A New Perception of the Human Animal
by E. Eugene Ott

I once thought the human species was out-stripping the resources of the Earth. Like many other environmentalists and naturalists of this time, I thought I would live to see humanity suffer the dire consequences of our excessive consumption. And, I thought that as a species we could use our intelligence to curb our abuses and thereby forestall or prevent the fulfillment of my catastrophic vision.

During the last several years I have begun to question my basic premises and inclinations. Now, I even dare to think my conclusions could have been very wrong. There are two ideas which compel me toward new conclusions. First, I mentally left the jungle of everyday human life and looked at my species from a more distant viewpoint. What I saw was a species which had evolved the ability to literally eat the Earth. Modern humanity no longer ekes a living from the skin of the planet. Humans in the "developed world" can be best described as a form a collective organism which eats the solid earth and excretes into the atmosphere. In the past I was impressed by cliches like "we are going to be covered by mountain of garbage" until I objectively researched the issue. The truth is that we have much higher probability of falling into a man-made hole than having to burrow through a pile of garbage. The realization that we are "eating" the Earth changes all the equations. It even explains the great disparity in standards of living between the "developed" world and under-developed world. Humans in the under-developed world have not yet evolved the ability to eat the Earth and are thus subject to the old rules of natural feast and famine. This leads me to the second idea which has changed my perspective of humanity.

Humanity is just like every other biological species. That is, we behave the same as any other species which has found a mass of nutrient. We feed on it, grow and reproduce. We are driven to consume it until it is gone. Any thought that we can exercise internal constraints based upon our understanding that catastrophe will occur once the nutrient is gone is just a dream, and any occurrence of such constraint will be just a fleeting aberration. When a fly finds a deer carcass it cannot decide to lay fewer eggs or save the carcass for later. Competition from other species dictates the fly use the carcass or lose it. As humans, we may not have significant competition from other species in the race to eat the Earth, but we have just as intense competition from our own kind. Consider the example of petroleum. At one time I thought the United States could make a decision, through public policy, to reduce its consumption of petroleum. Now I see that we cannot, for if we do not consume this easily obtainable resource, other countries will, and we may be bumped lower in hierarchy of the human nation-pack.

This new perspective does not bode well for the other species on the Earth. However, all is not bleak. Consider again the example of consumption of petroleum. There is a plausible future scenario which would result in our reducing or stopping the consumption of petroleum: if we find a better food, we will switch to eating it instead of petroleum. Of course, this was the promise of nuclear power and the dream of fusion power. New foods will be found and our nutrient needs will change. Again, stepping back from day-to-day human activities, I think there is a trend toward more of humanity's needs to be fulfilled outside the "natural" biosphere. We will eat more and more of the deeper Earth and, possibly, from extra-terrestrial sources. When it is no longer necessary for humanity to eat from the biosphere to a gain a competitive edge, we will have the ability to "decide" to preserve what is left and restore some of what has disappeared.

Consider again the example of petroleum. Before we started eating petroleum for energy and raw material, we ate coal, and before that we ate trees. Pre-industrial humans could not eat petroleum and could barely eat coal. So they ate the trees until most of the forests where they lived we consumed. The loss of forests resulted in many negative effects upon other species and, even, may have changed local climates. Human evolution of the ability to eat petroleum has been beneficial to the biosphere in many ways. Today, in the US, we still have much forestland. We still eat a lot of trees, but now we eat them principally for lumber and paper. Because we eat them for secondary needs rather than primary needs like our ancestors, we have the ability to preserve and restore forests. In many under-developed countries today, trees are still consumed for primary needs; the forests are gone and the people live in poverty.

August 28, 2000
Gene Ott

© 2000. Edwin Eugene Ott

Return to Nature Commentaries Page