Putting the life back in science fiction

Grasshoppers, locusts, and sustainability

This is an idea I played with near the end of Hot Earth Dreams, and since it’s the end of the year, I figured I’d post it here for you to contemplate in whatever quiet times you have around the holidays.  Full disclosure, I posted an earlier version of this thought over on Antipope (post #1565 in an epic thread!).

This has to do with species that are capable of outbreaks, such as the grasshoppers that can, under the right circumstances, become locusts.  In overly general terms, a species in an outbreak goes through what ecologists call “enemy release”–a population’s numbers grow faster than its enemies (predators, parasites, and pathogens) can kill them off.  Species that undergo outbreaks can be things like grasshoppers and locusts.  The category certainly includes invasive species that have outrun their enemies (think gypsy moths, rats, tamarisk), but even native species can undergo outbreaks, and there’s a whole history of species (like lemmings) that go through booms and busts, because they reproduce faster than their predators, and when predator numbers increase, their populations crash.

What I’d argue is that it’s worth thinking of humans as a species that is capable of outbreaks when the environment allows it.  With humans, we call these outbreaks civilization, and the only thing that distinguishes us from gypsy moths is that when we do an outbreak, it’s not just us.  Our symbionts, excuse me, our domesticated species, undergo an outbreak with us as we expand their habitat. These days, we use things like medicine, veterinary science, plant pathology, public health, and varmint culling programs to inhibit the actions of the species that would normally control our population numbers and the populations of our symbionts. When we do a good job (as now), our numbers boom and we have civilization.

There are three more points:  First, about civilization.  What we’re in now–global civilization–is the biggest outbreak we’ve so far been through.  There have been a number of former outbreaks, everything from the Roman Empire and various Chinese dynasties down to the conglomerations of Bronze Age city-states that we retroactively call empires, even though they were tiny in comparison to what we have today.  Civilization generally is local, lasts a few hundred years at most, and may or may not be immediately succeeded by another civilization.   That’s our normal form of outbreak, at least so far.

Second, I’m following the idea, put forward by environmental historians like Brian Fagan and Mark Elvin, that a favorable environment for civilization includes, among other things, a constant climate.  In that climate, people find a suite of crops and/or domestic animals that flourish, they produce huge surpluses, their populations boom, and oftentimes strongmen take over, or in any case, a rather complex, hierarchical social structure “evolves” to manage the problem of so many people living on top of each other.  When the climate changes, the civilization shrinks to stay within its favorable climate (as with Rome or China and the barbarians on their borders) or collapses (as with the Classic Maya under extreme drought).

That leads me to the third point: civilization is largely or entirely a cultural evolution, not a biological one.  Civilized people don’t seem to be genetically different from uncivilized people.  Part of the reason for this is that most civilizations throughout deep history only lasted a few hundred years before their survivors of the collapse headed for the hills again, so there hasn’t been much biological selective pressure to humans to become truly civilized.  Culture, on the other hand, mutates rapidly, so humans  have so far invented civilized cultures when the necessity arises, rather than depending on our genes to somehow know how to live this way.

This leads me deeper into the land of speculation.  Thanks to our hugely malleable cultural inheritance, humans can be grasshoppers, living in small bands of foragers, gardeners, or herders off in the “wilderness,” and actually that’s bogus, because such people tend not to separate human lands from wildlands.  Conversely, we can be civilized locusts, living as peasants, shepherds, artists, cops, politicians, businessmen, or soldiers, living on “our land” (the land that’s farmed, paved, and otherwise managed) and that’s separate from the howling wilderness out there.

Still, our hardwired belief systems, such as they are, have been more thoroughly shaped by our million-plus years of grasshopper lifestyle as foragers (synonymous with hunter-gatherers, simpler to type), versus the less than ten thousand years some of us been doing civilization.  I suspect that’s the reason why spiritual types are typically off in the wilderness when they have their great revelations, when they become prophets or messiahs and try to bring their message of how to live properly back to what feels like a deeply wrong civilization.  They’re rediscovering their grasshopper side and trying to spread it around.

Perhaps we can call this  “Grasshopper” morality?  It is the essence of the back-to-the-land movement, anarcho-primitivism, hermits going off to live in the mountains, and all the rest. When we live in small groups, “in balance with nature” (which means that all those pests, pathogens, and predators keep our numbers under control), we live under different moral and social systems than we do in civilized towns and cities.  We have to share with friends and family. We can’t use money, and the financial world is less than useless. We don’t need cops, but we have to be armed and fight for our rights and our families.  Nature is bigger than we are and has to be respected and lived with, not ignored.  And so on.

Relatively little of this non-outbreak morality really works in a civilized setting. But we get our heads screwed up, because prophets are always going out alone into the wilderness, finding our wild human morality within themselves, and bringing it back as the next new religion to save civilization. We get conflicted, because what these messengers say feels right on a deep level.  It feels like it should work for us, because genetically we’re as much grasshoppers as locusts, whatever our lifestyle.  But what works when the divine is talking in the wilderness isn’t quite so useful on busy streets.

Worse, when we uncritically try to apply grasshopper morality in a civilized locust setting, we can get into atrocities, because the would-be grasshoppers in power see civilization as a great evil that has to be cleansed and redeemed, if not ended.  Does this justify all the Machiavellian evils of civilization? Of course not. But I would suggest that there’s a grasshopper frame of reference and a locust frame of reference.  The morality of the garden of Eden probably won’t keep a city working, any more than psychopathic morality will.  We’re not hardwired to do civilization.

Now we’re facing a time when our biggest outbreak yet–global civilization–is looking increasingly wobbly and unsustainable. Just intellectually, ignoring grasshopper/locust morality for a second, I’d argue are three possible outcomes for the next century or so:

1. Our numbers crash and humans go extinct. There’s no good evidence of this ever happening to an outbreak species in the fossil record, but simplistic ecological models routinely point this out as a possibility.  Personally, I don’t think this will happen, but we can’t discount it.

2. Our current outbreak ends in the collapse of global civilization, and our species goes back to living as mostly or entirely as grasshoppers, wild humans in small groups, again.  In the deep future, when and where the environment is stable and suitable, there will be future outbreaks of civilization.  This is the scenario in Hot Earth Dreams.  I must add that I don’t mean that our few descendants will all be hunters and gatherers, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be villages of farmers and groups of herders after the collapse.  It’s more a matter that people will live in small groups (<200 people) with little or no hierarchy and little specialization of roles, whatever their ecological lifestyle happens to be.

3. We somehow make our outbreak sustainable, and having lots of civilized humans around becomes the new normal for Earth. While this may sound weird, other species have actually pulled it off, starting with cyanobacteria, and going on to things like ants, termites, and sauropods (those giant, long-necked dinosaurs). In each case, the outbreak basically rebuilt some part of the Earth’s biosphere, either temporarily (with the sauropods, who pulled it off for hundreds of millions of years) or permanently (as with the cyanobacteria, who rebuilt the atmosphere as a side effect).

Number 3 is what we mean by “sustainability.” When we talk about sustainability, we’re trying to make civilization the new normal, rather than have it be the crazy, unsustainable locust version of our normal grasshopper humanity.

Sustainability might work.  Personally, I don’t think it will work in the short term, which is why  Hot Earth Dreams is about a future in which humans normally live as grasshoppers in a continually changing world, becoming civilized locusts in the times and places where the climate stabilizes for hundreds to thousands of years. This vision much more complex than the simple boom/bust cycles of lemmings, but I think it’s our most likely future.

Still, a sustainable, global civilization might be possible.  Eventually.  It took over a billion years for cyanobacteria to make the world safe for aerobic multicellular species, and it might take ten million years or more before Earth’s species have coevolved with us long enough that civilization becomes normal, even when the climate changes.

I think it’s rather less likely that what we have now will last ten million years, but it’s possible.  It’s a goal worth working towards, but we need to think about just how enormous making civilization normal truly is.  This will be the first time we’ve tried it as a species.

The other thing to think about is how to deal with the evils of civilization and what to do about them.  From a grasshopper’s view, what locusts do is totally, destructively crazy and evil, yet they get away with it for awhile. Locust morality isn’t grasshopper morality, because what works with a locust swarm is horribly destructive for a small group of grasshoppers and (apparently) vice versa.

If you want  sustainable, large-scale civilization, then you’ve got to deal with our cultural inheritance as civilized beings, even when it conflicts with our biological wiring.  In other words,  you’ve got to accept that there’s something that feels totally absurd and possibly evil about us when we’re in outbreak mode. Living as civilized people, we have to have laws, justice, rules, bosses, and and all that, even when it feels  wrong. The critical point is that, if we want to continue civilization, we have to be very thoughtful about which parts of our deep-seated grasshopper morality we use, because they won’t necessarily work in a civilized context. Even though things feel weird, pointless, or wrong sometimes,  you’ve got to help make it work along with the rest of us, into the indefinite future, until human nature has finally changed enough for it to feel right.

And let’s not talk about #1.  I think all species deserve to exist, including our own.  We’re not irredeemably evil or inherently good.  We’re just another weird species that’s been suckered by evolution into existing, and even though we’re imperfect, we deserve our shot. Genocide is evil.

So if you want civilization to become sustainable, it’s probably less important to trust the Force and let it guide your instincts, and rather more important to go to those boring committee meetings and do the tough work of keeping things running on your watch.  After all, we’re still quite new at this whole civilization thing, and we’ve got to figure it out collectively.  Feelings aren’t wrong, but they’re not necessarily right either.  To make civilization work, we need both our heads and our hearts.

Happy holidays, everyone.


5 Comments so far
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Very thought provoking and helpful, as in I’m playing around with this stuff in my second novel, so thank you.

Comment by ashley858

Found your blog via the Archdruid report. I doubt that he gets a referral fee for bringing me here, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. Also expect to buy your new book shortly now that the holiday frenzy is over.
My scientific education was mostly in chemistry and physics and I have little knowledge of the discoveries in genetics and ecology and so I appreciate the perspective from those disciplines that you offer in your blog.
Speaking as a locust who would prefer to live in grasshopper world, I vote for your future scenario number 2 in which we collapse back into grasshopper mode.
Scenario number 3 seems unlikely from both a thermodynamic and behavioral standpoint.
Civilization requires both high population numbers and high population densities which can only be achieved if there is enough energy available to a society in the form of food, Groups of 200 people cannot launch on grand projects to the exclusion of feeding themselves. Technology and civilization requires lots of technicians organized in multiple layers to keep itself running. Groups of 200 can maintain simple one-layer technologies such as spear making, basketry, pottery, sewing, food preservation etc. but not more complex technologies such as the mining and smelting of ores and fabrication of metal tools, although such groups do have some specialization along gender lines.
Civilizations seem to have emerged at first on an energy budget provided by agricultural exploitation of the ability of plants to capture energy from the sun and store it in the form of sugars. Exploitation of minerals and fossil fuels came slightly later but now we are at a point of exhausting those. The concentration of mineral and fuel deposits by geological forces is not sufficiently fast to suit the needs of civilizations. It seems that if civilization depends on resource extraction at a rate that we are doing it now then we have to wait millions of years for those resources to become concentrated, have a few thousand years while those concentrated resources fuel a new outbreak of civilizations then have another bust and million year wait for the next boom.
Agricultural civilizations could probably emerge more frequently since soils can be replenished on shorter time frames than mineral deposits, hundreds of years instead of millions.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Haha, you did get an Archdruid shoutout! You’ve arrived (somewhere). Or is this not the first one? I got here from Antipope originally.

Comment by a scruffian

Yes, I got a shout-out from Archdruid, and many thanks to him for it.

It’s a good thing that the book’s getting a bigger audience.

Comment by Heteromeles

Very interesting, another from TADR.

I can hardly say if I think that 2 or 3 is to be preferred. Not that I figure preferences to matter for much. Still, it seems likely to me that civilization will continue to evolve, and likely start to take more stable forms, I would contend that China already foreshadows that possibility. That civilization, living next to the fearsome Mongolian steeps, had something of a predator maintaining balance. I suspect that this is representative of what a stable form of civilization might look like.

Any stable life form has to benefit from some factor which preempts sever overshoot. I suspect that a civilization will find it extremely difficult to self regulate, especially because many of the “grass hopper” traits remain necessary, even if in a transformed way, like a whales finger bones. Therefore I suspect that a stable global civilization will remain a pipe dream for an extremely long time period, if it proves to be a possible form at all. But regions which maintain a cultural legacy, even a literature, for vast periods may endure. In which case I would be prone to imagining cultural forms colonizing an area where they can dominate, then adapting to the nature of the area, and persisting until a change beyond the keening of their species takes place.

Fundimentally we are talking about a super organizim, like a 10,000 year hive. Of a provence sized termite mound. Such super organisms are still mortal, but could persist for a vast time scale. Perhaps for a climate phase, which is to say maybe half a Milankovitch cycle.

Also, many regions of the world, where denser populations are not to be supported locally I suspect shall continue to support grass hopper forms, which will over time have to adapt superior defense mechanisms from the ‘locust form’ Here I would look back to your plant example. In situations where complex vascular systems are not advantageous algae in water and lichen on land continue to dominate. But in areas where there is over abundance, where life grows over life, there is competition. Like the trees stretching to out grow one another I suspect civilizations will prosper; but those civilizations, those sustainable civilizations, that are not mere algae blooms, or cancerous clusters, nay they would only be able to avoid self destruction, senescence, by the power of some limit.

Consider how diverse plants are, how some are very ‘plant civilized’ only able to thrive is a world of extreme plant population density, like not-so-urban jungles. While others are hardly bothered is not other plant is to be found for a mile or more.

But what would be their limiting factor? Some religious taboo, some tablet of values, has been the technique of choice for a long time, but it seems that this is too abstract, eventually it is co-opted, worked around, the limit is discarded, cancer. China I believe hints at a possibility of there is an external limiter, but essentially it is one that they did not invent, but was imposed upon them. I think that the question of how evolution might likely learn to co-opt a limit, to incorporate it, is key.

Comment by Ray Wharton

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