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Wilderdom Vignettes

The Adaptational Challenge for
21st Century Humans

James Neill
Last updated:
12 Dec 2004


Stand on my grave and tell me the news of the world.
- Jacob Shamier, 1774
(quoted in James, 1996, p. 14) 


It is very possible that there are amazing far distant futures for
homo sapiens and what may evolve beyond.  It is also very possible that our species’ future will be much shorter and less enviable than expected.  What happens during the 21st century will be critical.  What futures dare we imagine for our great-great grandchildren?  What kind of world will the projected 10 billion or so people inherit in 2100?  What futures are we creating through our actions?

Our human potential is vast yet we teeter and slide into the abyss…how did this happen and where are we headed?  How are we coping?  What will be on earth in 100 years time? What can be done?  There are two broad global trends we need to contend with:

a) 60-100% projected population growth in the next 100 years; and

b) increasing collective consumption of natural resources which currently exceeds replenishment by 20%.

Human life has undergone phenomenal cultural transformation, especially over the last couple of hundred years.  The rapid cultural changes have outpaced genetic evolution and the pace of change seems to be accelerating (Gleik, 1999).  These changes have fundamentally altered virtually every observable aspect of daily human life.  This means that people are increasingly facing situations which differ in significant ways from those experienced by their forbearers (e.g., see Figure 1).  Charles Reich explained it this way:

Every stage of human civilization is accompanied by, and also influenced by, a consciousness.  When civilization changes slowly, the existing consciousness is likely to be in substantial accord with underlying material realities.  But industrialism brought sudden uprooting and a rapidly accelerating change. Consciousness then began to lag increasingly far behind reality, or to lose touch with a portion of reality altogether.  Today, a large segment of the American people still have a consciousness which was appropriate to the nineteenth-century society of small towns, face-to-face relationships, and individual economic enterprise.  Another large segment of people have a consciousness formed by organized technological and corporate society, but far removed from the realities of human needs. (1970, p. 17)

Figure 1. Vic[toria]’s progress, now and then. 30. Habituation (Homer, 1985).

Perhaps people throughout the ages have been inclined to view the problems of their day overdramatically.  Or perhaps the looming sense of a new Armageddon this time around is not a case of crying wolf.  Wilber paints the situation forebodingly:

the more vertical levels of growth there are in a culture, the more things there are that can go horribly wrong…the greater the depth of a society, the greater the burden placed on the education and transformation of its citizens. The greater the depth, the more things that can go massively, wretchedly, horribly wrong…. Our society can be sick in ways that the early foragers literally could not even imagine. (2001, quoted in Entheogen Experiment, n. d.) 

Given the intense challenge of postmodern living, how are we coping and what are we doing to adapt?  Many indicators seem rather paradoxical.  For example, life expectancy continues to increase but so do rates of psychological disturbance.  Some countries face increasing malnutrition, other countries face increasing obesity, whilst other countries face both trends.  Social roles have become more fluid, yet work has become more specialized.  We have more technological efficiency and know-how than ever, yet we find ourselves working harder than ever.  We have access to more information than ever, but are bewildered by the spiraling array of unsolved problems.

One of the most significant challenges for humans of the 21st century is that the human population is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next 50 years from 6 billion to 9 billion.  Most of this growth is projected to occur in Asia and Africa, whilst in some regions, such as Europe, human population is expected to decline.  Although the world population is increasing, the rate of population growth is declining.  Thus, the total human population is expected to plateau at around 10 to 12 billion around 2100 and then start declining  (Carnell, 2000).

Whether there will be sufficient resources for the 10 to 12 billion people to live viably in 100 years time, however, is doubtful.  The increase in natural resource consumption during this period could strip the earth of the bulk of its readily consumable resources.  Current rates of consumption are increasing and are now exceeding natural resource replenishment by 20% (see Figure 2; World Wildlife Fund, 2004).  “Voracious” is the locust-like image-word that comes to mind.

Graph showing over time how  our ecological foorprint now exceeds the planet's capacity sustain us

Figure 2. Humanity’s ecological footprint over time (World Wildlife Fund, 2004).

Along with the increasing world population and decreasing natural resources are a bevy of other possible challenges that each could trigger the end of the world as we know it.  These include, but are not limited to, a coronal mass ejection from the sun, a sizeable meteorite, and nuclear war.  The potential consequences arising from such scenarios are graphically described in Twietmeyer’s morbidly curious essay “What Will The End of Society be Like?” (2004).

Yet can humans somehow defy the odds and navigate this precarious situation by reducing collective consumption and living at least somewhat sustainably for the next 100 years?  If we could, then 22nd century people could inherit zero (or declining) population growth and developed techno-cultural systems of sustainable living.  Framed in this way, the future of homo sapiens (and much else on the planet) hinges critically and fatally around the current and future actions of the 6 billion people alive on the planet today.   Critical to this future will be efforts to bridge gaps between natural human capacity and the complex cultural demands. 

What can be done to help humans adapt and evolve?  Among other things, we need efficient methods for facilitating adaptive consciousness and teaching life skills that will lead to more sustainable ways of life.  For example, as educators we might ask, “what skills and knowledge are needed by human beings to meet the challenges of our times?”  As psychologists, we might ask, “what tools and approaches can help people adapt cognitively, emotionally, socially and behaviorally?”  And as researchers we might ask “how can we can explore, measure, and seek to improve the effectiveness of psychosocial intervention programs and sustainable living projects?”

It is very possible that there are amazing far distant futures for homo sapiens and what may evolve beyond, but only if we move towards such futures.  Margaret Mead (1954) challenged our evolutionary hesitancy: “There are too many complaints about society having to move too fast to keep up with the machine.  There is great advantage in moving fast if you move completely, if social, educational, and recreational changes keep pace.” (quoted in Hathaway, 1997, p. 1).  What futures dare we imagine for our great-great grandchildren?  What kind of world will the 10 billion or so people inherit in 2100? What futures are we creating through our actions? Who, if anyone, will stand on our graves and what news will they tell us of the world?

References 

Carnell, B. (2000). Projections of future world population.  Accessed online 12 December, 2004, http://www.overpopulation.com/discussion/fullthread$msgNum=195&page=2

Entheogen Experiment (n. d.).  Transcending Ken Wilber. Accessed online 12 December, 2004, http://www.wf.net/~aardvark/ee/essays/wilber01.htm.

Gleik, J. (1999). Faster. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hathaway, P. (1997). Focus to the future. Change Agent Briefing, 6(1), 1-3. Accessed online 12 December, 2004, www.thechangeagent.com/pdfs/chng6_1.pdf

Homer, A. (1985). Vic[toria]’s progress, now and then. 30. Habituation. The Age (Sunday Extra), Melbourne, 27 July, 6.

James, J. (1996). Thinking in the future tense: A workout for the mind.  Touchstone: New York.

Reich, C. A. (1970). The greening of America. Bantam: New York.

Tweitmeyer, T. (2004). What will the end of society be like? Accessed online 12 December, 2004, http://www.rense.com/general52/what.htm

World Wild Life Fund (2004). 2004 Living Planet Report. Accessed online 12 December, 2004, http://www.panda.org/news_facts/publications/general/livingplanet/index.cfm.