Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability

Here’s another chapter of my book. The point of this chapter is to show how we need to overcome our outdated psychological response to the environment.



Earlier on I discussed humanity’s attitude towards to environment. It’s now time to return to that.

As already set out, the environment has never really been too much of a problem for us. True, life has been hard here and there with a possible drying of the climate, forcing us down from the trees in the first place, or the difficulty of the coming and going of ice-ages forcing our migration. It could have been that such environmental changes are what forced us into a situation where the Next Level could initiate in the first place and start us out on our path of uniqueness.

Ecosystems are about balance with all the component species fitting together and working together to keep the system flowing and turning over. Before we set off down the route of the Next Level, humans would also have been in balance with the African ecosystem. As we started to become more sophisticated with the initiation of the Next Level with better tools, intellect and better survivability, we started to loose that balance.

Humanity began to spread around the globe. About 1% of all introduced species, those that are introduced into an ecosystem where they don’t belong, become a problem. Clever humans, as they introduced themselves to continent after continent, tipped the balance of the local ecosystems. Wherever we went, the large animals, the megafauna, died out. Some people speculate that this was due to environmental factors and that these factors were helping us but killing off megafauna across the planet. True enough, megafauna tend to be more vulnerable to extinction and this is a distinct possibility. My feeling is that we may have eaten most of them. The exception to this is Africa where we still have elephants, hippopotamus, giraffe and rhinoceros. One theory as to why African megafauna survived our onslaught suggests that as we evolved in Africa, we were in balance with the African ecosystem, i.e. we were originally part of it. However, in most other places, once the biggest of the animals disappeared, ecosystems with us in them seemed to settle down into a new stable state – for a while.

What about evolutionary psychology, our evolved mind? Well, for a start, the environment has always been there for us to use. It’s always been a resource. There are seasonal factors which would have limited some of the things that we would have needed and environmental variation would have caused a few hard times. Mostly though, there would always have been ‘more environment.’ We might have had to migrate to find this ‘more environment’ and more resources, but they were usually out there somewhere. We just had to go looking for them. From generation to generation, for the vast majority of humanity’s existence, life would have carried on pretty much unchanged. It is my opinion, in terms of evolutionary psychology, that we have an inbuilt expectation that there will always be new resources coming from ‘somewhere,’ but that it might occasionally be difficult for us to find them. So the deeply ingrained evolutionary psychology concept, hard-wired into our brains, is ‘there are more resources out there, but there might also be challenges in acquiring them.’ Just chew over how you feel about that idea for a second – ‘there are always more resources out there.’ If we eat all of the berries in one area of forest, we move and find another patch of forest with more berries. If we employed simple fishing techniques, catching them one at a time, we are never going to catch all the fish. There will always be more fish. Surely we couldn’t catch all the fish in all the oceans? And neither did we… for hundreds of thousands of years. Our in-built, pre-programmed evolved psychology tells us that the environment is essentially infinite. The use of resources isn’t a problem. Sure, it might be hard this year, but next year will be better. We ‘feel’ that we will never run out of resources. This could be a fatal flaw for our species and subsequently, all species.

Another aspect of our evolved psychology seems to view ‘nature’ as, in some ways, the enemy. Nature has been described as ‘red in tooth and claw.’ This says more to me about human attitudes than about the rest of the natural world. Think of a parrot – is it red in tooth and claw, snarling and dripping with blood? Many Victorian gardeners hammered nature into shape, controlling it, bending the species contained to human will. Unruly trees and shrubs were clipped into neat patterns. Lawns were given precise edges and flowers grown in uniform ranks. Nature would behave and we’d see to it that it did. We would control nature and force it to work for us. We’d make sure that it’s no longer our enemy, but our slave. It’s almost like after an eternity of ‘survival of the fittest,’ one animal had eventually and conclusively won for all time – us. We won. If only this would happen in football. We could declare one team the all-time winners and then forget about it and just relax. Seeing nature as ‘foreign’ allows all sorts of disrespect; hunting, eating rare species just because they are rare, shark fin soup, fur coats, dumping nuclear waste in the oceans, cutting down all the forests and much more.

Our evolved psychology, our caveman minds or at least their caveman aspects, quite naturally have an expectation that the world’s resources will go on forever. We view nature as something alien and potentially dangerous so it is okay to exploit it as ruthlessly as we like. Neither of these things are actually true, but they are part of our hard-wired, subconscious, evolved beliefs. Nature is not alien to us and we share a common genetic connection with all life on Earth. All species are related. Life on Earth is one big family.

As we move through this transition phase into the Next Level, we have of course become increasingly complicated and sophisticated as a species. As we’ve become increasingly successful, we’ve gone further and further out of ecological balance. Due to our success, our global population has expanded enormously and continues to expand. With accelerating technological evolution, we are finding it easier and easier to exploit existing resources and to go after previously hard to get resources. As we expand and the Next Level expands, the ecosystems of planet Earth recede.

One of the Next Level’s growing edges is our changing relationship with our planet. We are beginning to develop a sophisticated, mature and responsible relationship with it. We, as a unique species, are slowly edging into actively looking after our parent planet. We are the first species to consciously consider this. In terms of the unfolding of New Levels of Complexity in the Universe, this new relationship ticks all the boxes; it’s a novel thing on planet Earth in itself, it has a new and distinct meaning, it’s being spontaneously generated and is one aspect of our rapidly evolving psychology.

Can you spot the problem? The elephant in the room?

We come up against one environmental limiting factor after another. We have to learn from each of these environmental crises, get over them and fix the problem.

One of the problems so far encountered has been the use of certain chemicals punching big holes in the ozone layer. This was, and in some ways still is, potentially devastating. However, we found out what the problem was, banned the appropriate chemicals and at the last estimate the ozone hole is projected to heal in about 70 years. We have to be vigilant and make sure that all offending chemicals really are phased out to permanently sort out this problem.

Nuclear technology has its obvious problems. Who would have thought that it would create a waste product that we’d have to look after for 10,000 years? That’s how long it’s dangerous for. Simple burial of it might never be enough. Nuclear war is something that we have managed to avoid so far, but is still a distinct possibility. Its drawbacks are obvious. We are slowly learning that nuclear is a no-no.

Then there’s over consumption and habitat loss. A great catchphrase for humanity might be – “Discover the world, and eat it!” There are a lot of things we don’t ‘eat’ directly but that we do consume, like tropical rainforests. It amounts to much the same thing. We are consuming our way through our planet. This is one lesson that we just keep on coming back to. Fingers crossed that we pass the exam eventually. It would be fair to say that currently, this situation is getting continually worse. Ecosystems continue to recede and extinction levels continue to rise.

The ultimate challenge for us will probably be climate change. More accurately, it’ll be a combination of climate change and habitat loss. Either of these things happening on their own would result in a certain amount of extinction, but together the extinction effect will be massively magnified. Imagine planet Earth a few million years ago just before an Ice-Age. All of the planet’s ecosystems would have been fully intact and occupying the full extent of their ranges with no humanity to go around using it all up. As the climate shifted, by entirely natural means, large sections of probably every ecosystem on the planet would have suffered and died off. Let’s say, for example, you loose 50% of each ecosystem. Sounds bad, but you’ve still got 50% left and when the new climate stabilises out, that 50% will spread into new territory and re-grow into a full and complete ecosystem. Of course, some species would get lost on the way but it would most likely result in a small percentage of extinction.

Let’s take the other situation – habitat loss. Let’s assume a stable climate where something happens like an asteroid hitting the Pacific Ocean, causing a massive tsunami that reverberates around the World. It destroys huge sections of ecosystems. Let’s say again we loose 50% of many ecosystems. The very next day the Earth is as stable as it was before but you’ve just had this huge destruction. The climate is the same and the sea-level is the same. The ecosystems quickly recover, re-growing into their natural ranges and, after a few thousand years, the Earth would look just the same as before, more or less. Again, a few unlucky species would be lost, but you’d probably have a low extinction rate.

So what happens if we get climate change and habitat loss together? The habitat loss that planet Earth is currently experiencing means that most ecosystems have lost some of the extent of their ranges. Tropical forests are down by over 50%. Coral reef has receded largely due to pollution and direct damage. So lets take that 50% figure again and apply it to the whole planet and call that the average current loss. That’s pretty realistic as an average. Now let’s add the other big one – climate change. This will also cause a significant additional percentage loss of ecosystems. Climate change and habitat loss together will magnify how bad the extinction is going to be, coming together in an unhealthy synergy. At what point will ecosystems be allowed to recover and from what point, what percentage of degradation are they expected to recover from? Just 10% left, less than that?

As an example, imagine a forest ecosystem where we have cut down 50%. Let’s say that we have cut down the whole of the north of its range. Then along comes climate change, let’s say a climate warming, which will change the extent of the forest’s natural range. With a warmer climate, the forest would naturally die-off in the south of its range and new territory would open up in the north as, say, tundra melted. But wait a minute, haven’t we just cut down all the forest in the north and now the only area where the forest remains, in the south, it’s no longer capable of doing so. Our example forest faces total annihilation. Many of Earth’s ecosystems are facing this very problem; their habitats partially destroyed and a changing climate trying to move them on. Millions of species will find themselves with nowhere to go.

Climate change and habitat loss together create a double-whammy for the Earth’s ecosystems.

Climate change or habitat loss alone would create a small amount of extinction. Put them together and the effect is magnified in hideous synergy and you’ve got mass extinction. Have I laboured this point enough yet?

And have you spotted the elephant in the room, the ultimate problem?

It’s this – the continued expansion of the Next Level is by no means guaranteed. It might all come to nothing. If we get it wrong and destroy the Earth’s ecosystems before we get the hang of being active caretakers and guardians of our planet, that whole built up structure and complexity could collapse.

The ecosystems are the foundations as well as part of the previous levels of complexity, upon which all of humanity’s complexity is based. We are pulling the rug out from under our own feet.

We are at a crucial stage for the development of the Next Level. We’re getting there; we’re starting to have ideas about looking after the Earth and we’ve implemented a certain amount of protection. But will we get there in time, or will it be too little, too late?

I’ve called this chapter ‘sustainability, sustainability, sustainability.’ You could almost sum up the main lesson that humanity has to learn in the twenty first century with that one word; sustainability.

The word is much used, even over-used, these days, mainly by politicians and policy makers, who know that it’s important but without fully grasping what it really means.

Sustainability means that everything we do and all other aspects of the planet’s functioning can continue indefinitely. This means that we need to get our electricity from renewable technology – wind, wave, solar, tidal and a little biomass. The things we currently use for energy production – oil, coal, gas, nuclear – will all run out. Some ‘new nuclear’ has potential, but we’ll have to see how and even if, it develops. Wind, wave and solar power will last for ever. At some point, we will have to stabilise the Earth’s human population. It’s hard to say what number of humans counts as sustainable. It depends on what sort of lifestyle we want. If we all want to eat meat, maybe 3 billion humans, if we’re all vegetarian, maybe 4 billion. Agriculture has to be sustainable. We can’t go on trashing rainforest to grow cattle for fast food burgers or to grow soya to feed cattle for fast food burgers or to grow palm oil for biofuels. At the current rate of fish extraction (modern fishing is more like fish strip-mining) the whole planet will be over-fished by 2050. One current and popular idea is to put about one third of the entire planet’s seas and oceans off-limits to any kind of industrial activity, fishing included, and create marine reserves (see various Greenpeace websites for more information on this subject). This might well allow a complete re-growing and re-expansion of ocean ecosystems in such areas. We only fish the remaining two-thirds. It’s not quite as simple as that. Some species are nearly impossible to harvest sustainably such as many sharks, whales and turtles, wherever they live. Personally, I’m vegetarian and I’d favour leaving the oceans alone altogether. This luxurious ethical choice has a certain amount of in-built sustainability.

We also need to recognise what the Earth’s ecosystems provide for us, often referred to as ‘ecosystem services.’ Ecosystems provide food, water, oxygen, materials and can deal with waste disposal. Again, this all needs to be managed sustainably. A recognition and awareness of ecosystem services will help us with making what we do, as a species, sustainable.

The principles of permaculture will need to be increasingly applied to industrial processes as a way of making industry more ecologically sensitive. This means looking at the inputs and outputs of any process. Can inputs be reduced or made more sustainable? Can outputs, such as waste, be minimised or re-used? Can businesses be partnered, where the output waste of one business is used as the input feedstock for another?

As the Next Level has expanded and unfolded, we saw the birth of the science of ecology. This was an acknowledgment of the complexity of our planet’s ecosystems. Knowledge gained from exploring the nature of ecological complexity will be extremely important in getting the hang of sustainability and our relationship with the Earth.

Personally, I get a deep down sense of connection to my planet. It’s a beautiful place of which we, humanity, are an integral part. We are embedded in it, inextricably linked to it. I look out the window and feel personally connected to whatever species I’m looking at. I feel that all species on Earth are part of the same family. That’s what I feel when I look around at the world. I’d say that that feeling of oneness and connectivity is part of the Next Level.

Part of the Next Level expansion and unfolding is the development of a mature and responsible relationship to and with our planet. This is a whole new feature of our psychology and a psychological first for our planet; the birth of a concept that no other animal has or has ever had. It’s something we don’t currently have because of our hard-wired, ‘cave man’ evolutionary psychology, but it’s a new aspect of our psychology that needs to evolve. If not, it’ll all come to nothing. The Earth will have its sixth mass extinction, and in a few million years, it will go back to being a paradise filled with amazing newly evolved species and with rich and complex ecosystems. But there might be no humanity, no technology, no space travel and no connection to the rest of the Universe. In short, no Next Level or subsequent Next Levels.

If this section of my book had any meaning for you, you might like to read the whole thing.

It’s on Amazon UK – here

On Amazon USA – here

My book is also available as a download on my home page.