Humans and their environment

So here I am back on the blog again. (What do you mean you didn’t notice I was gone? :) To jump back in with both feet, how about I write about climate change?

Recently I ran across this press release about the work of a couple of scientists who have suggested that human influence on global climate might go back much further than the Industrial Revolution. The press release covers a recent paper that follows up on earlier work suggesting that early agriculture was so much more land-intensive than current agriculture that its slash-and-burn practices might well have had an impact on the global climate. Today’s farming methods are much more efficient, so the amount of land under cultivation has dropped, allowing some reforestation (on the other hand, of course, Big Agriculture is also a big user of fossil fuels). Bottom line is that we may have been tweaking the atmosphere long before we started burning coal and so forth.

Our general effect on the environment, in fact, probably goes back even further. This story from Weekend Edition on NPR covers some of the intended and unintended consequences of the activities of groups of early hunter-gatherers. Although part of the message is that we’ve been ingenious enough to make our lives easier and help ourselves survive and thrive in ever greater numbers, the other part is that we sometimes caused big messes even back then.

Finally, here is an editorial from Cosmos Magazine about whether certain aspects of human nature work against vigorous action to address climate change. The argument is that our evolutionary history and culturally based beliefs and practices combine to make it difficult for us to work together to solve a large, complex long-term problem. I am a little leery of any argument that involves a set view of human nature based on evolution, for a number of reasons, but however we got to be this way, it certainly is common (although certainly not universal) for us to put self-interest ahead of the greater good and to ignore the long term in favor of right now. The author offers some suggestions for how to work around these problems in addressing climate change. Some of them seem like good ideas to me, and I’m all for using rationality over instinct and tradition, but I’m not sure how much time we have to learn about “our genetic makeup and why we feel powerless to act” before we have to somehow just gather up our ingenuity and actually take strong, concerted, collective action.

2 Comments

  1. One perspective is that these are not problems but in fact god’s way. Evolution doesn’t dictate that the best species will arise, as “best” depends on the ecological niche which is to be filled. Niches exist only as an interaction between species (complex feedback). So all that god can optimize for is NOW. The survival of this generation.

    Of course, we may be making a future which won’t select for talking apes. But god doesn’t mind. This is the way of things.

  2. I was struck by the same articles and the idea that humans will likely fail to avert the coming climate catastrophe because we’re too dull-witted to grasp future threats. We’re only hairless monkeys, after all. (It’s amazing we’ve gotten this far).

    It’s good to have you back!

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