Friday, February 23, 2018

How did it get like this?

A human population approaching 8 billion can be maintained only if wild habitat is given over to human cultivation and habitation, if rain forests can be turned into green deserts, if genetic engineering enables ever higher yields to be extorted from the thinning soils – then humans will have created for themselves a new geological era, the Eremozoic, the era of solitude, in which little remains on the earth but themselves and the prosthetic environment that keeps them alive. —  John Gray

After Ea, the wise, had created mankind, [he] imposed upon them the service of the gods–  That work was beyond comprehension; Mesopotamian creation myth. Tablet VI paragraph 40

When I was around 10 or 11, it dawned on me that there was something wrong with the way those of us who lived in my all-white middle-class suburb of Nashville went about our lives.  Our houses were immaculate with interior design “motifs”, our 1.5 acre yards were just as immaculate, decks were always going up, extensions added, garages turned into workshops, fresh coats of paint at the first sign of cracks; all set off by gleaming automobiles with clout.  To keep it that way, moms and dads devoted big chunks of every weekend to riding miniature tractors and hauling wheelbarrows full of stuff hither and yon.

However, every weekday morning, all the men and many of the women abandoned those oases of comfort to spend most of their prime daylight hours in offices.  Aside from the fact that the work appeared to be repugnantly uninteresting to an 11-year-old, it also began to seem extraordinarily absurd that these adults spent so little time hanging out in those works of art with massive mortgages and massive middle-class symbolism.  To my way of thinking, the whole business easily qualified as an “Emperor’s new clothes” scenario.

I have always liked working, even then, but I remember thinking there should be a choice.  Work less and have less but have more time, not to mention energy, to enjoy what you have.  My youthful reasoning was simplistic: I took note of the daily mass desertion of my suburban neighborhoods and wondered if that was truly how people wanted to live.

Whatever the reason for working for things we can only enjoy sporadically, an enormous feature of such a life becomes the acquisition of stuff, a pursuit that most of us believe does no harm.  But the demand for the world to spend its resources producing consumer goods for billions of the globe’s better-heeled serves to drain the life out of our earthly home.  It now seems to me that these are not the separate choices of billions of individuals; the phenomenon is so widespread that it makes more sense to look at it as a choice being made by the species as a whole.

In an attempt to make sense of how civilized humanity got itself into this predicament, I have tried bring in for consideration the entire 200+ millennia of our earthly tenure.  The microscopic view we customarily take of our present selves commonly references only the last few hundred years as a context for understanding.  The broader or “deep time” view yields a portrait of humans as biological beings, inseparable from and dependent upon the natural world to a degree that most of us do not comprehend.

Artist rendering of Paleolithic times

We speak about Paleolithic humans in terms that convey a portrait of a species continually adapting to survive, like all other sentient beings.  Indeed, Homo sapiens came close to extinction a time or two in our history. Given the scarcity of remnants of their lives, pretty much all we can say now about Homo sapiens of the deep past includes phenomena such as migrations, major cultural shifts, trade, conflict, and diet, all in the context of climate variations.  We attribute what we find largely to a picture of a species that was extremely resourceful, ambitious, and possessing the capacity for violence exceeding that of all its co-inhabitants.  But we also know such a perspective can’t possibly fully and fairly characterize the species.  After all, skulls with adze heads embedded in them will remain identifiable thousands of years longer than any signs of human warmth, such as a nibble on the earlobe.

Today, the unquestioned operational assumption of civilized and incurably biological human beings is that the earth, its non-human inhabitants, and its not-yet-civilized human inhabitants are ours to do with as we see best.  The “underdeveloped” peoples are, more often than not, happy to oblige. The Western life looks mighty good on TV, and economic opportunities in the less developed world are diminishing as wealthy nations and corporations disrupt the ancient trade and social networks and control more and more vital resources, even down to crop seeds.

Before we vaulted to the top of the food chain, our self-concept would have reflected a more modest niche among our fellow creatures; Homo sapiens was just another species, with probably less impact on the environment than beavers, and occupied less lofty rungs on the evolutionary ladder for a span of time that renders minuscule the time since we became kings and queens of the hill.  The awe-inspiring paintings in the caves of southwestern France and northeastern Spain seem to make clear that 30,000 years ago humans revered many creatures they knew well.  In fact, we may have considered ourselves not as important as cave lions, aurochses, horses, or bison, even after learning how to hunt and prevail against those animals.  It is striking to compare the brilliantly rendered cave paintings of humans’ fellow creatures with the spindly, stick-figure (and rare) depictions of human beings.  Continual direct contact and interactions within the natural world would have brought about an inter-species intimacy that now is beyond the grasp of most of us in the civilized world.

Sometime before 10,000 years ago, and later on accelerated by religiosity, Homo sapiens began to think of ourselves as occupying a unique place among all living beings. Impressed by our imagination, intelligence, and inventiveness, we began to separate ourselves from other earthly creatures and to look at ourselves as being able to consciously follow a path outside the natural order of things.

These days, instead of moving into virgin territory in continuous geographic expansion, Homo sapiens achieves the same end through unrelenting economic expansion. Population growth is slowing, but shows no sign of stopping. The forces that aim to bring the planet under human control gain ground daily. Almost no one questions the wisdom of our current trajectory, even though we know that a collapse of the ecosystem will render the planet virtually uninhabitable for us. More clearly than anything else, this non-questioning betrays the bedrock assumption that the world exists to benefit a single species.  This assumption is at the core of many of the unsolvable dilemmas that humankind believes we can solve.

The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialization, Western civilization or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation. – John Gray 

Recently we’ve learned that as Homo sapiens spread across the planet, our arrival to all corners of it coincided with the disappearance from those regions of all species of megafauna and all other hominids.  For at least 50,000 years, we have used and abused the land and its inhabitants to whatever degree we deemed necessary for our survival and comfort. Significant exceptions occurred in areas of the Americas and Asia, where humans did achieve a stable balance with the natural world.

The dilemmas we face should not be looked at as issues of conservationists vs. developers, liberal vs. conservative, or developed world vs. developing world because both sides to all those polarities subscribe to the same axiom: taking steps to modify aspects of the world that we find uncomfortable is self-evidently good.

The side effects of our control long ago attained the status of serious problems in their own right, with which we have always coped by grafting on layers of technology. Examples are legion.  Sometime after a Monsanto-developed herbicide began to be used with corn genetically modified to tolerate it, “super-weeds” developed resistance to it and spread quickly. Monsanto’s solution was to apply for approval to engineer new herbicides to use against the super-weeds; meanwhile, those farmers with the super-weeds are using more herbicide than ever.

Pigweed, a tough plant to kill

In Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that our evolutionary success was so rapid, that when we reached the top of the food chain our sense of who we are in the world had not kept up. Our species internalized a sense of entitlement as impermeable as a diamond, while in fact still occupying a very early stage of our evolution.  He says,

Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle.  For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators.…  [Relatively quickly] Homo sapiens… jumped to the top of the food chain.…  Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years.…  This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc.  As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better… In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust.  Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust.  Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence.  Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator.  Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savanna, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.

In his book, Half Earth, EO Wilson nails The Nature Conservancy for adopting a business-friendly approach to minimize big industry’s environmental destruction.  Wilson identifies them and others as “new conservationists”, who are blithely telling us that wilderness is destined for extinction and we might as well get used to it.   A part of me likes partnerships between conservationists and industrialists. But their strategies include assigning monetary values to natural resources and landscapes.  For example, a few thousand acres of trees will absorb a factory’s CO2 emissions, eliminating the necessity of installing and maintaining filtration systems to do the same thing.  Planting trees uses more land and takes a lot longer to implement but would save money in the long run.  It’s a really good idea. However, the large corporation of today pays most of its attention to global shareholders and not to the communities that are home to its corporate components. If and when the company’s fortune slips, its shareholders, most having no personal connection with affected communities, will lose all patience with a green agenda.

A far more disturbing implication of monetizing the benefits nature confers upon industry’s bottom line is that it commoditizes the natural world.  In their pursuit of laudable goals, the new conservationists are using the strategies best suited for combating destructive development.  But, the unintended consequence of commoditizing anything is to alter the human relationship with it. Consider “mindfulness”: it has become available for purchase in the marketplace during the last 30 years. Imagine the difference between receiving meditation through a rite of initiation charged with resonance and meaning to paying for an online course.  Such a difference in the introduction of meditation is bound to influence the meditator’s ongoing relationship with the practice of mindfulness.


Large, contemporary cities that are said to be “thriving” are doing so by devoting their downtown areas primarily to luxury chain stores and townhouses, fancy restaurants, and tourist havens. Many small business owners have been forced to close as consumers move to volume-discounted big-box stores.  Small business owners and employees everywhere have migrated from inner-city, small-scale, entrepreneurial endeavors to low-wage employment in the service of high-end operations.  As for small cities and towns, in one generation their inner cores became irrelevant.  Everywhere, town centers are home to nail salons, karate studios, pizza joints, and rows and columns of boarded-up windows.  Commerce has moved to the town outskirts and consists largely of big retail stores, with the profits wired to the Caymans.


Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was profiled by the New Yorker a few years ago. He came across as a bland character, lacking moral compass but not a bad person. Already one of the top retailers in the world, he nevertheless finds it necessary to rely on predatory labor policies, including hiring and then laying off temporary workers just before they are scheduled to begin receiving benefits, only to rehire them at a later point.  According to the International Business Times, “Amazon’s productivity numbers are apparently purposely designed to be unattainable for most workers so that employees feel that they are falling down on the job and push harder to hit the impracticable levels.”  All so Amazon can offer the “best customer experience”, as if browsing webpages and typing in your credit card information is comparable to, say, ziplining through a rain forest.  It seems Amazon is highly regarded by most Americans; the cultural domination by consumer-oriented priorities is now programmed into our credo, assumed to be not just a good thing, but indispensable to our very survival.

We lay the blame on a variety of heads.  But the way in which our ancient rapaciousness now shows itself, among others, is in ignoring the inconvenient.  Nowhere is that clearer than in our identities as consumers.  We put less value on quality and more on price than did our immediate ancestors, hardly considering what goes into a product’s making. We have become acculturated to paying as little as possible for almost all things, and to feel foolish if we don’t.

For too many years, I was among the millions of Americans who could afford to buy from locally owned businesses and yet ventured to the big-box stores to pay less.  In contrast, my father-in-law drove Studebakers that he bought from the dealer in his Iowa hometown.  When the dealer changed to Dodge, my father-in-law drove Dodges.  The practice of supporting communities in that way has become quaint, at least where I live.

The benefits of volume merchandising may include lower prices for consumers at the cash register, but public assistance for big-box store employees, the loss of locally owned businesses and retail jobs, and the deflation of a community’s morale with its concomitant, well documented rise in crime comprise incalculable cost.  Our “standard of living” has become the appearance of our former standard of living; an illusion, kept afloat by the willful ignorance of the impact our pursuit of cheap goods is having on us, not to mention the world, right now.

… At the cost of a few hundred dollars I can fly this afternoon from St. Louis to California.  It means hiding the cost of pollution.  It means hiding the cost of our wars for oil.  When I hold my computer gizmo in my hand, I tend not to see the suicide nets around the factories in China where it was made nor the poison heaps of computer waste in Africa where it will eventually go.  Nor do I see the mountains leveled for coal in Kentucky to power its wonderfully pixilated screen. — Clint Stevens

Most of us do interact with our smartphones without a thought for the topless Kentucky mountains. Likewise, we do not allow ourselves to fully comprehend that every purchase at a Best Buy, Walmart, Costco, Amazon, etc., pays for a nail in a boarded-up window in some desolate town center. Incidentally, all my friends use Amazon, and they are all superb specimens of humanity.  But it is largely our obsession with rock-bottom prices that sent manufacturing overseas, destroyed the economic backbone of countless communities, transformed high-wage manufacturing jobs into low-wage service industry jobs, and helped to concentrate more and more money and political clout in the hands of folks focused primarily on this quarter’s sales numbers.

Driverless “zip” car

We have faith that technology will fix all our problems, including ones we don’t have.  Consider driverless cars.  I suppose the rationale is that they will make our highways safer and free us to do something aside from driving, like put in more work hours from the car or pay more attention to our electronic devices.  Imagine for a moment the systems that will be needed to knit the worldwide network of driverless cars, incorporating weather data, with tracking, monitoring and surveillance systems, entertainment and social media, and layers of security software.  It boggles the mind.  How long will it take before that system becomes integrally woven into the structures that support us and joins the list of systems that must be maintained as a matter of national security?


It may surprise you to hear that recently my opinions of humanity have improved considerably. I’ve come to believe that we are doing the best we can, considering the stage of our evolution. In the same way my beloved cat kills chipmunks even when she’s not hungry because that’s where her entire evolution has brought her, humans remain wired to classify difference as “other” and to regard “others” as expendable risks. Given our track record, to believe we have arrived at the pinnacle of our evolution is to consign ourselves to oblivion.

Are we able to imagine an earth where Homo sapiens have taken our place alongside all created beings, rather than seeking dominion over them and each other?  Thus far, the accelerating loss of our animal co-inhabitants saddens us, but we see their unintended extinctions as an unfortunate byproduct of human destiny.  At the same time, contemplating an Earth without human beings leaves me sick at heart. Human creativity, joy, humor, compassion, pathos, not to mention human understanding and awe of the miraculous fact of existence, is something vital to the species. We are nature’s missing piece, the part of the whole whose job it is to serve as the creation’s awareness of itself and to bestow meaning upon the entire show.

What are the chances that natural selection could enlarge our sense of clan and diminish the insecure tendency to protect through domination whatever status in the human world our tribe has attained?  Or will our instinctive press for advantage simply perpetuate itself?  We may attempt genetic shortcuts to create a more peaceable Homo sapiens, should the opportunity arise and should somebody with the means become convinced of the idea’s wisdom.  But we will never be able to predict what such attempts to alter fundamental aspects of human existence will produce; it is certain to generate the unanticipated, needing somehow to be managed, and just as certain to be misused.

Today, for the mass of humanity, science and technology embody “miracle, mystery and authority”. Science promises that the most ancient human fantasies will at last be realized. Sickness and aging will be abolished, scarcity and poverty will be no more, the species will become immortal. Like Christianity in the past, modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles. But to think that science can transform the human lot is to believe in magic. Even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war. — John Gray

We have seen what happens when the creature at the top of the food chain remains unchecked. Human beings may eventually do a better job, but this first go at finding a cosmological role has tanked. We may slow it down, but no counter-force exists that is capable of stemming the forces that drive the destruction of our environment’s capacity to sustain us in the manner to which we are accustomed.  Even so, we cannot destroy the planet or all life, and probably won’t succeed at extinguishing our own species, given our resilience.  5 million years from now, Earth will have a new slate of creatures, no doubt along with many that we know well.  5 million years may give us enough time.

I will take blood and fashion bone. I will establish a savage, ‘man’ shall be his name. truly, savage-man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease!  Mesopotamian creation myth. Tablet VI paragraph 10. 

Use Echo to switch on the lamp before getting out of bed, turn on the fan or space heater while reading in your favorite chair, or dim the lights from the couch to watch a movie—all without lifting a finger.  Amazon.

Amazon, Inc.  Echo product information.  Https://
Gray, John N.  Straw dogs, thoughts on humans and other animals.  New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; 2002.  245 pp.
Harari, Yuval Noah.  Sapiens: a brief history of humankind.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 2015.  440 pp.
Speiser, E.A, et al, translators.  Ancient near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.  3rd Edition.   Mesopotamian creation myth.  Prichard, James, editor.  Princeton.  1969.
Stevens, Clint.  Let alone.  Dark Mountain, issue #6.  United Kingdom: Dark Mountain Project; 2014.
Wilson, EO.  Half Earth, our planet’s fight for life.  New York: WW Norton & Company, 2016.  259 pp.
Young, Angelo.  Amazon’s Workers Are Low-Paid, Overworked and Unhappy; Is This the New Employee Model for the Internet Age?  International Business Times.  New York: Newsweek Media Group; December 19, 2013.
.The Impact Of Big-Box Retailers On Communities, a collection of research findings published on, a website maintained by Harvard Kennedy School agencies.

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  1. Charles Coe 4 months ago

    A calm and clear-headed, and at the same impassioned, meditation on where we are as a species, how we got here and what we might do next. More from this writer, please…

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