Homo Hubris

Human vanity leads us to assume that we are not only the most successful but the most amazing of all creatures on this planet. Our self-congratulation knows no bounds: our languages, our arts, our sciences, our increasing prosperity, and our increasing conquest of nature appear to ourselves to be extraordinary. Particularly in the West, where we have a long tradition of thinking of ourselves as the special creatures of God, given dominion over all other creatures and all the earth itself, Homo hubris recognizes no limits to our power, wealth, and knowledge. We imagine that our great progress from bands of hunters on the savannah to high-tech civilizations in which even mortality may at last be conquered will continue unabated by the occasional retrograde uprising of a few tribesmen in backward and shrinking enclaves.

In social Darwinist fantasies, we are the most fit of all creatures, as our rising population attests. If the test of selective fitness is reproductive success, we have indeed succeeded. Whereas in the year A.D. 1 there were a mere 200 million people on this planet (less than the 315 million in the United States today), and whereas there were a mere 900 million in A.D. 1800 (at the start of the Industrial Revolution), today there are over 7 billion of us, a billion of whom we have added since A.D. 2000. We grow by leaps and bounds!

I recently read a book review in the Wall Street Journal (“Neanderthals: Why Us and Not Them?”, Chip Walter, January 26, 2013) in which the author noted that during their time on earth, Neanderthals’ “total population never managed to reach six figures,” which I understand to mean less than 100,000 at any one time. (Perhaps he means in Europe; Neanderthal ranged rather widely and was present not only in Europe but in parts of Asia and the Middle East.) Such a modest population leads some to suggest that Neanderthals were never very far from extinction and that the invasion of Homo sapiens gave them the final push over the edge. Perhaps, but Neanderthal may have persisted for half a million years, whereas our species appears to have been around for less than 200,000, from which we might conclude that it is a bit too early to congratulate ourselves on our superior fitness.

Nonetheless, Neanderthal did go extinct, for reasons probably having as much to do with climate change (an ice age turning warmer perhaps) as with competition from our own ancestors. With Neanderthal out of the way, we are without human competitors, and our numbers and technologies do seem to be clearing away competitors of other genuses. Their best strategy for continued survival may be to imitate our domesticated species (cows, dogs, cats, etc.) and strike a devil’s bargain with us that allows their survival in exchange for our exploitation of them—i.e., to live for us rather than for themselves. There are over 500 million dogs on this planet and only a few hundred thousand wolves. Likewise, while true wild horses just barely escaped final extinction in the last century through a deliberate breeding program of zoo specimens, domestic horses number in excess of 50 million, even though in most countries they no longer perform agricultural and transportation work.

However, decontextualized population figures do not fitness make. It is easy to understand that under-population poses a risk of extinction; a slight trauma could be enough to end its days on earth, particular if the threatened species has a very limited range. Overpopulation is generally recognized by biologists as a threat as well, at least of a population crash if not outright extinction, because over-exploited resources lead to starvation and other threats, such as environmental degradation. But when Cassandras warn that humanity is threatened by overpopulation, optimists spring forward to assert that improvements in agricultural technology, water treatment (e.g., desalination), medicine, energy extraction, etc., will allow for continued population growth with a concurrent improvement in prosperity and happiness. Indeed, it is often pointed out that those countries with declining populations are threatened with decay while those countries that are open to immigration will prosper from growing populations (e.g., the United States, whose population would stabilize or even decline if it relied solely on the natural reproduction of whites). After all, to get the economy to grow, markets need to grow, and for markets to grow, populations, particularly of young adults, need to grow. So, too, one would imagine, would natural resources need to grow—more oil and natural gas, more fresh water, more trees for lumber and paper, more electricity, more cars and planes, more roads, more houses and schools, more farm land, etc. That natural resources are in fact not increasing but rather diminishing seldom gets factored into these market projections.

It is possible that we have already passed the point of optimal population for our species, that sweet spot where the population is large enough to prosper and to survive the occasional trauma, but not too large to over-exploit the resources of its environment, while also not being so low as to not only live on the edge of extinction but to also not enjoy the benefits of diversity, genetic and otherwise. For humans, otherwise includes culture, knowledge, and trade. A point made by Chip Walter is that the low population density of Neanderthal inhibited the exchange of ideas, which may in turn explain why their technology never progressed; they never invented a spear that could be thrown, for example, and if one of their number had happened to do so, there would have been no opportunity for that innovation to get beyond his own small band.

Globalization is the great panacea of our day. If politicians and CEOs are to be believed, globalization will solve all our problems by joining everyone into one great marketplace where everyone can prosper. This was the thesis at the heart of Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. But globalization reduces diversity, and by the way it is ironic that the term “multiculturalism” came into being only as multi-culturalism per se was well on the way to disappearing. Anywhere you go on this globe, people are wearing jeans and tee shirts, while traditional ways of dress are relegated to museums and tourist sites. English, that language of a few million on an island to the far north, has become a world language, a requirement for pilots and control tower personnel everywhere. Linguists fear that many smaller local languages have already disappeared before anyone could record them, along with the local knowledge those languages carried. Given the myopia of a purely Anglo-American perspective, which I have commented on in a number of articles elsewhere on this blog, continued loss of cultural diversity could hinder the growth of knowledge.

But globalization decreases diversity in other ways that may one day pose a greater threat to humanity’s survival. Let us take AIDS as an example. AIDS is a disease that originated in a once thoroughly isolated area of Africa and would never have made its way beyond its area of origin but for globalization. The intrusions of explorers and traders brought the retrovirus, HIV, from the jungle to settlements along rivers, from which it was eventually carried around the world, resulting in a pandemic: 30 plus million dead, 34 plus million currently infected. Since the discovery of penicillin, bacterial infections have been increasingly and routinely treated with antibiotics, saving many lives but at the same time leading to antibiotic resistant super-bacteria which could potentially more than cancel out the short-term benefits of antibiotics. Bacteria evolve must faster than do human beings. Scientists are rather nervous about what else may be lurking out there, waiting for the opportunity to reproduce and prosper at our expense.

While bacteria can evolve and reproduce at prodigious rates, resources such as fossil fuels cannot. As Jeff Rubin so thoroughly points out in his books Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller (2009) and The Big Flatline: Oil and the No-Growth Economy (2012), energy is what makes the world go round, and energy is largely oil; oil is more efficient in terms of energy generated per unit than any other fuel, and it is what makes globalization possible. Those container ships bringing goods from China are fueled by oil; as long as oil is cheap, it makes sense, of a particular kind, to exploit the dirt-cheap labor of other countries to manufacture our goodies, but when oil gets expensive, as Rubin says it inevitably will, that labor will not be cheap enough to offset the cost of shipping. Jobs will have to come home, which will leave the Chinese factory worker in the lurch. Gasoline will be so expensive that many Americans will, for the first time in their lives, be forced to walk or take public transportation. As for agriculture, here’s a quotation from p. 101 of Rubin’s earlier book: “Modern industrial farming is largely a strategy for turning fossil fuels into food,” through oil and natural gas based fertilizers and pesticides as well as the fuel for farm equipment and trucks to transport the harvest. One should also note that modern crop hybrids are bred to prosper in this fossil-fuel based agricultural regime. Modern corn varieties could not grow without pesticides and fertilizers, for example. Monoculture may appear to be an efficient way to meet world food needs, and for awhile it has done so, but monoculture is also vulnerable to insects and diseases that in more natural conditions are kept in check by ecological boundaries.

Globalization is a kind of monoculture which, like the so-called Green Revolution, may seem to produce great benefits but in the long run will prove to carry built-in disasters. Whatever the consequences of globalization, they will not play out in the lifetimes of most people now living on this planet. Our species is not likely to die out all of a sudden, but gradually, for the most part imperceptibly. One wonders if the last Neanderthals, sequestered in caves somewhere in Spain, realized they were the last of their kind or understood why they were the last. Perhaps they continued living from day to day, solving the immediate problems of finding food and fuel, believing that there were yet more days to come.

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