It is time the human race had a new name. The old one, Homo sapiens – wise or thinking man – has been around since 1758 and is no longer a fitting description for the creature we have become.
When the Swedish father of taxonomy Carl Linnaeus first bestowed it, humanity no doubt seemed wise when compared with what scientists of the day knew about both humans and other animals. We have since learned our behaviour is not as wise as we like to imagine – while some animals are quite intelligent. In short it is a name which is both inaccurate and which promotes a dangerous self-delusion.
In a letter to the scientific journal Nature I have proposed there should be a worldwide discussion about the formal reclassification of humanity, involving both scientists and the public. The new name should reflect more truthfully the attributes and characteristics of the modern 21st century human – which are markedly different from those of 18th century ‘man’. Consider, for example, the following.
Humans are presently engaged in the greatest act of extermination of other species by a single species, probably since life on Earth began. We are destroying an estimated 30,000 species a year - a scale comparable to the great geological catastrophes of the past.
We currently contaminate the atmosphere with 30 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent a year. This risks an episode of accelerated planetary warming reaching 4-5 degrees by the end of this century and 8 degree by the middle of next century – a level at which food production would be severely disrupted, posing a serious risk to all members of an enlarged human population.
We have manufactured around 83,000 synthetic chemicals, many of them toxic, and some of which we inhale, ingest in food or water or absorb through the skin every day of our lives. A 2005 U.S. study found around 200 industrial chemicals including pesticides, dioxins and flame-retardants typically contaminate newborn babies in that country.
An E.U. study (2010) found compelling evidence that even harmless chemicals can recombine with one another to form poisons. These chemicals are now found all over the planet, even at the poles and in the deep oceans and new ones, of unknown hazard, are being produced all the time. Yet we wonder at the rise in cancers and ‘mystery’ illnesses.
Every year we release around 121 million tonnes of nitrogen, 10 million tonnes of phosphorus and 10 billion tonnes of CO2 (which causes acidification) into our rivers, lakes and oceans – many times more that the Earth recirculates naturally. This is causing the collapse of marine and aquatic ecosystems, disrupting ocean food chains and replacing them with ‘dead zones’ that no longer support life. The number of these found has risen to over 400 in recent years.
We are presently losing about one per cent of the world’s farming and grazing land every year to a combination of erosion, degradation, urban sprawl, mining, pollution and sea level rise. The situation has deteriorated in the last 30 years, confronting us with the challenge of doubling food production by 2060 off a fraction of remaining land. At the same time we waste a third of the world’s food.
Current freshwater demand from agriculture, cities and energy use is on track to double by mid century, while resources in most countries – especially of groundwater – are drying up or becoming so polluted they are unusable.
Humanity passed peak fish in 2004, peak oil in 2006 and is likely to encounter growing scarcities of other primary resources, including mineral nutrients, in coming decades. Yet our demand for all resources – including minerals, energy and water – will more than double, especially in Asia. If all the world were to live like contemporary Australians or Americans, it would require four planet Earths to satisfy their wants, says the Global Footprint Network.
Humans invest $1.6 trillion a year in new weapons – but only $50 billion a year in better ways to produce food. Despite progress in arms reduction, the world still has around 20,000 nuclear warheads and at least 19 countries now have access to them or to the technology to make them.
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