Ten Readings on Homo Sapiens and Our Role in Nature

Last month, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a data-rich report with an urgent message: At current trends, we’re on the way to 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century against pre-industrial times. We’ve already passed 1 degree of warming and the effects on our ecosystems are already highly destructive. In light of the urgency to tackle climate change, half of this month’s reading focused on its presumed effects, and on what can be done about it. The other half is dedicated to the better understanding of our animal siblings as well as to our plant cousins (those who have met me know that I am an ardent arbophiliac).  As the most powerful species on this floating rock, I think its both our moral duty as well as in the interest of our survival to dedicate more  love and attention to all the other forms of life around us. What are your thoughts? Here are the links:

[1] David Barash on the misguided, yet widespread arrogance of our species to see ourselves as the crown of creation and as the centre of the cosmos (Aeon).


[2] Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovic on the substantial difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming (New York Times).


[3] Robinson Meyer on the fundamental effects of climate change on our ecosystems (The Atlantic).


[4] Elizabeth Kolbert on the need to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere if we are to avoid catastrophe (The New Yorker).


[5] Jeremy Hance on the benefits of paying people not to cut down forests (The Guardian)


[6] Elizabeth Boakes on the importance of maintaining biodiversity within species, between species, and at ecosystem levels (Aeon)


[7] The Economist on the rich social lives of elephants


[8] The Economist on the environmental, health, and moral benefits of eating less meat


[9] Laura Ruggles on the amazing cognitive abilities of plants (Aeon)


[10] Thomas Pakenham on the secret lives of trees (New York Review of Books)


Find excerpts form the different texts below.


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[1] David Parash on the misguided, yet widespread arrogance of our species to consider ourselves the crown of creation and the centre of the cosmos (Aeon): "Despite what has been called ‘Copernican mediocrity’, the deflating recognition that we aren’t the centre of the Universe (and to which I would add ‘Darwinian mediocrity’, the acknowledgment that we weren’t specially created as chips off the old divine block), all this debunking of human specialness isn’t necessarily cause for despair or for a spasm of species self-denigration... Regardless of how special we are (or aren’t), aren’t we well-advised to treat everyone – including the other life forms with which we share this planet – as the precious beings we like to imagine us all to be?"

[2] Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovic on the substantial difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming (New York Times): "With an additional half-degree of warming above today’s levels, the report said, tropical coral reefs will face “very frequent mass mortalities,” though some corals may adapt if given enough time. But at 2 degrees of total warming, coral reefs are in danger of vanishing entirely. It is less certain when other long-feared tipping points will occur, such as the irreversible disintegration of the vast ice sheets on top of Greenland or West Antarctica. But the report warns that these ice sheets could potentially start to destabilize with 1.5 to 2 degrees of warming, committing the world to many more feet of sea level rise for centuries to come. The report also warns that vulnerable areas .. , may struggle to cope with multiple impacts. Crop failures, heat waves and the expansion of malaria-carrying mosquitoes compound when they occur together."

[3] Robinson Meyer on the fundamental effects of climate change on our ecosystems (The Atlantic): "If climate change continues unabated, nearly every ecosystem on the planet would alter dramatically, to the point of becoming an entirely new biome, according to a new paper written by 42 scientists from around the world…. Between the peak of the last Ice Age, about 20,000 years ago, and 1800 a.d., the world warmed by between 4 and 7 degrees Celsius. This warming transfigured the landscape: It erased the mile-high plateau of ice that sat on Manhattan Island, for instance. By melting this and other continent-sized ice sheets, that ancient warming—which was caused by minute shifts in the Earth’s orbital path—raised global sea levels by almost 400 feet. If that sounds fun, it could happen again, within the lifetime of babies born today: Earth could experience 4 to 5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100 if humanity does not slow the emission of heat-trapping gases."

[4] Elizabeth Kolbert on the need to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere if we are to avoid catastrophe (The New Yorker): "One of the peculiarities of climate discussions is that the strongest argument for any given strategy is usually based on the hopelessness of the alternatives: this approach must work, because clearly the others aren’t going to. This sort of

reasoning rests on a fragile premise—what might be called solution bias. There has to be an answer out there somewhere, since the contrary is too horrible to contemplate...

As a technology of last resort, carbon removal is, almost by its nature, paradoxical. It has become vital without necessarily being viable. It may be impossible to manage and it may also be impossible to manage without."


[5] Jeremy Hance on the benefits of paying people not to cut down forests (The Guardian): "For years some environmentalists and economists have argued that you could pay people to keep their forests standing, maintaining carbon sources and habitat for threatened species. Yet, the idea – known as payments for ecosystem services or PES – has faced critics, who argued it wouldn’t live up to the hype. A new study in Science this week may make them think twice... The researchers found that their approach was highly cost-effective... While the study – and the media coverage – has focused on the carbon benefits, standing forests also provide habitat for species. In an age of potential mass extinction, recently described as “biological annihilation” by researchers in a controversial paper, this is arguably just as important."

[6] Elizabeth Blake on the importance of maintaining biodiversity within species, between species, and at ecosystem levels (Aeon): “The philosopher Bryan Norton likened the Earth to a patient whose survival is dependent on a life- support machine. Hospital staff enter and announce that, in order to increase the hospital’s revenue, they will be selling a few components of the machine. ‘It’s got so many wires and screws, it can’t possibly need them all,’ they blithely assure the patient. Would you take that gamble? Biodiversity underpins life as we know it. It is the very apparatus that holds us steady.”


[7] The Economist on the rich social lives and the cognitive abilities of elephants: "[E]lephant[s] ... are not mere collateral damage in humanity’s relentless expansion. Often, rather, they are deliberate targets, shot by poachers, who want their ivory; by farmers, because of the damage they do to crops; and by cattle herders, who see them as competitors for forage.... The question, then, is whether elephants and people can ever co-exist peacefully. And many of those who worry that the answer may be “no” fear the loss of more than just another species of charismatic megafauna. Elephants, about as unrelated to human beings as any mammal can be, seem nevertheless to have evolved intelligence, and possibly even consciousness. Though they may not be alone in this (similar claims are made for certain whales, social carnivores and a few birds), they are certainly part of a small and select group... Dr Wittemyer argues that, human beings aside, no species on Earth has a more complex society than that of elephants. And elephant society does indeed have parallels with the way humans lived before the invention of agriculture."


[8] The Economist on the environmental, health, and moral benefits of eating less meat: "In rich countries, people become flexitarians as a response to three concerns: their own health; the health of the environment; and the welfare of animals. On all three, they have a point; on at least the first two, though, a lot of the benefits can be captured without strict veganism... A mixture of ethical concerns, innovative cuisine ... and more convenient vegan shopping at supermarkets could yet see the rich world reach “peak meat” and head down the other side. If so, and in particular if reduced consumption of red meat is part of the process, there will probably be substantial gains in health and happiness. And if the world improves standards in the meat-rearing operations that remain, some of that may even be shared with animals."

[9] Laura Ruggles on the amazing cognitive abilities of plants (Aeom): "Plants are not simply organic, passive automata. We now know that they can sense and integrate information about dozens of different environmental variables, and that they use this knowledge to guide flexible, adaptive behaviour... Plants are a diverse and flexible group of organisms whose extraordinary capacities we are only just beginning to understand. Once we expand the vista of our curiosity beyond animal and even plant kingdoms – to look at fungi, bacteria, protozoa – we might be surprised to find that many of these organisms share many of the same basic behavioural strategies and principles as us, including the capacity for kinds of learning and memory."


[10] Thomas Pakenham on the secret lives of trees (New York Review of Books): What was revealed  "was nothing less than a vast underground network, called a mycorrhiza, in which fungi connect trees of different species by passing chemical and electrical signals among the trees’ roots. It was an arboreal Internet—christened the “wood wide web.” Trees could actually communicate by exchanging carbon through their roots. The exchange offered mutual support. Carbon is the food of trees, created by photosynthesis, using the leaves as solar panels. Sometimes one tree would act as mother to its neighbors, giving them more carbon than it received in return. Later the debt would be repaid as the roles were reversed."


And from the same essay, a beautiful ode to oaks: "It is this copious canopy that provides a home for an astonishing number of small insects, birds, animals, lichens, ferns, and fungi. If you look up at those mossy, fern-encrusted branches, you may well find redstarts and robins and wood warblers searching for insects, while woodpeckers and little owls build their nests in hollows in the trunk. A great oak is a world in itself. “This is the King of the Trees,” Stafford writes exultantly, “the head, heart and habitat of an entire civilisation.”

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