Punishable by Death: Part 1

By Roger Payne

I started writing this the day the world lost Ruth Bader Ginsberg to cancer (I wept when I heard the news). So how is it possible that less than a day later, when I heard that Covid-19 had killed its 200,000th US victim, I found myself writing about the benefits of this disease—however tragic and unfairly distributed they may be, and in spite of the fact that in the next few weeks Covid-19 will have killed more Americans than the 287,000 US military deaths we suffered in World War II? Given that I lost a beloved friend in that utter horror, how is it possible to see anything at all positive about the Covid-19 pandemic? 

 Well… Let me start with this question: is this pandemic the greatest disaster humanity currently faces?  

 I say; “No.” I think the greatest threat we face is something that’s almost never mentioned, even though its deadliest effects will develop sooner than global warming can strike its most decisive blows. It comes from something that I strongly believe to be the most consequential scientific breakthrough of the past 100 years.  

 I’m talking about the discovery that we are utterly dependent on a suite of non-human species, each one of which depends on most, but not quite all, of the same list of species we depend on. Furthermore, each of those species depends, in turn, on its own partially overlapping but slightly different list of species; and so on, layer by layer, right down to the “First Responders” — the plants that use energy from sunlight to catalyze the production of carbohydrates. You know… the microscopic plants whose importance we recognize so little, we haven’t even bothered to give them common names, though the oxygen they produce will have a greater influence on our future than the oxygen produced by the Amazon, Congo and Indonesian rainforests combined.  

Our relationships to these microscopic species are not simple dependencies, they are mutual dependencies—better known as interdependencies. The web of life is a giant array of interdependent species that keeps the world habitable for all life—including humans. If we destroy that web, nothing we could all agree on as being a plant or an animal will survive. 

And it is in our ignorance of the unbendable importance of that unbendable fact that we blithely blitzkrieg vital habitats; ignore global warming; use deadly poisons to kill ‘pests’; and allow the byproducts of ‘Better living through chemistry to make industrial wastelands out of productive soils and habitats critical to farmers and other species.  

The upshot of this blindness is that we are unintentionally bringing to extinction non-human species at a rate faster than even the five great mass-extinction events achieved.  

The cumulative effect of our actions is that human overpopulation has overburdened planet Earth to the breaking point. 

However, in spite of such destruction, you can be confident of one thing: that humans will always make sure that they are the last to die, which means that by the time we reach the end of anything that anyone, anywhere, could call civilization, we will have made the earth uninhabitable for almost all non-human species, thereby knocking life on Earth back to a condition analogous to early, multicellular lifeforms—i.e. to living things that look similar to how life looked about 500 to 600 million years ago.   

However… if I’m right, life will survive, but it will take the next few hundred million years of evolution to evolve life forms that are, once again, visible to the naked eye, and from them, bigger life forms, and eventually even whale-sized creatures that benefit from the extraordinary abundance of Nature, before the next smarty-pants species appears, overproduces, overpopulates, and overpollutes to a degree that once again makes such lifeforms untenable.  

But that clever species will also thrive and increase, before something smart, smarter, smartest (and ultimately, digital-world-assisted-smartest) arises once more and has as little general understanding as we do of how fatal overpopulation is, and therefore kills off (albeit unwittingly) some species on which it also will find out, too late, that its future utterly depended.  

If each such cycle of increase, stability and collapse takes roughly the same time it took to get us to the present point, then each full cycle will take somewhere around 5 to 600 million years to run its course. And that means there’s a chance for about six more Edens on Earth before the sun flares out and immolates all of the Solar System’s planets, including Earth, roughly three billion years hence. 

So if that is the future of our smartest, digitally-assisted, It’s-Your-Turn-Next, sequence of intellectually dominant species, what hope could the Covid Pandemic possibly offer? 

Well, as I see it, there is a weakness in the process of evolution that we can exploit. It is what causes overpopulation—something that often brings species to extinction. That makes it a likely cause for killing off the next series of smarties—whatever they may look like (Squid? Octopuses? Naked mole rats? Some lifeform we can’t even imagine?). But this weakness is at the root of evolution: it inexorably selects for any change, in any gene, in any individual, of any species that can increase the chances of making more copies of that gene, and thereby increase its host’s population. It is how evolution works; it is why overpopulation is always waiting in the wings to end the success of any species, as soon as it outstrips any of its critical, limited resources and becomes a pariah—a plague species… You know; just the way our species is currently outstripping our critical, limited resources and is not yet universally aware enough of how important that fact is to mend its ways. 

If I’m right; where is there any room whatsoever for even the tiniest benefit from any pandemic—Covid-19 or otherwise? 

Well… suppose we could achieve a sufficiently rational civilization before we destroyed so many of the species on which we depended. That might enable us to survive our ignorance. But how would it work? I think it might be achievable if, during the long stretches of runaway growth that always result in overpopulation and its eventually negative consequences, there could be respite periods.  

And what could ever provide such respite periods?  

How about a pandemic? At least it provides some time for us to discover our errors.  

Or… better… how about a series of pandemics?  

The most beneficial pandemics would be those that happened early enough to cut back population increase in the offending species without completely destroying it and all of the positive things it had and could achieve—things that increased its likelihood of basing its future policies on reason rather than on despotism, personal greed, or faith in assumptions for which there is no supporting evidence (three of our most serious problems). If there were enough such pandemics our species would inexorably experience a slow shaping of its behavior. It would start to understand the need to commute less, travel less, manufacture less, consume less, pollute less. And that would result in less pollution and less stress of the lifeforms on which we depend—even if we still couldn’t name them 

Anecdotal references currently include reports of Orcas, Humpback whales, and sealions showing a lower tendency to flee boats. There are: Puma sightings in downtown Santiago, Chile; and reports of jackals hunting in full daylight in the urban parks of Tel Aviv. paper in one of the prestigious Nature journals urges scientists not to miss this opportunity for “global, collaborative research,” pointing out that the knowledge gained will assist in developing innovative strategies that can have benefits for both wildlife and humans. 

But perhaps even more influential than that: this pandemic is letting us experience, first hand, what it’s like to live with a smaller environmental footprint. And we are finding out that it’s not all that bad—well… it has its down sides too, of course—but at least it’s tolerable (well… parts of the experience are tolerable).  

But it’s enough to make the point that more pandemics like the current one—in spite of how ghastly and unfairly distributed their effects are, and always will be—could, in cold, harsh fact, help us focus on the thing that really matters—the critical need to lower our negative effects on the lifeforms that make our existence, and life on Earth possible—that keep the world habitable for us and for the rest of life; and the fact that they can only produce their beneficial effects if we stop destroying them. The buzz word is that we need to focus on restoring biodiversity. In his latest film (David AttenboroughA Life On Our Planet), Attenborough puts it this way:  

“We are facing nothing less than the collapse of the living world—the very thing that gave birth to our civilization; the thing we rely upon for every element of the lives we lead. No one wants this to happen, None of us can afford for it to happen. So what do we do? 

It’s quite straightforward. It’s been staring us in the face all along:  

To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity—the very thing that we’ve removed.  

It’s the only way out of this crisis we’ve created. We must rewild the world. 

Rewilding the world is simpler than you might think, and the changes we have to make will benefit ourselves and the generations that follow. A century from now our planet could be a wild place again, and I’m going to tell you how.” 

And he does. Brilliantly and simply.  

And he’s as close to right as our current understanding allows humanity to be; because what he says is founded on scientific truth. Rewilding Earth is the most critically important job before us, and that means we should be spending our greatest effort, and greatest treasure on it.  

How ghastly that the current pandemic has produced so much death, and that the death rate is predicted to increase before it abates.  But that too is a lesson from which we can benefit: it can teach us that failure to limit our population, is punishable by death—not by some sword wielded by human ideology or inspired by some unforgiving religion, but by Nature; it is Nature that is the executioner 

Science shows us that there are limits imposed on us by Nature, and that they cannot be exceeded. If we fail to understand thatand to respond to it, our species will have… no long-term future.  


In my next blog I will discuss what it will cost to stem our overpopulation and rewild Nature, and I will show that both those goals are affordable, painless and practical, and that the glory that will come to those who achieve that result is at hand, as are the funds that are needed to do so (they are hidden, in plain sight, in the incomprehensibility of very large numbers).  


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