We’ve known what to do for a long time, it’s time to do it – Fellows’ seminar by Salvatore Agosta and Daniel Brooks

6 September 2021
Evolutionary perspectives for surviving the Anthropocene

“Evolution is not magic or heroic, just efficient. It’s all about potential – coping with change by changing,” said Salvatore Agosta of the Center for Environmental Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University. “Technological humanity is threatened by climate change. We need to apply the evolutionary principles that have allowed life to persist for 4 billion years.”

STIAS Fellows Salvatore Agosta and Daniel Brooks during their seminar on 2 September 2021

STIAS fellows Agosta and Daniel Brooks of the University of Toronto were presenting a seminar outlining the ideas which form the basis for their next book.

There are two major factors in evolution – the nature of the organism and the nature of the conditions. Natural selection emerges from the interaction of these factors.

Agosta explained that Darwinian evolution is about using what you have on hand when the conditions change to survive. In more technical terms, evolution is conflict resolution by ecological fitting in sloppy fitness space, reinforced by natural selection. Resolving conflicts leads to diversification in inheritance systems. All that is required to persist indefinitely in a changing world is being fit enough to survive and reproduce, not being the fittest. Pre-existing variation allows living systems to move forward into an uncertain future.

He pointed to three mistakes in our understanding of evolution – “growth is good, survival of the fittest, and nature is fragile”.

“Unchecked growth leads to conflict. We resolve conflict by moving and occupying a new fitness space to move away from the conflict. The inherited system occupies a new part which then diverges into a new system – in other words, speciation. Two systems emerge from a single system. These then have new potential to respond when conditions change. This is Darwin’s theory of conflict resolution.”

“In tetrapods the traits to be terrestrial were already there before their transition from water to land. The tetrapods didn’t conquer land. They survived when the water dried up by using existing traits. They were not the fittest but were fit enough.”

He described ecosystems as closed-loop metabolic networks. He pointed to this as the key to the robustness of the biosphere. “The biosphere is a complex evolutionary system that generates, stores and uses its own potential to survive. This makes ecosystems robust, not fragile. This suggests we can use the biosphere without destroying or losing it. Biodiversity is a bank account of evolutionary potential for coping with changing conditions.”

The aftermath of all previous mass extinctions demonstrates the evolutionary potential of the biosphere. Life exists in a window of opportunity, not on the edge of chaos. This suggests we can use the biosphere without losing it, but we need some guidelines.

Guidelines on how

“We need to look at how to put evolutionary principles into practice,” said Brooks. “After all it’s the same process that produced us in the first place – we are a product of the last mass extinction.”

Before the Anthropocene – if conditions changed, you tried to cope with what you had on hand; if you couldn’t cope, you fled, and if you couldn’t flee you died. Humans changed their evolutionary trajectory 10 000 years ago. We decided never to flee, convinced ourselves that growth was good and that our technology would always come up with a solution in time to save us – a John Wayne approach to evolution. This had unanticipated consequences.

“Human population density 10 000 years ago was so low that it seemed like we had unlimited growth potential,” said Brooks. “Our research has shown that we set the stage for living beyond our means at the end of the last Ice Age when we settled down and invented agriculture. Due to low population density we did not realise this could lead to too many people in one place, overrunning local food supplies. About 7 000 years ago, human settlements that had grown so populous that they overran their food supplies began taking food from other people rather than running away from the conflict.”

“Humanity has been building and abandoning cities for 10 000 years often due to climate change,” he continued. “Scientists did not fully understand the magnitude and impact of climate change until 1958. We have since wasted 63 years and we only have about 30 years left to get it right.”

Agosta and Brooks propose what they call the four laws of biotics to tell us how we can interact with the biosphere without endangering ourselves further. These are: we must not restrict the biosphere’s capacity to evolve; we can use parts of the biosphere so long as those activities do not endanger the overall stability of the biosphere; we must use knowledge, not emotion, in determining the scope of those uses; and, we can’t destroy the biosphere to save ourselves.

They also believe we can improve humanity’s chances of survival as a technological species by implementing the economics of well-being; reducing population density by finding new space in rural areas and revitalising them into circularised economies; and, re-growing sustainably by creating networks of cooperating circular economies, adding new modules when growth occurs, not consolidating into new densely populated, vulnerable urban centres.

The economics of well-being is based on the premise that we should always live within our means. Deficit spending is not biological – in living systems if you are in the red, you are dead. It emphasises net savings during good times and net spending during bad times. Informal economies are an essential part of the economics of well-being, because they allow societies to make successful transitions when conditions change. Successful transitions always result in temporary reductions in productivity, which are not allowed by economies based on maximising growth.

More than 50% of people now live in cities, by 2050 it will be 70%. Many cities occur in climate-insecure places and are, as the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida have shown us, vulnerable to changing conditions. We need to reduce population density especially in climate-insecure cities. There is space in rural areas for people who wish to move away from those living conditions. This would reduce the density-related problems in the large cities while revitalising the rural areas – a win-win situation, if the revitalised rural communities are able to determine their own futures. Initiatives in smaller population centres make it easier to circularise local economies, retaining economic potential by closing loops, making and reusing rather than making and throwing away.

“Cooperating networks of small centres of circularised economies can maintain the benefits and mitigate the vulnerability of big cities. This would allow humanity to maintain integration with the biosphere, rather than placing ourselves outside of it,” added Brooks.

From aspiration to operation

In discussion Agosta and Brooks acknowledged the huge complexities in putting these ideas into practice.

“We don’t have all the answers, but we must understand that evolution can tell us what we should be doing. Our goal is to provide a foundational theory,” said Agosta. “The big challenge is changing policies. The problems started when we settled down and growth became the mantra that drives behaviour. We convinced ourselves that that’s how nature works – it isn’t. Darwin understood that growth is a built-in feature of biology but, if left unchecked, it becomes pathological. So, he provided a theory of conflict resolution, of survival of the fit, not the fittest. But that is not the message most people wanted to hear.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, the overall threat of emerging diseases, and current climate events should be a massive wake-up call for technological humanity. The question was posed, what kind of disaster it will take for humanity at large to take action? Brooks replied that this was an excellent question and one that worries him and Agosta as well. So far, none of the recent natural disasters, including the COVID pandemic, have triggered an appropriate response.

“There is potential,” said Brooks, “but it won’t be easy. I believe in real grassroots initiatives, not government programmes called funding for grassroots initiatives. The grassroots can take care of itself if allowed to make decisions for the common good. For most of human history, humans lived in extended family groups, where everyone could agree what was the common good, and what actions to take. Smaller rural communities can make decisions in that manner better than can large urban centres.”

“The more that young people with different perspectives adopt these ideas, the better our chances of surviving the Anthropocene.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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