Earth is an Island

I am leaving to spend the winter in Mauritius, an island 45km in width by 65km in length that lies approximately 2000km east of continental Africa. The island serves as a rare case study in ecology as it is one of a few places to have remained uninhabited by humans until recent history. It has a robust record from visitors and inhabitants of the native flora, fauna, and changes that the island underwent over the past 400 years. Not only was the island devoid of humans – it was devoid of land mammals all together. A circumstance that came about due to the island’s young age and the challenge that relative isolation poses to the introduction of land mammals. This void provided the opportunity for a plethora of spectacular endemic reptile and bird species to evolve, which fostered fascinating accounts from the first human arrivals.

Early accounts – the first in 1598 – described large flightless birds and included preposterous drawings of them that attracted significant attention in Europe. The bird came to be known as the Dodo, the etymology of which is thoroughly contested. The birds had lost the ability to fly as a result of an abundance of food on the ground and a lack of predators. Many were hunted and noted by sailors, a few explorers documented them over the years, and a couple of them were reputed to have made it to other continents aboard ships as curiosities. Portuguese and Dutch sailors continued to use it as a way point where they could fill their holds with upside down tortoises – which could live for years in this fashion and provide fresh meat during their voyage– and to hunt goats and pigs that they had introduced. Eventually, a day arrived when there were simply no more Dodos to be found. The last reliable account of a sighting occurred in 1662 – sixty years after humans arrived. Extinction was not a concept at the time, therefore many commentators and scientists obstinately argued that the bird was mythical and never had existed. It took over 150 years before there was scientific consensus that it had existed and its extinction had been induced by humans. The Dodo has taken its place in our collective consciousness due to its distinction as the first recorded case of human induced extinction.

The story of Mauritius does not end with the demise of the Dodo. Humans, as they have done in every corner of this planet, brought rats, mice, and pigs that predated reptile and bird eggs. Forests were cut to export hardwood, then for building materials, then for tea plantations, and then for sugar plantations. Goats grazed what had been razed. Africans were imported and sold as machinery to work the sugarcane. The population grew exponentially. A few people became wealthy. The patience and resilience of the giant tortoise proved insufficient, the hardwood heart of the forests fell, the exotic birds lost their homes and their cacophony grew faint, and fewer colorful geckos lit up the day. Dozens of species quickly and almost silently went extinct over the coming centuries. Some of the first environmental protection laws in the world sprung up, and then were ignored out of political and economic expediency.
Today, 1.3 million people live on the main island, mostly near the coast. The seas are rising and the weather is changing. Annual mean temperature has gone up .74C relative to the 1961-1990 mean. Yearly rainfall averages are down 8% since the 1950s, with more of it coming during extreme events. Resources on the island are strapped. Only 25% of the island remains forested. 90% of the cultivated land is occupied with sugar cane which has to be exported to purchase the 80% of the island’s energy which comes in the form of imported fossil fuels.

Mauritians face even greater challenges in the coming years due to climate change. The Mauritian government and the UN International Panel on Climate Change projects are dire. It is projected that the mean annual temperature will rise by 1-2C by 2060, 1.1-3.4C by 2090. Decreases in precipitation will continue, but the likelihood of tropical storms and destructive storm surges will increase. It is possible that 50% of the island’s beaches will disappear by 2050 due to changes in sea level and more forceful storm surges. Utilizable freshwater resources are anticipated to decrease by up to 13% by 2050. Fisheries are expected to be disrupted as sea surface temperature changes shift migration patterns and cause consequent changes in ecosystems. The third largest coral reef in the world protects the islands, but 80%-100% of live corals would perish with a 3.28C increase in temperatures, a realistic possibility by 2100.

Mauritians have recognized the threat that climate change poses and have taken steps to mitigate and adapt to anticipated changes, despite recognizing that the nation is minimally responsible for the plight it faces. In 1991, the island created the multi-sector National Climate Change Committee. In 2010 the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development created a Climate Change division. Through these institutions the nation has created a National Climate Change Adaptation Policy Framework, a tool that guides the government in taking necessary steps to adapt and mitigate with the aims of creating resilience and sustainability. Why haven’t we done the same?

On Islands

Islands have always gripped the imagination of writers from Aldous Huxley to Kurt Vonnegut to William Golding. They provide a setting or system with limits that are tangible within the human mind where a chain of actions can unfold and conceivably reach its limits. Islands have allowed us to speculate on inequality, ecology, happiness, evolution, and societal structures.

7.1 billion of us live on an island that is adrift in a vast sea of space.

I remember in my economics courses learning about Robert Malthus, a scholar in the 19th century who postulated that, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.” He theorized that earth had a finite amount of land, but people had a seemingly infinite ability to procreate and generate needs. This would one day lead to a catastrophe if we walked blindly into the future. In many of my classes he was dug up just to be refuted as a prophet of non-sense through the invocation of the deus ex machina technology. Was he wrong?

We have been on this island as a species for around 200,000 years and we have thoroughly transformed this planet during that time. In that time frame we have managed to populate every corner of this planet. Elizabeth Kolbert, in The Sixth Extinction, calculates that there are roughly 50 million square miles of land area that is not covered by ice. Of this area, roughly 27 million acres have been directly transformed through agriculture, pastoralism, logging, mining, and the building of civilization. Three-fifths of the remaining 23 million acres is forested, although not necessarily virgin. The other two-fifths are mountains, deserts, and tundra. Kolbert’s primary focus in the book is an examination of our present time, one that many have come to refer to as ‘the sixth extinction.’ There have been five other mass extinctions since the dawn of life on earth, precipitated by various reagents, but climate change has always been a significant factor in the collapse of species and ecosystems. She estimates that, “one-third of all reef building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” The reasons are complex: a warming planet, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, the snowball effect of biodiversity loss, competition from introduced species, the globalization of microbes, and most important of all: the incredible speed at which all of this is occurring – the same problems that Mauritius faces, but on a grand scale.

A parallel concept is that of the anthropocene, one that has been advocated by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen to denote our ‘human-dominated geological epoch.’ It is clear that we will leave a mark in the geologic record through carbon deposits from our fossil fuel use, from nuclear fallout, from dramatically morphed landscapes, and through the mass extinction event that is currently unfolding. He cites the following reasons for consideration of the concept:
Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet.
Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted.

Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ costal waters.
Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible fresh water runoff.

Back to Malthus: It looks like he was wrong in some ways, and right in others. Our island no less has finite limits than any other island does; it is just vaster in terms of resources and its ability to act as a pollution sink – we have billions of palm trees instead of the proverbial one. The areas, like Mauritius, where limits have been reached are simply able to acquire what they need from elsewhere, but at some point there aren’t any more elsewheres. Technology has enabled us to do more with the finite resources that are on this earth and we have perpetually pushing our limits. A major part of the growth and progress that humanity has made since the industrial revolution began a few hundred years ago was made possible through the exploitation of non-renewable fossil fuels, metals, and minerals. We have also over-exploited resources that are renewable like soil fertility, game, fisheries, and forests. The technology that has enabled this form of growth has been of a kind that merely enables us to use and move these resources at a faster rate to enrich the present at the expense of the future. There seem to be cries resounding from every corner of the globe and in every field that we are approaching or have passed ecological limits, and have entered uncharted territory.

Creating a Better World

I feel a deep connection to this earth, not as a mere philosophical standpoint, rather in a way that completely shapes my worldview. It is grounded in an awareness of reality, of the atmosphere entering and exiting my lungs, of the rainwater that fills my veins, and of the sun’s energy in my food. This is my home. My values and ethics are derived from this connection. I spend months each year sleeping outside, staring at the stars. I travel to other countries to satisfy my curiosity about other landscapes, people, and animals. I enjoy eating exotic and delicious foods. I like being able to explore this place and enjoy a rich life.

Recognizing the reality and depth of our ecological crisis, and not just an abstract concept, has been a difficult road for me. I experienced years of cognitive dissonance, holding discordant views that lead to internal conflict. I saw myself as being enriched by something that was paradoxically destroying the very thing that I loved and was creating suffering.

Many years ago I started the process of letting go of a future that I had been socialized to believe was our destiny. In this dream there were no constraints, humans were in control, technology had an infinite ability to address any problems that humanity faced, and the economy would grow perpetually – we forever would have more freedom and wealth. Inequality was not an issue as there was plenty. In this dream we are all atomized individuals, beholden to no one or anything – without limits. I had to pass through the five stages of the Kubler-Ross Model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. This dream is dead whether we like it or not.
I wasn’t sure what to do with about it, how to respond. The acceptance part comes at little easier if we realize that this conflict is based in a broader myth: that we need an extractive, exploitative economy in order to grow ourselves out of scarcity – the primary driver of human suffering. According to this view, as long as there is poverty and hunger in this world, then to do anything but grow as quickly as possible to ameliorate these pestilences is immoral. It follows that we need to transform this world into a place fit for human habitation. And so we justify every new power plant built, every gallon of carcinogens dumped into a river, every missile launched, every ton of carbon spewed into the atmosphere, and every tank of pesticide sprayed from an airplane.
What takes precedence: the environment or humanity? Mu! The two are one and the same.

We are bound in a symbiotic relationship with everything else on this earth. It is not possible for us to do damage anywhere without damaging ourselves. A relationship requires that both parties give and in doing so both will be made better off. The earth has always been able to provide enough, but it has been misallocated, wasted, or been minimized by the – never scarce – capacity for dissatisfaction in humanity. Will we let the specter of scarcity and our tendency to exploit drive us towards a situation in which we face the true horrors of scarcity? What is the alternative?

Until recently I had been looking towards myself – and each individual – to change our lives with the belief that in this fashion humanity could change overnight and we would avoid the looming catastrophe. This individual died along with the aforementioned dream – there never was an individual. We are facing a global crisis and we need to look towards collective, community-based solutions.

Revolutions occur when new information appears that is irreconcilable with the dominant framework or zeitgeist. The dominant mover of civilization seems to be the same one that, up until this point in history, has been on a linear trajectory: the centralization of power. From groups, to bands, to villages, to cities, to city-states, to nations, to? Through warfare, trade, finance. Civilization in the past few hundred years under the reign of fossil fuels has advanced more towards this goal that at any other point in history through globalized markets, industrial scale production, and almost instantaneous communication. It has also enabled an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power. Power structures are most concerned with maintaining power and therefore action to deal with our ecological crisis simply cannot manifest from within a system that is its driver and primary beneficiary. It has been decades since we became aware of our current predicament and we have only deepened the crisis whilst our current system has scrambled to assimilate a reality with which it is wholly incompatible.

There are many prescriptive actions to take, but ultimately civilization needs to evolve to fit the planet, rather than the other way around. We are currently wasting our days away in contemplation while standing at the start of the path towards a better future, unable to take the necessary steps. The challenge we face is so truly daunting as there is one thing that technology cannot help us to overcome and that is ourselves. We need to expand our collective social conscience, ignore that voice in our head that demands more, and in doing so we will create a better planet.

“I believe in political solutions to political problems. But man’s primary problems aren’t political; they’re philosophical. Until humans can solve their philosophical problems, they’re condemned to solve their political problems over and over and over again. It’s a cruel repetitious bore.” – Tom Robbins