Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

“Humans Are Such Dicks!” Say all the animals.

If animals could talk, can you imagine their trash talk about us? Nothing for children to overhear. Imagine how furious they’d get if they could read books like The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert or Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scanton. Humans are now the cause of the sixth great mass extinction event in the history of the Earth. We’ve fucked this world up so bad that scientists are now naming the geologic age after us – the Anthropocene. And since we’re such collective dumbasses, the age will probably be a short one. To make it even more tragic, scientists are discovering that animals are more aware, more sentient, than we thought. Consciousness of reality, is a spectrum, not a quantum leap. We may be the crown of creation on this planet, but we’re despotic rulers.

After I read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, I started feeling very guilty about what our species is doing to all the other species. Then I started reading Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight For Life by Edward O. Wilson, who suggests we can absolve our guilt if we shared the planet fairly. I’m not sure most of my fellow humans feel that way. And then I bought, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal. This one makes me feel even guiltier. Can we even comprehend minds not like our own? For the past year, I’ve noticed in my news reading more stories dealing with animal intelligence and sentience. Most people love animals, but do they love them enough to give them their fair share of the world?

I’m still reading on the last two books, but when I went looking for customer comments about them on Amazon, I noticed these other books. There seems to be a flood of animal awareness books coming out. Can we read enough books to actually mind-meld with animals? Can we expand our awareness of the natural world quick enough to change who we are, before we destroy us all?

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe (June, 2016)

What A Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe

Just as water influences the dynamics of vision, so it does for hearing, smell, and taste. Water is a superb conductor of sound waves, where they are almost five times longer than in air, as sounds travel five times faster in water. Fishes have benefited from this since the dawn of bones and fins, using sound for both orientation and communication. Water is also an excellent medium for diffusing water-soluble chemical compounds, and is well suited for the perception of smells and tastes. Fishes have separate organs for smelling and tasting, although the distinction is blurred because all substances are encountered in a water solution.

As they did color vision, fishes probably invented hearing. Despite the common assumption that fishes are silent, they actually have more ways of producing sounds than any other group of vertebrate animals. None of these methods involve the main method of all the other vertebrates: the vibration of air against membranes. Fishes can rapidly contract a pair of vocal muscles to vibrate their swim bladder, which also serves as a sound amplifier. They have the options of grating their teeth in their jaws, grinding additional sets of teeth lining their throat, rubbing bones together, stridulating their gill covers, and even—as we’ll see—expelling bubbles from their anuses. Some land-dwelling vertebrates get creative in producing nonvocal sounds, such as the drumming of woodpeckers and the chest pounding of gorillas, but fishes’ terrestrial cousins possess just two types of vocal apparatus—the syrinx of birds and the larynx of all the rest.

“What a Fish Hears, Smells, and Tastes” by Jonathan Balcombe

Makes you wonder what a fish feels and screams when hooked on a line, and then jerked out of the water. Imagine being that fish. Pescatarians probably feel fish are lesser creatures, and thus ethically consumable. But is that true?

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (April, 2016)

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer AckermanFor a long lime, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction.

Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all.

That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so. from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers when it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend bask principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future.

“One – From Dodo to Crow: Take the Measure of a Bird Mind”  by Jennifer Ackerman

My friend Anne raised a baby starling this spring, and I hung out with her when she released the bird. For a couple weeks the bird would come see her. You could see that it had imprinted on Anne, and for a while, that bird lived in two worlds – his natural world, and ours. When you’re that close to nature, you see that nature is more than what we dismiss.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (Sept, 2016)

I can’t quote from the book, but here’s the blurb at Amazon:

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter WohllebenIn The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group.

Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.

I’ve been a vegetarian since 1969, and I have always assumed that plants didn’t suffer. This will be a hard book for me to read. Humans are animals, and in the animal world, everything eats some other creature. But I think, because we’re more aware of reality, we have an obligation to be more than an animal. If we used the animal world for our precedent on ethics, murder would be acceptable. We need to be more conscious of what we eat, how it affects our own health, how it effects the biosphere, and its impact on the ethical treatment of other species. If we stopped raising cattle, it would be one route to Wilson’s plan to share the planet. That would give back a tremendous amount of land to the plants and animals, and greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We should also cut back on fishing the oceans, and let the seas recover.

Of course, that means humans giving up something. We’re not really good at do-be-sharers. But if we gave up beef and at least half of the seafood we eat, we could dramatically change the direction of the sixth extinction. Will we? I don’t think so. I doubt many people will even read these books.

And I don’t mean to be cynical.

It’s just everything the animals say about us is true.

JWH

How To Save The Planet–Without Detailed Instructions

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Humans are destroying the biosphere of planet Earth. Homo sapiens have overpopulated the planet, crowding out all the other species, and has initiated a self-destruct countdown. To solve this crisis requires creating a sustainable way of life, one that will ethically accommodate 13 billion people, allow other species to thrive, create a stable weather system, and not poison the biosphere with pollution. This is an immense challenge. There are countless books, studies, organizations, documentaries and pundits claiming they have solutions, but few people agree on anything. (I use the number 13 billion because most people today will see the Earth’s population grow to that number before it starts to shrink.)

The real responsibility falls on us individually. We each have to decide how to live and justify that lifestyle’s sustainability. In other words, any rational for survival you choose must be judged by what impact that lifestyle would have if 13 billion people also followed it. The Lifeboat Earth metaphor applies here. Ethically, we all have a justification to claim one thirteenth billionth of the planet’s resources, excluding the ethical share we first deem is due to all the other species. Our current philosophy is “everyone for themselves” – grab all you can get, and fuck all other humans and all the animals. It is this philosophy that will lead us to self-destruction, and why there is so much hate, violence and stress in the world.

Earthe-Europe1413

Finding an ethical way of living that is equitable to our fellow humans and to all the animals is hard. You will have to do a lot of research, read a lot of books, watch a lot of documentaries, and listen to countless thousands of talking heads argue and argue. One recent documentary I feel is very persuasive is Cowspiracy, a film by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. I shall use it as an example. At it’s core, the film is trying to do what I’m talking about regarding sustainability. However, I don’t trust it’s numbers, and I’m guessing it’s motivations aren’t entirely honest and straight forward. But understanding these problems I have with the film are exactly the skills we need in evaluating any solution to save the planet.

There is no reason to want or expect us all to decided on the same path. We can each develop our own consumption plan so long as it integrates into the whole, and we each use only our fair share. Before we can begin inventing our individual solutions we need to understand what is our fair share of consumables and pollution. The mathematics of such an undertaking is way beyond my ability. So I never trust other people who claim to have that ability.

I find documentaries that use lots of facts, figures and infographics to be more persuasive than documentaries that don’t. The watchers of these film must deal with is whether or not the film’s figures are accurate. Even cheap, crudely made films can have great impact, such as Cowspiracy. I was far more moved by Cowspiracy than I was the more famous and better made, An Inconvenient Truth. Both appear to be about climate change and environmentalism, but I suspect the underlying motivation by Cowspiracy is animal rights. Andersen and Kuhn contend that raising farm animals has more impact on the environment than all burdens the various transportation industries place on the planet.

Do their numbers add up? Is their basic assumption correct? They are offering a reasonable solution to save the planet. Are they right? They offer a very simplistic path to solving the sustainability problem. First, watch the film Cowspiracy (free on Netflix streaming, $4.95 digital download, $19.95 DVD). Their solution, stop eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy. We must evaluate their plan. Would choosing a plant based diet make a sustainable lifestyle? Cowspiracy defines the sustainability issue properly, but I doubt their numbers justifying their solution, even though I’m personally pursing a vegan lifestyle and I’m for animal rights. I’m willing to consider that there might be ethical ways to eat meat that is sustainable.

Whether or not to eat meat, and whether or not raising food animals has a massive impact on the environment are a highly contentious issues. You can can find people on both sides of the argument claiming they know the truth and throwing out tons of facts and figures. I wish to set the ethical issues of killing animals aside for a moment, and just consider Andersen and Kuhn’s assertion that raising animals for food has a greater impact on the environment than all of the transportation industries combined. Does giving up meat help the environment significantly? More than going to mass transit and switching to a renewable energy based economy?

My guess is we could greatly improve meat and dairy production to make it sustainable, but it might require that people eat a lot less animal products than they do now. And even then, we’d still have to bring back the issue of animal cruelty. Andersen and Kuhn do define many of the issues we have to consider in creating a personal sustainable lifestyle.

  • We all have a fair share of fresh water this is sustainable, but will vary by location.
  • That a sustainable lifestyle will impact specific area of land.
  • That land set aside for humans should leave plenty of natural areas for animals.
  • That the impact of our land requirements not impact the weather, pollution or the biosphere.
  • That our personal energy use must be sustainable.
  • That we shouldn’t let people starve while we feed animals to produce meat.
  • Can we raise animals so they have quality lives before we kill them?
  • Are there humane ways to kill animals?
  • Is it ethical to kill animals?
  • Should you eat any animal that you didn’t personal kill?
  • Should we give land to food animals when wild animals have so little?
  • That factory animal raising is not sustainable.
  • That free range animal raising is less sustainable than factory animal raising.
  • That industrial fishing isn’t sustainable.

I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, and in the last couple years I’ve been veering towards veganism to reduced the clogs in my arteries, so Andersen’s and Kuhn’s solution would be no sacrifice for me. It would demand a tremendous change for most people, and a drastic transformation of society. Can you imagine if all restaurants were vegan and all grocery stores health food stores? I’m going to assume Cowspiracy plays fast and loose with its numbers simply because the film is on the amateur side. On the other hand, I’m going to assume they might be right and explore their solution.

We often admire members of The Greatest Generation because they survived The Depression and WWII. We admire their determination and sacrifice. We admire first responders and soldiers for their dedication and heroism. Often I meet people who wished they had done more good in their lives, or even lament they hadn’t done something extraordinary like their heroes. Some even feel their life has been without meaning. I don’t believe you need to be Pope Francis or Martin Luther King to help other people and make a great sacrifice. Just being decent, law abiding and nonviolent adds a lot to our society. Choosing not to act like an asshole and controlling your temper goes a long way toward bringing peace on Earth. Of course, I think many folks reading this will say they’d prefer to work inside burning buildings or go to war in Afghanistan than give up eating meat. However, from now on out, the best thing we can do for our fellow humans and our descendants is live a sustainable lifestyle. Are we willing to make that sacrifice and dedicate ourselves to meeting the challenge?

You need to see the film to be convinced that animal farming is having a greater impact on the Earth than all forms of transportation combined. Cowspiracy asks why all the major environmental groups are not focusing on the biggest problem the planet faces. If Andersen and Kuhn are right, then the single quickest way to fight climate change, the current mass extinction of animals, the destruction of the oceans, the collapse of civilization and create a sustainable society is to give up eating animals. The documentary points out that a plant based diet is sustainable, and it’s healthy. My own research into healthy diets is uncovering more and more doctors advocating a plant based diet. Giving up meat is better for the planet and better for you, and gives us hope for our descendants. However, I don’t know if Andersen and Kuhn’s numbers are anywhere near accurate.

Will people give up eating meat? I doubt it. Republicans are taking the brunt the responsibility for not doing anything about climate change because they refuse to give up fossil fuels. What if giving up meat could actually solve climate change without waiting on new renewable energy technologies? I doubt even liberals would embrace that solution. Why are bacon and eggs, milk and cheese, beef, chicken, pork and fish so important to us? What if the facts and figures in Cowspiracy are right?

Are there any sustainable sources of animals products? If people raised chickens and rabbits in their backyards, feeding them with yard grown food, would that be sustainable? What about hunters culling deer populations every year, or other animals that could live abundantly in the woods without human support? What if all fishing was from hook and lines? Andersen and Kuhn make it obvious that neither factory animal farms, or free range animal farming are sustainable. But what if everyone hunted their own meat? What if you really wanted to eat meat and were willing to hunt down an animal, kill it and butcher it, you could eat it and be sustainability justified? Andersen and Kuhn assumes all the land that went into grazing or raising food for livestock would be returned to the wild. Would that be true?

We all ignore the fact that we’re consuming more than the Earth can give. Humans are increasing in numbers while everything else is decreasing. We’ve been laughing at The Limits of Growth for forty years because the book hasn’t come true. We always assumed science and technology would continually solve the problems of exponential growth. The Club of Rome didn’t anticipate disruptive technology, but their basic premises were still correct. The Earth’s resources are finite and consumption can’t increase forever.

Table of Contents

Rescue Worms

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, September 18, 2015

When you see a worm wiggling in the street do you pick it up and put it back in a flowerbed? Do you save rescue worms?

earthworm-wallpaper-3

I’ve done this for years and thought I was the only person who’d be silly enough to save a worm, but recently I’ve discovered that many of my friends are also heroes to earthworms. I was walking with my neighbor Ernie this year and we spotted a worm struggling out in the street and I told him I always rescue them. He said he did the same thing. Then I was walking with my friend Leigh Anne and we found a stranded worm out on the hot pavement and she picked it up and put it in the grass. She also said she routinely rescued worms. She even picked up our squirmy friend with her bare hands, which impressed me because in recent years I’ve become germophobic and won’t touch them.  I always rescue my worms with a twig or leaf. I don’t know why I’ve gotten prissy about touching worms. When I was a kid I used to go through the cow patties with my bare hands to find worms for fishing. And as a teen me and my friends used to hunt for magic mushrooms out in cow pastures and we’d just brush them off before eating them. I told my friend Annie about this, and she said she also rescues worms, and picks them up with her bare hands.

Does everyone give a dying worm a helping hand?

By the way, have you ever wondered why the worm crosses the road? It’s pretty obvious, but I didn’t know the answer until I saw why one morning. Stupid birds will drop their breakfast and won’t remember to pick it up. A car will go by, or a dog, or even another bird, and they’ll drop their meal. I’ve been paying attention to birds with worms on my morning walks, and sometimes a bird will just forget they had a nice juicy worm to eat, leaving their poor victim out to die a horrible death—wiggling until it dries up.

This morning I saw a woman rescue a worm and walk into someone’s yard to put it in a flower bed. She saw me and looked embarrassed. I just gave her a friendly wave. Usually I just put street worms back in the grass. I do wonder if I’ve ever pissed off a worm that was actually trying to cross the road.

JWH

Are Humans Superior Creatures?

I believe the people of the future will look back on these times and judge us harshly, like we judge the people of the 19th century for slavery, colonialism, genocide and other atrocities those folks committed without any apparent ethical qualms.  They will see even the most liberal of us as heartless in our neglect of poor people, animals, the Earth and the environment.  I’ve always wondered how people like the abolitionists gained their insight to see beyond the ethical status quo.  There have always been a few people that were more empathetic than the common crowd, and I think they were the bellwethers of their times.  If you you read and watch the news carefully, there are always stories that portend the future of human kindness.  To change requires going against the tide of common opinion, and that’s hard.

We like to think humans are different from animals.  That we’re the crown of creation, made in God’s image, that we’re the unique species on the planet that has a soul.  I believe different.  I think we’re ahead of all our fellow creatures in the thinking department, but we share a whole lot of behavioral experiences with them.  If you look at this seal pup in the video above, it’s obviously enjoying itself.  It hung out with these surfers for an hour.  Maybe it didn’t think, “Look Ma, I’m riding a surf board,” but it did feel a sense of fun, play and curiosity.

I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries on animals lately, and reading many books about them too, and the more I study, the more I see animal behavior in the people around me, and human behavior in animals.  Religion falsely teaches us we have dominion over the Earth and animals in a way that is harmful to both our humanity and animals.  Our sense of superiority blinds us to the evil we create.  And to maintain our illusion forces us to ignore just how close we are to animals in our behaviors.

the elephant who found a mom

For instance, we like to elevate sex to love and sanctify our mating habits with legalities and romantic notions, yet it’s still  animal courtship rites based on biological programming.  We like to think our emotional needs are vastly more complex than our four legged friends, but are they?  We like to think our self-awareness and intelligence puts us a quantum leap above all other creatures we share this Earth with, but the latest animal studies show the gap isn’t as wide as we’d like to think.

This summer PBS showed two new 4-part series that emphasizes my point:  My Wild Affair, and Sex in the Wild.  The first episode of My Wild Affair, “The Elephant Who Found a Mom”  will make you cry your eyes out and make you want to go to Africa to shoot poachers.  The other shows in the series are “The Ape Who Went to College,” “The Rhino Who Joined the Family” and tonight’s “The Seal Who Came Home.”  Each episode is a very emotional story about an individual animal bonding with humans, revealing how close we are to our evolutionary cousins.

Sex in the Wild gets down to the nitty gritty of how elephants, orangutans, kangaroos and dolphins get it on.  In fact, it’s XXX animal sex.  These shows are graphically educational, so you might not want your little ones to watch, but then again, they are very educational.  This series is less about individual animals and more about general behavior.  But the courting behavior of our wild kingdom friends often reveal insights into human courtship.  I found a lot to identify with in the love life of orangutans.  Even the strangest animals they profile have distant similarities to the two legged animals we see in episodes of Sex in the City.

Just watch and think about how women judge men, and how men compete for women.   Then the next time you watch a romantic comedy pretend you’re an animal scientist studying that weird species of two legged creatures that inhabit the urban jungles of the world.

Sadly, these eight documentaries are through showing on PBS, but you can still catch them at streaming sites like PBS Roku,  Amazon streaming, or on DVD.  But even if you don’t catch these particular shows, just keep an eye out for nature shows in general.  Nature on PBS’ regular season is tremendous.  Or just watch funny videos on YouTube about dogs and cats.  Sooner or later it will come to you what they do is not that different from what we do.  That the tricks Caesar uses in The Dog Whisperer can be applied to human children and adults, or even to your mother-in-law.  If you’re really savvy in your observations you’ll begin to see your own behavior and how it formed.  If you’re a guy who can’t get lucky with the girls, or a girl that can’t land a Mr. Right, you might study animal behavior.

But beyond learning more about who we are by how we evolved to get here, the real issue is animal rights.  We haven’t worked out human rights yet, but animal rights are just as important, for them and for us.  If we are the crown of creation on this planet then it’s our ethical job to manage the Earth.  I can’t help but think that’s to preserve biological diversity and not destroy it.  I worry that a hundred years from now, those who look back will see us as the worse mass murderers of history.  They will ask themselves over and over, “How could they have been so cruel?  Could they not see what they were doing?  Could they not feel the suffering they were causing.  Did they not foresee what they were doing to all the future generations to come?”  They may see us being more evil than Hitler, Stalin and slavers because we made species after species extinct, unbalanced the environment, extracted the wealth of the many for the pleasure of the few, poisoned the oceans and air, and killed everything that ran, swam, flew, crawled, slithered, or hopped for food and sport.

Future generations will despise us for our hubris in believing we’re the crown of creation when they think we’re the cancer that killed the Earth.

Billions believe they will find heaven when they die, not knowing this world is the heaven of the universe, and we destroyed it.

JWH – 8/8/14