The Human Element

By Sean Paige | On Dec 27, 2012 | No Comments | In blog

Fascinating new research theorizes that early humans adapted and evolved in response to rapid climate fluctuations occurring 2 million years ago, suggesting that 1.) rapid climate fluctuations repeatedly have taken place during Earth’s long history and 2.) our species has shown a remarkable ability to survive and even thrive despite — and maybe even because of – the societal and environmental challenges such fluctuations brought:

“UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A series of rapid environmental changes in East Africa roughly 2 million years ago may be responsible for driving human evolution, according to researchers at Penn State and Rutgers University.

“The landscape early humans were inhabiting transitioned rapidly back and forth between a closed woodland and an open grassland about five to six times during a period of 200,000 years,” said Clayton Magill, graduate student in geosciences at Penn State. “These changes happened very abruptly, with each transition occurring over hundreds to just a few thousand years.”

According to Katherine Freeman, professor of geosciences, Penn State, the current leading hypothesis suggests that evolutionary changes among humans during the period the team investigated were related to a long, steady environmental change or even one big change in climate.

“There is a view this time in Africa was the ‘Great Drying,’ when the environment slowly dried out over 3 million years,” she said. “But our data show that it was not a grand progression towards dry; the environment was highly variable.”

According to Magill, many anthropologists believe that variability of experience can trigger cognitive development.

“Early humans went from having trees available to having only grasses available in just 10 to 100 generations, and their diets would have had to change in response,” he said. “Changes in food availability, food type, or the way you get food can trigger evolutionary mechanisms to deal with those changes. The result can be increased brain size and cognition, changes in locomotion and even social changes — how you interact with others in a group. Our data are consistent with these hypotheses. We show that the environment changed dramatically over a short time, and this variability coincides with an important period in our human evolution when the genus Homo was first established and when there was first evidence of tool use.”

And then the Chicken Little Lobby insists that we moderns are somehow doomed by the climate fluctuations (man-made or otherwise) that appear to be taking place today. They place all the emphasis on averting the allegedly man-made calamity, by pushing incredibly costly solutions that may or may not make a difference, while discounting or ignoring those (like ”skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg) who argue that investments in adaptive measures make much more fiscal and economic sense.

Pessimism is so deeply ingrained in the DNA of most modern environmentalists that they can’t see humanity’s influence as anything other than a curse on the planet — a curse that leads inexorably to calamity if government doesn’t intervene. A few upstart optimists in the movement are breaking ranks with the gloomy majority, arguing for a new strain of environmentalism not so mired in misanthropy and morbid doom-saying. The belief that humans are ingenious and enlightened enough to adapt to climate adversity, even if they can’t avert climate change as a natural phenomenon, is where some are starting to part ways with those who HGH recognize only one legitimate response to the situation, which is to wreck the economy through carbon controls and smother growth under more reams of government red tape.

This optimist vs. pessimist divide was probably best highlighted by the famous debate and wager between Paul Ehrlich, godfather of the green gloomsayers, and the late economist Julian Simon, a man of a decidedly more optimistic bent, in which the latter bet the former that a number of bellwether commodities that were supposedly in danger of depletion, due to unchecked population growth, would instead be readily available, and of lower cost to procure, in ten years time. Simon won the wager, making the point that human resourcefulness and ingenuity are the most precious resources of all, but the influence of Ehrlich, along with fellow Chicken Little Rachel Carson, sticks to the movement like sap.

Wired magazine has described the larger implications of the Ehrlich-Simon episode as follows:

“All of [Ehrlich's] grim predictions had been decisively overturned by events. Ehrlich was wrong about higher natural resource prices, about “famines of unbelievable proportions” occurring by 1975, about “hundreds of millions of people starving to death” in the 1970s and ’80s, about the world “entering a genuine age of scarcity.” In 1990, for his having promoted “greater public understanding of environmental problems,” Ehrlich received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.” [Simon] always found it somewhat peculiar that neither the Science piece nor his public wager with Ehrlich nor anything else that he did, said, or wrote seemed to make much of a dent on the world at large. For some reason he could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence just as if they’d been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days “experts” spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker.”

That same “puzzling magic glow” still bathes eco-pessimism in an aura, decades after Julian Simon made such a convincing case for eco-optimism, but perhaps that accounts for the movement’s inability to get an even tighter grip on the American psyche, despite having every possible advantage. Americans remain, on the whole, a fundamentally optimistic people, despite Gang Green’s best efforts to bring them down and beat them up over their allegedly-wasteful, Earth-unfriendly lifestyles. We still, on the whole, believe in progress. And we know first-hand the miracles and breakthroughs that technology, applied science and ingenuity can bring, giving us the confidence that almost any practical problem can be solved, or at least ameliorated, given time.

Try as Gang Green might to startle and stampede the country into overreaction, try as it might to frame the issues in a way that will prove more convincing to skeptics, most Americans may just have too much bedrock optimism, and too much common sense, to take environmentalist ideas to the extremes that movement leaders and fellow-travelers would like us to. And that, in my opinion, is a blessing.

If the nascent human beings of 2 million years ago could adapt and flourish in response to a rapidly-changing world, why can’t we?

Written by Sean Paige

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