Is humankind a sustainable project?

The world we’ve created is far from being perfect. There’s violence, wars, exploitation, corruption, injustice, inequality, and an almost endless list of painful issues. Yet, what humankind has done — all our progress and victories — is impressive.

This article was published in the fourth issue of Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience in the app. You can read Tribe now on Android or iPhone. Become a Tribe subscriber here.

Around 300,000 years ago, the first sapiens emerged on Earth. For hundreds of thousands of years, our species was marginal and only played a secondary role in a world ruled by lions, sharks, crocodiles, and other dangerous beasts, far more agile and strong than us.

Slowly, our ancestors learned how to use their hands for crafting tools and weapons, mastered fire, and developed unique communication skills. They learned how to think, imagine, and create.

Finally, they developed culture, myths, and religions capable of bringing them together not in small tribes, but in big groups and intricate societies capable of overcoming the most impossible obstacles.

With intelligence and ingenuity, our improbable species made its way from the periphery of the evolutionary chain to become the most lethal sort of creatures that ever existed on the planet.

The challenges we’ve faced along the way were many. Humankind had to survive starvation, extreme weather, predators, natural disasters and plagues.

To survive, we had to fight.

We had to fight our own limitations.

We had to fight the most adverse circumstances.

We had to fight nature itself.

Yes, nature hasn’t been our ally. In order to survive, we had to defend ourselves from all sorts of threats coming from the same nature that has created us.

Yet our ingenuity and resilience brought us to this very moment when we’ve surpassed most of the challenges that threatened us for so long.

We have developed food industries, medicine, science, and technology. We have also created laws and social mechanisms that organize our coexistence and guarantee the survival even of the weakest of us.

The world we’ve created is far from being perfect. There’s violence, wars, exploitation, corruption, injustice, inequality, and an almost endless list of painful issues. Yet, what humankind has done — all our progress and victories — is impressive.

At this point of our history, we have surpassed most of the challenges that haunted us for thousands of years.

Yet, our evolution brought us to a dangerous place. New challenges have emerged on the way. The same path that proved so successful in the past now looks like a highway to extinction, but we don’t even know how to stop or change the social machine we have created.

In August 2021, the UN released its IPCC report, which concluded that human action has caused irrefutable and irreversible climate change that can be catastrophic to our species.

We’ve been talking about climate change for decades. Yet, while scientists discuss and politicians speak, deforestation, carbon emission and water contamination have been rising to completely unsustainable levels.

The collapse of the environment has as its unavoidable consequence the collapse of our entire civilization. Are we capable of finding a way out?

In 1972, during a UN conference about the environment, the world heard for first time the word sustainability. Since then, we’ve tried to apply it to different areas of our society.

Yet our efforts haven’t been enough. Our species became unsustainable. We have a long way to go if we want to change the game and guarantee our species’ survival. Meanwhile, time is running like sand in the hourglass.

The change we need won’t come from patches. First, we must understand why we got to this point so we can strike the root of the problem.

So let’s investigate some fundamental pillars of our society and understand how they brought us to the verge of collapse.

1) Anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism is a philosophic conception that considers humankind as the center of the Universe, evaluating every single element of the cosmos only according to its relationship with human beings.

Anthropocentrism is often classified as an opposition to the theocentric religions that consider God as the center of the universe.

Yet, anthropocentrism is more like an evolution of theocentric religions, since its roots are planted in the very center of religious thinking. On the first chapter of the Genesis, at the very beginning of the Holy Book, we can find these words:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created him; male and female created them.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that move upon the earth.”

According to the bible, it’s not only our right, but also our duty to “have dominion” over every living creature.

Well, the god of the Hebrews must be proud of us. We have really done our job. Only in the last 40 years, we, kings and queens of nature, got rid of 784 animal species which were useless to us. On other hand we have populated the world with around 1 billion pigs, 1,4 billion cows, and 50 billion chickens which are being raised on farms, to serve what we call our ‘food industry’.

The whole process of life and death of these animals is cruel and completely disrespectful to them, but it will guarantee a nice piece of steak at your dinner table this evening.

Of course, we not only care about the animals we eat. We also love horses, which we castrate, tame and ride. We have a particular care for rats, guinea pigs and chimpanzees, which we use for experiments inside our labs. And even the animals that don’t have a specific function in our daily lives have received our attention. We created zoos for them, so after being captured and taken from what once was their home, they can live imprisoned and serve to our entertainment and amusement.

Serving the purpose of the Almighty, we’ve also exercised our power over the green ones. We’ve turned ancient trees into furniture, and burned down 52% of the forest that once covered our planet, to give place to our cities and crops.

We’ve mercilessly taken from the soil, from the rivers and from the ocean, but as the fair children of God we are, we’ve given back to our environment. We produce on a daily basis our gift to the world. It’s called trash. We produce around 1.4 billion tons of garbage per year. You may not have even noticed, since it’s such a natural consequence of your lifestyle, but as an average citizen you may produce around 1.2 kilograms of garbage per day. That’s your contribution to the world.

Our trash comes out in many ways and goes everywhere. Smoke, toxic gases, carbon emissions, plastic, oil, chemicals, radioactive waste, etc.

The consequences are tragic:

  • Our atmosphere is polluted to the point of trapping the sunrays that should be reflected and go back to space. It creates the so-called greenhouse effect, that’s heating our planet to unprecedented levels.
  • Most of the rivers of the planet are contaminated, and as a result of 3 billion people, 40% of the world have no access to potable water.
  • 80% of the ocean’s surface is polluted, making life almost impossible for marine life.

Of course, we can keep playing the same anthropocentric role we have played so far. Fuck the trees, the forests, the soil, the rivers, the ocean and the atmosphere. It’s all secondary. What really matters is us.

I’ll let you, dear reader, make your own judgement about this way of thinking, according to your ethical principles. Yet, the uncomfortable truth we can’t refuse is that the damage we’re making may be reversed upon us.

Global warming is changing the environment completely, making life pretty hard for us. Apart from that, the quality of the air in some places is so bad to the point of giving opportunity to a new business that is growing quite fast: bottled air.

The forests are essential for the humidity of the atmosphere. They help to accumulate water in the soil and also exhale organic vapors to the atmosphere, producing rain. The deforestation we’re making is literally drying our planet.

According to Mami Mizutori, the United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, “Drought is on the verge of becoming the next pandemic, and there is no vaccine to cure it.” “Drought has directly affected 1.5 billion people so far this century, and this number will grow dramatically unless the world gets better at managing this risk.”

Adding to this the pollution of the rivers and of the underground water, we have a recipe for disaster.

Water pollution also threatens our food. We humans, queens and kings of Earth may end up with no clean air, no rain, no water and also no fish. What have we done wrong?

Going a little deeper, agriculture also needs water. No water, no food at all.

Maybe this is going to be the moment when we’ve accomplished our biblical mission so we can go back to the arms of our beloved Father, to live in Heaven for eternity, after turning Earth into a hell where it is just impossible to survive.

2) The principle of the sanctity of life

The principle of the sanctity of life is common to Judaism, Christianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and our whole society was built based on this fundament.

Only some of these religions consider all life sacred, but there is a unanimous agreement about human life. It’s considered the most precious thing on Earth.

This concept doesn’t belong exclusively to the religious world. It’s one of the pillars of modern democracy, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “every human being has the right to life.”

We do everything to protect and preserve human life.

We have created strict laws to prevent murdering, abortion, and euthanasia.

Our science doesn’t measure its efforts to postpone human death for as long as possible.

And our governments don’t measure sacrifices in order to protect our lives, as we can see in the following example:

In October 2020, some visons were diagnosed with COVID-19 in Denmark. They found
out that the virus could mutate in the visons and spread to humans, and that it may risk the efficiency of the vaccines.

There is no time for deeper research in situations like these. It would be too risky to spend time researching if the vison’s virus mutation was a real threat to the vaccines or not. We were talking about human lives and we had to act before it was too late.

That’s how Denmark sacrificed 17 million visons in a week, and its example was followed by other countries around Europe.

Not that the visons ever mattered. Extinguishing a whole species to protect humankind from a maybe, who knows, possible threat is completely natural. And the visons would end up hanged, beheaded, and skinned anyway, while their fur would be turned into fancy coats.

Yet, this little holocaust ruined a business that was making 800 million dollars per year in Denmark. And that can clearly show us how much we care about human life.

Fortunately, situations like these don’t happen every day. We usually reconcile the fundamentals of “the sanctity of life” with capitalism.

Euthanasia, for example is forbidden in 184 of the 195 existing countries.

We will protect human life not only at every cost, but also independently of its state.
Even when an individual is completely deprived of his most basic functions (like movement and consciousness) and there’s no hope of recovery, his life is sacred and must be preserved. And our medicine has evolved to help us with this.

Thanks to our science, people who without assistance would surely be dead can now peacefully vegetate plugged into expensive machines. Their treatments cost a fortune to their families and do nothing but postpone their miserable state for long years. But human life is sacred and must be preserved, after all.

This disturbing fact is just a small piece of a much more complex situation. In the past, over the dominion of Religion, we tended to accept death as our unavoidable fate. Now, it’s no longer our reality. We’ve developed science, and we’ve learned to see death not from a metaphysical perspective.

We no longer passively accept death as our fate. We consider IT a threat to our universal right to life, and we fight it.

We’ve managed to double our global average life expectancy in the past 100 years. We’ve done this by reducing wars and developing treatments to the most of the deadly diseases that ripped human life.

In the 14th Century, the black plague annihilated 22.5% of the Eurasian population. Six centuries later, in the face of a new pandemic we’ve managed, thanks to our science, to reduce our losses to less than 0.1% of the world’s population.

Medicine is evolving incredibly fast, but that’s not the whole thing. We have new technologies in the oven. Technologies like genetic engineering, regenerative medicine, and nanotechnology. These technologies aim for immortality.

The investments in the sector are huge. The Google Venture, for example, has promised 36% of its funds to startups of bioscience and projects to extend human life.

Renowned scientists like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil affirm that in around 30 years a healthy and rich individual will have serious chances of reaching immortality.

Even if their predictions are far too optimistic, we can be sure that in the next few years science will make meaningful advancements prolonging our life expectancy.

In one century or two, it may be completely natural to live for 150 years or more.

It leads us to a fundamental question: since people continue being born, but take longer and longer to die, how is it impacting the world’s population?

At the moment we’re 7.3 billion humans consuming and polluting the planetary resources. As we continue to grow, we’ll be around 9.5 billion in 2050.

Such a population will be capable of producing almost 2 billion tons of trash per year. Its carbon emission would be something around 46 billion tons of black smoke in the atmosphere every year.

Such a population will also need more space for houses and more land for their farms and crops, and for all sorts of industry.

It sounds like the edge of an environmental collapse. We’re too damaging to our environment, we’re too many, and we keep recklessly reproducing and extending our lives, completely sure that this is the right thing to do.

3) Capitalism and consumerism

We’re 7.3 billion humans and, thanks to our technology, we’re all interconnected. From the skimo in the Arctic to the indigenous in the Amazon, we all share some basic principles which coordinate our interactions. And we also have a common interest and necessity that guides most of our actions: money.

Money was one of the most ingenious and useful of our inventions. If you don’t believe me, imagine yourself trying to get some groceries 12,000 years ago, before the invention of money. Maybe as a farmer who just collected the rice you planted this season. You decide to get some chicken and vegetables to eat with your rice. You go to your neighbor who farms chicken. Yet, your neighbor doesn’t want rice. He wants corn, instead. So, you reach out to the guy who produces corn, but he also doesn’t want rice. He wants a hoe. You keep walking around the village with a big bag of rice on your back, and finally find the artisan who has the hoe. But, instead of rice, the artisan wants a chicken.

The invention of money made our commercial relationships much easier and more dynamic.

We’re social creatures who need each other. Alone, we’re limited, but together we can create endless possibilities. And money is the most important tool to facilitate our interactions.

As our society evolved, we’ve created an intricate system, all based on money. We call this system Capitalism. We’re immersed in it like fish in the water, and for this reason we can’t even realize how intricate and omnipresent it is.

When you purchase a simple kit kat, for example, you’re moving a whole chain that goes far beyond your geographic limitations.

Your money, the fruit of your work, is then divided into pieces and, before you give your chocolate the first bite, the government retains part of what you paid. This tax will finance a new school, pay external debt, or maybe finance the next incursion to Afghanistan that will accidentally kill an innocent family.

Another part of your money goes to the supermarket to be added to the balance that will pay its 60 employees and still make money for its shareholders.

Another part belongs to the transportation company, its truck drivers and its owners.

Finally, another part goes to Hershey’s to help pay their shareholders, the costs of their factories and the children illegally employed at their supply farms.

You probably just want to enjoy your kit kat, but even without your awareness, every time you pay or receive money you’re automatically turned into a piece of a much bigger system.

We’ve evolved a lot, from the first shells used as coins in Africa to our modern intricate world of credit cards, bitcoins, futures, and derivatives. And as the system evolved, our capacity of manipulating it to exploit each other also evolved.

One of the most important manipulation tools we’ve created is called marketing.

Marketing is the science of convincing you to buy. You don’t need to be convinced to purchase what you need or what you want. You’ll do it, anyway. Nobody would spend time, energy and money trying to convince you to buy what you would buy anyway, and that makes it easy to conclude that marketing is the science of convincing you to purchase what you don’t need and don’t want to buy.

You’re bombarded by ads and subliminal messages every single day. While reading this article, you may see many different ads that you’ll try to ignore (unless you’re a Tribe member). Unfortunately, there’s no way for us, Ideapod, to survive as a company if we don’t sell these ads to cover our costs. But I must be honest: you may be successful in ignoring these ads, but they’re already planting a seed in your subconscious mind.

Yet, reading our article should be the least of your concerns. There’s a lot of marketing being thrown at you on a daily basis, and there’s little you can do to avoid it. Before this year ends you’ll bring home a whole load of expensive and useless stuff that won’t add any happiness or value to your life, all thanks to marketing.

Let’s start with our favorite gadgets: cellphones. You don’t want or need to spend a thousand dollars on the newest iPhone. Yet, if you don’t take care, you’ll end up with an iPhone 12 Pro Max on your hands (oops, maybe you’ve already purchased it), because Apple spends billions of dollars in marketing to shape your mind and convince you that you want it. This is not a fair game.

Open your closet and ask yourself how many of your shoes and clothes you really need. Probably, only 10%. We all have our homes cluttered with beautiful, shiny, and useless things that don’t give us any happiness.

If you decide to throw all these useless things out, you can just put them in the garbage. The system won’t blame you. You’ll be cleaning the space so you can purchase more useless stuff from some of the 10 million factories that exist in the world.

Our whole civilization is built over the capitalist pillars. We’ve created a machine much bigger than us. The capitalist machine is not only consuming all the planetary resources and polluting the whole planet. It’s also consuming us.

The system has convinced us that we must work hard, be successful, and make a lot of money. According to the system, a successful person must have a mansion, a house at the beach, a collection of sports cars, a wardrobe full of expensive clothes, watches, jewels, etc.

Meanwhile those who couldn’t get there must purchase whatever they can, to anesthetize their frustration for not being at the top of the pyramid.

The subliminal message we receive every day is that we are not enough, and we don’t have enough. This message is alive in our subconscious, pushing us forward, so we can keep moving the machine.

Capitalism’s central aim is economic growth. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter to the system how much value a company added to the world or how much destruction it caused. What really matters is how much profit it made.

Economic growth doesn’t mean a better life for you, unless you hold big stakes in some large corporation. We already produce much more than we need, and economic growth means more industries, more environmental damage, more carbon emission, and more useless things that will end up in the garbage, to further contaminate the soil and the ocean.

The system we’ve created has already become environmentally unsustainable. It’s consuming and destroying the basic resources we need for existing. It has already crossed the line where the damage becomes irreversible. Yet, we’ve no idea of how to stop it, and since we don’t know the solution, we stick to our newest iPhone and to our new pair of shoes.

4) The fight against nature

Our species has had to fight nature for hundreds of thousands of years.

Our ancestors couldn’t afford to contemplate a bunch of lions for example, and think of them as creatures of God, with the same rights as us. It was a matter of killing or dying.

Abundance of food is something completely new for us. Our species is 300,000 years-old, but only 12,000 years ago we learned how to plant. It took us several thousands of years to develop what we now call agriculture.

At the beginning we humans were small creatures who couldn’t compete with the big predators. We were neither agile nor strong. Death from starvation was more than common at that time.

In a world like that, we’ve learned to see every living creature as our predator or as our prey.

The environment wasn’t our friend, either. Countless lives were taken during blizzards, floods, tornados, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.

Since we became too many to live in caves, we’ve had to figure out shelter. Building it in a closed forest wasn’t a good option. We aren’t tall, we’re not good at climbing trees, and our vision, hearing and smell are quite limited compared to other animals. We needed open spaces so we could construct our villages, be close enough to the forest so we could look for food, but at a certain distance so we could see our predators before they got too close.

Our current cities are a modern expansion of this ancient model.

Despite our small probabilities, we’ve survived nature. Yet, we’ve had to fight nature for so long that now our whole lifestyle is aggressive.

We’ve turned the game, and now we have become a threat to nature.
It’s not that we’re going to destroy our planet. Actually, the planet survived things far more aggressive than us.

The meteor that bombarded the Earth resulting in the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, for example, created an explosion equivalent to the power of 2 million atomic bombs. The collision spread several tones of sulfur and dust in the atmosphere, blocking the sunlight and starting a nuclear winter with radioactive rain that annihilated 75% of the lifeforms on Earth.

Yet, the planet survived and, with the passing of time, completely regenerated itself.

The planet will survive our aggression. It doesn’t matter how bad it is. The planet knows how to regenerate itself. But we humans are much more fragile than the Earth, and if our global ecosystem collapses, we’ll be finished long before it regenerates.

We came to a point when we can no longer keep fighting nature. Our own path for avoiding being extinguished means learning how to partner with nature. If we don’t shift our paradigm and change our ways, we’ll dig our own grave.

How we can make the shift

Learn from nature

Our planet has its own technology, much more advanced than ours. It has a lot to teach us. Scientists such as Stefano Mancuso are discovering endless possibilities for new technologies while studying the intelligence of plants. His work is resulting in solutions employed in many different fields, from special engineering to agriculture.

The cactus and other plants of the desert, for example, can inspire us with new methods for capturing water from the atmosphere, something really useful in times of global desertification.

Based on the Ficus vasta, an endemic species of Ethiopia, the architect Pietro Laureano developed a structure called Warka Tower, capable of capturing water from the dry atmosphere of the African desert using a natural condensation process.

It produces 100 liters of water per day. Enough for drinking and for subsistence agriculture in small villages. Its costs of production are cheap, and it’s now starting to be implemented in other places around the world.

It’s now clear for science that plants have intelligence. It’s also clear that the very nature of plants is cooperative, and that their survival and success benefit the whole environment.

In our fight for survival, we have forgotten how to cooperate with nature. By studying plants in their natural ecosystems, we may learn from them and evolve our relationship with the environment.

We can learn how to coexist in harmony, and empower our ecosystem, instead of destroying it.

A forest takes hundreds to thousands of years to form. Whenever we destroy it, we’re destroying an intricate ecosystem that can teach us a lot. We’re destroying opportunities for new technologies and medicines with huge potential. Even from a capitalist perspective, it’s much more profitable, in the long run, to keep the forest instead of turning it into crops.

The idea of progress vs environment is completely wrong and unsustainable. We have much better chances to thrive when we cooperate with our ecosystem. Our prosperity can’t come at the expense of the environment. It’s not prosperity. It’s stupidity and leads to scarcity.

When we use our science and technology to prosper in cooperation with nature, we benefit not only ourselves, but our whole environment. Empowering our ecosystem, we guarantee the abundance of the resources that sustain our life.

Redefine your values and change your priorities

Have you ever spent a week in a permaculture farm? I can tell you, it’s far more gratifying than being at a resort in Cancun.

There are actually hundreds of ecological projects with volunteering programs around the world. You can just google it, or access specialized websites like International Volunteer HQ .

You’ll save money and also learn a lot. You’ll have a real experience not only of contact, but of cooperation with nature. Instead of superficial, empty tourism, you’ll be immersed in a real and meaningful experience.

Your kids will not only have fun but will learn a lot and grow up understanding that there are more rewarding things in life than paying money to be served. They will grow up with better values and will admire you much more.

Now imagine the pictures you’ll post on your Instagram! Everybody goes to Cancun. It’s boring. Yet, spending your vacations at a marine conservation program in Madagascar is so cool!

You may have grown up believing the capitalist fairy tale that tells you must work, produce, and consume.

You probably work much more than you need, to make the money you later spend purchasing things you don’t need.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Under the light of your understanding about the impact of your consumerism, you can redefine your notion of success. Instead of measuring your success by the amount of stuff you buy, you can measure by how much you reduce your trash production, or by how many trees you can plant.

There are around 11 million digital nomads in the world. Maybe you should consider joining them. These people understood that life can be much more fluid and gratifying when you focus on accumulating experiences rather than possessions.

Before the digital revolution, the middle-class dream was to have stability. A stable job, a house, a car, a family, and a dog. The so-called American dream. But now we must get rid of this cliché. It takes too much effort, emits too much carbon, and produces too much garbage.

We must stop setting our values and dreams based on the capitalist system. We urgently need to see the reality of the moment we’re living and realize what the world needs now. We must get out of the box where we’ve been put and redefine our values.

This means freedom of mind. It may be hard to play a different game than the one we’ve been taught for so long to play, but it’s far more gratifying to be an active and innovative part of the change than to be a fancy and successful sheep in the capitalist flock.

Change your lifestyle

The cattle that serve the meat industry is one the biggest causes of deforestation in the world, directly and indirectly. Directly because its farming requires big portions of land, and indirectly because its feed is composed of soy and corn that also need big portions of land to be cultivated.

Only around 20% of soy and corn produced in the world is used to feed humans. The other 80% feed the animals that will then feed us. That’s why changing your diet to vegetarian has a direct impact on decreasing deforestation. If you can’t conceive of living without a good steak, you can consider at least reducing 50% of your meat consumption.

If you have space, you can plant part of your own food. It doesn’t require too much time or investment and it’s such a good feeling eating the food planted by your own hands. Even if you live in an apartment, you can have a vertical food garden that can provide for your salads.

Take some time to research where your food comes from. Choose organic food from local producers whenever you can and avoid industrialized food.

You don’t need to be radical. You can take small but solid steps towards a more sustainable life.

You can learn how to use your money consciously. Choose experiences rather than cluttering your home with superfluous things.

Instead of traveling long distances and staying in fancy hotels for holidays, start visiting natural sites nearby.

Take some time to learn about the environment and engage in some ecological initiatives that resonate with you.

Meet people who share the same values and intentions. Empower them and let them empower you.

There’s a lot you can do. You can choose to be part of the environmental problem or part of its solution.

Do it now

You’re a busy person and turning towards a sustainable life takes time and energy. You may have so many things to do that it may be tempting to just postpone it.

The mess we’ve created may look much bigger than you. The system is orchestrated by corporations and politicians far more powerful than you, and it may seem like nothing you do will fix it.

You may feel even paralyzed, not knowing how to break the cycle you’re already in.

That’s how most of us feel. We prefer to keep ignoring the facts in front of us, because we don’t know how to make a shift.

But once you break the inertia, you’ll find out you’re not alone, and that there’s a lot you can do.

Permaculture, syntropic agriculture, renewable energy, electric cars and airplanes, rooftop farms, green buildings, and many other sustainable solutions are already a reality. People all around the world are working to clean, restore and preserve the environment. A new world is already happening.

Yet, this movement is not mainstream, and doesn’t spend billions of dollars in ads. It means you must turn your autopilot off and seek it. Be sure that, once you break through the imprisoning bubble created by the capitalist corporations, you’ll find not only support. You’ll find a much more meaningful and joyful way of living.

We’re already late, and the action we take today will define not only our future, but the future of the next generations. How would you like to be remembered?

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