THE STORY OF LIFE AND THE FUTURE OF CIVILISATION
THE STORY OF LIFE AND THE FUTURE OF CIVILISATION
The story of life on Earth and of human civilisation as part of this story is of overarching significance for every one of us – and for society as a whole. Yet it is known and understood by only a very small section of the human community. If this story were embraced by the dominant cultures of the world the prospects for the future of humankind would be greatly improved. We refer to the understanding of this story as biounderstanding.
Biounderstanding at the core of our culture would:
- Remind us all that we are living beings, products of biological evolution and totally dependent on the processes of life within us and around us for our wellbeing and very existence. Keeping these processes healthy must be our first priority because everything else depends on them.
- Lead to universal awareness that human activities are now on a scale and of a kind that result in widespread damage to the ecosystems of our planet, and that if they continue unabated the collapse of civilisation is inevitable.
- Lead to a shared vision of a society of the future that is truly in tune with, sensitive to and respectful of the processes of life - a society that promotes health and wellbeing in all sections of the human community and in the ecosystems of the biosphere. We call this biosensitive society.
The cultures which are driving human expansion across the globe have lost sight of our total dependence on the life processes which underpin our existence, and they have no grasp of the scale, nature and seriousness of the current impacts of human society on the living systems which support us. They effectively block any meaningful move towards biosensitivity.
There will be no effective transition to a biosensitive society unless these cultures undergo a radical transformation based on understanding the story of life and the human place in nature. If this comes about, the achievement of biosensitivity will be seen as a prime aim of society; and the health of the living systems on which we depend will be top of the agenda in policy formulation and decision making at all social levels.
Whether or not civilisation survives the next hundred years will depend on whether the world’s cultural systems come to embrace biounderstanding and take necessary action in time to avert ecological collapse.
By far the most urgent and critical challenge at the present time is therefore to spread biounderstanding across human communities worldwide as rapidly as possible.
The first part this review is a very short version of the story of life on Earth and of humans and their civilisation as a highly significant part of this story. This story is of overarching significance for every one of us and for society as a whole. Yet it is understood by only a small section of the community.
Why is this story of such great significance? Here, very briefly, are just some of the reasons.
- It conveys a sense of perspective crucial for understanding the true nature of the human situation on Earth today.
- It tells about the history of life on Earth and about the coming and going, especially over the past 600 million years, of myriads of life forms, leading to the rich network of interacting and interdependent living organisms that make up our world today.
- It tells us about the underlying ecological and physiological processes on which all life and human civilisation depend.
- It tells us about the evolutionary emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens, some 200,000 years ago.
- It shows how human culture – that is, the shared knowledge, beliefs, assumptions and priorities of human societies − has emerged as a powerful new force in the biosphere.
- It tells us that the recent massive growth of the human population and intensification of resources and energy use and waste production by humankind are unsustainable ecologically. If present trends continue unabated the collapse of civilisation is inevitable.
- It can generate a vision of a society of the future that is truly in tune with, sensitive to and respectful of the life processes on which we depend – a society that satisfies the health needs of the ecosystems of the biosphere as well as those of all sections of the human population. We call this a biosensitive society.
- It ends with the conclusion that the survival of our civilisation will depend on radical changes in the worldviews and priorities of the dominant cultures across the globe.
We believe that if this story were at the core of the world’s cultural systems the prospects for the future of humankind would be greatly improved. We refer to the understanding of this story as biounderstanding.
The second part of the review is a brief discussion on some of the essential biophysical and cultural characteristics of a possible biosensitive society of the future.
THE STORY OF LIFE UP TO THE PRESENT
A very short version of the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature
Our planet is about 4.6 billion years old. The Sun provides it with a constant supply of energy – in the form of rays of visible light and ultraviolet and infrared radiation.
The earliest living organisms, single-celled bacteria, are believed to have been in existence 4,000 million years ago. By 2800 million years ago there were microbes capable of capturing light energy from the Sun and converting it into energy-rich carbohydrate molecules through the process of photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis resulted in the release of oxygen into the atmosphere − and this eventually made it possible for oxygen-dependent species like ourselves to come into existence. And some of this oxygen became converted to ozone, which formed a layer in the stratosphere where it acted as a filter, protecting the Earth’s surface from life-damaging ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.
The first multicellular organisms that would have been visible to the naked eye came into being around 700 million years ago. Some were soft-bodied and flat and others were tubular. Around 100 million years later these had been replaced by sponges, jellyfish corals, worms, molluscs, sea urchins, starfish, and trilobites. The first animals with an internal supporting structure or backbone were in existence by 500 million years ago. ‘True fishes’ were emerging 400 million years ago.
So far, all this had been happening in pools, ponds, lakes and the oceans. But then, around 400 million years ago some life forms invaded the land. Great forests spread across the terrain and countless species of insects, reptiles and other animals came into existence. Two hundred million years ago many kinds of dinosaurs, large and small, roamed the landscape and already some mammals had come into being, including a creature that looked very like the present-day echidna.
During the history of life there have been a number of mass extinctions, the most severe of which occurred around 250 million years ago. More than 90 per cent of species were wiped out. Sixty five million years ago a mass extinction brought an end to many forms of life, including all the dinosaurs and flying reptiles. Since then there has been a great diversification of birds, mammals and flowering plants.
There are thought to be some 7 to 15 million different species of living organisms on Earth today.
Interdependencies in the living world
Animal and plant life on Earth today depends on a constant flow of energy through the system. Initially light energy from the sun is trapped in green plants (including green algae and cyanobacteria) through photosynthesis, and is converted to chemical energy in the form of complex organic molecules. It is then used for life processes in the plants themselves and in animals and decomposing organisms. It is eventually returned to the environment in the form of heat. Our existence and that of all other animals is thus entirely dependent on the growth of green plants, which are also the source of oxygen in the atmosphere.
Another essential characteristic of life on Earth is the cycling of the nutrients, like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium and many others, which are taken up from the environment and built into the tissues of plants and then passed on to animals and decomposers, and eventually returned again to the environment to become available for incorporation into new life. These nutrient cycles are essential for the sustainability of life and therefore for the survival of civilisation.
The organic content of soil is essential for maintaining soil fertility. It consists of decomposing plant and animal matter as well as a profusion of different kinds of living organisms.
Watersheds in biological evolution
The evolution of life on Earth has been marked by a series of highly significant watersheds, each of which changed the living world for ever.
Especially important among these watersheds were the development of photosynthesis, the appearance of cells with nuclei, the development of multicellularity and the invasion of land by living organisms.
The most recent crucial watershed in biological evolution was the emergence of the human capacity for language and culture. Human culture eventually developed into a new and extremely powerful force in the biosphere – with far-reaching ecological consequences.
The evolutionary emergence of humankind
At the time when the dinosaurs disappeared about 65 million years ago there was a small group of shrew-like primates living in trees. Among them were the ancestors of humankind.
By 6 million years ago some much larger primates had come down from the trees and were walking with an upright posture. 2 million years ago there were primates in the African savannah who were making and using stone tools. They are classified scientifically as Homo habilis.
People with the physical characteristics of modern humans and classified as Homo sapiens were in existence in Africa 200 000 years ago. By 60 000 years ago some of them had reached Australia, and around 45 000 years ago they displaced another human species, Homo neanderthalensis, in Europe.
Homo sapiens thus evolved as an omnivorous animal adapted genetically to the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers. There have been too few generations for major genetic change rendering the species genetically adapted to the conditions of life of city dwellers in the modern world. We are still essentially the same animal as our pre-farming ancestors of, say, 15 000 years ago, with the same innate health needs and behavioural characteristics. This fact has great relevance to our personal lifestyle options and to public health policies and urban planning.
The most distinctive biological attribute of humans is their ability to invent and memorise a symbolic spoken language, and to use this language to communicate among themselves. This aptitude for language led to the accumulation of shared knowledge, beliefs and attitudes in human groups. That is, it led to human culture. Humans are also adept at inventing and applying new technologies, and knowledge of these technologies is a crucial component of culture.
Human culture eventually developed as a new kind of force in the biosphere. Through its influence on human behaviour it has brought about profound changes not only in human experience but also in the natural environment
Watersheds in cultural evolution
Cultural evolution, like biological evolution, has been marked by a series of watersheds, each of which ushered in a new ecological phase of human existence.
The first of these cultural watersheds was the shared knowledge of how to make use of − and, up to a point − control fire. The deliberate and regular use of fire was an important feature of ecological phase 1 of the history of our species, the Hunter-gatherer Phase. This lasted for around 8000 generations. During this time Homo sapiens spread from Africa, and by 11,000 years ago, possibly much earlier, humans had reached all five habitable continents.
The second crucial watershed was the advent of farming. It led to ecological Phase 2, the Early farming Phase, which began around 480 generations ago. This was indeed a turning point in cultural evolution. Without it, the spectacular developments in human history since that time would not have been possible.
The third crucial watershed in cultural evolution was the advent of urbanisation – beginning around 300 generations ago – but really getting underway about 250 generations ago when fully fledged cities with populations of tens of thousands were in existence in Mesopotamia. And there were cities with populations of a few thousand in Peru at this time. This was the beginning of ecological Phase 3 – the Early Urban Phase. For the first time in human history very large numbers of people were separated from the natural environment and played no role in the acquisition of food and urban cultures evolved that regarded the natural world as alien and threatening.
The ecology of these urban dwellers was very different from that of hunter-gatherers or early farmers
The fourth cultural watershed consisted of the philosophical movement referred to, misguidedly, as the Enlightenment, and the subsequent Industrial Revolution. We say misguidedly because a more appropriate term would be Partial Enlightenment. Its great weakness lay in its association with the idea that nature is out there to be conquered.
This fourth cultural watershed led to ecological Phase 4, the High Consumption Phase. Ecological Phase 4 has recently been referred to as the Anthropocene.
The following developments have been especially significant ecologically:
− The introduction of machines that use extrasomatic energy, mainly from fossil fuels, for performing various kinds of work.
− The discovery and application of electricity, radio waves and radioactivity.
− The spectacular growth of the chemical industry.
− The invention and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.
− Advances in the health sciences, including vaccination and antibiotics.
The High Consumption Phase of human history has been characterised by profound changes in the ecological relationships between human populations and the rest of the biosphere.
The chief biological advantage of the capacity for culture in the evolutionary environment probably lay in its role in the exchange and storage of useful information about the environment. This information was not only communicated within groups, but was also passed on to members of subsequent generations, increasing the likelihood of their survival and successful reproduction.
Apart from its practical advantages, culture adds richness to human experience. It did so in the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – as in storytelling, musical traditions, dancing, rock painting and other forms of artistic expression. It does so today in so many ways. Culture makes a huge contribution to the sheer enjoyment of life.
However there is another side to the picture. The consequences of our capacity for culture are not all good. Cultures often come to embrace not only factual information of good practical value, but also ideas and assumptions that are sheer nonsense. Sometimes these cultural delusions result in activities that cause a great deal of unnecessary human distress, or damage to ecosystems, or both. Culturally inspired activities with these characteristics are referred to as cultural maladaptations.
There are countless examples of cultural maladaptation in human history. A particularly tragic case was the ancient Chinese custom of foot-binding, which prevented the normal growth of the feet of young girls and caused them excruciating pain. This practice well illustrates the propensity of culture to influence people’s mind-sets in ways that result in activities that are not only nonsensical in the extreme, but also sometimes very cruel and destructive and contrary to nature. This particular cultural maladaptation was mutely accepted by the mass of the Chinese population for forty or more generations.
Other examples of cultural maladaptation from the past include the ecological collapse of the population of Easter Island and the insane religious feuds within the Christian Church a few hundred years ago that led to so much unnecessary bloodshed and human distress.
Fortunately, humans have the ability, through their capacity for culture itself, to bring culture back on track when it goes off the rails. Nowadays when societies come to perceive the biological or social consequences of culturally-inspired activities as undesirable a period of discussion and debate ensues about the causes of the problem and possible remedies. Eventually new understanding can bring about modifications in cultural assumptions and priorities, leading to appropriate changes in human activities. This societal process is referred to as cultural reform.
Cultural reform is often quite complicated, involving prolonged interactions between different interest groups in society. A key role is often played initially by minority groups, occasionally by single individuals, who start the ball rolling by drawing attention to an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Almost invariably the reformers are promptly contradicted by others, the counter-reformers, who set out to block or slow down the reform process. This predictable backlash often involves, but is not restricted to, representatives of vested interests who believe that the proposed reforms will be to their disadvantage. They are likely to argue that the problem does not exist or that it has been has been grossly exaggerated, and they attempt to ridicule the reformers by calling them alarmists, fanatics, scaremongers and prophets of doom. Nowadays some of the counter-reform forces are extremely powerful.
Eventually, if the reform process is successful, a change comes about in the dominant culture leading to the necessary changes in human activities.
Ecological Phase 4 will soon come to an end
Cultural maladaptations in the modern world are manifold. They range from activities adversely affecting human health, like the widespread practice of smoking tobacco, to activities that threaten the future of civilisation, such as the use of fossil fuels as an energy source.
There are now about 1500 times as many people alive as there were when farming began. 80% of this increase has occurred in the past 100 years. This is putting immense pressures on the food producing ecosystems of our planet.
Not only are there 1500 times as many humans in existence, but these people are using vastly more resources and energy per capita than were their pre-farming ancestors. The human species as a whole is now using about 20,000 times as much energy every day as was the case when farming began (Box 1). This is equivalent to the difference in weight between a small apple and a couple of tonnes of bricks. Well over 90% of this increase has occurred in the past 100 years.
The human population worldwide is now responsible for the emission of about 9000 times as much carbon dioxide as was the case when farming began. Again more than 90% of the increase has been in the last 100 years.
Anthropogenic climate change due increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation is at present the most critical ecological issue (Appendix 1). Its effects will be disastrous for humanity if the governments of the world do not introduce counter measures on a massive scale very soon.
Predictably, the scientists who are alerting us to this danger are contradicted by counter-reformers – the so-called climate change deniers.
However, there are many other serious ecological threats to sustainability (Box 2).
We don’t have to be ecologists to appreciate that the living systems of our planet which support humankind will not be able to tolerate this onslaught for ever. Humans are overstepping the mark in a big way. If present trends continue unabated the collapse of civilisation is inevitable. The days of ecological Phase 4 are numbered.
The most disturbing feature of the present situation is the fact that the dominant cultures of the world are blissfully unaware of these ecological realities. These cultures incorporate powerful delusions that are completely incompatible with the achievement of ecological sustainability and therefore the survival of civilisation. They have lost sight of our total dependence on the life processes that underpin our existence, and they have no grasp of the magnitude and seriousness of current human impacts on the ecosystems of our planet.
Hope for the future
So it is clear that the best hope for humankind lies in the possibility of a fifth watershed in cultural evolution – leading to an ecological Phase 5 – a Biosensitive Phase based on understanding the human place in nature and resulting in societies that are truly in tune with, sensitive to and respectful of the processes of life (Box 3).
Faster! Faster! Faster!
Energy use by humankind
The following analogy brings home the massive scale and recent intensification of human activities on Earth.
Let us suppose that farming began 12 hours ago (rather than 12,000 years ago), and that at that time humans jumped into a vehicle they had invented. The speed of this vehicle is proportional to the total amount of energy used each day by humankind. Energy use is a reasonable indicator of the scale and intensity of human activities on our planet.
This vehicle, then, set off at a speed of 1 km per hour 12 hours ago.
- 4 hours ago it had picked up speed and was travelling at 30 km/hr
- 1 hour ago it was going at 100 km/hr
- 15 minutes ago at 350 km/hr
- 6 minutes ago at 1000 km/hr
- 3 minutes ago at 3000 km/hr
- It is now travelling at around 20 000 km/hr
Visibility is not good − and we, the passengers, don’t have a clear view of where we are going. But among us there are some scientists who have made a study of the environment, and they are warning that we are heading for a precipice. They are shouting out to us to slam on the brakes and change direction.
But most of us, especially those in charge, are hell bent on making our vehicle to go faster than ever.
SOME SERIOUS SIGNS OF CULTURAL MALADAPTATION IN THE MODERN WORLD
WATERSHEDS IN CULTURAL EVOLUTION
Use and control of fire
Ecological Phase 1
Ecological Phase 2
Ecological Phase 3
Ecological Phase 4
Leading to the collapse of civilisation, with great loss of life – Unless
? New Enlightenment ?
? Ecological Phase 5 ?
Based on understanding the human place in nature
In tune with, sensitive to and respectful of the processes of life
A BIOSENSITIVE SOCIETY
A fifth cultural watershed
The best hope for the future of humankind lies in a fifth cultural watershed leading to an ecological Phase 5 of human history – a Biosensitive Phase. This phase would be founded on a fundamental understanding of the living world and the human place in nature and would be truly in tune with, sensitive to, and respectful of the processes of life (Box 4).
In a biosensitive society all human activities would be in tune with our own biology and with the living environment (Figure 1). Prevailing conditions and people’s lifestyles would:
− Promote health in the living systems of the natural environment on which we depend (see Appendix 2).
− Satisfy the physical and psychosocial health needs of all sections of the human population (see Appendix 3)
The transition to a biosensitive society would require sweeping changes in the intensity and nature of human activities. It would require a major scaling down of resource and energy use, the eradication of all practices and technologies that interfere with or threaten human or ecosystem health. It would also require radical changes in economic arrangements and in the occupational structure of society.
Biosensitivity would be the guiding principle in all spheres of human activity – individual and collective. It would mean biosensitive governments, biosensitive technologies, biosensitive transport systems, biosensitive industries, biosensitive farms, biosensitive forests, biosensitive cities, biosensitive buildings, biosensitive lifestyles − and a biosensitive economy.
Biosensitivity is defined as: being in tune with, sensitive to and respectful of the processes of life.
The essential characteristics of a biosensitive society
The two most basic characteristics of a truly biosensitive society will be:
(1) protection of the health needs of the ecosystems of the natural environment.
(2) satisfaction of the physical and psychosocial health needs of all sections of the human population.
All human activities (e.g. industry, transportation, farming) and all societal arrangements
The dominant culture will embrace, at its heart, an understanding of the human place in nature and a profound respect for the processes of life. Biosensitivity will be what matters most.
The concept of biosensitivity is based on:
(1) A scientific understanding of:
- The natural world and its evolutionary history, the evolution and biology of the human species, the human place in nature and the health needs and interdependencies of humans and the rest of the living world.
- Fundamental biological and ecological principles relevant to the health of humankind and of the biosphere.
(2) Appreciation that
- We humans are living beings, products and part of the processes of life and totally dependent on these processes for our very existence. We are part of, not separate from, nature.
- Human wellbeing and survival depend on the health of the ecosystems of the biosphere (the triangle of biosensitivity).
- There will be no effective transition to a biosensitive society until there come about revolutionary changes in the worldview, priorities and assumptions of the dominant cultures of human our society. That is, it will not come about until we have biosensitive dominant cultures.
The vision of a biosensitive society
Some of the most essential characteristics of a biosensitive society are listed below. This list is arranged according to the categories of variables depicted in the conceptual framework in Figure 2.
The biophysical dimension
The transition will require significant changes in human activities, as follows:
− Huge reductions in the use of fossil fuels
− Extensive forestation and reforestation and other measures worldwide to sequester atmospheric carbon
− A high proportion of energy used in society coming from clean sources (i.e. not resulting in emissions of carbon or production of dangerous radioactive by-products)
− Big changes in patterns of transportation resulting in major reduction in use of fossil fuels
− Big increases in local food production
− Farming practices which protect the health and biological integrity of soils
− The return of nutrients in organic waste to farmland
− Effective protection of biodiversity in regional ecosystems and in the oceans
− No release of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) or other harmful chemical compounds in quantities that interfere with human or ecosystem health.
People’s lifestyles will be:
− Consistent with the health needs of the living environment. There will be much less emphasis than at present on consumerism as a source of pleasure and much more on such creative activities as growing food, sport, making music and art.
− Consistent with the biological health needs of the human species (e.g. clean air and water, healthy diet, physical exercise, conviviality and sense of purpose).
Eventual adjustment of global and regional populations to levels that are ecologically sustainable.
Physical environment: e.g. water, rocks, sand, clay, the gases of the atmosphere, electromagnetic radiation.
Living environment: all living things except humans.
Artefacts: the manufactured products of human activities (e.g. buildings, works of art, machines, plastic bags).
Human population: e.g. the size, age structure and geographical distribution of the population and its health status.
Human activities: e.g. farming, manufacturing, mining, transportation, generating electricity, consuming (manufactured goods etc.),..
Dominant culture: Culture is shared information stored in human brains and transmitted through language, including knowledge of language itself, general knowledge of the environment, history, the arts and technologies, as well as religious beliefs, assumptions and priorities. A dominant culture is the culture that largely determines the patterns of human activity in a society.
Societal arrangements: e.g. the economic system, legislation, political arrangements and the institutional structure of society.
The built environment will be designed to
− minimise the use of fossil fuels and water
− minimise pollution
− maximise the use of solar power
− encourage health-promoting activities (e.g. walking, cycling, convivial social interaction)
− maximise biodiversity and opportunities for local food production
The fifth ecological phase of human history will be free of weapons of mass destruction, which at present represent a horrendous threat to humankind and the rest of the living world.
The cultural dimension
By far the most significant prerequisite for the achievement of biosensitivity will be a radical shift in the dominant cultures of the world. There will be no effective transition until these cultures come to regard biosensitivity, rather than economic growth, as the prime goal of society – reflecting the reality that civilisation is part of, and totally dependent on, the underlying processes of life. Keeping these processes healthy is what matters most because everything else depends on them. The achievement of biosensitivity will be given top priority in decision-making at all levels in society.
This cultural transformation is a precondition for all the other essential changes that will be necessary for the long term survival of civilisation. But it will not come about until these cultures come to embrace a sound understanding of the story of life on Earth and the human place in nature.
At present government policies and regulations, the economic system and the institutional structure of society are all geared to ever-increasing consumption of resources and consequently ever-increasing impact on the living world around us. They are also resulting in extreme differences in the wellbeing and material wealth of different sections of the population. Clearly these arrangements are not compatible with the transition to biosensitivity and the survival of civilisation
The achievement of the biophysical requirements for biosensitivity will therefore require big changes in societal arrangements – reflecting the new worldviews, assumptions and priorities of the dominant cultures. The achievement of these changes will require strong government action.
Biosensitivity will be top of the government’s agenda, and governments will oversee major changes in economic arrangements, replacing the current economic system with an entirely different steady state economy which
− is based on economic theory that reflects a sound understanding of the processes of life that underpin our existence and of the biological limits to human activities on Earth
− does not result in a continuously increasing rate of use of material resources and energy
− ensures the satisfaction of human needs in ways that are consistent with protecting the planet’s ecosystems.
− progressively reduces existing disparities in material wealth, health and wellbeing across human populations. 
Governments will introduce strong measure to control the corporate sector in the interests of biosensitivity.
One of the key developments will be a move to reduce the working hours of the labour force – thus diminishing the intensity of resource and energy use at the same time as minimising unemployment.
Governments will also be involved in restructuring the workforce and in the transfer of workers in occupations that have undesirable impacts on the environment to jobs that are consistent with ecological sustainability.
However, the strong government action necessary for an effective transition to a biosensitive society will not happen without the support of an informed and concerned electorate. The survival of civilisation will be dependent on a wave of new understanding of the human place in nature spreading across the whole community.
Carbon dioxide and climate change
There is general agreement about the following facts.
If it were not for certain gases occurring naturally in the atmosphere the world’s average temperature would be 33°C colder than it is. That is, it would be around minus 19°C instead of plus 14°C.
This is because these gases trap some of the infrared radiation that escapes from the Earth’s surface. This blanketing effect results in the lower layers of the atmosphere being warmer, and the upper layers colder, than if these gases were not there. This phenomenon is known as the natural greenhouse effect.
Water vapour is responsible for 80 or 90% of the natural greenhouse effect. The remainder is due to carbon dioxide, methane, and a few other minor gases.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is responsible for about 15% of the natural greenhouse effect. If it were not for the CO2 in the atmosphere the Earth’s average temperature would be 5°C cooler than it is.
For the first 200,000 years of the history of modern humans (Homo sapiens) the mixture of these natural greenhouse gases was relatively constant.
Before the industrial transition the atmosphere contained around 590 billion tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. During the past two hundred years the combustion of fossil fuels has resulted in the release of approximately 360 billion tons of carbon, and deforestation and land clearing another 159 billion tons. This has resulted in an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 292 parts per million to the current 400 parts per million.
As a consequence of this increase in atmospheric CO2 the Earth's average surface temperature has increased by about 0.8°C, with about two thirds of the increase in temperature occurring since 1980. This is known as the enhanced greenhouse effect.
Because of the complexity of the carbon cycle there are uncertainties about the precise effect that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere will have on global temperature. It cannot be assumed, for example, that doubling the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will simply double the contribution of this gas to global warming – that is from around 5°C to 10°C – an extra 5°C.
Climate scientists construct mathematical models to try to predict the degree of increase in temperature. Because of the uncertainties in the system these models come up with a variety of different results – ranging from a further increase in the 21st century of 1.1°C to an increase of 6.4°C.
There are also differences of opinion within the scientific community about the relative contributions of fossil fuel use and deforestation to the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere over the past 250 years. One view holds that most of the rise in atmospheric CO2 since 1750 has been due to the destruction of the capacity of forests and soils to take up CO2 from the atmosphere − rather than the use of fossil fuels.
The climate change deniers
As in all reform movements there is the predictable backlash from counter-reformers. In the case of climate change the counter-reformers are commonly referred to as deniers.
The main disputed issues relate to the causes of the increase in average global temperature, whether humankind is responsible for it, and what will be the likely consequences of global warming.
Growth in carbon emissions
The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the human population today is around 9000 times greater than it was when farming began some 450 generations ago, and 90% of this increase has occurred over the past 80 years. This increase is equivalent to the difference in weight between a small apple and a tonne of bricks.
Scale of deforestation
Eighty per cent of the world’s original forests have been destroyed by humankind. Recently trees were being lost in the Amazon at the rate of 2000 a minute.
Studies show that 97–98% of the most published climate researchers believe humans are causing global warming. The finding that the average global temperature has increased in recent decades as a result of human activities has been endorsed by the academies of science in all the major industrialized countries.
The carbon tax and coal exports in Australia
In 2012 the Australian Government Australia introduced a carbon tax. According to government sources this tax would reduce the annual emissions of CO2 by 159 million tonnes by 2020. At present Australia’s contribution to global CO2 emissions through the export of coal amounts to some 770 million tonnes per year – that is, well over four times its potential reduction of emissions though the carbon tax. The coal industry plans to double coal exports over the coming decade.
From these facts it would seem extremely likely that the anthropogenic increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will result in a significant increase in global temperature. If no action is taken the consequences for humanity will be very serious.
We must tackle this problem swiftly and with every possible means at our disposal – including
- forestation, reforestation and other means of carbon sequestration on a massive scale
- drastic reductions in the use of fossil fuels.
All this will require enlightened and strong government action, supported by an informed and concerned electorate.
One dot = 3.5 x 106 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year
Carbon dioxide production by the human species
THE HEALTH NEEDS OF ECOSYSTEMS
In light of our knowledge of the effects of various human activities on ecosystem health at the present time, we can put together a check list of ecosystem health needs, as follows:
- The absence of polluting gases or particles in the atmosphere which significantly disrupt natural cycles and processes and change the climate
- The absence of polluting gases or particles in the atmosphere which interfere with living processes (e.g. particulate hydrocarbons from combustion of diesel fuel, sulphur oxides)
- The absence of substances in the atmosphere (e.g. CFCs) that result in destruction of the ozone layer in the stratosphere that protects living organisms from the ultraviolet radiation from the sun
- The absence of chemical compounds in oceans, lakes, rivers and streams in concentrations harmful to living organisms (e.g. persistent organic pollutants – POPs)
- The maintenance of biodiversity in regional ecosystems (including aquatic ecosystems)
- No ionising radiation that can interfere with the normal processes of life and photosynthesis
- The absence of chemical compounds in the soil that can interfere with the normal processes of life (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals)
- Soil loss no greater than soil formation (i.e. no soil erosion)
- No increase in soil salinity
- The maintenance of the biological integrity of soil (i.e. maintaining a rich content of organic matter)
- Intact nutrient cycles in agricultural ecosystems over long periods of time (requiring return of nutrients to farmland)
HUMAN HEALTH NEEDS
Clean air (not contaminated with hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides, etc.)
A natural diet – that is: foods containing the full range of nutritional requirements, as provided by a diverse range of different plant foods and a small amount of cooked lean meat; foods devoid of noxious contaminants or additives
Clean water (free of contamination with chemicals or pathogenic organisms)
Electromagnetic radiation within the natural range
Minimal contact with parasites and pathogenic organisms
Natural contact with non-pathogenic microorganisms in the environment
Adequate protection from extremes of climate
Noise levels within the natural range
A pattern of physical exercise which involves some short periods of vigorous muscular work and longer periods of medium and varied muscular work, but also frequent periods of rest.
An emotional support network, providing a framework for care-giving and care-receiving behaviour
The experience of conviviality
Levels of sensory stimulation neither much lower nor much higher than those of the natural habitat
Variety in daily experience
Opportunities and incentives for creative behaviour and practising manual skills
Opportunities and incentives for active involvement in recreational activities (e.g. dancing, making music)
An environment and lifestyle conducive to a sense of belonging, challenge, self-fulfilment, comradeship, love, purpose and personal involvement in daily activities
An environment and lifestyle which do not promote a sense of alienation, anomie, deprivation, boredom, loneliness or chronic frustration.
 This story is sometimes referred to as the bionarrative.
 We have introduced the term ‘biosensitive’ because there is a need for a single word to describe a society that is sensitive to the health needs both of people and of the ecosystems of the natural environment. The expression ‘ecologically sustainable’ has come to be used widely in recent years. Of course, society must be ecologically sustainable – otherwise in the long term it cannot continue to exist. But ecological sustainability is surely the bottom line. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also really promotes health in the ecosystems of the biosphere and in all sections of the human population – a society based on a sound understanding the processes of life that underpin our existence. So we are using the word biosensitive for this purpose, at least until someone comes up with a better term.
 Extrasomatic energy is energy which is used outside the human body, as distinct from the somatic energy which is consumed in food and which flows through the body.
 For a detailed discussion in the context of tobacco smoking, CFCs and climate change – see Oreskes, N. and Conway, E.M. 2010. Merchants of doubt. Bloomsbury Press. New York.
 There are those who advocate replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power. It is indeed a sad situation if we have become so addicted to high levels of use of extrasomatic energy that we are forced to replace one polluting source of energy with another – and one that holds extremely high risks for humankind.
 See, for example, Daly, Herman (Lead Author); Robert Costanza (Topic Editor). 2009. "From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady-State Economy." In Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [Published in the Encyclopedia of Earth 5 June 2009]; Retrieved 17 August 2009].
 This list is based on the evolutionary health principle and our knowledge of the conditions of life of hunter-gatherers (Boyden, S. 2004, The biology of civilisation: understanding human culture as a force in nature. UNSW Press. Sydney).