My question to Professor Charles Musiba was deliberately provocative. Has the human species reached its evolutionary limit? Are we incapable of cooperating to do what needs to be done?
Are we doomed?
The genial anthropologist at the University of Colorado Denver laughed heartily. Homo sapiens have often been on the brink of extinction, he said. And yet here we still are.
The news, meanwhile, doesn’t bode well.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services this month reported that 1 million species on Earth are threatened with extinction due to climate change, a situation that humans have blithely ignored since at least the 1980s.
Musiba confirmed the evidence of our failure to evolve.
“People all over the world are becoming greedy,” he said. “We’re depleting almost everything. We no longer care about shared values.
“Our resources are not distributed equally and we’re not even trying to address that. Some people are going after everything and leaving everybody else with nothing.
Just look at our response to migration.
On this continent, Musiba said, climate refugees are moving to the U.S. from Central America where much of the land no longer will support the population. Our response is to repel them.
“People think they can stop the migrants by erecting barriers,” said Musiba, “but soon there will be a mass exodus for survival all over the planet. Nobody can stop it.”
It’s hardly the first time our species has faced a “bottleneck” in the evolutionary process, the anthropologist said.
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If we time travel to the 14th century, we can see what happens when inequality, environmental degradation and ignorance collide.
At that time, most of the world was dominated by the land-owning classes who lived lavishly and profited handsomely on the cheap manpower of the peasant class.
Populations were booming, and there was no incentive to share the wealth. After all, if your average serf didn’t like his lot in life, no self-respecting tyrant was about to increase rations when he could simply find another starving peasant willing to pick up the plow.
Then along came the Black Plague.
It took the deaths of 25 million people, but ultimately the species responded.
Instead of racing toward extinction, humans pulled together to relinquish their long-cherished freedom to toss their sewage from their chamber pots into the public thoroughfares. They taxed themselves to develop water and sanitation systems and agreed to employ building methods to improve the safety and hygiene of the community.
Seven centuries later, Musiba said we appear to be reaching a similar evolutionary tipping point, this time with heated toilet seats in place of chamber pots.
Global temperatures and sea levels are rising, plastic pollution and over-fishing are killing sea life, wetlands are disappearing, arable land is shrinking … and in spite of all this, last year our greenhouse gas emissions hit an all-time high.
While people in the Northern Hemisphere are more comfortable and therefore less inclined to evolve, Musiba has seen evidence that communities in Africa are keenly aware of the impacts of climate change.
“Everybody agreed to plant more trees in sub-Saharan Africa. And this is not the governments doing this — it’s people initiating it themselves. This is unheard of in history, but a very important indication of how people are responding to climate change.
“It’s also reassuring to see how Rwanda has banned all plastic bags. We can’t even imagine that here,” he said, “but the whole country of Rwanda has banned them, and Tanzania, Uganda and other countries are following suit.”
These may seem trivial, “but those seemingly minor actions can have huge consequences,” he said.
One of the biggest is the sense of empowerment – the proof that people actually can work together.
“This is the big question,” Musiba said. “Have we learned anything from the experiences in our past? Or will we allow our selfish gene to be the demise of our own species?”
The answer is far from clear.
“On one hand, people can argue that technological innovation can solve some of the problems associated with dwindling resources by creating new resources to use in the future.” Then again, it was technology for the most part that got us into this mess, he said, so “thinking that technology alone will get us out of this is the wrong approach.”
We still have to overcome our selfish gene.
Musiba thinks that, just like in the 14th century, it won’t be painless.
“When people are anguished, they look for solutions and start taking actions both individually and collectively,” he said.
The anguish is beginning to seep into our collective consciousness. A wildfire here, a devastating flood there, a bomb cyclone that shuts down a city can seize our attention.
In Colorado, voters responded by electing leaders who promised to take climate action and set an example for the rest of the country. Over extraordinary odds, they have made some progress.
Meanwhile, the United Nations report says isolated initiatives are not enough. “Transformative change” is required immediately across the globe.
It’s a daunting challenge for a species Musiba describes as “young, naïve and foolish.”
But the Darwinian imperative is clear.
“If this happens, there will be no escaping it,” he said. “Nobody will be spared.”
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.