Civilization, Extinction Crisis, Sustainability

Progress or Apocalypse?

In the last 400 years, all evidence suggests that human knowledge and technological skill have increased more rapidly than in all of the approximately one million prior years of human existence. Over the same few centuries, the health of all biological communities has been in an ever-accelerating decline. This is no coincidence, for every facet of human “progress” has direct consequences in the living world, as Allan Savory makes clear with the following chart:

Mechanical
Development of
Transport: air, land, water
Communication: radio, television, telephone, satellite
Weapons: conventional, nuclear, laser
Space exploration
Computer technology: artificial intelligence, robotics
Home building and home appliance technology
Energy plants: nuclear, hydroelectric, etc.
Medical technology: brain scanners, eyeglasses/contact lenses, medicines, etc.
Genetic engineering
Chemical technology: synthetic fertilizers
(Ever-increasing success story testifying to the marvels of science)

Nonmechanical
Management of
Agriculture
Rangelands
Forest
Air quality
Fisheries
Water supplies and quality
Erosion
Economies
Wildlife (including insects)
Human relationships
Human health
(Ever-increasing problems testifying to our lack of understanding)

His categorizing of the so-called “advances” as mechanical gets to the heart of the problem of living in a way that depends on extraction because the mindset required to take endlessly ignores or minimizes the complex relationships of interdependency that are life on earth. Savory’s greatest influence, Jan Christian Smuts, theorized that if we are to live in right relationship with the rest of life, the world can’t be viewed as separate entities, but instead we should see it as flexible, changing patterns or arrangements.

An example of this is when a human looks at a blue oak and sees only one tree, or tries to describe a trout without seeing that these lifeforms couldn’t exist without the millions of relationships they have with water, air, mud, stones and all the lifeforms in those “substances.” These relationships are the changing patterns of the world.

Smuts coined the term “holism” to describe what he perceived as reality: that the living world consists of wholes, not parts or individuals or substances or even individual species. Savory points out that we do not see our loved ones as “billions of nerve, muscle, skin, blood, and bone cells,” we see them as whole persons. He further adds that our understanding of wholes is actually minute by pointing out that a single teaspoon of water can contain up to a billion organisms.

Nonetheless, the real world evidence of living without this understanding—in an extractive manner—is clear. Everything called “progress” since humans took up agriculture has been severely detrimental to biological integrity and biodiversity. Every new gadget that makes life more comfortable or enjoyable for an individual human comes with an extraordinary cost to our species, and apparently to almost all others: our long-term survival is undermined by this mechanical “advance.”

Savory agrees with those who postulate that humans, armed with stone pointed weapons, were responsible for the extinction of dozens of species of megafauna in the late Pleistocene era, so his critique of humans making poor management decisions seems to include nearly every human technology. We are not so sure humans were responsible for all the megafaunal deaths, so with the advantage of hind-sight, we see the starting point for poor evolutionary choices to be agriculture, which is when irrefutable evidence for over-extraction begins.

We look at the long-term presence of the indigenous people in our region as evidence that some technological advances are compatible with living sustainably in place. However, one of their primary land-management tools, fire, is something we are now beginning to question, as the world they inherited was devoid of Nothrotheriops, Equus, Platygonus, Camelops, Hemiauchenia, Bison, Euceratherium, Tetramerix, Mammuthus, Canis dirus, Arctodus, Smilodon, and Teratornis incredibilis, among many other critical shapers of the land before their arrival. Some of these megafauna were earth-turners, many of them were grazers and browsers, and some were pack-hunting predators. Depending on the species, they existed here from half a million to 10.3 million years before humans arrived. Given the estimated abundance of such megafauna, we postulate that when humans first arrived in California, the land already had a groomed appearance, and that catastrophic fires set by lightning were a rare occurrence, since the animals would have greatly minimized the build up of excessive fuel. So while the first peoples of this region did develop sustainable relationships with the vast numbers the tule elk, antelope and bears, for example, they also changed the environment significantly with regular and widespread use of fire. We theorize that fire took over the role of the missing megafauna to maintain the “park-like” setting that Europeans described when they first met California’s indigenous people. There is no doubt that lightning fires are a regular shaper of life and land, but their occurrence in a given area is minimal compared to the regular intervals of burning by indigenous peoples. It is also possible that the presence of huge herds of elk and antelope made regular fire use a sustainable and wise strategy. Could the soil-damaging effects of regular fire in brittle lands be balanced by the soil-benefiting effects of dense herds of ungulates moved along by pack-hunting predators? Or was regular fire use also a human technology that had a negative net effect on life, albeit one that was much, much slower than, say, burning fossil fuel or dumping toxic chemicals in a river? Given that many native plant species in this region have seeds that germinate better after a fire, we see this as evidence supporting the knowledge that plants are incredibly adaptable. Fire-dependency for germination is a relatively recent evolution for these plants.

It may be that these kinds of questions never get accurately answered, but we see that living in right relationship to place requires seeking their answers. It appears that the land desperately needs big animals. We will surely make some land-care decisions that prove unwise, but the world we live in is like none that any human culture has ever experienced. We have inherited a traumatized world.

For the North American megafauna of 500,000 years BP, there was an apocalypse (an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale) about 10,000 years ago. For the indigenous people of California, who apparently arrived here just before the megafaunal collapse, their apocalypse began with the arrival of the first light-skinned people and their diseases about 300 years ago. For California’s grizzly bears and wolves, their apocalypse started at the same time but was rapid and ended with their extinctions. Since the populations of most native species in California match the decimation of its intact lands, which currently ranges from 90 to 99%, it is hard not to call the state of affairs for all non-human life in this region to be in the midst of their own apocalypse. Scientists call this mass extinction, and it is of course going on everywhere. Yet, “progress” is still a concept that sways most folks.

Somehow, all this apocalypse is mostly unknown, each generation of humans growing further and further from knowledge of what it is like to live in a healthy, whole world. Our aim with this web site and our on-the-ground work is to try to move a few humans—one of the greatest shapers of the world—back toward our ancestral knowledge of living in place sustainably. We’ll have to redefine “progress” to get there.