The human species is evolved to be supreme risk analysts. We have no thick pelts to keep us warm in winter; we do not have talons, or armoured skin, or poison glands. Despite these handicaps we have survived harsh environments, we have outlived diseases, we have evaded and avoided and defeated predators, and turned the tables to become the planet’s quintessential predatory species. We have achieved all of this thanks to our unparalleled ability to think through problems, to develop strategies to mitigate risks, to build tools and alter our environment to our own advantage. Oh, and opposable thumbs have helped as well.
Evolution has gifted us with supremely honed survival traits. We can survive extremes of heat and cold – not in our own physical resilience, but with the aid of our ability to artificially cool or warm ourselves. We can cope with the turn of the seasons, because we have learned to harvest and store and preserve. Sometimes our evolutionary heritage turns on us and reminds us that it is the product, we are the product, of harsher, bygone ages – thus the human race, in an era of untrammeled prosperity, grows fatter and ever more sedentary. But we are clever. Given enough time, we can even notice this trend in ourselves, and some of us fight against it. We are slowly becoming masters of our own destinies, rulers over the tyranny of our own heritage. We are fighting against the pressures that cause mankind to evolve, and we are winning.
Nonetheless, our own victory over nature, over our environment, and over our own evolutionary destiny may yet be our undoing.
For hundreds of years, the human race has been growing beyond itself. Like a cancer, where every individual cell is intent mostly on its own well-being, interested slightly in the well-being of cells immediately around it, and concerned not at all for the health of the host on which it lives, we have become more significant than individual creatures. Humanity is not unique in its prolixity, many species create huge populations, and many populations wreak havoc upon their local environments. A swarm of locusts will strip a countryside bare. But in so doing, it is participating in the natural cycle of life, and nature is well adapted to cope with it. The world is not full of locusts, because they are held in check by other forces. The damage wrought by the swarm can soon be undone, and old is replaced by new. This is the way of things.
Except that humanity has short-circuited that whole process. There is literally nowhere you can go on this planet to be entirely isolated from humanity and its effects. There are no untouched remnants of nature left, ready to return life and prosperity to ground which has been stripped bare by the human swarm. In fact, humans rarely leave an area untouched to recover; we adapt to the new situation, and in turn we force the environment to adapt to us.
And we don’t see it. We recognise the importance of the environment. We run campaigns to remind people not to throw their plastic refuse into the drains, and we argue over the legitimacy of carbon taxes to raise the price of electricity and convince people to use less of it, and we fret about the rising price of petrol. But this is all remote. These are things that we can do in the luxury of our spare time. Our subjugation of nature and our insatiable push to increase our own living standards to a point where living is taken for granted and self-actualization actually has a practical meaning, means that after addressing our immediate needs, we can look around us at the smoking ruins and feel slightly disturbed.
All this is to say, just about every human is interested in their own survival first, their own profit second, and the well-being of the world on which we live a distant third, if that.
How else to explain the constant stream of revelations that fill up our media? And how else to explain the fact that, having disturbed us slightly, most of them sink back into the oceans of anonymity?
In just the last couple of days, there have been news articles sharing a common theme of capitalism rampant, the environment suffering, and the people blithely and deliberately kept unaware.
Turning a creek into a concrete path
It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Coal company XStrata, attempting to fulfil its obligations by addressing environmental damage its mining operations in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area, accidentally poured 200 tons of grout into a creek, turning it into a garden path and burying untold plants and animals under a layer of concrete. If that weren’t bad enough, the public and the State government only found out about it by accident. The same day that a newspaper reported on the incident, at least three months after it occurred, the State government immediately ordered a cleanup and started investigating appropriate responses. Apparently this may include penalties for XStrata. Some of the people employed by XStrata to run the mine must be locals, but the destruction of their local environment was a remote priority when compared to their jobs and their income.
An oil spill too small to be of much note
Last week the Cobia oil production platform, owned by Exxon Mobil and BHP Billiton, was shut down following the discovery of a spill of oil, detectable as a sheen on the surface of the ocean. The platform will remain shut down whilst the cause of the leak is investigated. The leakage was comparatively modest, being only an estimated 750 litres of oil, which admittedly does pale into insignificance compared to some platform leaks in recent history. Whilst it is not quite true that this received no attention in the Australian press, most people seem to have become aware of it because of a mention in news media in Pennsylvania, US.
Protecting bees from extinction is “disproportionate”
It might have gone largely unnoticed in Australia that worldwide bee populations are in crisis. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, and it’s been responsible for the decimation of bee populations worldwide; in some locations, over half of bee colonies have died out with more under threat. Now, that might sound to some like a matter of marginal importance; after all, we hear about extinctions every day. But bees are critical to agriculture in the western world, and without them it’s not unreasonable to expect food shortages and starvation. I’m not exaggerating.
The causes of CCD are not entirely known but the most likely, and experimentally verified, cause is a combination of chemicals in use in modern agriculture. Each type of chemical by itself is harmless enough, but in combination they’re most likely responsible for the beemageddon. The science is so certain that the European Commission has placed a moratorium on the production and sale of a specific class of compound used in common pesticides.
The response of the companies that produce these pesticides has been to sue the European Commission in an attempt to overturn the ban. Apparently the ban is “unjustified” and “disproportionate”.
(Greenpeace has a page dedicated to a petition on this subject. Check it out, it’s worth it.)
The Boiling Frog syndrome
No doubt you’ve heard of the boiling frog experiment. Whether or not this specific act of vivisection was really carried out, it’s a well known idea, and the sad fact is that we are the frog. Every year is just a little hotter than the years before. But we have cool winters so we can pretend that the world’s not really overheating. Every day another dozen species die, but they’re not directly affecting us so we barely notice the lack. Every day the water turns a little more poisonous, the weather gets slightly more vicious, the coral reefs bleach a bit more, and our forests shrink by another percentage point. But these are only little things, remote, of slight concern to us but not as pressing as the mortgage and the fate of our car industry.
Will we wake up to the fact that we’re in hot water? Probably not. It’s not appropriate to say “not until it’s too late”; it’s probably too late already. By the time we really sit up and take notice, too late will be a long way behind us. The planet will be well into a slide into a different world, and all we will be able to do at that point is hold on and hope we will be among the survivors.
It is possible that a sudden sharp shock might yet bring home the reality of what we face. The collapse of an ice shelf might do it; history has shown that record-breaking wildfires, heat waves, cold waves, and ever-increasing global temperatures have not. A global crisis that threatens, or kills, millions of people might be able to spur action before we reach a point where billions will be inevitably the victims.
It’s a sad world indeed where this is something to be welcomed, but it may be our only hope.