For decades Sir David Attenborough has brought the natural world into people’s homes. But his upcoming film, “A Life On Our Planet”, offers a stark message about human impact on the environment. Anne McElvoy asks the godfather of natural history television where he draws the line between wonder and warning. Does his work have the power to change hearts and minds or is he preaching to the choir? They talk about whether the climate could be the only winner from the global covid-19 pandemic and why he has stopped trying to get through to President Trump. Plus, a knock at the door and an unexpected question.
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The acoustic ecologist on collecting sounds around the world and why silence is an endangered species on the verge of extinction.
Becoming a Benign Dominant
To track how humans became Earth’s dominant animal, Ehrlich began with a photo of a tarsier in a tree. The little primate had a predator’s binocular vision and an insect-grabber’s fingers. When (possibly) climate change drove some primates out of the trees, they developed a two-legged stance to get around on the savanna. Then the brain swoll up, and the first major dominance tool emerged—language with syntax.
About 2.5 million years ago, the beginnings of human culture became evident with stone tools. “We don’t have a Darwin of cultural evolution yet,” said Ehrlich. He defined cultural evolution as everything we pass on in a non-genetic way. Human culture developed slowly-the stone tools little changed from millennium to millennium, but it accelerated. There was a big leap about 50,000 years ago, after which culture took over human evolution—our brain hasn’t changed in size since then.
With agriculture’s food surplus, specialization took off. Inuits that Ehrlich once studied had a culture that was totally shared; everyone knew how everything was done. In high civilization, no one grasps a millionth of current cultural knowledge. Physicists can’t build a TV set.
Writing freed culture from the limitations of memory, and burning old solar energy (coal and oil) empowered vast global population growth. Our dominance was complete. Ehrlich regretted that we followed the competitive practices of chimps instead of bonobos, who resolve all their disputes with genital rubbing.
“The human economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Earth’s natural systems,” said Ehrlich, and when our dominance threatens the ecosystem services we depend on, we have to understand the workings of the cultural evolution that gave us that dominance. The current two greatest threats that Ehrlich sees are climate change (10 percent chance of civilization ending, and rising) and chemical toxification of the biosphere. “Every cubic centimeter of the biosphere has been modified by human activity.”
The main climate threat he sees is not rising sea levels (”You can outwalk that one”) but the melting of the snowpack that drives the world’s hydraulic civilizations— California agriculture totally dependent on the Sierra snowpack, the Andes running much of Latin America, the Himalayan snows in charge of Southeast Asia. With climate in flux, Ehrlich said, we may be facing a millennium of constant change. Already we see the outbreak of resource wars over water and oil.
He noted with satisfaction that human population appears to be leveling off at 9 to 10 billion in this century, though the remaining increase puts enormous pressure on ecosystem services. He’s not worried about depopulation problems, because “population can always be increased by unskilled laborers who love their work.”
The major hopeful element he sees is that cultural evolution can move very quickly at times. The Soviet Union disappeared overnight. The liberation of women is a profound cultural shift that occurs in decades. Facing dire times, we need to understand how cultural evolution works in order to shift our dominance away from malignant and toward the benign.
In the Q & A, Ehrlich described work he’s been doing on cultural evolution. He and a graduate student in her fifties at Stanford have been studying the progress of Polynesian canoe practices as their population fanned out across the Pacific. What was more conserved, they wondered, practical matters or decoration? Did the shape of a canoe paddle change constantly, driven by the survival pressure of greater efficiency, or did the carving and paint on the paddles change more, driven by the cultural need of each group to distinguish itself from the others.
Practical won. Once a paddle shape proved really effective, it became a cultural constant.
research focuses on the physics of earthquakes and mountain-building. She combines field-based studies of bedrock geology with quantitative models of rock mechanics.
She is the author of Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and is a contributing writer to the New Yorker’s Annals of Technology blog.
Marcia Bjornerud’s Homepage More about Marcia Bjornerud
We need a poly-temporal worldview to embrace the overlapping rates of change that our world runs on, especially the huge, powerful changes that are mostly invisible to us.
Geologist Marcia Bjornerud teaches that kind of time literacy. With it, we become at home in the deep past and engaged with the deep future. We learn to “think like a planet.”
As for climate change… “Dazzled by our own creations,” Bjornerud writes, “we have forgotten that we are wholly embedded in a much older, more powerful world whose constancy we take for granted…. Averse to even the smallest changes, we have now set the stage for environmental deviations that will be larger and less predictable than any we have faced before.”
A professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, Marcia Bjornerud is author of Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World (2018) and Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth (2005).
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the biggest names in current science fiction. His most famous work is, arguably, the Mars Trilogy, but he is the author of seventeen novels and several collections of short stories. I could easily overburden you with biographical details and lists of his accolades, but I’ll leave that to this very comprehensive fan page.
I learned about Stan through my interview with Tim Morton in 2012—they are friends and, at the time, both lived in Davis. It took a year but, when I next passed through Davis, I was fortunate enough to get three hours to sit down with Stan and talk about the future. I was especially interested in Stan’s work because he is an incredible researcher and regularly uses his fiction to explore a variety of plausible economic, scientific, ecological, and social futures. In other words, he uses fiction to ask many of the same questions that we have been asking our interviewees throughout the project. The result, I think, is one of the strongest and most wide-ranging interviews in The Conversation.
Today we travel to a future where we try to break up with cement. Can it be done? How did cement because so ubiquitous? And what’s so bad about cement in the first place?
Climate change and population growth will combine in the twenty-first century to put an enormous load on humanity’s bio-infrastructural support system, the planet Earth. Kim Stanley Robinson argues that our current economic system undervalues both the environment and future human generations, and it will have to change if we hope to succeed in dealing with the enormous challenges facing us. Science is the most powerful conceptual system we have for dealing with the world, and we are certain to be using science to design and guide our response to the various crises now bearing down on us. A more scientific economics — what would that look like? And what else in our policy, habits, and values will have to change?
Winner of Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards, Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his award-winning Mars trilogy. He has published fifteen novels and several short stories collections, often exploring ecological and sociological themes. Recently, the US National Science Foundation has sent Robinson to Antarctica as part of their Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. In April 2011, Robinson presented his observations on the cyclical nature of capitalism at the Rethinking Capitalism conference, University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1984, he published his doctoral dissertation, The N…
Richard Sennett, one of the world’s leading thinkers on the urban environment, traces the relationship between how cities are built and how people live in them.
In describing how cities such as Paris, Barcelona and New York assumed their modern forms, Sennett explores the intimate relationship between the good built environment and the good life.
This event was recorded live at The RSA on Thursday 15th March 2018. Discover more about this event here: https://www.thersa.org/events/2018/03/building-and-dwelling
Original video: https://soundcloud.com/the_rsa/building-and-dwelling
Downloaded by http://huffduff-video.snarfed.org/ on Tue, 20 Mar 2018 12:12:12 GMT Available for 30 days after download
"Adapting to Sea Level Rise: The Science of New York 2140": Legendary science ficiton author Kim Stanley Robinson returns to The Interval to discuss his just released novel New York 2140. Robinson will discuss how starting from the most up to date climate science available to him, he derived a portrait of New York City as "super-Venice" and the resilient civilization that inhabits it in his novel. In 02016 Robinson spoke at The Interval about the economic ideas that inform New York 2140. He will be joined by futurist Peter Schwartz in conversation after his talk.
Professor Matt Ridley explains some basics about just why we should not be in fear of "man-made" climate change. Speech was at the Royal Society, UK on the 17th October, 2016.
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