Humans and the biosphere

 We humans live on the thin skin of a small planet which circles a sun in an arm of what we refer to as the Milky Way galaxy. That thin skin, which includes the oceans, the surface of the continents and the air above us, supports all life as we understand it. We have a name for that skin. It is called the biosphere. The biosphere is that part of a planet’s terrestrial system – including air, land and water – in which life develops, and which life processes in turn transform. It is the collective creation of a variety of organisms and species which form the diversity of the ecosystem (from

We humans have, over the past millennia, been able to force ourselves into a position of dominance over other species, and we sometimes act as if we are not part of the biosphere, that we are somehow “above” it, and that we can afford to ignore it. The more “primitive” tribes in North America when we “advanced” Europeans arrived were much more aware of their link with the biosphere (although they didn’t call it that) and generally acted prudently with what they correctly saw as finite resources.

Our technological superiority and our resistance to diseases common in Europe combined to allow us to overwhelm the existing civilization and replace it with one of our own. In the past, there were not so many of us and our collective actions did not seem to have a major impact on the health of the biosphere.

The situation is different now. As we move into this new millennium, there are about 7 billion of us, And the growth in human population has been exponential in the past century. Whenever any other species has had a pattern of exponential growth like ours, it has been followed by an equally dramatic collapse in the numbers of the species. They overwhelm their available food resources and the numbers plummet. We too are overwhelming the resources of the planet in which we live and polluting our environment at an unprecedented rate. The only difference between us and other species is that we know what we are doing … and we are doing it anyway, because we act as though we are not part of the biosphere. We are wrong. 

We continue to act as though the economy, an artificial construct, is more important than the ecology of the biosphere. Greed, once again, has trumped reason. In Canada, we have just completed a federal election. The party campaigning on a strong economy has now a majority in Parliament. The party campaigning on a strong and healthy biosphere, the Green party, has elected one member to that Parliament.

I wonder how we will explain to our children’s children … and to their children … that we knew all about the problem, but chose to do nothing about it.

2 thoughts on “Humans and the biosphere

  1. I think one of the fatal flaws we may have as humans is that in spite of having developed brains capable of assessing and planning for the future, in the past that capacity has only required us to plan for relatively short-term future periods (days, weeks, and maybe years). Our business, political and agriculture cycles are focused around quarters and a few years. Even a 5-year plan is unusual. Focus on this year and next and hope for the best down the road. These time periods are certainly shorter than our own lifetimes. Never mind planning for generations.

    I think it’s partly based on our belief that the future is unpredictable (except for some very short-term outlook), that certain “natural” events and disasters are beyond our control (because we need to blame someone/something we even refer to “an Act of God”), and so we tend to optimize for the short-term future (self-interest) needed for immediate survival.
    In the past this hasn’t been a major problem and we’ve learned to reactively address problems we couldn’t plan for after the fact through technical innovation and ingenuity.

    With something like climate change and possible damage to the biosphere, we’re having go beyond those inherent evolutionary limitations in our capacity for thinking about a long-term future. And we may be pushing the limits of what we can solve through technical innovation and ingenuity. It will take great leadership. I hope we can do it.

  2. Unfortunately, when people are feeling the pinch of a failing economy, when folks face losing a home, losing a job, and they are paying upwards of $4.00 (US) per gallon for gas, they tend to vote for the Candidate that promises to fix our economic problems, not the Candidate that promises to fix “bioshere” problems. I do believe people want to clean this planet up for future generations, they just want to fix what hurts the most today, and that is the economy.

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