The Myth of a Sustainable Humanity

There was a time when humans were foragers.  There were no supermarkets, not even agriculture – in other words, there was no “food production system” as such.  The system was Earth itself, and it was the level of food supply that moderated demand, which in turn, controlled population (and this further limitted demand).  As long as the size of human population was directly linked to this natural supply of food and other resources, we were still a mere link in the food chain, as opposed to a predator of the entire system.

People collected food from their immediate environment:  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 and still manage supply and demand. The berry bushes were able to regenerate and make more berries.  The fish in the river that weren’t caught this year laid their eggs so that humans can have both berries and fish next year, and the year after.  We were seemingly in balance with the ecosystem.

Or were we?  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 information we uncover about our prehistoric ancestors, the more it becomes apparent that they were almost just as bad as us when it comes to mentality.  Whenever and wherever prehistoric humanity expanded geographically, species that were tasty, such as big animals, “mysteriously” disappear from the fossil record at around the same exact time as the arrival of humans.

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 onwards to industrial, technological societies. 

Rather than living in balance with the natural supply of food, we have been engaged in an aggressive competitive struggle with nature since the beginning of our existence as Homo sapiens.  The fact that there were no immediate consequences stemming from our actions on the natural environment, only resulted in arrogance.  Our tribes, and later our organized societies, were built on a foundation of natural exploitation that never felt “wrong” in any way.  It was accepted as part of our “nature”.  Our economic and religious structures further emboldened and rubberstamped this perception that our natural role is to exploit and destroy the ecosystem that we are part of.  A web of traditions, myths and religions based on human supremacy over other species further quelled any possible doubts and second thoughts on whether what we were doing was wrong.  Any potential thoughts of guilt, regret or remorse for natural destruction were simply not part of the conversation, once we had convinced ourselves of our role, and accepted ourselves for what we are.

Once we had functionally, spiritually and fiscally accepted that we were in an exploitation relationship with nature, we had effectively declared war on the planet.  An aggressive narrative of “humans vs. nature” permeated all of our advanced civilisations, and further supported the message that we are not part of nature.  We are separate from it, and we are better.  In order to strengthen this human supremacy narrative and justify the war, nature had to be portrayed as the villain.  It was often depicted as dangerous, raw, threatening and an enemy of humanity.

This spiritual separation began to translate into a physical one, as the first human settlements were set up as fortresses against the “wilderness” and “disorder” of nature.  An entirely new world was created:  the indoor living space, a habitat reserved exclusively for human use, and which represented the antithesis to anything natural.   Our front porches became the physical boundaries between the natural and the human world.  They became trenches in our new war against nature, and Earth.  At the same time, we created outdoor spaces that were reserved exclusively for human exploitation.  Large-scale commercial agriculture has been the most devastating human warfare against the planet, using military-style annihilation techniques to wipe out entire ecosystems, down to the microorganisms in the soil. Locusts are far less harmful in comparison.

Of course, this physical and spiritual separation from nature was an illusion.  Humans needed to be tangibly near the resources they usurped.  All historic 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 deplete water out of Earth’s remaining ecosystems twenty-four hours a day.    While the worst of the climate crisis is only just beginning, the extinction apocalypse has already been largely 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 finishing off whatever is left.  The rich biodiversity legacy of this planet has already largely been forgotten.  There are many humans who have grown up exclusively in cities and seen nothing but concrete walls and pollution all their lives.  They are ignorant of what nature is, and that protecting it is critical to the continuation of their own species.  If we have truly disconnected ourselves this much from the ecosystem that feeds us, we might as well be pronounced technically dead.

The myths about primitive tribes of humans living sustainably in harmony with nature aim to pave over our collective guilt, by claiming that humans were, and still are, genuinely “good” at heart but have been corrupted by capitalism.  But this is yet another artificial narrative created by our system, much like modern day Germans blaming Hitler for the holocaust.  We all voted capitalism into power, just like the Germans voted for Hitler. 

Our impact on the planet is not simply a result of “capitalism” and the evil “oligarchs”.  We are the ones who buy all the products that the oligarchs produce.  Humanity’s impact on the planet’s climate is a mathematical function that represents the summation of all of our activities, and these activities also include uncontrolled, and unnatural procreation.  Economic growth brings about population growth and vice versa, creating a positive feedback loop that has locked emissions and ecological decimation into a permanent exponential death spiral.  This is the story of our industrial civilization.  Population is the big multiplier in this equation; it is the part of the equation that makes our impact irreversible, and our planet irrecoverable.

In the case of the seemingly benign primitive humans, their impact was still significant on a per person basis, especially when it came to the extinction of species.  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 would break out between tribes over the control of territories containing the richest food resources. 

Most of the rest would die soon after, as the plants and animals that they consumed went extinct, ushering in a food crisis.  In the absence of agriculture, and intensive agriculture that is, the population decline would be nothing short of a collapse.  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” might 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 may 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.

We live under the delusion that our modern food production systems have eliminated all risks to our food security.  But in fact, we still depend on the both the climate system and animals such as bees, for this food production system to function.  1 out of 3 mouthfuls of our food, 90% of wild plants and 75% of global crops depend on insect pollination. We may read headlines about wars and supply chain issues affecting our food, but it is the rapidly disappearing insect kingdom and the also rapidly disappearing stable weather required for agriculture that are vanishing in the background.  Humans only undertake part of the work in this otherwise “modern” food production system.  The weather and the insects do most of the heavy lifting.

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.  They did reuse and recycle more than us.  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 arrives on trucks, ships and intercontinental flights.  By the time it reaches our stomach 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.

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

16 thoughts on “The Myth of a Sustainable Humanity

  1. Spot on, George. I’ve been a P/T overpop. educator since My late 40s, some 30 years ago. t is the most Sisyphean task imaginable. If you ever get near Amherst MA, love to meet. Cheers on the downslope,

    Steve
    (pls email me. small list would be a great fit. Bill Rees, Alice Friedmann, Rex Weyler, among a couple dozen sharp members)

  2. Hi George,

    Spot on. Teaching about overpop. is the most Sisyphean task imaginable. I’ve been at it P/T for 3 decades.

    I’d like to invite you to a small e-list. Includes Bill Rees (Eco Ftprnt), Alice Friedemann (Energy Skeptic blog & several books), Rex Weyler (co-founder Greenpeace) and a couple of dozen other smart folks wrestling with limits to growth.

    If ever near Amherst MA, dinner on me, guest floor available.

    Cheers on the downslope,

    Steve

    >

  3. Spot on and it’s never been a doubt in my mind about numbers of any species remaining in balance .. we are the species to overcome the necessary culling and with devastating impacts.. no doubt at all in my mind

  4. Overshoot has always been the number one long term problem for any species, and yet we have brilliant idiots like Mr. Musk saying we don’t have enough people.

  5. I don’t think *true* hunter-gatherers were the scourge that became agriculturalists. I’m currently reading John Gowdy’s book ‘Ultrasocial’ which cites several bits of research that debunk the notion that hunter-gatherers were “evil killer apes” responsible for the mega fauna extinctions of the past. Gowdy argues that earlier studies basically conflate hunter-gatherers with horticulturalists/agriculturalists, the latter groups being much more destructive to their ecosystems. That said, lower numbers absolutely means ecosystems rebound easier. Anyway, Gowdy’s book is refreshingly concise and worth reading as his argument that humans becoming ultrasocial — like certain ant and termite species — is the actual destructive aspect of humanity since the broad adoption of agriculture, essentially the move from egalitarian small groups living an ecologically balanced existence to large hierarchical groups dedicated to generating surpluses via exploitation.

  6. There is no FREE LUNCH. Life is an interesting type of cannibalism that seems to have a rule of limited competition. We eat our relatives to survive. The biosphere is a closed loop except for the energy of the sun and the geothermal energy of the leftover heat of universe creation. Sustainability is achieved by not over consuming each other. We (humans) have forgotten the rule. Our relatives still remember. Life appears to be magically overcoming entropy until we (humans) appeared on the scene. The biosphere and geosphere are interwoven. The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. The creative urge of universe at work. Love Rick

    1. Rick, All ok except no exceptions to entropy I’m aware of. Species ebb and flow, come and go. Energy throughput is required by all. Inputs and conditions change incessantly. Cheers on the downslope of Homo superstitious!

      1. Yes, from the deep time perspective entropy wins. Only from our shallow time perspective does it appear to be overcome. Still magically interesting though. Rick

      2. Interestingly, I’m currently reading Edward Goldsmith’s “The Way” wherein he makes the case that applying the concept of entropy to the biosphere is an overextension of its meaning and not applicable to Gaia and the living systems within her because we that the tendency is toward homeostasis rather than entropy. He points out that we see examples of anti-entropy all around us and also that if entropy were active in the biosphere the planet would have become a desert by now, when what we observe is that when left alone it becomes more information-dense over time. Admittedly I’m not doing his argument justice; just wanted to share that because it’s a thought-provoking perspective to be sure.

      3. Without continual energy inputs (solar is the main one), the biosphere would be barren. As climate changes, homeostasis in mostly closed systems changes as well. Systems change, and entropy is only temporarily reversed with new energy input. Ask a physicist!

  7. What can I do? Can we possibly intervene with ourselves and our nature? I find myself in the paradoxical situation of wondering if the teachings of the Buddha can save us, and at the same time I want to try to fix the problem. We are the problem to fix, and are we just beyond repair? I suppose I know how much work is to be done to understand ourselves, and we do not have the time. What is one to do with this?

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