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‘Doing Human’ : Our Role on this Planet


By 1926 wolves in Yellowstone National Park had been eliminated by park employees as part of their policy to eliminate all predators. The elimination of wolves however had unforeseen consequences that altered the entire parks ecosystem.Elk, no longer pressured by predators became abundant but in doing so also began to destroy their own habitat. With no fear of predators elk began to congregate around the river banks, eating and destroying vegetation that had previously prevented soil erosion. This in turn affected and saw the decline of fish, amphibians, and reptiles in the waterways as they became broader, shallower, and warmer due to the loss of shade from stream-side vegetation. Recognising that without the wolves the ecosystem would continue to suffer, in 1995 wolves were once again reintroduced into Yellowstone and slowly the ecosystem began to repair itself.

All Has Its Place

It is clear from this and many other examples that every thing in nature has its place in an ecosystem. All actors play a role in the health of that ecosystem, no matter how large or small. This is the first Law of Ecology: Everything Is Connected to Everything Else. Take away or lose one part of the ecosystem, and the entire system suffers, even worse it may fail.

Now enter humans.

What really is our role on this planet?

If every human had to disappear tomorrow morning, the Earth wouldn’t skip a beat. In fact, the Earth would have the opportunity to heal from all the damage that has been caused to it by humans, especially over the last hundred years.

In short: unlike everything else in an ecosystem that is reliant on everything else, the earth doesn’t actually need us at all. As Sören Faurby, a senior lecturer in zoology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden’s 2015 study noted, without humans, Earth would largely resemble the modern-day Serengeti, an African ecosystem teeming with life.

The Strangest Incredible Story

In all of the above there is, at the deepest level, an incredible story underway. A story so mind-blowing that it can’t be real, but yet it is (at least to our current understanding). At the beginning of this story (as far as we know) resides the quantum vacuum. Arising form this vacuum at the next level of scale are the smallest things coming out of the quantum foam, giving rise to subatomic particles, then atoms, then cells then bodies: Here a ‘body’ implies you and me as human animals or the wolf.

At the heart of it, we are until that moment of ‘body’ exactly the same, we share the same building blocks. The wolf then becomes a wolf and does what wolves do, as the elk does what elk do. And as highlighted in the beginning of this article, wolves serve an incredibly important role in keeping the ecosystem healthy. Human’s on the other hand — what is it to ‘do human’?

'Doing Human'

Along the road we have forgotten that we are animals too, just as wolves and elk are. We have forgotten what it is too ‘do human.’ Our unique abilities of problem solving, to be creative, and adaptability puts us in a unique position to be custodians of this beautiful planet. If there was ever a reason for us to be here, to serve an important role in the planetary ecosystem surely this is it. If we can understand our place as custodians of Gaia, then it absolutely matters if we are here or not.

“To be whole. To be complete. Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from,” – Terry Tempest, American author and environmentalist.

Taking our role as custodians of this planet seriously also changes how we view each other, and how we all live on this planet. Rather than being driven by consumerism and all out capitalistic gain in favour of the few, we would find ways to live in harmony with nature, and each other collectively. As Zeno, ancient Greek philosopher noted “The goal of life is living in agreement with nature.”

We clearly have our priorities wrong. We have forgotten our place, we have forgotten our animalism and what it is to ‘do human’. As  Henry David Thoreau reminds us “What is the good of having a nice house without a decent planet to put it on?” In the end there is no easy answer to sway 7.5 billion human animals to reimagine themselves as caretakers, custodians of the home we all share. Nothing short of a global revitalisation of a life philosophy that puts the Earth and all its inhabitants (no matter how small) first will bring about the change we desperately need. For now, each of us needs to be content with doing our part to become custodians of Gaia – no matter how small the act. I may not be able to change my neighbours view of what it means to be a human animal, but I can surely begin with myself.

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