Progress towards the brink of global ecological collapse
A new study from the University of Maine suggests that aspects inherent in human evolution could hinder our ability to address global environmental issues such as climate change.
Humans have come to dominate the planet with tools and systems for exploiting natural resources that have been refined over thousands of years through a process of cultural adaptation to the environment. Tim Waring, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Maine, wanted to know how the process of cultural adaptation to the environment might affect the goal of solving global environmental problems. What he found was counterintuitive.
The project sought to understand three fundamental questions: how human evolution has worked in the context of environmental resources, how human evolution has contributed to multiple global environmental crises, and how global environmental limits might change the outcomes of future human evolution.
Waring’s team outlined their findings in a new paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society b. Other authors of the study include Zach Wood, a University of Maine alumnus, and Jörz Szathmáry, a professor at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.
The study explored how human societies’ use of the environment has changed over our evolutionary history. The research team investigated changes in the ecological environment of human populations, including factors such as what natural resources they used, how intensively they used them, what systems and methods emerged to use those resources, and the environmental impacts resulting from their use.
This effort revealed a set of common patterns. Over the past 100,000 years, human groups have gradually used more types of resources, at greater intensity, at greater scales, and with greater environmental impacts. These groups often spread to new environments with new resources.
Global human expansion has been facilitated by a process Cultural adaptation to the environment. This leads to the accumulation of adaptive cultural traits – social systems and technology to help exploit and control environmental resources such as agricultural practices, fishing methods, irrigation infrastructure, energy technology, and social systems to manage each of these resources.
“Human evolution is mostly… Driven by cultural changeIt is faster than genetic evolution. “This great speed of adaptation made it possible for humans to colonize all habitable lands around the world,” says Waring, an associate professor at the George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and the School of Economics at the University of Maine.
Moreover, this process is accelerated by a positive feedback process: as groups increase in size, they accumulate adaptive cultural traits more quickly, which saves more resources and enables faster growth.
“For the past 100,000 years, this has been good news for us Classify “But this expansion relied on large amounts of available resources and space,” Waring says.
Today, humans are also running out of space. We have reached the physical limits of the biosphere and have claimed most of the resources it provides. Our expansion is also catching up with us. Our cultural adaptation, especially the industrial use of fossil fuels, has created serious global environmental problems that threaten our safety and our ability to access future resources.
To find out what these findings mean for solving global challenges such as climate change, the research team looked at when and how sustainable human systems emerged in the past. Waring and his colleagues found two general patterns. First, sustainable systems tend to grow and spread only after groups struggle or fail to conserve their resources in the first place. For example, the United States regulated industrial sulfur and nitrogen dioxide emissions in 1990, but only after we determined that they caused sour Rainfall and acidification of many water bodies in the Northeast. This belated action is a major problem today as we threaten another global border. As for climate change, humans need to solve the problem before we cause a collapse.
Second, the researchers also found evidence that strong environmental protection systems tend to address problems within existing communities, rather than between them. For example, managing regional water systems requires regional cooperation, regional infrastructure and technology, and this emerges through regional cultural evolution. Having communities of the right size is therefore a crucial limiting factor.
Effectively addressing the climate crisis may require new global regulatory, economic, and social systems – systems capable of generating greater cooperation and power than existing systems such as the Paris Agreement. To create and operate these systems, humans need a functioning social system for the planet, which we do not have.
“One of the problems is that we don’t have a coordinated global community capable of implementing these systems,” Waring says. “We only have global subgroups, which probably won’t be enough. But you can imagine cooperative treaties to address these common challenges. So, that’s the easy problem.” “
The other problem is much worse, Waring says. In a world full of sub-global groups, cultural evolution among these groups will tend to solve the wrong problems, benefiting the interests of nations and companies and delaying action on common priorities. Cultural evolution between groups tends to exacerbate competition for resources and can lead to direct conflict between groups and even global human die-off.
“This means that solving global challenges like climate change is much more difficult than previously thought,” says Waring. “It’s not just that it’s the hardest thing our species has ever done. They absolutely are. The bigger problem is that fundamental traits in human evolution are likely working against our ability to solve it. And in order to solve global collective challenges, we have to swim against the tide.”
He looks forward
Waring and his colleagues believe their analysis could help explore the future of human evolution on limited Earth. Their paper is the first to suggest that human evolution may oppose the emergence of collective global problems and more research is needed to develop and test this theory.
Waring’s team proposes several applied research efforts to better understand the drivers of cultural evolution and seek ways to reduce global ecological competition, given how human evolution works. For example, research is needed to document the patterns and strength of past and present human cultural evolution. Studies can focus on the past processes that led to human control of the biosphere, and on the ways in which cultural adaptation to the environment occurs today.
But if the general scheme turns out to be correct, and if human evolution tends to oppose collective solutions to global environmental problems, as the authors suggest, some very pressing questions must be answered. This includes whether we can use this knowledge to improve the global response to climate change.
“There is hope, of course, that humans can solve climate change. We have built collaborative governance before, although it has never been like this before: in a rush on a global scale,” says Waring.
The growth of international environmental policy offers some hope. Successful examples include the Montreal Protocol to reduce ozone-depleting gases, and a global moratorium on commercial whaling.
New efforts should include promoting more intentional, peaceful, and ethical systems of mutual self-restraint, especially through market regulations and enforceable treaties, which bind human groups across the planet together more tightly into a functional unit.
But this model may not succeed in dealing with climate change.
“Our research explains why and how the construct of collaborative governance differs at the global level, and helps researchers and policymakers be clearer about how to work toward global solutions,” says Waring.
This new research could lead to a new policy mechanism to address the climate crisis: modifying the process of adaptive change between companies and countries may be a powerful way to address global environmental risks.
As for whether humans can continue to exist on a finite planet, Waring says: “We don’t have any solutions to the idea of a long-term evolutionary trap, because we barely understand the problem.” says Waring.
“If our conclusions are correct, we need to study this more carefully,” he says.
Reference: “Distinctive processes of human evolution have given rise to the Anthropocene and may impede its global resolution” by Timothy M. Waring, Zachary T. Wood and Ewers Szathmary, January 1, 2024, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society b.