly hundreds of millions, live in remote areas on the edges of the last remaining primary habitats. (As an aside, a primary habitat is one that has never been cut down or otherwise significantly altered by man.)
And, season-by-season, year after year, they are encroaching into these habitats, slashing up the hills and burning out the valleys in-between. In doing this, they are destroying untold amounts of habitat, and isolating the rest in pockets, many of the resident species of which have inadequate gene pools for further evolutionary development.
In addition, as they slash and burn they establish claims, thereby taking public land and making it private. Also as an aside, this is the only form of theft that in scale approaches that of government corruption.
Indeed, at some point all land could become private. You will need permission, and to pay a fee, to go anywhere. It is further ironic that the last bastions of so many of our traditional cultures are also responsible for so much environmental harm.
The human cancer
In the tropics, what happens is that the encroachers are the sons and daughters of families whose land is already fully utilized. They are the "pioneers," who move into these "new" areas, first by burning one field for their main crop - probably rice or corn, and then building a small bamboo house next to it. In addition, they cut the large trees down and make lumber for houses in the towns and cities, and for furniture, and with the scrap used as firewood.
For their basic diet, they plant a few other fruits and vegetables, such things as papayas, bananas, and tomatoes. They hunt in the hills for protein, including insects such as ants and grasshoppers; frogs, turtles and snakes; squirrels, wild boar, deer and monkeys; and birds, fish and shellfish - no matter how small. As a result, the little remaining habitat quickly becomes deserted of life. Therefore, they must hunt further and further afield. And, as all of this occurs, other sons and daughters join them, and soon the new "farm" is surrounded by others, and a small village is formed. Lastly, in parallel with this, transit between such fields and villages "develops" from footpaths, to motorcycle paths, to cart paths and roads.
Seeing this happen, it is difficult not to view the human species as a cancer, spreading across and eating the natural environment of the earth, with such paths and roads as the blood vessels nourishing the cancer.
Humanity as a poison
Another way to evaluate the effect of humanity on the earth is via the relativity of time scales. To us, the destruction we are causing is occurring slowly, over a number of human lifetimes. To the earth, though, it is taking place extremely rapidly. Three hundred years - the duration of what you might term the modern human impact, as a percentage of the earth's lifespan of 4.5 billion years, so far, is equivalent to three and one-half minutes of a one hundred year old human lifespan. We are far more virulent than cancer. Our effect is that of a highly toxic substance: of a poison. Humanity is poisoning the Earth.
Now, imagine the life, particularly the animals, which we displace and on whom we prey. Formerly, for millions and millions of years, they lived in large, unbroken expanses of primary habitat. But then a new animal arrived, eating into the perimeter, and hunting and killing them. They now have a new threat.
And, this animal never retreats. It keeps advancing and advancing and advancing, and at an alarming rate. So, they retreat, deeper into the habitats, and with conflicts with members of their own species, and others, along the way.
But still, the new animal advances, so they retreat further, and higher. And along the way, some species - mammals, birds, insects, plants - which they have always lived with - in peace, or competition - disappear. The last individual dies, and the species is eliminated.
But, the new animal is never eliminated. There are more and more and more and more of them. The retreat ultimately reaches the point where the little remaining life ends up on small pockets of land, completely surrounded by this new animal. They are in a very real sense dispossessed; refugees. But still the new animal comes, armed with spears and arrows and guns, but now sometimes with binoculars and cameras, to look at and photograph them, as environmental curiosities and "rarities," and as evolutionary "artifacts."
This is bottom-up "grassroots" environmental destruction, but unfortunately it is not the only kind. There is also top-down destruction, when businesses and governments engage in large-scale road building and development, and through the environmental consequences of military conflict and conquest.
One might ask, how many animals are killed directly, or die inadvertently, to satisfy a typical human during his or her lifetime? Of course, it varies by culture, but what this clearly shows is that one aspect of our being the "highest" form of life, is that we are the best, and most insatiable, predators. Indeed, one of the main reasons why we think we are better than other species, is because we are so good at killing them.
One might also wonder what percentage reductions have occurred in the total number of birds, fishes and mammals in the last century or two? Although such numbers are unknown, they are, or were, an objective reality. For example, consider the Passenger Pigeon. This is a quote from the chapter titled Strategic Monkeywrenching, in the book Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, by Dave Foreman.
"In 1830, John James Audubon sat on the banks of the Ohio River for three days as a single flock of Passenger Pigeons darkened the sky from horizon to horizon. He estimated that there were several 'billion' birds in the flock."
The Passenger Pigeon is now extinct, which is a one hundred percent reduction.
What all of this makes clear is that this is one of the most negative forms of all from which we must seek our freedom. If the earth, at least as we know it and love it, is to have a future, we must stop our behavior as a parasite killing its host, or as a child raping its mother.
The correct approach
We should think of it this way. The earth, including all of its species, and also all of their genomes, is the rarest of gems. But, this is not only because of its scarcity - we only have one!, but also because of its complexity and meaning. Further, it is best as it is, as wild nature. It is not like a rough gemstone, which is enhanced with cutting and polishing. Rather, to harm it, to degrade it in any way, is too tarnish the most beautiful thing that we have.
Our impact on nature and other life is so severe, and undeniable - people who refuse to admit it are either idiots or corporate apologists - that to those people who are most sensitive to it, it is enough to drive them to despair. When you hear of the latest environmental atrocity, the unbelievable manifestations of human stupidity and selfishness, you think: to hell with it. Why not just kill it all, now? Kill everything alive, including ourselves, and as quickly as possible. That's who we are; that's what we do; that's our form. So let's be ourselves, and get it over with.
But then you think, when the emotion passes, why not just kill those humans who are responsible? But then you realize that you are responsible, too, and that the only real alternative is to rise above our past, to change our behavior and ethics, and to assume a new form, that of planetary and nature stewards. It is time to redefine human purpose yet again. Our purpose is to protect the other life on the planet - from ourselves.
And, if we don't do it, nobody else will. We are supposed to have a democracy, but nature is not represented. We therefore must act as if we are nature's representatives, including to cast our votes as if we are conveying its interests and desires.
Exterminate all the brutes?
In Joseph Conrad's renowned book Heart of Darkness, the intrepid explorer - and company representative - Kurtz, travels up the Congo River in Central Africa in search of elephant ivory, and with the personal goal to convert the locals to Christianity.
Instead, overwhelmed by their reaction to him, he accepts the temptation to be revered by them as a god. Then, with the power this grants him, he plumbs the depths of human depravity, and the limits of human savagery: his own heart of darkness.
His famous statement: "Exterminate all the Brutes!," which on the surface is meant to apply only to the locals, clearly refers to all of us. We are all brutes, foremost through our behavior towards other life, but also with how we treat each other. And, this will continue to be the case - we will be this way - until we choose not to be.
In the next article, I will revisit the issue of the human population.
© Roland Watson 2015