If you were to ask any average person on the sidewalk the difference between plants and animals, the list of answers is obvious. An interesting truth, however, is that “self-replicating life evolved only once on our planet, because all organisms, from viruses and bacteria to humans, are designed according to the same genetic rulebook and feature the same DNA programming language.” While our subconscious accepts this notion, it is a hard one to understand in our rational mind. Humans, whales, redwood trees, mustard seeds, coral reefs, and coronavirus are all descendants from the same microorganisms that started life hundred of millions of years ago. Such a timeline is hard to imagine. To help us conceptualize this timeline, the great scientist Carl Sagan once wrote: “If the history of the earth were compressed into a twenty-four-hour day…civilization would begin just a few minutes before midnight.”
The history of civilization on this planet is one marked by both competition and cooperation. Darwin’s theory of evolution is based around the competition of genes in a gene pool and how the strongest will always outlast the weak. When two similar species (or tribes of the same species) need the same scarce resources in order to survive, they must inevitably compete. On the other hand, those species would not exist without the cooperation of early microbes that eventually led to multicellular organisms in the first place. There are plenty of examples of cooperation throughout evolutionary history, such as humanity’s domestication of animals like dogs and horses and crops like corn and wheat. “Human control of animals and plants, this much-heralded domestication, is thus a natural extension of coevolution—a determined, nonrandom event that impelled its own feedback loops.” Bertness writes, “Farming depended on cooperation and was labor intensive, but it produced greater food resources that translated into higher population growth, which then required more food and labor.”
Success is blinding, however, and as we humans have come to dominate the planet, we have exploited mother nature’s resources beyond her natural limits. The global population was 1.6 billion people in 1900. Now, 120 years later, it is fast approaching 8 billion. It seems unfathomable that we have reached this threshold, and even more so that we will be able to continue on this trajectory.
Humanity’s dominance of the globe has followed similar patterns throughout its brief and violent history, and we are sure to continue them if we remain ignorant to our own destructive nature. For example, when we first discovered fire, humanity made a giant leap forward. Consequently, we began to burn wood until we collectively realized we would run out. So we switched to peat and coal. As these fed the Industrial Revolution, another great step forward for mankind, we quickly abused them as well, which eventually led us to natural gas and oil, and the same cycle continued on repeat. Fossil fuels like these are formed by sedimentary deposits of ancient fossilized marine organisms that are buried and exposed to intense heat and pressure by tectonic plates. They take millions of years to form, and we are projected to deplete these resources before the end of the current century. Is it possible to get all 8 billion people on the planet to realize the impeding nature of these fast approaching environmental disasters? Is it possible for us to collectively take action now in order to stem their encroachment? Bertness bleakly describes how “History thus teaches us that the decline and fall of civilizations are the rule rather than the exception, and that they are often due to our shortsighted depletion of natural resources including habitat destruction—seemingly unavoidable trends given our blindly competitive, selfish nature.” The perfect example of this is the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. What was once the thriving center of the ancient world is now a desert wasteland, as its citizens did not learn the importance of sustainable resource management until it was too late. The same thing happened in the American Mid West, as over-use of the topsoil and the erosion of grasses lead directly to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and wide spread drought and starvation.
Human beings are famous for our short term solutions to long term problems. We love putting band aids on bullet holes and assuming things will work out just fine. In the United States, after our civil war, the period of reconstruction afterwards lasted a mere ten years and ended with things in the south hardly better than they were before, with racial discrimination lasting until the present day. With the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, independent businesses were shuttered and the people were given two checks totaling $1,800 dollars, supposedly enough to cover them for an entire year of unemployment. Despite this book being about the ecological history of the world, Bertness still finds a moment to comment on these political ideals when he writes how “Governments, rulers, and cultural mythologies, are notably conservative (in the literal sense of the term): the hierarchies and orders in place have served them well, and if new knowledge threatens that order, they strive to prevent or hide that knowledge rather than risk losing their positions of power, wealth, and control.” It is how humanity has always operated and seemingly always will. Unfortunately, politics is both the only way forward and also a glacially-paced bulwark to immediate necessary changes. The bullet holes in the environment take the form of overfishing, acidification of the oceans, deforestation, and the rise in global temperatures, just to name a few. If we humans do not act collectively to remedy these problems and create a more sustainable future, we will surely go the way of the dodo.