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"The sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech." - Lao Tzu

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June 5, 2009

Mankind's World

Picture a world full of nothing but Man, manís pets, and manís food. As I continually work in the environmental industry and look at sustainable growth plans, I now whole-heartedly believe that our sense of entitlement as a species will force us to take every sq ft of wild habitat and repurpose it as human habitat.

The groundwork for this claim was laid long ago, even before the agricultural revolution, mankind began terra-forming; prioritizing species based on their direct and immediate benefits to our species. The agricultural revolution brought about large scale removal of biodiversity and replacement by a monoculture of a single edible species. This was the first step towards Mankindís world. We felt important enough to determine which species survived and which were removed.

Almost immediately these newly reformed nomads realized that the crops were at risk to all sorts of pests: aphids, cicadas, and other insects and birds. Our sense of ownership to the land extended from the dirt to the plants and continued to everything that lived off the plants. We developed ways to ensure the survival of our crops and ways to prevent any other creature from dining on our dinners.

In parallel these same former nomads learned to husband edible animals, which was much easier than chasing them down and tasted better too. The same rules applied: take the land from whatever species was using it, and then actively prevent all unwanted species from taking our herds.

From just these two philosophical choices: only allow to grow what I want to eat and donít let anything else eat what I grow, one could easily have foreseen Mankindís world. If we take all the land to terra-form it for our food, whether itís crop or herd, then eventually there will be no more untamed land. At the time, land seemed infinite, beyond our collective understanding, which seems to be a continual fault of humanity. If you furthermore protect these crops and herds from any foreign intrusion, you force the previous inhabitants of the land to flee in to the theoretically infinite world. Even if they could flee to somewhere else, quite often our method of protection leaves our land, seeping and flowing into our neighborís land and the remaining wild.

The very concept of creatures fleeing is false. The early compassionates among us would talk about where the other creatures would go and the systemic response was that they would move somewhere else. Typically this is an illusion to cure our guilt. The wild land could not sustain a higher concentration of critters and therefore the removed critters were forced to kill off something else or die. Thereís a lot of wildlife conservation wrapped up in the finite world concept, but I wonít digress now.

We have diverse diets, and I couldnít find a source on this, but Iíd be willing to bet that the amount of species we consume is less than 1% of the total species on Earth. Even if you add up the whole chain of domesticated crops and herds, I bet our percentage of species eaten is under 1%. For example, cows eat grass (some of them still do, I promise) and although we donít eat grass directly, it still counts for our consumption because we eat cows. This is how I am defining a domesticated herd as compared to a wild herd.

The best example of the wild herd is in the ocean. We routinely fish for things that eat an unmonitored and uncontrolled diet. We know what our pigs and cows eat, but we donít know exactly what our tuna eat, since we are not feeding them. They are still wild in a way our cows are not. This is changing and will continue to change. In fact I predict that ocean use will be the next dramatic increase to the Net Primary Productivity (NPP).

Richard Manning, in Harperís Magazine Feb 2004, wrote: ďScientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet's "primary productivity." There have been two efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University [this was back in 1986], the other an independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is [updated numbers are around 60% (Scientific American)]. This simple number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food[.]Ē

NPP can be used to predict the carrying capacity of the planet. If you use the Stanford numbers from 1986, you can project that the total population of the world should cap at 15 billion. If you use the Scientific American numbers you get more like 12 billion. There are a couple factors at work here: 1) as we expand, we take up space that could support plant life, lowering NPP; 2) we are constantly developing ways to expand the NPP (Haber-Bosch), but sometimes they reduce the NPP downstream (cotton style land nutrient depletion and pollutant flow); and 3) climate change is affecting global NPP in unpredictable, but negative trending ways. Carrying capacity is quite difficult to calculate as a true limit to population size and very controversial so I am not going to carry the concept through. Let it suffice to say that as we reach the limits of production on land currently under human management, we must find more land to manage. In this way, carrying capacity and Mankindís World are related.

In Mankindís World, the oceans will become as controlled an ecosystem as our farmland is today. We will understand the food chains in a single stream direct application to the human mouth. In the same way we have restricted terrestrial migration, we will at least partially restrict sea based migration. Itís already begun with the floating fish farms, which are basically giant nets in the ocean used to control which species grow in that section of ocean and to prevent any species other than human from dining on it.

What I call Mankindís World, everyone else just calls Earth. Weíre so close to a Mankindís World scenario right now. Humans cover nearly the entire globe, even the ocean parts. When we reach less than 10% of wild land area (excluding Antarctica), we will be in the full-blown Mankindís World scenario. Sure, I just picked 10% arbitrarily, but itís my column. Imagine people or peopleís food covering 90% of the planetís land area. The remaining 10% can easily be called the peopleís pets at this point, as they are completely managed by Parks and Wildlife equivalents all over the globe. All that will remain is man, manís food and manís pets. You better get out and see the remaining wild spaces while you still can.

The unintended consequences of manís development as it supports some species in unexpected ways is the only exception that I see. Most apparent here are the rats, crows, mosquitoes, flies and roaches. We try and try to get rid of them, but they still flourish wherever we go. There are plenty of pest plants as well. These creatures give me hope.

In my opinion, the only ways to save humanity and everything else from the Mankindís World scenario are truly sustainable development including urban planned ecosystems, vertical farming, global education and human equality. Short of these weíll need space colonization.

Conservation efforts are an attempt to fence off areas and call them wild, but these efforts will be overridden by the choice between human death and conservation. They will only work as long we can get the other facets of the solution in place. In the meantime, however they do protect species and I applaud those efforts.

My primary conclusion here is that Mankindís World is inevitable because we wonít work out the global standard of living and starving people donít mind eating endangered species. In preparation, we need to do what we can to enable the greatest number of species as possible to thrive in that future or live in a tame world. Iíve never liked tame; hell, my dog is only half tame. The question for my future career needs to be how do we create the habitats: food, water, shelter and place to raise their young, for as many species as possible. How can we overlay the wild with civilization and have them coexist in the same space? We move closer to Mankindís World every day so we have a very limited amount of time, one generation, to figure this out.

My song choice is the Beatles doing Lucy in the Sky, because I couldn't have sorted through my thoughts or drawn any conclusions without a helpful sounding board and someone to provide insightful challenge:

     Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
     With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
     Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
     A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.