21.12.2012 has come and gone without the cataclysmic crisis predicted by some. While humanity breathes a collective sigh of relief, the rest of Life on Earth might well be disappointed that the Mayans missed the mark…
There have been several extinction events in the history of our planet. The worst, around 250 million years ago, wiped out nearly all marine species, most land vertebrates and even affected insects. It made way for the ascendancy of dinosaurs which, in turn, were obliterated by an extinction event 65 million years ago, giving mammals and hence humans our day.
According to the theory of natural selection, stable environments favour the evolution of larger, more efficient and specialised creatures that outperform competitors in their ecological niches. Taken to the extreme, one could postulate that if carnivorous dinosaurs had not been made extinct by external factors, they would have achieved it themselves. By becoming ever more effective predators, they could have consumed all their normal sources of food before cannibalising each other. Eventually, the final tyrannosaur would have eaten its last potential mate. While not necessarily having the insight to predict this, avian dinosaurs nonetheless became enlightened, took to the skies and survive to this day as birds.
We are in the midst of the Holocene extinction period. It started with an abrupt change in climate at the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, and has continued as humans developed proficiency at exploiting natural resources. While supposedly striving to improve our quality of life, we have become dumber than the dinosaurs. We are not only wiping out our sources of food, such as animals in the wild and fish in the seas, we are destroying the very ecosystems that support them, not least by our farming practices.
The fundamental driving force accelerating our ecologically-destructive behaviour emanates from our inherited economic system. The owners of capital have cunningly convinced us to compete with ourselves to increase their wealth: some of us struggling to survive; others jostling to join the ranks of the rich. The system’s insatiable appetite has spread the tentacles of its resource-consuming, labour-exploiting corporations across the planet. Meanwhile, the middle-class masses have become tacit accomplices as minority shareholders, if not directly, then through their private pension funds.
The over-riding (short-term) profit motive and unbridled competition fuel the drive towards ultimate efficiency and domination. Our money-making machines mirror the colossal killing creatures of another age. But as supremacy is pursued, resilience to shocks and adaptability to change are sacrificed. The self-generated jolt to one part of the financial system reverberated throughout a highly leveraged global economy. Terrified political stooges temporarily changed their tune from “laissez-faire” to “too big to fail” and desperately intervened with our (children’s) taxes to bail out their paymaster’s banks and businesses. It was our wake-up call. The fossil record reveals that nothing is too big to fail – it is just a matter of time.
Even in a stable environment, our economic enterprise would eventually lead to the exhaustion of the earth. More likely, abrupt changes, whether natural or anthropogenic, will cause the system to collapse. Challenges to the capitalist paradigm are consistently ridiculed by the unenlightened, but is economic reformation really more radical than the transformation of dinosaurs into birds? Once emancipated from enslavement to the tyrannical dogma of growing our economic might, we can employ our collective genius to reduce our ecological weight and soar into the heavens. How else will we escape extinction?