Bigger. Faster, Stronger. Further. Bolder.
An all-consuming self-interest is not unique to the human species; it is a biological imperative shared by humans, lions, dandelions, and all other forms of life. However, humanity’s self-interest violates biology’s checks and balances whenever we exploit our unique and ever-increasing ability to exceed our biological imperatives. This story begins approximately 12,000 years ago when humans first developed agriculture, cities, architecture, labor specialization, bread baking, beer brewing, personal property, slavery, governance, trade, barter, war, and more. Since then, interactions with the physical environment have been heading, at an ever-accelerating rate, toward ever bigger, faster, stronger, further, and bolder interfaces.
If success of a species is measured in terms of control over conditions of the environment to secure our needs, we are an extremely successful species. But if disruptions to the lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere are taken into consideration, humanity’s controlling activities resemble hubris more than success. The current environmental movement is founded on the belief that responsibility for the well-being of the non-living environment, dissimilar species, and less fortunate humans is a corollary to the expansion of our powers.
Humans evolved late in the lengthy, intricate, and wondrous progression of organisms that inhabit the Earth. To this day, evidence of our connection to our less complex ancestors is imbedded in our bodies and brains. But humans are not merely archives of evolutionary history. We have also evolved life-styles that resemble a grand experiment in expanding capacities to remember the past, to analyze the present, and to anticipate the future, and to manage materials to realize these conceptualizations in the physical environment.
The history of strategies humans have devised to provide for their sustenance range from digging out a root by scratching the surface of the earth with a stick, to giant bucket-wheel excavators that weigh 31.3 million pounds and can excavate 8.475 million cubic feet of earth per day. The vast majority of the entries in this diverse accounting have either been motivated by self-interest or undertaken to benefit other humans. Cross-species altruism, when a human sacrifices its own well-being for the benefit of another species, is rare. Non-species altruism, such as sacrificing one’s own well-being for the sake of a forest or a stream, is even rarer.
The success of such egocentrism and anthropocentrism is confirmed by the remarkable extension of human life spans. Human longevity has increased from 30 to 40 years in 1800 to 75 years today, due mostly to improvements in living conditions, medicine, sanitation, and clean drinking water.
But humanity’s success can only be claimed if non-humans are excluded from the consideration. Expanding this consideration into full and all inclusive criteria is the challenge that distinguishes today’s environmental movement.