When has the environment ever been a problem for any one species? Apart from the problems of being eaten, dying of a disease or being burnt to the ground in a forest fire if you happen to be a tree. Assuming that your species continues to exist, even if that might not necessarily include you, when has the environment ever been a problem? In terms of incoming nutrients, water, food and resources, when has the environment ever a problem? Generally, there’s always more coming from somewhere. The ecosystems are, generally, in balance. There might be patches of drought meaning less water and less food, but it usually gets better. Ecosystems do change over time otherwise new species wouldn’t evolve or others go extinct. But it’s usually a very slow process with little change between the generations.
Occasionally one species will indeed become very successful. If it does this as something of a sudden leap, then whatever if feeds on will dwindle sharply resulting in a population collapse of both prey and predator and even possible extinction of those species.
Species do come and go. In many cases, the extinct organisms, for which we find fossils, may well have just evolved into something else. So it’s less a case of extinction and more a case of evolution. Any particular organism will have a long history where it has essentially been many other species to get where it is today.
Some species do just reach the end of the line. This is most often due to gradual changes where the whole ecosystem has gradually changed around them and they have remained relatively unchanged. They just end up being out competed by one or more other species. They are gradually edged out of the ecosystem.
On the whole, ecosystems tend to be in balance. Over long time periods, this is less true. There is always some flux, even in the most stable ecosystems. Otherwise there would be no opportunity for continual evolution.
There are also variables in output of the sun or wobbles in the Earth’s orbit and axis and these will usually put mild stresses on ecosystems, causing them to shift their ranges and occasionally squeezing out the odd species altogether. Ecosystems shifting ranges tends to mean things like forests migrating north or south, or up or down mountains, or coral reefs shifting to new areas to keep pace with sea level changes. With climate change, the arctic is melting rapidly. Arctic species have to progressively move north to adapt. It may well soon be the case that some arctic species will run out of ‘north’ to move into. In much the same way that a mountain species has to move higher to adapt and if it’s habitable range moves higher than the top of the mountain, it’s going to go extinct. If one arctic animal needs ice and there is none, it may well go extinct. Some of these climate and ecosystem changes occur in short time periods. One of the Sun’s output variables has a cycle of about 11 years. If some climate changes can have this short period, then, to a certain extent, organisms evolve to deal with these small changes. So, birds might feel a change in the weather and decide to nest early. They cope with short term natural variability and have evolved to do so. The same would be true of early humans.
Also with early humans, the world would have seemed like an endless place. It seemed that there’d always be more of what you need coming from somewhere – the environment will provide. Early humans would have slowly evolved within their African ecosystem and would have fitted in with it. They would have been in balance with it.
Once the positive feedback of psychological growth, the beginning of the ‘Next Level’ starts to kick in with incrementally better tools, language and brain growth, we start to loose that balance. This is the point where we started to become that successful, all-consuming species. Due to our success, we began to migrate out of Africa and spread across the globe, consuming new animals in new ecosystems as we went. Our first encounter with lack of sustainability with regard to this expansion would have been eating our way through the world’s megafauna. This idea is still very much a subject of debate, but it does seem that as humanity spread, the megafauna around the world disappeared. Did we eat our way through all the big animals? Mammoths are the first big animal people tend to think of in relation to this, but there were also giant armadillos, wombats, sloths etc. Big animals have a tendency to be more vulnerable to extinction. Once we’ve eaten our way through them, it’s much harder to then eat everything else, the more numerous smaller species… until today. With modern humans, we are reaching the limits of the planet’s ecosystems. Our in-built expectation that there will always be more resources coming from somewhere won’t get us very far in modern times. In terms of evolutionary psychology, the environment is something that has always provided for us. It feels like it’ll last for ever, it’ll never run out, because that has more or less been our experience for the last few million years and this is reflected in our psychology. This is obviously a dangerous position to be in and I’ll come back to this in the next section.
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