Human = reindeer

I have written for other forums brief essays on the future of life and humanity in the light of what we know about human evolution (including evolutionary psychology) and the human situation in the 21st century. A list of all the essays is at the foot of the page.

I received yesterday (16 December 2008) an e-mailed copy from ‘M’ of this article by economics commentator Alan Kohler:

I responded thus:

"Looks to me as if we are edging towards an admission that China, too, is approaching actual recession. Whew!"


The person to whom I sent that reply had also sent the article to others. One of those (‘P’) replied to him this way:

"thanks M

"Alan Kohler is clearly sympathetic. But he doesn't realise that it won't be just his grand children that will suffer - it will also be his children and even, depending on how old he is, himself.

"Also I think to accept the idea that politicians will protect the present generation rather than the future is misreading the situation - what this says is that people alive now are unable to act in the interests of future generations. Clearly many people have this capacity or they wouldn't slave away to put their kids through school - so the problem is that we activists or the pollies (or both) haven't yet connected to the part of each person that can relate to future generations.



So I responded to M as follows. [It's relevant to evolutionary psychology, so I am taking the liberty of posting this copy here. Sorry it goes on a bit lengthily with material we are all familiar with.]

P (and not just P, there are millions like him on this planet, but he has said his piece so I'll respond to that piece - I'm not criticizing him, just the ideas he puts forward as I find them especially interesting because they are not his alone) takes the conventional optimistic view of people's motivations. But he trained as a vet and so I'd hope he'd be more scientific and consider how the animal Homo sapiens actually behaves in its environment. One thing humans do is to behave as if the future is going to be like the past; since the European Enlightenment the idea of "progress" has refined that expectation to one where the future is progressively, and in perpetuity, better than the past - "better" being defined throughout the 19C in terms of advances in civilization, social order and individual comfort and further refined in the 20C with the additional criteria of increasing individual possessions and rising wealth and (both relative and absolute) social position.

But we all know now that the environment has not stayed static since the Enlightenment. In summary, once the ecological footprint of any species exceeds a score of 1.0, the biophysical environment begins a dynamic death dance with that species, one that can have only one ending (the St Matthew Island reindeer is the model [2]). As we hear (this week, for example) that the CO2 residence time in the atmosphere is actually longer than we previously thought and that new evidence comes in on ocean acidification, phthalates and other components of human overshoot, so the parameters of the ecological footprint model must change accordingly. I don't think those parameters have been revised in the light of the new information; they're revised as human numbers increase, but that appears to be incorporated as a linear relationship which leaves out any consideration of positive feedbacks from the death dance. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock is presently at 5 minutes to midnight. If there was an Ecological Footprint Clock, we'd be well into the new day.

The 19C and 20C world views persisted not because they represented a triumph by western civilization over nature and liberation from the constraints of nature (the myth which underlies the conventional view), but because, ironically and paradoxically, they actually required a massively increased dependence upon nature: we drew recklessly on the bank of ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) which is now both destroying our world as that bank is being irreversibly depleted.

The mindset that P invokes sees parents "slav[ing] away to put their kids through school", but they are living in a fantasy - their worldview is dominated by Enlightenment magical thinking:

As I see it, there is no point at all connecting with "the part of each person that can relate to future generations" if that part is grounded in magical thinking which features Enlightenment views of progress and anthropocentric humanism [1]. P has allowed his perspective to be seduced by the comfort of these views and his future vision is desperately rooted in the corrosive, disempowering notion of "hope" - he should look at the evidence from a holistic, scientific and biophysical perspective, not one which excludes inconvenient facts (or "inconvenient truths" as someone else, a woolly-headed, tunnel-vision optimist if ever there was one, described them) or inserts comfortable myths to fill the gaps.

I'm out for the day in this pre-Christmas week, behaving like a reindeer / like a human. Same thing.


* * * *


1. The Earth isn't about keeping steady states of ecosystems. That's your genes wanting to keep an environment they are adapted to, nothing more than pure selfishness. Your anthropocentric political agenda, if you will.

2. The classic example featuring mammals is provided by the reindeer of St. Matthew Island, in the Bering Sea (Klein, 1968 [3]). This island had a mat of lichens more than four inches deep, but no reindeer until 1944, when a herd of 29 was introduced. By 1957 the population had increased to 1,350; and by 1963 it was 6,000. But the lichens were gone, and the next winter the herd died off. Come spring, only 41 females and one apparently dysfunctional male were left alive. When the resources exploited by an introduced species are living organisms, they can reproduce -- and they may eventually evolve defense mechanisms that promote an equilibrium between predator and prey. The topsoil, minerals, and fossil fuels exploited by human beings do not have this capacity, however. They are more like the finite amount of sugar in a vat or the plentiful but slow-growing lichens on St. Matthew Island. The material for this note has been largely copied from David Price's paper [4] on Jay Hanson's site.

3. Klein, David R. (1968). The introduction, increase, and crash of reindeer on St. Matthew Island. Journal of Wildlife Management 32(2), 350-67

4. David Price (1995). Energy and human evolution. Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies
Volume 16, Number 4, March 1995, pp. 301-19

* * * *

List of the essays on the future of humanity:

Essay 1: Human = reindeer (this page)
Essay 2: Hope
Essay 3: I=PAT
Essay 4: Evolutionary psychology and climate change
Essay 5: Conservation - the passing of the word and the idea
Essay 6: The 2008 economic crisis and evolutionary psychology
Essay 7: The purpose of life and evolutionary psychology

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Page added 18 December 2008    Page last up-dated 2 July 2009