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Are We On The Edge Of Cultural Evolution Taking Us Towards Sustainability?


Part 4 in a Series on Evolution and Sustainability

Cumulating evidence suggests it’s been billions of years since our solar system took shape and several billion after that to get to the stage where the complex biology of the human was possible on this planet. So it can be seen as slightly “embarrassing” that it’s taken our species only 60,000 years to colonize the planet and, yet, with present trend lines, we are already challenging the earth’s carrying capacity. Our migration to the Americas, the New World, only goes back to the end of the last ice age. In that 12,000 years or so we’ve seen Homo sapiens change from a spear-thrower to a potential nuclear annihilator, with expanding global industrial activity contaminating the very web of life from which we grew. Some rightly ask whether we should call this “progress” or even “civilization”.

We shouldn’t be too quick to frame our hasty evolution as the survival of the fittest. The dinosaurs lasted 150 million years, until about 65 million years ago, and some of them continue on as today’s birds. And our vertebrate relative, the sharks, that are still with us and are at such risk from industrial activities, go back 420 million years. Think about this! Admittedly we’ve outlived our bipedal ancestors the Neanderthal and Hobbit. But the very capacity coming from our communicative Big Brain that may be responsible for our survivability to date now seems to be contributing to our evolutionary vulnerability. We are clever but not yet wise.

We have started to wise up to the fact that we live Here On Earth and, as David Suzuki and others keep reminding us, that the economy and society depend upon the relative stability and biodiversity of the biosphere. And we have become somewhat innovative in our attempts to self-regulate, including through international treaties, though thus far we’ve failed to develop an effective strategy to prevent the catastrophic impacts of the quickly emerging climate crisis.

Exploring Ourselves

We have finally turned our Big Brain capacity towards exploring ourselves and we are learning that we never were alone on this planet; we co-evolved with other species, particularly the mammals, and exist as part of an inter-being of life. And we now know that we carry several layers of brain function that with more integrated awareness can help us to act in a more ecologically-responsible way. We are also learning that the institutions of domination that evolved over our fairly short period colonizing the planet, whether theocratic, patriarchal, feudal, statist or capitalist, do not serve us well in the face of the challenges of sustainability.

Meanwhile the expanding global market carries on creating more goods which have more to do with wants than meeting basic needs, and inequality continues to grow. Those promoting today’s corporate-organized economy encourage the majority of us, with flat incomes, to go on consuming to maintain economic growth, while, as recessions threaten, we are told not to go into more debt and that austerity is required. This internally-contradictory economy is no more sustainable than the fossil fuels that have propelled it. In the future “perpetual economic growth” will seem as indefensible as flat-earth ideology does today.

The Digital Revolution

Are we approaching a nodal point in our cultural evolution? Are we becoming more capable of grasping the big picture? Will the proliferation of personal communications technology, from the computer and internet to mobile phones, help? These, no doubt, are qualitatively changing how we communicate and what we communicate about. InHere On Earth Flannery is hopeful that this will help create a globally integrated network of consciousness among humanity, acting almost as a super-organism. However it won’t necessarily enhance our integrated awareness, the realization that we come from co-evolution, part of a biological inter-being upon the planet.

The new technology can actually interfere with integrated awareness. We all see how it distracts people and compounds our “collective attention deficit disorder”. Our brain evolved to make us aware of unexpected events in our environment. Hand-held device addiction can make us oblivious to our social and natural surroundings and interconnectedness. Nor does communications technology ensure an end to the destructive extraction of scarce resources and planned obsolescence in the profitable electronics industry. The communications revolution is already creating a new global toxic waste stream.

Post-digital generations may prove to be ecologically wiser than their predecessors, if for no other reason than their greater exposure to the realities of the biosphere. The expansion of documentaries investigating every nook and cranny of the biosphere, such as we see on The Nature of Things, is unprecedented. But it is naïve to count on this proliferation of images to create the motivation for sustainability. The post-digital generations are the most urbanized and consumerist that the world has ever seen.

The upcoming generations will create new pressures for participation and democratization, which may be used to redirect the economy towards sustainability. We are already seeing a worldwide intensification of positive activism on a broad range of issues. On Valentine’s Day we saw One Billion Rising link people across the planet to stop violence against women. But the communications technology alone will not redirect us towards a realization that we co-evolve with other life forms; it is just as likely to reinforce the narcissism of our image-driven celebrity culture as to deepen our evolutionary awareness.

There’s a paradox here, for environmental consciousness seems to be higher in urban than rural populations, especially rural areas that remain economically dependent on toxic energy extraction or agricultural practices. And yet we know that until we move towards more sustainable practices, urban lifestyles will remain heavily dependent upon rural and hinterland resource extraction. Some urban environmentalists are therefore open to the charge of naïve hypocrisy.


We have to go beyond communications, to make changes in how and where we live. We need to live closer to the biodiversity of nature, without continuing to undermine this. We know this doesn’t happen with urban sprawl and the suburban commute; however, the nature of urbanization is itself changing.

There’s already some progress towards “eco-cities”; the demand is high in the most densely populated countries, China and India. By designing eco-cities for people rather than cars, 90% of the energy and 80% of the land used per capita can be saved. Sustainable architectural planning can reduce the need for construction materials for dwellings, which is now more than half of the developing world’s demand. India alone immediately requires 44 million new housing units.

Eco-cities can reduce the waste stream and demand for water, which is already scarce in some regions. They can begin to establish food security based on a local growing market. They can open up the landscape, allowing us to better co-exist with the habitats of other creatures; to regain an awareness of our interdependence with the biodiversity of the planet. The human population cannot continue to grow endlessly, any more than can the economy. Eco-cities can however be a catalyst in creating cultural evolution that steers us towards sustainability.

The UN’s 1987 report on sustainable development called for 12% of the lands to be protected wilderness. Eco-cities can help us withdraw from presently dominated natural spaces, out of respect for our fellow creatures and in the interests of healthy co-evolution and biodiversity. With care we can probably meet the goal set by Arne Naess of ensuring that one-third of the land mass remains in the wild, while restricting ourselves to one-third for meeting our primary needs. There simply has to be such a new world in the making.

In the last part of this Series, I’ll look at the implications for Saskatchewan’s sustainability. The whole series is available at:

R-Town Feb. 8, 2013