What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

30,000 Generations

I think blogs need to have a ‘vision-thing’, so you can see where the author stands and in what context they are writing. Here is mine.

At this point in time many urgent questions are being raised about humanity’s use, or abuse, of the environment. Many people are concerned about global warming, the biodiversity crisis and human population levels, but others argue perhaps that nothing can be done, or nothing should done, because such efforts would alter present political and economic arrangements, or damage present prosperity.

This is how I see it. As a species, humanity, Homo sapiens, arose some time before 100,000 years ago in Africa. It’s about 2066 generations (a generation being defined as 30 years) from when humans left Africa (around 60,000 BCE). So I see a chain of ancestors stretching back from me to an ancestor in Africa, 2066 of them, a lot of people. Each of those people is a link in the chain that leads to the present generation. Each had a ‘residence on earth’ as the poet Pablo Neruda put (Residencia En La Tierra, the title of a poetry collection), and each then gave a life or lives to the next generation.

Each of these 2066 generations lived in the world and survived. My own ancestors in north-western Europe would have seen Mammoths and Woolly Rhinos, and, if they were unlucky, Cave Lions and Cave Bears. They would have hunted deer and fought with wolves, gathered shellfish by the sea and fished. They may have have camped on what is now the bed of the North Sea and walked across into Britain from Europe. 466 generations ago agriculture was invented in the Near East and my ancestors, when this innovation arrived in the British Isles, would then have been farmers, herding cattle and sheep, or looking to the weather and the soil and plants. It is only 10 generations since the Industrial Revolution, when my ancestors became town-dwellers, though still with an eye to nature in some ways.

Looking at it like this, we see how current concerns are shallow in comparison with the depth of human history. We may treasure the innovations and comforts that modern society brings us, but we are older than this, much older.  Not only that but our languages and cultures vanish into the past, my ancestors a few generations back didn’t speak English, but Welsh or Cornish, and before that who knows what vanished languages. We are not naturally capitalists, do not naturally belong to this or that nationality, or culture or religion. We are not naturally anything, except human.

Looking forward, I see a chain of descendants stretching out. We are told that we should expect mammal species to survive for a million years*. Earlier hominid species did: Homo erectus did, Homo habilis did, even Neanderthals, whom we mock, lasted 600,000 years (six times longer than we have survived so far). If humanity is to survive a million years this would be over 30,000 generations still to go, an almost unimaginable number.

What do we know about these descendants? We know that, as with out ancestors, a few generations out from us languages, culture, religions will change, what is familiar to us will not survive, and new familiarities will take their place. The only thing we know is that these people will be human and the link they share with us is the link to the earth, the relationship expressed by the Greeks Orphics when they described a human as ‘a child of the earth and starry skies’. We want, we should want, these generations to succeed us, that we are not the generation where humanity fails its duty to its descendants. We cannot imagine how these people will live, but if they are to live and pass on their life from generation to generation we know that they will have the human kinship with the natural world that has always been with us, and will only fail if we become extinct as a species. We should also desire that our descendants’ residence on earth is not impoverished compared to those of our ancestors, or even ours. We should not wish that all they have to live with are rats and cockroaches on rubbish heaps, and all they see are poisoned soils under darkened skies. They deserve the glory and splendour of the world that our ancestors knew, which we know in some measure, and which it is within our power to grant our descendants.

In this perspective ‘environmentalism’ is not some middle-class lifestyle choice, but an observation that humanity has flourished in its history in low numbers in a high bio-diversity world. It is only in the present that humanity’s survival has become problematic, at precisely the point we began living in high numbers in low-biodiversity settings.

I see the way ahead, our duty to the 30,000 generations, as clear and unequivocal, and this blog will argue the assumptions above in more detail in subsequent posts.

*Robert M May, ‘The Dimensions of Life on Earth’, pp 30-45 in Nature and human society: the quest for a sustainable world : proceedings of the 1997 Forum on Biodiversity, Ed Peter H. Raven, National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Biology, 2000.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Calyptorhynchus - welcome to blogging. Great view! Great views!
    David Horton