Further thoughts

Biometabolism and Technometabolism

The capacity for culture, together with human dexterity, led to one particularly important difference between the ecology of our species and that of other mammals.  The regular use of fire and the manufacture and use of tools added an extra dimension to the metabolism of human populations – referred to as technometabolism.

Technometabolism is defined as the pattern of flow of energy and materials into, through and out of a human population that results from technological processes.  It contrasts with biometabolism, which is the flow of energy and materials into, through and out of human organisms themselves. Of course, some animas use tools, but technometabolism on the scale seen in human populations is a new phenomenon in the history of life on Earth. It is of tremendous significance ecologically and in many other ways.

The use of fire in particular was a development of enormous ecological significance.  It was the first example of the regular and deliberate use by humans of extrasomatic energy – energy, that is, which is used outside the human body, as distinct from the somatic energy which is consumed in food and which flows through the human body. 

It has been estimated that the introduction of the regular use of fire in human populations approximately doubled the per capita energy use, bringing the average total energy used per day per person (men, women and children) to about 14 MJ: that is, roughly 7 MJ used in biometabolism and 7 MJ in the burning of wood.

In the early farming ecological Phase of human history and in the early urban phase, new technologies were introduced that resulted in some intensification of technometabolism. In particular, there was an input of various metals, especially iron and the combustion of wood as a source of energy for smelting.

There has been an explosive increase in the intensity of technometabolism in ecological Phase 4 of human history – the Exponential Phase or the Anthropocene.  Humankind is now using 20,000 times as much extrasomatic energy as was the case when farming began, and 95 per cent of this increase occurred over the past 150 years. Also, vast quantities of many different elements are used in technological processes and in the manufacture of a great range of different kinds of artefacts. The per capita consumption of iron in Australia today is over 1.3 kg per day.

The analysis of flows of materials and energy into, through and out of urban systems has now become an important field in human ecology. An early example is the study of the metabolism of Hong Kong[1].

Patterns of urban metabolism have an important influence on the health of human populations and of the ecosystems of the biosphere.


[1] Newcombe, K,, J. D. Kalma and A. Aston. 1978. The metabolism of a city: the case of Hong Kong. Ambio.  Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 3-15.

Boyden, S., S. Millar, K. Newcombe, B. O’Neill, 1981. The ecology of a city and its people: the case of Hong Kong.  ANU Press, Canberra.

A Generational Perspective

Picture yourself on the stage of a large theatre with room for an audience of two thousand. 

In your mind’s eye, place your mother in the seat at one end of the front row, and then her mother next to her and so on – until you have filled the place with 2,000 generations of mothers and daughters. 

Only the women in the front twenty or so rows would have been alive since the time when farming first began, and only those in the front six or seven rows would have lived after the earliest cities came into existence, although few of them are likely to have actually lived in cities. 

You could fill five other similar theatres with earlier maternal hunter-gatherer ancestors belonging to the species Homo sapiens.  All these women really existed, and they lived in a state of health, at least until the birth of a daughter.  

If you were to carry out the same mental exercise imagining you were in a stadium with seats for 100,000 people, the ladies in the rows at the back would be australopithecines.

Cultural Gullibility

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 an outstanding 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 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.

Adaption and Maladaption

In biology, adaptation has been defined as ‘the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment’. There are several different kinds of adaptation in biological systems.  Particularly important are genetic, or evolutionary, adaptation, physiological adaptation and adaptation through learning.

Genetic adaptation is the kind of adaptation that has given rise to all the species of animals and plants on Earth today, including humankind.  It is transgenerational and the main influence on its direction is believed to be natural selection.

Physiological adaptation consists of physiological changes in living organisms that render them better able to cope with an existing situation or threat. The heart will beat faster in a threatening situation – so that muscles are provided with more oxygen and so will perform better if needed (e.g. in running away or fighting). Another example is the immune response that enables organisms to fight off invading microorganisms.

Adaptation through learning occurs when animals learn through experience that that certain behaviours are to their advantage, or to their disadvantage, and so behave accordingly. It becomes increasingly important in species higher on the evolutionary scale.

In humankind there is another dimension to adaptation – cultural adaptation, which is a form of adaptation through learning. 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.  Not all changes in genetic material are beneficial. In fact the great majority of mutations are harmful.  Such instances are referred to as genetic maladaptations. Similarly, physiological responses can sometime be harmful.  Autoimmune disease is a clear example of physiological maladaptation.

So, too, with culture.  As cultures have evolved they have 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 have 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. A particularly tragic case was the ancient Chinese custom of foot-binding, which prevented the normal growth of the feet of young girls and caused them excruciating pain. This practice well illustrates the propensity of culture to influence people’s mind-sets in ways that result in activities that are not only nonsensical in the extreme, but also sometimes very cruel and destructive and contrary to nature. This particular cultural maladaptation was mutely accepted by the mass of the Chinese population for forty or more generations.

In Europe the long, drawn-out and often bloody conflicts between Protestants and Catholics provide another example of absurd, unnecessary cultural maladaptation that caused an immense amount of human suffering.

Cultural maladaptations in the Exponential Phase of human history (ecological Phase 4, also known as the Anthropocene) are manifold.  Some affect humans directly, while others cause damage to the living systems in the environment on which we depend. At present some even pose a threat to the survival of civilisation, perhaps of the human species

Fortunately, humans have the ability, through their capacity for culture itself, to bring culture back on track when it goes off the rails. Nowadays, when societies 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 societal 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. A good 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.[i] They are likely to argue that the problem does not exist or that it has been 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.

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.

Cultural reform may be corrective or antidotal.  Corrective reform occurs when the adaptive process involves correcting the underlying cause of maladjustment or disharmony. An example is provided by the restoration of vitamin C to the diet of a population suffering from scurvy. In antidotal reform the unsatisfactory conditions which are the underlying cause of disturbance are not modified, and the adaptive response is aimed at alleviating the symptoms or at an intermediate factor. Most, but not all of the work of the medical profession is antidotal rather than corrective.


[i] For a detailed discussion in the context of tobacco smoking, CFCs and climate change – see Oreskes, N. and Conway, E.M. 2010. Merchants of doubt. Bloomsbury Press. New York.

The Partial Enlightenment

Towards the end of the 17th century and during the 18th century the intellectual movement commonly, but misguidedly, referred to as the Enlightenment, was underway in Europe. This movement emphasised rational thought, as opposed to religious tradition, as a means of understanding the universe and making things better for humankind.  I say misguidedly, because a more appropriate term would be Partial Enlightenment.  Its great weakness lay in its association with the idea that Nature is out there to be conquered.

Francis Bacon is credited with originating the idea of improving the human condition by conquering Nature, and Descartes believed that we should become ‘like masters and possessors of Nature’.

Does it make sense to set out to conquer the living system that gave rise to us, of which we are a part, and on which we are totally dependent?  No, it does not; but it does make sense to try to understand it, to respect it, and to try to live in harmony with it.

Nature, Culture and the Future

The human species has a trait that is unique in the animal kingdom. It is 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.[1]

 In recent times human culture has become an extremely powerful force in the living world.

Shared knowledge, beliefs, ideologies and priorities can lead to human activities that are to human advantage. These are referred to as cultural adaptations. But culture can also get things wrong, and it can sometimes result in activities that are disadvantageous.   These are referred to as cultural maladaptations.

Cultural maladaptations in the modern world are on a massive scale, and if present patterns of human activity continue unabated the collapse of civilisation certain.

Paradoxically, while culture is responsible for the current threats to human wellbeing and survival, it is only through culture that we can hope to overcome them. 

An aspect of culture of special pertinence in this context is what Yuval Harari calls ‘holy scripts’. This author describes how all belief systems, including religions and political ideologies, have their holy scripts.[2] 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 suffer from a very serious deficiency in this area of holy scripts, and that this deficiency lies behind many of the current cultural maladaptations that threaten humanity today.  We have the sacred writings of the various religious belief systems, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and we have the hallowed texts of communism and capitalism. But there is another story, of profound significance for every one of us and for society as a whole, that has yet to find its place among the assortment of holy scripts. It is the story about life on Earth and the human place in nature. We call it the Bionarrative. The Bionarrative is a true story that comes from the natural sciences. Certainly, there are many people who are familiar with this story, but they are very much in a minority. The Bionarrative is not seen as a story of political or ethical significance. It is not a holy script.

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 the Bionarrative were embedded at the core of the prevailing cultur


[1] The word culture has many rather different meanings. Here it is used to mean the abstract products of the capacity for culture, such as learned language itself and the accumulated knowledge, assumptions, beliefs, values and technological know-how of a human population. This use of the term is consistent with the first definition of ‘culture’ given in Collins Dictionary: ‘The total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action’ (Collins Dictionary of the English Language (1979) Collins, Sydney, Auckland and Glasgow).

[2] Harari refers to ideologies, like communism and capitalism, as religions. Here we use the expression ‘belief systems’ to include both religions that embrace a belief in a god or gods and political ideologies which do not embroil a god or gods. Y. N. Harari. 2011. Sapiens: a brief history of humankind. Vintage Press, London. p. 254.

A Biosensitive Society

Biounderstanding leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the only hope for the future lies in a radical cultural transformation, leading to a fifth ecological phase of human history – a phase that is truly sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life that underpin our existence. We refer to a society with these characteristics as a biosensitive society [1].

All aspects of a biosensitive society, cultural and physical, will be geared to achieving harmony with nature and to satisfying the health needs of all sections of the human population, as well as those of the ecosystems on which they depend (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Biosensitivity Triangle

Table 1 lists some the most essential ecological features of a society on the path to biosensitivity.

Table 1




GOVERNMENT ACTION

The achievement of these goals will require strong and enlightened government action. Unlike today, they will all be given high priority by governments and local authorities.

Governments will oversee a transition to a new economic system that satisfies the needs of all sections of the human population, without resulting in ever-increasing use of natural resources and production of wastes. There must be a steady decline in the intensity of technometabolism [see Biometabolism and Technometabolism].

Biosensitive societies will be free of weapons of mass destruction, which at present pose an horrendous threat to humankind and the rest of the biosphere.

LIFESTYLES

At the level of individuals and families, biosensitivity will be associated with a high quality of life. Lifestyles will satisfy people’s physical and psychosocial health needs, such as clean air and water, a healthy diet, plenty of physical exercise, sense of purpose and the experience of conviviality.

A check list of important health needs is presented in Table 2. Attention is drawn to the psychosocial category of health needs (or health-promoting factors). Although somewhat difficult to define and measure, these intangible needs are as necessary for wellbeing as are a healthy diet and clean air.

These health needs will be satisfied in ways that do not result in continual growth in use of resources energy, pollution of the natural environment or loss of biodiversity. There will be more emphasis than at present on such activities as growing food, enjoying and caring for the natural environment, local sport, making music, dancing, the arts, theatre, cycling, and convivial social interaction.

Rampant consumerism and fossil fuel-powered travel will not be features of a biosensitive society.

[For the rationale behind this list, see Evolution and human health]

FOOTNOTES

[1] The term biosensitive is introduced because there is a need for a single word to describe a society with these characteristics. The expression ‘ecologically sustainable’ is widely used these days. Of course, society must be ecologically sustainable – otherwise in the long term it cannot continue to exist. But ecological sustainability is surely the bottom line. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also positively promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population, as well as in the living systems of the biosphere.

Biounderstanding and the Bionarrative

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 beginning of life on Earth around 4000 million years ago, in the form of single cell micro-organisms (bacteria and archaea)

– 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 Evolution and Human Health]





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 Adaptation and Maladaptation]

– 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.





Footnotes

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.

A Cultural Transformation

New understanding      ->      New worldview     ->      New society

Human activities on Earth today are on a scale and of a kind that pose a severe threat to the whole of humankind, as well as to countless other species.  If present patterns of human activity continue unabated, the collapse of civilisation is certain.

The prevailing cultures that are driving human expansion across the globe appear blissfully unaware of this ecological reality. The only hope for the future lies in a radical cultural transformation, leading to a new society that promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population as well as in the ecosystems on which they depend. I refer to this transformation as the Biotransition.

This transformation can be envisaged as consisting of three distinct steps.

Step 1.  New understanding

The first essential step in the transformation will take the form of a wave of new understanding spreading swiftly across the prevailing cultures of the world – understanding of the story of life on Earth, and of the natural processes, within and around us, on which our existence and wellbeing depend, and understanding that the survival of civilisation will require major changes in the intensity and patterns of human activity on our planet.

We refer to this kind of understanding as Biounderstanding, and to the story of life as the Bionarrative.

Step 2.  New worldview

Biounderstanding will lead to a new, shared, worldview that

  • profound respect for the processes of life that gave rise to us and on which we are totally dependent

This new worldview will be the most significant difference between our current society and healthy and ecologically sustainable societies of the future.

We call this worldview Biorealism. [1]

Step 3.  New society Biounderstanding and the new worldview will lead to a society that is truly sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life, within and around us. It will mean healthy people on a healthy planet.   We refer to a society with these characteristics as a

Biosensitive society. [1] Biosensitivity will be a guiding principle in all spheres of human endeavour.


[1] We have introduced the term ‘biosensitive’ because there is a need for a single word to describe a society with these characteristics. The expression ‘ecologically sustainable’ is widely used these days. Of course, society must be ecologically sustainable – otherwise in the long term it cannot continue to exist. But ecological sustainability is surely the bottom line. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also positively promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population as well as in the ecosystems of the biosphere.


[1] This worldview needs a name. I have wasted countless hours thinking about this, and ‘Biorealism’ is the best I can come up with. It is not perfect, but I will continue to use it until somebody comes up with a better term. I considered using the term ‘biophilia’, introduced by E. O. Wilson, but its meaning is not quite the same. It has been defined as an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings for the natural world.

Vegetarianism

Some people are vegetarians because they believe it is morally wrong to consume other animals. I am not one of these people.  Nature created our species as an omnivorous animal, just as it created deer as herbivores and lions as carnivores. For something like 12,000 generations my Homo sapiens ancestors have been meat eaters. 

The cattle grazing on our farm would not exist if humans didn’t eat meat. They have a good life, and seem to be quite happy most of the time.

However, I feel strongly that we should completely change the slaughtering procedure. Animals should be killed instantly in the paddock or yard on the farm, and then transported to the butchery. None of this trucking long distances to sale yards, and none of the extreme fear as they are lined up for slaughter.

The ecological arguments for vegetarianism, and even veganism, are more persuasive.

The Anthropocene, or Exponential Ecological Phase of human history, has seen big changes in the size of the populations not only of humans, but also of wild and domestic animals.

It is estimated that 12,000 years ago the biomass of vertebrates on Earth was around of 200 million tonnes (mt). Humans made up one thousandth of this amount. Today the vertebrate biomass is about 930 mt, nearly a five fold increase. However, the wild animal component is reduced by 85 per cent (to 30 mt).  Humans have increased 1,500 times (to 300 mt). Domestic livestock bred for food or animal fibre, have increased from zero to 600 mt.[1]

Over 90 per cent of these changes have occurred in the past 250 years of Homo sapiens’s 300,000 years of existence.

            12,000 years ago                2000 AD
Wild animals                 200 mt                    30 mt
Humans                  0.2 mt                   300 mt
Domestic animals                    0 mt                    600 mt

The farming of animals for food production is now on a scale and of a kind that it is causing serious ecological problems worldwide.  For example, in some areas animal farming is causing significant loss of biodiversity. This is especially so in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America, where deforestation to make way for cattle is resulting in the loss of many unique animal and plant species.

Land degradation caused by overgrazing is also a serious problem, especially in dry areas of the world. Impacts include biological impoverishment of the soil, soil erosion and eutrophication of streams and rivers.

According to FAO, livestock, including poultry, account for 14.5 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (in terms of carbon equivalent). 

A recent paper in the journal, Science, has highlighted the scale and seriousness of the problem, leading the authors to advocate universal veganism to save our planet.[2] They estimate that a vegan world would produce 40 percent less food-based greenhouse gas emissions, 50 per cent less acidification on land, 49 per cent less eutrophication, and would use 19 per cent less water; and it would cut land us by 76 per cent. They point out that there is big variation in the environmental impact of different farming practices. It has been reported that the world’s 10 per cent worst beef producers emit 12 times more greenhouse gas, and takes up 50 times more land, to produce a unit quantity of protein, compared to the best 10 per cent.

Referring to this paper, George Monbiot of the Guardian, writes:

We can neither feed the world’s growing population nor protect its living systems through animal farming. Meat and dairy are extravaganza we can no longer afford.[3]

So, apparently, we have a sad situation.  For some 300,000 years humankind fitted in to the biosphere much like any other omnivorous species, and although there were fluctuations in population from time to time, there were never enough people to threaten the integrity of the ecosystems on which they depended. After the introduction of agriculture around 12,000 years ago, the human population began to increase and there are now 1,500 times as many people on Earth as there were when farming began. At present the population is growing at the rate of around 1.4 million each week.

Perhaps the advocates of veganism are right. The population has now reached such a level that we must stop eating meat, which was such an important part of the natural diet of our species.  We must to shift to an unnatural diet to save the planet, simply because there are so many of us.

Not surprisingly, there has been a backlash from supporters of the meat industry. Critics suggest the paper in Science is too narrow. They ask: Why single out meat production, when there are so many other human activities threatening the integrity of the biosphere? Activities like producing palm oil and soya bean oil and the use of fossil fuels, and even keeping pet dogs and cats, make a huge contribution to the unsustainability of modern society?  They draw attention to the fact that, in some parts of the world, populations depend on meat eating for their very survival, and that well managed grazing pastures can have a positive effect on biodiversity.

In my view, the facts assembled in the Science paper are probably sound, and the production of meat and dairy products, along with various other human activities, is threatening the living systems that underpin our existence.  The crux of the problem is that there are vastly too many humans on Earth.


[1] These figures are based on information assembled by Paul Chefurka (see http://www.paulchefurka.ca).

[2] J. Poore and T. Nemecek. 2018. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360. Issue 6392. Pp.987 – 992. X

[3]  G. Monbiot. 2018. The best way to save the planet? Drop meat and dairy. Farming livestock for food threatens all life on Earth. The Guardian Weekly. 199. No.2 p.48.