Saturday, June 11, 2016

This is Progress?

We are eating ourselves out of house and home.

Werner Herzog made a documentary about Chauvet cave, the respository of spectacular cave art from circa 31,000 years ago. One striking aspect is that virtually all the animals pictured there, and whose remains are found there, are extinct. The aurochs, cave bears, steppe bison, northern rinoceri, cave lions, cave hyenas- all gone. These are animals that had taken hundreds of thousands, if not millions years, to evolve, yet a few tens of thousands of years later, they, along with the mammoths and other denizens of countless prior ice ages, are gone. What happened to them? We killed and ate them.

We then proceeded to raise human populations through agriculture, and carve up the Earth's surface for farming. We have been clearing competitors continuously, from wolves and lions, down to insects. After a false start with overly destructive DDT, agriculture has now settled on neonicotinoids, which, while less persistent in the food chain, have created a silent holocaust of insects, resulting in dead zones throughout agricultural areas, the not-so mysterious collapse of bees, and declines in all kinds of once-common insects.

Similarly, the oceans have been vacuumed of fish, with numerous collapsed and collapsing populations. And topping it all off is climate change and ocean acidification, which is gradually finishing the job of killing off Australia's Geat Barrier Reef, many other reefs around the world, as well as terrestrial species at high latitudes and altitudes.

Have humans made progress? We have, in technical, organizational, and even moral terms. But while we pat ourselves on the back for our space age, smart phones, and hyper-connected intelligence, we also live on an ever-more impoverished planet, due mostly to overpopulation plus the very same develpment we value so much. Institutions and ideologies like the Catholic church who continue to see nothing wrong with infinite population increase in a competitive quest for domination by sheer, miserable numbers are, in this limited and declining world, fundamentally immoral.

The US, after its destruction and displacement of Native Americans, has grown up on an ideology of open frontiers and endless space. But now the political and social ramifications of overpopulation and overdevelopment are beginning to be felt. Trumpism is one reaction- the visceral feeling that we just do not have the room any more, given our unwillingness to develop the requisite infrastructure, and our evident environmental degradation, even in a relatively sparsely populated country, for millions of further immigrants.

Economic inequality is not directly associated with this deep underlying Malthusian trend, since humans can degrade their environment under any economic regime- socialist, capitalist, or Keynesian. But it does provide a metaphor, with us humans lording it over our fellow creatures on the planet. Creatures whom we frequently invoke in our art and spiritual rhetoric and claim to regard with caring stewardship, even humane-ness. But then we keep killing and mistreating them anyhow.

We need to take sustainability seriously, both in terms of human populations and stewardship of the planet generally. E. O. Wilson has advocated for returning half our land to the wild, for the creatures that need it so desperately. This would be a supreme act of generosity and abstention. Though not even enough, in this age of global warming, it is part of the answer towards true sustainability.


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