Living In The Age Of Ecocide

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, it has become apparent that, for the first time since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, changes of enormous ecological significance are occurring on our planet. These changes are the result of the actions of a single species of animal, Homo sapiens sapiens. The ozone layer in the stratosphere, which has protected terrestrial life for hundreds of millions of years from the ultraviolet radiation from the sun, is beginning to disintegrate. Progressive changes in the climate of the planet resulting from the release of greenhouse gases are only now reluctantly being acknowledged.1 Other significant developments include important ecological changes in the oceans, severe damage of the forests of the Northern Hemisphere due to acid rain, and the rapid disappearance of tropical forests. Since 1970, the world's forests have declined from 4.4 square miles per 1,000 people to 2.8 square miles per 1,000 people. A quarter of the world's fish stocks have been depleted, and another 44 percent are being fished to their biological limits.2

"Without hyperbole," notes biologist Stephen Hubbell in one of the most important recent research contributions to ecology and biogeography, "we can truthfully say that we are almost out of time to save much of the diversity of life on Earth."3 Humans already sequester an astonishing 40 percent of the entire terrestrial primary production of the Earth for our selfish use. Capturing such an enormous fraction of the Earth's natural productive capacity comes at a huge cost in terms of loss of natural habitat or reduction in the viability or outright mass extinction of species.

More than any other ecological predicament, the modern mass extinction crisis is an indicator that life on our planet is out of synch.4 Species extinction is irreversible, particularly if measured on a human evolutionary time scale. Its accelerating pace ought to be considered as an environmental problem of more importance than even the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, or pollution and contamination. The synergism and combined input of contemporary military, demographic, and socioeconomic depredations suggests that the juggernaut of late modernity has entered an increasingly ecocidal phase.

As the Nobel Laureate, novelist, and philosopher Elias Canetti suggests, "the planet's survival has become so uncertain that any effort, any thought that presupposes an assured future amounts to a mad gamble."5 To reiterate, however, historical outcomes are not predetermined. None of the social tendencies sketched above are "inevitable" in a fatalistic sense. Instead, these are the historically contingent outcomes of human social and cultural evolution - the aggregate result of human agency operating under varying sets of enabling and constraining conditions historically imposed by social institutions and the environment. Human beings occupy neither a central nor a trivial place in the universe. We may well be the only species of its kind in the galaxy, but we represent only one among myriad life forms that evolved on that planet we call Earth during the past 4 billion years. Although we share 98.3 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees, our species evolved into something quite different. Less than 2 per cent of our genes have enabled us, for better and worse, to found civilizations and religions, to develop intricate languages, create art, develop scientific principles. The same potential, however, has also afforded us the capacity to destroy all of our achievements overnight.

The social evolution of the modern human species has progressed by unprecedented, fantastic, leaps and bounds. Even so, we have barely begun to understand that humans evolved in an evolutionary context of extraordinary biodiversity. We have barely begun to grasp the momentous implications of the precarious nature and fragile state of the planet's ecological systems. We have barely begun to acknowledge the historical implications of the fact that our species has socially evolved into a colonizing, polarized, class-divided, and conflict-ridden assembly of walking ecological disasters.

The bitter irony of this ecocidal predicament is that our species constitutes the most adaptable of all known creatures that have ever existed on Earth. As science writer Colin Tudge put it, humans are an "all-purpose animal that in principle can solve any problem."6 The acquisition of language - enabling our genus to negotiate our environment in ways unlike those of any other species - was perhaps the most decisive factor.7 Reason and insight, the great human features, have given us the power to forge a world to fit our own comfort. Both divided and united, we carve the planet's surface into fields and streets, shopping malls and parking lots, with little regard for what was there before. We replace "wilderness" with structures that offer a more immediate, short-term benefit.8

If history teaches us anything, it is that our global impact on other species and habitats can be ignored only at our peril. Humans represent an intricate part of biodiversity, and the comparative environmental history and sociology of civilization clearly show that by destroying our environment we are destroying ourselves. The late Quaternary mass extinction and the introduction of sedentary agriculture set into motion a historical roller coaster oscillating between economic boom and ecological bust cycles. It led to the meteoric rise and often violent collapse of civilizations. Modernity has raised the global social and ecological stakes to a monumental level by massively expanding the scale of ecocide. Humans have an amazing capability to believe that economic plenty will last forever. But it never does. The late modern world resembles a kind of suspended treadmill on which people busy themselves with everything except with those things that are destroying them. Repression and denial do not just take the psychological form of evading an authentic inner life. As I noted in previous chapters, the widespread denial of the scale of global environmental problems has deeper social institutional and ideological roots.

Whether the world becomes an ecological wasteland of exterminated species, evicted forest people, swollen urban slums, and millions of acres of degraded pastures and poisoned rivers will ultimately be decided by the historical outcome of emancipatory human struggles. The ongoing contest over the conservation of the remaining ecosystems will be waged together with the battle for social and environmental justice and distribution. But the future outcome of these emancipatory struggles will not be determined in the circles of the established political institutions. More likely, those who determine it will be an umbrella of burgeoning coalitions of consumers, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

I have argued in this study that the lack of democratic participation in the economic sphere lies at the root of the global crisis. Our inability to come up with a meaningful form of ecological democracy has fueled the process of mass extinctions of species. Accelerated by neo-liberal ideology, globalization has led to the concentration of economic resources in fewer and fewer hands, thus structuring decision-making processes over the use and applications of social wealth in accordance with the instrumental imperatives of capital accumulation. The related demographic explosion of the late modern era has also greatly amplified the power of humans to displace and annihilate other species. The rise of the modern arms race and industrialization of warfare occurring within the geopolitical context of competitive modern nation-states has caused further ecological damage to our planet.9 As a consequence, many socially committed and politically active people around the world have joined together in a growing progressive coalition dedicated to the issues of ecology, peace, labor, gender rights, and human rights. For these activists, the fate of our planet has never seemed as frightening and insecure as it does today.10

Thus we live in an age of ecocide, caught somewhere between an unparalleled destructive industrial past and an uncertain future that holds out either the specter of annihilation or the promise of ecological democracy. The challenge posed by ecocide is enormous. If we fail in our collective responsibilities vis-à-vis our increasingly species-impoverished planet, we will have failed to live up to the noble claim of wisdom contained in the name of our species: "Homo sapiens sapiens. " Then we have only ourselves to blame. Stephen Jay Gould once remarked that "dinosaurs should be a term of praise, not of opprobrium. They reigned supreme for more than 120 million years and died through no fault of their own."11 Unless we act soon to drastically reverse our current ecocidal course, we will have graced this planet for a far shorter time than our mighty reptile forebears.

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