Climate Change as an Animal Behavior Experiment

I find climate change endlessly fascinating. It precipitates a speeding up of so many fundamental processes – meteorology, evolution, geology, and ecosystem progression, to name the first few that come to mind. It’s also a huge-scale experiment on animal behavior, and I’m not just talking about polar bears here, people. I’m talking about homo sapiens: you and me. Questions that are normally philosophical, such as whether or not we as a species are truly as adaptable and intelligent as we suppose we are, are about to be measured quantitatively in upcoming decades and generations.

If you’ve never taken a basic animal behavior course, I highly recommend it as one of the most interesting classes I’ve ever had. It explains many simple things such as why one may have an uncontrollable urge for spices, sugar or alcohol, why one may not ever want to eat chicken again after a bad night at KFC, and why one may lean towards altruism. It draws so many parallels between the behavior of humans and the behavior of birds and toads and monkeys that you may not feel so species-superior at the end of it, because we are all subject to the same processes. Bottom line, we evolved to do what we do for a reason, and that reason is somewhere in history this habit was vital for either the survival of ourselves, our offspring, or our community.

To supplement this, there is a basic concept in ecosystem studies called the Tragedy of the Commons. This is not a concept that lends itself to quick explanations, but the crux of it is that people have no meaningful incentive to use less resources now in order to ensure that those resources will be around later. Survival and social mechanisms kick in, and people will over consume, even knowing the consequences. You can Google it for details.

Basically, there are very sound psychological and biological mechanisms hard-wired into humans as a species that has led us to over-consume our planet.   Burning fossil fuels, over-producing agricultural lands, and having multiple babies does not make us evil. Our oft-times destructive and selfish lifestyles aren’t a symptom of stupidity. They’re a symptom of being alive, of being one more creature on the planet competing to survive. We have become like this because it has allowed us to prosper more easily as a species.  You can only accept so much guilt for being a “victim” of nature. The catch is that we are a species like no other... a highly creative, highly intelligent species that finds it easier to adapt the world to itself rather than adapt itself to the world; a species with no boundaries across the globe. Our food, our products, our people, our pollution – we share with all the world in a big way.

So now that we know that our actions are unsustainable stressors on our environment and lifestyles, the question that really matters is: Are we strong enough as a species to make major changes that go against our evolution? Can we fundamentally change our nature to care for the Commons together? It’s the brain versus evolution. Collective will power versus science.

The processes of nature will go on, with or without us. “Without us” is a point in the distant future, but we are intelligent enough to look that far ahead, find potential threats to our species, and act to postpone extinction. The scenario of climate change gives us few possible outcomes. We can keep going as we are until we are no longer able, then adapt quickly enough to survive in a changed world. We can keep going as we are without adaptation, and possibly lose our foothold in the ecosystem altogether (that’s death, folks). We can make a half hearted effort, slow down the change, and still find ourselves faced with adaptation or extinction on some future date. Or we can all act together as one to make a change large enough to repair the damage and maintain our lifestyles indefinitely. Whatever the outcome, it will be an interesting road. My inquiring mind is a bit sad that I may be dead of old age before the answer becomes evident, but only time will tell.


Wonkadelica said...

Does animal behavior have anything to say about religion? That seems to be the greatest threat to all life on earth. The rise of religious fundamentalism in politics is highly correlated to the decline in proficiency in math and science. The science is clear about what is happening with climate and what ought to be done to try and counteract it at least, but the politics of religion keeps blocking it.

I have a neighbor who refuses to recycle because he thinks it takes jobs away from resource extraction. He also says worrying about the environment is stupid because the earth is going to be destroyed soon anyways when we collide with another galaxy. He saw a graphic animation of how two galaxies collide on a PBS show and thought he was seeing it in real time. He had no idea how far away they are and that it happens over hundreds of millions of years. That part went over his head. His wife is taking classes at OCCC preparing to major in astronomy at OU. They are not particularly religious, but are the product of a culture obsessed with religion.

The Abrahamic religions have one belief in common – that a global apocalypse is inevitable and that it will be good for them, but bad for all the others. The funny thing is, religion fundamentalists will likely cause a catastrophic population control they refuse to practice it voluntarily.

Alien Mind Girl said...

Religion's effect is a philosophical matter that could be argued endlessly, and a quagmire that I'd rather not delve into deeply. I do think it would be unfair and possibly unwise to place entire blame on the shoulders of any religion or group of religions.