Perhaps we should see the unfolding Climate Destabilization challenge, heralded by heat waves, droughts, floods and extreme storms in evolutionary terms. Since we're pushing the limits of Earth by behaving as we've evolved to do, to overproduce for example, it seems we will only survive if we take charge of the evolution process itself. I see two or three arenas requiring human mastery of our own evolution.

1. We must develop the social skills and institutions to manage our own population, to get it at a sustainable level. The longer we delay, the lower the ultimate population will have to be, as meanwhile we keep destroying Earth's carrying capacity.

2. We coevolved with fire. The history of civilization is one of our increasing mastery of fire. but, as David Orr says in When in Doubt...

If we humans want to hang around for a while we will have to quickly "disinvent fire" or else we'll fry.

I'm just beginning to understand the magnitude of the evolutionary challenge for us to live without constantly depending on fire.

3. We also coevolved with memes. It might be possible to achieve sustainability without achieving control of those memeplexes which control us, such as religions, but I don't give us the edge.

Were we only facing once such challenge, our odds would be better. As it is we have to do some serious reinvention of ourselves.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thank you for your post, you bring up some very interesting ideas and I would like to address them.

The first issue is the ultimate carrying capacity of the earth. The damage we humans are doing is by and large fully reversible. If all humans were to disappear, the earth would rebound very quickly. A good example are ocean fisheries. Right now, many of them are in a state of collapse. Several regions, most notably the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, are being rebuilt. When fully healed, they will be able to provide a sustainable catch 3 to 4 times higher than presently available.

As far as climate change is concerned, it is a serious problem, but not insurmountable. At many times in the past, the temperature and CO2 levels on this planet were far higher than they are today. In fact, we are 2,000 years into a cooling trend. What is the optimum temperature for the planet? That is a difficult question, and no one knows the answer...if there even is one.

The best way to keep the population in check is to increase the stability of populations in unstable regions in the world. Countries that have stability have much lower birth rates than unstable countries, as evidenced by Europe, the US, and Japan. We are more stable now than we were 20 years ago, but we still have a long path until population trends reverse themselves and we start to go down. I suspect it will happen sometime in the next century, but it's an open question that no one knows the answer to.

The second issue, the claim that we need to 'disinvent' fire, is not one that can be easily addressed as it is unnecessarily vague. What do you mean by 'fire'? Do you mean it literally? Stop using coal, oil, natural gas, electricity, geothermal, and solar power? All of those items constitute fire. To 'disinvent' fire according to this definition it would mean to abandon it, and presumably return to a primitive lifestyle. I suspect you mean we need to massively curtail our dependence on fossil fuels to handle our energy needs. We are already making strong progress in this area, especially when you look at the advances in solar and geothermal power, two forms of 'fire' that are already present, and will remain present regardless of how much we utilize them. By using current technology to its fullest and developing more energy efficient technologies for the future, we will be able to make buildings that produce most if not all of the power they consume, which will take their carbon footprint very close to zero.

As far as third issue of memes is concerned, I think we are already abandoning memes at a faster rate than they are being invented. Look at the spread of secularism in the world. Most of the people in the west who say they 'believe' in God do not even go to church. Their children will have even less attachment to God and religion. Science, technology, the rise and spread of the Internet...all of these are hastening the decline of memes in general and religion specifically. Yes, some memes spread much faster because of the Internet, but overall logic and reason are spreading at an even faster rate. As people can communicate faster and better, ignorance is dispelled, and traditional memes become unstable. New memes will have to be constructed on the foundation of our current level of knowledge, and those memes will only survive if our knowledge base does not expand and contradict them.

You brought up three interesting points, two of which I think we are on the cusp of winning, and the third is still too vague for me to address. Thanks for the food for thought.

Carl, you said

...the ultimate carrying capacity of the earth. The damage we humans are doing is by and large fully reversible.

I’d like to see your sources for that claim, as it contradicts what I know about how carrying capacity operates.  There are many cases where early populations deforested their environment with “permanent” loss of soil and change in the water table, where permanent means that damage continues till today. When species become extinct, permanent productivity changes occur in that food web. Niches go unfilled or are taken by less efficient species.

All humans aren’t about to instantly vanish, short of a devastating pandemic, but even were that to occur it would take tens of thousands of years for natural systems to fully rebound.

While it’s true that temperature and CO2 levels have been higher in the past, these events were associated with mass extinction. It takes natural cycles tens of thousand of years to reverse the changes which we've forced in a few centuries. "Fully reversible" has to be understood in the context of the needs of our descendents, who can't wait tens of thousands of years.

We’re 2,000 years into a cooling trend? Where did you get that? You seriously think the average temperature of the Earth is cooling? It's my understanding that, absent human intervention, the interglacial we've been enjoying would already be ending, that we've interrupted the natural return to another glaciation. Peter D. Ward says that the output from a single CFC factory would be sufficient to stop reglaciation.

Yes by fire I meant combustion. I don’t see how solar power or geothermal count as fire, unless you count the energy used to create their infrastructure. Presumably we could get that energy, which has been from fossil fuel use, with greener sources.

You think we’re making strong progress in curtailing our dependence of fossil fuel. Perhaps we’re improving the fraction derived from noncarbon sources, but I don’t call it strong progress when you compare the incremental advances to what’s needed in order to avoid ecological disaster.

The National Energy Policy Institute provides this chart of historical and projected energy sources

I wish I could share your optimism that logic and reason are spreading at a faster rate than destructive memes. To me it feels like too little too late, especially as our collective attention span declines and public discourse seems to devolve into sound bites.

I appreciate your thoughtful reply.

Ruth, may I share, with attribution, your statement with my family and friends on Facebook? They need to read and think about this with your information and understanding. You are connecting the dots. 

I enjoyed reading your discussion and the reply. Carrying capacity is an important concept. Overpopulation does destroy the earth and it's resources.
And yes we should consider birth control methods for poorer nations - and ours too.

Ruth, Powerfully stated! I add that the church's role in issues of contraceptive use, family planning, abortion, and woman's right to control her own body, is ludicrous, outrageous and barbaric. It is 13th century theology without desire to come into the 21st century reality. Religion should be challenged, head on, and made to look as irresponsible as it is. This is not a value statement about religion, it is a value statement about life and survival, and flourishing of humanity and the planet.   

I guess make a wish equates with pray for it.


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