We began around 3 million years ago (give or take a couple hundred thousand years). We evolved over time, becoming smarter in some ways, less intelligent in others as we have focused our efforts on increasingly narrow fields of study.
For example, we know a lot more about computers than even our grandparents, but most of us lack the knowledge to efficiently grow our own crops or raise healthy sheep. With each generation, we become just that tiny amount more specialized.
Yet as a species, we move forward, creating monuments to our shared knowledge – beautiful buildings, massive dams and bridges, tunnels under the ocean and seed banks to preserve foods from potential future disasters.
We’ve gradually migrated into cities – fewer and fewer of us staying in rural areas – because it’s easier to make a decent living where we’re congregated together, where we can take advantage of efficiencies and economies of scale.
We’re close to having self-driving cars and robotic surgeons. We already have smart machines that can handle a multitude of transactions. Rarely do we reach a human being when we call a company seeking assistance with some problem. And for the most part, we can get the help we need without having to speak with one of our fellow creatures.
On average, we’re wealthier and healthier than we’ve ever been, historically speaking. We seem to have reached the pinnacle of success. And maybe we have. Maybe it’s downhill from here. I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m saying it’s worth considering.
We have altered our planet more than any other species that ever lived. We’ve blasted away mountaintops, dredged swamps, altered the course of rivers, denuded the forests that once spread from sea to sea. We’ve warmed the atmosphere and the oceans just by doing the ordinary things that keep us comfortable, by building the nests where we live and work and play.
We’ve set in motion numerous processes – some intended (some not) – that now may be unstoppable. We don’t know that, of course. But it’s possible. We’ve gotten so good at killing bacteria and viruses that they have to adapt at a much faster pace than ever before.
We’ve brought certain species to the point of extinction, meaning other species have been irrevocably altered as a result – not always for the worse, but not always for the better either.
We’ve stretched our ability to feed ourselves by the use of genetic modification and the application of chemicals such that there is little margin for error. If something catastrophic were to happen to the wheat crop or the rice crop or the corn crop, the challenges we face might be incredibly high.
We’ve strained the honeybee population almost to the breaking point. And we need those creatures to pollinate our fields and farms – at least to the same degree as we’re used to.
We’ve brought ourselves to the very top, getting more efficient, more specialized, more dependent on each other to keep our human machinery running at peak levels. We assume that we’ll be able to adapt to any changes that occur because we’ve always been able to in the past.
But what if we’re wrong? What if some catastrophe is lurking out there, as yet unknown? Greenland suddenly shedding its glaciers or the eruption of Yellowstone or a germ that mutates in just the wrong way. What then?
Some of us will survive. Probably many of us. But many of us will perish. Perhaps most of us. Perhaps we’ll be down to a precious one or two million, scrabbling to survive in a hostile world, trying to start over. And maybe the survivors will succeed. But maybe they won’t.
The point is – we may be at our peak. This may be our finest hour. We might be on the descent from here. We can’t know that. And I’m not trying to bring anybody down. But I think we need to consider the possibility that our actions are denigrating our environment to the point where it may not be habitable by this many of us for many years longer.
We can’t plan for everything, of course. Some things are beyond even our control – like a killer asteroid. But there are many things we can change. We’ve done it many times before. We just need to want to. So far, we haven’t wanted to.