Outbreaks

On my ABOUT page I discuss what I refer to as ‘the intersect of extinction”: When climate change, population growth, and human frailty come together, they produce a churning cauldron of destabilizing ingredients, locked in a deadly cycle of destructive feedback loops.

The following TED Talk by Charles C. Mann gets at some of what I mean by this when he talks about what biologists call ‘outbreaks.’

Mann says that an outbreak is “when a population or species exceeds the bounds of natural selection. Natural selection ordinarily keeps populations and species within roughly defined limits. Pests, parasites, lack of resources prevent them from expanding too much. But every now and then, a species escapes its bounds. . . . Populations explode, a hundredfold, a thousandfold, a millionfold.

He continues: “Put a couple of protozoa into a petri dish full of nutrient goo. In their natural habitat, soil or water, their environment constrains them. In the petri dish, they have an ocean of breakfast and no natural enemies. They eat and reproduce, eat and reproduce, until bang, they hit the edge of the petri dish, at which point they either drown in their own waste, starve from lack of resources, or both. The outbreak ends, always, badly.

He says that “from the viewpoint of biology, you and I are not fundamentally different than the protozoa in the petri dish. We’re not special. All the things that we, in our vanity, think make us different — art, science, technology, and so forth, they don’t matter. We’re an outbreak species, we’re going to hit the edge of the petri dish, simple as that.”

But, he asks, is this really true? “Are we in fact doomed to hit the edge of the petri dish?”

He then goes on to discuss a number of things we can do, one of which is this: “[If] there’s a difference between us and the protozoa, a difference that matters, it’s not just our art and science and technology and so forth — it’s that we can yell and scream, we can go out into the streets, and, over time, change the way society works, but we’re not doing it.

Listen to the entire talk. It has already received over 2 million views.

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