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Puny Humans: Can We Change The Course Of Nature?

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Recently I came across an idea I call “puny humans.” It wasn’t for the first time; in fact, it’s been quite a common one, probably qualifying as a ‘meme’—an evolving notion spreading by imitation, often through the Internet.

A gentleman calling himself “wilderness” posted the following comment to a Hubpages forum discussion:

...what seems lost is the ability (or willingness) to understand that large numbers of people are not likely to equate with the forces of nature in effect. Lots of people just does NOT equal global warming, no matter how many there are or how loud we shout that people are to blame. Outside of falsified, and/or conveniently ignored, data there is just no reason to think that we've the ability to change the course of nature.

"Crown of Creation"

A mixed-media collage by Jaqueline Elaine Gomez.  Image courtesy artist and Wikimedia Commons.

A mixed-media collage by Jaqueline Elaine Gomez. Image courtesy artist and Wikimedia Commons.

Well, apart from the canard about 'falsified data,' he has something of a point. For a long time, humanity was inclined to see itself as (in film director William Lang’s words) “the crown of creation.” The world, we thought, was made for us, and the rest of the Universe literally revolved around us. We were very special indeed—just “a little lower than the angels.”

That last phrase is quite ancient, found in the Bible and attributed by tradition to King David himself (Psalm 8, verses 4-8, as translated in the New International Version):


Over the process that historians call the Enlightenment, however, this view was eroded. The world, we learned from Copernicus, Galileo and others, was not the center of the Universe; our world revolves around the sun, along with other planets physically rather grander than our little Earth. And that Universe kept expanding as we learned more.

Already by 1669 Blaise Pascal had famously written, “the eternal silence of this infinite space frightens me...” He was not the last to find the vastness of space terrifying; but that has not prevented astronomers from trying to measure what they can. According to one online source, the observable Universe is now 93 billion light years across, and the entire Universe an estimated ten billion times larger still.

Image by 'mblegacy', courtesy mblegacy & Wikimedia Commons.

Image by 'mblegacy', courtesy mblegacy & Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop James Ussher, primate of all Ireland.

Archbishop James Ussher, primate of all Ireland.

Nor is the expansion limited to space; our Universe has expanded greatly in time as well. In 1650, Archbishop Ussher famously calculated the age of the Earth from the genealogies given in the Old Testament to be around six thousand years.

Today, the prevailing scientific view is that the Universe came into being 13.7 billion years ago. By contrast, anatomically modern humans are believed to have existed for about 200,000 years—just a little more than one ten thousandth of that time.

The ‘crown of creation’ appears to occupy a vanishingly small portion of that Creation. Accordingly, ideas emphasizing our tiny place in the scheme of things tend to have a becoming air of humility and reason:

“....there is just no reason to think that we’ve the ability to change the course of nature.”

Of course, that is just context. It still leaves the (as far as we can determine) uniquely human traits of language and reason—usually considered as the real essence of our ‘creation in the image of God’ and thus the real reason for our status as ‘crown of creation.’ Some might argue that these are more important than our size, numbers, or place in the cosmos in determining our ability to ‘change the course of nature.’ ‘Wilderness’ might disagree, but after all, if global warming is our concern, humanity’s ability to ‘change the course of nature’ on, say, Mars is not much to the point.

But arguments over humanity’s ‘exaltedness’ seem, in the context of changing the environment, to be not so much right or wrong, as simply irrelevant. For biology teaches us that creatures presumably ‘humbler’ than we puny humans do ‘change the course of nature.’

Consider the beaver. Though of impressive size for a rodent—individuals as large as 100 pounds have been recorded—they are not considered to be particularly intelligent. There is good reason to believe that their lodges and dams are constructed largely by instinct. For instance, European beavers released from zoos into natural habitats began building dams and lodges, despite the fact that several intervening generations of zoo-bred beavers had not been able to exercise—or teach their kits!—this behavior.

A beaver at work.  Photo by 'makedocreative', courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A beaver at work. Photo by 'makedocreative', courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Nevertheless, it’s fair to call beavers “eco-system engineers,” as author Terry Krautwurst did in an article for Mother Earth News (linked in the sidebar.) Instinctually-driven though it may be, their activity transforms considerable chunks of the territories which they inhabit, creating wetlands which:

...transform woodlands into diverse habitats that support a greater diversity of animals than before. Aquatic plants flourish. Insects abound, providing sustaining protein for birds. Frogs, salamanders, and small fish at the water’s edge draw herons, kingfishers, raccoons, and other carnivores. Larger mammals, such as fox and deer, also thrive.

A beaver pond and its marsh store and filter water, slowing runoff from storms, allowing heavier silt and pollutants to settle. Water downstream is clearer and cleaner, its flow more stable and less prone to drought and flooding.

Even after beavers abandon a dam, allowing the pond to drain and leaving only broad mud flats, their impact persists. Vegetation springs up rapidly in the rich accumulated sediment. The result is a beaver meadow, itself a wildlife magnet.

Definitely an alteration of the course of nature—albeit one more localized than those typically created by humanity’s activities (and considerably more benign, as well.) But beavers are just one example, and far from the most dramatic.

Consider the humble cyanobacteria. That’s a general term for a group of aquatic microbes that arose far back in the history of the Earth—in fact the oldest known fossils are cyanobacteria. Those fossils are 3.5 billion years old—for perspective, the oldest rocks so far discovered are 3.8 billion years old.

As you might expect, cyanobacteria seem quite primitive, from a typical human perspective. Not only do they lack intelligence, they lack nervous systems. They are unicellular, after all. And not only unicellular, but prokaryotic—that is, they have no nucleus in their single cell. That’s a big difference from most familiar creatures: fish, birds, and mammals all have well-defined cell nuclei. Quite a few unicellular creatures, such as protozoans, do too. Such creatures (including humans) are termed ‘eukaryotes.’

Modern cyanobacteria

Modern cyanobacteria

Cyanobacteria still exist today—in fact, they are in the news as of this writing because a large bloom of them in Lake Erie poisoned the water supply for the city of Toledo, Ohio, causing inconvenience and expense on quite a large scale. But that is nothing compared to the effects cyanobacteria created upon the ancient Earth.

Let’s start with what we know of the environment in which the cyanobacteria arose. That very ancient time is called the Archean eon. The University of California Museum of Paleontology has this to say about it:

If you were able to travel back to visit the Earth during the Archean, you would likely not recognize it as the same planet we inhabit today. The atmosphere was very different from what we breathe today; at that time, it was likely a reducing atmosphere of methane, ammonia, and other gases which would be toxic to most life on our planet today.

Free oxygen was quite rare, perhaps around 1% of the atmosphere. (Today that number is not quite 21%.) If the toxicity of the methane and ammonia somehow failed to kill you, the lack of oxygen would have.

But cyanobacteria didn’t need oxygen. They were evidently quite well-adapted to the carbon-rich atmosphere in which they arose. Except, perhaps, in one regard: they evolved the process we call ‘photosynthesis.’

Photosynthesis means using the energy in sunlight to split carbon dioxide molecules. The carbon molecules are incorporated into the cyanobacteria’s body, along with other useful molecules such as hydrogen and nitrogen. The ammonia so plentiful in the Archean atmosphere is composed of the latter two elements. It’s often used today as an agricultural fertilizer.

But the leftover oxygen is released as a waste product.

The algal bloom of 2011 was even worse than the 2014 episode which poisoned Toledo's water supply.  Picture by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon.

The algal bloom of 2011 was even worse than the 2014 episode which poisoned Toledo's water supply. Picture by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon.

For hundreds of millions of years, cyanobacteria grew and thrived. Some formed colonies called ‘stromatolites.’ Though today stromatolites are limited to a few protected environments, such as Shark Bay, Australia, they seem to have been the dominant life form of their time. (See links above.) And for hundreds of millions of years, the waste oxygen from photosynthesis accumulated: there were no creatures existing which were able to metabolize it, after all.

Quoting once again from the UCal Museum of Paleontology:

The first "pollution crisis" hit the Earth about 2.2 billion years ago. Several pieces of evidence — the presence of iron oxides in paleosols (fossil soils), the appearance of "red beds" containing metal oxides, and others — point to a fairly rapid increase in levels of oxygen in the atmosphere at about this time. Atmospheric oxygen levels in the Archean had been less than 1% of present levels, but by about 1.8 billion years ago, oxygen levels were greater than 15% of present levels and rising. It may seem strange to call this a "pollution crisis," since most of the organisms that we are familiar with not only tolerate but require oxygen to live. However, oxygen is a powerful degrader of organic compounds. Even today, many bacteria and protists are killed by oxygen. Organisms had to evolve biochemical methods for rendering oxygen harmless; one of these methods, oxidative respiration, had the advantage of producing large amounts of energy for the cell, and is now found in most eukaryotes.

Where was the oxygen coming from? Cyanobacteria, photosynthetic organisms that produce oxygen as a by-product, had first appeared 3.5 billion years ago, but became common and widespread in the Proterozoic. Their photosynthetic activity was primarily responsible for the rise in atmospheric oxygen.

A fossil stromatolite from Australia.  Image by Archeodontosaurus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A fossil stromatolite from Australia. Image by Archeodontosaurus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

That is why the humble cyanobacteria is called the “architect of earth’s atmosphere.” Perhaps one could call them the Archean “crown of creation.” But they didn’t need intelligence, soul, reason, or advanced technology to utterly transform the Earth and its natural history. If it hadn’t been for them, neither we, nor any other life form we know, would exist. Compared to the changes they wrought, even the consequences of the rapid climate change humans are currently in the process of inducing will most likely be much less lasting.

The pulse of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere will have direct chemical and energetic consequences for a hundred millennia or more; but that is nothing next to the last 2 billion years.

Harder to predict are the consequences for life. While many think that already humans have initiated another ‘great dying’, it is very difficult to know just how many species our actions will ultimately eliminate forever.

According to Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, the worst extinction event known, the ‘end-Permian wipeout,’ erased roughly 95% of lifeforms then existing. It took 50 million years for biodiversity to recover.

One reconstruction of oxygen level (by % atmospheric concentration.)  The Archaen-Proterozoic rise is visible, as is the crash to 15% at the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago.  Image courtesy 'sauerstoff', 'rursus' and Wikimedia Commons.

One reconstruction of oxygen level (by % atmospheric concentration.) The Archaen-Proterozoic rise is visible, as is the crash to 15% at the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago. Image courtesy 'sauerstoff', 'rursus' and Wikimedia Commons.

Can we rival that catastrophe? Perhaps not, but no-one really knows, not yet. There is one ominous aspect to the current crisis. Although the warming we are inducing today is a change much less fundamental than the Archean-Proterozoic oxygenation, it could well be as great as the end-Permian warming—and it is occurring many times more rapidly. That could well amplify its lethality, since living things need time to adapt to changing conditions.

It is not arrogance to recognize that we, like beaver or cyanobacteria, change our environment through our biological activity—for human tool-making and tool-wielding are at bottom biological. We are not separate from the rest of creation, regardless whether or not we call ourselves its ‘crown.’ We participate. To think otherwise is at best a false humility.

The Three Gorges dam across the Yangtze.  Photo by Dan Kamminga, courtesy photographer & Wikimedia Commons.

The Three Gorges dam across the Yangtze. Photo by Dan Kamminga, courtesy photographer & Wikimedia Commons.

Yet we do have reason, language, culture. What beaver do by instinct, we do by design. And what we choose to do, we may also choose not to do. We can reflect whether our present inclinations really further our continued well-being. We can recognize that the universe is not structured automatically to protect any one species, be it humans or cyanobacteria. We can take responsibility for our own survival.

Our tool- and culture-making has led humans to thrive. Even before the era of sophisticated technology, we had occupied nearly every terrestrial habitat, from tropical rainforests to Arctic tundra. As photosynthesis served cyanobacteria and as dam-building served beaver, so our culture-making served us. We did ‘what we do,’ adapting our lifeways to these disparate environments.

Can we adapt fast enough today to continue to thrive in a world we are transforming, faster even than we can collectively realize?

No-one knows. But one thing is sure: to prosper, we need to think.

Update: December 4, 2016

An interesting sidelight on the question of 'puny humans' and our ability to transform the world has just emerged, in the form of a scientific paper examining what they dub the 'technosphere'.

By that the authors mean "the summed material output of the contemporary human enterprise"--in other words, everything humans make or produce--all the buildings, devices, and artifacts, structures and more. The bottom-line conclusion is startling: this 'technosphere' masses about 30 trillion tonnes, an order of magnitude larger than the Earth's entire biosphere!



Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on February 02, 2015:

Thanks, i/s! Glad you dropped by.

Yeah, I'm not stopping the good fight. There are many other things worth doing, but while some may be more urgent, there are none, IMO, more important. Weather affects everything, ultimately if not directly, and climate is weather over the long term.

You have neatly encapsulated a contradiction in certain ideologies around today. But climate denialism is nothing if not able to believe two (or more) contradictory things at once--see, for example, this satirical take on it, which simply verbalizes common denialist arguments in succession and sets them to music:

But it's important to keep them in perspective. They make so much noise that it's easy to forget that they are a minority. Most are not so self-deluding:

i scribble on February 01, 2015:

I haven't been around HP for a while, but glad to see you're still around, trying to educate the populace on this all important issue. You've served up some good informative science and your commenters and yourself have offered some interesting perspectives on the human psyche, belief systems and behavior. It seems to me that the same people who seem so certain that human life is sacred, that Christians are God's chosen people, and that Americans are 'exceptional' are the ones who rationalize that we are too puny to be causing global warming. You can't have it both ways. At any rate, it has nothing to do with science, as you've pointed out. If one bogus rationale breaks down, these people just scramble to come up with another to dismiss the unwelcome truth of climate change. Their reasoning has nothing to do with reason but seemingly everything to do with political and economic self-interest.

And perhaps an unshakable belief that God would not forsake his faithful followers with devastating climate change.

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on January 13, 2015:

Thanks, Rock. Yes, sheer scale is an important aspect of the pickle we are placing ourselves into. We can, I think the evidence suggests today, build a sustainable future for ourselves. (A lot of it is stopping doing some of the most egregiously dumb things we do.) But that always seems to be a struggle, somehow.

kenneth, thank you for your comment--slightly cryptic though it may be. Somehow, I was reminded of the E.M. Forster story, "The Machine Stops":

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on January 11, 2015:

Just like me, I had it to learn, keep in mind . . .

"Cheerfully they came. Cheerfully they awoke."

"Madly they lived. "The machine kept moving."

John Coviello from New Jersey on January 11, 2015:

Doc, Another well written, well thought out Hub about a topic I am quite interested in. The way I look at human's effect on our environment is this analogy: a few termites in the woods would have no discernible effect; however, colonies of millions of termites can destroy wooded areas and drastically change their local environment. Collectively, 7 billion+ humans can have a drastic effect on the environment of the planet that they inhabit.

P. Orin Zack on December 06, 2014:

It's also at the heart of the Gnostic view of creation. The cosmos was alive, and was curious to know about itself. But there was a problem, a part of itself was hidden, and therefore unknown. To resolve this, it played a game with itself, and made believe that a part of itself was really a separate being.

Each 'part' of the All could now see all parts of the other, but each part still could not see a part of itself, though that unknown part was now smaller. The two parts interacted with one another, and each learned to see the world from the other's perspective, and then they divided again, seeking to know more of that missing bit, and continued the fractal pattern from which all life within the cosmos now arises.

When we see the world through another's eyes, we're seeing it through another part of the All that we are each a reflection of. Fiction leads us into that 'other', and helps us to experience the world in another way.

But seeing the world though other's eyes is not limited to beings we understand to be alive. The planet, its ecosystems and storms, and the plants and rocks around us are also part of the Gnostic All, meaning that they too have a level of awareness. Can a person have compassion for the world, and the environment we rely on, just as s/he can have compassion for other human beings? I say yes, and that doing so is the basis for caring for the planet that sustains us.

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on December 05, 2014:

I like that metaphor!

It's also a great description of one function (aspect?) of fiction works ethically--or should, at any rate.

P. Orin Zack on December 05, 2014:

Very succinct. When your world expands to include the ability to imagine being someone else, you begin to see the world from more than just one perspective. With vision, doing that makes it possible to experience your surroundings in depth. When you see the world through more than one set of eyes, you can experience the depth within other people, which is how compassion works.

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on November 30, 2014:

"The size of your personal world matters."

Indeed. I'm reminded of a quotation from Shaw: "Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?"

Imagination expands the world. Without it, there is no compassion.

P. Orin Zack on November 30, 2014:

Becoming self-aware happens on many levels. As individuals, we awaken to the ability to think about our own words and deeds as they appear to those around us. That causes some of us to consider the effects that those words and deeds have on the people and the world around us, and then to consider those effects before we speak or act. As communities of various kinds and sizes, some of us awaken to how our own community sees those who are not part of it, and some also awaken to how those outside of our community see us. Recognizing that we also affect the world we live on is a harder thing to awaken to.

We are, each and all of us, at different stages in this fractal pattern of awakening, and yet we attempt to engage with one another about things that we do not hold in common. That we have problems doing so is not surprising.

The point of re-wilding will be lost on anyone who does not share the same perspective about our relationship to the world we live in and on, just as the point of restoring deteriorated cities or infrastructure will be lost on anyone who does not see the value in making other people's lives better.

The size of your personal world matters.

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on November 24, 2014:

Hey, thanks for dropping by again!

That's a great point. I was just on a comment thread about 'rewilding', the movement to restore damaged ecosystems in a deeper than usual way:

"One of the reasons we need rewilding, MacKinnon says, is because of “shifting baseline syndrome.” The notion of what is "wild" is often measured against previous reference points or baselines, which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of wildness.

"For example, the state of the natural world that a 40-year old grew up with and uses as his or her reference point to define what is "wild" or "natural" is substantially different from the baseline of the next generation. In the period between those two generations, nature gets degraded further by human influence, but the younger generation views this degraded nature as still being "wild," because it's their reference point."

I recognize the truth in that--in part, because I well remember how surprised I was to learn that the 'wilds' of my childhood weren't really that, exactly--they were depleted landscapes, logged over decades before, and still early in a multi-century recovery process.

And they'll never go back, because now the climate is shifting 'around' them. The mix of plants and animals will be different, and probably, for a long time, much poorer.

But, more cheerfully, perhaps there is something in your thought that we can use somehow? A story idea, at least?

P. Orin Zack on November 23, 2014:

Geez, I didn't realize it's been so long since I checked in at your Hub, Doc. Good piece, this. I do wonder, though, whether part of the problem we're having getting people to accept that this is happening is the lack of a common reference from which to judge change. From the climate scientist's perspective, the data provide a long-baseline background against which to compare new readings. But non-scientists, and those who are not interested in looking at the world in that way, bring their own observational bias to the table as well. In a way, it's like the news asking locals about the storm that just blew through. Old-timers remember when it was frigid all winter long, so a day of cold weather was just another day of winter to them. But those who did not live through those times don't have that to compare. For them, there was a really cold snap that came through, and they don''t remember anything like it, simply because the climate has shifted warmer over the decades. From their limited perspective, the winter is extraordinarily cold, because it is remarked upon. So clearly, they would conclude from their experience base, this global warming stuff must be a lie. Context is critical, and it's being stripped from us in many ways, much to our detriment.

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on October 10, 2014:

Thanks, apg!

David Guion from North Carolina on October 10, 2014:

Thanks for the link.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on October 10, 2014:

Doc Snow,

You are most-welcome for my opinons. I meant every word. You are a gifted writer. I love your work.

If you would, I personally invite you to follow me.

I would really love that.

Peace and happiness to you, Doc.

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on October 09, 2014:

Thanks, apg! I have to say, though, that I've seen very little of folks "claiming that only humans (specifically western humans with their advanced technology) alter the environment." Usually (in my experience at least) that's a 'straw-man' put forward by folks claiming we can't affect our environment, who impute it to their opponents.

I will say that I've seen a fair number of comments by folks who seem influenced by a sort of 'neo-Rousseau' ideology romanticizing everything natural and demonizing everything 'artificial.' Not quite the same, perhaps, but maybe connected to what you describe?

In the case of climate change, it's certainly the case that the researchers studying the problem take great pains to identify natural factors affecting climate and to quantify their effects. If they didn't, after all, it wouldn't be possible to say how significant human influences are. An example is here:

"More than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature (GMST) from 1951 to 2010 is very likely1 due to the observed anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations. The consistency of observed and modeled changes across the climate system, including warming of the atmosphere and ocean, sea level rise, ocean acidification and changes in the water cycle, the cryosphere and climate extremes points to a large-scale warming resulting primarily from anthropogenic increases in GHG concentrations. Solar forcing is the only known natural forcing acting to warm the climate over this period but it has increased much less than GHG forcing, and the observed pattern of long-term tropospheric warming and stratospheric cooling is not consistent with the expected response to solar irradiance variations. The Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO) could be a confounding influence but studies that find a significant role for the AMO show that this does not project strongly onto 1951–2010 temperature trends."

Wordy, I know, but note the main point: they identify two natural factors affecting global mean surface temperature and explain why they cannot account for the observed trends in GWST. It's pretty characteristic of serious work--and often unrecognized by the 'parties of the first part' you mention.

By the way, the quote comes from Chapter 10 of the 5th Assessment Report by the IPCC. As you probably know, the ARs are syntheses of the cutting edge research on climate change, and are the 'gold standard' of current scientific thought on the topic. Here's the link to the chapter from which I drew the quote:

David Guion from North Carolina on October 09, 2014:

One human trait you don't mention comes into play here. At least recently in our own society, every extreme statement seems to be countered by an equal and opposite extreme statement. Some people claim that humans can't influence the environment in response to other people claiming that only humans (specifically western humans with their advanced technology) alter the environment.

The resulting gridlock prevents us as a society from exploring how we're influencing the environment and how to have a better influence.

Thank you for yet another hub based on facts and reason instead of ideology.

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on September 17, 2014:

Wow! Thank you so much, kenneth. I appreciate the support. And I'll try to keep 'em coming as I can… there seem to be so many other calls on my time these days.

Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on September 17, 2014:

Doc Snow,

I love this hub. And here are the reasons why:

1. This is an excellent piece of writing. Honestly, it is amazing.

2, I loved every word.

3. Graphics, superb.

4. This hub was helpful, informative and very interesting.

5. Voted Up and all of the choices.

6. I loved your topic of this hub.

You are certainly a gifted writer. Keep the great hubs coming.


Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on August 11, 2014:

Well, thanks for pausing a moment from your travels to say so!

Judy Specht from California on August 10, 2014:

Interesting thoughts.

Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on August 09, 2014:

What do you think? Are we the 'crown of creation,' or just another species? And does it matter?

How do you see the threat of global climate change? Are you doing anything about it in your life?

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