Life Under Homo Colossus

“Man has been too arrogant in exaggerating the difference between himself and other creatures, between humanity and natural history.”
Overshoot, William Catton

Under the reign of Homo Colossus there is a tendency to obscure key ecological relationships and their results. In an Orwellian fashion we refer to the extraction of non-renewable resources such as coal and oil as ‘production.’ Countries like the U.K. claim to be meeting carbon reduction targets when in fact all that they have done is move the polluting manufacturing industries on which they still rely to third world locations. Pundits rail against the raw population numbers in underdeveloped countries while ignoring the role of affluence and consumption patterns when discussing humanity’s ecological footprint.

Living in the time of giantism in technology, transportation, communication, information, and resource throughput is living under the reign of Homo Colossus. Homo Colossus consists of numerous complex networks. When they are all working well together they deliver bread to the store shelves and the trains run on time. When the slightest hiccup disrupts one of the networks, that oscillation can be multiplied until larger, seemingly unrelated networks also fail. We see this in a traffic jam started by a few distracted drivers gawking at a fender bender on the side of the highway. Before the waveform has completed its travels through that city’s membranes there could be a five mile backup on the highway, a five percent increase in traffic accidents, and an extra hundred pounds of carbon monoxide added to the atmosphere than there would have been during this morning commute had there not been a fender bender. This is a silly example but when the complex network of systems a city relies on for survival breaks down people die. Modernity is poised on the edge of the complexity knife with giant systems everywhere becoming more brittle and prone to disruption as the pressures of population and scarcity grow with each passing year.

The entropy attack on the American infrastructure is there for anyone to see who travels through the back roads of this country. The derelict factories, farms, abandoned suburbs and small towns are everywhere and when the traveler turns towards the mega city population centers, and if they stray into the inner city underbelly, there are all the signs of third world poverty and neglect. The systems that keep the food on the grocery store shelves, the potable water in the tap, the gasoline coming out of the pump and the rest of the essentials we all too easily take for granted are each baroque tapestries of interdependencies. Keeping the lights on involves a whole slew of engineering design, procedures, maintenance, oversight and cooperation all coordinated to a very high degree. These giant systems seem to be invulnerable until a hurricane Katrina comes slamming into them or the earth shakes and for weeks these critical systems suffer disruption. Individuals and families not blindsided by this country’s happy talk might want to minimize their dependency on these systems.

The Age of Exuberance brought high hopes that are now being dashed. If disappointment tests the mettle of a man, as a society the overdeveloped world is finding out just what it is really made of. Life in the time of human overshoot is characterized by particular social stresses. There is an increased competition for a slice of the pie as the population of the middle class shrinks and stalemate becomes more common in democracies as nations can no longer afford to pursue competing political goals. Along with the competition comes antagonisms and along with overcrowding comes a fear of being redundant. All these sociological forces have their roots in ecological changes. Understanding this promotes a compassionate response and inoculates against catching the fevers of the demagogues.

Lacking ecological insight it is all too easy to blame a sinister cabal, the one percent, a hostile government, incompetent bureaucracy or corrupt politicians for our troubles. As the coming century brings a population correction to the human race it will be all too easy to fall prey to the rhetoric of a Caesar selling us a story we want to hear; the American dream was stolen by evil forces, the promise of the enlightenment’s improvement of the human being was perverted by scheming cabals in corporate boardrooms, the nations are again soaking in blood because of greedy warmongers… So what are the key ecological insights by which we might retain some sanity through these troubled times?

First and foremost ecology teaches that everything is interrelated, that there is a universal interdependence among all that lives. We share the same chemical basis, the same DNA information replication mechanisms and many of the same biophysiological pathways that many of our most primitive ancestors used. Mankind can look to the causes and conditions of other life forms for lessons, recognizing there have been numerous precedents of biological communities undergoing succession, exuberance, overshoot and collapse. It is not that we are reaping the rewards of a fatal character flaw but are simply coming to the natural end of a natural process.

Perhaps the second critical insight ecology teaches is that everything is always changing. It always pays to ask ‘and then what?’ Biological communities change through the process of succession. As the population expands the community alters the very environment in which it evolved and paves the way for the next biological communities to succeed. Seeking to maximize GDP as our social goal we accelerate the process of succession whereby we undermine our own habitats capacity to support our species, or more accurately, Homo Colossus.

In my short list of key ecological concepts the third would be that ecosystems are open systems. All living things sustain themselves far from thermodynamic equilibrium by taking some substances from the environment and sending other substance back into it. These exchanges in turn influence other organisms, the outputs becoming inputs in a multitude of recyclings. If the chemical byproducts of one organism are toxic to another their relationship is antagonistic. Smog is antagonistic to trees. Note that ecological antagonism is impersonal; the drivers of the cars creating the smog do not hate the trees. Perhaps this is easier to see in a case where human concerns are not involved. Penicillin is antagonistic to a variety of disease causing bacteria; it is a ‘pollutant’ for the bacteria. Basically anytime the output of a life process seeking its sustenance becomes toxic to another life process the relationship is antagonistic. With this definition in mind it is not difficult to see how it applies to human situations. Animosity arises from interference of populations with one another, even when unintended. There can be valid reasons for antagonistic relationships between human groups without the need for villainy or human perversity. By not recognizing this, overcrowding can become cause for war. The frictions are exacerbated by not recognizing the actual causes and conditions.

As competition increases within an ecosystem there is a tendency towards what is called niche diversification; a sharper differentiation between communities occurs in how they use their habitats. When applying ecological principals to human society it helps to see the wide diversification of human endeavors as if it had created a set of sub-species. The jet setting one-percenter uses our planet very differently than an organic farmer. The butcher, baker and candle stick maker all have unique interactions with their respective habitats. Our modern societies host the result of centuries of social diversification that was built up during the Age of Exuberance. When there was plenty of cheap energy to go around the competition between Wall Street and Main Street remained friendly, the competition between the working class and the needy was colored by charitable ideals, and the competition between generations was a source of good natured pleading and prodding. Remove the abundance of cheap energy to sustain all these relationships and the competition grows more fierce. The ecological antagonism promotes the emotional antagonism.

In addition to increased competition, in Overshoot William Catton speculates that overcrowding also exacerbates a tendency to defend ourselves or our tribe from the fear of being redundant. Most lives in the overdeveloped world are dedicated to the purely anthropomorphic goal of maximizing money and protecting one’s own. There is a gnawing suspicion that one’s life is not contributing to any healthy trends nor is it made meaningful by being dedicated to working for what is greater than oneself or one’s family. As the sense of overcrowding spreads it dawns on each of us that any of us can be replaced by one of our competitors. He writes, italics added, we are “in danger of being considered superfluous … the plight of the unwanted child became potentially everyone’s plight.” In reaction we raise our voices in an anxious attempt to assure ourselves that redundancy applies only to other people. Much radical social activism is implicitly saying ‘it is you, not us, that is superfluous!’ with each group adding their favorite vindictive snarl words; “… You white racists… Black bastards… Fascists pigs…”

The holocaust could prove to be an ominous prelude to what happens when one group declares another to be superfluous, redundant.

Catton’s mention of the unwanted child is darkly prophetic. What do the tragic shootings in schools all across America indicate about the social health of the country? There was another one this week and it has been on my mind. Multiple causes are no doubt in play and any generalization is bound to be a simplification that cannot apply in every case but these caveats should not make us afraid to draw some conclusions. Why would children feel the need to eliminate one another? Might they sense that the future bearing down on them is one of fewer resources where increased crowding and competition shape their destiny? Murder is one way to assert that you are the one life can do without, not me. In a culture willing to burden future generations with unpayable levels of debt, depleted natural resources, and polluted water, air and land is it any surprise that the normal adolescent pain of rejection turns at times into the full tragedy of a violent outburst?

Life under Homo Colossus has perverted society, reshaping it all out of proportion to the human scale. The gigantism of our globalization assures its influence is felt planet wide. On a planet that is not growing larger increasing our numbers is bound to increase the level of antagonism, completion and conflict, all of which will be exacerbated by the desire of the overdeveloped to hang on to what they have and the underdeveloped to achieve full industrialization. A paper was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the dismal news that, as the BBC headline had it, ‘Population controls will not solve environmental issues.’ A team of researchers investigated numerous fertility restriction scenarios to examine what impact they would have on total global population. This is an important question because if you understand the ecological forces in play, curbing fertility rates is the most humane way of bringing our societies back to some form of sustainability. What they found is sobering. The UN released population projections in July of this year based on data up to 2012 and a Bayesian analysis. It found there is an 80% probability that world population will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100. This new research found that restricting fertility is not sufficient to change these population projections substantially. Specifically if the whole world adopted China’s one child policy in 2100 the total would still be between five and ten billion. If there were a global catastrophe mid-century, a war or pandemic that killed two billion people, it would barely make a dent in the trajectory over the next 100 years. We could still expect eight and half billion by 2100.

The take away from this research is very, very pertinent to the message of this blog. While reducing population is the only long term relief from the pressure Homo Colossus is putting on the planet, there is such a large demographic momentum built up that nothing is likely to change the course of the next century.  Curbing our numbers will not help us deal with the environmental problems we are confronting in the short term. Most of the mainstream ecological pundits recommend a rapid transition to lower fertility rates as the best way of dealing with the increased impact of our rising affluence and consumption. This is said to be the way towards sustainability. It is a welcome solution in which the consumer paradise can continue, the economics of continual growth do not need to be fundamentally reworked and green corporations pursuing business as usual in the free markets are said to be sufficient for dealing with the ecological crises. This new research puts these dated ideas out to pasture. The only lever that remains for actually lessening the human impact on the environment on a timeline that will make a difference is to cut back on our consumption. This is not an easy sell since for most people a diminishing affluence brings with it a diminished sense of identity as well.

Twelve billion humans by 2100. Really? Ask yourself if you think this is the most probable outcome for the next few generations or does your gut tell you it is highly unlikely, that something will intervene between now and then? This would be an example of an ecological limit, a complex reaction from the living world that acts as a negative feedback on human population. Next week we will look at this, our next major ecological concept, limits to growth. They spell the end of Homo Colossus.

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