The Human Ecosystem

As pointed out when the diagram below was first introduced, the human ecosystem has been around as long as homosapiens, i.e. a few hundred thousand years. However, this section of the discussion will focus on just the last few hundred years, because it is believed that a step-change in human evolution took place within this timeframe. However, this step-change did not take place in our DNA, but rather in the complexity of the human ecosystem created. In this context, the purpose of the previous outline discussions was simply to help introduce some of the complexity that is now taking place within this ecosystem and the difficulty of predicting where developments are headed.

 

At the start of this discussion, it will be stated that by most measures, the development and expansion of the human ecosystem has improved the lives of millions around the world. However, it is possibly naïve to assumed that past developments have always been beneficial to all, such that we need to consider where we have come from in order to make any assessment of where we might be headed.

How might history provide a perspective of the human ecosystem?

The previous introduction to the ‘Brave New Worlds’ discussion has attempted to outline the basic structure of the human ecosystem in which social, political and economic change is being driven by technology. Of course, in reality, this ecosystem has many inter-dependencies, which must also include the human impact on the wider environment and the usage of natural resources, e.g. food, water and fossil fuels. While the full complexity of this system is beyond the scope of this discussion, we might still reflect on how this complexity has ‘evolved’ so far and how ongoing change might impact the future of humanity. For any examination of history suggests that humanity has now become the most dominant species on planet Earth, possibly to the detriment of the global environment and all other lifeforms. However, while human history might stretch back hundreds of thousands of years, the scale and scope of human activity within this ecosystem might be seen to have undergone an exponential expansion in just the last 500 years or so. While, in 1500, the human population had already grown to 500 million, the last 500 years has seen this figure increase to 7.4 billion. Likewise, over the same period of time, the global economy has increased from $250 billion, in today’s money, towards $60 trillion, and the human consumption of calories risen from 13 to 1,500 trillion calories per day. This represents a 14-fold increase in the human population, but possibly more significantly, a 240-fold increase in the global economy and a 115-fold increase in global calorie consumption. In this context, we might table an initial question:

Can this form of exponential growth continue indefinitely?

While we might readily accept that any exponential growth must have some finite limit, especially in terms of planetary resources, we possibly need to consider some of the key factors that might have triggered such a profound change in the fortunes of humanity. Given the limitations of technology in 1500, human populations were mainly confined to certain geographies that provided relatively easy access to food and water. At this time, few cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants and most buildings would have been made of an unsophisticated combination of mud, wood and straw, where most streets would have been little more than dirt tracks, often polluted with human waste. Of course, without electricity or gas lamps, these cities would have been plunged into darkness at night, illuminated by only the faint glow of candles or oil-lights. However, in the space of just 500 years, every usable square inch of planet Earth has been explored from land, sea, air and space, invariably in the quest to exploit ever-more resources, often with little regard to indigenous cultures or other lifeforms.

Note: Over the last 500 years, global energy consumption has risen from near-zero to 600*1018 joules. While a joule is quite a small unit of energy, e.g. an apple falling 1 metre might be a rough approximation, the figure cited is 600 billion-billion times larger. However, possibly a more staggering example of exponential growth is that more data is now being produced every year than in all previous years of human history.

From a historical perspective, we might realise that the agricultural revolution had to have been a catalyst of profound change, although we might recognise that much of this change took place thousands of years ago, such that in isolation, it cannot account for the exponential developments of the last 500 years. We might also recognise that the foundation of the industrial era was based on the development of the steam engine in the 18th century and the development of electricity in the 19th century as other major milestones. However, even these great catalysts of change might be interpreted as a consequential effect rather than an underlying cause. Therefore, we shall turn our attention to the revolution in information and knowledge, which was initially triggered by the development of the written word and then expanded via the invention of the printing press, such that an exponential increase in the amount of knowledge could be passed from one generation to the next. In this context, the scope of change started to accelerate, such that by 1500 it might be said that it had led to a ‘cognitive evolution ’ in human thinking that might be cited as the fundamental cause of the change that has occurred.

But what is inferred by a cognitive evolution?

In the long history of human development, we might recognise that many individuals and even entire civilisations have long given serious thought about the wider universe in which we live. However, it is going to be suggested that it was the change in the scope of scientific thinking during the European Enlightenment of the 15-16th century, which led to such a profoundly different worldview. In fact, so profound was this change, it is being described as a cognitive evolution in human thinking.

Note: In the 1500’s, Nicolaus Copernicus produced his work entitled ‘De Revolutionibus’, which was revolutionary in both its idea and its challenge to the orthodoxy of religious knowledge by asserting that the Earth moved around the Sun. Later, in 1687, Isaac Newton would publish his great work entitled ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ that history also recognises triggered another step-function in scientific thinking.

However, while specific scientific works can undoubtedly act as a catalyst of change, the wider idea of a ‘cognitive evolution’ was possibly founded on a new willingness and ability to question previously held truths and search for new answers. For up until this time, history suggests that the attitude towards ‘ignorance’, i.e. that which is not known, was often contextualised in a very different way in comparison to the modern era.

For while it was accepted that ignorance could be a failing of an individual, this failing was not extended to the collective knowledge of those in power, e.g. the church. Within this worldview, there was a separation of ignorance into important and unimportant things, where some things were not known because they were essentially unimportant, while the answers to important things were believed to be found in the teachings of religious scriptures, even though such answers varied within different religious beliefs. So, while the work of Copernicus and Newton might rightly be considered as important steps in human knowledge, the real significance of the emerging scientific revolution lay in the widening acceptance that humanity, as a collective whole, still remained ignorant of many things. In this respect, the growing freedom to pursue knowledge would act as a catalyst that drove scientific inquiry and invention towards present-day modernity.

Note: It is recognised that the semantics in use might be questioned, especially where a ‘step-function’ in knowledge might be described as either a ‘development’ or ‘revolutionary’ or possibly ‘evolutionary’. However, it is being argued that the ‘developments’ of the last 500 years were ‘evolutionary’ in terms of the way humanity would come to view the world or, at least, by some larger portion of its population.

So, while the idea of ‘progress’ over the last 500 years might simply be considered in terms of a series of step-functions in knowledge that then triggered a succession of technical discoveries, the overall result has led to evolutionary change in terms of the overall scope of the human ecosystem.