Everyone on the Raft is Imperiled: A Call for Cooperative Adaptation

Much of the success of mankind is the direct result of unsustainable resource extraction. How and when we deal with impending scarcity will likely determine our ‘fitness’ as a species.

| May 2015

As a species, we fuel our achievements with natural resources created in the distant past, while leaving the repercussions of their use to the implied ingenuity of future generations. Looking at these issues through the lens of population ecology, economics, conservation biology, and evolutionary theory, we are headed for decisive and interesting times. From the inevitability and desirability of more locally organized economies, to the urgent need to preserve our recent cultural achievements, and the futility of pursuing economic growth above all, Afterburn by Richard Heinberg (New Society Publishers, 2015), offers cutting-edge perspectives and insights that challenge conventional thinking about our present, our future, and the choices in our hands.

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Our Cooperative Darwinian Moment

Evolution can be ruthless at eliminating the unfit. “Red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson memorably described it, Nature routinely sacrifices billions of individual organisms and sometimes entire species in the course of its adaptive progression.

We humans have been able to blunt Nature’s fangs. We take care of individuals who would not be able to survive on their own — the elderly, the sick, the wounded — and we’ve been doing so for a long time, perhaps tens of thousands of years. In recent decades more and more of us have leapt aboard the raft of socially ensured survival — though in ways that often have little to do with compassion: today even most hale and hearty individuals would be hard pressed to stay alive for more than a few days or weeks if cut adrift from supermarkets, ATMs, and the rest of the infrastructure of modern hyper-industrialism.



This strategy of expanding our collective fitness has (at least temporarily) paid off: the consequent reduction in our death rate has resulted in a 700-percent expansion of human population in just the past two centuries and a current population growth rate of about 80 million per year (births in excess of deaths). Humans are everywhere taking carrying capacity away from most other organisms, except ones that directly serve us such as maize and cattle. We have become expert at cooperatively avoiding nature’s culling, and thus at partially (and, again, temporarily) defeating natural selection — at least, in the way it applies to other species.

Some argue that “natural selection” is at work within human society whenever clever and hardworking folks get ahead while lazy dullards lag behind. The philosophy of Social Darwinism holds that this kind of competitive selection improves the species. But critics point out that individual success within society can be maladaptive for society as a whole because if wealth becomes too unequally distributed, social stability is threatened. Such concerns have led most nations to artificially limit competitive selection at the societal level: in the United States, these limits take the forms of progressive income tax, Social Security, food stamps, disability payments, Medicaid, and Aid for Dependent Children, among others. Even most self-described “conservatives” who think that government shouldn’t prevent society’s winners from taking all still think it’s good for churches to give to the needy.