Redefining Ourselves for Survival

Jun 12th, 2020 | By | Category: Biodiversity/Conservation

By Geoffrey Holland, guest writer for Transition Earth.

earth is better

I’m always happy when consequential people make consequential remarks about stuff that matters. One of the most influential people on Earth, the revered naturalist Jane Goodall, has just delivered a consequential whopper.

If you’re paying attention, you have to recognize that humanity is on a dead-end course. I’m thinking consequential, as in, ‘Could humans go extinct?’.

It haunts me to the core to know that the answer to that question is yes; yes, very possibly, the human story on Earth may be headed to a dead end.

No apologies if ‘human extinction’ sounds overheated and alarmist. ‘Very possibly’ is what the science tells us.  We are currently on a course that could make it so hot, so extreme, in so many ways, our planet could become largely or maybe even entirely uninhabitable.

Even if there were just a five percent chance of extinction for most or all of life on Earth, is that a risk that we should be taking?  The fact is, we don’t know if the possibility of human extinction is five percent, a hundred percent, or some dark place in-between. We don’t know. We do know that our own extinction is a possibility; a very real possibility. The risk is real, if not quantifiable. The science points ominously. It tells us humans are driving life on Earth to the brink.

So, it’s awesome when we pause for a memorable quote from someone of consequence.

Before I get to Dame Jane’s weighty comment, I want to express how much her example has meant to me. I began following Jane Goodall’s adventure with the chimps in Gombe, Tanzania, when I was a college student. Since then, her tireless quest to speak for nature, to warn about the failing health of our planet, to urge us to channel our better selves, has driven my own commitment to the only biosphere we have.

Back to the latest memorable comment from Jane Goodall. It was delivered early in June, 2020 to a conference on farming and food security.  She said, “If we don’t do things differently, we’re finished.”  She was talking about the indefensible way humans treat animals and nature.

Consider the reality: it took from our human beginnings to the year 1970 to get to a population of 3.5 billion. Two hundred thousand years; it took that long to grow from zero to 3.5 billion. Since 1970, in just fifty years, human numbers have exploded to nearly 8 billion; in just fifty years, more than double.  We’re still adding about 75 million more humans every passing year. We could be at 10 billion as soon as 2050.

Can we afford to ignore that indisputable reality?  The consequences are clear for all to see. We’ve got massive deforestation and top soil loss. We’re exploiting the world’s precious aquifers to exhaustion. We’re sucking the life out of our oceans, and filling them with our plastic waste. We’re pumping billions of tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases annually, into our atmosphere. We’re submerging coastal regions with sea level rise, and causing every kind of extreme weather, translating to unprecedented draughts and wildfire in some parts of the world, while others are hit with ever more powerful storms and flooding. For young people across our planet, the dream of a better life grows dimmer by the day.


Dr. Jane Goodall []

Dr. Jane Goodall []


On top of all that, the entirety of humanity is now hampered by global scale infectious disease. And most recently, we find ourselves immersed in an earth-scale dialogue on the meaning of human dignity, caused by the latest in an increasing number of deaths of innocent black people at the hands of police.

Life on Earth is unraveling. The evidence is unambiguous. The dots are evident for all to see. Anybody, who chooses to pay attention can see that those dots connect in an increasingly dark place for humanity.

Jane Goodall’s comment puts the human challenge in simple terms, “If we don’t do things differently, we’re finished.”  Simple; concise; prophetic.

The science tells us Dr. Goodall’s warning is spot-on. We humans must massively change our ways. We must transform our relationship with nature, and with each other.

Since the beginnings of agriculture, perhaps 12,000 years ago, humans have defined themselves as superior to nature. Our written history has been shaped by dominance; humans dominating and relentlessly exploiting nature; men dominating and subjugating women; cultures behaving tribally, marking the human journey with cruelty, and bloody conquest. Our social, economic, political and environmental record has been forged in that cultural crucible.

Now, we humans are at the end of our rope. As we became the dominant form of life on Earth, we proliferated to the extreme. We’ve come to a point where we’re taking all the planet has to offer for ourselves. Nature is under siege, by us. The biosphere we depend on is in freefall.




The good news is, on every continent, more and more people are shaking off denial and indifference. The opportunity to achieve a systemic overhaul, on the most fundamental levels, is real.  To a degree, the overhaul has already started. We are obligated to see it through.   As Gandhi once said, “We must be the change we wish to see.”

As we work for answers for the COVID-19 infectious disease, we also find ourselves deeply engaged in a dialogue about racial injustice. “Black Lives Matter’; that’s our current focus, as it should be. Indigenous peoples, and people of color, have suffered abuse at the hands of rapacious, dominant cultures for centuries. The end appears near for empty entitlement. Polls tell us support for ‘Black Lives Matter’, across racial lines, is close to a super-majority; and so it should be. Rectifying racial injustice must be a civilization-scale priority.

Let’s assume Americans are wise enough in November to elect candidates that represent a worthy course forward; what should be the agenda of the new President?

Let’s start by regretting and making amends for the violence and wrong that has been done by our white European ancestors toward Native Americans and African Americans.  Let’s find ways to atone that serve the common good; favoring conciliation over devolution into tribalism. The end game must be a triumph of our common humanity.

Along with attention to racial equality, the new President should immediately put the weight of his office behind a massive push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and for making ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’, the law. Women have been denied basic rights for millennia. Women are entitled to an equal place at the table going forward.

In the world I hope to see, the new President leads on racial equality, and paves the way for women to be equal in all ways under the law.

Along with those much-needed advancements in the human condition, let’s work to build a proper covenant with nature; a covenant in which we see ourselves as a part of nature, not separate and superior to it. Let’s examine every aspect of how we live our lives. Let’s mend our ways through a common commitment to help nature to renew herself.

The time has come to justify our place as the pre-eminent species on our planet.  We humans who are living now, and all those that came before us, are culpable in some way for our current condition. We must recognize our failings, and learn from them. We must find a way forward that includes all humans, and embraces our place in nature. We must choose to exercise our common planetary citizenship. While we’re at it, let’s celebrate our successes as we shape a worthy, new beginning for life on Earth.

As a planetary citizen named Jane Goodall so wisely advises, let’s do things differently, while survival remains an open and achievable objective.


Geoffrey Holland is author of The Hydrogen Age, and Coordinator for Dialogues for the Stanford University Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere.

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