As a species, human beings have been dazzlingly successful, but from this point on the secret to our survival may lie in being less successful.
That’s the argument Charles C. Mann makes in the new issue of Adbusters, the lavishly grim bimonthly magazine from Vancouver. In an essay called “State of the Species,” Mann considers the judgment of the late microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who once told him, “The fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.”
To illustrate that Malthusian point, Mann describes several organisms — from bacteria to zebra mussels — that arrive on the scene, reproduce at an exponential rate and finally collapse when food runs out. “All species seek without pause to make more of themselves,” Mann writes, and we’re set to reach 10 billion by 2015.
By multiplying till we reach maximum possible numbers, we are following the laws of biology, even as we take out much of the planet. Eventually, in accordance with those same laws, the human enterprise will wipe itself out. . . . The idea that we could be some sort of magical exception — it seems ludicrously unscientific.
Given our inevitable destruction, why not join the Koch brothers in ruining the planet as quickly as possible?
But then Mann’s essay pivots to a curious counterexample: Robinson Crusoe, the protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s seminal novel, first published in 1719. Mann reminds us that Crusoe was a hopeful slave trader, and Defoe himself enthusiastically extolled the economic benefits of slavery. “What is striking to a modern reader,” he writes, “is that Defoe clearly intended Crusoe to be a sympathetic character, and that he saw nothing remarkable about expecting readers to sympathize with a man in the slave trade.” Slavery, Mann notes, had been a central element of human society for thousands of years.
“Then,” he writes, “in the space of a few decades in the 19th century, slavery almost stopped entirely.” It was an unprecedented moral shift — “evolution” is too slow a word. “No European in 1800 could have imagined that in 2000 Europe would have no legal slavery, women would be able to vote and gay couples would be able to marry.”
In that striking capacity for sudden change, Mann sees the (slim) potential for our survival in this era of crashing environmental conditions. Could we all learn, quickly, to consume less, live more lightly on the planet and devise an economy that isn’t based on poisoning our only home?
Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself . . . would require a still greater transformation, because we would be pushing against Nature itself. Success would be unprecedented, biologically speaking. But might our species be able to do exactly that. . . ? It is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it.
For all its sobering consideration of where we’re headed, this is a surprisingly hopeful suggestion about our potential for transformation.
You also don’t want to miss the issue’s opening graphic: a Justin Bieber underwear ad on which the editors have written an obscene, exasperated note.