The Paleolithic Environmentalist

Imagine 10,000 years ago. Anxiety is rampant. A feeling of impending doom is pervasive. The crisis seems inevitable.

Everywhere people are repeating the tales told by bards and shamans: “The massive and rapid climate fluctuations of the past tens of thousands of years have become flat. We used to have fluctuations of 5 degrees or more every few centuries. But now our temperatures have been stable for nearly a millenium. And not only that, they have also stabilized at a brutally high level! The oceans are drowning us. The climactic conditions which helped humans to spread to all corners of the earth are ending. We can no longer count on our superior ability to adapt to diverse and rapidly changing climates as an advantage that will help us to survive in this hostile world!

Population keeps growing, but with less and less food to support it. The great herds of large animals have long disappeared–perhaps in part because of our own overhunting. Competition for food has created more and more violence among humans. Every year more of our dead are buried with wounds inflicted by fellow humans. Is it our destiny to follow the fates of the many large herds and great predators that have already disappeared?”

In the long run, the anxieties were misplaced. Humans proved adaptable even to climactic stability. In fact, they flourished more than ever before. This was the beginning of the agricultural revolution, when human populations grew even greater, more complex societies emerged and more technological development took place than could even be imagined before.

But the anxieties were not completely unjustified. These advances came at the cost of poorer nutrition, smaller bodies, more work, smaller brains, and perhaps even smaller testicles. The joys of hunting and wilderness and travel were replaced by the drudgery of plowing and harvesting. Gender and social equality were replaced by hierarchy and exploitation. Humans domesticated themselves hand in hand with the other plants and animals that we trained to work for us.

10,000 years later, some trends have started to reverse. Body sizes have recouped their earlier stature, nutrition has improved, and the luxuries created by technological advance have become more broadly shared (although the overall reduction of work hours, the mitigation of inequality, and recovery of brain and testicle size has yet to be attained). Population has increased geometrically.  Many humans—in a world population geometrically larger than any previous population—are completely self-satisfied with these advances. Others are wracked by anxiety and fear for the future. The see that climate is changing, species are going extinct, everything that we have built is under threat.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that life means a lot more than just preserving the comfort of our particular species at a particular moment in history. Shall we dig in our heels and work to perserve this fleeting social organization we have only recently constructed. Or shall we treat our problems as an opportunity for change?

(For more on early climate, see William James Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

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Posted on October 6, 2012, in My Bad Science, The Big Questions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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