Tag Archives: human ecology

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

On the perils of drawing permanent lines on a fluid canvas, or demarcating landscapes on a dynamic planet

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share a somewhat longer version of my essay where I ponder the predicament our species finds itself in, having gone extremely territorial in its conquest of the planet’s resources.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence?

Territoriality is the bane of human existence. We human beings are an aggressively territorial lot, willing to defend what territory we claim to be ours against all comers using whatever means we can devise. By no means the only species to be strongly territorial, we surely are the most extreme in our territoriality.

Many animal species like to mark out and defend territories to ensure access to crucial resources such as food, water, shelter, nesting sites, and mates. Many will defend their territories aggressively, even risking injury or death to stave off challengers. You can see this every day all around us: in the sweet song of birds in our gardens, which are usually males proclaiming dominion over the garden, and in the way our dogs mark their territories at every fence- and lamp-post we happen to walk them by. Even plants show subtle territoriality, engaging in covert chemical warfare underground to prevent other plants from growing under their canopies and sucking away “their” supply of water and nutrients.

Yet hardly any other species takes territoriality as far as we have done. Most species reserve their hostilities towards members of their own species and maybe a few other direct competitors. Even when they physically or chemically mark the boundaries of their territories, these demarcations are hardly permanent. Scent marking, scratches in tree barks, vocal proclamations: these are what reinforce the shadow lines by which most animals carve out the world’s resources for their exclusive use. And, of course, these boundary lines are just as ephemeral as the lives of the individuals (and sometimes families) marking them.

Each individual may develop a strong sense of place, even an emotional attachment to some piece of land, or coral reef, or tree, or rock, but only rarely do they pass this on to their progeny, who often tend to disperse away into new areas to seek their own fortunes, set up their own new territories. Boundaries may be defended fiercely, but they remain fluid and diffuse and are ever changing, especially as the geographic ranges of species wax and wane and change on our dynamically changing planet.

Human beings have taken territoriality to whole new levels. We have not only sought to make our territories permanent, building fences and walls to keep intruders out, but even enshrined territoriality into elaborate systems of laws regulating ownership and inheritance. Unlike in any other species, we exhibit territoriality across a whole hierarchy of social levels: from individual and family homes to clan and tribal domains to kingdoms and empires to modern nation states and coalitions among them.

We have demarcated the Earth’s entire surface in cartesian lines scaling up and down these territorial hierarchies. We even carve out and defend boundaries in the ocean and the air and the very skies. Uniquely, we also seek to control every element that occurs within our domains, extending our territoriality against every other species on the planet. Whether it is ants or cockroaches in our kitchens, geckos in our living rooms, squirrels and monkeys in our gardens, or invasive species we label as aliens within our national boundaries, our pan-territoriality puts us at constant war against a whole host of species merely trying to eke out a living in the interstices of our rigidly demarcated landscapes.

Political World Map as Pangea 200 300 million years ago  Imgur

Unfortunately, our extreme territoriality flies in the face of a dynamic planet on whose surface hardly anything has ever stayed put in one place for ever, not even the very continents over which we continue to wage epic and devastating wars for resources. A key to evolutionary success on such a dynamic planet is a species’ ability to adapt to the changing landscape, and a fluidity of movement to match the ever changing zones of suitable climate and geology. Yet we have painted ourselves into cartesian prisons, investing so much in defending pieces of land and volumes of water that may not remain the same for long. Rising sea levels threaten cities that we thought we were building for eternity. Sandstorms herald the march of the deserts as climate zones shift, and glaciers and polar ice sheets melt, drastically changing the shape of the lands, with no little help from our own industry. And every other species tries to pick up and move along with these changes, extending its range towards the poles—or to the brink of extinction as suitable habitats disappear permanently. Yet we continue to cling to our cities and homes, unable to move, like deer frozen in the headlights of climate change. We are setting ourselves up for inevitable disaster, like a child building elaborate sand castles below the high-tide line on a beach, or an obsessive compulsive painter desperately trying to draw permanent lines on a liquid canvas.

Much of human history can be told as a series of tales about individuals and groups of people fighting each other over pieces of this demarcated landscape. History is also generally written by the victors and the survivors. To be able to write our own future history, we must first figure out, collectively, how to survive past our own ecologically disastrous fossil-fuel-burning industrial age. If we are to ride the tides of climate change and other unpredictable events our planet throws at us, we must find ways to ease our attachment to rigid territories, soften our boundaries, and allow other creatures, and ourselves, more room to share the resources of this pale blue dot.

Welcome to the Anthropocene (a video)

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/39048998 w=500&h=283]

A 3-minute journey through the last 250 years of our history, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the Rio+20 Summit. The film charts the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes.

The film was commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure conference, London 26-29 March, a major international conference focusing on solutions.


The film is part of the world’s first educational webportal on the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure conference, and developed and sponsored by anthropocene.info

The Crisis of Civilization: a fun, uplifting preview of the end of the world?!

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/32074939 w=500&h=283]

The Crisis of Civilization, due to premiere [in London] tomorrow, is a documentary film that is remarkably pleasant to watch considering its subject mattert: the looming destruction of civilisation as we know it.

The film looks into how “global crises like ecological disaster, financial meltdown, dwindling oil reserves, terrorism and food shortages are converging symptoms of a single, failed global system.”

Over less than 80 minutes of running time, Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, the principal narrator of the film – and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It – draws a compelling portrait of the emerging economical, political and environmental trends that are likely to shape our common future over the next few decades.

His thesis is devastating in its simplicity: unless structural changes are introduced to the way we run our world, we won’t make it past this century, possibly not even the halfway mark.

That sure sounds like a fun evening at the cineplex, doesn’t it? Nothing quite like a cheery tour of the end of civilization, eh? Here’s what Grist has to say:

The new documentary The Crisis of Civilization is the most user-friendly exploration of imminent doom you’ll ever see. Through interviews, found footage, and animation, the film actually manages to make the unwinding of our conventional, fossil-fueled, more-is-more industrial civilization accessible. And importantly, it pays just as much attention to solutions as to problems.

Nafeez Ahmed, the documentary’s narrator, whom I’ve interviewed in the past, is a professor of international relations and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It. He’s also smart as hell, knowledgeable on a broad scale, and a master of synthesizing the implications of climate change and peak energy for terrorism, national security, and our increasingly fragile world food supply. In other words, he’s the sort of academic we ignore at our peril.

So how can you ignore that? More importantly, how can you actually go see the film – if you’re not in London this week to catch the free premiere screenings? Try to arrange a local screening yourself – as I’m going to try to do on campus, and locally through Fresno Filmworks, perhaps as part of their next festival.

In the meantime, here’s another clip about the movie:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=?wmode=transparent]


Societal Germophobia: the trouble with a culture suffering from OCD

The following is a slightly expanded, and much more hyperlinked, version of an essay that was broadcast on the series The Moral Is, on Valley Public Radio, KVPR, Fresno, California, on September 18, 2011.  (Which, incidentally, happened to be just after the release of Contagion, the movie that has probably increased our fear of germs!)

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent TV ad hawks a new Kleenex product: single-use hand-towels to replace the obsolete, unhealthy cloth towels we’ve used forever in our bathrooms! Tag line: “Your hands are only as clean as the towel used to dry them.” These new “towels” are supposedly more hygienic because, you know, those old cloth ones become so chock full of germs!!

Of course, Kleenex is playing on our fears to create new profits. Just look at how many antibacterial products fill your supermarket shelves: soaps, wipes, sprays, hand sanitizers… Even Louis Pasteur, whose germ theory of disease helped save millions of lives, might be flabbergasted by how far the health-products industry has run with our fear of all those germs he unleashed!

One consequence is a lesson we’re learning the hard way: bacteria are not static entities easily wiped out by our clever antibiotics, but dynamic lifeforms able to evolve rapidly under new selection pressures. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics has even rendered our hospitals unsafe, filled with multi-drug-resistant “superbugs” (e.g., MRSA). We are down to a faltering last line of defense (a few ultra-potent drugs) which too shows signs of breach. Yet we continue dousing everything around us in antibiotics. Our obsession with hygiene also contributes to the rise in allergies because our bodies don’t get the chance to encounter and develop defenses against many antigens, and overreact even to harmless things!

Meanwhile, microbiologists, modern descendants of Pasteur, have discovered something that should give us further pause: our own bodies are literally teeming with bacteria!! Human bodies serve as habitat for colonies of hundreds of kinds of bacteria! We, each of us, carry more bacterial cells in/on our bodies than actual human cells! As Ed Yong put it on BBC radio this week, we should consider ourselves not human so much as “a universe of bacteria in a “human shaped sack””! Rugged individuals? Nah! We are in fact multitudes of species; our bodies, whole ecosystems of…  germs! 

But wait, don’t freak out!! 

Most of the bacteria in our bodies are actually beneficial to us, acting symbiotically to protect and nurture our tissues in ways we barely understand. You may already know that bacteria in our guts help process a variety of foods that our own enzymes cannot handle. Some break down cellulose so we get nourishment from plants, some manufacture essential vitamins and amino acids, while others remove toxins or ward off infections. Scientists have recently found bacteria in the human mouth that actually help strengthen enamel, not cause tooth decay! Yes! How long before we see a probiotic bacterial mouthwash on the market?

A new picture is emerging which suggests that some of our diseases may result from imbalances in our bacterial colonies. Our penchant for using powerful antibiotics is rather like using napalm to rid your garden of a few weeds! Doctors already recommend probiotic capsules and yogurts to be taken alongside antibiotics to help repopulate our digestive tracts with healthy bacteria. May we soon see more products that restore bacteria to other parts of our bodies and our habitats damaged by excessive cleaning? We are already seeing a boom in probiotics, raising fears that the pendulum, beginning to swing the other way, may be pushed too far in that other direction by the same market forces that bring us all those cleaning products.

Germophobia, excessive hand-washing – these are symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a psychiatric condition not easy to treat. How does one treat an entire society exhibiting symptoms of OCD? 

Pass me that new tissue would you, not the sterile one, but the one soaked in good bacteria?


  1. Okada, H., Kuhn, C., Feillet, H., & Bach, J. (2010). The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update Clinical & Experimental Immunology, 160 (1), 1-9 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2249.2010.04139.x
  2. Pflughoeft, K. J., & Versalovic, J. (2011). Human Microbiome in Health and Disease Annual Review of Pathology: Mechanisms of Disease, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1146/annurev-pathol-011811-132421
  3. Xu, J. (2003). Inaugural Article: Honor thy symbionts Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (18), 10452-10459 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1734063100
  4. Crielaard, W., Zaura, E., Schuller, A., Huse, S., Montijn, R., & Keijser, B. (2011). Exploring the oral microbiota of children at various developmental stages of their dentition in the relation to their oral health BMC Medical Genomics, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1755-8794-4-22