Hominid Exceptionalism and the Intrinsic Limit of Human Power in Earth’s Ecosystem

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In an outstanding piece of political analysis Professor Andrew Bacevich has drawn attention to the limits of power and the fatal — yet still persistent — illusion of “American exceptionalism.” His trenchant analysis stops short, however, of a critique of the larger arrogance at the root of American exceptionalism and that is:  “hominid exceptionalism.”

Humans, through the myths they tell themselves and their leaders like to repeat, have come to believe that they are “exceptions” to the laws of nature.  This is not so, in fact, simply because it cannot be so.  We have evolved over time within Earth’s ecosystem, and in the long run we are governed by its constraints.  In biological terms we are a late-arriving, bi-pedal, mammalian omnivore with an extraordinarily inflated sense of self-importance.  We do not and, in fact, cannot photosynthesize.  Therefore we are totally dependent upon other species that do.  No population in any ecosystem can ever outlast its food supply, and humans will be no exception to this sobering scientific fact.

Simple scientific truths like this are taught and learned by children in every elementary school across the world.  Yet adults — and particularly political and religious leaders — tend to ignore these truths, choosing instead to evoke narratives of “choseness” or other forms of exceptionalism to assure their listeners of the virtues of continuous growth on a finite planet.

The problem is that the pattern continuous human growth based on the myth of hominid exceptionalism cannot endure and will not persist for very much longer in Earth’s finite ecosystem.  As the animated graph illustrates — depicting the human predicament from roughly 1900 onward —  humans are currently at what many scientists call a “peak-moment” concerning the extraction of fossil fuels (peak oil), the continuation of human population growth and concomitant growth of planetary warming. [For additional discussion of the “peak moment” concept see: http://wp.me/p2iDSG-aPw]

We need quickly to learn to live within the limits of hominid power in a sustainable ecosystem or we risk driving ourselves into extinction — the ultimate dismissal from the ongoing community of Earth’s life forms.

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