2007-10-12 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Tiger By The Tail?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Besides all the usual stuff, one of the big things separating left and right these days is the environment. What's happening to it and what are we going to do about it? Are we in the midst of a global warming crisis and aren't we responsible for it if we are? Aren't there really too many of us using too much of everything anyway?

It may surprise some, but even conservatives like me can have concerns about the environment. I recently finished reading Jared Diamond's "The Third Chimpanzee," a book that takes off from the recently established fact that only about 1.6% of the entire human genome separates us from chimpanzees (making them our closest living relatives). For Diamond this narrow genetic gap obliges us to see ourselves as visitors from another planet might: one species among many. What that visitor would presumably see in us, according to Diamond, is an unusually successful and exceedingly voracious primate with the propensity to devour its own environment. Though the attributes of our species, including territoriality, sociability, aggression, tool use, and even language are not without precursors in the animal kingdom, Diamond notes that, even if we are only a bit less than 2% different, genetically, from certain apes, this has still had a massive impact on the planet we inhabit.

Diamond details how man's historic successes have resulted in continuous losses for our fellow species - and for ourselves. Besides a history of humans killing humans, he details the massive and rapacious advance of our kind across the face of the globe as we repeatedly drove other animal species to extinction and irreversibly impoverished the natural environment due to our remarkable success in the competitive game of evolution. Aself-described bird-watcher and biologist, Diamond takes his lessons from observations of lost bird species in New Guinea and other exotic locales while offering a fascinating, and sometimes depressing, series of speculations. He describes how evolution shaped our bodies and our very natures and how geographic factors might have influenced the radical variation in human civilizations' technological achievements.

Africa and the Americas exist on a north-south axis, he notes, limiting the potential for the spread and cross-pollenization of agricultural and other technologies among human groups in those areas, thereby adversely affecting those groups' chances to develop. By contrast, he notes, Europe, the Middle East and Asia all lie on an eastwest axis, increasing the opportunities for societies in those regions to share technologies and cultural innovations because of climatological consistency as you move east to west. Evolutionary competition is never far from his mind in any of this and he's quick to warn that modern governments and scientists may have acted unwisely by sending signals into outer space, announcing our presence, in hopes of finding other intelligent life forms. Evolutionary pressures being what they are, he suggests we'd be better off if no one out there ever gets those messages.

On the other hand, given what he sees as the locust-like march of mankind towards total planetary consumption and our proclivities for intergroup violence, he thinks it may be a better bet that we'll devour ourselves before anyone else can. That may be why no one has answered us thus far, he suggests, since it could well be that the evolutionary game on any planet where life has arisen may lead to the same kind of self-immolation he thinks we're now headed toward.

Repeatedly he details the destruction of pristine ecological environments which routinely followed the appearance of our species in new parts of the globe, from the earliest ages - when men first spread out from Africa to ultimately hunt the great mammals of Europe, Asia and the Americas to extinction - to the era of European exploration, only a few short centuries ago, when Europeans permanently destroyed the ecological systems they found on previously untrod oceanic islands. Indeed, Diamond blames us, the human chimp, for having destroyed the majority of creatures that have walked the Earth since our first appearance. And he thinks there's worse to come including possible nuclear devastation or planetary collapse. In one intriguing passage he recounts how construction on a single site for a housing development on one Pacific island in the past twenty years resulted in the destruction and loss of uncounted species of small creatures found nowhere else on Earth. He invites us to imagine how many times, and to what devastating effect, this has happened before in our history. Ouch!

And yet this points up a crucial weakness in his otherwise compelling, and certainly eye-opening, narrative. It's unarguable that man's presence alters his environment wherever he finds himself and that that alteration is generally permanent, irrevocable and, indeed, terrible for the creatures on the receiving end. Nevertheless, we, like every other species, cannot avoid leaving our footprint where we go and it's certainly true that each and every tiny corner of this earth may, and probably does, harbor various unique species, if only on a microscopic level. Diamond's advocacy for environmental awareness is good advice since it's better to preserve and nurture our environment than devour it. As far as we know, at least for now, there is only this one Earth.

But it's unrealistic to imagine we can avoid impacting our environment entirely - or even enough to avoid displacing other species at all. That one development Diamond cites in the Pacific points up the problem, for how many others have done as much or more damage around the planet? Yet what is the alternative as the human population grows in order to sustain itself? What harm is being done to tiny forms of life we may not even know about as our own development here in Rockaway proceeds apace? We could have left Rockaway undeveloped, of course, and some of us would have preferred that. But what would it leave us with? Overgrown streets and packs of feral dogs roaming empty lots filled with garbage, rats and, perhaps, all those unique, tiny forms of life we may never know were there? Can we simply call a halt and cease developing the world around us just because we want to?

A growing human population has its problems but diminishing it could be even worse. Besides going against our natural biological imperative, it brings with it the risk of civilizational breakdown. Fewer and fewer members of the various population groups would be available to support more and more of us as the populations age out. At the same time, unless all of mankind can be diminished in numbers simultaneously, there would be competition for space and resources, the larger and more robust population groups impinging on the diminishing ones (as we see in Europe today, where an aggressive external Muslim population presses in on a more inward-looking, diminishing native population). This must lead to its own conflicts and disasters.

Perhaps a worldwide plague or devastating war would do the trick then? But to what terrible effect? And what about the impact on the environments in which the self-destroying human populations endure their wars and plagues? Despite Diamond's important points about the human propensity to eat its own, we are still that third chimpanzee he writes about, hanging onto the tail of our evolutionary tiger, unable to let go without getting eaten but unsure of where we're likely to end up. Better hope no one's out there reading NASA's interplanetary e-mail. rockirreg@aol.com

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