Humans are one of the most adaptable creatures on Earth (although we’d certainly get a run for our money from rats, cockroaches, and the amazing tardigrade).
From an evolutionary standpoint, this adaptability is a feature, not a bug; it means we’ve successfully populated almost every location on Earth except parts of the Sahara, the North Pole and most of Antarctica. We’ve adapted to cold by figuring out how to build houses and warm them with fossil fuels. We’ve adapted to heat by inventing air conditioning. We’ve adapted to the desert by building pipes and irrigation systems. We’ve adapted to places that flood by building levees and dams and bridges.
However, there is one big bug in the human adaptability system. When things get worse, we adapt so well, we quickly forget how things were before.
When burning coal for electricity decreases my air quality, I might barely notice, except perhaps if I have asthma… it happens so slowly, I adapt, and then I forget what it was like to have clear blue skies instead of pallid brown skies. Brown is the new blue!
When a shale oil company pollutes my well water with fracking fluid poisons, and I can no longer drink my water, I’m pissed off. But I start buying bottled water, and life goes on.
When the amount of public land shrinks and national parks go away and the number of spotted owls shrink to almost nothing and the number of orca whales is vanishingly low, I am heart broken. For a while. But life goes on. I can’t be heart broken about these things all the time, because I wouldn’t be able to function.
By many measures, things have got better. We have easier lives, we live longer, we have better health care, child mortality is down, there are fewer murders and wars.
By one very important measure, things are getting much much worse with every passing year: our ecosystem. The more people there are, the more fossil fuels we burn, the more CO2 we emit, the more land we gobble up for roads and buildings and industry, the more wildlife and plants get shoved out of the way to make room for us, the more pesticides and herbicides we spray into the environment, the more plastic we dump into the ocean…. I could go on and on and on… the worse off our ecosystem is.
We adapt. We move if things get too toxic (or, if we’re poor, we die, and few notice). We get used to breathing polluted air and drinking polluted water and because these things don’t kill us right away, we’re somehow okay with it because we’ve adapted: that’s just the way it is now. Everything’s contaminated.
Do you remember what it was like when you were younger, before everything was contaminated? When you could still breath pure air and drink pure water?
One of these days, our adaptability is going to kill us. We’ll adapt our way into our own extinction because we’ll reach a tipping point beyond which our ecosystem will no longer support us. Is that a feature or a bug?
Just like any living creature that explodes in numbers, beyond the capacity of the environment to support us, we will go extinct. Everything goes extinct, eventually.
The difference is that with prior extinctions, the living creatures going extinct weren’t knowingly doing it to themselves. Does it seem crazy to you that we’re knowingly driving ourselves into extinction and because we adapt so readily, we barely even notice most days? That we care so little that millions of tons of plastic and millions of tons of CO2 are still being dumped into our environment every year, even though we know, we KNOW!, that it will eventually kill us all?
Adaptability. A great feature… until it’s not.
(Artist unknown; found in an article in the Economist.)