Remember, we’re only human

Guest post by Tim from Moth Incarnate

Human consciousness dawned from an animal that instinctively responded to a dynamic environment. Here, there was little forward planning – little awareness of tomorrow – but simply eat and endure as long as an exposed organism can in a harsh and unsympathetic world.

Here, we woke to the abundance of life and thus food, to the idea of tomorrow, to the power of fire and of protection. The human became a nomad that could increase its odds of survival and could plan to follow the wealth of food that migrated or bloomed with the seasons.

The ingenious members soon realised that if a cave was not present, shelter could be built and by closely watching the species around them, they discovered that life could be controlled for the production of food. Humanity became the farmer, the villager and ultimately, societies sprung into existence which in turn paved the way for culture, study and intergenerational improvements.

We became the modern human.

We were, however, still fragile. The people of Pompeii; the civilizations that came and went along the banks of the Nile or throughout South America; the famines and plagues that tarnished the heart of every culture; we remained aware of how much we were dependent on the natural world. Nothing was completely within our control.

The Age of Enlightenment expanded the ideas of the modern human. Indeed, one could argue that over the past 500 years, we have begun to question our Gods and our kings, we have rebelled and we have produced wave after wave of fights for equality. The printing press, the locomotive, eventually modern medical science and telecommunication; all of this wonderful curiosity, investigation and modern education has swept many of our species out of the muddy squalors of ignorance and into the climate controlled office cubical of some city skyscraper.*

Many of our species now enjoy a life where nature seems a novelty and the comforts experienced by the kings of old are now easily affordable. The deep-dark foreboding forest belongs to the fairytale as does many of the past trials to the history books, void of lingering emotion. The advancements (largely over the past 200 years) have produced the assumption that we have truly become masters of this planet.

It’s difficult to think harshly of such an assumption; when combustible liquid erupts from the land and bigger nets pull in huge quantities of fish (apparent natural wealth provided for our disposal); when it’s no longer unreasonable for a middle-classed person to live into their 90’s and mortality related to childbirth is at an all time low; when mangos are delivered fresh to high latitudes and foreign delicacies are inexpensive on supermarket shelves. We have achieved amazing things and enjoy wonders that our great-grandparents couldn’t have even imagined. Such things, of course, encourage a certain amount of pride and arrogance.

This complacency towards ecology is obviously erroneous.


If you were to move into a new place which had a well maintained, fruitful vegetable garden in the backyard and quickly removed all the produce and neglected the patch, you would soon find that you have lost this resource. Likewise, with the initial (and continuous) removal of forests, the rapid burning of millions of years of collected carbon, the changes to watercourses and overall environmental polluting, you cannot expect that we could avoid a number of significant changes to the environment.

You often hear, with pride, that human activity is visible from space, but truly think about it; our activities are so immense in scale and impact that they can be observed outside of this plant! It’s staggering and is a true example of how we are, without a doubt, a force of nature. Such power demands respect from those to yield it.

John Cook, Peter Sinclair and Scott Mandia among many others have done an excellent job to provide the wealth of scientific understanding in a user-friendly fashion that demonstrates the evidence of why we believe that our activities are changing the climate. It seems, at this point, unnecessary to repeat their work. However, what I run up against is the idea that a warmer, CO2 richer atmosphere is beneficial for life.

We could first turn to Rosenzweig et al. (2008), who looked at over 29,500 data sets of physical and biological responses (from 1970 to 2004) and found roughly 90% were in the direction expected with warming. Deutch et al. (2008) looked at insects across latitudes and concluded that those at lower latitudes are already living near their optimum and are likely to suffer greater detrimental consequences (compared to higher latitude species) as climate continues to change. Long-distance migrating birds in The Netherlands have also suffered a decline in population size, which Both et al. (2010) conclude is the result of an increasing mismatch in timing of prey-predator events. Very recently, Cantin et al. (2010) showed that in the Red Sea, the coral species, Diploastrea heliopora, has suffered a colony decline of about 30% since 1998. They go on to suggest that warming of the Red Sea will stop coral growth before ocean acidification does.

All the above example organisms play an important role in the overall ecosystem to which they are involved, whether it’s as pollinators, transferring of nutrients, providing nursery shelter for other species, for example. All will decline with increasing climate change along with their ecological services to their environment and thus a degradation of the relevant biodiversity.

Climate change will hardly be beneficial to the biodiversity present on this planet.

This is all very relevant to our species, for we are not truly free from the humble reliance on nature of our infancy. If we look at water, we rely on numerous physical events and ecological services to treat and transport the substance. If we look at agriculture, we rely on numerous ecological services to produce fertile land, water availability, pollinators, legumes for nitrogen fixation, certain climate conditions and currently copious amounts of fossil fuel (peaking oil being the major concern). If we look at fisheries, we rely on sea grass and coral nurseries, water quality, limiting algal blooms, climate and again copious amounts of fossil fuels. If we look at the atmosphere itself, we rely on the photosynthetic qualities of countless species to produce air that is breathable.

I could go on – both in increased detail of the above examples and to highlight others – but I don’t think it’s really needed.

What is needed is a radical change in how we see ourselves and our place on this planet. Pride for the rewards of our curiosity is certainly essential. This, hopefully, will lead to greater appreciation for the scientific endeavours that have improved the standard of living immensely. However, the arrogance must be dropped and replaced again with a sense of humility for the ecological system that we are inherently tied to. We are as we are, not only because of great minds, or Newton’s giants, but also millions of other organisms that clean the waters, work and land and condition the air. We’re part of that system. We also yield tools capable to radically modifying that system and many modifications cannot be undone.

Humility and respect will promote caution in our activities, but also stimulate development that better suits multiple benefits, instead solely financial profit and other human based properties.

We truly are a remarkable species, but we’re only one of millions. We must remember that.

* I’d like to note that we have left many behind on this journey – who now many of the developed West see only in advertisements pleading for ongoing donations.

Both, C., Van Turnhout, C. A. M., Bijlsma, R. G., Siepel, H., Van Strien, A. J., and, Foppen, R. P. B. (2010) Avian population consequences of climate change are most severe for long-distance migrants in seasonal habitats. Proc. R. Soc. B. 277:1259-1266. doi:10.1098/rspb.20091525

Cantin, N. E., Cohen, A. L., Karnauska, K. B., Tarrant, A. M., and, McCorkle, D. C. (2010) Ocean warming slows coral growth in the central Red Sea. Science. 329:322-325

Deutsch, C. A., Tewksbury, J. J., Huey, R. B., Sheldon, K. S., Ghalambor, C. K. Haak, D. C. And, Martin, P. R. (2008) Impacts of climate warming on terrestrial ectotherms across latitude. PNAS. 105(18): 6668-6672. doi:10.1073/pnas.0709472105

Rosenzweig, C., Karoly, D., Vicarelli, M., Neofotis, P., Wu, Q., Casassa, G., Menzel, A., Root, T. L., Estrella, N., Seguin, B., Tryjanowski, P., Liu, C., Rawlins, S., and, Imeson, A. (2008) Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change. Nature. 453(15):353-357. doi:10.1038/nature06937

Check out more of Tim's work at the Moth Incarnate blog. Some of his recent posts include some interesting thoughts about Lord Monckton and a reaction to Matthew Glover's consensus infographic.

Posted by mothincarnate on Thursday, 5 August, 2010

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