Eating the Earth: Review of Warren M. Hern’s HOMO ECOPHAGUS, 2023.
This book weaves together an enormous amount of information from many disciplines to understand what drives human behavior damaging the Earth. The author is not the first to argue that the Earth has a malignant disease—one that displaces healthy parts of the biosphere such as forests, grasslands, and wetlands, with power production, suburbs, and other simplified systems. The title of the book, Homo Ecophagus, refers to a species that eats ecosystems. Again, Hern is not the first to observe that humans are eating the Earth, though he is likely the first to systematically document this process. Recognizing that his thesis/diagnosis is controversial, he devotes much time to understanding malignancies in humans (there are over two hundred types) and the way in which human behavior becomes malignant in relation to Earth.
Humans have steadily and now expansively converted naturally evolved habitats supporting millions of species to villages, cities, crops, forage, roads, suburbs, mines, and other simplified systems that support humans, their cattle, sheep, and cockroaches and that produce methane and waste products including light, air, and chemical pollution. Human numbers have doubled five times since 1650, and 33 times since the emergence of our species. Energy use doubled in the last 30 years.
As humans spread from Africa to the rest of the world beginning 60 or so thousand years ago we caused extinctions because of the concatenation of large mammals being unused to us and our insecurity and lack of self-restraint. Overconsumption of wildlife seems to be a cultural norm, Hern argues, resulting from actual scarcity or feeling like food supplies are always doubtful. Our invasion of new continents and islands devastates indigenous species, especially large, slow-maturing, and breeding ones. They are slaughtered for direct consumption (often wastefully, such as when hunter-gathers drive an entire herd of bison over a cliff) or to make way for ourselves and eventually our livestock and agriculture. Hern notes Pyne’s (1991) observation that humans are an ambulatory weed: both the product and creator of local, regional, and continental scale disturbance.
One need only look around the world today and throughout human history to note that ecologically aware humans are a rarity. We do not think far into the future. Despite earnest statements to the contrary we do not consider the quality of lives of our progeny (Searles 1979). The Tikopia, who limited their population via birth control, abortion, and abstinence, were less common than the Rapanui and others who cut down their forests or embraced palm plantation monoculture or turned oil into food by mining the soil (Jackson 1987).
Hern does not seek to go beyond diagnosis to how we might stop the malignant behavior, though he recognizes we might take a different path. We need not embrace oil and cars and much else—though we have failed to shake off such things. Indeed, at the close of the book he suggests we are wrestling with the most difficult of problems—entropy. In Energy Flow in Biology, Harold Morowitz argues that the Earth belongs to a class of systems where energy-in and energy-out fall within a narrow range that has allowed life to develop over the eons. Nature might seem chaotic, but it is highly organized and when we utilize it we simplify it—a piece of wood only burns once and then must grow again. We are making the Earth’s generation of forests more difficult, destroying what we cannot create. By facilitating the growing malignant entropy, warming, poisoning, and the rest, we are killing the host.
This reviewer wonders if a less esoteric title might pique the interest and appeal of a broader audience. And whether more reference to ecologically oriented anthropologists would strengthen the arguments: Paul Shepard, Marvin Harris, Leslie White, Peggy Reeves Sanday, David Boehm, Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle, Guillermo Algaze, and others come to mind. A deep time perspective is everything here.
It would be easy to despair for life on Earth after reading Hern’s book. He does not offer such thin gruel as hope, but instead a realistic sense of what we are up against. Hope suggests that things will somehow work out. They won’t. But if those of us who value the wild, value other species, and value the wild in ourselves, do the right thing—keep fighting without compromise—we can and will prevail.
Rewilding Earth had published an excerpt from Homo Ecophagus: A Deep Diagnosis to Save the Earth. Read it here.
Jackson, Wes. 1987. Alters of Unhewn Stone. San Francisco: North Point Press.
Morowitz, Harold. 1968. Energy Flow in Biology. New York. Academic Press.
Pyne, Stephen. 1991. Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia. New York: Henry Holt.
Rappaport, Roy A: Adaptations and Maladaptations in Social Systems. P 39-79 in I. Hill (ed): The Ethical Basis of Economic Freedom. Chapel Hill, NC: American Viewpoint, 1976.
Searles, Harold F. 1979. “Unconscious Processes in Relation to the Environmental Crisis,” p. 228-242 in Countertransference. International Universities Press. New York.
David Johns is a conservation activist, political scientist, lawyer, and conservation strategist. He was a co-founder of Wildlands Network and Conservation Biology Institute, among other NGOs, and he has worked on large-scale projects around the globe. His books include Conservation Politics: The Last Anti-Colonial Struggle (Cambridge 2019) and A New Conservation Politics (Wiley Blackwell 2009).