There was a time when humans were foragers. There were no supermarkets, not even any agricultural plantations. People collected food by seeing what’s available around them: some fruit, nuts, animals and fish they could kill. It has been argued that this lifestyle inflicted little damage to the land and to animal populations, allowing the ecosystem to maintain its overall balance. The berry bushes were able to regenerate and make more berries. There were plenty of fish in the river, the ones that weren’t caught this year laid their eggs so that humans can have both berries and fish next year, and the year after. Humans were “in balance with the ecosystem.”
Or were they? Because surely if those early foragers had today’s human population size of 8 billion, those poor berry bushes and fish in the river would be extinct within a few weeks. Therefore, was it the lifestyle of the foragers that was in balance with the Earth, or was it the fact that their population size, and therefore the level of damage they inflicted, was negligible, allowing Earth to recover each year and produce again?
As it turns out, the more we find out about our prehistoric ancestors, the more it becomes apparent that they were just as bad as us. Whenever and wherever humanity expanded geographically, species that were tasty, such as big animals, “mysteriously” disappeared from the fossil record at around the same exact time as the arrival of humans, in that specific location. 45,000 years ago, humans invaded the unique ecosystem of Australia, burning down the forest and eventually making 24 of its 25 largest animals extict. Today’s Australian Eucalyptus forests may actually be the remnants of the forest that survived the blaze: Eucalyptus was the tree that regenerated the fastest and was able to repopulate the charred woodland. Much of what we consider today to be “wilderness” is actually the meagre remnants of a much richer, much more diverse nature that once existed on this planet: one which we will never be able to see, or even imagine, a world that the first foragers slashed and burned to the ground, pillaged and made extinct, as they moved from foraging to agriculture and to industrial, technological societies.
We were engaged in a struggle with nature pretty much from the beginning of our existence as Homo sapiens, considering ourselves existentially separate from it, as if we had arrived here from another part of the universe in saucer-shaped spaceships. When we built our first home was probably when we started deluding ourselves that we can also be physically separate from the rest of nature. Our front porches became physical borders. They became trenches in our new war against nature, against Earth herself.
Most human cities have been illegally built on the most water-rich, most biologically diverse habitats: usually a river delta, a fertile valley, or other sheltered location. The species that once inhabited these locations were made extinct by humans such a long time ago that, we don’t even know who they were or what they looked like. Whatever is left of these habitats, and all the species that still live in them, are under attack by 8 billion hungry, wasteful water faucets that suck the life out of Earth’s ecosystems twenty-four hours a day. The worst of the climate crisis may only be beginning, but the extinction apocalypse has already been perpetrated. We have driven to extinction not only countless plants and animals, but other species of intelligent humanoids like us that used to inhabit this planet. We are now simply at the step of finishing off what is left.
There are already many people on this planet who have grown up in cities and seen nothing but huge concrete walls and pollution all of their lives. They have no idea what nature is. If we have truly disconnected ourselves this much from the ecosystem that feeds us, then doesn’t that make us technically dead?
The Foraging Myths about sustainable primitive humans that try to sugarcoat our dark past need to end. Our impact on the planet is a mathematical function of all of our activities, and the main activity is economic growth, which depends on population growth. Population is the big multiplier in the equation of humanity’s impact on the planet. It is the part of the equation that makes our impact irreversible, and our planet irrecoverable.
The impact of the seemingly benign primitive humans was still significant on a per person basis, but given their extremely low population, Earth had time to regenerate. In fact, if all 8 billion humans of today suddenly became foragers, their impact would potentially be even greater than that of modern humans. They would need so many millions of acres of virgin woodland and savanna full of berries and animals to kill, that Earth would not be able to sustain them. Many of them would die in the first round of feeding, while wars broke out between tribes to control territories that contained the richest food resources.
Most of the rest would die soon after, as the plants and animals that they ate went extinct, ushering in a food crisis. Although we have razed most of the flat land on this planet to cultivate crops and rear imprisoned animals, we still depend on wild animals: 1 out of 3 mouthfuls of our food, 90% of wild plants and 75% of global crops depend on insect pollination. We may think we are dependent on capitalism and supply chains, but it is the rapidly disappearing insect kingdom and the rest of nature who do all the work, including the provision of all resources and raw materials to begin with.
Had our technological evolution not taken place, but our population somehow exploded to today’s 8 billion, the impact on the planet of 8 billion “sustainable humans” could actually have been similarly devastating to that of the industrial revolution. The one difference would be that in the case of 8 billion primitives on the planet, we would not have a climate crisis, but only the ecological crisis. Though one can make the argument that the amount of primitive barbeques lighting up every night on Earth across a population of 8 billion may actually push emissions up, over time. I leave this calculation to a mathematician. What IS simple math however is that it really doesn’t matter how much we reduce our “per capita impact” on Earth. Our total impact on the planet will continue to be far beyond what the planet can sustain without its biotic and climate systems collapsing, if our population stays at the current level.
One of the biggest illusions that many in the environmental movement still hold is that humans were once a sustainable species. It is an argument that doesn’t stand its ground from a biological perspective. Our brain has barely changed since then. We are the same species, biologically: with the same anxieties, the same need to hoard, to compete for resources. We may have new technologies to achieve our goals, but the goals themselves have not changed.
The myth of primitive humans living in peaceful harmony with Earth, singing songs to the stars before falling asleep in front of the fire needs to end. Yes, primitive humans did have a higher appreciation for Earth. They did have more gratitude and respect for the power and abundance of nature. But they, like the humans of today, assumed that this abundance was limitless, infinite, inexhaustible, in the same way that today’s humans walk through the supermarket and think that all these foods will be continuously replenished by themselves, until the end of time.
People are still foragers at heart – only that rather than walking through a forest, they have bulldozed the forest to build supermarket shelves to walk through instead. The food in these supermarkets gets on trucks, ships and intercontinental flights. By the time it gets into our stomachs, people have been exploited, animals have choked on the plastic packaging, and an entire planet has seen its climate change. As long as the Earth destruction machine is wired deep into the fabric of our society, culture, economy and salaries, we are all criminal accomplices in the ongoing decimation of Earth.
Only when all of us are much poorer, some even starving, will we look back and realise that what we considered a normal, entitled existence, was in fact a life of normalised excess. The tragedy of the human species, and ironically, the ultimate reason for its eventual demise, is that it just never knew how to be mediocre. It never knew how to pace itself, stop and smell the roses, or the disturbing funk of extinction it left behind every single time. It is a species that has simply forgotten how to just “be”, and be happy simply by virtue of existing, like all the other species.
(from the upcoming “Little Book of Doom”)
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books