What must we learn to survive as a species? Steps Toward an Environmental Ethic for Human Survival on a Small Planet


What must we learn to survive as a species?

This is an urgent question, and one might expect that universities around the world would mobilize their collective resources to address the issue — across all cultures, all languages and all traditions of human learning.  The challenge is huge, but publishing and internet technologies for the global diffusion of information and sharing of analysis now make this daunting task conceivable.

The impediments to achieve this kind of reflection are not technological ones.  Rather the major constraints we face are those imposed by the existing institutional structures,  habits of mind and the natural human reticence to re-examine what we have come to regard as established truths.

At the very least, for example, universities around the world need now to re-think their curricula on agriculture, climate change and human ecology.  Yet this will not be easy because colleges and universities everywhere have established approaches to these topics reflected in their different departments, institutes, research traditions, and outside funding sources from government agencies, to private foundations or profit-driven corporations.

Nevertheless, some general truths are now apparent and deserve to be affirmed in all university teaching.  Scientists are making it clear that our only long term hope of survival is to learn collectively — and very quickly — how to re-insert the human species within the natural and enduring bio-geo-chemical cycling of Earth’s ecosystem.

Species that have failed to live within their ecological constraints in the past have been met with extinction.

We will be no exception to this general rule of ecosystem function.

The problem is simple: no population can outlive its food supply, and humans cannot produce food.

This is not for lack of will power or for lack of ingenuity or insufficient technology. It is due to the simple fact that we do not and cannot photosynthesize.

This means that we live — at best — on the second trophic level in a complex ecosystem.  In fact, if we eat meat, fish, or eggs or we drink milk we are on the tertiary trophic level or above, linked back through an ever-precarious food chain to Earth’s “primary producers” — the photosynthesizers.

In short, our lives depend directly upon those species that continue to function as the primary producers in Earth’s ecosystem.  However we may wish it, we cannot command their behavior. We may like to  think that through the more than 10,000 years of agricultural development we have come to “control” nature, but this is not so.  Indeed, quite the opposite is true.  “Nature” has come to control us in very specific ways.  Because of our increased dependence upon grain-based agriculture and our relatively recent conversion through the “green revolution”  to petro-intensive agricultural technologies we have now committed our species to a non-renewable future.

Since no population can outlive its food supply, no human population whose food supply depends for its production upon non-renewable resources will be able to outlive their finite supply in the long run.   In short, fossil-fuel based agriculture is suicidal for our species, yet it is everywhere being embraced at an ever increasing speed all around the world.

Further, with our species habit of generating waste and conducting virtually endless campaigns of destructive warfare our perpetually expanding economies of consumption are rapidly destroying the habitat required for primary producers to survive.

Moreover current political leaders are intent upon spending billions of dollars in silly and futile attempts to “embrace the next frontier” in space — as if this has any meaning four our collective survival on this planet.   We already know that plants and their supporting soils do not and cannot exist under the conditions found on anything we can hope to “reach” in the known future, so why are public tax-payers dollars being expended in this fanciful delusion?  Of course, the aerospace corporations stand to make billions of dollars profiting from these delusions, but citizens need now to reaffirm some basic truths and regain control from the corporations of the basic institutions of democracy that purport to govern in their interest.

We are in desperate need at this point of some sober leadership that understands the role of humans in our complex ecosystem.  We are going to have to make some  hard choices for humans to achieve sustainability in this complex ecosystem.  We already inhabit a life-supporting environment — in fact, the only one in the known universe, as far as we can tell.  Without this kind of understanding and vision for our collective survival as a species, we will have no chance of enduring what is in store for us in a climate-changing world.

The “human miracle” is not that we are set apart from nature, but that we now realize  we can only survive sustainably as a part of nature.  If we do not come to that collective awareness and readjust our behavior in line with this new understanding, everything we have come to depend upon in the fossil-fuel moment will soon come to a crashing and rudely shocking halt.

“Just take the case of agriculture….”

The litany of disaster is by now as alarming as it is familiar.  Coral reefs are dying, tropical rain forests are being destroyed, ocean acidification is disrupting the food chain in all the world’s oceans, sea- level is on the rise around the globe and topsoil is everywhere eroding at rates that are orders of magnitude greater than it is being created — chiefly because of our accelerated combustion of fossilized carbon.

Scientists inform us that we are, in fact, in the midst of the “sixth great extinction” in Earth’s long and unfolding drama of life.  At this point, the extinction dynamic seems to be driven primarily by the collective illusions and both the unconscious and the deliberate behavior of one of the ecosystem’s component species.  We are, as zoologists have observed, a late-arriving bipedal mammalian omnivore with a highly exaggerated sense of self-importance.  As it turns out, we are the disruptive species in the ecological mix, and it now appears that our cumulative behavior may well engender our collective extinction.

The chilling yet sober fact is that our much-vaunted “intelligence” as a species may not prove to be adaptive in evolutionary terms.  If we cannot learn to behave within the species constraints of the complex ecosystem in which we have evolved it will not end well for us.  Worse yet, if we think we can dominate Earth’s ecosystem and bend it to our purpose of continuous species expansion, we are sadly misinformed and most certainly will hasten our own demise.

Shakespeare in his day appears to have had more awareness of the linked character of Kings and things in the ecosystem then we do today.  In his play, Hamlet, the central character, Hamlet himself, reflects out loud to Claudius the King:

“HAMLET […] we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table; that’s the end.
CLAUDIUS Alas, alas.
HAMLET A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
CLAUDIUS What dost thou mean by this?
HAMLET Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To meet the growing demand for global understanding on these questions new institutions have emerged both within and beyond existing universities in recent years.  Organizations like the Worldwatch Institute, created by Lesteer Brown, led the way decades ago, followed by organizations like the World Resources Institute, the Stockholm Resilience Center, the Post-Carbon Institute, and many, many more.  All of these institutions can help in their own way, and they have enriched the exchange so far in very important domains.

Still required, however, is a renewed and sustained commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching that needs to be undertaken within universities and beyond them at all levels throughout the world. We need collectively to learn to make the transition from a petro-dependent culture to a solar sustainable world.

This is not a task for the natural sciences alone. Indeed, the insights of the natural sciences may prove to be the first and most easily agreed upon terrain for exchange.  Beyond this, however, our scope of consideration will need to expand to include  the humanities, philosophy, ethics and all historical disciplines as well as the full range of human cultural achievements conveyed to us though the evolving understanding of anthropology.  These perspectives can now all assist us in addressing the looming question:  What must we learn to survive as a species?

See related:

as well as:

as well as:

With examples of the purposeful transformation of key crops for the convenience and profit of agribusiness firms:

And a range of work by:


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