We brainy homo sapiens are the latest hominid in 2.5 million years of evolution, from long-term hunter-gatherers to recent cultivator-herders. We began domesticating plants and animals just over 11,000 years ago, (you can read the executive summary in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel). That set off an explosion of innovation that continues to this day.
Archeologists and anthropologists agree this human “big bang” started in the Fertile Crescent (arcing between today’s Iraq, Turkey and Sinai), blessed with more edible food and animal species than anywhere else on earth — emmer and einkorn wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, olives, grapes, figs and dates, and cows, pigs, sheep and goats. The next most abundant area, Southwest Asia, only offered wheat, peas, olives, sheep and goats.
Most of the earth’s biomass is bound up in wood and leaves — all indigestible, poisonous, barely nutritional, or hard for us to prepare. Among animals, most species can’t be tamed or bred in captivity. Now, hunter-gatherers need as much as a square mile per person to find enough vegetation and game to support their lives. But on an acre of land, cultivator-herders can select and grow just the species of plants and animals that can be eaten, so they constitute 90 percent rather than 0.1 percent of the biomass. Concentrating edible calories enables us to feed 10 to 100 times more herders and farmers than hunter-gatherers (Michael Pollan outlines how we domesticated, and were domesticated by, plants in The Botany of Desire). Settled farmer-herders can also bear and feed more children, in shorter time frames, than roving hunter-gatherer bands, and grow population faster, encounter more diseases and develop more immunities, and create more space for inventing, governing, and supporting armies.
From the Fertile Crescent (and Southwest Asia), farming and herding spread eastward and westward. As new societies encountered these ideas, some opened to them, some resisted them. Generally, societies that adopted new crops, livestock and/or technology got better nourished, and outbred, displaced, conquered or killed off societies that resisted novelty and change. Adapting societies grew visionaries, inventors and traders, chieftains and religions, and became kingdoms and empires.
Among the innovators was a hardy people, distinguished by their laws and customs, curiosity and inventiveness. Their endurance over five millennia prompted Mark Twain to marvel in 1898, that despite numbers akin to “a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way,” the Jew “is as prominent on the planet as any other people.” Twain remarked that the Jew’s commercial importance and contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are “extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk... What is the secret of his immortality?”
The answer: Adaptability. We have adapted the Fertile Crescent’s original foods and animals — and ourselves — to grow on terrains and in weather throughout the world using selective breeding, hybridizing, trial and, of course, error. Even so, our biggest adaptation challenges still face us. According to Earth Institute founder Lester Brown, most great societies have collapsed by mismanaging their water, soil, and food resources. On top of that, our inventions have created byproducts — greenhouse gases and pollutants, that are changing our climates, acidifying and blooming hydrogen sulfide in our oceans, and threatening our very survival.
These are things to which we cannot adapt. They’re poisoning us. So we must stop creating them or risk extinction. Scientists have tracked a dozen mass extinctions so far in Earth’s history, and University of Washington scientist Peter Ward expects another within 200 years if we continue on our current trajectory. Rising temperatures will melt our polar ice caps, raise sea levels by up to 240 feet, and stop worldwide ocean currents and oxygen production. Sea life will rot, hydrogen sulfide will bloom, and life as we know it will end.
Lester Brown doesn’t necessarily see this as depressing information. Rather, he asserts, in Plan B 4.0, that by spending about $200 billion, and working like our lives depended on it, we can solve all our environmental problems. How? Improve resource efficiency, plant trees, educate women, reformulate chemicals — and eat less meat. Producing one pound of meat requires energy equivalent to lighting a 100W bulb for 20 days, and creates as much greenhouse gases as driving a car 160 miles. Memo to reader: Cut back on burgers and brisket.
It’s up to us to carry on.