Mind who you call stupid ... Palaeolithic men and tiger, Africa, 100,000 - 2,000,000 years ago. Image: via cantabriatotal.com.
Dear Carl, it's time to rethink Homo 'sapiens'
Dr Gianluca Serra
26th January 2015
In this imaginary letter to the father of modern taxonomy and ecology, Carl Linnaeus, about the current status of life on Earth, Gianluca Serra suggests renaming the human species from the self-satisfied 'wise' to 'obtuse' - if only to spare us from the ridicule we so richly deserve for our collective insanity.
By changing our scientific name into something more humble - Homo stolidus? - we would at least avoid to be seen as ridiculous by a possible alien passing by Earth in the future.
I am one of your many admirers, as well as a colleague of other times, whom acknowledge you as the founder of the scientific zoology and ecology.
With this letter I would like to give you an update on the status of nature and animals on the planet two and a half centuries after the time your masterpiece Systema Naturae was first published.
I am certain that you admired and loved the plants and animals you studied and classified with such a passion and dedication, did you not?
Unfortunately I must warn you straight away that things have started to go awry during the past 50 years. We are currently witnessing a wave of extinctions a thousand times higher than the natural rate.
A good deal of zoologists and ecologists had to take up arms and turn to be 'conservationists'. Conservation has become a new scientific discipline (of crisis) in addition to a practice and a type of activism in the field.
By pure coincidence all the mess started soon after the release of your masterpiece. In fact, nowadays the so-called 'industrial revolution' is regarded as originating just few years after the time of releasing (1758) of your newly forged scientific name of our species, the ambitious and likeable Homo sapiens - 'wise' man.
And yes, I am well aware during that historic turn you were all but a bit overwhelmed by some understandable Enlightenment euphoria about the potential of the human mind.
A fearful revolution began
Well that industrial revolution, started from scratch, has grown enormously with the passing of time, spreading from England to Europe and USA, triggering a truly epochal socio-economic and political deep and irreversible transformation.
A transformation that within only two centuries (only an instant over the geological time scale) has led planet Earth to the brink of ecological bankruptcy and economic unsustainability.
It was right in the mid of the 1960s that humanity has had the planet and its limited resources in a corner for the first time in the history of evolution of life. Since then, dear Carl, humanity began to consume more than it was afforded, or to enjoy far too high standards of living than afforded.
No surprise that few years later the concept of 'The Blue Planet' emerged following the mission of Apollo 8 on the moon (1968). At that turn man for the first time ever contemplated the planet from an external point of view (from the lunar orbit!), which led eventually to put the whole question into a new perspective: man was even taken by an inner move of tenderness for its own little blue planet lost in a black and empty universe.
Another relativistic revolution this one, of a Copernican type, that changed forever the way we see our planet in its marvellous and magic uniqueness. As a reaction to a planet under stress, for the first time in human history, an environmental sensitivity was born.
That unfortunately, looking back, could not curb significantly, during the following decades, the destructive forces led by an economy based on fantasy principles - and quite low instincts.
And now, the planet is creaking under the strain of us all
Fifty years later, just in the period I am writing, the planet begins to creak fearfully and to give signs of complaint. Reached the dizzying figure of 7.3 billions of human inhabitants, we are relentlessly using the limited resources available based on the extravagant assumption that we have one planet and a half available - and, what is worse, we totally ignore this.
In the course of the next years, this can only get worse - exponentially, following the uncontrolled human demographic growth. We will earn this way a gigantic debt that will lay entirely on the shoulders of the next generations, our offspring.
Offspring. Beyond unfillable divides and never-ending debates, perhaps the only common ground between all ways of thinking, parties, factions, coalitions, cultures. Because this is a genetically codified feeling: it is actually an animal instinct, as you well know Carl. All people of the world, like all animals (perhaps even plants, who knows?) love their offspring.
To have our own bank account in red would make us much more worried and anxious. But having a collective account in red apparently relieve us from any worry. Problem shared, problem halved.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to grow unrelentingly and exponentially. Consensus of the scientific circles about the fact that all this will lead us to an unprecedented economic and environmental crisis is currently pretty unanimous.
A sixth mass extinction is under way
According to a recent study funded by NASA and carried out by a team of social and natural scientists, all indicators lead to suggest that we are bound on a track of self-destruction, in an equivalent fashion to what happened to the great civilizations of the past (Gupta, Maurya, Greek-Roman, Maya, Han, the Mesopotamian ones).
This study says that it is just a question of few decades (!) until the final conditions for a perfect storm materialize - sweeping away the so-called 'industrial civilization'.
It seems that science has already made the ultimate efforts to amass all the information needed to understand the issue and make sound and wise decisions. At last science has passed the hot potato into the hands of the public opinion and the decision makers.
During recent months two independent reports were aired, by the United Nations and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), whose results are quite shocking. They both outline a stark scenario about the status of life on earth. We are just witnessing, in slow motion, the sixth wave of mass extinction of non human life on the planet.
The international conservation programs, since the Earth Summit (1989) onward, have produced disappointing results so far, widely below expectations. Animal species are becoming extinct at the stunning rate of hundreds a year.
During the past 40 years the planet has seen vanishing half of its wildlife populations, according to ZSL. In front of 7.3 billions of Homo sapiens individuals there are only 700 mountain gorillas and 3,200 tigers left in the wild. And people's reaction will be: 'oh ... really?!'
Almost 9,000 are the known animal species currently listed under the category of 'threatened of extinction'. This will surprise you Carl: despite trillions of dollars are committed by governments to explore other planets and comets, it is estimated that only 3% of the life species that call the planet home have been given a scientific name so far, by means of your taxonomic system!
It's all fuel for the fire
Honestly, it hurts so much to witness all this powerlessness. Natural resources of the planet are raided by rapacious bipedal apes literally: I think of forests, freshwater, fish stocks in the oceans.
All is consumed with nothing else in mind than the short-term profit. "It is like using a Van Gogh to light a fire camp", as wittily noted by environmentalist Wade Davis.
As you know, I am a naturalist since childhood and a committed conservationist since at least a quarter of a century. I was born just in those 1960s when the ecological crisis and awareness first dawned in human history.
The general sense I got from my personal experience is that of disgrace and exasperation - in line with the outcomes of reports and studies aired in the past months.
My most recurrent nightmare is that of finding myself in an ambulance carrying a seriously injured person, desperately bound to the closest emergency room. The speed of the ambulance is however that of a slug, as we are running on a road made of glue.
I will dare to say that it is clear enough for me that, unfortunately, the international conservation circle is not up to the ambitious challenge, due to a series of organizational flaws.
It is also true that having to deal with corrupted and inefficient governments, those of many developing countries where the areas with highest concentration of biodiversity lie ('hotspots'), is like a deadly embrace for conservation activists, terribly discouraging and depressing - and yet something unavoidable and hard to bypass.
All this translates far too often into comedy-projects whose impact on the ground is almost null. Of course there are brilliant exceptions, but the overall picture remains unchanged.
Not to mention that the funds made available by governments of wealthy countries for the conservation of biodiversity hotspots are ridiculously limited - especially when compared with the gigantic investments by the same governments in the army and weapons sectors (and, of course, the space missions).
Conservation is cheap - but too expensive to actually do it
According to Harvard conservation biologist E.O. Wilson, a one-off fund of $30 million would be sufficient to secure protection of at least 70% of unique terrestrial creatures surviving in 34 biodiversity hotspots identified by ecologists and conservationists.
This figure is just one millionth of the yearly global gross product of all nations; and an infinite fraction of the monetary value of ecological services provided yearly for free to humanity by the natural ecosystems of the planet. Where the cost of just one fighter aircraft is over three times the mentioned figure.
The struggle of committed conservationists is the struggle of Don Quixote against the windmills. An unequal battle fought with blunt weapons. This is the quite frustrating level I have experienced directly so far - from the conservation trench.
But we humble field people are not so naive to not be aware that conservation root problems are to be found elsewhere. In fact every Tom, Dick and Harry realize at this point that the root causes of the current biological holocaust are just two: an anti-life dominant economic paradigm and a completely unsustainable population growth.
And it's a cultural holocaust too: a globally unique indigenous language vanishes every fortnight.
At the root of all this rest the elites, economic and political, firmly at the helm on the bridge of the planet. Those from the developed industrial countries are fiercely against any change of an economic system on which their success is all based. Ultimately, due to unawareness and short-sightedness.
While the elites from the developing countries on their part, due to the same reasons, do not conceive yet to begin controlling a demographic rate that is completely out of control. On all this, primordial genetic flaws of the human psyche cast their stark shadows: the talent to deny unpleasant issues, selfishness and greed.
Too much information, too little wisdom
It is they, in firm control of the key information networks, who prevent to divulge and explain sufficiently on mainstream media the current risks and priorities for life on the planet. This translates into unawareness, even indifference, of the public opinion clouded by a pervading and too often demented technology.
We are literally drowned and overwhelmed by daily information - but we are somehow unable to process, metabolize and prioritize it, in order to turn it into a real improvement of the quality of our life, into wisdom and serenity.
The same as the industrial revolution, despite the undeniable progresses in the fields of material comfort, education and health, has not improved significantly the levels of self-satisfaction and happiness of people.
This is mainly due to the obsessions of productivism and efficientism, and to the alienating and depressing milieu of urban society of the so-called Advanced Tertiary.
So the 'information revolution', emerged and boomed in the recent two decades - you would enjoy internet and the i-Phone, Carl! - has not translated yet into any major improvement in general awareness and wisdom.
It is they, the world's elites, that desperately try to brake on a much-needed ecological revolution, on a major shift in paradigm and value system, that most global citizens would be ready to support and embrace. A revolution that would save us ... now.
And yet even they should be concerned at least about the near future - indeed quite near - of their offspring. Yes ... they should. But they don't as the material comforts of their lives and the addictive and demanding technologies they are surrounded by make them blind and deaf.
In fact they are just fine now (zero foresight). So, nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes), on planet Earth. The mentioned NSA study underlines that even in the past, elites have been blind and deaf in front of approaching crises - historically poor classes are the ones that face the immediate consequences of ecological and economic crises first.
You baptized species - we bury them
We are fast approaching the last call for humanity to make a life-saving change of values. But take the recent G20 Summit in Australia, a gathering of the most powerful political global elites: they ignored this issue nicely and boldly. Business as usual, no problem.
I had even to witness and document the extinction of a legendary and iconic population of bird from the Western Palaearctic. Whereas you enjoyed baptizing species, we contemporary biologists are tasked with burying them!
My conservationist side, disillusioned by years spent on the front line, turns to more strategic horizons: like making a last attempt to increase the levels of consciousness and awareness of the elites and the public opinion about what the real issues and risks are.
This cannot be done without the help of new-generation economists, those who are well aware that classic economy failed and that the foundations of a new economy must be laid following and using as inspiration the principles of ecology - these two disciplines do share the same suffix 'eco' not by chance.
My zoologist side instead tickle me often to reflect retrospectively on the scientific name you gave to our species. And thought to propose you a revision: respectfully, but that name you gave us 256 years ago sounds frankly ridiculous in the light of the current situation, dear Carl. Do not take it personally, at your time you could have hardly imagined.
What do you think of this alternative name, the benevolent Homo tecnologicus? Or, perhaps, the melancholic but probably more deserved Homo stolidus? - 'Dull, stupid, obtuse' man?
In so doing at least we will prevent the ridiculous when the passer-by Martian will land on the planet to witness insects and bacteria engaged in archaeologically reconstruct the historic epic of a naked, foolhardy and violent ape. The first animal species ever that crazily, in its rage for conquest and hoarding, managed literally to cause its own extinction.
By changing our scientific name into something more humble, we would at least avoid to be seen as ridiculous by a possible alien passing by Earth in the future.
Best regards from Anno Domine 2015, Gianluca.
Man is the most demented among the species:
it venerates an invisible God while
destroying a visible Nature.
Without realizing that the Nature it is destroying
is the same God it venerates.
Dr Gianluca Serra is a conservation biologist, practitioner and activist, claiming to have a special connection with the wild since early childhood. He graduated in Biology at the University of Florence, Italy, in 1993, specializing in animal behavioural ecology. His first five years of research focused on marine ecology, first in the Tuscany Archipelago, Italy (MSc) and later in the coast of Chile (PhD). Following another two years of research (with UC Berkeley in the US and with the Italian Institute for Wildlife Conservation back in Tuscany), he turned to nature conservation in developing countries and international aid. His move to the Syrian desert in 2000 to take part to a UN project was the start of a 10-year ecological mission and adventure that eventually took him up to the Ethiopian highlands following the migration of a very rare bird. Following the onset of the war in Syria in 2011 he moved to the Samoa islands, Polynesia, to serve the Pacific Regional Environment Program and to continue his commitment to nature conservation. During more than 20 years he served the cause of conservation in the five continents.
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