By Eli S. Chesen
In a recent conversation with friend and biologist Ben Hanelt, Ph.D., University of New Mexico, I was given to realize that E. O. Wilson, famed Harvard bio-social-anthropologist, has offered considerable evidence that there is much more behind the deforestation of Brazil and North Carolina than mere economic, fuel-based gluttony.
The vital Amazon Basin, replete with its unique fauna and rapidly disappearing animal species, is being denuded for reasons that go beyond the clichéd explanations that are the daily fare of publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal
and National Geographic Magazine
If one believes in mathematics and chemistry, one must accept as a given the fact that there are too many people on the block and that “Old McDonald” is running out of farmland, natural-gas-derived ammonia, water and fuel. So, if this pretty much summarizes the clichéd realities of Energy Crisis 101, what about Energy Crisis 102? Enter E. O. Wilson, who opines the pervasive existence of a human need to clear the land.
Peering beyond the obvious, we find that our nemesis is not merely a function of the calculus and chemistry of food and fuel. Yes, there is even more about which to worry. In the past, evolution was our savior (we won!) and just maybe, if the industrial revolution had taken place gradually, say, over a period of 20,000 years rather than only 200 years, we might conceivably have somehow survived the energy/environmental mess.
We live in an era of instant gratification and people are anticipating a technological breakthrough, which will assuage the energy-environmental crisis; a deus ex machina, if you will. Some are counting on the rapture coming.
Unfortunately, unlike the rapture, evolution is a very slow, random, imperfect, trial-and-error process, and it has not and will not keep pace with human population growth. In a sense, evolution does not know
that we have an energy and environmental crisis. In the meantime, we continue taking a timid approach to cutting through the nonsense on the way to finding solutions.
Today’s local newspaper (it is Mother’s Day as I write) featured two unrelated articles: One article, accompanied by a family photo, was celebrating an Arkansas woman’s 18th pregnancy. The other article was about a Tucson-located energy project prototype that filters carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere … 60,000,000 of these silly devices are being proposed by its naive and grandiose inventor.
In fact, these articles are
Back to Wilson. We have a problem in our genomes, more specifically, obsolete propensities built into our neuroanatomy and neurochemistry. Our hardwired central nervous systems dictate the presence of innumerably difficult-to-break habits, which have been 20 to 40,000 years in the making. That is about how long we as a species have been endeavoring, successfully, to the taking over of the planet. Presumably, most of our ancient, pre-wired archetypal habit patterns were once useful, though now obsolete and destructive: We have a need to tear down stuff, including trees, and we have a need to procreate.
People—for example, scientists—who spend even limited time researching in the rain forest under a never-ending canopy of trees thirst for sun-drenched open landscapes. Highly regarded regional Midwestern artist Keith Jacobshagen has a reputation attached to his big-sky landscape perspectives. His work evokes an existential serenity from openness evolving, I think, from mid-brain appetites for feelings of security antecedent to open space.
I am told by friend Ben, who has himself researched in the rain forest, that rain forest scientists have trouble appreciating the forest for the trees and are regularly treated to Land Rover-trek-respites to the beach, an antidote to their sylvan, claustrophobic angst.
We are destined to denude the land, a need based likely upon primordial issues of safety and a built-in propensity to fend off the claustrophobia associated with danger. Living peripheral to the tree line gave early humans vigilance with an early warning system against lions, tigers and competitive, invading tribes.
Indeed, the human autonomic nervous system is pre-connected with fight or flight triggers, which on one hand can be life saving and under other circumstances serve merely, in today’s world, to generate anxiety, panic and a phobic avoidance of sundry goblins.
Humans were hard-wired during the Paleolithic period with genetically built-in behaviors, which many centuries ago were appropriate and adaptive for survival. The Paleolithic period coincides with an early period of human development going back 10,000 to 40,000 years. It was during this period that apelike early humans thrived and were noted to have used stone (lith) tools.
Even in the absence of land rape fueled by agricultural and internal combustion needs, we must
clear the land to appease our inherent uneasiness stemming from closed-in vistas.
Much of E. O. Wilson’ work had to do with a detailed study of ants. Ants build anthills, dogs bury bones and humans clear land.
I would extrapolate that, while Astroturf did not exist during the Paleolithic period, the exactitude of its color, flatness and openness as compared to even the flattest prairie underbrush likely resonates with our legacy of creating wide-open, plastic-covered spaces.
And, yes, I do have a problem with the notion of covering our football fields and patios with petroleum-based plastic. Astroturf, for me, is the signature product that, by itself, symbolizes how passively and readily humans acquiesce to fads and trends, notwithstanding the decadence and wrong-headedness of those trends.
Here we have a monumental waste of petroleum and a playing-field surface, which unlike the real thing produces no oxygen, to say nothing of the fact that it does not absorb any carbon dioxide either. Here, “reverse technology” would be a desired step backwards. Grass is preferable. We should recycle the thousands of acres of Astroturf out there and ban the stuff.
This is a decision that is too important to be left to the football coaches.
The underbelly of evolution is such that traits currently considered to be antisocial were highly advantageous way back when our ancestors were acting out the prequel to Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Back in the good old Paleolithic days, traits like etiquette, mutual respect and decency would have been a ticket to an early death.
Territoriality, competitiveness and xenophobia were all good
things necessary for survival, and there is abundant evidence that we are today likewise driven to act out our competitiveness and selfishness, our tribal and gang behaviors.
Our Paleolithic programming favors unbecoming behaviors, and it is our plight to fight off our own genetically programmed default into selfishness, which biologically trumps altruism … our brain’s operating system recognizes nothing particularly sacred about the greed-fueled abuse of natural resources.
Citizens of the Paleolithic had no need to worry about fuel prices and global warming. Natural selection brought us to where we are but does not morph fast enough to upstage our rape of the planet. Darwin-plus-Wilson say that human deforestation is supposed to happen. It does not matter whether we are talking about the Amazon Basin or an upscale housing development in Buckhead, Ga. It is our destiny to burn the forests.
Seen from another angle, persons with Alzheimer’s disease variants, who are no longer tethered to the civility imposed by their now burned-out higher brain centers default back to Paleolithic behaviors. They become angry, aggressive, defensive, accusatory and combative. We have all inherited those primitive behavioral vestiges from reptiles, the subject of Carl Sagan’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Dragons of Eden.”
Many of our taken-for-granted behaviors are very much a part of us at conception. Seeing 80,000 fans at a football game doing “the wave” on cue is a testament to our built-in tribal instincts, which are, again, pre-wired. Doing “the wave” is a strictly stone-age behavior. I believe “the wave” is a testament to how readily we fall into line, tuning into a specific, tribally shared wavelength, if you will. It is not that I am suggesting that such a benign expression of fan enthusiasm is actually harmful. It is just that the act of doing “the wave” resembles so much the primitive movements of hydra attached to live coral reefs.
Einstein, perhaps the world’s all-time individualist, was once heard to say that he was disturbed by the enjoyment people feel when marching, and he wondered why this group behavior was such a generally accepted behavior, something which went against the grain of individualism.
That we are still at heart tribal, conforming, aggressive and competitive can be seen on any evening newscast with continuous warfare somewhere in the world, sports rivalries, and shootings in our schools and malls. The tribal nature of competition can be seen in the extraordinary popularity of football, basketball, soccer, hockey, etc., where we have two tribes of primates defending home territories while aggressing into “enemy” territory. Our sporting software was well in place thousands of years before James Naismith invented basketball in 1891. Many of our behaviors were formed in the crucible of survival long, long ago yet those behaviors are alive and active still today.
Given the presence of this instinctual, automatic, evolutionarily patterned behavior, which has now been 40,000 years in the making, we are being forced to come to grips with formerly helpful but now self-destructive instincts. I also believe that we, as citizens of the planet, have unfairly scapegoated and demonized big oil and big agriculture for much of our misery. Exxon and Conagra are merely filling our needs. It is we, the consumers, who must take responsibility for the fragile and feckless stewardship we have allowed in the caretaking of the planet.
Exxon is not the culprit. We are losing an internecine battle within our own genomes; a genome that was, up until a couple of centuries ago, very useful and adaptive … perhaps too useful and too adaptive.
We are now being dragged down into a roiling, poisonous quagmire, led by our instincts. The game clock is ticking and there are no more time outs. We are like so many deer in the headlights. We must do “the wave” and we must clear the land.