Excerpts from The Story of Humanity: Ecology & Consequence
From Chapter 1: “A Fateful Ape”
A dramatic shift in Earth’s climate brought forth a fateful ape. A later climate drama ushered that ape’s demise. The beginning owed to geology, the end to technology. Recorded human history spanned a mere 6,000 years.
A consistent system of dating helps chronicle the human experience. Earthers were extinct by what the natives would have reckoned to be the year 2100 CE (common era) in the dominant Gregorian calendar: gone by the dawn of the 22nd century CE.
The exact year of the fall is uncertain. Small communities and a few hardy souls may have survived for a few decades after the fall. Recorded history faltered 3 decades before the fall, as global industrial civilization crumbled.
For consistency, dates are given in years “before the fall” (BF); TBF for thousands of years BF, and MBF for millions of years BF.
This looking-back is an inverse accounting from traditional date-keeping, which progresses forward into an indefinite future. For instance, Earthers denoted the 1st (their last) century as the 21st century. The traditional year 2000 translates to 100 BF.
A reverse chronology creates a countdown. Sometime “early” in an era, century, or decade has a higher number than sometime “late,” which happens at a lower date.
The calendrical use of before-the-fall aptly shows how close to extinction events occurred, and so sharpens the perspective on the vectors of consequence wrought by Earth’s clothed apes.
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Hominids diverged from other apes owing to neoteny: retention of traits in adults previously seen only in the young. Chordates – the phylum of vertebrates – arose over a half-million years BF via neoteny. This adaptive technique also produced flightless insects, salamanders, and birds.
Neoteny shifted hominid descent onto a distinct track in numerous ways. It produced a larger ratio of brain to body size, lighter bones, a flattened and broader face, larger eyes, smaller nose, smaller teeth and jaw, and glabrousness (hairlessness).
Human limbs and body posture were indicative of neoteny. Limbs were proportionately short compared to torso length, longer leg than arm length, a juvenile foot structure, and upright stance.
Many styles of bipedal locomotion are possible. With their pelvis and leg structure, many birds are as apt to hop as walk – though not all. The fastest animal on 2 legs when Earthers were extant was the range-dwelling ostrich, the biggest flightless bird.
Other apes took longer strides by rotating their hips. Hominids evolved to longer legs and minimal hip swivel when they walked.
Though other apes might walk on 2 legs, an assist with the arms – knuckle walking – was used to gallop on the ground. Hominids ran on their feet alone. Though taking shorter strides, swinging arms optimized efficiency.
For Earthers, walking was excellent exercise, both physically and mentally. Walking elicited a holistic harmony of balance that attuned attention, thus naturally facilitating heightened awareness.
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The artifacts hominids created were statements of mental condition. Weaponry most dramatically exemplified this. An increasing ability to commit mass murder did nothing to give men pause as to what they were doing to the comity essential to sustain societies beyond relying upon brute force.
Genuine social progress would have culminated in the banning of technologies rather than their continued deployment. Few Earthers made this point, and very few technologies were banned. The Collective were wooed by technologies which were obviously bound to have deleterious effects along with their convenience.
To grasp significance, technology must be examined in its social and environmental contexts. The impacts of technology expanded with their advance: a compounding of consequence in every sense.
From Chapter 2: “The Reign of Thought”
Thought is fraught. Reason is merely the creation of self-satisfaction by stringing together beads of logic. Belief is consolation via a facile sense of surety.
Theory and worry emanate from the same source: the imagination. Their only distinction is practicability.
Eschewing skepticism, Earthers indulged their thoughts: finding in them inspiration, grief, and comfort. Beliefs lubricated social interactions, creating tribes via shared visions and values. “Ideas shape the course of history,” remarked 2nd-century-BF economist John Maynard Keynes.
The glue of belief was also their undoing. Refusal to reconsider traditional ideologies terminated the species. The mob rule of democracy doomed humanity.
The reign of thought began long before written language chronicled men’s musings. Ceremonial burials took place a million years before settlements.
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Belief was a potent force in Earther affairs. Practicality was a pittance compared to belief, even in modern cultures. Understanding the nature of belief unravels the spell it casts.
A belief is confidence in an abstraction as truth. Belief is an ossification of imagination.
At the core of every belief is a value construct: a concept of cherished meaning. The invariable reason for belief is for mental comfort. Beliefs succor a sense of surety about what otherwise might be disturbing.
“A belief is not merely an idea that the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind,” wrote English scholar Robert Bolton in the 4th century BF. “Once you have a belief, it influences how you perceive all other relevant information,” furthered American political scientist Robert Jervis 3 centuries later.
Faith in the mind’s patterning is not a slippery slope into self-delusion. Instead, belief is itself the crippling fall that defines iğnorance. Acting through ideas versus believing in them is the difference between using a tool and being in thrall to it as a mystical signifier.
Paracosms as cherished belief systems were an Earther trademark. The Collective were in thrall to their beliefs.
From Chapter 3: “The Evolution of Civilization”
Hominids were not socially distinct from their ape predecessors. Family was the core of social organization. Mothers were the nexus.
Many creatures on Earth lived via fluid sociality. Among them were fish, cetaceans, ungulates, elephants, most mammalian carnivores, and primates.
Among hominins, a community of up to a few hundred individuals had dynamic subgroups that included families, friends, and coalitions. Subgroups merged for safety, such as for sleeping, or during conflicts with conspecifics. They then split up for foraging, or when disagreements arose within the larger group.
Families banded together through close social ties. Foraging clans were nomadic extended families. Reciprocity was the rule.
Mobile foragers were egalitarian. Such clans sometimes had elders and initiates, but no chiefs. No one commanded authority over adult males. Foragers leashed ambitious leaders.
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Hominids established settlements long before they descended into humans. Like other motile animals, hominids first settled in places of natural abundance.
The sites of the earliest large societies were forested areas near fertile rivers. Those forests were invariably diminished by human habitation.
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The animal that had the most impact on men was the horse. In their descent, horses adapted to survive on steppes and in savanna with sparse vegetation. These were forbidding habitats for other large grazing animals, especially ruminants, such as bovine (cattle), deer, and sheep.
Horses died out in the Americas in the last ice age. But equids endured in Eurasia. Eurasia’s larger landmass afforded more warmth near its center, where horses survived.
Horses were sensitive, gregarious herd animals. They were hunted by men, and first domesticated for their meat. Young horses became pets, cementing a social bond.
The first human cultures to ride horses were in central north Asia, 6,000 years before the fall. Horse-drawn travois, wagons, and chariots followed.
The utility of horses found favor throughout Eurasia, where they spread in succeeding millennia. Their introduction often came by force, as an instrument of conquest.
Within a thousand years of first being ridden and driven, horses went to war. Besides tilling fields and for transport, horses were accomplices to the brutality of men for many millennia. Horses changed the equation of conflict in a way that was only superseded by gunpowder weaponry.
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The social impact of agriculture was enormous. Depending upon locale, especially its climate, the population density of foraging societies ranged from 0.1 to 1 person per km2. Farming facilitated population densities of 40 to 60 people per km2.
Proximity begat interdependence on a much larger scale. Labor specialization furthered the trend, facilitating innovation and engendering trade.
This gyre geared societies to grapple with economic transgressions, molding morality around materialism. Polity evolved via private property regimes.
Authorities cultivated cultures that shifted morality from equality to inequity as a norm. There were twin forks to this corruption: material and spiritual.
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Economics was born when there was something to trade. Surplus birthed economic activity.
Economics began innocently. Someone might come to possess something or make more than they needed. As well, they may want for what they don’t have. The twinning of excess and want were the wellspring of trade. Settlements were often sustainable only because of trade.
The economic term goods dates to 8th-century BF English: something good made by someone’s labor. A good kept by its maker was simply a possession. Goods became economic when they became available to others.
Goods had a life cycle. They were created, distributed in some way, and then consumed. Any leftover was waste.
The problem with goods was bads: untoward externalities. An externality was an unintended effect. Chopping down a tree for fire, to build a home, or clear land for planting crops negatively affected much local life, beginning with the tree.
Bads were the evil twin of goods. What changed with technology was the scope of bads, and thereby their habitat impact.
Along with population growth expanding the quantities of bads, bads from goods accelerated with industrialization. Industrial products were often of unnatural materials and chemicals that did not decompose and were toxic. Enduring pollution was a common externality of an industrial good’s lifecycle.
The term political economy arose in the 4th century BF for the study of trade in light of the state’s role. As an academic discipline, political economy was an outgrowth of moral philosophy. In the late 3rd century BF, the term economics gradually supplanted political economy in usage. But political economy is apter, as it emphasized that goods and bads were always under the auspices of the authorities.
The production of surpluses begat a gyre of materialism that defined economics and shifted men’s morality. Once the inherent inequality of private property developed as an acceptable norm, it had its own momentum. The idea that Nature may be ‘owned’ was the crucial concept that set the vector of human civilization.
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An economic system is a characterization of how a political economy works. Economic systems pertain 3 issues: what goods are made and how many, how goods are made, and how goods are distributed. There are 3 economic systems: traditional, command, and market.
A traditional economy relied upon custom to address what was made and how it was shared. Traditional economies produced to survive. There was minimal trade. Societies which relied upon economic surpluses to thrive extinguished traditional economies.
In a command economy, the authorities decided production and distribution. Command economies were typical in ancient civilizations, including China and Egypt.
A market economy relied upon disorganized endeavor, using trade as a regulator. Aside from a few ill-fated attempts, the modern global economy was carpeted with capitalism.
Finance propelled modern capitalism, successfully concentrating wealth. In 80 BF, the richest 1% of households controlled 44% of the world’s capital while the bottom 50% held only 1%.
The term capitalism was coined by socialists as a pejorative in the mid-3rd century BF. Its apt jab was that wealth (capital) was the controlling power behind a market economy. Capitalism crafted this character during nascent industrialization, which sprang from speculative investments that ushered Earther’s last age.
As a political economy, capitalism weaponized in private hands the plutocracy that had prevailed throughout history. The term plutocracy descended directly from ancient Greek for “the power of wealth.”
Market economies produced prodigious externalities in the machine age: inefficiencies, overproduction, unemployment, inequality, corruption, and pollution. As the world then was one disjointed market economy, the fruits of civilization owed to the economic disorder that was capitalism.
From Chapter 4: “The Toll of Industry”
The term climate was used by moderns for weather patterns which had some consistency for a few (3) decades. Earthers used atmospheric temperature as the telltale indicator of climate. But much more was involved.
3rd-century-BF English geologist Eduard Suess coined the term biosphere in 225 BF: Earth as a sphere of life. The word came to envelop the totality of ecosystems on Earth. Ecosystem is also oriented toward life: the community of biota (life forms) in an environment.
The philosophical term environment is nebulous. It may apply to any designated realm. In terms of Nature, an environment may be as small as an atom or as large as a planet – such as Earth.
A biome is an area where organisms live with similar conditions, both geographically and climatically. For much of its existence, Earth has had a vast plethora of biomes: hence, the potential for a rich variety of life.
3rd-century-BF Scottish geologist James Hutton posited that Earth is a self-regulating superorganism. “The globe of this Earth is an organised body, as it has regenerative power,” wrote Hutton.
In the early 120s BF, English naturalist James Lovelock and American evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis extended Hutton’s concept. “Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia,” Lovelock poetically opined. Gaia was named after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth. Lovelock referred to Earth’s ecosystems as the “organs of Gaia.”
Earth’s atmosphere is a chemical mixture. When humans were extant, the air was 78% nitrogen (N), 21% oxygen (O), 1% argon (Ar), and a smidgen – only 0.04% – carbon dioxide (CO2).
Nitrogen, oxygen, and argon keep their cool by not interfering with the warming wavelength of sunlight (infrared). Carbon has a different take. In all its molecular forms, carbon traps heat. Carbon in the atmosphere gets toasty as it sunbathes.
Earthers’ considering climate to be in the atmosphere owes to the air being the most obvious bioelement to this land animal. The term animal derives from Latin for “living being which breathes.” To people, the ambiance of weather was in the air. Climate was naturally thought to be weather’s vector (beyond seasons).
This focus on atmosphere helps explain why self-extinction only became alarming to the public so late in its dynamic. Smog might be traced to a source and thereby dealt with. Thermal pollution pervading the planet was an invisible abstraction. Most important in people’s misperception about climate was the underappreciated fact that the air is not the repository of planetary warmth.
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Civilization came from trade. Market economies were naturally unbounded. “We have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations,” wrote Karl Marx in 252 BF. Though the term globalization was not popular until the last century dawned, its knitting began in antiquity.
Industrial globalization spread the good and bads of the market system throughout the world. “What might now shower immeasurable material blessings upon mankind may bring about its total destruction,” presciently foresaw British war commander Winston Churchill in the mid-2nd century BF.
From Chapter 5: “An Inevitable End”
Along with the biological logistics of survival, what drove hominid evolution was sociality. For good or ill, the ecology Earthers chose was the hook upon which their fate hung.
Altriciality meant the opportunity for more education. Reduced physical strength was counterbalanced by greater imagination and communication facility. Innate sense of fairness provided a compass for interaction quality. Thereupon arose the possibility for amity, and thereby species immortality.
Too often, men forsook the opportunity for comity. From the dawn of civilization, men’s lust for domination indelibly stained humanity. In that wake was war and inequity.
The environmental impact of technology was cumulative. Perceptive men foresaw the consequence.
“One thing is sure. The Earth is now more cultivated and developed than ever before. There is more farming with pure force. Swamps are drying up. Cities are springing up on an unprecedented scale. We’ve become a burden to our planet. Resources are becoming scarce.” This from Tertullian, a Roman philosopher in North Africa in the 19th century BF.
A political constant sealed humanity’s fate. “Behold, with how little wisdom the world is governed,” said statesman Axel Oxenstierna in 452 BF.
Fast-forward 4 centuries. Portuguese diplomat António Guterres was head of the United Nations (UN). The UN was Earthers’ ineffectual supernational government. In 79 BF, Guterres beseeched UN delegates, “I am here to sound the alarm: the world must wake up. Instead of the path of solidarity, we are on a dead end to destruction.” That wake-up call did not receive a timely answer.
Guterres was persistent in his prescience. The next year he warned that lack of “collective action” meant “collective suicide.” The world’s leaders chose to act as the suicide squad.
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For much of their existence, Earthers were near the precipice of extinction. Climatic flux was a common hazard, especially glaciation. Warfare also took a severe toll. More than once, the numbers of Earthers shrank to small numbers.
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What made Earthers burgeoning population unsustainable was the ravenous consumption that went with it.
Consumption began with resource extraction. 75% of what was taken by moderns was used only once. Among those materials were minerals (50%), ores (for metals) (10%), and fossil fuels (15%). The other 25% of material extraction was biomass. This comprised crops for food, clothing, and other fabric materials, and wood for construction and tools, including paper.
Extraction leapt 6-fold from 150 to 50 BF. Material consumption rose faster than population growth in the half-century before its peak. This was primarily a ‘wealth’ effect in affluent post-industrial societies.
The rise in material prosperity in poorer countries was nowhere near that of richer nations. In terms of material extraction, poorer societies subsidized the rich.
Man’s presence was far-reaching. At the dawn of the 8th century BF, before the Age of Discovery, 6/7ths of ice-free terrestrial biomes were still Nature’s domain. By the 1st century BF, only 1/27th was still wild. Men markedly reduced that margin even further in their last century.
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Food quality declined in the last century and a half before the fall. This degradation had 2 causes: the industrialization of food and consumer choice.
1st, foods became less nutritious. This downshift owed to selection and industrial processing.
Moderns consumed more industrially processed foods and fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. Created for addictive taste appeal, processed foods had excessive sugar, salt, empty calories, and nutritionally dubious additives. “The food industry became the junk-food industry,” remarked Mark Bittman.
People were excessively fond of sweets. Refined sugar was a major culprit in creating chronic health problems.
To keep their profits sweet, the food industry ladled ever more sugar into their products as the 1st century wore on. They did so because the taste buds of consumers, as their health deteriorated, were desensitized to sweetness.
Processed foods also had a higher environmental impact than nutritious ones. Processing foods to lower nutritional value wasted water, energy, and materials, especially in its packaging. The truly modern Earther food was wrapped in single-use plastic.
Evidenced by their dietary habits, most moderns appeared to know little about nutrition, nor cared to learn. Obesity soared worldwide in the last century, as did chronic diseases from self-induced malnutrition.
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Earther’s demise reflected political will. The horrific wars of the 2nd century BF were incited by elected governments. The unrelenting drive to self-extinction was egged on by the wealthiest democracies. One need only glance at a political map of the modern world – splintered into hundreds of nations – to realize that the disciplined cooperation necessary for survival would elude Earthers.
The gyre that ended humanity was an incremental procession. The roads upon which horse-driven wagons had traveled for millennia became highways for motor cars which spewed their damaging exhausts into the skies. Nonexistent was the modern commander who had the vision to stop adoption of a technology which provided convenience but doomed future generations.
Theft from the next generation was government policy. Accumulating sovereign debt via deficit state spending was universal. Especially in democracies, politicians stayed in power by doling out money that wasn’t theirs to spend.
That is not to say that the end times could not have been put off. Egregious pollution was allowed despite being recognized for what it was.
It was abundantly apparent by the early 2nd century BF that humanity was on an unsustainable path. The courage it would have took to avert the inevitable did not appear.