In the preface to their groundbreaking work of molecular biology, Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan suggest that the Linnaean name of our species should be changed from Homo sapiens sapiens — “Man, the wise, the wise” — to Homo insapiens — “Man, the unwise, the tasteless.” Doing so, they write, would better reflect the role of humanity within the biosphere; a self-aggrandising and dangerous species that has assumed dominion over a planet it is only just beginning to understand.
Humanity has plenty going for it, we are certainly capable of extraordinary things, but many of the qualities that define our species and have permitted its success throughout the millennia are now causing its undoing. Our innate gift for storytelling has facilitated unmatched societal cohesion, but our proclivity for telling stories that are wholly anthropocentric means we often forget that our success on Earth has not been achieved alone. “Survival of the fittest”, the survival of Homo sapiens sapiens, depends on the support of a complex network of fragile symbiotic relationships that is increasingly at risk.
As humanity has taken great leaps forward — eradicating disease, feeding the hungry, creating machines to do dangerous work on our behalf — we have been wilfully blind to the damage these advances have left in their wake. Our successes have been innumerable, but many of their consequences have been catastrophic, and now our species is threatened by climate breakdown, ecosystem collapse and a multitude of other crises. Our myopic worldview is endangering us. Now would be a useful time to learn to think beyond ourselves and appreciate that the human story is not the whole story. Not even close. There exists a humbling amount of complexity, progress and innovation happening every second outside the confines of our species, and many millions of achievements that rival and surpass our own.
On a good day, we are truly impressive. We created the internet, which allows billions of people to share information and resources and communicate over many thousands of miles. But networks of mycorrhizal fungi were offering the same service to trees and plants for millennia before we even had information to share — and they’re capable of transferring water and nutrients, too. We also brought light to the darkness with Thomas Edison’s extraordinary feats of electrical engineering. But bacterial bioluminescence brought light to the depths of the oceans over 2,000 million years ago, a long, long, long time before the earliest of our hominid ancestors had evolved.
As technologists rush to develop an artificial general intelligence that forecasters blithely predict will outstrip our own, it’s worth remembering that we still have only scant understanding of the organ of biological general intelligence within us, the human brain, and the miracle of our own consciousness remains a largely unsolved puzzle. Which begs the question just how wise is “Man the wise, the wise” really?
Certainly we give the appearance of being Earth’s dominant species; we have occupied the four corners of the planet more or less continuously since bands of our early ancestors began to migrate outward from the African continent a few hundred thousand years ago. As we did so, we drove the various megafauna that had previously topped the food chain to extinction, domesticated the smaller animals and plants to suit our every need, created complex, settled agrarian civilisations and, having done so, set about shaping every other facet of the planet we call home.
Told this way, the human story is simple, neat and linear, and cements the primacy of Homo sapiens in our collective consciousness. It gives us the moral licence to do more or less anything with the bounty of the biosphere. But it is profoundly wrong.
In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott comprehensively dismantles this tidy linear narrative and the foundation that underpins every facet of how we live today: that settled agrarian society under the management of the state became the norm across the world simply because it was the logical next step in our evolution. “The narrative of this process has typically been told as one of progress,” he writes, “of civilisation and public order, and of increasing health and leisure. Given what we now know, much of this narrative is wrong or seriously misleading.”
The norm for the majority of our species, argues Scott, has in fact been as itinerant hunter gatherers, as pastoralists and “barbarians” living far beyond the city walls and outside the control of the state. Much of what we previously had access to in terms of freedom, nutrition, health and access to “the commons” was ceded when we came to live within the city walls. The state, of course, has been understandably keen to assert its primacy and so the stories it permits and retells are largely simple, progressive and self-supporting. It is only thanks to recent archaeological advancement that we have been able to piece together a more complex picture to rival the simple story that maintained stability for the state.
Stability has been extremely useful for humanity. The last 150 years, some of the most stable in our history, have seen our dominance over the planet increase at unprecedented speed. The technological advancement that exploded from the Industrial Revolution gave us the ability to exploit resources that we didn’t even know existed two centuries ago. Coal and oil enabled us to industrialise the production of energy, vastly expanding the scope of our technological capabilities. After that we never looked back. Humanity reimagined itself completely in a century and a half. And now we’re doing it again.
The intervening years have been something of a marathon of rapid evolution and progress in all the fields of human endeavour that have seen us remake our world once more. The last two decades in particular have witnessed a positive explosion of progress, this time outside of the physical world in a digital realm of our own creation, although our influence over the physical world remains absolute. The world is now, we imagine, so much the product of human endeavor and so much influenced by our achievements that we have even named the current geological age the Anthropocene — the age of humans — if only to ensure no doubt about who’s really in charge of this big old rock.
For all the grandiosity of naming a geological epoch after our species, it’s ironic that the Anthropocene could be the shortest of them all. Its predecessor, the Holocene, lasted nearly 12,000 years, but if predictions are correct and we do nothing to reverse the ongoing climate crisis, ours could be snuffed out in several hundred. Even more ironic is the length of time we’ve known about this existential risk and done nothing to avert it. “Man, the unwise, the tasteless.” We’ve known since the early 19th century about the natural greenhouse effect, and since the early 1970s about mankind’s sizeable contribution to it. Believing too much in our own resourcefulness and intelligence, we have done nothing to change our behaviours. The same is true of two other major and present threats to human existence.
In 1970, American agronomist Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the so-called green revolution. Over the preceding two decades, his work had brought food security to Mexico, India and Pakistan, with high-yield, disease-resistant strains of wheat, progressive agricultural techniques and new approaches to irrigation. Within half a century, Borlaug and his acolytes had halved the area of agricultural land required to feed a single person, while increasing global agricultural production by as much as 300%, with only a 12% increase in farmland. But to achieve such breathtaking successes depended largely on the development of monocultures — vast areas of land given over to a single crop variety — and these high-yield crops were inundated by irrigation and chemical pesticides, which wrought unspeakable damage upon the biosphere.
Borlaug was aware of these shortcomings. In his Nobel address, he warned that his discoveries would not have lasting effects: “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation,” he said. “It has given man a breathing space.” We used that breathing space to twiddle our thumbs.
In the four decades since his speech, global agriculture has come to be defined by chronically depleted soils, run-off pollution, eutrophication, pesticide-resistant plagues, wasteful water use, wide- scale deforestation, soil erosion and biodiversity loss. Our natural flora and fauna are disappearing at an alarming rate; some 17,315 species of mammals, birds, plants, insects, coral, fungi and others are now teetering on the verge of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In fact, 25 years before Borlaug’s speech, Scottish microbiologist Alexander Fleming had issued an off-the-cuff warning about another problem that has come to threaten our species — also in a Nobel address. Fleming was being honoured for his pioneering work in the derivation of the antibiotic penicillin from a group of common moulds. His accidental discovery had dramatic effects on the number of deaths from bacterial infection, reducing the death rate from bacterial pneumonia from 18% to 1% during the course of the second world war. This was just one of many uses for his miracle drug.
“There may be a danger, though, in underdosage,” said Fleming of his discovery. “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.
“The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.” Not only did we have our fill of shop-bought penicillin, we stuffed our farm animals full of it too, creating a fertile environment for the breeding of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
By now, we are all tired of seeing the name Covid-19, but the story of the ongoing pandemic is also one of forewarning and inaction. The World Health Organization (WHO) began to stress the potential threat from a novel coronavirus before the outbreak of SARS in 2003. When the destructive capacity of SARS turned out to be somewhat overstated, international governments decided that WHO had cried wolf and most failed to prepare for the scale of outbreak we experienced in 2020.
Humanity’s hubris and oversimplified world view has fostered an epidemic of short-term thinking resulting in catastrophic consequences time and again. Short-term thinking has trapped us in a repetitive feedback loop, making the same mistakes, doing further damage to our planetary and societal systems and unable to find a way out. George Monbiot, Kate Raworth, Ann Pettifor and others like them have spoken of the need for new narratives to help us break this destructive cycle, but that can feel like a remarkably tall order when so many of our previous narratives have been wrong. But we should not despair.
In spring 1966, on the roof of his San Francisco apartment, Stewart Brand dropped 100 micrograms of LSD and took in the majesty of the horizon. He perceived the curvature of the Earth and apprehended its finite nature, suddenly and dramatically realising that the resources on which we all depend were fragile, limited, and would run out much sooner that he’d previously imagined. In the wake of this trip, he petitioned NASA to release their photographs of the Earth taken from space — a global happening he hoped would shake humanity out of its destructive patterns of behaviour. NASA agreed, Brand printed the photo on the cover of his new manual of sustainable living, and the Whole Earth Movement was born.
Some 30 years later, Brand founded the Long Now Foundation to foster long-term thinking (an obvious antidote to humanity’s chronic short-termism) and create a sustainable framework for the next 10,000 years of human civilisation. These are worthwhile and vital ideas, but they don’t necessarily translate into swift and practical action, something so desperately needed in the present day. Short of a worldwide rooftop trip (not a bad idea if a growing number of researchers are to be believed), how do we teach the world to think long term?
Philosopher Roman Krznaric may have the answer. A research fellow at the Long Now Foundation, Krznaric released The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World, in mid 2020. In it, he sets out clear strategies for bringing long-term thinking into our societal processes and structures, as well as how to embrace it at a personal level. He was even kind enough to shrink the book down into a six-point plan on this website not that long ago.
What becomes immediately clear when reading Roman’s work is that long-term thinking doesn’t bring about any quick fixes or instantly furnish us with new narratives and ideas. It is just the first step in a long process, but if quickly and correctly adopted, it could give humanity some breathing space. We’d just have to make sure we don’t use it to twiddle our thumbs again.
We began the Weapons of Reason book with the story of how we lost the commons, how the Earth’s natural resources, once so bountiful, were stolen and continue to be sold back to us, and how the shared wealth of social capital passed down from previous generations has been captured by a select few. Reclaiming that shared inheritance should begin with long-term thinking to ensure that the legacy we leave for future generations is more equitably distributed. If, at the very least, we pass on only a radical shift in mindset, then perhaps we’ll have laid sufficient foundations upon which our descendants can build.