Strong evidence that humanity is capable of preventing global environmental disaster

Illustration for article titled Strong evidence that humanity is capable of preventing global environmental disaster

Over at Orion Magazine, 1491 and 1493 author Charles C. Mann has an incredible longread essay about all the reasons why humanity might be doomed — and all the reasons why we might not be. He offers us a broad, engaging look at human evolution in the context of other invasive species (yes, we are one of those), noting that most of those species overreached their bounds and died out. Are humans destined for the same demise? Mann doesn't think so. And he offers some incredibly compelling evidence that humanity has what it takes to turn this ship around and go on another path. In this excerpt he explains why it's not foolish to imagine we could unite as a global culture to prevent environmental ruin and the end of our species.


Below is the TL;DR version of Mann's essay. If you want the full, magnificent sweep of his ideas (and a lovely afternoon of contemplation), I recommend you go straight to his essay at Orion.

Here's what he has to say:

To get [Robinson] Crusoe on his unlucky voyage, [Daniel] Defoe made him an officer on a slave ship, transporting captured Africans to South America. Today, no writer would make a slave seller the admirable hero of a novel. But in 1720, when Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, no readers said boo about Crusoe's occupation, because slavery was the norm from one end of the world to another. Rules and names differed from place to place, but coerced labor was everywhere, building roads, serving aristocrats, and fighting wars. Slaves teemed in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Ming China. Unfree hands were less common in continental Europe, but Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands happily exploited slaves by the million in their American colonies. Few protests were heard; slavery had been part of the fabric of life since the code of Hammurabi.

Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind's most enduring institutions, almost vanished.

The sheer implausibility of this change is staggering. In 1860, slaves were, collectively, the single most valuable economic asset in the United States, worth an estimated $3 billion, a vast sum in those days (and about $10 trillion in today's money). Rather than investing in factories like northern entrepreneurs, southern businessmen had sunk their capital into slaves. And from their perspective, correctly so-masses of enchained men and women had made the region politically powerful, and gave social status to an entire class of poor whites. Slavery was the foundation of the social order. It was, thundered John C. Calhoun, a former senator, secretary of state, and vice president, "instead of an evil, a good-a positive good." Yet just a few years after Calhoun spoke, part of the United States set out to destroy this institution, wrecking much of the national economy and killing half a million citizens along the way.

Incredibly, the turn against slavery was as universal as slavery itself. Great Britain, the world's biggest human trafficker, closed down its slave operations in 1808, though they were among the nation's most profitable industries. The Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal soon followed. Like stars winking out at the approach of dawn, cultures across the globe removed themselves from the previously universal exchange of human cargo. Slavery still exists here and there, but in no society anywhere is it formally accepted as part of the social fabric.

Historians have provided many reasons for this extraordinary transition. But one of the most important is that abolitionists had convinced huge numbers of ordinary people around the world that slavery was a moral disaster. An institution fundamental to human society for millennia was swiftly dismantled by ideas and a call to action, loudly repeated.

In the last few centuries, such profound changes have occurred repeatedly. Since the beginning of our species, for instance, every known society has been based on the domination of women by men. (Rumors of past matriarchal societies abound, but few archaeologists believe them.) In the long view, women's lack of liberty has been as central to the human enterprise as gravitation is to the celestial order. The degree of suppression varied from time to time and place to place, but women never had an equal voice; indeed, some evidence exists that the penalty for possession of two X chromosomes increased with technological progress. Even as the industrial North and agricultural South warred over the treatment of Africans, they regarded women identically: in neither half of the nation could they attend college, have a bank account, or own property. Equally confining were women's lives in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Nowadays women are the majority of U.S. college students, the majority of the workforce, and the majority of voters. Again, historians assign multiple causes to this shift in the human condition, rapid in time, staggering in scope. But one of the most important was the power of ideas-the voices, actions, and examples of suffragists, who through decades of ridicule and harassment pressed their case. In recent years something similar seems to have occurred with gay rights: first a few lonely advocates, censured and mocked; then victories in the social and legal sphere; finally, perhaps, a slow movement to equality.

Less well known, but equally profound: the decline in violence. Foraging societies waged war less brutally than industrial societies, but more frequently. Typically, archaeologists believe, about a quarter of all hunters and gatherers were killed by their fellows. Violence declined somewhat as humans gathered themselves into states and empires, but was still a constant presence. When Athens was at its height in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, it was ever at war: against Sparta (First and Second Peloponnesian Wars, Corinthian War); against Persia (Greco-Persian Wars, Wars of the Delian League); against Aegina (Aeginetan War); against Macedon (Olynthian War); against Samos (Samian War); against Chios, Rhodes, and Cos (Social War).

In this respect, classical Greece was nothing special-look at the ghastly histories of China, sub-Saharan Africa, or Mesoamerica. Similarly, early modern Europe's wars were so fast and furious that historians simply gather them into catchall titles like the Hundred Years' War, followed by the shorter but even more destructive Thirty Years' War. And even as Europeans and their descendants paved the way toward today's concept of universal human rights by creating documents like the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Europe remained so mired in combat that it fought two conflicts of such massive scale and reach they became known as "world" wars.

Since the Second World War, however, rates of violent death have fallen to the lowest levels in known history. Today, the average person is far less likely to be slain by another member of the species than ever before-an extraordinary transformation that has occurred, almost unheralded, in the lifetime of many of the people reading this article. As the political scientist Joshua Goldstein has written, "we are winning the war on war." Again, there are multiple causes. But Goldstein, probably the leading scholar in this field, argues that the most important is the emergence of the United Nations and other transnational bodies, an expression of the ideas of peace activists earlier in the last century.

As a relatively young species, we have an adolescent propensity to make a mess: we pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink, and appear stalled in an age of carbon dumping and nuclear experimentation that is putting countless species at risk including our own. But we are making undeniable progress nonetheless. No European in 1800 could have imagined that in 2000 Europe would have no legal slavery, women would be able to vote, and gay people would be able to marry. No one could have guessed a continent that had been tearing itself apart for centuries would be free of armed conflict, even amid terrible economic times . . .

Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself . . . would require a still greater transformation-behavioral plasticity of the highest order-because we would be pushing against biological nature itself . . . But is it so unlikely that our species would be able to do exactly that?

I can imagine [biologist Lynn] Margulis's response: You're imagining our species as some sort of big-brained, hyperrational, benefit-cost-calculating computer! A better analogy is the bacteria at our feet! Still, Margulis would be the first to agree that removing the shackles from women and slaves has begun to unleash the suppressed talents of two-thirds of the human race. Drastically reducing violence has prevented the waste of countless lives and staggering amounts of resources. Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn't use those talents and those resources to draw back before the abyss?

Our record of success is not that long. In any case, past successes are no guarantee of the future. But it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it.

This is the incredible conclusion to Mann's careful, intelligent (and funny) essay. If you want to get the full flow of his ideas, you must read his entire essay at Orion Magazine.


Corpore Metal

To me what's more impressive here is not necessarily Mann's brilliance, although I'm sure he's a really smart guy, it's his recollections of Margulis' brilliance. Pretty much how she'd say something that seemed rather preposterous to a non-scientist—the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out for example—and then systematically lay out all the reasons and evidence for why her first statement was true. She was damned smart, that one!

Having said that, I think I take Mann's point here. Margulis, as a biologist who pretty much revolutionized classification, cladistics, taxonomy and pretty nearly all of biology over the last century, was overlooking the role of culture and intelligence. In one sense she was completely right to point out that it's the genes and bacteria the real success stories on this rock and that brains and culture are largely surface detail.

But at the same time Mann is right these things are game changers. They work on a new level with different rules and as such shouldn't be so quickly dismissed.

Really when you think about it. Most of the worst problems we face are ones entirely of our own making. We invented poverty. We invented overcrowding. We invented war. We invented environmental change.

And let me explain that one in a bit more detail. Yes, there are examples of sudden reversals to the environment caused by biology. I think the best example would be the emergence of photosynthesis, which pretty much wiped out the anaerobic ecosystem that existed in the reducing atmosphere of the early Earth.

But what we do is different. The moment we use tools we are changing the environment. Now, there are many large brained critters that do this, but we take it much, much, much further. And therein we generate a whole new set of problems that never existed before. As such we are our own worst enemy.

Which I can see as a sign of hopefulness. It's our thinking that got us into these messes. It's our thinking that will get us out.

And it's really only us that are the real drag here. The mere fact that we have to overturn decades or centuries of social inertia to change things only points out that we made all that social inertia in the first place. Once again we are our own worst enemy.