Part 1 in a series on Evolution and Sustainability
By Jim Harding
Though governments and the mass media that fixates on them are slow to “get it”, grass-roots people across Canada and the globe are realizing that our normal ways of “doing business” are taking us down a catastrophic path. Global industrial society has raised the atmospheric levels of carbon by one-third in just a century, the highest level the planet may have seen in a million years. The blowback is already here with chemical changes to the atmosphere and oceans, unprecedented glacial melting and extreme weather events increasing everywhere.
The Idle No More movement spreading from Saskatchewan across Canada is the latest of the grass-roots movements giving voice to the change we need to see and see soon. We’ve seen the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring and we will see more. The global grass-roots groundswell is cynically critiqued for not being clear about its goals, but it takes time to move from surplus powerlessness to the clarity to move forward. It’s an unfolding process!
“Occupy” has already refocused collective awareness on the growing inequality gap; Oxfam just reminded us that the wealth of the world’s 100 richest people, $250 billion, could pull the human race out of poverty many times over. Idle No More is exploring ways to link indigenous rights to ecological sustainability, and on it will go.
Whether a movement grows or not, the stark realities will remain. So it’s time to look more deeply at how humanity got itself into this mess. Climate change deniers and anti-science fundamentalists have had their say; this has justified profit-amassing business-as-usual tactics and further stalled effective international action to avert global disaster. We need to dig deeper, drawing on our best scientific and spiritual resources, to renew perspective and direction. There’s urgency about this for the window of opportunity could be short-lived.
HERE ON EARTH
If there’s one author I’d recommend to help get perspective it would be Tim Flannery, who became known after his international best seller The Weather Makers. You may have heard him interviewed recently about Australia’s super heat waves and fires. Some years ago I gave Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier to my middle son, Joel, a marine biologist studying at SFU in BC. This Christmas he returned the favour, sending me Flannery’s Here On Earth and I wish to share a few insights this book has helped shape.
First, we need to quickly re-vision how we see ourselves on planet earth. Many of the ideas we inherited are getting in the way of our evolutionary survival; ideas such as “human superiority”, “survival of the fittest” and even “industrial progress”. Secondly, to do this it’s necessary to popularize what we are learning about our evolutionary journey from northern Africa to all the continents.
One of our ancestors, the very capable hunter Homo erectus, left Africa nearly 2 million years ago and inhabited Eurasia for most of the subsequent period. This evolutionary relative has been extinct for a long time. However, we co-existed with one of our closer bi-pedal ancestors, the Neanderthals, as recently as 25,000 years ago; with our genetics so similar we may carry some Neanderthal within us. And the small ape with frontal lobes which may also be related to us, sometimes call “the Hobbit”, existed just 12,000 years ago in Indonesia and may have left Africa even earlier than Homo erectus.
Our species, expert social hunters, gatherers and communicators, only dates back about 200,000 years, 100,000 years after earlier humanoids developed stone-age tools. This should be humbling! However, our collective intelligence remains heavily fixated on perpetrating militarism and economic growth regardless of the planetary impacts. This doesn’t suggest there is much of the foresight that we associate with our enlarged brains.
Genetic markers suggest early humans migrated from Africa to SE Asia and then Australia about 50,000 years ago, before they migrated to Eastern or Western Europe (37,000 and 32,000 years). Australia’s aboriginal peoples are therefore not of the “New World”, as thought by Europeans who saw Australia as “empty”. Australia’s aboriginal people are amongst the oldest ongoing human settlements anywhere.
Our ancestors started their journey to the “New World”, the Americas, only about 14,000 years ago, migrating across the land-mass still in place from Siberia to Alaska as the glaciers started receding. This wasn’t that long after when Neanderthals co-existed with early humans in Eurasia. “Hobbits” still existed in friendly ecological niches.
Our steady expansion has upset the earth’s biodiversity. Until Homo sapiens migrated to the Americas many “New World” species were plentiful. Our ancestors were a threat to creatures that had not been able to learn to survive our ingenuity through previous co-evolution. It was only about 10,000 years ago that the last mammoths were hunted to extinction in Alaska. It was only 4,000 years ago when Egyptian civilization was ascending, that dwarf elephants who had been surviving in isolation, were hunted to extinction in Europe. Many of the large animals living with us in North America – the bison, brown bear and moose, also migrated from Eurasia.
As we see the earth’s biosphere from space and discover our evolutionary history, our human-conceived world starts to burst open. Long-cherished and often “racialized” cultural and religious identities start to fall away as we come face-to-face with the ecological blowback from humanity’s hasty ascendancy and illusion of dominance. The spread of colonialism, industrialization, nationalism and capitalism have all accelerated the global crisis now staring us in the face.
We’ve been a frontier species, so often on the move that we’ve had difficulty learning to live sustainably. It’s remarkable that we have reached this evolutionary nodal point so quickly, after only 60,000 years. This is testament to our collective prowess, including our capacity to create the delusional ideas now putting us at great risk.
The quickly emerging climate crisis is challenging us to discover our evolutionary selves. This can be unsettling to all cultural-historical traditions, settler-colonial and indigenous ones as well. But this brings us closer together. The Arctic Inuit face the fastest changes to the environment anywhere; they and the polar bear are our canaries.
Systems of time, calendars and mythologies of a few thousand years are insufficient to glean the self identity to evolve into a sustainable steady state. Genetic-archeological knowledge suggests a much longer time span. There have been ice ages about every 100,000 years and our short-lived evolution has been dramatically affected by these cycles. During the last ice age there were less than 200 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere. After the ice age ended the level rose but stayed below 300 ppm. Today, barely into an inter-glacial period, we are about to pass 400 ppm. We aren’t sure about tipping points but should be aiming to quickly reduce not increase levels.
To survive we clearly need to better know and respect the ways of “Gaia”. Deluded by corporate consumerism tied to the myth of endless growth, we are altering biospheric processes. Geologists debate whether we should rename the present period, one where human activity is altering the functioning of the planet, from Holocene to Anthropocene. They should!
When we compare the longevity of evolutionary relatives like Homo erectus, Neanderthals or “Hobbits” we seem like evolutionary adolescents. We act like adolescents, trying to ignore the consequences of our actions, unable to awaken from the illusions of “self-interest”.
Can we grow up; is there anything in our evolutionary nature that can steer us? We have come this far, to the edge of sustainability, with unique social-technical-brain capacities. Are we capable of balancing ourselves spiritually and economically in the pursuit of sustainability, justice and peace? Are we open to receiving the evolutionary wisdom to do so?