Friday, 27 July 2012

Using up the Planet

Over the past few months I’ve been working my way – very pleasurably I may add – through the novels of the Master and Commander or Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien. For those who do not know them – and I cannot recommend them highly enough – the books tell of the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his friend, the doctor Stephen Maturin, during the Napoleonic Wars.

In twenty books, published over thirty years up to 1999, O’Brien immerses us completely in the world of 200 years ago, a literary and historical tour de force, which critics have favourably compared with the works of C.S. Forester, Anthony Trollope and, above all, Jane Austin, all the more remarkable for the fact that he was writing at the end of the 20th Century. While there are all sorts of themes in the novels about which I could comment here, I was struck today by an aspect which, while mostly incidental to the development of plots and characters, provides a major contrast to our contemporary world.

Stephen Maturin, a well educated and highly intelligent man, is typical of a particular kind of character of that era in which the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were spreading throughout the world; the polyglot who is interested in almost everything. His major hobby is one which he describes as that of a “naturalist” or, occasionally, a “natural philosopher,” someone who occupies himself with the scientific discovery, observation and cataloguing of all sorts of living things (his primary area of interest is birds, but he by no means limits himself to the area of ornithology, naming a new species of turtle which he discovers after his friend, Aubrey, and regularly collecting interesting specimens of beetle for his friend and espionage boss, Sir Joseph Blaine). In the course of the books, Maturin regularly takes advantages of his world-spanning voyages with Aubrey to observe all kinds of birds and animals, going into raptures, for example, at his first sight of an albatross and frequently having to bargain with the captain – whose primary concern is the pursuit of his various naval orders – to obtain the opportunity to observe the local fauna in the many parts of the world they visit.

The impression one gets from O’Brien’s descriptions of Maturin’s naturalist activities is one, above all, of burgeoning abundance. So much of the world is still undiscovered, uncatalogued and, even in many of the regions where people are present, most of the birds and animals are largely unimpinged upon by humans. Even in those areas where men are making a living from the hunting of animals – the activities of whalers, particularly those from New England, play a role in a number of the books – the profligate abundance of nature is so great that it seems unimaginable that the activities of humans could ever make a real dent in it.

Well, not quite unimaginable. The Dodo of Mauritius had been rendered extinct by the end of the 17th Century, a fact of which Stephen Maturin is aware. He is also aware of the encroachment of human beings on the habitats of various other creatures, thus making it at first difficult for him to catch a glimpse of the platypus in New South Wales. But around 1812, the planet still seems to be so huge – even if the seafaring adventures of Aubrey and Maturin send them extensively travelling around it, including a circumnavigation – and so teeming with life, that the possibility of humanity significantly damaging it would hardly have occurred to anyone.

A month ago, Lonesome George, the last remaining representative of one of the subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise, died. Aubrey and Maturin visited the Galapagos on one of their voyages – the visit forms part of the 2003 film of some of their adventures, Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. Given the longevity of the animals, it is possible that some of thousands of tortoises which they saw there were parents of the far fewer representatives alive today.

Although the world described in O’Brien’s novels is so different to our own, it is not really all that long ago. I’ve described a thought experiment here and it’s worth repeating at this point. Imagine that when you were a baby, a very old person (maybe a neighbour or a relative), over ninety years old, came to visit you and caressed you on the head. Now imagine that that person also had the same experience as a baby, being personally “blessed” by the oldest person in their neighbourhood. If you are over twenty years old today, then that old man or woman was already alive by the time Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo.

In that short period, less than the span of three human lives, the world population has grown from around one billion to seven billion people. And those seven million are claiming more and more of the room and resources of the planet for their own exclusive use.

There’s nothing special about this – it’s a basic characteristic of all life forms to exploit their environment to best suit themselves, usually regardless of the consequences, even the consequences for themselves. Any biosphere is in a state of continuously changing dynamic stability, a stability which is always fragile. Balance is always an interplay of a myriad of complex factors and relationships and is always subject to change. In a way, it’s like riding a bike; balance is only possible when there is movement, change.

But generally (and there are always exceptions of sudden, usually catastrophic change) alteration takes place slowly, over hundreds, thousands, millions of years. Against this background evolution unfolds.

Enter human beings. Like no other animal, we are always in a hurry. And we are endlessly, frequently for other species fatally, adaptable. We think, we learn, we plan, and change our behaviour within single generations.

Let’s be clear about this; this is not a modern phenomenon. By the time Europeans were starting to settle Australia (the era of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin) their aboriginal predecessors, arriving on the continent around 50,000 years earlier, had quickly wiped out all the large herbivore animals, and consequently the large carnivores which had preyed on them (megafauna). The same thing happened in North America, leaving only some wolves, bears and the bison around 15,000 years ago, and – most recently – in New Zealand only 700 years ago. That such major extinction events were less common in Eurasia and, above all, Africa, is most probably due to the fact that these were the parts of the world where humans first evolved and developed and thus other large animals had the necessary time to achieve a kind of modus vivendi with the strange non-conforming naked ape.

Haast's Eagle attacking Moas
Nonetheless, as catastrophic as these human settlements were for megafauna species like the giant wombat (diprotodon), the American lion, the sabre-toothed tiger (smilodon), the moa or Haast’s eagle, humans managed to settle into their biospheres in Australia and the Americas – having basically taken over the position at the top of the food-chain. But even within such systems, small new impetuses could lead to massive change. Thus, the reintroduction of the horse (one of those megafauna species wiped out by the first human waves of settlement around 12,000 years ago) into North America by the Spaniards gave rise to the great Plains Indian societies (Apache, Navaho, Comanche, Sioux, etc.) from the end of the 16th Century onwards.

But it was the spread of Europeans in the past five hundred years, driven by a new nexus of ideas and their results, like an aggressively missionary religion, Enlightenment ideas and the mind-set of the ongoing Scientific Revolution, which moved change and the rate of change onto a whole new level. By the beginning of the 19th Century this was really beginning to gather momentum and since then it has simply exploded.

“Increase and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it …” (Genesis 1:28) Well, we’ve certainly done that. The question is whether we haven’t overdone it a bit. The whalers Aubrey and Maturin encountered in their voyagers have largely disappeared – because nearly all the whales have been killed off. The oceans from which the crew of the frigate Surprise regularly fished myriads of anchovies, mackerel or tuna, and which even in my childhood (less than half a century ago) were deemed to be endlessly bountiful are now in danger – in large areas – of being fished out. Just ask the (former) cod fishers of the Newfoundland Grand Banks. And there are many other more complex chain reactions which can also be observed; anyone has gone swimming in or walking on the beaches of the Western Mediterranean in recent years will have noticed the explosive increase in the number of jellyfish … because we have killed off too many of the larger fish which prey on them. Remove one component of a food chain and you can cause all sorts or cascades of change, many of them unforeseeable, and the ecological effects can be colossal. It was rats, who travelled with the first Maoris to New Zealand and who preyed on the eggs of the flightless moas, which were as much responsible for their extinction as their hunting by humans. Rabbits in Australia. More aggressive American grey squirrels driving out the more timid native red varieties in the British Isles. There are countless examples of such unintended consequences and many of them lead to the extinction of species. Some experts predict that the number of existing species on the planet may have been halved by the end of this century.

So what? We need the room and what does it really matter if the final lesser spotted humpbacked toad croaks his last? The law of evolution is the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest and if humans are the meanest, baddest sons of bitches in the valley of death, well, then, that’s just too tough for the others.

Except that the rules of evolution say nothing about the survival of the winners. Any species is faced with the continual danger that it will become too successful, that it will wipe out all its competitors, neutralise all who would prey on it and thus reproduce until it finishes up destroying the biosphere on which it is dependant. It’s always a danger in any closed system.

We humans have spread all over the planet and, large and complex though it may be, Planet Earth itself is a closed system. The signs are increasing that we are causing rising stress for the planetary eco-system itself. Like an organism with a bacterial infection, we are – in a real sense – giving our planet fever. Seven billion humans produce a lot of heat, particularly as our demand for energy is much higher than any other animal and, ever since we discovered fire, our basic way of producing energy is by burning stuff, and most of the energy produced this way is lost as waste heat. Moreover, from our own biological cellular energy production, to the metabolising of the billions of domestic animals we keep to feed us, to the cars that transport us and the oil-fired power stations which produce our electricity, the basic chemical reaction used to produce energy/heat is always the same. Take any variety of carbon bonded with hydrogen (carbohydrates or hydrocarbons - sugar, wood, oil, etc.), add oxygen and a spark of some kind and you get a more or less energetic reorganisation of elemental molecules to form water and carbon dioxide. It’s simple high-school chemistry and the only process working in the other direction on this planet is photosynthesis. That we are producing lots of heat and carbon-dioxide cannot be disputed, the only question that can be debated is how much of this we have to do before it reaches significant, dangerous levels.

So, as Lenin once asked, what is to be done? Wiping out 85% of the present population of the planet to return to the levels of two centuries ago isn’t really an alternative – although one of the last stages for a species which has become too successful in a closed system is the phenomenon of die-back, where, within a very short period of time, most representatives of the species simply succumb to the consequences of overcrowding and too few resources, The result is either, in the best case, the achievement of a new equilibrium with only a tiny fraction of the species or, at worst, a situation in which this fraction is so small that it is no longer viable and becomes extinct.

But, unlike lemmings, we humans have the value of our intelligence, our ability to plan and anticipate our future. We cannot bring back all the species we have managed to inadvertently kill off, but we can modify our behaviour so as to develop new ways of living on our planet in the future. However, this means changing some of our most basic attitudes. Above all, I believe, we need to look very critically at the whole idea of growth, which is at the basis of the economic and societal models we follow. In the world of Aubrey and Maturin, when the world seemed so huge and so bountiful, there was no need to question it, but today, when the reality of the finite capacities of our planet, large though they may be, is becoming more evident, it will soon become unavoidable. To believe that we can go on growing indefinitely within a finite system is fundamentally illogical.

This does not mean that we must condemn ourselves or our children to restrictive, soul-destroying poverty. A good start, in my view, would be to apply our intelligence, ingenuity and imagination to examining the possibilities involved in the idea of sufficiency.

We don’t really have any other alternatives.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Inversnaid, Gerald Manley Hopkins


Pictures retrieved from


  1. The character of Maturin seems to be inspired by Darwin in his Voyage of the Beagle or an amalgam of Darwin and Captain Fitz Roy. The rest of your essay seems to reflect The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by James Lovelock, who concludes that homo sapiens will be greatly reduced in numbers; and that instead of foolishness like wind farms, we should concentrate as you say on sufficiency and in particular on self-sufficiency. The British Isles, he says, is one of the places which will remain habitable after other continents have become too hot and dry, and low-lying land has been swamped by rising sea-levels. Even more refugees will come, but the land won't support them all.

  2. I love the Aubrey Maturin books definitely the finest works of historical fiction ever written, even if a huge story arc takes place outside of normal time needing two or three extra 1813s to deal with in everything from Desolation Island to the Wine Dark Sea. Still they are books I can read over and over again.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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