I happened to watch a video on YouTube recently. It is a stand-up comedy by George Carlin in which he digs on environmentalists (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eScDfYzMEEw). There is a part in the video where he raps “Our planet’s been through a lot worse than us. it’s been through Volcanoes, Earthquakes, plate tectonics, continental drifts, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic waves, recurring ice ages and we think…..some plastic bags” well, sure I was laughing, not at the uncertainty as it is intended but the irony. Plastics can alter our environment in future not far less than the entire geographical and astronomical phenomenon he has mentioned, considering the massive scale it’s been produced.
And human meddling do not stop with plastics, of course, no animal that has ever lived this planet has burnt fossil fuels, unearthed metals, carried out nuclear reactions, introduced invasive species, transmitted radio waves. Sparing the mining every activity that has been mentioned above are hardly two centuries old and mining has never been up to this extent before last couple of centuries, not to mention the explosive population outgrowth which underlies all these. Commenting on the consequences,what we know might as well be just a fraction, for we still not have achieved comprehensive understanding of ecological interrelationship. Effect of radio waves on sparrows is one thing, true or untrue that doesn’t essentially make them harmless. Resting there unknown might be a thousand consequences; and timespan of fifty years is miniscule looking from evolutionary timescale for sensitive organisms to possibly evolve, bacteria perhaps might.
While looking at human activities affecting and altering the environment, one must be aware that we are looking at activities of a species first and possibly the only to attain complete consciousness. With the dawning of consciousness we started contemplating and ‘man’ipulating our activities. The first alterations apparently are done in favor of our own species, the very reason for it to have evolved, to defy food chain. We destroyed, conned, fought back all those above us, and our food, in the food chain. So we not only freed ourselves from the food chain but invigorated a whole new artificial, invincible ecosystem,an ecosystem which enjoys our superior cerebral ability, only until they end up in our mouth or meet any other utility.
A familiar argument is that humans are not the only to alter the environment, starting from corals, beavers the list goes on. In fact according to Gaia theory each species has equal effect on its environment as vice versa. Equal is the word to be noted here. Moreover after the attainment of consciousness our evolution has been cultural rather than genetic. Cultural evolution is too fast an evolution for nature to usurp any suitable balance, i.e. a feasible and enduring one.Beavers would have taken hundreds of generations of behavioral evolution to learn to dam water, this is just about enough time span for nature to adapt itself, find a balance; humans did it within a generation.
I don’t mean to be pessimistic in my views on human evolution; I am more than convinced,thanks to haunting images from the opening sequence of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey which reached to me better than thousand spoken words,that human species are perhaps the hardiest mammal to ever live on this planet. We have been through hardships worse than any selective pressures that have shaped other animals around us. The opening scenes of the movie lead to a hard day’s night with an ancestral hominid tribe settling on a shelter rock nothing but eerie silence (in contrast with night time symphony of rainforest) to accompany them. They sit vigilant, pathetic and sleepless as if waiting for some miracle to happen. Well it did, not the mysterious alien monolith as movie conjures but eventual evolution of higher level consciousness or meta-representation.
|A shot from the movie|
This higher level consciousness here is a tricky thing to possess, that as a species we don’t have someone as a forerunner, we are. Looking at evolution of life forms one would realise that evolution of consciousness is not a random event but a result of a number of evolutionary coincidences,starting with early primates evolving to grab, instead of gripping, as a way of arboreal locomotion. Locomotion by grabbing requires physiological adaptions like opposable thumbs, flat nails, extended limbs and so on, but just as important are visual adaptations such as binocular vision, to judge distance accurately. These visual adaptations involve more visual processing in the brain thus prompting evolution of larger brains. Primates’ food habit leads them to form social groups (here I would like readers to refer my previous article). Social groups along with larger brains would promote cultural knowledge; cultural knowledge in turn promotes larger brains. An individual with more cultural knowledge can easily work its way up the social hierarchy gaining more chances of reproduction thus sexually selecting larger, smarter brains. These reasons made primates the brainiest group of animals. Giving up their complete arboreal lifestyle larger apes tended to grow in body mass; this required them to possess greater cultural knowledge to satisfy their appetite further boosting larger, smarter brains.
Thus it can be concluded that evolution of consciousness is a continuation of neurophysiological evolution which started almost 65 million years ago from ancestral species ‘purgatorius’. Our ancestors 7 million years ago turned out to be the right species at right time in a right place (wrong place perhaps!) to give way for evolution of consciousness. While other large apes stand as possible candidates no other group of animals living or ever lived are known to be eligible for evolution of consciousness.
Discussing above why human beings are the only to gain consciousness, we have reason to consider this phenomenon an evolutionary anomaly. Altering the environment to accommodate ourselves is something like eating up from one’s own bakery, bad business, and what’s worse we have raised a whole civilization on it. Nature cannot provide indefinitely if not given enough time to adapt itself for us. This raises the question where to draw the line? An honest answer would be 52,000 BP when we had successfully survived competition of savannah and an ice age that followed. But until 1800’s our environment has been more or less stable regardless of human activity as it’s always been limited to the extent of man or domesticated animal power.
As we have seen before, last 200 years of industrialization commencing with invention of fossil fuels have propelled man to his exploitative disposition. Industrialization while hasn’t made, either spiritually or physically, life any easier for the majority, has brought resources exploiting nature which would support population more liberally. These resources are brought to us not using man power but bringing dormant subterranean energy sources of long lost ecosystem into active energy system, in case of fossil fuels. In other words, we take more than what we give with the help of newly invented artificial energy sources, something which nature has never confronted.
Nature always finds a balance and is never going to collapse, but it is as delicate and complex as it is strong and self-healing. In times of crisis it does not hesitate to trade off certain species to resurrect the balance and this is where an environmentalist’s concern lies. Western mind sees that concern as man’s moral responsibility, the stewardship man has over life on earth, a view their religion proposes. While I think this view is not a bad one to have,I am not in favor of the idea that man has stewardship over other life forms. I think the very consciousness itself is a boon to have, that it must yield awareness of its activities. This is, of course, not my personal philosophy but one we’ve had for thousands of years. As we are aware, we must try to regulate our influence on nature and negate every unusual activity.We don’t have sixth sense for nothing,my grandma used to say.
For those who think saving species by controlling human activity does not make any sense awaits a bad news. Losing certain species would collapse our ecosystem that nature would dare retaining the balance at the expense of losing us. This we don’t mean as a doomsday spook but a slow downhill for us as a species and nature would still maintain its balance. Going at the current rate of CO2 emission, by 2050 AD the projected CO2 level in the atmosphere will be so high, which at last stable environmental equivalence point had the seas rise up to 300 feet above current sea level, are we ready for this?. And this is just one of thousand reasons threatening us that environmentalists cry for.
It is easy to be ignorant and continue to be destructive but beware as George Carlin funnily puts it “the world would shake us off like a bad case of fleas”.