Adaption is key to survival in the natural world
After a few months without rain, grass transforms from a vivid green to a murky brown, and it appears lifeless as it stops growing. If you didn’t know any better, you would imagine the grass was dying. But it’s doing anything but. In moments of crisis brought on by heatwaves and droughts, the grass adapts to conserve as much energy as possible. That ability to adapt in moments of crisis is a great metaphor for our current environmental crisis.
Imagine the grass believed itself to be above the need to adapt to the harsh dry conditions and continued to grow during a drought. If it did, it would die because it would be using its energy inefficiently to do something the conditions aren’t favouring. The grass isn’t so silly. Its success hinges on its ability to adapt to the prevailing environmental conditions. As soon as it rains again, the conditions are suitable for the grass to transform back to its distinctive green, and it begins growing again.
So what does this have to do with our current plight? Well, economic growth since the industrial revolution has led to remarkable levels of social development. That development has only been possible by utilising the energy from fossil fuels to make all of the goods and services that have come to define modern society.
We now enjoy lifestyles that are incomprehensible to our ancestors, but a terrible unintended consequence of all of this is that we have created ecological overshoot. That is, the energy needed to support civilisation exceeds the regenerative capacity of the natural world. The Earth can only be placed under so much pressure before it loses resilience and begins to change.
Wouldn’t it be great to have all the benefits of those energy inputs without the catastrophic negatives of greenhouse gas emissions? But life isn’t that simple. We are now facing a catastrophic environmental crisis; should we fail to adapt, we increase the risk of creating such destructive changes to the environment that it leads to social collapse.
So how are we reacting? By doing exactly the same thing we always have. There seems to be no need to question growth, consumption or overproduction. Rather than reducing the size of the economy so that energy inputs and our reliance on the natural world decreases, there is a belief that more economic growth is needed to solve the problem. The belief that has created the problem is felt to be crucial to solving it.
It seems like a suicidal course, but unlike the grass, which implicitly understands that its existence depends on the natural world, the human ego has developed to make us believe we are somehow above and detached from nature. The human-made ecosystem, the city, symbolises our victory over nature and our ability to control it to suit our purposes. So disconnected have we become from the natural world that it only has ‘value’ when it can be priced and sold on the market. Any contribution it makes to maintaining a healthy environment is considered irrelevant because that value has no value in the market.
We see no need to play by Earth’s rules because we believe ourselves to be in control. The reality is, just like the grass, we depend on the natural world for our existence. You may be thinking, yeah, but human civilisation is different to grass; we have the technology, and technology gets better over time. Undoubtedly, technology has become more efficient over time, and there are hopes that economic growth can be decoupled from emissions. And yet, it is our relationship and utilisation of technology that has caused the climate crisis in the first place; why do we assume that technology will be some silver bullet that will get us out of the hole we find ourselves in?
The bottom line is that we refuse to accept a simple truth. The rules that govern grass govern us, and the repercussions of our actions will be just like the grass that refuses to acknowledge that it must adapt to a changing environment. There is only one boss in the natural world, and it certainly isn’t us.
The challenge is that because society is all-consuming, we fail to recognise the connection between our behaviour and its impacts. Even though it’s plain obvious economic growth is at the root of the problem, we continue to overproduce and over-consume, blinded by the destructive consequences of this never-ending desire for more. What may appear as a suicidal failure to adapt is not due to stubbornness or a desire to destroy the environment, but rather that we have all been socialised to exist in a reality where economic considerations are the only thing that matters.
We’re going to learn in the most brutal fashion that if you disregard the laws of nature, you’ll suffer the consequences. When that harsh lesson dawns on us, it will be too late to do anything about it because we will be overwhelmed by environmental changes. The self-obsessed ego of humanity refuses to accept the need to adapt and respect the natural world. It’s that refusal that means we continue hurtling towards social collapse.