Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is mass extinction just human nature?

The Earth has experienced five mass extinction events since multicellular life began, the last of which occurred 65 million years ago, most likely initiated by an meteor strike.  There is good evidence that we are in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction.  This one initiated by human civilization.

Civilization apologists are quick to dismiss the importance of the accelerating pace of species extinction, and even quicker to point out that this isn’t the first time that human activity has been linked to mass extinction.  The fossil record, we are told, contains proof that our early ancestors were just as destructive to the ecosphere as any modern petrochemical company.  On virtually every continent, the first appearance of humans was coincident with the extinction of local megafauna that had occupied a solid niche for millions of years.  These species were hunted into oblivion by our overzealous progenitors through the use of such wasteful tactics as driving entire herds of mastodons off of cliffs.

I will return to the issue of Pleistocene megafauna shortly.  Suffice it to say at this point that the evidence points to a slightly different conclusion than the one offered by civilization’s ardent partisans.  But before I get there, I want to address briefly the reflexive source of this partisanship.  How is it that the recklessness of Pleistocene hunters—allowing for the sake of argument that such an accusation is warranted—has any bearing on the permanent obliteration of entire ecosystems caused by 21st century global industry?  What does it mean to suggest that pre-civilized humans were also environmentally destructive?  Does the claim serve a rhetorical function?  Is it a red herring?  A distraction?  Does it reflect the operation of a defense mechanism?  Or is there something else, something more deeply embedded in commonly held beliefs about what kind of a thing civilization is?     

The most straightforward interpretation is that this accusation is meant to excuse corporate ecocide by suggesting that we can’t lay the blame for recent species extinctions entirely on industrial civilization.  Destroying the environment is part of what humans have always done.  Industrial civilization allows us access to more efficient tools of death-dealing, but death-dealing is a fundamental feature of the human species.

And there is surely a sliver of truth to this.  The life of all creatures is possible only at the expense of others.   It’s called the food chain. 

But the death-dealing of civilization is not a part of the natural food chain.  The destruction caused by the earliest civilizations is a matter of record, and proportional to their technology.  So it isn’t industrial civilization that is to blame, perhaps.  Environmental destruction is a feature of all civilization, industrial or otherwise.  And the difference between subsistence hunting and gathering and civilization—of any flavor—is not just a difference of magnitude, a matter of degree.  Civilization is a distinctly different patterning of human behavior.  So for the claim that humans are naturally destructive to be true, it needs to be qualified to read: collective human activity as organized by civilization is naturally destructive.  

That’s not a trivial qualification.

Now, about the extinctions of Pleistocene megafauna: Research strongly supports the idea that climate changes (which were also likely responsible for prompting human migration, at least in North America) were the major contributing factor.  And, further, that if humans did play a direct causal role, it was simply as a result of their wedging themselves into a precariously balanced ecological niche rather than the result of an innate drive toward pathological destructiveness.   According to Ripple & Van Valkenburgh (2010): “…the large mammalian herbivores of the North American Pleistocene were primarily predator limited and at low densities, and therefore highly susceptible to extinction when humans were added to the predator guild.”  In other words, it wasn’t aboriginal human overkill or bloodthirsty and unsustainable human hunting behavior that caused the great die-off in North America even if the presence of humans—rather than climate—was the most crucial causal variable.  It was the mere addition of another predator to an already fragile system.   

Pushkina & Raia (2008) echo these sentiments: “Our study supports the idea that the late Pleistocene extinctions were environmentally driven by climatic changes that triggered habitat fragmentation, species range reduction, and population decrease, after which human interference either by direct hunting or via indirect activities probably became critical.” 

Another problem with the human bloodlust hypothesis is that it doesn’t account for the lag time between human presence and extinction. “Importantly, the dates suggest that the local decline in biological diversity was initiated ~75,000 years before the colonisation of humans on the continent [of Australia]. Collectively, the data are most parsimoniously consistent with a pre-human climate change model for local habitat change and megafauna extinction, but not with a nearly simultaneous extinction of megafauna as required by the human-induced blitzkrieg extinction hypothesis” (Price et al (2011). 

And from Barnosky & Lindsey (2010): “…on a continental scale most megafauna have last appearances after human arrival, but seem to last at least 1000years after first human presence. Some taxa apparently survived >6000years after humans entered South America and >1000years after the end-Pleistocene climatic changes. Last-appearance patterns for megafauna differ from region to region, but in Patagonia, the Argentine and Uruguayan Pampas, and Brazil, extinctions seem more common after humans arrive and during intensified climatic change between 11.2 and 13.5ka. This pattern suggests that a synergy of human impacts and rapid climate change—analogous to what is happening today—may enhance extinction probability. Nevertheless, even in these regions, some megafauna persisted for thousands of years after human arrival and after the climate warmed.”  (Note, for the record, that the rapid climate change happening today is itself a human impact, so the “synergy of human impacts and rapid climate change” happening today is not a synergy at all.)  

Humans probably had something to do with some of the extinctions in the late Pleistocene, but the evidence in favor of the human bloodlust hypothesis hardly makes for a smoking gun.  The same cannot be said for those extinctions that have occurred in the last 200 years.  Here the gun is still smoking.  And today it smells like Big Oil.


Barnosky, A. D., & Lindsey, E. L. (2010). Timing of Quaternary megafaunal extinction in South America in relation to human arrival and climate change. Quaternary International, 217(1/2), 10-29.

Ripple, W. J., & Van Valkenburgh, B. (2010). Linking Top-down Forces to the Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinctions. (Cover story). Bioscience, 60(7), 516-526.

Price, G. J., Webb, G. E., Zhao, J., Feng, Y., Murray, A. S., Cooke, B. N., & ... Sobbe, I. H. (2011). Dating megafaunal extinction on the Pleistocene Darling Downs, eastern Australia: the promise and pitfalls of dating as a test of extinction hypotheses. Quaternary Science Reviews, 30(7/8), 899-914.

Pushkina, D., & Raia, P. (2008). Human influence on distribution and extinctions of the late Pleistocene Eurasian megafauna. Journal Of Human Evolution, 54(6), 769-782.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A twelve-step program for deep resistance

1. We admitted that civilization seeks to make us powerless—and that the Earth is being destroyed in order to support the power-lust of a small minority of ignorant humans

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves is responsible for much of this insanity, and that Power is the corporate state  

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to actively resist the corporate state and to aggressively oppose all forms of oppression

4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of the weapons at our disposal

5. Refused to admit to any other human being the exact nature of our plans on the chance that they might be working for the authorities

6. Were entirely ready to disrupt and destroy all vulnerable sources of the corporate state’s power

7. Demanded that all obstacles to the pursuit of an authentic life be removed permanently  

8. Made a list of all harmful technologies and became willing to eliminate them the moment they were no longer necessary for use as weapons against the state

9. Made direct amends to the landbase by encouraging the environment’s natural recovery processes

10. Continued to take personal inventory of our actions in light of their potential consequences with regard to all other species

11. Sought through all forms of future resistance, both passive and violent, to free ourselves forever from the seductive machinations of civilization

12. Having been awakened to our true human nature as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to all victims of civilization, and to practice these principles in all our affairs

Monday, December 12, 2011

The real reason I want to be five years old again

Each of us is born with an epigenetic program that has been fine-tuned by tens of millennia of hunter-gatherer subsistence living.  The proper unfolding of our innate maturational design requires carefully timed environmental input (from both the social and the natural environment—although our DNA does not recognize the distinction), input that reflects patterns of life in largely egalitarian band society. 

Part of this developmental unfolding involves the freedom to form and pursue age- and culture-appropriate goals—authentic human goals.  Civilization is successful as a machine for directing and coordinating human activity precisely to the extent that it is able to usurp this process and entrain our behavior to goals that are not of our choosing.   The subtle ways that it accomplishes this is perhaps subject matter for another rant, but the first step involves the disruption and distortion of our natural maturational programming.

The artificial social hierarchies of civilization need to be enforced at an early age in order to prevent our evolved anarchist tendencies from getting a solid foothold.  Children have to be forced to keep their natural proclivities in check, to respect and obey authority—to stand in line and wait their turn.  Those who resist are labeled (e.g., ADHD) and medicated into submission.  Once passively in the queue, the demands and expectations of modern civilized life squeeze naturally cyclical developmental processes into a linear timeline, leading to the incomplete or truncated maturation of key psychological systems and capacities that are needed for the successful future maturation of later-developing systems and capacities.   

Imagine trying to install the roof on a house where the foundation has not been completely poured and several of the walls are missing.

As civilized adults, we are all incomplete, malformed human beings.  According to Paul Shepard, nostalgia for our childhood years is not just a desire to return to a time when life was simpler.  It reflects our deep desire to return to a time when we still had the potential to develop into complete human beings, a time when it was still theoretically possible to realize our authentic human design.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Indigenous sustainability

The religious beliefs of some Australian aborigines, along with those of many of their cousins in Tasmania and New Guinea, incorporate the idea of “story places,” or sacred regions that are generally off limits to humans.  Several of these places—incidentally or by design—have served as preserves for preferred game animals.  Tree kangaroos, for example, have often been hunted to the point where the only substantial populations that remained were those inhabiting these story places.  The story places thus served as Kangaroo population incubation centers, with Kangaroos spilling out of these areas over time in numbers that ensured a limited but steady supply for the people to hunt generation after generation.

I recently came across an account of a story place in New Guinea that had served for centuries and perhaps millennia as a preserve for a rare species of furry black tree kangaroo.   In the center of this sacred region there was a lake that was said to be inhabited by magical sleeping eels.  The lake was surrounded by frogs that would croak loudly if anyone entered whose face they didn’t recognize.  Their croaking would wake up the eels, who would express their discontent about being awakened by causing horrible and destructive weather events.  Only the oldest of the local elders could enter this place because he had been around so long that he was the only face the frogs could recognize.

Sometime in the early 1990s, the locals convinced the elder to take a Catholic priest who was doing missionary work in the area to the lake to exorcise the evil eels.  After a lengthy exorcism in which the evil eels were pacified, the local people started to go into the once sacred place and hunt the kangaroos, which are now apparently extinct.         

Friday, November 25, 2011

Our involuntary fluency with hierarchy

Humans, as social primates, have evolved a psychological affinity for the subtleties of social dominance relationships.   But the kinds of power relationships that derive from the forced mechanical associations of civilization are quite different from those found in nature.  In fact, seen through the lens of our evolved sensitivities, the hierarchical systems imposed by the institutions of civilization are entirely arbitrary, and quite unnatural.  A person’s standing within a corporate system can have little or no relation to their physical, intellectual, or creative capacities.  Or if it does, the relation is in terms of the capacity to navigate the artificial corporate system itself.

A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that we have a latent psychological preference for hierarchical social systems over more egalitarian situations because hierarchical relationships are easier for us to process cognitively.  The authors of this study suggest that this explains why we continue to participate in—and actively promote—steeply hierarchical institutions even while we claim that we want democracy, increased equality, etc.  

It is just a small step from this to the claim that we need hierarchy in our lives, and that we need to be embedded in oppressive systems of dominance and submission: we need the 1% in order to satisfy our natural psychological predilections.

But there is a much more reasonable interpretation of the results of this study.  Because we have more experience thinking about things that we are frequently exposed to, we have a tendency to prefer those over things that we come across less frequently.  This is why we like a song better the more times we hear it (the mere-exposure effect), and why we tend to develop deeper friendships with the people who inhabit our local environments (the propinquity effect).  Because hierarchy is so ubiquitous in our culture, we have become fluent at processing hierarchical relationships.  Add to that our culture’s fetish with efficiency and the resulting premium placed on speed and fluency.  When offered the choice between a hierarchical situation and an egalitarian one—within the artificial context of a psychology experiment—the preference for hierarchy is not surprising.  And it says nothing about our natural predilections other than that we have learned to prefer things that are easier to think about over things that we have to work at.  

Another study published earlier this spring in the journal, Psychological Assessment, looked at something called involuntary subordination.  Involuntary subordination is exactly what it sounds like.  It is a potentially adaptive process “in species that compete for resources as a mechanism to switch off fighting behaviors when loss is imminent (thus saving an organism from injury).”  As an adaptation, it is designed to be a temporary posture.  However, the arbitrary hierarchical institutions of civilization force us—involuntarily—into long-term subordinate relationships.  This study confirmed that the side-effects of long-term involuntary subordination include major depression, anxiety, lack of confidence, and (no surprise here) increased submissiveness.    

Psychologically speaking, hierarchical systems appear to be self-perpetuating.

Zitek, E. M., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2011). The fluency of social hierarchy: The ease with which hierarchical relationships are seen, remembered, learned, and liked. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, doi:10.1037/a0025345

Sturman, E. D. (2011). Involuntary subordination and its relation to personality, mood, and submissive behavior. Psychological Assessment, 23(1), 262-276. doi:10.1037/a0021499

Monday, November 21, 2011

Overwhelming force part 2 (from the UC Davis Chancellor, with love)

An excerpt from a letter sent to UCD alumni from Chancellor Katehi:

“After a week of peaceful exchange and debate, on Thursday a group of protestors including UC Davis students and other non-UC Davis affiliated individuals established an encampment of about 25 tents on the Quad. The group was reminded that while the university provides an environment for students to participate in rallies and express their concerns and frustrations through different forums, university policy does not allow such encampments on university grounds. […] Driven by our concern for the safety and health of the students involved in the protest, as well as other students on our campus, I made the decision not to allow encampments on the Quad during the weekend, when the general campus facilities are locked and the university staff is not widely available to provide support.”

Apparently the students were pepper-sprayed and beaten out of concern for their "safety and health."

Friday, November 4, 2011

Overwhelming force

Learned helplessness is ubiquitous in civilized humans, and perhaps the most significant psychological threat to meaningful resistance.

The machine nurtures learned helplessness by exercising a complete monopoly on violence.  Those at the top of the power hierarchy reserve the right to use overwhelming force against any act of rebellion that threatens the integrity of the status quo.  The entire resources of the US National Guard will be employed to deal with a single resistant individual if need be.  The message: “The machine’s directives will be followed. Resistance is futile.” 

Minor forms of protest are allowed as part of the need to maintain a minimum level of friction in the system.  All machines need some resistance to function properly.  But protesting has to be kept within strict limits, and when it approaches these limits—which are a moving target that changes with cause and political climate—it will be met with violent and potentially deadly force.  If a threat to the system is detected, it must be removed regardless of the cost or consequences. 

So in one sense the recent police action in Oakland is good news.  It is evidence that the Occupy Movement is starting to be viewed as a potential threat to the system.  The bad news is that the machine has no off switch, no mechanism that allows it to back away from the use of overwhelming force once the process has been engaged. 

I suspect that things are about to get real ugly.