While studying human evolution to find solutions for the growing climate crisis, researchers found a mix of encouraging and depressing results.
“How did humans get here” is the simple question Dr Tim Waring, associate professor at the University of Maine in the US, set out to answer in a recent paper focused on climate change.
“If we understand the processes by which we have arrived at having such a major impact on the global biosphere, then we can try to solve the problems that we are facing,” he told Euronews Next.
Waring works on climate change through the lens of cultural evolution, a field of study at the intersection of biology and “all social sciences”. His most recent paper analyses how human evolution might prevent us from solving climate change.
The professor and his colleagues Eörs Szathmáry and Zach Wood published the report in the world’s oldest scientific journal Philosophical Transaction.
“I do want to add hope for humanity, but the point of this paper is not to be artificially positive, it’s to accurately describe the challenge that we face,” Waring said.
‘Solutions need to be global’
Waring and his team analysed the resources that humans used, the impact they had on their environment, and the development of their cultural traits over the last 100,000 years.
They found that humans have systematically found solutions to problems they faced.
“A lot of people currently feel that climate change is something that we will eventually solve, and there is good reason for people to believe that because humans almost haven’t come across a problem that we haven’t been able to solve yet,” said Waring.
Still, our track record won’t be enough to save us in the long term.
The authors of the paper found that one of the reasons we’re so good at problem-solving is that we use resources more intensely and at a greater scale whenever we need to. Their analysis also highlighted that humans only found solutions once problems were already out of hand.
In the context of climate change, those approaches might not work as we only have one planet.
While the academic lauded international efforts such as the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, he also highlighted that many of the endeavours were in favour of local, sub-global groups such as countries and companies.
Our evolution shows that we’ve been good at solving problems between groups, but never before at this scale and complexity.
Solutions need to be truly global, “even though it is against the interests of existing groups,” authors say.
“I think we should be very happy that we get climate change as a first challenge because it’s easier to solve and because it’s very clear that it’s going to be painful for all of us. So we should consider ourselves lucky,” the expert said, comparing it to other challenges such as ecosystem collapse that will come down the line.
“We’ve been eliminating species and poisoning and changing the environment all over the world for a long time, and we don’t know how that is likely to influence the stability of the ecological system,” he explained.
Humans will need to address competitiveness and conflict
But even if we do solve climate change, we’ll have to watch out for our evolution traits as humans tend to be competitive over resources, according to experts.
Previously, conflicts caused by our competitiveness were manageable because the planet was healthier. But as we test global limits, researchers are concerned there is no way around this destructive behaviour, which once contributed to making us one of the most advanced species on the planet.
“There’s no long-term solution to human evolution on the planet that doesn’t involve unpleasant conflict, and we need to try to solve that,” Waring explained, highlighting that the model of cooperation and coordination we’ve been applying for the last millennia isn’t sustainable.
In essence, humans need to change how they evolve if they want to survive.
One of the directions the paper points towards is systems of self-limitation and market regulation, to “bind human groups across the planet together ever more tightly into a functional unit”.
But concrete solutions are still to be explored as the “very poorly understood” field of cultural evolution develops.
“We haven’t thought of a lot of interesting policies yet because we haven’t really considered the nature of climate change in an evolutionary perspective before,” Waring said.