A monkey trap of our own construction

In parts of Asia, indigenous populations have developed an extremely simple yet ingenious way of catching the otherwise elusive wild monkeys. The trap involves a hollow object such as a gourd, which is securely staked to the ground, with a narrow opening on the top, just about wide enough for a monkey to squeeze its arm through. Inside, something sweet, like a banana or rice, is set as the bait.

Attracted by the smell, a curious monkey comes along to investigate, and pushes his arm into the gourd or jar to reach the treat. Then, because the hand is full, the monkey is unable to withdraw it. So far, nothing too unusual. What happens next is quite extraordinary.

The monkey continues to pull and twist his hand to no avail, and even the sight of the hunter returning to the trap is not enough to persuade the hapless monkey to give up what it believes is its prize. The trap in this case is entirely of the monkey’s own construction.

That inability to accept a modest, temporary loss of something seemingly within its grasp, even when weighed against the enormous loss that such tenacity entails would, at first, sound like one of those parables about how our cousin primates are, let’s face it, not very clever at all.

That judgement is harsh. Monkeys are powerfully programmed by evolution to hunt relentlessly for food, and to hang onto it for dear life – in this case, literally. What this primate is suffering from is an extreme example of short term reasoning, and a fatal weakness in an otherwise skilled scavenger and survivor.

Author Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance describes what he calls value traps. Of these, “the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of a commitment to precious values…the facts are there but you don’t see them”. In the case of the monkey trap, Pirsig writes: “the monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped – by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the bait. He cannot see that freedom without the bait is more valuable than capture with it”.

The wisest of apes, the highly evolved genus homo sapiens on the other hand would of course never trade certain future disaster for the possibility of avoiding modest losses in the here and now – right? The evidence that we have indeed evolved to be able to detect and so evade latterday monkey traps is, to put it mildly, unconvincing.

Over the 200 millennia or so since our species first evolved, we gradually overcame just about every obstacle that nature could fling in our path, from sabre toothed tigers to lethal microbes, expanding our numbers and our reach to now occupy almost every habitable square kilometre on the surface of the planet. While there are today over seven billion humans alive, our numbers have more than quadrupled in just over a century, and risen seven-fold since the 1830s.

Despite much talk of the population explosion having been defused, Earth’s numbers continue to balloon by the population equivalent of the Republic of Ireland every two-and-a-half weeks.

In just the last two centuries, we have figured out how to harness the colossal power of fossil energy to literally reshape the world to our enterprises. More than half the forest cover on the entire planet has disappeared since 1800, as humans pushed ever deeper into uncharted regions and brought them under the plough.

The evolutionary monkey trap has now been well and truly sprung. Science has, for probably the last half century or so, begun to grasp and quantify this massive unstructured reshaping of the biosphere by the actions and waste products, some deliberate, many incidental, of billions of humans simply going about their business.

Veteran broadcaster David Attenborough put it in the plainest of language recently: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface and, since humans don’t actually live there, you would expect our impacts on these vast systems to be limited. The opposite is the case. A lethal cocktail of chronic overfishing, widespread pollution, eutrophication, increases in near-surface water temperatures, reef destruction and rapid ocean acidification has already taken a fearsome toll on the web of marine life.

Even if all human impacts stopped tomorrow, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”, according to Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A million years, bear in mind, is five times longer than the evolutionary history of our species. But of course we won’t stop fishing, we won’t stop polluting and, rather than conserving the world’s greatest reef system, the current Australian government plans to use parts of them as an offshore dump for mining waste.

The greatest monkey trap of all is climate change. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our current business-as-usual trajectory will see average global surface temperatures increase by between 4 and 6 degrees centigrade this century, with ‘positive feedbacks’ in the climate system causing temperatures – and sea levels – to continue rising for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years into the future.

Back in 1992, leaders of all the world’s governments got together for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Even though the data was nowhere near as robust as is available today, scientific guidance on the scale and severity of the growing climate crisis was unequivocal. Climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth, including human life.

What emerged from the conference were the 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration, a bold document drawn up to guide humanity onto a sustainable path with the natural systems upon which we depend. Environmental protection was finally to be placed as a key pillar of all future human progress, rather than some annoying afterthought.

And to make sure the politicians were left in no doubt as to the scale of this crisis, later in 1992, a panel of 1,700 senior scientists issued a public appeal, headlined: “Warning to Humanity”. Humans and the natural world were, they wrote, “on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment . . . if not checked, many of our current practices . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life as we know it”.

What followed instead were two decades of the most relentless resource plunder, habitat destruction and pollution in the last two centuries, as China, India and much of the Far East raced to play ‘catch-up’ with the world’s major polluters. This unprecedented evisceration of the rich diversity of life on Earth has been celebrated as an era of record “economic growth”.

So what exactly is at stake? A major paper in the science journal Nature argued that Earth is on the cusp of one of the greatest ever die-offs, involving mass extinctions of species.

“When we kick over into a mass extinction regime, results are extreme, they’re irreversible and they’re unpredictable,” according to Dr David Jablonski of the University of Chicago. Prof Stuart Pimm of Duke University added: “We are living in geologically unprecedented times. Only five times in Earth’s history has life been as threatened as it is now.”

Mistaken ideologies and distorted politics make a resolution of our ecological crux all but impossible within the prevailing growth-fixated paradigm. “The current political system is broken,” according to the British government’s chief science adviser, Dr Bob Watson. “Nothing has changed in 20 years, we are not remotely on a course to be sustainable.”

Tackling climate change was, for a short few years, beginning to gain traction on Ireland’s political agenda. The electoral wipeout of the Green Party in 2011 heralded the sudden end of that brief dalliance. The appointment of a political fixer with zero interest in or understanding of the Environment brief was Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore’s two-fingered salute to sustainability.

In the 20 years since the Earth Summit, Ireland’s average temperature has increased by 0.75C, exactly in line with a projected 4C calamity this century. The last five years in particular have seen our once-benign climate turn distinctly hostile, with record-breaking flooding events followed by almost unprecedented Arctic conditions, followed by still more flooding. The fodder crisis in 2012 in particular was a wake-up call to those in Irish agriculture who think that climate change is somebody else’s problem.

Three major recent reports, from the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the European Environment Agency all point to the same stark conclusion: the climate crisis is rapidly turning into a planetary emergency that is fast moving beyond humanity’s ability to contain, let alone reverse.

“This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths,” according to Leo Johnson of PwC. “One thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2 degrees, but 4, and, at our current rates, 6.” While this is strikingly unvarnished language coming from a firm of management consultants, PwC’s Johnson did gloss over one salient fact – neither individuals nor societies can possibly ‘plan’ for a 4-6C apocalypse.

The climate change monkey trap is a self-constructed trap into which humanity has plunged its right arm. Its left arm is up to the elbow in another gourd labelled ‘ecological overload’.

Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man’ was written by Prof Michael Boulter of London’s Natural History Museum. He summed up our existential conundrum pithily in an interview in 2008: “I think human beings are a failed species – we’re on the way out. Our lives are so artificial they can’t possibly be sustained within the limits of our planet.”

If this all sounds like bad news, Boulter, with the cold eye of a scientist, was able to point to a silver lining: “The planet would of course be delighted for humans to become extinct, and the sooner it happens, the better.”

Persisting in the belief that once the world wakes up to the certain fact that we’re in the process of wiping ourselves out we will decisively to draw back from the brink appears little more than a comforting myth. Author Chris Hedges explores this painfully when he wrote “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.”

Even now, at two minutes to midnight, there are real steps we can take to at either delay or (if extraordinarily lucky) even dodge disaster. For starters, scientists now estimate that 80 per cent of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground to avert disaster.

We now have no choice but to forgo the easy wealth that comes from burning this vast carbon store and switch to low-carbon sources. Like it or not, this also means the winding down of consumption-based capitalism and major declines both in energy consumption and living standards.

And this remains, perhaps the greatest challenge of all. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise ape’, having struggled to overcome all natural obstacles, is now facing the most intractable evolutionary conundrum of all – learning and accepting our own limitations as but one species among many, which together form the web of life on Earth. Only by letting go can we hope to escape the trap our ingenious rapacity has sprung for us.

This description coined by the great 19th century naturalist, John Muir has never been bettered: “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim. This article was first published in the summer 2014 issue
of An Taisce’s magazine.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.
  • mroshea

    Terrific article!

  • CoilinMacLochlainn

    Australian Clive Palmer (mining billionaire and former climate sceptic) who you memorably battled on the Pat Kenny Show on RTE1 some years ago, appears to have had a damascan conversion and is now apparently batting for the white hats: see
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNdnA4QfuF8#t=62

    Unless I’ve mixed him up with somebody else?

  • Ruairí Weldon

    As far as I recall, it was a geologist ,Prof.Ian Plimer who was interviewed by Pat Kenny back then.The mining tycoon in the video by the name of Clive Palmer,does bear a certain resemblance to Ian Plimer,who has not as far as I know,undergone a Pauline conversion on the climate issue.

  • johngibbons

    Many thanks, glad you enjoyed. JG

  • johngibbons

    Coilin, yes ’twas Ian Plimer rather than Clive Palmer that I locked horns with back in ’09. The good news is that Palmer appears to be an altogether more significant figure in Australian politics, and from what I read, he has put a bomb under the Tony Abbott climate denier machine.

    Hard to imagine that just a couple of years back, Australia had not one but two genuine climate radicals in government, ie. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard (both Labour PMs). Abbott (like his counterpart Harper in Canada) is the lowest form of corporate lickspittle, a low-rent version of GW Bush, obediently taking his orders from Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehard and assorted other crooked plutocrats and energy industry stooges.