The Selfish Species

Gillian Brodie 23 September 2007

Humans are a selfish species. We have been for many thousands of years, from the beginning of our existence. The fact we have been destroying our home planet over the last couple of centuries needn’t come as any big surprise when one looks back at the history of aggressive human nature in the endless strive to better our existence. Early humans took evolution in their stride, responding to climate changes by migrating to more temperate regions, hunting animals for food, doing whatever necessary to continue their survival on this planet and pass on their genes. When Siberian man migrated to North America 11,000 years ago, over seventy percent of the large mammals there rapidly became extinct. This innate instinct for survival rings equally true for other species in the animal kingdom: all react to their surroundings doing everything within their capacity to ensure continued survival. In human terms, this situation becomes extremely ironic when we realise the scale of the man-made catastrophe we are living through in our present day; the continued survival we so eagerly aim for could be in serious jeopardy. The recent environmental changes we have burdened upon our planet in many respects are more the whirlwind of progress and modernity spiralling out of control rather than any deliberate plot to butcher the Earth. In our battle for sustained existence, we have responded to the prospect of a comfortable life with an overwhelming sigh of relief. That is, the discovery and subsequent burning of fossil fuels – the culprit most often held responsible for global warming.

This is however, arguably one of the single most important ‘inventions’ in improving mankind’s quality of life in recent times. It led to the production of electricity and granted mobility for millions of people the world over, changing the existence of many peoples’ lives beyond all recognition from the pre-Industrial Revolution. It was a perfectly natural progression to utilise such a beneficial resource to its full extent, oblivious to the detriment it would cause our fragile habitat.

That’s not to say that we are blameless for the current climate crisis – quite the opposite. But this discovery allowed human ingenuity to thrive and we began to control the environment by utilising a luxury stumbled upon in nature. Precious fossil fuels that nature has taken many hundreds of millions of years to form were, and continue to be burnt at astonishingly fast rates. Their occurrence requires such a precise combination of pressures and temperatures; this natural resource has been created through good fortune more than anything but we seem to be taking it for granted and soon, the inexhaustible supply will be gone. The desire to better our lives, whether due to our own selfishness or just an unintentional endeavor for progression, has made attainable unimaginable social and economic enrichment, delivered by the Industrial Age. As damaging as we now know them to be, this era would never have come about without the use of coal, oil and gas. And this era has enabled us to subsequently move forward again, into our present Information Age. Technological advancements occurring today, the sharing of information, the compiling of fossil record data, the use of computer models for accurate forecasting of impending climate changes, all permit us the privilege of being able to predict future complications before they occur – it would be ludicrous not to act upon this precious information. Knowledge is power. So why aren’t we doing more when we have all the necessary information is laid out to us so clearly? There is an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community that climate change is real and that human activity is undoubtedly contributing a major role to this change. All the concern seems to be focused on the consequences this alteration is causing the planet’s biodiversity. But this could ultimately be a less worrying problem than the threat it poses to the human species. Plants and animals have an astounding ability to adapt to severe environmental change; this has been proven throughout the last 450 million years of history whereby our planet has endured five major mass extinction events, well before the advent of human life. In fact, evolution thrives on culling. In the years following each of these life-changing events, richly diverse ecological niches emerged and many new species flourished. The annihilation of one genre ultimately paves the way for several others. It therefore seems reasonable to predict that nature could actually take advantage of the current abuse we are throwing at it and could even prosper from the situation if the worst happened, and humans were not around to stand in their way. Obviously not a scenario anyone hopes for.

Mankind’s continued existence faces an uncertain future because we have only occupied this planet for a fraction of time compared to other species. The ability of humans to acclimatize to environmental tragedies instigated though our own doing, has yet to be determined. Our selfish influences on the biosphere will inevitably endanger a whole selection of vulnerable organisms – but will we be included in that category?

Gillian Brodie