The Evolving Relationship between Humans and the Earth

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

This blog post is based on Stephanie Ferrera’s presentation at the 32nd Midwest Symposium in May, 2017

Like all of the species on earth, humans depend on the bountiful resources of the planet for our very existence.  Ian Morris titled his book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels to delineate the three main ways that humans, over millennia, have made a living, or, in Morris’ terms, the three modes of “energy capture.”

For 90% of homo sapiens’ time on earth, foraging, the hunting of wild animals and gathering of wild plants, was the way of life.  This mode of energy capture did not alter the gene pool of exploited resources.  People endured through periods of scarcity, and there were “boom and bust cycles of rapid population growth and starvation.”  Foragers are thought by many who have studied them to be egalitarian in their social values.  Their mobile way of life made it impractical to accumulate possessions.  Sharing was a strongly enforced moral value, and “upstartism” or self-promotion was discouraged with mockery, criticism, or ostracism.

Farming emerged between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago and spread across the planet with greater speed and scale than foraging.  The ability to domesticate plants and animals led to a “slow-motion explosion in energy capture.”  The long term trend was exponential population growth, but along the way there were sudden spikes and terrible crashes.  The steady increase in energy captured per acre of farmland, made it possible to feed millions of mouths, but demanded constant, back-breaking labor.  The heavy labor of plowing, manuring, and irrigating became mainly men’s work.  Women were pushed out of the fields and into the home where they had more babies than female foragers while also managing households that became centers for producing goods and processing food.

The sheer scale of farming societies required increasingly complex division of labor.  A ruling class emerged as some became the “masters of violence” and gained control over resources and politics.  The agrarian world turned hierarchical and patriarchal.  Coalitions of elites coordinated the larger society’s activities—taxation, law enforcement, rituals, suppression of uprisings, wars—while a significant percentage of people were serfs or slaves.  By the year 1 BC political and economic inequality had become deeply entrenched.  The brighter side of the division of labor was that it freed some to pursue intellectual life and expansion of knowledge.

Morris summarizes the transformative change that farming brought to the human relationship to earth:  “Farmers deliberately alter the gene pool of exploited resources.  …Humans interfere in other species’ reproduction sufficiently to create selective pressures that lead these other species to evolve into entirely new species which can only go on reproducing with continued human intervention.” (p. 44)

Fossil fuels, the vast deposits of coal, gas, and oil buried under the earth’s surface, began to be exploited in the 17th century.  The resulting “energy bonanza” transformed human societies and values.  Finding new sources, and new methods of extraction and transmission, gave rise to new business, legal, and financial institutions.  Morris describes the “virtuous cycle” that drove economic growth:  “Steam-powered transport drove the cost of traded goods down making it possible for more people to buy them; high wages tempted more and more people to take factory jobs rather than staying on the farm, producing an ever more complex division of labor and churning out even more goods.”  A sample of world population figures shows the connection between economic growth and population:  In 1800, the number was just under 1 billion; by 1900, it was 1.6 billion, and by 2000 (in spite of the huge casualties of wars and disease in the 20th century), it had reached 6 billion.  It is now near 7.5 billion and climbing.

Murray Bowen described the human success story:  “Man has overcome many of the forces that threatened his existence in former centuries.  His life span has been increased by medical science; his technology has advanced rapidly; he has become increasingly more in control of his environment.  A higher percentage of the world’s population has more economic security and creature comforts than at any time during man’s history on earth.”  (Bowen 1978, 272)  Bowen also expressed grave concerns about the “crises of unparalleled proportions” toward which humans were moving.

Noted biologist and conservation leader, Edward O. Wilson summarizes both the dangers and the opportunities we face as we work toward greater harmony with the earth:  “Humanity is passing through a bottleneck of overpopulation and environmental destruction.  At the other end, if we pass through safely and take most of Earth’s life forms with us, human existence could be a paradise compared to today.”

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