Get news updates from WGBH
Sat April 20, 2013
Saving Humanity from Itself
Between our booming population and the threat of climate change, is humanity reaching the end of its resources? Charles C. Mann, author of “1491,” “1493,” and the National Magazine Award-nominated “State of the Species: Does Success Spell Doom for Homo Sapiens,” shares his theory.
- Charles C. Mann, author of “1491,” “1493,” and the National Magazine Award-nominated “State of the Species: Does Success Spell Doom for Homo Sapiens.”
For just a moment, fancy yourself a scientist. You’re conducting an experiment about population growth using paramecium, a tiny single-celled organism. You put a small number of paramecium in a petri dish with plenty of food and remove elements (such as predators and temperature fluctuations) that would normally limit their population growth. With plenty of resources and no limitations, the paramecium population booms. But state your hypothesis — will happen when they fill the petri dish to its edges?
If you guessed they would die out, you’re correct. That’s what Russian scientist Georgy Gause found when he first conducted this experiment — that successful populations have a way of making themselves extinct. And here’s a disheartening theory, shared by prominent biologists like Lynn Margulis and Charles C. Mann, author of “State of the Species: Does Success Spell Doom for Homo Sapiens:” humans aren’t that different from a group of paramecium.
If you’re skeptical, you need look no further than our current struggle with climate change.
“What happens to the species, in Gauses’ type of experiment, is they either eat up everything around them [and] exhaust all their resources, or they drown in their own waste,” he explains. “Climate change is an example of drowning in our own waste. The carbon that we emit is a kind of waste, it’s a kind of pollution, and it’s coming back to haunt us.”
And climate change isn’t the only sign that humanity is exhausting its resources. By 2050, we will have a population of 10 million people, each of whom will use more food and accumulate more material goods than a person would have 100 — or even 50 — years ago.
“We’re adding, not just mouths, but well fed mouths, if you understand,” Mann says. “And the burden is even heavier.”
In other words, the human race is getting close to the edge of its metaphorical petri dish.
Gaming the System
But Mann does have a note of hope: whereas populations of paramecium, or insects, or mussels don’t have the intelligence to know that they’re about to exhaust their resources, humans have the advantage of foresight.
“Human beings have this quality that scientists call behavioral plasticity,” he explains, “and that means we can do things one way and then suddenly reverse course and do them in another way.”
Mann says there are two routes humanity can take to save itself. The first is using science to tweak and expand our resources. He gives the example of genetic modification. Not enough land to grow food? Alter the genome of agricultural products so that they produce a bigger harvest.
The second route is self-explanatory: live a simpler life. Put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat. Eat lower on the food chain by cutting meat out of your diet.
“I think both of these are very, very difficult paths,” Mann admits. “But they’re paths we’re going to have to take if we’re going to show that … we are a special species.”
If you’re looking to avoid the fate of the paramecium, take note.
BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO