Human Mortality: Individual and Collective
It has been a major triumph of human civilization: Never before in evolutionary history has a species lifted itself from Darwin’s Struggle for Existence, and created a safe, secure environment in which a majority of individuals may expect to live out a full life expectancy and die of old age. You and I take for granted that aging is the greatest hurdle that we face in our quest to live a long, long time. Let’s hope this is true.
Let’s do more than hope. Let’s remember that aging evolved in order to keep ecosystems in balance, to keep populations from outgrowing their resources. If we are at the forefront of the movement to extend individual life span, we must also be at the forefront of a movement to lower birth rates and shrink the human footprint.
Me, my and mine: The Human Species and the Terrible Twos
Before we learned empathy, before we learned to share and to wait our turn, before we learned to provide for others and to trust that our needs would be provided in turn—we were Terrible Two-year-olds. Everything was me, my and mine.
Before humanity, Gaia was a diverse and wondrous beast, a many-headed Hydra, with different local faces in mountain and forest and desert and ocean environments, every acre a unique ecosystem.
Henry David Thoreau spoke of teaching the earth to say “beans” instead of “grass” — “this was my daily work.” The history of humanity on this planet has been to divert the Earth’s primary productivity from the diverse cycles and epicycles in the tangled bank that is nature, to align the primary productivity in the service of man, to feed and clothe and house us, to provide our comfort and transportation and amusement.
As humans spread out of Africa some 60,000 or was it 200,000) years ago, every place that we appeared, the charismatic megafauna would disappear, and humans would replace them at the top of the food chain. Giant bears in Europe, Giant Sloths in South America, Mastodons and Sabre Tooth Tigers in North America, Great Awks in Iceland, 7-foot Kangaroos and 3-ton Wombats in Australia, 8-foot Moas in New Zealand (the original Big Bird). All the largest animals that thought they were safe from predation succumbed to the chiseled flint spearheads and the clever tricks and traps of small bands of humans. Ecosystems were made over in our service.
For thousands of years, we humans thought only of me, my and mine. We understood that as we domesticated the planet there would be victims. There are winners and losers in the game of life. It is our mission, our destiny to make sure we are among the former.
Recent centuries have seen an acceleration of this process, impressive increases in the conversion of grass to beans. Hunting and gathering yielded to agriculture, then factory farms. Monoculture has replaced the tangled bank. Greater triumphs for humanity, greater losses for the lower plants and animals that we displace.
We all live in artificial environments, “Little we see in nature that is ours,” wrote Wordsworth over 200 years ago, and I daresay he never saw Walmarts or even Manhattan. We take a moment to remember the plight of the dying birds and the frogs, the poor frogs – the world’s amphibian populations have been disappearing at the rate of more than 3% per year. We miss nature, we truly do, but we imagine all the same that their loss is our gain. Man is no longer dependent on the ecosystem that birthed us. We can live in an engineered world. We will cover the Earth with farms and factories and housing, and human life will go on, even if what we know as Nature is dead as a Dodo.
What if it isn’t true? What if human life is more dependent on a functioning ecosystem than is apparent? We are already coping with a precipitous decline in pollinating insects by renting out mobile beehives to our farmlands. We don’t really know to what extent our farms are dependent on the ambient ecology. Bacterial communities recycle carcasses into nutrients. Wetland ecologies purify water. Oceans buffer our atmosphere.
California grows half of the produce consumed in the United States, and continues to do so by mining a fossil water table which is down 40 feet in the last 40 years. The American Midwest is the breadbasket not just for the US of A, but for much of the world; and there a rich layer of topsoil, laid down over tens of thousands of years, is being washed into the Mississippi in a few decades.
Putting a dollar value on “ecosystem services” may be an absurdity, but here is a study that sought to catalog some of the value of Nature, and stopped when they got to a number that was twice the economic output of the entire world.
We don’t know how much we can grow or how many people we can support on this planet sustainably, because we’ve never tried. But there has been one small-scale experiment that may be instructive. In the late 1980s, visionary scientists constructed Biosophere II [link] in the Arizona desert. It was conceived as a self-contained microcosm of Planet Earth (re-named “Biosophere I”), complete with farmlands, forest, wetlands, a desert, a miniature ocean with coral reef and a tropical jungle modeled on the Amazon – all in an enclosed dome that covered p acres. The biological community was engineered to be a closed, self-sufficient artificial ecosystem, recycling oxygen with its plants and purifying water in its wetlands. There was solar energy aplenty.
The experiment was a disaster. Atmospheric oxygen was permitted to decline to 2/3 of its ambient value before the project doctor (well-known and well-loved by many of us in the life extension community) rebelled and insisted on fulfilling his Hippocratic oath. Neither was the community ever self-sustaining in food or clean water. The residents/scientists/pioneers had no idea what they had committed to, and relations became contentious when the basics of life were in short supply. Stories survive of smuggled food, fistfights, and residents who took survival into their own hands, breaking windows to permit air exchange.
If it becomes clear that the planet cannot support all of us as resources begin to be in short supply, we may imagine some of the diverse responses of people and governments. For many people, hardship brings out our noblest altruistic nature. For others, there will be food fights and resource wars. Me, my and mine. Governments have already offered us hints about the lengths to which they are willing to go to “preserve order” in a crisis.
Healthy, caring and progressive human minds do better not to think about such things, as their contemplation can make us feel helpless and drag us into depression. Joanna Macy has devoted her career to helping us keep our sanity as we advocate for peace and environmental sanity.
Chemists call it “latency”. Physicists say “hysteresis”. Ecologists speak of “delayed functional response”. The meaning is that systems have an inertia that keeps them looking the same for awhile, even after everything, everything has changed. You can slowly raise the temperature of a glass of water until it’s 10o above boiling, and it looks like a calm liquid, not a bubble in sight. But then touch it or disturb it or drop in a grain of sand and the water explodes. (People have been scalded taking a superheated cup of coffee out of the microwave.)
And so may it be with species extinctions. The producer species have not been keeping pace with consumption for quite some time, but the consumer species goes on, apparently thriving, continuing to increase in number, though they may notice it is a little more difficult than usual to forage the evening meal. By the time the predators realize that something is awry, the game is played out and long past over. There’s no road home.
The reason can be explained in terms of exponential mathematics: a depleted prey population grows very slowly, even as the predator population is at maximum demand. Or intuition tells us the same thing: when food becomes scarce, the predators step up their hunt effort and do their best to maintain their quality of life (and their fertility) until food becomes so scarce that it is too late. The prey species, if not extinct, is at such a low level that it will take a long time to recover, long enough for most of the predators to starve. The earth’s ocean ecologies have already been transformed beyond recognition by industrial-scale fishing methods.
In 1944, the US Coast Guard introduced 29 reindeer on the island of St Matthew off Alaska. There had been no large mammals on the island before, and no natural predators. It was an experiment to see if a hunting preserve could be established. The reindeer population grew steadily at about 30% per year, first surpassing the number the island could support sustainably in about 1958. That was about 2,000 animals. But by 1963, inertia carried the population over 6,000. The next winter was rather harsh, not extraordinary, but enough to devastate the over-extended population. When wildlife wardens landed on the island the following spring, 42 reindeer remained alive [ref].
The Sixth Extinction
Between the advent of multicellular life and the current era, there have been five major extinction events, in which between 30% and 80% of all extant species vanished on a timescale shorter than can be resolved in archaeological records. These were spread over 500 million years. We are now in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, sometimes called theAnthropocene Extinction, and it is estimated that there is already sufficient inertia in the process to insure that a substantial fraction all extant species will perish in ensuing decades, no matter what conservation efforts are undertaken, and no matter what future direction is taken by human civilization.
In 2002, world leaders represented at the Convention on Biological Diversity committed to a program targeting a significant decline in the rate of species extinction by 2010. It was assumed at the time that conservation measures at the fringe of the mainstream economy would be adequate to achieve this end. But by 2010, it was clear that this program had failed dramatically, and that the loss of biodiversity is essentially linked to the core character of human economy.
I have explained in previous blog posts my belief that ecosystems are highly co-evolved for stability. Large-scale. complex ecosystems have the property of being highly interdependent, and redundant, which creates a resistance to small disruptions. The same structure also creates a vulnerability to large disruptions. There is a “domino effect”: Once a threshold of loss is exceeded, the entire system becomes vulnerable to collapse. It is theorized that most of the species lost in the previous five extinctions succumbed to this sort of “collateral damage”.
David Wilson has proposed that democracy is an evolutionary development of seminal import, and is what distinguishes human organization from other successful social species. Humans communicate and negotiate, and are able to arrange their cooperation in the interest of a diverse community. Contrast this to eusocial insects, for example, which enlist an army of workers in the interest of a single genome. The human analog of these systems is oligarchy and aristocracy, which Wilson sees as pulling us back toward a lower and less powerful stage of evolutionary development.
We live in a time when most of the developed world pays lip service to democracy, but in reality, deep distortions to democracy pull public policy into the service of short-term corporate profits, and a very small, very wealthy minority.
Democracy alone may not be sufficient to take us from imperial wars and an extractive relationsihp to nature all the way to world peace and environmental stewardship…but it’s a big step in the right direction. Corporatocracy is carrying us in the wrong direction,180 degrees at a rousing gallop. The people have consistently expressed more sensitivity to nature than the politicians, and there has never been a war but that the politicians have had to drag the people into it with ominous appeals to fear more than patriotism.
There’s nothing I can do, so why are you reminding me of this shit?
I return to Wordsworth. I love this poem (and am grateful to my late father-in-law for introducing me). It was written in 1806.
THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Most of us live busy, over-scheduled lives, committed to family, friends, and more projects than we are able to complete. We feel that much depends on our efforts, and, in the last analysis, we are all alone.
We live, after all, in a hyper-individualistic culture, with a sense of who we are that is probably anomalous both across history and across nations. Many Asian cultures are subtly more collective and cooperative than ours. Hunter-gatherer cultures of our hominid ancestors (and extant hunter-gatherers today) are strikingly more communal in their organization. Much of the angst and yearning that we feel from day to day (feelings we have learned to ignore, or to blame on our own failings) may be an echo of our longing for re-connection to nature and to each other. We were never meant to go it alone.
Our individual mortality looms large, perhaps especially so for members of the life extension community. Of course, fear of death has a biological basis and evolutionary roots. Mourning and long sadness over the loss of a loved one is ancient – gorillas and even elephants mourn their dead. But this sense that my individual consciousness is all that there is, that it depends on this body, that all is over when the light goes out, an absolute finality – this is an abysmal terror that most people historically have not lived with, and even most cultures today do not feel.
Entertain the possibility that our sense of self may be deeply distorted by culture, that there is another way to feel about our very existence. Explore opportunities for collective political action, not only as a way to save our planet, but also to reconnect to each other, to nature, and to our own souls.
This article originally appeared in Josh’s blog here: http://joshmitteldorf.scienceblog.com/2014/06/18/human-mortality-individual-and-collective/