The Story of Life and the Future of Civilisation
The story of life on Earth and of human culture and civilisation as an integral part of this story is of vital significance for every one of us and for society as a whole. Yet it is known and understood by only a small section of the community. It is a true story and it comes from the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. We refer to this story as the bionarrative and to the understanding of the bionarrative as biounderstanding.
The first part of this document consists of an extremely short version of the bionarrative. This story leads to the inescapable conclusion that the collapse of civilisation is inevitable if present patterns of human activity on Earth are allowed to continue unabated.
The second part discusses the essential characteristics of a possible healthy and sustainable society of the future that is truly sensitive to, in tune with and respectful of the processes of life. We call this a biosensitive society.
The prospects for the future of humankind would be very much brighter if biounderstanding were embraced by all the prevailing cultures across the globe.
AN EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE
Our planet is about 4.6 billion years old. The Sun provides it with a constant supply of energy – in the form of rays of visible light and ultraviolet and infrared radiation.
The earliest living organisms, single-celled bacteria, are believed to have been in existence 4000 million years ago. By 2800 million years ago there were microbes capable of capturing light energy from the Sun and converting it into energy-rich carbohydrate molecules through the process of photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis resulted in the release of oxygen into the atmosphere − and this eventually made it possible for oxygen-dependent species like ourselves to come into existence. Some of this oxygen became converted to ozone, which formed a layer in the stratosphere where it acted as a filter, protecting the Earth’s surface from life-damaging ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.
The first multicellular organisms that would have been visible to the naked eye came into being around 700 million years ago. Some were soft-bodied and flat and others were tubular. Around 100 million years later these had been replaced by sponges, jellyfish, corals, worms, molluscs, sea urchins, starfish, and trilobites. The first animals with an internal supporting structure or backbone were in existence by 500 million years ago. ‘True fishes’ were emerging 400 million years ago.
So far, all this had been happening in pools, ponds, lakes and the oceans. But then, around 400 million years ago some life forms invaded the land. Great forests spread across the terrain and countless species of insects, reptiles and other animals came into existence. Two hundred million years ago many kinds of dinosaurs, large and small, roamed the landscape and already some mammals had come into being, including a creature that looked very like the present-day echidna.
During the history of life there have been a number of mass extinctions, the most severe of which occurred around 250 million years ago. More than 90 per cent of species were wiped out. Sixty five million years ago a mass extinction brought an end to many forms of life, including all the dinosaurs and flying reptiles. Since then there has been a great diversification of birds, mammals and flowering plants.
All living organisms share the same means by which genetic information is passed from parents to offspring. The essential agent in this process is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). In animal and plant cells chains of DNA are located in the cell nucleus, and in this situation DNA is itself capable of self-replication. It contains, in coded form, most of the information necessary for the formation of the new individual.
DNA is made up of four nucleotides: cytosine, thymine, adenine, and guanine. It is the arrangement of these nucleotides in discrete units known as genes that determine the inheritable characteristics of the organism.
There are believed to be some 7 to 15 million different species of living organisms on Earth today.
INTERDEPENDENCIES IN THE LIVING WORLD
The rich diversity of plants and animals that exist in the modern world, including humans and their civilisation, could not exist without photosynthesis.
Plants use about half the energy they capture from sunlight in their own vital processes, eventually releasing it into the environment in the form of heat. The remaining energy takes one of several pathways. Dead plant tissue containing stored energy is broken down by micro-organisms or fungi, which make use of the energy in their own vital processes, eventually releasing it into the environment as heat. Some plant tissue may be consumed by plant-eating animals, providing them with the energy they need for their life processes. Some of this energy is given off in the form of heat, while some of it is retained in the animals' own tissues, eventually to be consumed either by carnivores or by micro-organisms, and ultimately returned to the environment in the form of heat. This sequence of events is referred to as a food chain, with plants playing the role of producers, animals the role of consumers, and micro-organisms and fungi the role of decomposers.
The organic content of soil is essential for maintaining soil fertility. It consists of decomposing plant and animal matter as well as a profusion of different kinds of living organisms.
Sometimes the chemical energy stored in plants is converted directly to heat through the action of fire.
A very small fraction of dead plant tissue avoids these various fates and only partially decomposes. Under certain conditions, like those that are likely to exist in swamps or bogs, decomposition of dead plant material may be incomplete due to lack of oxygen in the stagnant water and acidity resulting from the decay process. The soft fibrous energy-containing material formed in this way is called peat. Downward pressure resulting from the accumulation of sediments above may eventually transform peat into coal.
Petroleum and fossil gas are also of organic origin, produced by the breakdown of vast quantities of microscopic plants and animals in the oceans. Unlike coal, the liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons often migrate from their place of origin to become concentrated in distant reservoirs.
The formation of the deposits of these fossil hydrocarbons spanned several hundred million years. They are now being used by humans as sources of energy at a rate that is several million times faster than the rate at which they were formed.
WATERSHEDS IN BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION
The evolution of life on Earth has been marked by a series of highly significant watersheds, each of which changed the living world for ever.
Especially important among these watersheds were the development of photosynthesis, the appearance of cells with nuclei, the development of multicellularity and the invasion of land by living organisms.
The most recent crucial watershed in biological evolution was the emergence of the human capacity for language and culture.
THE EVOLUTIONARY EMERGENCE OF HUMANKIND
At the time when the dinosaurs disappeared about 65 million years ago there was a small group of shrew-like primates living in trees. Among them were the ancestors of humankind.
By 6 million years ago some much larger primates had come down from the trees and were walking with an upright posture. Two million years ago there were primates in the African savannah who were making and using stone tools. They are classified scientifically as Homo habilis.
People with the physical characteristics of modern humans and classified as Homo sapiens were in existence in Africa 200 000 years ago. By 60 000 years ago some of them had reached Australia, and around 45 000 years ago they displaced another human species, Homo neanderthalensis, in Europe.
Homo sapiens evolved as an omnivorous animal adapted genetically to the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers. There have been too few generations for major genetic change to render the species genetically adapted to the conditions of life of city dwellers in the modern world. We are still essentially the same animal as our pre-farming ancestors of, say, 15 000 years ago, with the same innate behavioural characteristics and health needs.
The most distinctive biological attribute of humans is their ability to invent and memorise a symbolic spoken language and to use this language to communicate among themselves. This aptitude for language led to the accumulation of shared knowledge, beliefs and attitudes in human groups. That is, it led to human culture. Humans are also adept at inventing and applying new technologies, and knowledge of these technologies is a crucial component of culture.
Cultural evolution over the millennia has led to an amazing range of very different belief systems, worldviews, sets of assumptions and priorities.
Human culture has now developed into a new kind of force in the biosphere. Through its influence on human behaviour it is now bringing about profound changes not only in human life experience, but also in the living systems of natural environment on which we depend.
One of the outcomes of the processes of evolution is the fact that animals become well adapted in their biological characteristics to the habitat in which they are evolving. In other words, the genetically determined characteristics of any species are such that the individual animals are likely to experience good health in their natural environment.
If an animal is removed from its natural environment, or if its environment changes significantly, then it is likely to be less well adapted to the new conditions, and consequently some signs of physiological or behavioural maladjustment can be expected. This evolutionary health principle is a fundamental law of nature.
It follows from the evolutionary health principle that if we wish to identify the health needs of any particular kind of animal, the first thing to do is to examine the conditions under which it evolved, because we can be sure that these conditions are capable of providing all the essential ingredients for maintaining and promoting health in that species.
In the case of our own species there is, for example, no diet better for us than the typical diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors; and if we take much more or much less physical exercise than a typical hunter-gatherer, or if we inhale chemical fumes that were not present in the evolutionary environment, then we are likely to experience signs of maladjustment.
The evolutionary health principle is of enormous relevance to the health professions, public health policies, urban planning and personal lifestyle choices. However, it is seldom mentioned in the medical literature.
There are good reasons for believing that the evolutionary health principle applies not only to such physical health needs as clean air and the need for physical exercise, but also to psychosocial aspects of life conditions. For example the lives of hunter-gatherers are usually characterised by the experience of conviviality, effective emotional support networks, incentives and opportunities for creative behaviour and a sense of personal involvement in daily activities. These less tangible health needs are immensely important for human wellbeing, and it is essential that to take them into account when assessing options for the future.
Taking our knowledge of the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers as a starting point, we can put together a working list of physical and psychosocial conditions likely to promote health and well-being in our species (Box 1). They are referred to as universal health needs because they apply to all members of the human species, wherever or whenever they may be living.
It is important appreciate that all these physical and psychosocial health needs can be, and have been in the past, fully satisfied without rampant consumerism..
WATERSHEDS IN CULTURAL EVOLUTION AND THE ECOLOGICAL PHASES IN HUMAN HISTORY
Cultural evolution, like biological evolution, has been marked by a series of watersheds. Some of these watersheds have been of great ecological significance, each ushering in a new ecological phase of human existence.
The first of these ecologically significant cultural watersheds was the shared knowledge of how to make use of and – up to a point − control fire. The deliberate and regular use of fire was an important feature of ecological Phase 1, the Hunter-gatherer Phase. This phase lasted for around 8000 generations. During this time Homo sapiens spread out from Africa, and by 11 000 years ago, possibly much earlier, humans had reached all five habitable continents.
The second crucial watershed was the advent of farming. It led to ecological Phase 2, the Early Farming Phase, which began around 500 generations ago. This was indeed a turning point in cultural evolution. Without it, the spectacular developments in human history since that time would not have been possible.
The third crucial watershed in cultural evolution was the advent of urbanisation, beginning around 300 generations ago, but really getting underway about 250 generations ago when fully fledged cities with populations of tens of thousands were in existence in Mesopotamia. There were cities with populations of a few thousand in Peru at this time. This was the beginning of ecological Phase 3, the Early Urban Phase. For the first time in human history very large numbers of people were separated from the natural environment and played no role in the acquisition of food, and urban cultures evolved that regarded the natural world as alien and threatening. The ecology of these urban dwellers was very different from that of hunter-gatherers or early farmers. The fourth cultural watershed consisted of the philosophical movement referred to, misguidedly, as the Enlightenment, and the subsequent Industrial Revolution. We 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.
This fourth cultural watershed led to ecological Phase 4, the Exponential Phase. This phase has recently been referred to as the Anthropocene.
The following developments have been especially significant ecologically:
- the introduction of machines that use extrasomatic energy, mainly from fossil fuels, for performing various kinds of work
- the discovery and application of electricity, radio waves and radioactivity
- the spectacular growth of the chemical industry
- the invention and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction
- advances in the health sciences, including vaccination and antibiotics.
The Exponential Phase of human history has seen profound changes in the ecological relationships between human populations and the rest of the biosphere.
The four phases are not mutually exclusive and all four can exist at the same time. A few hunter-gatherer societies still exist today, although most of them have been very much influenced by contact with people from exponential societies. Early farming societies continued to exist throughout the Early Urban Period, providing city dwellers with food.
The chief biological advantage of the capacity for culture in the evolutionary environment probably lay in its role in the exchange and storage of useful information about the environment. This information was not only communicated within groups, but was also passed on to members of subsequent generations, increasing the likelihood of their survival and successful reproduction.
Apart from its practical advantages, culture adds richness to human experience. It did so in the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – as in storytelling, musical traditions, dancing, rock painting and other forms of artistic expression. It does so today in so many ways. Culture makes a huge contribution to the sheer enjoyment of life.
However there is another side to the picture. The consequences of our capacity for culture are not all good. Cultures often come to embrace not only factual information of good practical value, but also ideas and assumptions that are sheer nonsense. Sometimes these cultural delusions result in activities that cause a great deal of unnecessary human distress, or damage to ecosystems, or both. Culturally inspired activities with these characteristics are referred to as cultural maladaptations.
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.
Throughout the history of civilisation cultural evolution has led to numerous instances of cultural maladaptation that have resulted unnecessary distress in human populations. Many forms of ill health in our society today are the result of cultural maladaptations, including most cases of lung cancer, coronary heart disease, obesity and probably much mental depression.
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, and occasionally by single individuals, who start the ball rolling by drawing attention to an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Almost invariably the reformers are promptly contradicted by others, the counter-reformers, who set out to block or slow down 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. They are likely to argue that the problem does not exist or that it has been grossly exaggerated, and they attempt to ridicule the reformers by calling them alarmists, fanatics, scaremongers and prophets of doom. Nowadays some of the counter-reform forces are extremely powerful.
Eventually, if the reform process is successful, a change comes about in the prevailing culture leading to the necessary changes in human activities.
THE EXPONENTIAL PHASE OF HUMAN HISTORY WILL SOON COME TO AN END
Cultural maladaptations in the modern world are manifold. They range from activities adversely affecting human health, like the widespread practice of smoking tobacco, to activities that threaten the future of civilisation, such as the use of fossil fuels as an energy source.
There are now about 1500 times as many people alive as there were when farming began. This is equivalent to the difference in weight between a one kilogram bag of potatoes and 1.5 tonnes of bricks. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase has occurred in the Exponential Phase 4 of human history. The global population is at present increasing at the rate of 1.4 million per week.
This massive increase in the number of people on Earth is putting immense pressures on the food producing ecosystems of our planet.
Not only are there 1500 times as many humans in existence, but these people are using vastly more resources and energy per capita than were their pre-farming ancestors. The human species as a whole is now using about 20 000 times as much energy every day as was the case when farming began (Box 1). This is equivalent to the difference in weight between a small apple and a couple of tonnes of bricks. Well over 90% of this increase has occurred in the past 100 years (Figure 1).
The Exponential Phase has also seen an astronomical increase in the destructive power of weapons to be used for killing humans (Box 2). It would not take very many of the thousands of weapons of mass destruction now in existence to bring an end to civilisation.
The human population worldwide 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. Again more than 90% of the increase has been in the last 100 years (Figure 2).
Climate change due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation is at present the most critical ecological issue (see Addendum 1). Its effects will be disastrous for humanity if the governments of the world do not introduce counter measures on a massive scale very soon. Predictably, the scientists who are alerting us to this danger are contradicted by counter-reformers – the ‘climate change deniers’.
However, there are many other serious ecological threats to sustainability (Box 3).
We don’t have to be ecologists to appreciate that the living systems of our planet that support humankind will not to tolerate this ever-increasing load indefinitely. Humans are overstepping the mark in a big way. The days of the Exponential Phase of human history are numbered.
The most disturbing feature of the present situation is the fact that the dominant cultures of the world are blissfully unaware of these ecological realities. These cultures incorporate powerful delusions that are completely incompatible with the achievement of ecological sustainability and therefore the survival of civilisation. They have lost sight of our total dependence on the processes of life, and they have no grasp of the magnitude and seriousness of current human impacts on the ecosystems of our planet.
FASTER! FASTER! FASTER!
Energy use by humankind
The following analogy brings home the massive scale and recent intensification of human activities on Earth.
Let us suppose that farming began 12 hours ago (rather than 12 000 years ago), and that at that time humans jumped into a vehicle they had invented. The speed of this vehicle is proportional to the total amount of energy used each day by humankind. Energy use is a reasonable indicator of the scale and intensity of human activities on our planet.
This vehicle, then, set off at a speed of 1 km per hour 12 hours ago.
4 hours ago it had picked up speed and was travelling at 30 km/hr
1 hour ago it was going at 100 km/hr
15 minutes ago at 350 km/hr
6 minutes ago at 1000 km/hr
3 minutes ago at 3000 km/hr
It is now travelling at around 20 000 km/hr
Visibility is not good − and we, the passengers, don’t have a clear view of where we are going. But among us there are some scientists who have made a study of the environment, and they are warning that we are heading for a precipice. They are shouting out to us to slam on the brakes and change direction.
But most of us, especially those in charge, are hell bent on making our vehicle to go faster than ever.
INCREASING DESTRUCTIVE POWER OF WEAPONRY
The growth in the killing potential of bombs during the 20th century can be illustrated by the following analogy.
If we imagine the explosive power of the biggest bombs in World War I to be represented by a pea, then the most powerful weapons used in the Second World War (other than atomic bombs) would equal the size of a large plum. The Hiroshima bomb would be equivalent to a sphere of about 0.5 metres across.The most powerful bombs now ready for use would have a diameter of 5 metres.
SOME SERIOUS SIGNS OF CULTURAL MALADAPTATION IN THE MODERN WORLD
A steady and continuing increase in the concentration in the atmosphere of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, from the preindustrial level of 280 parts per million by volume to 400 parts per million in 2013.
Destruction of 80 per cent of the world’s original forests.
Severe land degradation.
Worldwide loss of biodiversity on land and in the oceans.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are synthetic compounds used as pesticides and for other purposes.
Thousands of weapons of mass destruction stored in the arsenals of the world .
Violent conflicts across the world between people holding different beliefs about the supernatural.Extreme disparities in health and material wealth among human populations. This was not the case for the first 190 000 years of human existence.
Energy use by humankind from the year 1000 to 2000
HEALTHY PEOPLE ON A HEALTHY PLANET
The best hope for the future lies in a fifth watershed in cultural evolution, leading to a new ecological phase in human history – a phase which is based on understanding the human place in nature and in which human society is sensitive to, in tune with, and respectful of the processes of life. We call this a biosensitive society.
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’ has come to be used widely in recent years. 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 and in the ecosystems of the biosphere (Figure 3). Biosensitivity is a broader and richer concept than sustainability.
Biosensitivity will be a fundamental guiding principle in all spheres of human activity. It will mean biosensitive cities, biosensitive farms, biosensitive industries, biosensitive transport systems, biosensitive economies, biosensitive governments and biosensitive lifestyles.
HUMAN ACTIVITIES AND SOCIETAL ARRANGEMENTS
Promoting health and wellbeing in all sections of the human population will mean that prevailing conditions will have to be in tune with our own biology: that is, they must satisfy the biologically determined physical and psychosocial health needs of our species (see Box 4). Similarly, social conditions must satisfy the full spectrum of health needs of ecosystems – locally, regionally and globally (see Box 5).
Some of the most important physical features of a biosensitive society necessary for the attainment of these goals are listed in Box 6. This list serves to remind us that the long term survival of civilisation will require radical changes in many different aspects of human activity.
The achievement of the necessary physical conditions for biosensitivity will require big changes in societal arrangements. At present government policies, the economic system and the institutional structure of society are all geared to ever-increasing consumption of resources and, consequently, ever-increasing impact on the living world around us. They are also resulting in extreme differences in the wellbeing and material wealth of different sections of the population. These arrangements are simply not consistent with biosensitivity and the survival of civilisation.
The most significant change will be in economic arrangements. In a biosensitive society the ideal of economic growth will be replaced with the ideal of economic health. This will mean that the economic system will:
- be based on economic theory that reflects a sound understanding of the processes of life on which we depend and of the biological limits to human activities on Earth
- ensure the satisfaction of the health needs of all sections of the human community and of the ecosystems of the biosphere
- not result in a continuously increasing rate of use of material resources and energy
- progressively reduce present disparities in material wealth, health and wellbeing across human populations.
A core theme of all educational programs at primary and secondary levels will be the story of life and the human place in nature and its relevance to human affairs and everyday life. Students will be alerted to the brainwashing power of culture and to the need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that the prevailing culture is free from delusions that cause unnecessary human distress or damage to the living environment.
These essential requirements for the long term survival of civilisation will not be achieved unless there come about revolutionary changes in the dominant cultures across the world. In biosensitive societies these cultures will be characterised by profound respect for the processes of life which gave rise to us, of which we are a part and on which we are totally dependent for our existence. Unlike today, the goal of being sensitive to and in tune with these processes will be seen as of supreme importance. It will be given highest priority on the political and social agenda.
This radical shift in priorities will depend on a wave of new understanding sweeping across the cultures of the world – understanding of the story of life and the human place in nature. This new understanding will be the pivotal factor in the transition to biosensitivity. All the necessary changes in human activities, such as energy use and consumer behaviour, and in societal arrangements, such as the economic system and governmental regulations, will follow naturally from this seminal cultural transformation.
During the past half century there have been many signs of growing awareness among some sections of the human population that our present society is heading for ecological collapse. At the international level there has been a series of major conferences on this theme organised by the United Nations, from the Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 to the Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. There have also been many important international conferences on specific ecological issues such as anthropogenic climate change, loss of biodiversity and land degradation.
Over this time numerous books have been published drawing attention to the fact that the survival of civilisation will require big changes in patterns of human activities on Earth. Early examples from the 1970s include works by Donella and Dennis Meadows, René Dubos and Barbara Ward, Paul Erhlich and Barry Commoner.
Many individuals and groups have come up with ideas for an alternative society of the future that is ecologically sustainable. In 1972 Edward Goldsmith and others published Blueprint for survival in which they argued for a shift to a new kind of society to prevent ‘the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life support systems on this planet’. Today there are many community organisations and NGOs campaigning for a transition to an ecologically sustainable society, such as the Transition Town movement, the Great Transition Initiative and Inspiring Transition to a Life-sustaining Future.
There are also countless groups focusing on specific ecological issues. To mention but a few local examples: the Climate Institute, Sustainable Population Australia, SEE Change groups, The Wilderness Society, Permaculture groups, Healthy Soils Australia, 350 Australia and Landcare groups.
The emergence of the Greens as a political entity is another indication of a growing concern about the ecological predicament - although election results suggest that this concern is shared by only a small percentage of the electorate.
Despite these encouraging signs, the warnings have not penetrated to the core of the prevailing cultures of the world. We have only to listen to the pre-election speeches of our political leaders for proof of this statement. 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. 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 clearly in need of a big boost.
In our view there is something missing in this reform movement. The missing ingredient is a concerted effort to promote understanding of the bionarrative – that is, understanding of the story of life and the human place in nature. As stated at the beginning of this document, the bionarrative has great meaning for every one of us and for society as a whole.
All major religions have their stories. This particular reform movement differs from religious movements in that its story is strictly about the natural rather than the supernatural, and by the fact that that the story comes from direct observation of the real world rather than from the imaginations of mystics and prophets.
Shared understanding of the bionarrative across the cultures of the world is, we believe, a precondition for the survival of civilisation. Only then will the health of the living systems that underpin our existence be given the highest priority in human affairs. There will be no significant change until this happens.
Once this crucial cultural transformation has taken place there will be wide-ranging changes in the intensity and nature of human activities and a major scaling down of resource and energy use in the affluent nations. Immense effort will be directed to countering the current anthropogenic threats to humanity and the living systems of our planet.
First and foremost, governments and the private sector will treat climate change as a matter of extreme urgency. Strong measures will be introduced to bring about a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels, to increase the use of clean energy, to sequester excess carbon in the atmosphere, and to bring an end to coal mining.
Very high priority will also be given to:
- introducing a new economic system that satisfies the health needs of all sections of the human population without resulting in ever-increasing consumption of natural resources
- eliminating the current gross disparities in human health and quality of life in different sections of the human population
- protecting biodiversity on land and in the oceans
- protecting the biological integrity of soils and returning nutrients in organic waste to the farmland
- increasing local food production
- minimising the release of pollutants that result in damage to living systems
- eliminating weapons of mass destruction
- bringing an end to population growth.
All this will require enlightened and strong government action, supported by an informed and concerned public.
The most critical need at the present time is therefore to set in motion a radical social movement which has the sole objective of awakening the dominant cultures of the world to biological and ecological realities – through spreading understanding of the human place in nature and promoting the vision of a society that is truly in tune with and respectful of the processes of life.
In most western countries the infrastructure to set the ball rolling is already in place in the form of countless NGOs who are putting a great deal of effort into activities aimed at the achievement of ecological sustainability. Unfortunately they represent only a small section of the community, and so far their overall effect has been minimal. However, if all the members of these groups were to devote some of their time and effort to promoting biounderstanding across the community, especially among those in positions of influence, big changes could come about in the prevailing culture in quite a short time.
The NGOs could also join forces to put pressure on UN agencies to become actively involved in the movement. These agencies have the means and the obligation to play a key role in the campaign.
Whether civilisation survives the next hundred years will depend on whether the world’s cultural systems come to embrace biounderstanding and take necessary action in time to avert to avert ecological disaster on a massive scale.
The biosensitivity triangle
HUMAN HEALTH NEEDS
Physical health needs
Clean air (not contaminated with hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides, etc.)
A natural diet – that is: foods containing the full range of nutritional requirements, as provided by a diverse range of different plant foods and a small amount of cooked lean meat; foods devoid of noxious contaminants or additives
Clean water (free of contamination with chemicals or pathogenic organisms)
Electromagnetic radiation within the natural range
Minimal contact with parasites and pathogenic organisms
Natural contact with non-pathogenic microorganisms in the environment
Adequate protection from extremes of climate
Noise levels within the natural range
A pattern of physical exercise which involves some short periods of vigorous muscular work and longer periods of medium and varied muscular work, but also frequent periods of rest.
Psychosocial health needs
The experience of conviviality
An emotional support network, providing a framework for care-giving and care-receiving behaviour
Levels of sensory stimulation neither much lower nor much higher than those of the natural habitat
Variety in daily experience
Opportunities and incentives for creative behaviour and practising manual skills
Opportunities and incentives for active involvement in recreational activities (e.g. dancing, making music)
An environment and lifestyle conducive to a sense of belonging, challenge, self-fulfilment, comradeship, love, purpose and personal involvement in daily activities
An environment and lifestyle which do not promote a sense of alienation, anomie, deprivation, boredom, loneliness or chronic frustration.
HEALTH NEEDS OF ECOSYSTEMS
Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) at, or near, natural levels
The absence of polluting gases or particles in the atmosphere which interfere with living processes (e.g. particulate hydrocarbons from combustion of diesel fuel, sulphur oxides)
The absence of substances in the atmosphere (e.g. CFCs) that result in destruction of the ozone layer in the stratosphere that protects living organisms from the ultraviolet radiation from the Sun
The absence of chemical compounds in the soil and in oceans, lakes and rivers and streams that can interfere with the normal processes of life (e.g. POPs, heavy metals)
No ionising radiation that can interfere with the normal processes of life and photosynthesis
The maintenance of biodiversity in regional ecosystems (including aquatic ecosystems)
Soil loss no greater than soil formation (i.e. no soil erosion)
No increase in soil salinity
The maintenance of the biological integrity of soils (i.e. maintaining a rich content of organic matter)
Intact nutrient cycles in agricultural ecosystems over long periods of time (requiring return of nutrients to farmland)
Box 6: The fifth ecological phase of human history will be free of weapons of mass destruction.
ESSENTIAL PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF A BIOSENSITIVE SOCIETY
Minimal use of fossil fuels
Extensive forestation and reforestation and other measures worldwide to sequester atmospheric carbon
A high proportion of energy used in society coming from clean sources (i.e. not resulting in emissions of carbon or production of dangerous radioactive by-products)
Stable consumption of materials and energy at a sustainable level
Maximisation of local food production
Maintaining a supply of clean water for human consumption, free of pathogenic organisms or harmful chemicals
Farming practices that protect the biological integrity and health of soils
Keeping natural nutrient cycles intact by returning organic waste to farmland
Effective protection of biodiversity in all regional ecosystems and in the oceans
No release into the atmosphere, waterways or soil of pollutants that interfere with the health of humans and other forms of life - directly (e.g. PM2.5 and SO2 in the atmosphere, POPs in the soil) or indirectly (e.g. CFCs in the atmosphere)
The non-existence of weapons of mass destruction
People’s lifestyles will be:
- consistent with the biological health needs of the human species (e.g. clean air and water, healthy diet, plenty of physical exercise, the experience of conviviality – see Addendum 1)
- consistent with the health needs of the living environment (see Addendum 3). Emphasis will be on such activities as growing food, making music, dancing, art, theatre, sport, convivial social interaction
A healthy human population with no gross disparities in health and wellbeing in different sections of the population
Eventual adjustment of global and regional populations to levels that do not cause progressive damage to the planet’s ecosystems.
The built environment will be designed to:
- minimise use of fossil fuels and water and maximise use of clean energy sources
- minimise pollution
- encourage health-promoting activities (e.g. walking, cycling, convivial social interaction)
- maximise biodiversity and opportunities for local food production
CARBON DIOXIDE AND CLIMATE CHANGE
There appears to be general agreement about the following facts.
If it were not for certain gases occurring naturally in the atmosphere the world’s average temperature would be 33°C colder than it is. That is, it would be around minus 19°C instead of plus 14°C.
This is because these gases trap some of the infrared radiation that escapes from the Earth’s surface. This blanketing effect results in the lower layers of the atmosphere being warmer, and the upper layers colder, than if these gases were not there. This phenomenon is known as the natural greenhouse effect.
Water vapour is responsible for about 80 per cent of the natural greenhouse effect. The remainder is due to carbon dioxide, methane, and a few other minor gases.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is responsible for about 15per cent of the natural greenhouse effect. This is to say that, were not for the CO2 in the atmosphere, the Earth’s average temperature would be 5°C cooler than it is.
For the first 200 000 years of the history of modern humans (Homo sapiens) the mixture of these natural greenhouse gases was relatively constant.
During the past two hundred years there has been an increase in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere – from 292 parts per million to the current 400 parts per million. This increase is mainly the result of two sets of human activities: (1) deforestation, and (2) the combustion of fossil fuels as a source of energy for driving machines and providing heat.
As a consequence of this increase in atmospheric CO2 the Earth's average surface temperature has increased by about 0.8°C, with about two thirds of the increase in temperature occurring since 1980. This is known as the enhanced greenhouse effect.
Because of the complexity of the carbon cycle there are uncertainties about the precise effect of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere on global temperature. It cannot be assumed that doubling the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will simply double the contribution of this gas to global warming – that is from around 5°C to 10°C – an extra 5°C. The increase could be less than double, or it could be greater.
Climate scientists construct mathematical models to try to predict the degree of increase in temperature. Because of the uncertainties in the system these models come up with a variety of different results – ranging from a further increase in the 21st century of 1.1°C to an increase of 6.4°C.
There are also differences of opinion within the scientific community about the relative contributions of fossil fuel use and deforestation to the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere over the past 250 years. One view holds that most of the rise in atmospheric CO2 since 1750 has been due to the destruction of the capacity of forests and soils to take up CO2 from the atmosphere − rather than the use of fossil fuels.
The climate change deniers
As in all reform movements there is the predictable backlash from counter-reformers. In the case of climate change the counter-reformers are commonly referred to as deniers.
The main disputed issues relate to the causes of the increase in average global temperature, whether humans are responsible for it, and what will be the likely consequences of global warming.
Growth in carbon emissions
The amount of CO2 emitted by the human population today is around 9000 times greater than it was when farming began some 450 generations ago, and 90% of this increase has occurred over the past 80 years.
It is predicted that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reach double the preindustrial level by 2050.
Scale of deforestation
Eighty per cent of the world’s original forests have been destroyed by humankind. Recently trees were being lost in the Amazon at the rate of 2000 a minute.
Studies show that 97–98% of the most published climate researchers believe humans are causing global warming. The finding that the average global temperature has increased in recent decades as a result of human activities has been endorsed by the academies of science in all the major industrialised countries.
The carbon tax and coal exports
A carbon tax was introduced in Australia in 2012. According to the Australian Government, this would reduce Australia’s annual emissions of CO2 by 159 million tonnes by 2020. Australia’s contribution to global CO2 emissions through the export of coal amounts to some 770 million tonnes per year – that is, nearly five times its potential reduction of emissions though the carbon tax. The carbon tax was repealed in 2014.
Although uncertainties exist about the precise degree of global warming, it would seem very likely from the established facts that the upsurge in concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will result in a significant increase in global temperature. If no action is taken the consequences for humanity will be very serious.
 An exception is Cleave and Campbell (1965) who drew attention to the fact that diets containing refined carbohydrates deviated from the natural diet of the human species and consequently gave rise to various forms of maladjustment.
 Extrasomatic energy is energy which is used outside the human body, as distinct from the somatic energy which is consumed in food and which flows through the body.
 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.
 This list is based on the evolutionary health principle and our knowledge of the conditions of life of humankind in the evolutionary environment of our species. (S. Boyden 2004. The biology of civilisation understanding human culture as a force in nature. UNSW Press, Sydney.
 There are those who advocate replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power. It is indeed a sad situation if we have become so addicted to high levels of use of extrasomatic energy that we are forced to replace one polluting source of energy with another – and one that undoubtedly holds extremely high risks for humankind.