ENVIRONOTES: Has humanity’s intelligence outstripped its wisdom?

A final column from Roy Strang, who passed away Sept. 13 at age 94

Longtime Peace Arch News environmental columnist Roy Strang passed away on Sept. 13 at age 94. Below is his final column, which he submitted in early August.

A look at the history of humankind shows a steady differentiation from the primitive, environmentally neutral life of the early hunter-gatherer to the complex sophistication of today’s urbanite with many environmental impacts. Is this steady change a good thing?

Perhaps even more surprising is the current rate of change, so fast as to be challenging.

Archaeological studies have ascertained that the first stone tools were made about 2.5 million years ago; evidence suggests fire was first used for vegetation management 100,000 years BP (before present).

Water mills were developed about 4,000 years ago, to be followed by primitive wind mills about 3,000 years later. The slow transition towards settled farming communities as a drift to cities and urbanization continues. Early farmers had only their own muscle power and that of semi-domesticated beasts to work the land and supply wood fuel.

A major change began in England in about 1700, when shortage of wood turned attention to abundant supplies of coal.

Some of this coal lay in wet strata, which required pumps to drive out water and make the coal accessible – the start of the Industrial Revolution.

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In the absence of reliable roads, canals and then railways developed to move manufactured goods and produce around. The first commercial railway opened in England in 1825 between Liverpool and Manchester; just 20 years later there were thousands of railway kilometres in England. Now luxury trains are speeding across continents. We’ve gone further: space travel is becoming commercialized, in 1969 the U.S.A.’s Apollo mission enabled a man to set foot on the moon, and now plans are afoot to have astronauts live on Mars.

There are now about eight billion people living on Earth (some scientists assert that seven billion is the maximum carrying capacity); are we better off than our ancestors?

There are still a few scattered groups living as hunter-gatherers, but in general life is more sophisticated, complex, and comfortable for the majority; life expectancy has almost doubled, though modern diseases, morbid obesity, and contaminants have shortening effects.

Many social scientists and neuroscientists believe that, beyond a fairly low level, increasing wealth does not bring happiness and well-being, but that the hormones dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin are strongly influential in people’s outlook and that they are affected by diet. Can we improve on this?

A look at the past 300 years, such a short period, shows how humankind’s industrial activities are acidifying the oceans, doing incalculable environmental damage, and significantly reducing stocks of wild animals, including fish.

These harms were unintentional and unplanned, but now they are well-known if not entirely understood.

We have tools to address these issues: we utilize only a small fraction of the annual 3,766,800 exajoules emitted by the sun; we’re learning how to make use of geothermal energy; there’s a tidal (gravitational) energy kit at the bottom of the Bay of Fundy awaiting repair and restoration; nuclear technology continues to develop, and the science of carbon capture and sequestration too is advancing.

Where will genetic engineering and intelligent design take us? Have we the wit and wisdom to benefit, or will we, like Robert Burns’ ploughman “backward cast my e’e / On prospects drear! / And forward tho’ I canna see, / I guess and fear?”


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