Ecology and the human story

During my time at university I studied a course in ecology. It really interested me and I went on to get a bachelor degree in environmental science with a focus on nature conservation. In my ecology course we studied animals and there was a clear disconnect from the fact that humans are animals too and that the same biological laws apply to us. Everything in an ecosystem is linked and interacting with one another. All systems have four components of a cycle: abiotic (resources), producers, consumers and decomposers. We forget that this is the case for our human systems and instead act as if a linear system works. Extract resourses, produce goods, consume those goods and then instead of decomposition and feeding back into the system we throw things “away”. Although there is no “away” it just ends up being someone elses problem. Our production system has the same limits as all other systems. A fact that we are starting to understand now that we are drowning in our own waste. A scary thing that I knew but never thought of in this way is that because plastic has such a long life every piece of plastic ever made still exists today. The great pacific garbage patch is a testament to this.

The ultimate ecological law is that of carrying capacity. See definition from Wikipedia:

The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment.

It is a law that all communties on earth are subject to and that’s why many species have been around for so long. As civilized humans we think we are above this law and that it doesn’t apply to us because we some how outsmarted nature with all our inventions and technology. But if we look at the definition above we are starting to realize that this isn’t the case. We have reached and gone beyond the point were our population can be sustained indefinitely. We are subject to the law like all other living creatures it is just acting on us over a (for us) long time and on a global scale so we can’t see it. It’s like jumping off a cliff with a squirrel suit thinking that we can fly and for the first period it seems like we can until we realize that we are falling not flying and the ground is rushing up to meet us. All populations that grow too large and run out of resources or space sooner or later crash. There was no question about this in my ecology textbooks.

For us it might seem like civilization and our way of life has been going on for a very long time and that humans have always been this way but in a larger context we really haven’t. If the Earth formed at midnight and the present moment is the next midnight, 24 hours later, modern humans have been around since 11:59:59pm—1 second. And if human history itself spans 24 hours from one midnight to the next, the last 14 minutes represents the time since Christ. Our civilization is very young even compared to just the history of humans. The first Homo Sapiens appeared around 300 000 years ago and around 10 000 years ago we started with agriculture. This means that for most of human history 96,7% we’ve lived as hunter and gatherers. During this time we were subject to the law and to look back on 3,3% of human history which in turn is one second of the history of the Earth and think that the law of biological life doesn’t apply to us is very foolish.

Since the agricultural revolution (which is still on going today) the humans of the civilized world have had a story of how we relate to the world. This story is that the Earth belongs to us and that we need to conqure and control every aspect of it so that we can live exempt from natural laws. We believe that we get to decide who lives and who dies. That only us, the animals and plants we eat and the plants that our animals eat are the species allowed to live. Everything else is in competition for our expansion and needs to be erradicated. We think that we can create unlimited growth. We beileve that it is our right to have a wide variety of food at all times, toilets that flush with fresh water, smart phones with metals from strip mines, cars that emit carbon dioxide, cities and agriculture that has destroyed most life that was present in that place before and eveything else that comes with civilization at the expense of all living things. And how dare anyone say that maybe we don’t need all these things?? Maybe we don’t have to have oranges in Sweden all year round? Maybe we don’t have to live in huge houses with rooms we rarely use? Maybe we don’t need to buy new clothes when we have a stuffed wardrobe full of clothes? But instead we think it is our right to have all this!

This story that is so ingrained in our civilization is something I personally have never understood. To me it has always felt like a huge delusion. In my mind we do not own the world and why would we? The world wasn’t made for us and the systems and animals of the Earth aren’t our property to do what we want with. I have been living in civilization like everyone else, trying to minimize my impact (of course still using huges amounts of resources) but I have always felt uneasy about what we are doing. Looking at the larger picture this story has only been around 3,3% of human history and in fact our previous story that we’ve had for the past 96,7% of human history is still around among the small pockets of indigenous people that civilization hasn’t managed to exterminate. They have always lived and believed that humans are a part of nature and are subject to it’s laws.

Now that we are starting to understand that we are not exempt from the laws of biology and with space, water and food running out and “our” planets systems turning against us we have finally started to wake up. Unfourtanately we have gone the other way and instead we believe that we are a inherently evil and greedy species. This is not true because we like every other species are neither good nor evil. We just are. Before agriculture (96,7% of human history) we have lived within the planetary boundaries and been able to sustain our life indefinitely. The laws of biology kept us in check as it does with all other species. The thinking of us as “evil destroyers” has lead to a fear of interacting with nature and an alienation from nature. I believe that this isn’t a good way to handle our crisis. To be able to create a true connection and a driving force to change we need to interact with nature. To recreate that bond that has been lost.

The great news is that we can change our story. We can give up our belief that we own the Earth and instead believe that we belong to it. We have a place on this planet and it is not as conquerors but as a part of nature. We have for a long time wanted to be special, to be above animals and our animalistic ways but we can’t. We have to accept that we are just one species among millions on this Earth that all have the right to enact their evolution. Until we change our story nothing will change. We need to slow down and start reducing our population by not increasing productivity. It won’t be easy but to avoid a great crash we need to find the human place within the community of all life. We are an inventive species so I am sure that we can figure it out if we just let go of the old story and start creating a new story within the ecological limits of our planet.

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