We are facing a planetary emergency. We are well past the point of laying blame, because the emergency is here, and we need to act. However, we need to overcome how human societies organize and think of each other. In other words, we need to get over human evolution itself.
Humans evolved in small bands. For most of our evolution, before the common trunk with other primates around four million years ago, we moved in small bands. These bands ranged anywhere from a few dozen individuals upwards of one hundred and twenty.
Do the following exercise. Not counting social media, how many people do you really know? How many people do you interact with regularly? These numbers have not changed over the course of human evolution.
The human brain has grown by orders of magnitude. We are tool makers. Increasingly we understand other species are as well. This is not just a human trait. Even if our tools are very complex compared to other species on the planet.
What has not grown is our capacity to register those outside that core group as part of our band, our species. This core group is what social scientists and others call the in-group. This is critical since empathy is not so easy for those outside the group. We need to see the other as us if we are to work for planetary health.
Human bands had contact with each other. They bartered for things each group did not have. This was the origin of complex trade systems. It was also the early way to learn about new edible plants, or shifting migration patterns. There is evidence that some sex was part of this. Meaning this is how genetic variety came into small bands. We also know humanity went through at least one, if not two evolutionary bottlenecks. In those conditions, this was even more critical.
Outside this limited contact, bands saw each other as competitors for food, water and other resources in a set territory. In the modern-day, a nation is that territory. This is why nations control water, food, even fishing rights. This is a direct connection to our distant past, and humanity’s territorial nature.
With the rise of agriculture, we started the overt exploitation of the natural world. Economic systems started to grow and develop. However, the in-group, out-group dynamic continued. As pointed above, we humans have the same social core as we did at the dawn of human evolution.
This brings us to the modern world. If there is a constant is difficulty that human groups have empathy towards other human groups. This is especially the case with those that talk a different language and look different from other groups. Why the news media mostly covers countries like the United States, white and Christian, and some other that are white and European. While we know islands are already going under the waters in the pacific, this hardly registers. Towns in Alaska that are part of the Inuit community did not register either. The climate refugees after Katrina were mostly poor and black, with less care than other disasters. The list is long.
We may call it racism. But it is also this in-group out-group dynamic that goes back to the dawn of human evolution. We are pack animals and do not trust or like those who are not part of our pack, our tribe. Incidentally, some uninhabited islands are already disappearing under the waves:
In October 2018, Hurricane Walaka washed away a remote, 11-acre Hawaiian island as the storm barreled through the Pacific Ocean. Several months before that, Russian scientists reported that a small Arctic island had disappeared, saying that only vast, open water remained at the site. And near the end of 2018, a local newspaper reported that an uninhabited islet off the coast of Japan could no longer be found, presumably because it had sunk beneath the water’s surface.
In these recent examples, the islands were small and uninhabited, but scientists say the fate of these tiny pieces of land could be a harbinger of what’s to come.
”With some of these small islands, maybe it’s no big deal to the average person because they’re uninhabited, but you’re going to see these same processes happen on larger islands and populated ones,” said Curt Storlazzi, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in Santa Cruz, California.
Most Americans have not heard about Kiribati. Nor have we heard about the Marshall Islands. For that matter, most have not heard about Alaska.
These are canaries in this climate emergency mine. The fact is that retreat, relocation, or even refugee status will be part of the human condition. You may say, but we always have had this issue, but it never affects us. Del Mar California is already discussing (and rejecting) retreat. When they are forced due to ocean rise, will that make it more real for White Christian Americans?
Part of this is that the solutions to the crisis require collective action. We believe the individual rules the world. You either sink or swim on your own efforts. This crisis is too large for a single human, let alone a nation to confront on its own. Also, the idea that economic growth is the only indicator of health also needs revision. Why? We are using far more resources than the planet has.
We need to get out of our tribe, our in-group. We need to develop a global view. In a way, we need to overcome our evolution. There is an old trope of science fiction. Humanity will unite once aliens come to destroy us all, which was clear in the movie Independence Day. The climate crisis is the alien force that threatens our survival. It may be a self-created crisis, but the only thing at stake is species survival.