I wonder if many – or any – of the politicians attending COP26 understand what the term ‘homo fragilis’ implies. I wonder if they appreciate what it portends. Literally, it means ‘fragile man’. In the context of human survival it is intended to convey just how tenuous is humankind’s grip on existence. We have grown accustomed to thinking of humans as the world’s preeminent species. We dominate the planet. We bend nature to our purposes. We use. We consume. We excrete. As a species, we do pretty much what we like. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it has been for long enough that it seems like forever. There is a tendency to assume that this is the way it will always be. But as the Gershwin song says, it ain’t necessarily so!
As I may have mentioned before, the web is very fond of lists. You know the kind of thing – ’40 Most Excruciating Valentine Cards’; The World’s Ugliest Knees; ’20 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Eat’ – that kind of thing. Thinking about this article I did a few searches and immediately discovered numerous sites listing the ways that might wipe out the human race. Or, at the very least, bring our civilisation crashing down. Here’s an example.
None of the sites I found ordered these threats according to probability of happening. Nobody is putting numbers on it. If they did, I would scoff. Because it would almost entirely guesswork. It is impossible to predict the eruption of a supervolcano such as Yellowstone Park. There are half a dozen of these in the world and any one of them could wipe us out. The planet burps and we are history. Except there will be no history if there’s nobody left to write it. Or nothing to write it on. Or with. The other thing about supervolcanoes is that there’s nothing we could do about it even if we did know when it was going to happen. If we knew Yellowstone was going to erupt next May, the knowledge would be of no benefit to anyone other than those disposed to spend the last six months of their existence applying the power of prayer to the issue.
There’s no point worrying about supervolcanoes exploding. There’s nothing to be done.about it. We’re probably better off not knowing in advance.
Then there’s the things we know for an absolute fact will happen – and when. Particularly the things that are already happening. The disasters that are already upon us but with such a slow burn as to be easily ignored. The virus that will bring civilisation to its knees already exists. It may even be in the human population already. This, like climate change, is something we can act on. something for which we can prepare. Something which we can mitigate. Something we can survive. If we take the threat seriously. If we’ve learned from the Covid-19 experience of the last two years. If the science-denying nutters aren’t afforded any influence over policy. If we rid ourselves of the notion that the overarching priority is to keep the old economic machinery grinding even if it’s that very machinery that’s causing the problems. There are a lot more ‘ifs’. One is too many.
The recent (ongoing) coronavirus pandemic didn’t bring humanity to its knees. The politicians would like us to believe they saved us. Science has a better claim. The fact that such a large percentage of us took sensible precautions means we get a bit of the credit too. But if we were all being honest – not the politicians, obviously! – we’d admit that the real reason the pandemic hasn’t done more harm is pure luck. We have been lucky. Very, very lucky. We got so much wrong that the only explanation for getting away with it is the very best of good fortune. We can’t count on being so lucky again.
We’ve had all the warnings we’re going to get about the threat of exceptional climate change. We’ve had all the warnings we’re going to get about the increasing threat of disease. We have evolved into homo fragilis. Our civilisation has grown so big and complex and stripped of redundancy in the name of efficiency that it is now extremely vulnerable. And we have grown so dependent on those big, complex, efficient systems that few of us could survive long without them. Look at how Brexit has disrupted global supply networks causing huge disruption. Se that as a warning. A relatively small token of what could happen. Bear in mind that there is a point at which those broken supply chains can’t be repaired – because the resources needed to repair the supply chains can’t get to where they’re need due to the supply chains being broken.
This fragility is all around us. Everything we need to live the way we’ve become accustomed to living could come to an end in a matter of days. The interdependencies are such that knock-on effects rapidly become unmanageable. Analogies involving dominoes or Jenga blocks spring to mind. But we are unlikely to make the necessary choices with a sufficient sense of urgency unless we grasp just how fragile it all is. The planet is more fragile than it has suited us to suppose. Human civilisation is vastly more fragile than we arrogantly assume. Stupidity is the killer. Stupidity such as that evident when people dismiss Covid-19 on the grounds that the mortality rate is tiny. Stupidly, they take death to be the only effect worthy of consideration. But for that stupidity they would recognise that other metrics are at least as important. Rates of infection, for example. It is rates of infection which result in pressure on healthcare resources. If the healthcare services collapse, the death rate will rocket. Then even the stupid people might start to appreciate how fragile it all is. But it may well be too late. How do you restart the NHS when it has effectively ceased to exist and there are only a fraction of the people surviving who used to keep it going and they’re all tending to the victims of the pandemic? and there’s no medicines because… you guessed it! The supply chains are broken beyond repair.
We can fix this. We can make the choices that stop the descent into self-destruction. The good news – at last! – is that because everything is connected and interdependent the things we do to address the problems in one area if effective have a positive impact in other areas. The things we do to stop climate change racing away from us will also help prevent pandemics. Less invasive and destructive land use reduces contact between people and wild animals and so reduces the potential for the transmission of zoonotic disease. Cutting travel in general and air travel in particular reduces the potential for rapid global spread of pathogens. Once you start to think of these relationships the list goes on and on.
We have to make a start. We look to the politicians gathered in Glasgow to find a way to make that start. But they are generally powerful people. Powerful people tend to be sheltered and shielded form the impact of catastrophe. They have to learn how delicate is the world they’ve been put in charge of. They must become aware of how fragile humanity is.
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