Part 2 in a series on Evolution and Sustainability
Can we evolve into living in a more sustainable way on this planet? And how would we socially reorganize for this to happen? Thankfully ideas change much faster than genes but there remain serious impediments to the transformative change that is now needed. For this to happen many of our strongly-held and institutionally-based ideas need reevaluation.
We seem a species out of control. We act as if our actions don’t accumulate to create huge planetary impacts, as if we live in a bubble. And understanding how this occurs is often beyond our ordinary cultural, political and economic conceptions, the lenses through which we make judgments and decisions and “know” reality. Freedom has come to mean more about ensuring short-term convenience than using our evolved capacities to contribute to collective foresight and mutual responsibility.
Our ordinary views can contribute to collective self-deception. The transition from being a few million dispersed hunter-gatherer humans, to what some now call a “super-organism” of nearly seven billion globally interconnected humans, is a massive evolutionary leap. Human awareness has lagged. While we had some environmental impacts after the birth of agricultural civilizations, our global impacts today are on a totally different scale.
More humans may begin to “get the point” when they consider their family risks from pandemics. Increased human density and urbanization, widespread human cohabitation with pigs and birds and ever-increasing rates of global travel, have changed the parameters of pandemics. With better monitoring and preparedness the UN and national governments are trying to address the growing risks of infectious diseases spreading across continents. Might this help us better realize that our global interdependence requires us to have more foresight and collective self-regulation?
To move towards sustainability our self-regulation needs to be in the context of an enhanced understanding of the natural systems that have evolved along with us. In Here On Earth, Tim Flannery talks of “Gaia” having air, land and water, like “organs” through which elements continually move. We are steadily learning more about how these processes maintain the biosphere, its eco-systems and the biodiversity of living forms. The origin of life here has perhaps involved the “chemosynthesis” occurring in the volcanic heat vents along the ocean floors.
Flannery lists several ways the planet seems to self-regulate to nurture life. First, the ozone shield around the outer atmosphere protects life from ultraviolent radiation. Destructive industrial practices which have depleted the ozone layer have already led to big increases in skin cancer and carry other threats.
Second, greenhouse gases like C02, methane and nitrous oxide “play a critical role in controlling Earth’s surface temperature”. The failure to reduce these emissions already threatens global biodiversity, creating conditions that bring more extreme weather events (storms, floods, droughts, fires) that are already making human life more difficult. Look at what is happening with “only” a 1 C degree average global temperature rise; what would come with a 3 to 4 C increase?
Third, there are less widely known processes that we need to better understand and respect, such as how the dimethyl sulphide “produced by certain types of algae” assists in cloud formation. Without clouds there is no life-giving rainfall and no life-protecting shade. Flannery suggests that dust from organic matter and rock weathering “may also have a regulatory effect.”
International treaties are one necessary tool to self-regulate human activities so that we work with rather than against “Gaia”. The Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs and HCFCs) was signed in 1987 and has had seven revisions. If it is successfully enforced and we don’t allow other ecocidal activities to harm the atmosphere, the ozone layer may recover by 2050.
Also, the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants first raised in Rio in 1992, was finally ratified in 2001, coming into effect in 2004. This initiated a ban on twelve toxic chemicals that were widely used in the global “free market” and have subsequently been found to be slow to degrade but fast to bio-accumulate, including within our bodies. They are mostly insecticides, demonstrating how chemical attacks on other creatures become attacks on ourselves.
Additionally, in 2009, negotiations began to “finalize a global treaty on mercury”, one of many dangerous neurotoxins that are contaminating the planet. As we move forward with such treaties we must learn to think more holistically. Phasing out coal-fired plants with renewable energy would stop the flow of two-thirds of global mercury pollution while greatly lowering C02 emissions.
Some treaties are even harder to get; powerful corporations and governments that support them can block agreements. The Harper government’s actions since 2006 to scuttle climate change agreements have been condemned worldwide. While most greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels, much (40%) comes from unsustainable practices like destruction of the world’s forests and mining the soil by agribusiness. Many industrial practices that we take for granted now need reconsideration.
Flannery highlights the resistance to effective planetary safeguards from the mining industry, which is so influential in Canadian and Saskatchewan politics, saying “Civilizing such powerful interests, which are deeply rooted in libertarian culture, is an extraordinary challenge.” Flannery continues, “Mining conducted without regard for the Gaian system may seem like a harmless activity”, until it begins to “undo the elemental concentrations that life has created”. The steady contamination of the air, land and water with toxic heavy metals such as mercury, uranium, lead, cadmium, etc. has already had detrimental effects on the global food chain, including humans as the top-feeder. This threatens environmental health as well as food and water security.
ENFORCEMENT AND CHANGE
There needs to be more serious consequences for undermining planetary health. We can only hope that the campaign to get “ecocide”, or the “heedless or deliberate destruction of the environment”, added as an additional “crime against peace” under the UN’s International Criminal Court, is soon successful. Global enforcement could become more effective; remote satellite monitoring of rainforests could monitor and control activities like illegal logging.
Technology can also be used to better regulate the overuse of resources. Smart-grids ensure more efficient uses of energy which can contribute to reducing emissions. Electric cars can be charged by the more highly available wind power at night, as both a means to store renewable energy and to reduce the demand for “peak load” energy during the day. Computers can be used to reduce the wasting of water in irrigation, and so on. All sorts of global “super-organism” methods are going to be needed to make the evolutionary shift to sustainability.
QUESTIONING THE “FREE” MARKET
The biggest hurdle is probably surpassing the belief that economic prosperity and human liberty is based on a “free”, unregulated market. Many international environmental treaties were required to compensate for the failure of the so-called free market and pro-corporate state to protect planetary health. Within today’s corporate-dominated marketplace, the accumulation of money has more value than preventing the degradation of the biosphere. The dominant economy is not only unsustainable but un-ecological for, as Flannery says, “a greater financial return can be had from destroying the forest and investing the cash made from doing so in the market”. Thankfully we are seeing more ecologically-responsible investment processes such as Proxy Democracy starting to emerge.
Inherited ideologies can block our path to sustainability. You could even say that “ecocide” is encouraged by the so-called free market. As long as “Gaia” and its “organs”, the air, land and water, have no market value, other than what they contribute to profitable resource extraction and economic growth, our species will continue to flounder.
Will we wake up in time?
Part 3 continues in two weeks.