No one reading this has the slightest fucking clue what “nature” is, and in 1995 fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly proved it. In the paper that introduced the term “shifting baselines,” Pauly described how experts who determined how many fish should be caught often started with whatever the baseline state of the ecosystem was when they started their careers, instead of considering what a fishery might have looked like in the past, when it wasn’t nearly as degraded.
This phenomenon pops up all over the place. In 2009, researchers showed how residents of villages in Yorkshire, England suffered from “generational amnesia,” in which the older ones could remember an ecosystem that younger generations hadn’t a clue had ever existed. It’s not an unintuitive phenomenon: We consider “nature” to be whatever we experienced as children, and, limited by our incomplete grasp of history and our short lifespans, are only capable of recognizing short windows of change in what is by now the most profound transformation the Earth has experienced since the great extinctions of yore — that is, the human experiment.
The total amount of land given to crops is tied with forests as the single largest terrestrial ecosystem.
As a result, few of us are aware that Boston harbor used to be so full of lobsters that the crustacean was considered a food fit only for the poor. Or that overall our Earth used to support a much greater wild, free-roaming biomass, from whales in the millions to old-growth forest ecosystems whose sheer tonnage dwarfs the denuded, “sustainably managed” forests of today.
Our lack of knowledge should not be construed as any sort of moral failing. It’s simply the consequence of a centuries long experiment in exponential population growth that is only just now coming to its apex. We’re currently witnessing the ascension of an ecosystem that cannot survive without the intercession of technology.
Overfarming in Lesotho
If you think of the Earth as a space ship with an energy budget that equals the input of the sun, which is exactly what it is, then you can imagine that there is a total quantity of biological productivity of which our planet is capable. Estimates say that humans are already appropriating between one quarter and one half of this productivity. The total amount of land given to crops is tied with forests as the single largest terrestrial ecosystem. Our food production requires almost a quarter of the total land area of the planet.
We have basically killed most of the wildlife that was available to us only a single generation ago. Chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy Peter Kareiva has declared that while 13 percent of Earth’s landmass is now protected as some sort of park — an area larger than all of South America — we have completely failed to stop the eradication of the plant and animal inhabitants of these “wild” places.
Much of this is due to the fact that wild things are apparently quite tasty. And if you think this is limited to the land, the evidence is that our oceans are in even worse shape, with global fishing stocks set to collapse by mid-century. Meanwhile, as we all know, climate change is only accelerating what scientists now call the “sixth extinction.” Or in other words, the sixth time in the 4 billion year history of life on earth that the entire planet was so challenged that a vast majority of life came perilously close to being snuffed out.
The proportion of ecosystem productivity used by humans. Darker regions are those in which we’re already using close to 100 percent of available energy and natural resources. (From Quantifying and mapping the global human appropriation of net primary production in Earth’s terrestrial ecosystem in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2007)
This is not a narrative that should surprise anyone. Like all species, we were destined to expand up to the carrying capacity of our environment. We just happen to be the best ever at altering that environment to support ever more of us, consuming at an ever more rapid rate. What’s nature, now? To a significant extent, it’s us. It’s our machines — the hybrids of flesh and technology that we have all become.
I don’t mean to be cavalier about the damage we’re doing to our planetary life support systems. But any attempt to talk about the 21st century without acknowledging that every living thing on the planet will be altered by humans is intellectually bankrupt. There is no “nature” left — only the portion of nature that we allow to live because we imagine it serves some purpose — as a thing to eat, a place to reprocess our waste, or an idea that fulfills our dwindling desire to maintain “the natural” for aesthetic or ideological reasons.
It is truly the age of the Anthropocene.
What’s nature, now? To a significant extent, it’s us. It’s our machines — the hybrids of flesh and technology that we have all become.
In a very real sense, we are going to have to replace the components of our planetary life support system that we have killed off — or else face extinction. I’m not excited about the prospect in the least, but whether it’s geoengineering, or desalination, or the replacement of storm-absorbing mangrove forests with sea walls, the simple fact is that a lot of the energy and resources that we’ve commandeered from nature are going to have to be put to use reconstituting a lot of the functions it used to take care of for us for free.
It’s worth asking what the ultimate end of all this is. Broadly, we have two competing visions for the future, both of which I find improbable, so I’ll offer a third.
The first vision is one of global ecosystem collapse, peak energy, die-off of a significant portion of the human race, etc. Call it the Dark Green vision — a sort of secular doomsday.
The second vision of the future, the popularity of which seems directly proportional to just how dire our situation appears to be, is the optimistic notion that innovation will save the day, and that economic growth will continue forever. It can be definitively demonstrated that this notion is a fantasy, if only its proponents would do the math.
Geoengineering: an unmanned ship designed to generate clouds and reflect sunlight away from the earth, via the Guardian
The reality falls somewhere between these two extremes. The doomsday scenario may be more plausible than a techno-utopian future, but the Dark Greens underestimate both humanity’s will to survive and the fact that there are more people on the planet innovating now than ever before. It won’t be easy to get past the long sunset of oil and the desertification of some of the most agriculturally productive parts of the planet, but it’s probably not impossible, either.
I’m not saying the results will be pretty. In her book Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris outlines what all of us already know — that the in-between places in our built environment are the only real “nature” most of us have left, and the trash-strewn lots of Detroit and the subway tunnels of New York support far more biodiversity than the sterile, “sustainably planted” forests that cover most of the continental U.S.
Joi Ito, head of MIT’s media lab, has said that “One hundred years from now, the role of science and technology will be about becoming part of nature rather than trying to control it.” This doesn’t mean we’re all going to wake up tomorrow and become responsible stewards of the planet. What it means is that we’re going to so degrade the environment on which we depend that we’re going to have to devote an ever-increasing percentage of our inventive capacity to merely staying alive.
As animals ourselves, have we any power to avoid succeeding in the sense that we completely take over the planet?
In a hundred years, the biggest industries will all be devoted to the cybernetic enhancement of the planet itself. Whatever limbs we sever now, whatever critical systems we wreck, are going to have to be replaced. Imagining that they might even be upgraded underestimates the unfathomable parallel processing power of 4 billion years of evolution on this planet, which is essentially a vast computer for determining the optimal solution to the problem of resource allocation. So no, I don’t think we’re going to do better. But nature? Nature, increasingly, is us.
In the final pages of Fiasco, the final novel by Stanislaw Lem, one of the most thoughtful science-fiction authors ever, an astronaut on an alien planet makes a disturbing discovery. The inhabitants of the planet, whom he assumed would be something like himself, turn out to be, despite their super-advanced civilization, little more than gigantic, immobile, cogitating funguses. Almost their entire planet is covered in systems to collect energy. They are the ultimate result of a species’ “successful” appropriation of nearly 100 percent of its planets resources. Whatever they once were, they have themselves evolved — or devolved — so that they now possess only the physical selves that are required by their highly mechanized civilization.
I’m not saying that humans will some day be little more than brains in jars. But if we imagine that we are going to survive the coming transition, it’s worth asking, what does “success” actually look like? And as animals ourselves, have we any power to avoid succeeding in the sense that we completely take over the planet?