Nature’s Revenge

The Abstract for “Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate in the Anthropocene” (2014), by (Nobel prize-winner) Paul Crutzen and Stanisław Wacławek, begins this way:  “Humankind [’s] actions are exerting [an] increasing effect on the environment on all scales, in a lot of ways overcoming natural processes.”  The deep explanation for that “increasing effect,” I would argue, is that with the Agricultural Revolution (or Neolithic Revolution) of around 10,000 years ago, the adaptive mentality that characterized humans prior to that “event” became replaced (gradually, of course, and affecting some people more than others) with a control mentality.

Whether or not it has been our intent as humans, much of human history since that Revolution of long ago has been characterized by efforts at mastery—including over Nature.1 Given the irrationality associated with this behavioral tendency, it almost seems that a Puppet Master “out there some place” has taken over human actions—causing humans to believe, rather, that our actions are actually the result of “free will”!

Why do I say that irrationality is associated with the control mentality that has come to “grip”—i.e., gain control over!—the minds of so many humans?  I would cite two reasons in particular:

(1) This development was, as Jared Diamond has put it, the “worst mistake in the history of the human race,” for “with agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”  In short, the widespread well-being that had existed prior to this Revolution, began to give way to a series of problems (such as those cited by Diamond). How do we know this? By arguing, e.g., from the situation of contemporary gatherer-hunters. As Diamond wrote:

Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way [i.e., as gatherer-hunters]. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania.  One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world”?

The Agricultural Revolution, then, was accompanied by an increase in human misery, and I would attribute that increase especially to the development of a control mentality that occurred during that period.

(2) The occurrence of this “worst mistake” not only had implications for human well-being, but the control mentality that developed with the Agricultural Revolution had implications for how humans began to relate to Nature.  The adaptive mentality that existed prior to that Revolution suggests that people tended to take their natural environment as a “given” to which they would then adapt their lives as best they could. With the Agricultural Revolution, however, and the emergence of a control mentality on the part of more and more people, the connection that people had had with Nature began, more and more, to disintegrate, and the Surround became less and less “home,” and more and more a mere object to manipulate.  As a consequence, human activities began to have an “increasing effect on the environment on all scales,” as Crutzen and Waclawek put it.

How did this control mentality develop?  Below, I comment—in speculative terms, I admit!—on the control mentality that began to develop during the Agricultural Revolution under two headings, (a) its development in human societies, and the implications of such for human societies; and (b) the application of its development in human societies that has had specific relevance for our “increasing effect on the environment.”

The Development of a Control Mentality

An important implication that the Agricultural Revolution had for human societies—beyond the obvious fact of the change in nature of economic activities—is that it has led to the movement away from the small, relatively egalitarian—and peaceful—societies that were common prior to the Agricultural Revolution, to societies that were larger in population size, fostering the development of class/caste societies,2 and the exploitation of some by others characteristic of the latter societies.  In some societies that exploitation has been blatant, in other societies subtle—the latter illustrated by capitalistic societies, in which people become convinced that they are responsible for their position in society and problem, so that if one occupies a “bottom rung” in the society, one tends to blame oneself for that fact.3

What is especially noxious is societies—the United States being perhaps the prime example!—that are strongly hierarchical and unequal, but at the same time have an ideology of equality (which has become narrowed to a supposed equality of opportunity).  That represents incongruence, of course, and that lack of congruence leads to cognitive dissonance. We humans are so “designed” that if one is subjected to cognitive dissonance, one’s brain—working at the unconscious level—will attempt to resolve the dissonance.  The brain’s work may, in many cases, enable one to “explain away” the distress that one senses, thereby providing a sort of resolution to one’s feeling of discomfort; but a mental response is not the only possible response.

There’s also the possibility of behavioral responses—the nature of one’s response depending on one’s personality, etc.  Thus, some may have an inward response, developing a psychosomatic illness, self-destructive habits (such as excessive drinking), or may even simply self-destruct (i.e., accomplish suicide).4 Most people, however, in responding behaviorally to the cognitive dissonance with which they are “afflicted,” tend to respond aggressively—in the process hurting others physically and/or psychologically, even killing others.  And if one (tragically!) becomes the leader of a nation, one may become a warmonger (Dick Chaney5 and George (“smiley”) Bush being excellent examples), the result of which is the killing and maiming of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people—not only military personnel on either side of the conflict, but many civilians as well.

In short, the development of a control mentality leads to distorted personalities, unhappiness, disease, suffering, death, etc. Its development has by no means been a “good thing” for humans, for the past 10,000 years!

Not only did the Agricultural Revolution somehow result in the development of a control mentality, that mentality being manifested in human relations (“man’s inhumanity to man”), but also manifested in our treatment of Nature.  Let me, then, next focus on that in this essay.

The Control Mentality and Nature

Prior to the Agricultural Revolution humans lived by gathering and hunting.  Given that hunting does involve a simple technology, the seeds, then, of a control mentality already existed in the societies that practiced gathering-hunting.6 Relatively more control, however, came to the fore with the development of agriculture, and especially as a direct consequence of the growth in societal population size, it would seem.  An unintended consequence of that growth was the breakdown of existing societal structures, resulting in the beginnings of notable inequality within societies. Accompanying that growing inequality was the development of exploitation by an emerging “leisure class,” that development itself starting the “ball rolling” for the growth of still more inequality and exploitation.

The development of a “leisure class” not only had implications for a growth in inequality, but for the further development of technology. It is a truism regarding technology that once a given technology develops, (a) further refinements will follow, (b) the technological refinements that are occurring will result in structural changes in the society, (c) societal developments will reach a point where entirely new technological developments will begin occurring,7 causing (d) still further societal developments, etc.

The technological developments that occur will not only impact the society and the lives of its individual members; they will also impact Nature.  Agriculture involves disturbing the soil. The building of boats/ships involves the cutting down of trees.  The mining of iron involves the defacing of Earth’s surface.  The mining of coal not only involves that, but its use—which involves burning—involves polluting the air (so that breathing becomes difficult, and may lead to disease). More importantly, though, it involves the emission of “greenhouse” gases, CO2 most notably—so far8 into the atmosphere.  Those emissions result in a build-up of heat energy in the atmosphere—resulting, in turn, an increase in the global mean,9 more storms, more severe storms, increased weather variability—the thawing of permafrost, the release of methane gas, and still more warming!  An acceleration of warming, in fact!

The implications associated with our use of petroleum products are the same—but much worse! With the additional problem that the “fracking” that is now being done is “polluting—and depleting—the water in aquifers!

It’s true that humans have done a great deal of damage to Earth over the millennia, but especially over the past 250 years—our deforestation of the Amazon rainforest being a prime example other than our emissions of greenhouse gases.10 What we humans have tended not to recognize, however, is that Nature hasn’t been just “sitting back and taking it.” Nature has been responding to our insults, and the fact that it has been doing so that does not bode well for our future as humans.

Yes, we have been “overcoming natural processes,” as Crutzen and Wacławek have asserted. Even more significant, however, is the fact that Earth is in the process of “getting even” with us!  I do not mean to personify Earth here, of course; so that a less colorful way of expressing what’s going on is to say that:

Earth’s processes are governed by physical, chemical, and biological laws, and human actions—which are not governed by those laws—have been impacting Earth in ways that force (cause, would be more appropriate, given that “force” implies that Earth has a “will”) Earth to respond to those actions in accord with the laws with which it is endowed.  In doing so, Earth—which includes, most certainly, Earth’s atmosphere!–is changing in a way such that human life is likely to be impossible on Earth in a matter of decades, if not years.11

The changes that will be occurring—are already occurring, in fact!—will, of course, affect different parts of the globe differently, and at different rates—which facts may result in significant migration, with resulting conflict.  And as those changes continue, disease, starvation, and violence are likely to increase—until at some point our species becomes “history.”

This story is unlikely to have a happy ending, to be sure.  It is, however, an ending that we have brought upon ourselves.  But not intentionally, of course.  Which is why I stated at the beginning that “it almost seems that a Puppet Master ‘out there some place’ has taken over human actions”—and caused humans to engage in actions “destined” to lead to their demise as a species.  Tragically, those actions have already led to the demise of many other species—thereby earning the label “sixth great mass extinction” (also this book)!12

  1. Two years ago I developed this theme from some different perspectives; see this, this, this, and even this. []
  2. As societies grow in population size, the connectedness that people have one with another tends to break down, so that the sense of “us” that had existed before began to dissolve in favor of an “us/them” mentality.  It is this change that fostered the development of class/caste systems.  In addition, prior to the Agricultural Revolution people tended not to be conscious of themselves as distinct individuals, but this began to change with the Revolution, and itself fostered the development of class/caste systems. []
  3. If one blames oneself for one’s problems, one is unlikely to rebel against those who are, rather, responsible for one’s problems.  How conveeeeeenient!—as Church Lady would say. []
  4. The recent suicide-by-airplane being a tragic example. []
  5. Whose first name fits him well! []
  6. Typically, in these “primitive” societies, gathering was engaged in by females, hunting by males.  A question that arises here is whether males have more of a “natural” tendency to be aggressive than females, with the possibility that that aggressive tendency is what explains their development of tools—initially for use in hunting, later for use in agriculture (and beyond). At any rate, males now tend to be more aggressive than females. []
  7. With those new developments enabled, though, by at least some of the technological developments that had occurred earlier. []
  8. With the release of methane gas—which is 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide—about to become the next important greenhouse gas! []
  9. The global mean—which is about 16° C—has increased by 0.85° C between 1880 and 2012. []
  10. Deforestation activities also have implications for global warming, not just the emission of greenhouse gases. []
  11. Arctic climate scientist John B. Davies, in fact, wrote, in 2013:  “The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040.” []
  12. A claim has been made that 200 species become extinct every day, but more recent research has resulted in the assertion that that number is “highly exaggerated.”  Still . . . ! []
Al Thompson retired three years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.