Eden Lost: Time to Transcend Our Inborn Biological Imperatives.
We seldom realize it, but we are living in something very similar to the Garden of Eden referred to in the Bible. An environment that we are perfectly adapted to.
An environment which is both extremely rare and extremely precious in the endless vacuum and hard radiation of space. And an environment which, like the biblical Garden of Eden, once forfeited, will never be returned to us again as it was.
Our world is filled with plants and animals born of three and a half billion years of evolution and woven into incomprehensibly beautiful and complex patterns of interdependency. The elephants, the glaciers, the rainforests and the reefs with their long beaches of white sand.
The annual migrations and the nests built with such care, the new cubs at play in their first year, the green mountains covered with ancient and dark conifers, and the frogs that sing life’s song of longing to us from the ponds of our springs and summers.
It is a palette of living matter, this world, our birthplace. It is filled with millions of overlaid evolutionary brush stokes. And, in this small place, safe from the pitiless and vast nothingness beyond our sky, a vibrant and magical complexity has been building and feeding into itself for eons. Self-replicating, driven and warmed by the bounty of the sun’s glow.
Spilling forth ever more beautiful forms, keen of eye and glorious of leaf.
A small and fragile garden in a universe of emptiness.
Sit outside on a warm day with a soft breeze blowing and the leaves singing. Before you, imagine a small child, a puppy or a kitten playing in the grass, feeling the joy of life welling new. And ask yourself what it is all worth, this natural world of ours.
If you have the freedom and ease to be able to sit and imagine this and to feel what I’m talking about, then you are still among the lucky ones in this world. Many others, even as the sun blesses our thoughts, cry out for water and for food. Cry out from disease and cold, from fouled water and repressive governments and brutality.
The world is becoming a narrow and hard place. A world of haves and have-nots, of wealth and poverty, of lives of beautiful indulgences and lives of grinding misery.
Some would say there have always been rich and poor in this world, and that there’s always been disease and misery.
Perhaps so. But in recent centuries, things were getting better. Despots were giving way to governments for their people. Healthcare and sanitation were reaching further each year into the lives of the marginalized. Education was more freely available. Mankind was on a steady ascension towards the light of a fairer and more equitable world.
But, all of that, the summer sun, the joy of nature’s bounty and the steady rise towards social enlightenment are all now sliding towards an unimaginable edge.
An edge beyond which they will simply be memories of what once was and what once could have been.
A world-changing storm is gathering around us, and unless we manifest an unprecedented exhibition of intentional transcendence and move beyond blindly acting out our inborn biological imperatives, we and our dreams of better lives and the biological world around us will not survive the passage.
So, what are these coming changes which threaten to destroy our Eden?
Global climate change, for one. In most places, it will make temperatures rise. As temperatures rise, species will try to move to stay within their optimum climate zones. Some species may succeed, but many will fail, and large-scale extinctions will result.
The web of life here is interdependent. As species disappear, their loss will exert a domino effect on the viability of other species. Eventually, critical food chains will be broken and the losses will begin to cascade exponentially.
As the world warms, global weather events will become more severe. The ice covering Greenland and the Antarctic continent will speed their melting and the ocean’s levels will rise.
Mountain snow-packs will decrease year by year and the melting of the world’s glaciers will accelerate.
Low-lying coastal areas will be inundated by the ocean, and millions and millions of environmental refugees will result as major and minor coastal cities are destroyed.
These events will result in huge economic and social costs to the countries involved, and those impacts will radiate back into the global economic system negatively.
Mankind has already expanded to nearly fill the world to its limits. Fresh water supplies are becoming critical in many places, and aquifers are falling rapidly towards depletion in several of the world’s critical food growing regions such as the central U.S. and in northern China.
Man’s ability to grow sufficient food for our populations is nearing a limit now. And the demise of even a single critical aquifer or the cessation of the summer runoff from winter snow-packs in the mountains will lower our ability to produce food significantly below what is required. Mass social unrest will follow in the areas affected.
Our current problems with deforestation, erosion, desertification, ocean dead-zones and failing fisheries will only continue to intensify alongside these problems.
Meanwhile, first-world consumption and waste generation will continue to increase, as it always has.
As the water, food, economic and refugee problems become more acute, marginal governments will fall into chaos. Think Somalia.
These changes will be met by ever more militant forms of fundamentalism as disadvantaged people struggle to understand what’s wrong with their world and they adopt ever more decisive and simplistic explanations and responses.
Increased fundamentalism will increase the marginalization of women and the diminishment of their rights.
And as women lose their human, economic and reproductive self-determination rights, the inevitable result will be less education and increasing birthrates in areas with the worse problems. And this, in turn, will further drive radical fundamentalism.
By the time things get so bad for us that the destruction of our civilization’s infrastructures finally allows our greenhouse gas emissions to begin to fall, global climate change will already be well on its way into uncharted territories. Huge numbers of species will be extinct, much of the world will be subject to anarchy, chaos and economic ruin. And billions of people will have died.
That is just one possible story of how Eden will be lost to us.
There are other stories possible, depending on the order in which the coming problems manifest themselves.
But the bottom line behind all of these possible stories is that we, humanity, cannot simply continue as we are going:
* forever expanding our populations
* forever increasing our usage of the earth’s resources, both renewable and non-renewable
* forever pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere
* forever inventing and disbursing new chemicals into the biosphere with little idea of their consequence
* forever allowing the gap between rich and poor to build into greater despair and fundamentalism
* forever ignoring our deep and utter dependence on the natural world from which we sprang
And beneath all of these destructive behaviors lies the deepest driver of all: our inborn biological imperatives.
Hardwired into the very fabric of our biological beings, these imperatives inform and drive our actions, just as they have informed and driven the actions of every biological form which has ever evolved on this earth over the last three and a half billion years.
Our preeminent urge to survive, our urge to propagate our genes forward in time, our urge to create a space within which our progeny can grow to reproductive age safely, so that they may continue the chain unbroken– these are our biological imperatives.
These imperatives represent a strategy that evolved very near the beginning of biological time, soon after the appearance of the first self-replicating entities.
All biological forms undergo natural selection pressure, and those that tended to pursue the biological imperatives most efficiently survived, and those that did less well died.
And thus, the imperatives were conserved by the survivors. And eventually they were enshrined at the very center of our motivations, in the form of our deepest drives. And they have existed ever since as our behavioral cornerstones and drivers in all biological forms.
The biological imperatives, as a strategy, have served biological forms very well, up until evolution tried a new experiment with generalized intelligence.
And then a radically different species evolved which was so much more powerful and adaptable than anything that had preceded it, that it was effectively freed from all of the checks and balances of the natural world. Freed to expand in all directions, virtually unopposed.
And this insight brings us to now.
Because we are that species. And our acting out of our biological imperatives has gotten so far out of control that it has brought ourselves, and the biosphere around us, to the edge of ruin.
Other than continuing forward into disaster, there is only one other pathway open to us. And its difficulty is immense.
We must, as a species, and as individuals, intentionally transcend our inborn biological imperatives and consciously adopt new imperatives, if we wish to survive.
We must choose to get into a steady-state balance with our biosphere. Doing so will require us to lower and control our population, and to limit our resource usage to the point where we are not exceeding the ability of the resources we use to replenish themselves.
If we can do this, we can exist here indefinitely within our fair footprint. This would also allow the natural world around us, all the other species, to continue their evolution unimpaired.
With self-control, we can continue to advance ourselves materially and in wisdom without destroying the cradle of our birth around us. But to do so, we must stay within a footprint that our biosphere can coexist with.
And if we can do this, we will also give ourselves the time and space to ask, “What possibilities lie in wait for biological forms, including us, after they’ve managed to survive the bottleneck of their adolescent coming-out?”
And if we do not act, we will never learn the answer to that question. Fermi’s paradox is whispering among the stars.
An American who emigrated to New Zealand, Dennis Gallagher now holds dual citizenship and lives in Christchurch on the South Island. He considers himself a citizen of the planet, a poet, a programmer, a writer, a futurist, and a flâneur. He is deeply grounded in systems thinking, and when he imagines our possible futures, he doesn’t like what he sees.