Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Age of Humans: Snuffing Our Species Out

With California entering its fourth year of severe drought and the planet having its warmest August and September since records began in 1880, one scientist at NASA’s Institute for Space Studies said in 2014 that the warm data points “point toward the long-term trends.”[1] At the time, scientists were already claiming that the planet had entered a new era—that of the Anthropocene—noted for the impact of the homo sapiens species in altering Earth. The implications are profound, even if the huge shift has not fully registered in human consciousness.

According to one geologist speaking in 2014, “humans have become a geologic force on the planet. The age we are living [in now] is really distinct.”[2] Yet we might be too close to it to recognize the distinctness, and so our elected representatives may not feel emboldened to craft public policy to the new reality. The resulting vulnerability has scarcely been contemplated. John Kress, the acting undersecretary of science for the Smithsonian Institution highlighted the mammoth nature of the change. “Never in its 4.6 million-year-old history has the Earth been so affected by one species as it is being affected now by humans.”[3] In addition to climate change, the impact extends to ozone loss, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, the acidification of oceans, endocrine disruptors, and deforestation.[4] I submit that we are not even aware of other footprints that could make the planet potentially uninhabitable for our species one day; for without much of a recognition of the new era, we cannot expect to have much of a grasp on the breadth of our species’s impact on the planet.

In his book, Steps to An Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson approaches ecological principles from the standpoint of general systems theory. That is to say, he stresses the system-qualities of an ecosystem. His notion of a maximizing variable is relevant here. Such a variable maximizes without taking a break. A species in an ecosystem qualifies as a maximizing variable if that species continues to increase, unhampered even as it butts up against the semi-permeable membrane of an ecosystem’s constraints. When such a species “breaks through” what its ecosystem will tolerate, the state-state equilibrium is disrupted and the ecosystem must “find” another equilibrium. The new resting point may or may not include the species.

Our species is indeed a maximizing variable, with a population of over 7 billion as of 2014. In his pathbreaking work on populations, Malthius postulates that an over-populated species is vulnerable to famine, epidemics, and war. Studies using rats have demonstrated the theory in action. Yet in the Anthropocene Age in which we live, we can add a more “macro” consequence—that of being vulnerable to the planet becoming uninhabitable to our species. As Nietzsche brilliantly writes regarding how people can unintentionally discredit their own conception of God and thus effectively ruin it, we may have blood on our hands and yet not realize that we ourselves have done the deed. Like light coming from the farthest star, awareness of our large-scale impacts already committed has not yet reached us.

Indeed, the Earth’s equilibrium was already on the move in the early 2010s and yet we struggled to separate this out from “natural fluctuations.” Without much recognition of the new era and even less comprehension of the impacts and how serious their respective consequences would likely be, our species could indeed be heedlessly maximizing itself to extinction without realizing it. In genealogical time, our genes could be outstandingly successful in terms of replication only for a short burst of time before burning out like a candle’s flame enjoying too much wick.

[1] Nick Visser, “The Planet Just Had Its Warmest August on Record,” The Huffington Post, September 15, 2014.
[2] Seth Borenstein, “’Anthropocene’ Term Gains Traction as Human Impacts on Planet Become Clearer,” Associated Press, October 14, 2014.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.