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“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999) This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house. Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole. There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.
Out of Africa and Out of Control
Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, variousaustralopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis,Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe. There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims? Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west. Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare.
The Extinction of Homo neanderthanlensis
As Homo sapiens moved into Europe, there was another Homo species already inhabiting the cold terrain –Homo neanderthalensis, or “Neanderthal Man.” According to speciesist folklore, Neanderthals were primitive, grunting beasts compared to far more advanced humans, but in fact these two species of Homo were roughly equal in intelligence and cultural sophistication. Many scholars argue, for instance, than the complex culture of Neanderthals included decoration, music, burial rites, and grieving for the dead. Neanderthals were stockier than humans, had a broader and flatter nose, larger muscles, and even a larger brain cavity. Homo sapiensmay have had a slight technological edge or better adaptation skills, but they also were more violent and cunning.
Homo sapiens encountered Neanderthal 45,000 years ago, and 15,000 later Neanderthals were extinct. There is an ongoing debate and raging controversy over the question of the cause of the demise ofHomo neanderthalensis, with three competing claims:
(1) Humans and Neanderthals interacted and interbred, and eventually Homo sapiens absorbed them into our gene pool, which means we all have Neanderthal ancestors and Neanderthal genes.
(2) Homo sapiens out-competed Neanderthals in the struggle to survive amidst harsh and changing climate conditions.
(3) Humans did not peacefully co-exist with or out-compete Neanderthals, but rather waged a fierce war on them over a period of 15,000 years until Neanderthals became extinct.
It is, of course, possible that interbreeding, maladaption, and climate all played a role in the demise of the Neanderthals. But a more plausible interpretation — one consistent with a disturbing pattern that shows evidence of tribalism, xenophobia, chronic warfare, and systemic violence — is that Homo sapiens slaughtered Neanderthals. As Nicholas Wade explains, “Given the hostility of human hunter-gatherer societies toward each other, and the extreme fear than Neanderthals seem likely to have evoked in modern humans, it is hard to imagine that the two species enjoyed hanging out with each other, let alone that they would welcome an exchange of marriage partners.” Jared Diamond notes that Homo neanderthanlensis was adapted to harsh Ice Age climates and survived them for tens of thousands of years, and thus it is implausible they would die out at the same time humans were moving through Europe. He emphasizes a repetitive historical dynamic in which those with superior technologies invade, conquer, and massacre peoples with less advanced technologies. “If so, then the Cro-Magnon-Neanderthal transition was a harbinger of what was to come.” This would mean that our first encounter with another human species involved genocidal warfare and set the stage for subsequent history and the crises humans face in the present day. History tells us that “the nice fold didn’t win, that we are at best the heirs of many ruthless victories and at worst the heirs of genocide. We may well be descended from humans who repeatedly exterminated rival humans.” The massacre of Neanderthals, on the basis of this interpretation, was thus a prelude to the assault of agricultural societies against primal peoples for thousands of years, to Columbus’ slaughter of the Taino Indians, Pizarro’s extermination of the Kayapo people of South America, the US pogrom against Native American nations, the Nazi annihilation of six million Jews and other groups, and the genocidal warfare in Rwanda and Darfur.
The Pleistocene Overkill: Extinction of the Mega-fauna
With the demise of the Neanderthals 30,000 years ago, and the disappearance of a Homo erectus variant (Homo floresiensis) from the remote island of Flores 10,000 years later, Homo sapiens became the sole heir of the stunning evolutionary journey of bipedal primates. Whether or not they vanquished their Homo rivals in Europe, Homo sapiens did not go on to establish lasting peace and harmony on the planet. Rather, everywhere humans journeyed they exterminated animal species, waged war on one another, and laid waste to their natural surroundings. The Pleistocene Overkill thesis is a controversial theory regarding the widespread human tendency to exterminate all the megafauna – large land animals — it came across anywhere in the world. According to the overkill hypothesis, megafauna extinctions resulted from the sudden introduction of human beings to environments where animals had never before encountered the new predators and were unprepared to survive their lethal technologies. The key question in this raging controversy would be: is the connection between human migration and mass extinction a relation of coincidence or causal correlation? According to many theorists, the extinction of the megafauna resulted not from human overkill, but rather from abrupt climate changes and the inability of many animal species to adapt. Ronald Wright notes that humans hunted in Africa, Asia, and Europe for a million years without killing everything off, so why should their behavior suddenly change? Some extinctions, moreover, do coincide with climatic upheavals, and the beginning or end of the last Ice Age may have come too rapidly for some species to adapt. But Wright also correctly observes that while the climate change scenario can explain some extinctions, it cannot account for all or explain the consistent pattern over 50,000 years linking human migration and extinction of animals such as wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, cave bears, giant ground sloths, Mastodons, flightless birds, tapirs, lizards, lemurs, Western camels, and the wild ancestors of horses. The preponderance of evidence suggests that human activity, not natural events, was responsible for mass extinctions.
As Nils Eldredge notes:
The evidence is straightforward: Wherever we went, other species seem to have become extinct shortly after our arrival. Whether it was Malagasy peoples reaching Madagascar a scant 2,000 years ago, or peoples arriving on Caribbean Islands at about the same time; or people living in the New World 12,000 years ago; or aboriginal Australians getting to their home 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, the results always seems to have been the same: Substantial numbers of species soon disappeared, especially but not exclusively prime hunting animals, such as large game animals and, in a few instances, large birds. Always small, weak, slow, clumsy, and lacking sharp teeth and claws, humans were no match for the huge predators that stalked them. Despite evolutionary myths, for most of our history we were prey, not predators. For millions of years, humans and their ancestors lived in constant fear of attack from powerful animals. This changed about 50,000 years ago when humans began to use fire to clear environments and learned to develop spears, a deadly weapon fashioned by tying sharpened rocks onto long sticks. They also innovated the strategy of surrounding megafauna animals as a group and hurling their new weapons simultaneously. Having no reason to fear humans, megafauna were easy targets and all were brought down with relative ease. For some writers, the decisive event in history is not the emergence of capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, or even the formation of agricultural societies (see below), but rather the innovation of spear technology and organized hunting, the shift in human status from prey to predator. “Primitive” upper Pleistocene people were in fact efficient killing crews and throughout the globe species fell to their stone weapons and fires used to clear vast areas and force animals into the open. There is also evidence of humans driving huge herds of animals off cliffs to their deaths so they could plunder their remains. Whether speaking about the extinction of the Neanderthals or the megafauna, many historians and anthropologists refuse to countenance the possibility that Homo sapiens are natural born killers. They want to exonerate humans of any role culpability in the bloodshed, die-offs, suffering, and prolific extinction rates, by arguing that environmental factors, not human proclivities, caused the massive loss of life.
The Agricultural Revolution
The extermination of the megafauna was followed by the advent of agriculture. The real problems stemming from human existence on this planet began in the seismic shift from hunting and gathering societies to sedentary and agricultural societies. Some fifteen to ten thousand years ago, throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Near East, humans began to change the basic mode of social organization that abide throughout their history and that of their ancestors. Thus, instead of scavenging, small-scale hunting, taking foods found in nature, and roaming from one locale to another, humans started to root themselves in one area in order to cultivate the plant and animal species they deemed most useful. Now engaged in the domestication of the wild, humans began to grow wheat and barley, to adopt and tame the offspring of scavenging wolves, to pen and goats and sheep to serve their purposes. Although the transition to agricultural society took different paths in difference places, it always had the same destructive results such as replaced harmonious relations among humans and between culture and nature with antagonism, disconnectedness, and un-sustainability. One key change involved the production of surplus goods. This allowed some individuals to remove themselves from labor and devote their time to writing, manufacturing, metallurgy, or serving in a professional army. Scribes and priests emerged to monitor and administer the resources, to plan and implement field use, and to organize crop rotation, and thereby formed a privileged group in relation to manual laborers. Around all this, a political state emerged to keep administrative records on census, taxes, currency, and trade; this generated the technology of writing and thus precipitated the transition from preliterate oral cultures to literate written cultures. Surplus food production also enabled population growth, and consequently led to gigantism, manifest in the transition from villages to cities to states, and finally to empires. Whereas hunter-gatherer bands were egalitarian and knew no patriarch, cult of experts, king, class, or state, in agricultural society one finds, alongside the domination of human over animal, the domination of men over women, wealthy classes over laboring classes, and, ultimately, the state over citizens. Quite unlike the use-oriented and egalitarian nature of hunting-gathering bands, agricultural societies were organized to advance the interests of powerful, wealthy, propertied elites through control of labor, slavery, warfare, and empire. With animals already enslaved, humans turned to enslaving their own kind. The wealth, power, cities, and empires of civilization grew through a powerful minority enslaving a vast majority.
Once humans could produce and store enough food to support burgeoning populations, they stepped outside of ecological constraints and moved from one collapsed ecological region to another, until they attained global status, and had nowhere to run from the systemic planetary results of overpopulation, excess production, and unsustainable consumption of resources. Whereas all species including our closest ancestors lived as small populations within the constraints of local ecosystems that set limits on their numbers, agricultural society enabled humans to cross beyond the confines of local ecosystems and the limits they imposed on population growth and to expand in numbers and geographical range. With growing technological skills came a detachment and alienation from the world that gave birth to anthropocentric and speciesist ideologies. With agricultural society, there emerged the “possibility of indefinite social expansion: more and more people organized over more and more territory,” and thus the colonization of the planet takes its first giant step at this point. Once capitalist ideologies and global market systems emerged, desires for power, property, and profit became completely unhinged from ideological restraints (via religion and philosophy) and swelled to utterly new levels of malignancy. Greed and materialism were championed rather than condemned, consumerism grew cancerous, and everything was subsumed by the imperatives of com-modification, industrialization, and mechanization. Capitalism spread throughout Western nation states to the other continents, engulfing the world (by the late twentieth century) in a global economy dominated by transnational banks, finance industries, and corporations. Driven by a grow-or-die logic, inherently unsustainable, capitalism has devoured the earth’s resources, spewed out pollution and poisons, and precipitated a planetary ecological crisis. Agri-culture is still our basic social paradigm. It is not only a mode of production but a social system, ideology, and worldview involving domestication of the wild, the domination of humans over animals, the earth, and over one another, unsustainable growth, and concentration of people in overcrowded living quarters. Capitalism is a continuation of this system in its most advanced and pathological state, involving expansionism, uncontrolled growth, the fetishization of money and wealth, all in a market-dominated global context where society is reduced to economy.
The Global Human and its Aftermath
In a journey without precedent, Homo sapiens evolved from a narrow pocket of Africa to planetary domination. First slowly and then rapidly; from thousands to millions then billions in number; from Africa to Europe; from Asia to Australia; from isolated regions to a dense global mass — humans became world conquerors. Their descendants radiated into a plurality of phenotypes, ethnicities, languages, and cultures, all of which are now shrinking back, imploding, homogenizing, as humans extend their planetary domination. For several million years, we rarely traveled outside our birthplace. Most animals were distributed over only a small part of the world. But humans became the world’s first global species. A global species is not only universally dispersed, it is interconnected; once we dispersed ourselves geographically, we linked ourselves through trade, economics, transportation, and communication. The growth of the human empire has reduced both biological and social diversity and now portends the extinction of humans themselves. One species has colonized a world replete with millions of other species, and the results have been devastating. We are planetary colonizers, parasites, and predators with cosmic ambitions. But there are three key indicators our evolutionary journey was out of control and has reached a critical crossroads if not a dead-end: overpopulation, climate change, and species extinction
Few indicators dramatize the malignant ascendance of humans to a global species better than its geometric growth rates. 50,000 years ago, when humans were migrating through Europe, their population was between one and five million. Ten thousand years ago, as agricultural societies began to spread, the human population was ten million. By 1000 BCE, human numbers grew to 500 million. The human presence first reached the billion mark in 1800. In 1930, the human population doubled to two billion. In 1960, we ballooned to three billion. In 1974, we climbed to 4 billion. In 1987 we pushed to 5 billion and topped 6 billion in 1999. And in 2012, we hit 7 billion, as we continue to add over 70 million people each year. By 2050, the human population is predicted to soar past 10 billion. There is an obvious pattern of accelerating growth. It took human beings 200,000 years to break the billion barrier, but only 130 years to double that, then 30 years to add a billion more, just 14 additional years to grow to four, and a mere 12 more years to add yet another billion. We continue to add another 75 million people to the planet every year and over 200,000 people every day, with the highest growth rates occurring in Latin America, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. At the five billion mark, humans became the most numerous species on the planet in terms of total biomass, and by 1990 their numbers exceeded all other mammalian species, even eclipsing rats. By 1980, humanity’s demands on the earth began to exceed its regenerative capacity. In 2003, our ecological footprint was 25 percent greater than what the planet could provide for. To be sure, the ecological impact of middle-class and affluent Westerners is far greater – some twenty-seven times per capita the amount of resources consumed in undeveloped nations — than the three billion (half of the world) living on less than two dollars a day, the three billion who have no access to sanitation, and the two billion with no access to electricity. Yet human populations continue to grow and expand, as resources steadily dwindle. The problem of sheer numbers (people who require land if not resources) is evident in how the expanding territories of poor African villages overtake wildlife habitat and bring humans and elephants into ever-sharper conflicts. Indian villages, similarly, are invading tiger reserves and driving them into oblivion.
We are in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction crisis, the last one occurring 65 million years ago with the demise of the dinosaurs. Unlike past extinction events, present waves of annihilation are caused not by natural phenomena such as meteor strikes but rather by human actions. This time, humans are the meteor striking the earth, over and over like a meteor storm, and the ramifications of their presence is spreading throughout the globe like a Tsunami wave. The chief cause of species extinction is habitat loss, such as that induced by mining, forestry, and agriculture. Over the past several decades, the land range of 173 species of mammals around the world has been halved. Human-induced changes are driving species extinction at 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the natural rate of extinction. Conservation biologists predict that one half of the world’s plant and animal species will be extinct by the end of this century. Each year, the planet loses over 27,000 species, amounting to over three each hour. Currently, over 11,000 animal species are threatened with imminent extinction, including the great apes, the African and Asian elephant, the Florida panther, the cheetah, the leopard, the tiger, the blue whale, the polar bear, the sea turtle, the gray wolf, the giant panda, the California condor, the great white shark, and the black rhino. In the rain-forests, oceans, and elsewhere, we are wiping out life forms we don’t even know exist.
For decades, scientists have warned humanity of impending ecological catastrophes. The climate change debate seems nearly over as the skeptics (many on the payroll of Exxon Mobil and other giant gas and oil companies) have been exposed or refuted, and planetary breakdown is exceeding the most pessimistic predictions of recent years. We are already at the “tipping point” of runaway climate change, such that the changes we have brought about will play out for thousands of years. Scientists agree that the absolute threshold of global warming we must not cross is an increase of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Thus far, humans have raised the average temperature of the planet 0.8 degrees Celsius, enough to cause severe ecological damage. And even if we stopped increasing all carbon dioxide gas production right now, computer models predict the planet will rise another 0.8 degrees, pushing us to three-quarters of the two-degree limit. But carbon emission rates keep growing annually and the coal already set aside for burning will push us past the two degrees limit. We are clearly on a runaway train heading toward unimaginable disaster. In the growth of the human empire, we have moved from disrupting and destroying local ecosystems to destabilizing every major ecosystem in the world, from oceans to forests. The cumulative impact is such that we have been heating up the planet, everything is consequently out of balance, the homeostatic mechanisms keeping planet earth in balance for billions of years are now broken, and we are on the path of runaway climate change and irreversible breakdown. The results, already visible, include desertification, deadly heat waves, melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels and flooded inlands and low lying coastal lands, and increasingly severe superstores such as Hurricane Katrina. Already, climate change has had a drastic impact on animals, fracturing the icy habitats of polar bears, seals, and penguins. It is a key contributing factor to the death of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people in poor countries. The World Health Organization attributes 150,000 deaths each year to the effects of climate change.
Welcome to the Anthropocene Era
In 1989, environmentalist Bill McKibbin wrote The End of Nature. What McKibben described was not the literal death of nature, but rather a natural world that has become so colonized, dominated, and transformed by human populations and technologies that there is not a raindrop or breeze that is not somehow influenced or altered by human existence. Moreover, through the genetic revolution science has begun to refashion the genetic structure of plants, animals, and humans, mixing genes from any species at will in a “second genesis” and new alphabet soup of DNA. In 2010, McKibben followed up withEaarth. He purposely misspelled the title to call attention to the fact that out planet already has qualitatively shifted from what it has been for eons. Former NASA scientist James Hanson was among the first scientists to sound the alarm about climate change and his warnings have become increasingly urgent. In 2007, he said: “If we do follow that path, even for another ten years, it guarantees that we will have dramatic climate changes that produce what I would call a different planet — one without sea ice in the Arctic; with worldwide, repeated coastal tragedies associated with storms and a continuously rising sea level; and with regional disruptions due to freshwater shortages and shifting climatic zones.” A key theme to emerge from a February 2012 scientific conference was that by the year 2050, the planet will be “unrecognizable.” The Holocene Era of the last 12,000 years is over. We have entered a new era, one that by definition is named for the ubiquity and severity of our impact, namely, the Anthropocene Era. The Anthropocene marks a break in geological time in which humans are now the major drivers of evolutionary change. Humans could not have become so decisive a force until the 19th century, when the capitalist industrial revolution took hold. The combination of these economic and technological revolutions began massive buildups of greenhouse gases in the environment, expanded cities, replaced natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures, turned grasslands into deserts, desertification of the grasslands and soils, acidified the oceans, destroyed rain forests, precipitated the sixth species extinction crisis, drained swamplands, dammed rivers, and turned habitat into superhighways.
Thus far into the Anthropocene era:
** Humans consume over 40 percent of the solar energy captured by planets and 54 percent of the earth’s available fresh water
** We have colonized nearly half of the planet’s ice-free land areas
** 80 per cent of the world’s grasslands and 40 percent of the planet’s land surface suffer from soil degeneration
** Humans shrink the earth’s forest cover by forty million acres each year. Every hour, 1,500 acres of land become desert
** We have destroyed half of the world’s rain-forests, decimated a quarter of shallow coral reefs, and depleted seventy percent of the major marine fisheries with technologies such as bottom-trawling nets
** We have entered the urban age, such that by 2030 two-thirds of the human population will live in cities. Mega-cities such as Mumbai or Sao Paulo will swell with over ten million or even twenty million, while over a billion people will live in filthy and disease-producing slums as a consequence of globalization, IMF and World Bank policies, and “structural adjustment programs.”
Decline of the Human Empire
Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapienshas risen from humble mammalian origins tens of millions of years ago to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere they have journeyed and lived, humans have wrought social and ecological devastation, and as the human empire expanded in size, scope, and complexity, so too did its destructive impact and legacy. History is replete with examples of the decline and fall of empires. Whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Persian, Mayan, Greek, Roman, or Ottoman, great societies have come into being and vanished into nothingness, due to overpopulation, over farming, overgrazing, over hunting, deforestation, soil erosion, and starvation brought about through exhaustion of plant and animal food sources. These civilizations and others collapsed due to exhaustion of their ecological resources, and human societies globally are facing the same situation. But there is an even greater and more decadent empire than any from ancient or modern times, and this is the imperialism of the Human Empire, the reign of Homo rapiens, and the Human Reich imposed upon other species and the natural world. The Human Empire is inherently flawed, catastrophically overextended, ecologically overextended, and soon to fall on its own sword. The amazing thing is that we do not learn the lessons of the past because our violence, hubris, and delusions, along with the vested interests of elites, are stronger than our grasp of history, ethics, and will to change. Capitalist grow-or-die imperatives and the arrogant myth of Progress override the humility demanded by concepts such as limits, sustainability, and ecology, which tell that we are a part of the biocommunity, and not apart from it. Our societies, above all contemporary global capitalism, have been established in contradiction to the natural world and in contempt of inviolable laws of ecology. The human species is driving itself full speed into an evolutionary dead-end. We are destroying the planet and everything we do murders animals and dismantles ecosystems. We have lost our moral compass. We think in terms of profit and power rather than ethics and compassion. We no longer have reverence for life or any sense of connection with the natural world. We see ourselves as conquerors of nature rather than citizens of a vast biocommunity. We are technologically sophisticated and morally stunted. We have no conception of the importance of nonhuman life forms in sustaining ecosystems and no sensitivity to the inherent value of species outside of our exploitative purposes. We fail to realize that what we do to animals and the earth, we do to ourselves. And all the while, we live in a fantasy land of entertainment and distractions whereby we focus more on the sex lives and surgical makeovers of movie stars than the greatest challenge our species has ever confronted: How can we overcome our dominator mentalities, our alienation from the natural world, and our unsustainable social systems to harmonize our existence with the earth before it is all too little, and much too late?
Crisis and the Crossroads of History
There is a persistent and influential myth that warfare, environmental destruction, and the slaughter of animals began with modern Europeans, or perhaps is most characteristic of Western cultures and their predominant anthropocentric and speciesist mindsets. As part of this Utopian fantasy and cultural Manichaeism, scores of writers have portrayed Native Americans and other non-Western cultures in Rousseauian terms as noble, peaceful peoples who never killed needlessly or without reverence and always lived in harmony and balance with nature, and attributed ecological despoliation only to invading Europeans at the dawn of the modern era. But recent historical and anthropological research has revealed that violence, extinctions, environmental ruination, and ecological overshooting begin very early in our history, and characterize it throughout. There was no Edenic time, no Golden Era, when humans lived in peace and harmony with one another, other species, and their natural surroundings. As soon as they migrated from Africa, human beings began a cross-continental rampage that already had devastating effects on other species and the environment. This destruction only grew over time in proportion with their growing numbers, consumption rates, and technological and economic development. The pattern reveals systematic problems inherent in our species itself, which has strong proclivities toward violence, is deeply alienated from other species and the natural world, is unable to control its population growth and resource consumption, has little grasp of ecological realities and the consequences for violating the limits of nature, and is unable to foresee future consequences of present actions and to adapt behavior accordingly. Perhaps the greatest irony of our time is the inverse relation between the aggressive attack on all life and the planet and the apathetic and passive response. Forces of resistance exist, to be sure, but in fragmentary and momentary form. Despite the all-out assault on the planet and the overt devastating effects, the overwhelming response has been denial, apathy, complacency, timidity, and resignation, rather than a steeled will and organized struggle in crisis conditions where the stakes could not be higher. We are now faced with the grim choice posed by revolutionaries over the last two centuries, which involved “revolution or barbarism.” Our situation has deteriorated so dramatically that we must choose between revolution or ecological collapse, mass extinction, and possibly our own demise.
The twenty-first century is a time of reckoning. This is undeniably a pivotal time in history and an evolutionary crossroads where very different possible futures lay ahead. But windows of opportunity are closing. The actions that humanity now collectively takes – or fails to take – will determine whether the future will be only bad or completely catastrophic, merely difficult or totally disastrous, incredibly challenging or simply impossible. We need the largest, broadest, boldest, most systemic and inclusive visions and strategies possible. We require the most uncompromising, militant form of politics we can muster. To stop the machinery of planetary war, we must employ every means at our disposal — from nonviolent resistance to civil disobedience, from sabotage to liberation, and from guerilla warfare to armed struggle. We must not take anything off the table, for everything is at stake. From Athens to Paris, from New York City to Brazil, there is growing realization that politics as usual just won’t cut it anymore. We will always lose if we play by their rules rather than invent new forms of struggle, new social movements, and literally arm ourselves against unconscionably violence forces. The defense of the earth requires immediate and decisive action: logging roads must be blocked, driftnets should be sliced in pieces, whaling ships need to be scuttled, and cages of every kind need to be emptied. But beyond these ad hoc defense measures, we must forge a powerful resistance movement and build a revolutionary alternative to global capitalism — radically changing our values, identities, worldviews, economic systems, social and political institutions, and our relations to one another and to other animals and the earth as a whole. I am acutely aware of the difficulties and complexities involved in such an epic political battle and harbor no illusions about humanity, anymore than I entertain fantasies about the good intentions of corporations or the benevolence of the state. Despite the inspirational platitude, we must realize that failure is an option. Our future is problematic at best and doomed at worst. There is no inherent purpose we are here to fulfill, no destiny at which we are assured to arrive in glory, however tardy, tattered, bruised, and blackened. There are no guiding angels to protect us from failure and no God to save us from total darkness. But nor are there inexorable laws or wheels of fate that have pre-determined disaster and demise. We must change our course, and we can – if a critical mass of people throughout the world can understand the crisis and respond with the level of urgency, solidarity, and militancy necessary to transcend this evolutionary impasse.
That is a big “if,” however.
While horrifying to contemplate from our perspective, Homo sapiens may not have the will, intelligence, or resolve to meet the greatest challenges it has ever faced. It might thereby succumb to the same oblivion that engulfed all its hominid ancestors, and into which it dispatched countless thousands of other species. As Michael Boulter notes, the earth is a self-organizing system that strives toward balance, and species lose out, if necessary, to the larger dynamics of ecological imperatives. “Extinctions are necessary to retain life on this planet. Humans not only are expendable in the overall calculus, their demise would be a positive event and may be utterly necessary.” In an era of catastrophe and crisis, the continuation of the human species in a viable or desirable form, is obviously contingent and not a given or a necessary good. But considered from the standpoint ofanimals and the earth, the demise of human beings would be the best imaginable event possible, and the sooner the better. The extinction of Homo sapiens would remove the cancer consuming the planet, destroy a parasite consuming its host, shut down the killing machines, and allow the earth to regenerate and new species to evolve. After 4.6 billion years of evolution, earth is only middle-aged and there is abundant time for an amazing array of stunning new life forms to emerge. If we cannot learn how to live on this planet and harmonize our existence with other species and the bio community as a whole, then, frankly, we have no right to live on earth at all. If we can only exploit, plunder, and destroy, surely our demise is for the greater good. Whereas worms, pollinators, dung beetles, and countless other species are vital to a flourishing planet, Homo sapiens is the one species the earth could well do without. Every crisis harbors opportunities for profound change, whether it is a cancer in the body or a deep disturbance in a species and its dysfunctional mode of existence. The crisis is so severe and deep-rooted as to demand radical changes in humanity itself, drawing on every positive capacity we have and forcing us to evolve at every level, individually and collectively, spiritually and politically. Human evolution is not a fait accompli – either in the sense that things will increasingly improve with the passage of time or that our species will continue at all. Thus, the future of human evolution – in a viable and desirable form, rather than in a post-apocalyptic, barren, Social Darwinist, Mad Max world – is something that will not come easy, if at all, and demands a struggle on an unprecedented scale. The main drama of our time is: Which road will humanity choose – the road that leads to peace and stability, or the one verging toward greater war and chaos? The one that establishes social justice or that which exacerbates inequality and poverty? Will we stay on the cul-de-sac of uncontrolled global capitalist growth and neo liberalism? Or will we find an alternative route that radicalizes the modern traditions of Enlightenment and democracy and is guided by the vision of a future that is just, egalitarian, participatory, ecological, healthy, happy, and sane? Will we move, in David Korten’s words, toward the “Great Unraveling” and plummet deeper into the abyss? Or will we undertake a “Great Turning,” where we finally learn to live in partnership with one another, other animals, and the earth? The only certainty is growing planetary crisis and the need for revolutionary opposition and change. We have no choice but to live in the twilight and tension of optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. As Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.”