We may be hard-wired by evolution to fail in the face of global climate change

4 Januari 2024

Photo: Pexels/Markus Spiske

Climate change is posing an existential threat to life as we know it on the planet and yet not only do many people lack a sense of urgency but governments seem reluctant to take decisive actions as well.

Could it be because we are hard-wrired to do so by nature?

This is a question to which Tim Waring, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Maine, and his team wanted to find the answer.

Over the last 100,000 years, they note, groups of people have used more and more types of resources with ever greated intensity over time until they began to interfere with nature at ever greater scales. By now we are reaching a tipping point on ecological collapse.

Our capacity to exploit nature to our advantage has been fueled by “the accumulation of adaptive cultural traits — social systems and technology — to help exploit and control environmental resources such as agricultural practices, fishing methods, irrigation infrastructure, energy technology and social systems for managing each of these,” the experts note in a statement on their findings.

“Human evolution is mostly driven by cultural change, which is faster than genetic evolution. That greater speed of adaptation has made it possible for humans to colonize all habitable land worldwide,” Waring explains. “For the last 100,000 years, this has been good news for our species as a whole, but this expansion has depended on large amounts of available resources and space.”

That is why in our success lie the seeds of our possible undoing because both resources and space are now in very short supply. In addition, we have been changing the planet like never before.

“Our cultural adaptations, particularly the industrial use of fossil fuels, have created dangerous global environmental problems that jeopardize our safety and access to future resources,” say the scientists who have found two general patterns.

One of these patterns is that sustainable systems often spread only after we fail to maintain natural resources. As an example, they cite the United States where industrial sulfur and nitrogen dioxide emissions were regulated in 1990 only after it was clear they were causing acid rain and acidifying many water bodies.

“This delayed action presents a major problem today as we threaten other global limits. For climate change, humans need to solve the problem before we cause a crash,” the scientists stress.

As for the second pattern, evidence indicates that “strong systems of environmental protection tend to address problems within existing societies, not between them,” the experts say.

Photo: Pixabay/ELG21

“For example, managing regional water systems requires regional cooperation, regional infrastructure and technology, and these arise through regional cultural evolution. The presence of societies of the right scale is, therefore, a critical limiting factor,” they explain.

“Tackling the climate crisis effectively will probably require new worldwide regulatory, economic and social systems  — ones that generate greater cooperation and authority than existing systems like the Paris Agreement. To establish and operate those systems, humans need a functional social system for the planet, which we don’t have,” they point out.

But there is an evolutionary reason for that too as until recent times people never had to consider the welbeing of the planet as a whole and so devoted their attention to their immediate environments.

“One problem is that we don’t have a coordinated global society which could implement these systems,” Waring says. “We only have sub-global groups, which probably won’t suffice. But you can imagine cooperative treaties to address these shared challenges. So, that’s the easy problem.”

A worse problem is that in a world full of “sub-global groups, cultural evolution among them will tend to solve the wrong problems, benefitting the interests of nations and corporations and delaying action on shared priorities,” the scientists say. “Cultural evolution among groups would tend to exacerbate resource competition and could lead to direct conflict between groups and even global human dieback.”

What this means is that global challenges like climate change “are much harder to solve than previously considered,” Waring emphasizes.

“It’s not just that they are the hardest thing our species has ever done. They absolutely are,” he says. “The bigger problem is that central features in human evolution are likely working against our ability to solve them. To solve global collective challenges we have to swim upstream.”

So what are we to do?

Waring and his colleagues argue that by understanding the drivers of cultural evolution better, we can find ways to try and reduce competitions among us for limited environmental resources. If human evolution has indeed favored tribal solutions to collective ones, which to all intents and purposes it has, then we will have to try and override those short-sighted impulses for the benefit of us all.

“There is hope, of course, that humans may solve climate change. We have built cooperative governance before, although never like this: in a rush at a global scale.” Waring says. He cites two success stories, one being the Montreal Protocol to limit ozone-depleting gasses, and the other the global moratorium on commercial whaling.

His team recommends a new approach to address the climate crisis enfolding us. “[M]odifying the process of adaptive change among corporations and nations may be a powerful way to address global environmental risks,” the scientists say.

But we are still facing an uphill battle. “We don’t have any solutions for this idea of a long-term evolutionary trap, as we barely understand the problem,” Waring says. “If our conclusions are even close to being correct, we need to study this much more carefully.”

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