Tag Archives: humanity

What is Sustainable Development?

‘Sustainable’ is used a something of a buzzword these days, employed as a handy prefix for everything from fashion to washing-up liquid to fish to economics. From some of the branding and back-of-packet claims that are commonplace, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘sustainable’ was synonymous with ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’. It’s not. Very simply, it means ‘can go on and on, maintained at a constant level or rate’. Plenty of natural processes, like childbirth and volcanic eruptions, are not sustainable as they happen and then end reasonably quickly. So it doesn’t mean natural or green, it just means it can continue. I want to say ‘can continue forever’ but obviously nothing can continue forever. ‘Continue for the foreseeable future’ perhaps.

Confusingly though, ‘sustainable development’ is a much more complex concept than simply ‘ development that can carry on for nearly forever’. The most widely accepted definition comes from Our Common Future, better known as the Brundtland Report, in 1987:  Continue reading

We Societies & Cooperation

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6nuvqVui5c?feature=player_detailpage&w=640&h=360]

This little video (by Sustainable Man) got me thinking about cooperation vs. competition.

We’re often told that competition is they key to survival – in nature, and in human society. Think Charles Darwin. And that is true, up to a point. But it’s not the whole story. Nature would be complete chaos if cooperation wasn’t also woven into the fabric of everything. In fact, scrap that, I think none of the natural world we recognize today would exist without it. Chemical reactions in the early days when Earth was a baby changed the atmosphere to make it hospitable for life. Photosynthetic bacteria emitted oxygen way before plants were on the scene, and this in turn allowed other types of early life to breath.

The scientific theory of symbiogenesis – which is fairly well accepted among scientists – shows that symbiotic relationships (cooperation between species) may well of lead to the evolution of complex life. The theory goes that early microbes developed symbiotic relationships with other increasingly diversified microbes, basically dividing up the tasks of living between them. Over a long time they formed ever more integrated networks and eventually evolved a kind of casing to protect the symbiotic system and keep it contained. According to scientists, this was the origin of the cell.

Fast forward millions of years and this early example of labour division reminds me of a gradual process that happened with human societies. Before the industrial revolution in Western countries, most families grew their own food and produced their own clothes and tools. Today in the UK few people have the skills or indeed the inclination to do this, but it’s normal to have a skill or profession that isn’t common to everyone. The very idea of working at a job and being paid in money, which you can exchange with other workers for food or other goods is a system of specialization.

I think one of the major differences between us and other animals is that we cooperate on a larger scale. None of the historic achievements of the  human race would be possible if we didn’t work together.

People should remember this when they’re getting carried away making sure they have all the money and all the best stuff. It’s not like you can live in a vaccum or without the help of other people and other forms of life, so it doesn’t make sense to be selfish.

I think we can safely say that although competition does have a useful role, it is competition that really drives evolution and progress.

Symbiotic pollination

Symbiotic pollination. Not my image.

We are all connected.

We’re Natural Too You Know!

Whether it’s ‘’exploiting nature’’ or ‘’getting closer to nature’’, the problem’s the same: we aren’t recognizing that we ourselves are a part of the natural world.

It’s easy to see why this assumption has come about… We’re so different to our Earthly cousins that the fact we’re animals too can easily be overlooked. I mean… Elephants have no opinion on whether facebook timeline is worse than facebook original. Mice don’t know much about the new Tax Budget. Crocodiles aren’t too fussed about the American election and owls don’t give a hoot about the rising price of petrol and Walker’s crisps. We have fast cars, iPhone apps and genetic modification. We’ve got the human genome sussed and we can eat strawberries at Christmas. We’ve been to the moon and back and we’ve seen atoms and galaxies and all this has gone to our head. We don’t just have useful opposable thumbs, we have the all important self-consciousness as well. We’re not content to merely go forth and multiply – we want to do all sorts of stuff that other animals seemingly don’t even consider. So it seems obvious that we’re somehow set apart.

Humanity has been described as the point in evolution where life has become conscious of itself. We can think about our own minds. I don’t have much experience of being any other creature so I can’t tell you for sure, but I think this is a trait humans hold alone. The victory of survival isn’t enough for us, we want more. We want meaning and something to work towards. Progress. Answers. Reasons. Improvement… It must have been our extreme curiosity that gave birth to those rivaling twins: religion and science.

But despite all these differences, we’re very much animals. We’re mammals. In fact aren’t we actually apes? We must eat and drink and breath to live. We respire. We still fight for mates . We get broody even though with all our intelligence we know we collectively have plenty of babies and the race is in no danger of extinction (at least not through lack of breeding!) We have a pack mentality and crave a place in a social circle. We hate being excluded.  We have a flight, fight or freeze instinct. The list goes on and on and on. Biologically, we’re not really set apart from other creatures. It’s mainly our thumbs and big brains that are relevant. 97% of a human’s DNA is the same as an orangutan’s. Ninety-seven percent!

I think this common idea that there’s the ‘natural world’ and the ‘human world’ is not only ridiculous but damaging. It oozes disconnection. It makes looking after our environment seem like a charitable cause. And it isn’t. If we could see that we’re all part of the ‘environment’ rather than cut off and separate from it, then we’d see that it’s just looking after ourselves. No one gets all righteous about doing their own cooking and cleaning do they? That’s all environmental work is. Global housework.

Humans aren’t haughty super beings with the right to exploit all lowly creatures for our own ends. That much is true. But we needn’t put ourselves down either. . . I’ve heard people liken humanity to ‘a cancer of the Earth’ and I think that’s a horrible sentiment. We’re not evil by nature.

I think we need a balance…

Humans are unique and conscious animals. We’re natural. Nature includes and envelopes us. The natural world is the only world, and human society is a part of that world. We have a right to live on this Earth, and a responsibility to let other life-forms live here too.

The Psychology of Change

Since the ‘70s, a growing body of people around the world have been sensing and observing that the way we treat our home planet is wrong. Unethical, unworkable, unfair, unsustainable… At first a trickle, then a stream, now a fairly hefty current of “alternative” or “ecologically minded” people are pushing against the mainstream.

What I’m thinking about is, when and how will the balance be tipped?

When will it be normal to live your life within its natural limits, taking the other people, animals and ecosystems around you into careful consideration? When will it be weird to fly to another country for a business meeting? When will coal-fired power stations be the stuff of history lessons? When will it be unusual for a family to have two cars? When will it be weird to cover your garden with gravel instead of raised beds? When will consumerism peak? When will it be seen as uncivilised to waste food? When will it be uncool to wear clothes made by five year olds?

And how will all this come about?

Well, let’s think about human psychology. People copy each other. We copy our friends, and we copy people whom we admire. We admire people who live their lives in a way we would like to, which is of course personal, but in general it’s safe to say we admire people who are successful, beautiful and happy.

We gravitate towards happy people like bees towards flowers. Happy people are more popular, because people enjoy their company. Happiness is contagious.

We also have the mysterious but highly valuable “cool”. Coolness can’t be measured… It’s a slippery notion that can easily slide away if you try to pin it down and study it. However, there’s not much need as what’s cool and what isn’t is generally easily understood by your social circle.

Sustainable lifestyles will become normal lifestyles when people believe that living in this manner will make them look cool and be happy.

Look how happy this nice lady is, doing her gardening...

That’s really what people want. We just want to be happy. Being cool and popular is really just one part of that, because humans are highly social and positive interaction with others helps to make us happy.

So perhaps the way forward is to promote “green” activities not as acts of charity, or righteous self-deprivation, as they often are shown to be in the media, but as normal, positive lifestyle choices that are seen to improve people’s lives.

I’ll admit I’m no wiser as to how to accomplish this, other than that the media has a large role to play as it wields such an influence over society.

The collective ingenuity of the human race is surely sufficient for the challenges we face… It’s just harnessing that ingenuity that’s the problem. Team work, people, team work!

More thoughts on this at a later point…

Mutants, Pop Culture & Evolution

I have this theory that the evolution of the human species is a constant and dynamic process, happening as we speak. We are not the finished product of thousands of years of natural selection, but are changing faster than we ever have before. Although in physical form we evolve very slowly, in action and in mind it is a different matter entirely.

Our cultural progress is growing and changing at an exponential rate, meaning we live in a very interesting part of history. Imagine how much society has changed since your grandparent’s were your age? It wasn’t always so fast. In the past cultures changed very slowly over many generations… People would be singing the same songs their great-grandparents taught them. Now a song is out of date and almost forgotten in just a few years.

Think of humanity as like a macro-organism. Similar to a swarm of bees; a group of individuals but united into one thing. In our journey through time and the unknown, it’s safe and sensible to stick with the pack. With the popular. With the normal. That’s why pop culture, and fashion, is cool. Because we know it works, at least for now. But because our environment is always changing, we can’t stay the same. To survive, we have to adapt. We have to evolve. And to evolve, we have to mutate.

Cast your mind back to biology lessons, where you learnt about Darwin’s theory of natural selection and how slight mutations that happened to be adaptive meant a higher chance of survival and reproduction, passing these traits onto future offspring.

Now imagine the macro-organism humanity again. I’ll try to illustrate this with some terrible diagrams which make me wish I had the newest version of Paint.

Some "mutant" or "radical" humans stray from the norm

What some of them find catches on and becomes the norm. Once again, other "mutants" deviate. The process continues.

Radical thinkers stray from the popular norm and experiment with the new. This is risky, but heroic behaviour. Humans are both afraid of, and in love with the New. This is because it can be good or bad, it’s a gamble taken by the brave. The radical humans, or “mutants” as I’m enjoying calling them, are either celebrated or rejected depending on what they discover and how alien to the norm it is.

It’s a process of the mutants running away from the pack and shouting “hey, what about this?!”   rest of humanity scrutinising it and saying “Yeah, fantastic! We’re coming!” or “hell no, you must be crazy!”.

A small example:

In terms of fashion and clothing, it is cool to be on trend, and yet also cool to be unique.

People who religiously dress in nothing but the height of fashion, regardless of what it is, and never experimenting, are judged as being boring “sheep”. They are not contributing to humanity’s artistic urge to express ourselves, they’re just playing safe.

On the other hand, people who dress absurdly differently, e.g. drag queens, extreme Goths, Lady Gaga, are judged as being weird, crazy, freaky etc. This is because although we love deviation and innovation, appreciating its vital status as we do, we are scared of it in large doses.

~

It’s a delicate balance.

Too Many People!

Over-population is a very touchy subject. It’s much easier to kind of ignore it and try to just deal with everything else. This post was actually inspired by my doing just that. I was posting all these great ideas about organic farming, recycling, passive solar heating and etc in an earlier post (What Are We Aiming For) and EcoCatLady wisely suggested that finding a decent way to limit our population was really they key thing.

And it is. But how?

The reason it’s such a charged topic is because there aren’t really any obvious and ethically acceptable ways of stopping people having so many babies. Rightly enough, we think this is our business. The creation of new life is a sacred and ridiculously personal thing. Whether you have 2 or 4 kids is something to discuss with your partner, not your government.

Nevertheless, our global population is now roughly 7 billion, and growing. How great it’s likely to get before it plateaus is up for debate because it really depends on how many humans the planet can support. It won’t get beyond that because our natural resources will be spread too thin for us to all survive. We don’t know what that number is because we’ve never before in history pushed Earth to it’s limits in this way. But we can assume from small scale scenarios, like what happens when fish over-breed in a pond, that when it is reached, things won’t be going well for us.

The fertility rate (number of children per woman) that is required to sustain the population is 2.1. In the West the fertility rates are somewhere around or even below that, but in the Developing World, where most of our population growth is happening, it can be as high as 7.

The problem is darkly ironic: any progress with developing countries getting out of poverty and gaining better living conditions is actually worsening the issue of over-population because although the death rates from hunger and disease may go down, the birth rate often does not. This is ridiculous – a situation where curing babies of water-borne diseases is in some way bad for the world is not a situation I’m happy to have.

Clearly, the birth rate of these countries needs to decline along with the death rate, but how this is managed is not at all simple. For example, I’ve never been to Uganda, (fertility rate 6.7) but I can only assume that having large families is deeply engrained in their culture. It’s difficult to change.

As I have already mentioned, there aren’t any clear-cut and ethical ways to make that change. China is famous for it’s one-child policy, and although effective, other countries are not exactly clamouring to copy them because of the brutality of this strategy. Despite being “optional” and not an actual law, Chinese women pregnant with a second child would be forced to abort, risking being fined, jailed or fired from her job if she didn’t.

Happily, there are some positive sounding correlations relating to this issue. Apart from the obvious fact that not everyone in the world has knowledge of and access to contraception, and that birth rates go down a lot when they do, it seems women’s independence correlates smoothly with lower fertility rates. When women have little other purpose in society other than to have children, it would make sense to have a lot of them. But when women are taught to read, they tend to have fewer babies. When they have education and jobs, it lessens still. In the West, where men and women both have rewarding careers as well as family life, the fertility rate is below the replacement rate. Family size is also smaller in urban rather than rural areas, and tends to shrink with affluence.

I will also add that although China has a low fertility rate of about 1.5, it is not the lowest in the world. Other countries that have had no population limiting policies such as Taiwan, Italy, Greece, Japan and some 20 others actually have lower fertility rates. It seems humans appreciate free choice on this matter. I guess education is the only useful tool here. Explaining why it’s a problem, improving literacy and education on the subject of contraception and family planning. Human population is an issue I think is really important, but apart from not having more than 2 children myself, I don’t know there’s much else I can do about it…

Resources:

The Meaning of the 21st Century  - James Martin

The Constant Economy - Zac Goldsmith

www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_tot_fer_rat-people-total-fertility-rate

Look at the Sky

Look at the sky.

Doesn’t it fill you with over-whelming human-ness? You fully realise how Earth-bound you are, looking up at the heavens.

Yes, we’ve been to the Moon. That was a very big achievement and it’s not exactly like we go there everyday. Moreover, the spacemen that went up there allegedly came back with deep and newfound respect for their home planet. The famous photographs of the far-away, life-giving blue and green sphere helped to kick-start the environmental movement.

And we’ve been up in space and we have fancy pictures and expensive space shuttles. But we can’t live out there. Not now at any rate.

There are an unfathomable number of other planets. Statistically, at least some of them are bound to be life-supporting. If so, they’re not nearby. Scientists don’t have any ideas on how humanity can float around in space breathing and eating and doing nothing after we mess up Earth to the point of evacuation. NASA hasn’t got any other planets up it’s sleeves we can move to.

Look at the sky.

Feel your feet on the ground, and be thankful that it’s there underneath you. Supporting you. Happy to give you everything you need.

We really don’t know when we’ve got it good.

Images from Google Images.