The fifth-most-read article published in the last decade by Orion, the literary environmental quarterly, is a 2012 essay called “State of the Species,” by science writer Charles C. Mann. When I read it a few months ago, my worldview changed.
It’s an 8,000-word essay that should be read in its entirety, so I’ll just summarize its most salient, crushing point. Homo sapiens has been an unusually successful animal, but “the fate of every successful animal is to wipe itself out.” For example, the population of protozoans in a petri dish stocked with water and nutrients rises, slowly at first, then explosively, until they use up the dish’s resources or drown in their waste. Then their population crashes.
The problem for humans is that our population growth very much resembles the protozoans’. For the first 100,000 years of homo sapiens’ 200,000 years on Earth, humans struggled to survive. Then our population began to grow, slowly at first, far more rapidly after the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago, exponentially in the last couple of centuries — we’ve become a prototypically “successful” species. (Here’s a startling visual representation of this fact.) But if humans follow the protozoan path, we’ll run out of necessities like food and water or we’ll be engulfed in the consequences of our carbon dioxide emissions, and our population will plummet.
Megafires have turned the air so foul that the outdoors, our customary refuge, felt hostile and repugnant.
This idea is particularly germane in the current era of climate change and Covid-19, when one upheaval after another has undermined our blithe assumptions of environmental stability. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area in the last two and a half years, we’ve experienced megafires that have turned our skies a withered, malignant gray, and turned the air so foul that the outdoors, our customary refuge, felt hostile and repugnant.
Then a five-day power outage last October — engineered by our bankrupt utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, to avoid blame for fires that might be caused by its equipment, turned our indoors inhospitable. Without electricity, our elegant, immensely habitable house became an eerie, dark cave, full of disabled amenities such as lights that didn’t work no matter how many times my wife and I vacantly flipped their switches. We spent as much time as possible outdoors, and maneuvered through our house with miner-like lights strapped to our heads.
Now the coronavirus has arrived like a neutron bomb, leaving our indoors and outdoors unscathed while still unnerving us most of all. We’re all trapped inside a clever horror film in which the enemy isn’t straightforward like Godzilla — it’s everything: groceries, the phone, the dog, the mail and, my wife informed me yesterday, maybe even the very soles of our shoes. The list keeps growing.
We’d already learned that the outer world, the material world, could turn on us; now the virus threatened our most fundamental refuge, other people. Don’t touch; don’t congregate; stand 6 feet apart, and keep that up for weeks or months. We’ve been spaced like pieces on a giant chessboard where touching is checkmate.
Of course, California’s recent convulsions of environmental and microbial violence — part of nature’s righting of accounts — have so far merely grazed my wife and me. Our house hasn’t burned down. We are still healthy. But what hovers over the Bay Area now is a visceral understanding of what these episodes might augur.
It’s been a dry winter. At the moment, California officials are contemplating the prospects of something new in human history, a pandemic-megafire double whammy or a drought-pandemic-megafire trifecta. What strategies will be devised to fight those fires? What hospitals and personnel will treat the victims? Will evacuees be sheltered 6 feet apart? The virus turns each question into a jab into the unknown, as we imagine a future of burgeoning disruption, widespread illness and death, and overwhelmed government resources. (We’ll get the bill for the right-wing disdain for government then.)
This is the first time that billions of people around the globe have feared the same thing at the same time.
In his essay, Mann makes a persuasive case that we humans are approaching the edge of our petri dish, that our population is headed the way of the protozoans. The odds against our averting collapse are long, but Mann left a small opening. This country’s greatest achievements — including its banishment of millennia-long scourges such as slavery and subjugation of women — were once inconceivable, but still managed to overcome our propensity for aggression and unjust hierarchal power.
Now it’s time for a step even more momentous, to a comprehension that our fate as a species depends on global action, that we must begin thinking and acting like a species, united by our common enemies. The coronavirus has already shown us how connected we are: this is the first time people around the globe have watched a pandemic together, the first time billions of us have feared the same thing at the same time. Accordingly, it’s time to acknowledge that what most threatens us — climate change and the virus — are global crises, whose only solutions are global. Nationalism, especially the insipid, race-baiting kind practiced by the Trump administration, has become outdated, an impediment. Our only way out is global collaboration and cooperation.
Our current predicament is unprecedented in one more way, as Mann pointed out. If we humans change our behavior, reining in our resource consumption and population before we reach the petri dish’s edge, we’ll have achieved something profoundly unnatural: We’ll be the first successful species in Earth’s history to avert collapse. Then humans will deserve the adjective “exceptional.”