There is a story of overarching significance for every one of us and for society as a whole. Yet this story is known and understood by only a minority of the population. If it were understood by the majority, the prospects for humanity would be much brighter. It is the story about life on Earth and the human place in nature. We refer to this story as the Bionarrative [see Footnote 1].
Why is this story so important?
First, the Bionarrative conveys a sense of perspective crucial for understanding the human situation on Earth today. It reminds us that we are living beings, products of hundreds of millions of years of biological evolution, and totally dependent on the processes of life, within us and around us, for our wellbeing and survival. It reminds us that our civilisation is entirely dependent for its continued existence on the underlying processes of life. Keeping these processes healthy must be our top priority, because everything else depends on them.
More specifically, the Bionarrative tells us about:
– The history of life on Earth, and the coming and going, especially over the past 600 million years, of myriads of life forms, leading to the rich network of interacting and interdependent living organisms that make up our world today.
– The fundamental ecological processes and principles on which we, and all other living organisms, depend (e.g. the flow of energy from sunlight through the living world, and the cycling of nutrients in natural ecosystems).
– The physiological systems and processes on which we and other animals depend (e.g. the circulatory, nervous, digestive, nervous, reproductive systems)
– The innate physical and psychosocial health needs of humankind [see Footnote 2]
And it tells us that
– All plant and animal life and human civilisation depend on photosynthesis in green plants
– Homo sapiens came into existence around 300,000 years ago, which is for less than 0.01 per cent of the time of life on Earth
– Humans possess an attribute unique in the animal kingdom – the ability to invent, memorise and communicate with a symbolic spoken language
– This aptitude for language led to the accumulation of shared worldviews, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes in human groups. That is, it led to human culture
– Human culture has recently emerged as a powerful new force in nature. It has led to activities that have been to the benefit of humans (cultural adaptations) and to activities that have been greatly to their disadvantage (cultural maladaptations) [see Footnote 3]
– The control and use of fire for cooking and other purposes was one of the turning points in cultural evolution. It predates Homo sapiens, and fire was probably in use by Homo erectus a million years ago
– The history of Homo sapiens has consisted of four quite distinct ecological phases: Ecological Phase 1 – the Hunter-gatherer Phase, beginning around 300,000 years ago Ecological Phase 2 – the Early Farming Phase, beginning around 12,000 years ago Ecological Phase 3 – the Early Urban Phase, beginning around 9000 years ago Ecological Phase 4 – the Exponential Phase, beginning around 250 years ago. This Phase represents less than 0.1 per cent of Homo sapiens‘s time on Earth. It is also referred to as the Anthropocene, and because of the recent surge in usage of this term, I will use it in the rest of this document, rather than Exponential Phase.
– Cultural maladaptations in the Anthropocene are on a scale and of a kind that threaten the whole of humankind as well as countless other species. Big changes will be necessary if we are going to avoid catastrophe on a massive scale. The days of ecological Phase 4 are numbered.
The Bionarrative draws our attention to the following Anthropocene perspectives.
– There are now about 1,600 times as many people alive as there were when farming began. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase has occurred in ecological Phase 4. The number of humans on Earth is now increasing at the rate of 1.4 million per week.
– The Anthropocene has seen an astounding profusion of technological innovations – from steam engines and motor vehicles to intercontinental rockets and spacecraft – from electric lights and radio to thermonuclear bombs, computers, smartphones and the Internet.
– There has been a massive intensification of use of natural resources and energy and discharge of wastes. Humankind is now responsible for the emission of about 10,000 times as much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as was the case when farming began, and we are using about 20,000 time as much energy. More than 90% of these increases has occurred since 1900.
– Deforestation of tropical forest is occurring at an ever-increasing rate – mainly to make way for pastures for beef cattle and oil palm plantations. Only around 6 million square kilometres remain of the original 16 million sq. km. of tropical rainforest that formerly covered the Earth. A couple of years ago, an area the size of a football pitch is cleared from the Amazonian rainforest every minute.
– Three to four million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other waste is dumped into the world’s rivers and oceans every year.
– Plastics have been introduced for manufacturing a wide range of objects. About 9 million tonnes of plastic waste are discharged into the sea every year, and the amount is said to double in 11 years. According to one prediction, by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.).
– The Anthropocene has seen an astronomical increase in the destructive power of explosive weapons. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were many million times more powerful than the ‘conventional’ bombs of World War 1, which were themselves a product of the Anthropocene. Thermonuclear bombs now in existence are several thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. There are many thousands of these bombs stockpiled across the world.
The Bionarrative also tells us about the impacts and threats resulting from these exponential changes:
– Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere resulting mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation are causing progressive global warming. The average global temperature is already 0.9°C higher than it was at the beginning of ecological Phase 4. Sea levels are rising and there is an increasing frequency of extreme weather events worldwide, such as powerful storms, typhoons, droughts and heatwaves. If governments don’t take strong action in the immediate future, the consequences for humanity will be very serious indeed.
– The two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 killed from 129,000 to 226.000 people. The thermonuclear bombs stored in the arsenals of nations across the world are sufficient to wipe out humankind many times over.
– As a result of human activities in recent times, one million of the world’s species are now under threat of extinction. According to some estimates 25 per cent of all mammal species could be extinct in 20 years time
– Environmental pollution with discarded plastics is causing a dramatic decline in populations of many seabirds. 5000 – 15000 turtles become entangled in discarded fishing gear every year.
– There has been a thinning of the ozone layer in the stratosphere, due to release of ozone-depleting substances (CFCs etc,) by human society, leading to increased UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.
– The UN’s’ Food and Agricultural Organisation warns that the world’s agricultural systems face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity as a result of excessive population pressure and unsatisfactory farming practices.
– Gross disparities still exist in human health and wellbeing across and within human populations.
The Bionarrative tells us that
– There is a growing awareness that human activities on Earth are now on a scale and of a kind that threaten the survival of civilisation. They are simply not ecologically sustainable in the long term. This concern finds expression in the green movement, which is now a force in the political arena. However, although some important measures have been taken, here and there, to protect aspects of the natural environment, they have not been allowed to interfere with the inexorable thrusts of ever-moreism and market forces; and the human population continues to grow. The juggernaut rolls on.
– So, while the process of cultural reform is certainly underway, it has a long way to go, and the inevitable counter-reform backlash is very much in evidence. The ecologically maladaptive assumptions of the dominant cultures remain firmly entrenched, and the reform process is in need of a big boost.
Most importantly, the Bionarrative leads, at least in some people, to a feeling of profound respect for the processes of life, and an emotional commitment to live in harmony with nature, individually and at the level of society as a whole.
Note: For my own short version of the Bionarrative, see S. Boyden. 2016. The Bionarrative: the story of life and hope for the future. ANU Press. Canberra. https://press.anu.edu.au/publications/Bionarrative.
1. HOLY SCRIPTS
In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari discusses how all belief systems, religious and political, have their ‘holy scripts’. These holy scripts provide the underlying basis of the belief systems and they sometimes have a powerful influence on people’s worldviews and behaviour.
It is our contention that the prevailing cultures of the world today suffer from a serious deficiency in this area of holy scripts, and that this deficiency lies behind many of the cultural maladaptations that threaten humanity today.
Across the world, we have the sacred writings of the various religious belief systems, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as the hallowed texts of communism and capitalism. But there is another story, of profound practical and ethical significance for every one of us and for society as a whole, that has yet to achieve the status of a holy script. It is the story about life on Earth and the human place in nature. We call it the Bionarrative. Certainly, there are people who are familiar with this story, but they are very much in a minority. The Bionarrative is not seen, or taught, as a story that has meaning for our lifestyle choices or governmental policies.
The Bionarrative generates an understanding of the human place in nature and of the life processes that gave rise to us, of which we are a part, and on which we are totally dependent, and it highlights the urgent need for radical changes in the patterns of human activity on Earth if civilisation, and perhaps our species, are to survive. The prospects for the future of humankind would be very much brighter if this story were embedded at the core of the prevailing cultures of the world.
2. EVOLUTION AND HUMAN HEALTH
The health needs of animals, including Homo sapiens, are determined by their evolutionary background. This is because, through the processes of evolution, species have become well adapted in their innate biological characteristics to the conditions prevailing in the environment in which they are evolving.
If an organism is exposed to conditions of life that differ significantly from those that prevail in its natural environment, it is likely to be less well adapted to the new and different environment, and it is likely to show signs of maladjustment. It will be less healthy than in its natural environment. This fundamental evolutionary health principle applies to all plants and animals.
The evolutionary health principle clearly applies to a wide range of physical aspects of life conditions in humans. There is no diet better for humankind than that which was typical for hunter-gatherers. It is also clear that the principle is applicable to some aspects of behaviour. Marked deviations from natural sleeping patterns cause maladjustment, and health is likely to be impaired if patterns of physical exercise deviate markedly from those of humans in the natural habitat.
There are good reasons for supposing that the evolutionary health principle also applies to psychosocial and relatively intangible aspects of life experience. For example, the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers are usually characterised by a sense of purpose in daily activities and plenty of convivial social interaction. Most of us would agree that such conditions are all likely to promote health and wellbeing in our own society.
Taking our knowledge of the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers as a starting point, we can put together a working list of physical and psychosocial conditions likely to promote health and wellbeing in our species [see Table 2]. They are referred to as universal health needs, because they apply to all members of the human species, wherever or whenever they may be living.
Not every item on the psychosocial list is absolutely essential for health. Lack of satisfaction of one psychosocial health need may be offset to some extent by the satisfaction of others. On the other hand, every item on the list will, if satisfied, make a positive contribution to health and wellbeing.
3. CULTURAL ADAPTATION AND MALADAPTATION
Cultural adaptation can be defined as behavioural changes that result from new knowledge and that lead to people being better able to cope with prevailing conditions. The deliberate use of fire and the introduction of vaccination are among innumerable examples.
There is, however, another side to the picture. As cultures evolve they often come to embrace not only factual information of good practical value, but also assumptions that are sheer nonsense, leading to behaviours that are equally nonsensical. That is, cultures often get things wrong. Sometimes these cultural delusions have resulted in activities that caused unnecessary distress in humans or unnecessary damage to local ecosystems. Such cases are examples of cultural maladaptation. There are countless examples of cultural maladaptation in human history.
Fortunately, humans have the ability, through their capacity for itself, to bring culture back on track when it goes off the rails. Nowadays, when some people come to perceive the biological or social consequences of culturally-inspired activities as undesirable, a period of discussion and debate ensues about the causes of the problem and possible remedies. Eventually new understanding can bring about modifications in cultural assumptions and priorities, leading to appropriate changes in human activities. This process is referred to as cultural reform.
Cultural reform is often quite complicated, involving prolonged interactions between different interest groups in society. A key role is often played initially by minority groups, occasionally by single individuals, who start the ball rolling by drawing attention to an unsatisfactory state of affairs. An example is Rachel Carson who, in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring, drew attention to the insidious and destructive ecological impacts of certain synthetic pesticides.
Almost invariably these expressions of concern coming from reformers are promptly contradicted by others, the counter-reformers, who set out to block the reform process. This predictable backlash often involves, but is not restricted to, representatives of vested interests who believe that the proposed reforms will be to their disadvantage.
They are likely to argue that the problem does not exist, or that it has been grossly exaggerated, and they try to ridicule the reformers by calling them alarmists, fanatics, scaremongers and prophets of doom. Nowadays some of the counter-reform forces are extraordinarily powerful. For a detailed discussion in the context of tobacco smoking, CFCs and climate change – see Merchants of doubt by N. Oreskes and E.M. Conway (2010).
Eventually, if the reformers are successful, a change comes about in the dominant culture and members of governmental bureaucracies and other organisations set about working out ways and means of achieving the necessary changes. Their efforts may still be hindered by the stalling tactics of counter-reformers.
The Bionarrative draws our attention to the tendency of humans to accept as gospel the messages coming from their close cultural environment. While occasional individuals reject some of the assumptions, attitudes and prejudices of the culture in which they have grown up, they are a minority. Most people remain true to their cultural inheritance throughout their lives. This natural tendency of humans to blindly accept the assumptions and prejudices of the cultural soups in which they have been immersed since childhood lies behind most of the conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups that still plague world today. Cultural gullibility is a fundamental, and potentially very dangerous, human characteristic.
The Bionarrative thus alerts us to the brainwashing power of culture and of the critical need to be constantly vigilant – making sure that the worldviews, assumptions and priorities of our cultures are in tune with reality; and that they are not leading us to behave in ways that are causing unnecessary human suffering or damage to the living systems on which we depend.