A green grassy knoll reaches out towards the vast blue expanse of sky, domed over the world. I lay at their intersection, feeling the cool embrace of dirt cradling me from falling into the infinite sea of wind and clouds. The vastness is filled by a brilliant, blinding light of flame piercing my body, held like an offering to a mighty god. I try to see, but my eyes falter as I flinchingly raise my hand. Immediate darkness and cool cover my face. My hand is bigger than the sun.
It is so easy to feel small in this world. To be but an instant in geological time, a dot in the universe, a frail body of flesh and blood in an all-encompassing world. And yet at the same time we are giants in our minds, shrinking the world to contain only that which we observe. This ability to shape our surroundings is inherent within our evolution; it is meant to ensure personal survival. It is also a source of human kindness and love: my mother is the world, my friends are the world, my children are the world. Yet the center of these frameworks is always the individual, myself. The rest of the world is ignored — living beings, our kin: plants, animals, insects, rivers, mountains exist as nodes of reality separate from ourselves, affected by and affecting us. The growth and spread of humans has allowed us to ignore the systemic impact of our existence on this planet; the earth’s life-supporting functions have been severely compromised leading to a 6th mass extinction event. To perceive and understand the relationships that entwine us, our living kin, and the earth, an individualistic, human-centric view must be abandoned in favor of a holistic view: a systems view.
It is important, when attempting to discern human systems and their relationships with and within living systems, to understand the nature of such a relationship. Often, humans are so subsumed in our created realities that our visualization of nature and wildlife is that of a caged, walled off “resource” that we can choose to engage with. However, this distinction between the so-called “natural” systems and human systems is a misleading concept that contributes to the othering and exclusion of living kin. Human systems are so inextricably intertwined and enmeshed within the world that treating them as separate is a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics between them. We are and always have been dependent, and defined under living systems. Instead, it is not our dependence that has changed over the course of human history, but the culture and size of our systems relative to our living brethren. Therefore, instead of focusing on human actions and their cause and effects, it is more ecologically accurate to discuss the ever-evolving relationships of human systems and the world system they are embedded in.
For millennia, early humans had a simpler place within living systems; they accessed food through foraging and hunting, shelter from wood or mud structures, and shared in the host of services provided to them by the planetary living system. These services include but are not limited to: plants providing clean air and water, bacteria decomposing waste, tree roots preventing soil erosion as well as large scale nutrient, water, and air cycles that govern the chemical balances of the earth to sustain life. In the face of recent history, the emergence of a dominant, growth based culture, energy accumulation through the burning of fossilized carbons, and the rise of industrial agriculture have all led to a huge expansion of human systems.
The modern human system has grown inconceivably large, shaping and reshaping larger portions of the planet. The degree of growth can be seen in land use; just 1000 years ago, the total agricultural land use amounted to 4% of habitable land with the rest being forest and shrublands. Today, agricultural land is about 50% of all habitable land. Really think about that number. 50% of the sunlight that hits habitable earth goes to human systems. 50% of habitable earth, what was once forests, or prairie, or wetlands has been forced down the gullet of the human machine, around 77% of which goes to feed cattle. We live in a compositionally different world than our ancestors. Our share of the earth has grown as well as our demands on living systems. Consequently, the functions of these living systems that support all life on earth, have been disrupted and compromised. Let us take a look at the major intersections of living systems: from the soil, to the rivers and oceans, to the very air we breathe, to get a better understanding of the degree of impact.
All that dies falls to the earth and is consumed and regurgitated out into the soil as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus by bacteria. The trapped nutrients allow plants to grow and thrive, and are thereby recycled back into living beings continuing the cycle of life and death. Therefore, soil is a membrane, a living entity that breathes, in turn sustaining all life on earth. The destruction of forests and the conversion of land for agricultural use has crippled the ability of soil to maintain itself. The root system that holds soil together is destroyed, while the continued growing and regrowing of crops quickly depletes the available nutrients. Sucked dry, unable to hold together, the soil spouts years of accumulated life (carbon) back into the world. Then, loose and lifeless, it is scattered by the wind and the rain that comes to wash it away.
Water from the oceans rains down on earth. Percolating through the soil, it accumulates in rivers and lakes, flowing ultimately, back to the sea. This water cycle rejuvenates life and enables the transfer and transportation of nutrients and sediment. Land alteration and the concretization of earth by humans has severely impeded the functionality of this system. Falling from the sky, rain meets cities, buildings, and roads, all blocking it from infiltrating the land. Washing over humanity, it collects and accumulates the excesses and wastes of our productions and carries them all down to the rivers. The rivers, polluted, are also constrained, locked in place by stones and cement, not allowed to flow or meander: essential river functions that shape the land and life along its banks. The original harbor of life, the oceans accept the death-filled waters of the river, and circulate them to every corner of the world. In addition to the impeding and polluting of water flows by human systems, the increased emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cause the oceans to turn more and more acidic, dissolving shelled creatures and coral reefs: the foundation for life in the deep.
The atmosphere is wind over mountain and ocean surf, the blanket of air over the earth, in an endless cycle of life-bringing chemical exchange with land and water. Humans burning condensed fossil lives: oil, gas, and coal in an energy bonanza has compositionally changed the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Acting like a glass dome, this traps extra energy from the sun in the earth system. The planet restores equilibrium by heating up; it charges the wind into great storms, raises the oceans, and drives plants and animals out of once familiar places. In addition, the airways that circle the globe have become pathways for human-produced pollutants. Smoke and smog cover cities, deadening the air around them, but are also carried by the wind to every corner of the earth.. The wind knows no boundaries; chemical creations spewed out by humans have infiltrated every ecosystem.
These many ways in which humans have changed, subjugated, and subverted the functionings of life systems on a global scale have had massive ramifications on all of life itself. The 6th mass extinction event is occurring in our time, right now. The once abundant biodiversity of life on earth has been swept away, hidden in corners and pockets, and is slowly crumbling. The true scale of the extinction event is hard to measure, species in oceans and small vertebrates are difficult to track, let alone the fact that many will go extinct before they are even discovered, but many scientific studies tell us the same thing: background extinction rates are 100-1000 times the typical levels. Species that have gone extinct in the last 100 years would have otherwise taken 10,000-100,000 years to go extinct. Focusing on extinctions alone may give the impression that not all species are threatened, or that we only lay on the brink of this mass extinction event. The remaining 7500 cheetahs, 97,000 giraffes, and 5000 Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, along with millions of other species, will tell you different. Their populations have been decimated. To visually understand our impact on the wildlife on earth, take a look at the figure below, an accounting of the total biomass in the world. In the right hand figure, wild mammals make up barely a percent of the human biomass, and are dwarfed even further by human-dependent livestock. Only in modern times has this disparity appeared. Humans have quite literally consumed and grown far beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain other life forms. Not only big mammals, but small vertebrates, oceanic fishes, corals and plants are all affected. Human systems have changed every life supporting system on the planet.
What giants we are on this earth, to take in so much energy, to grow so large. Our measurable impact is so vast that looking down on the planet it would be impossible to not note that indeed, humans exist and dominate; we have imprinted that fact on the surface of the earth, smeared our waters with it, screamed it out into the air we breathe. And yet compositionally, we are tiny, we are nothing. The left-hand graph above reveals our shocking place in the living world. Humans make up 0.01% of all living things. Viruses, tiny miniscule viruses, make up twice our mass. Plants dominate Map A, making up half of our blue, green earth. Protists, fungi, bacteria and even archaea hold more relevance than humans. We are a blip, a dot, the blink of an eye. But our systems inhabit and pervade so much of the world. To be irrelevant and all-encompassing, this duality is not contradictory, but a fundamental facet of our reality; our systems overshoot the capacity of the planet and of our minds to comprehend, but at the same time, project our perceived importance upon the world.
Grappling with the vastness and complexity of systems is extremely difficult. The interconnected nature of our reality as well as the scale of human actions create ripples that reverberate through the world. But being ecologically blind to our relationship within this living world that we share with a myriad of rare, and unique life forms is a dangerous luxury briefly afforded to us by our energy bubble. Eventually, that bubble will burst, and whether we like it or not, we will be forced to deal with the consequences of crippling living systems on a planetary scale. We must accept that we live in a system bigger than all of us. The mountains, the rivers, the oceans, and the wind will continue to exist long after our time. However big we are, in life and in our minds, we are not the world; we simply live in it.