Will Real Sustainability Require Symbiosis?


For around 150,000 years humanity lived in relative harmony with nature. That would seem obvious, as we were an integral part of nature, as much as any other species.  Now, however, we have elevated ourselves above other species in our ability to change and control our environment, but our ability to understand our surroundings has lagged behind and the short-sightedness of humans is visible all around us.  How long can we continue in this direction?Fossil fuels will not last forever, yet we burn them off at ever faster rates and have made our agriculture extremely dependent on them.  While some of us look to nuclear power to supplant the fossil fuels that are sending CO2 levels soaring and threatening our environment, it has its own problems in high startup costs and incredibly long-lived toxic waste.  Alternative energies are still only able to provide perhaps 5% of the energy use of the average person in the developed world, and the rest of the world’s citizens are catching up fast and causing demand to rise at an ever-increasing rate.

We’ve come a long way away from where we started, and a long way from sustainability. We are certainly no longer living in harmony with the rest of the life forms on the planet.  Without fusion power or some as-yet unknown source of energy, and when fossil fuels run out, we will have to make our way back to harmony with mother nature as quickly as possible, possibly shedding the majority of our numbers in the process in what could be a very tough time.  So what is the end of this process and what will sustainability look like when we get back to it?

Renewable energy sources can only cover about an eighth to a sixteenth of the energy requirements of the average North American home. We openly waste virtually every resource at our disposal on frivolous things that do nothing to reduce the human suffering in the world today, and let the waste heat beam away into space even as other byproducts threaten climate changes that could have dire consequences for us and affect all life on the planet.  While we have created much, very little of it is in harmony with the rest of nature, without which we would not exist.  Are we smart enough to see what is happening and change our ways?  Sooner or later we will, I am confident of that, but, when we do, how many humans and other species will be left on the planet?

The recently released movie “Avatar” depicts an imaginary race of sentient humanoids who have maintained harmony with nature, in some ways similar to pre-industrial human societies.  In other ways, though, it seems they could be far ahead of us, having integrated key concepts from technology like long distance communication systems into nature itself.  Can we genetically engineer trees to grow into houses and other shelter, with plumbing and wiring included?  The answer is probably not whether we can, but when.  We are already engineering microorganisms for a variety of uses, but it’s clear we can reach much higher levels of sophistication in biotechnology, and that might be what saves our species from extinction in the next century or two.  The more symbiotic we are with the rest of nature, the safer we may be from our own wasteful habits.

Space travel and other pursuits with extremely high energy demands may have to be put on hold for decades due to rising energy costs and economic turmoil.  Can we engineer biological systems to put people into orbit, as opposed to burning millions of gallons of fossil fuels to get there?  We may be confined to our planet for a century or two after fossil fuel supplies run down, but I am confident we will find a way to travel in space at some point in the future, and probably much more efficiently and quickly than today.  I am only sad that it is unlikely that I will live to see it.

The research of today will provide us the world of tomorrow. While I can’t expect to see the world as I dream of it, I can at least keep telling my elected and corporate representatives of my desire for more funding for biotechnology research that will move us back towards harmony with nature instead of away from it in what appears a self-destructive direction.  Join me in asking for more biotechnology research, and we have a better chance of providing a good future for our descendants.

As always, I welcome your comments.  – Tim

Interesting reading:

The Faster We Live, The Shorter We Seem To Be On Time, Michael C. Kalton, http://www.npr.org

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2 responses to “Will Real Sustainability Require Symbiosis?

  1. For around 150,000 years humanity lived in relative harmony with nature.

    Slash and burn agriculture. Marauding tribes. Short lives. Sounds delightful.

    And a return to that? Well the rich will survive and the poor will die.

    Harmony with nature sounds very enticing. After a few years of mass murder things will be just fine. Why mass murder? Because people will not just quietly die. I do look forward to the snazzy uniforms.

    Me? I prefer Polywell Fusion. Currently funded by the US Navy.

  2. M. Simon – I think you are missing something here. Harmony means we weren’t destroying the environment or wiping out other species. We weren’t exhausting resources, either. Our numbers were small and controlled. I think slash and burn agriculture is a modern invention, as for most of those millenia there was no agriculture. The situation may not have been as nice for humans as it is now, but it was relatively sustainable, unlike what we’ve created in the past few centuries.

    I don’t think harmony with nature requires a return to any of that, though. It just requires that we not overpopulate the world and destroy the environment, and that we manage ourselves intelligently so we have a decent future.

    The mass murder is a result of NOT living sustainably. The “snazzy uniforms” are a result of overpopulation, not a remedy for it. That doesn’t mean what you are hinting at won’t happen again, since overcrowding is frequently what causes nations to go to war.

    One of the points I am trying to make is that fusion power or any similar technology that allows us to continue on our current track only worsens the eventual crash.

    I would love to see polywell fusion come into commercial use and make our lives better, but it won’t save anyone. Such a development will only be good for us if we accompany it with smaller families and greatly increased conservation to achieve a glide path to sustainability. I hope you will consider these things in a bit more depth.

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