The initial version was published in December 2019, this is a new, expanded form.
Niche crisis or environmental crisis.
Part 1. The Hypothesis and the chance.
I am convinced that the niche crisis is caused by a particular cognitive development at the dawn of our civilization. This early achievement turned out now to be our biggest problem.
“Niche crisis“ is an unusual term so let me explain.
When we look at our world we see our environment. This term for me contains some cloaked feeling of entitlement, may even sound congratulatory. It doesn’t have a biology or cosmology sense. To me, it answers the question your good friend may ask over the beer: “how is life?” You tell him about our environment- not ideal, but our- loud music, stupid people, polluted air, etc, etc, And you wouldn’t answer: “Well, I am just becoming extinct”.
If we want to talk about the crisis the ecologists would use the term “ecological niche” or simply “niche”. When we look at any species from outside the system, as an observer, that species has its niche – the resources, climate, food, other members of the species, predators, anything that influences its evolutionary fitness. Niche is species-specific- it describes the dynamic situation – niche’s strength- that any given species exists in at any given point in time. Not habitat, not ecology, not environment. It is why I prefer the term “niche crisis”. We will really need this “observer view” as we go along. Homo sapiens is the last surviving of twenty-six other hominids. The one that almost went extinct several times, the last only about 50 000 years ago ( if you forget the brink of the nuclear war in 1962).
When the ship is sinking and there is water coming in we send a crew to pump the water out. The more the water is pouring in, the more bailing is needed, right? Obviously, no. We need to find the hole in the hull and repair it and it is how we save the ship and ourselves.
I believe that the ship is sinking and we are busy at the pumps.
And our niche, which pretty well fits geographically Planet Earth, is getting weaker again. Even if population growth is slowing down- “only” 9 billion by 2050, the number of people pulled out of poverty/subsistence life into the “consumer’s circle” is growing rapidly and I hope will continue to grow. So, the resources like clean air, diverse forests, clean water, good soil, fish, and plankton-rich oceans are dwindling, especially for these new, vulnerable consumers. And the just feeling of injustice and social conflicts fostered by our wonderful internet (people call it, I guess as a joke, – “global brain”) gets worse.
The ship is sinking, for sure, even if some of my gloomy images might be controversial, but not all of them, for goodness sake. And please don’t tell me “there is always a crisis” or about the Chinese-like “great wheel of history” or “nothing new under the sun” – or as Trump reacted to coronavirus: “ it’s nothing, just a virus, can’t see it”. I see millions and millions of good, smart, young people, who are “at the pumps”. Recycling, electric cars, solar panels, not eating meat, and planting trees, all these are heartwarming.
Let’s keep bailing, as a compromise, to feel good and keep the troop morale high, but we have to find and repair the hole. Find the cause of the crisis while trying to slow down the disastrous results.
Every species survives by expanding its niche. More food sources, more diverse habitats that the organisms can adapt to means more sex and more babies. The survival of the fittest works on the individual organisms’ and it’s family’s level, but only the sum of these changes determines the strength of the species’ niche.
The ecological niche is all about the flow of energy which ultimately comes from the Sun. The stronger the niche the more energy the species absorbs and utilizes. The complexity increases creating stronger bodies, brains, and stronger social life. You noticed very “broad strokes”, I’m not explaining those mechanisms, just sketching them, but the only difference when we talk about the human’s niche is that the complexity is called the culture or civilization and the animal’s urge to survive and to mate is called the pursuit of happiness.
And this is our ticket. We have to strengthen our niche otherwise we’ll become extinct. Our ticket is our culture- we are conscious, thinking, and observing our own demise.
So, what is this cognitive achievement turned out to be a problem? It happened gradually between 100,000 to 10,000 years ago. The primitive communication grew into language. The description of behaviors became the description of reality, including the distinct material world. I will discuss this evolutionary process in detail in part 2. The new reality opened the world of things, of technology. The worldviews and the meaning of life changed. Now we have more shopping malls, more hotels, more toys and gadget factories, more airports and bombers. The image is of emotional regression – a bully sucking his thumb. To understand the situation we need to keep shifting the dimensions: from society to personal and back. We need to see that our civilization is the sum of millions of lives, their successes and failures, their loves and hatreds. We keep trying to be satisfied or happy or just less anxious (whatever is the thing we want!) by consuming the planet’s dwindling resources. Imagine that within the next ten years flying electric taxis will become very popular. In the language of cultural evolution, this means complexity and ability to adapt.
Until recently, such an invention would increase the strength of the human niche. Not anymore: more passengers, airports, parkings, services, businesses, more technology, more rat race, violence, and poverty. We have to pivot and we can do it. The thing we get from technology, call it happiness, call it power or security we have to learn to get from sustainable experiences. We can learn and teach it to our children- this is a matter of a new curriculum and of a new generation.
How can we do it?
In the book “About time” Adam Frank describes how the evolution of humanity’s relation to time changed the world. This sense of time changed slowly over millennia. We learned and followed how time-related technology changed people’s minds and people’s minds created technology. It is how this civilization works: we see progress outside,- the same “progress” sits inside everyone’s brain, what each person knows, different depending on education, experience, and interests- and this builds the third, elusive“progress” that exists as a conversation (Werner Erhard’s jargon), as Carl Jung’s our “collective unconscious” or simply as “culture”. This third “progress” is the one that creates our language, metaphors, and our mythology.
Now we can, paradoxically, use technology against the technology abusing the Planet. With the new global conversation, we can change the language and mythology almost on the dime.
People’s lives will improve. The improvement will involve more and more people but the resources will be spared. The economies will shrink materially, but the access to and the use of carbon-neutral experiences will expand exponentially. This is the only way, otherwise, the suffering of millions will ensue. In my work on worldviews, I see human potential. I read these personal worldviews, work with them and I am amazed: everybody writes about peace, meaningful relationships, and love of nature and beauty. We have to follow our idealistic worldviews. We want this, we just need to be taught how to get it. What for Teilhard de Chardin was a nebulous Omega Point (literally pie in the sky) for us might be a desperate survival maneuver.
There will be two complementary essays – the sequels to this one.
Part 2: Materialists and idealists. I will attempt to find them, find them now, and find them in the past. I have already hinted at the origins of materialism- will talk more about that. Where did they come from and where did they go?
Part 3: I will look into the future, into a new curriculum to build a new society. This utopia is unlike well-known, worn and failed utopias of the past- one of spiritual and moral perfection. We will teach our children,( and grass-root movement sprouts already everywhere,) to be happy without abusing the planet. Their lives, in contrast to the prediction for the year 2050, will be more exciting and rich than ours. They will have more than we have, but no more gadgets or power. They will have more love and friendship. More creativity, fun, discovery, and beauty.
They will be idealists.