Fixing Humans by Expanding Our Consciousness
Editors’ note: The following essay is from the draft outline for an in-progress book by Jeff Hoffman. Jeff was an Earth First! activist in the 1980s, and now still advocates for the natural environment and all the life therein. Jeff welcomes input on this draft and suggestions for possible publishers and other ways to get the word out on the need to scale back the human enterprise and leave much more space for wild Nature.
Humans fit the medical definition of being a cancerous tumor on the Earth, when instead we could be a shining light on our planet. Gross human overpopulation and the ridiculously over-consumptive lifestyles of modern humans are extremely destructive to the natural world. This issue dwarfs all others. Humans are destroying life on Earth as it has been for millions of years. Ecosystems, their components, and other species have just as much right to live and thrive as humans. This human destruction is completely immoral; if a group of humans were doing this to another group of humans as, say, the Nazis did to Jews, there would be a global uproar. We should be just as outraged at what humans are doing to the Earth and everything else that lives here. Second, even the most modern humans depend on the natural world to some extent, and our overpopulation and overconsumption are killing our support systems. Below is an outline of problems, in order of foundational importance, with known possible solutions.
(Other issues like racism and sexism are certainly important to humans and must also be dealt with, but how humans treat each other has little or no effect on the rest of our planet and will not be dealt with here. That said, the conservation community should ally itself with movements like Black Lives Matter and women standing up for abortion & birth control rights. We could support these groups on issues where we agree in return for the same from them. This way, no group would have to compromise its positions; it would just support the other groups where it agrees with them.)
Humans are not a necessary part of any ecosystem. Therefore, the only legitimate role for humans on our planet is consciousness expansion. Additionally, all problems caused by humans are rooted in problems with human attitudes and consciousness; what people think and how they feel controls what they do. Without a major evolution in human consciousness, including a much better attitude toward all forms of life, things will not change substantially for the better.
To be clear, there are many ways in which humans can expand their consciousness: music, art, poetry, meditation, astral projection, other mental exercises, consumption of certain mind-altering plants, spending time in the natural world, and even sports are just some examples. Individuals are different, and methods and combinations of consciousness expansion should not be limited unless they cause environmental or ecological harm, or cause harm to other people or societies.
Humans need to primarily rein in their egos, hubris, and intellect, and instead focus on developing their wisdom and empathy. At this point, the human mind has been taken over by the intellect, which is now like a runaway car: the throttle is wide open, but no one is steering and there are no brakes. Humans have way overdeveloped their intellect and have built egos so large that they worship themselves (as a species, though some are psychotic enough to also worship themselves individually), but their actions lack wisdom and are thus totally foolish. The most obvious example would be building nuclear weapons, though another more common one would be agriculture; just because humans can build nuclear weapons, or just because they can destroy ecosystems with agriculture to grow food for themselves, doesn’t mean that they should do those things.
Our ultimate, long-term goal should be an exponentially smaller human race that lives a lot more simply and naturally, and whose overriding focus is expansion of consciousness. We need to stop obsessing on having and start focusing on being. The best examples of people doing this would be Buddhist monks and traditional indigenous people. These people realize that we are all part of the web of life and that humans are no more important than any other species in that web. They also have a deep understanding of oneness with other life so that, for example, if they see a forest being destroyed by logging, they feel that as an attack on themselves. (Mere intellectual understanding of oneness with all life is not sufficient, because people rarely act on intellectual knowledge alone; instead, people act on their feelings.) If everyone felt a strong oneness with ecosystems and other species, people would not destroy the natural environment or kill anything except to eat.
Because the way we feel and think controls what we do, evolving much better attitudes toward life is necessary in order to stop human destruction of the natural world and indigenous societies. Without this change, human destruction will continue apace with only minor restrictions. Unfortunately, there is no known way to force the needed evolution. The needed changes will almost certainly have to come from societal leaders, and that’s certainly not going to happen when people choose leaders based on self-centered concerns. So, this problem can be identified, but there is no known solution for it. Education is probably a good start, but again mere intellectual education will not suffice.
Overpopulation & Agriculture
The physical roots of all environmental and ecological – and, in fact, of most – problems are overpopulation and overconsumption. Without fixing these fundamental problems, all other attempted solutions to environmental and ecological problems would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; they will have little or no substantial effect. For example, rewilding (restoring large areas to their natural, pre-human interference condition to the extent possible) is a great and necessary idea, but it has no chance of succeeding permanently and on an adequately large scale so long as humans continue to overpopulate and gobble up ever more of the Earth.
What allowed humans to overpopulate originally after leaving Africa was the discovery and use of agriculture. When humans all lived as hunter-gatherers 10-12,000 years ago, there were only 10 million people on the entire planet. We now have cities with more people than that. Agriculture made food a lot more plentiful and easy to acquire, and because food availability is a major limiting factor for the population of a species, human population increased approximately one hundred times after people started living agriculturally instead of as hunter-gatherers. Human overpopulation and overconsumption are therefore closely linked. Use of agriculture is a type of overconsumption, because by definition “agriculture” means killing native plants and the animals that depend on them in order to grow food, and because by using agriculture people as a whole consume more food than they would if they lived as hunter-gatherers. Vaccines and the so-called Green Revolution (artificial fertilizers and synthetic pesticides) were two more (far more recent) changes that produced additional substantial human population increases of approximately eight times compared to just before the industrial revolution.
Agriculture is destructive per se, even if it’s organic agriculture. Agriculture requires killing native plants in order to grow what humans want, and the killing of native plants also kills and displaces native animals who need those plants. Contrary to most people’s belief, farming is not natural. Agriculture and its resulting ecological destruction are not sustainable, and if humans don’t eventually change back to living as hunter-gatherers, agriculture alone will probably destroy the vast majority of life on Earth unless humans greatly reduce their population and leave most of the Earth to wildlife.
As to overpopulation, humans are now so overpopulated that between our living & working spaces, infrastructure, and agriculture, humans occupy more than 50% of the terrestrial land (dry land as opposed to water) on Earth. The remainder is mainly “rocks and ice,” which is uninhabitable by all but the most primordial species. This is far too much space for just one species to occupy, especially as humans do to the exclusion of all other species. Not only is this immoral, but it’s also ecologically fatal. Basically, there are so many people that the other species have nowhere to live. As proof of this, extinctions since the year 1800 track almost identically with human population growth: as human populations increase, extinctions also increase, and these two events increase in the same proportions and at the same time. Additionally, in order to be healthy, ecosystems need many wilderness areas of at least 50,000 contiguous acres, with wilderness corridors between wilderness areas in order to allow species migration and prevent inbreeding (50,000 acres of wildlife is the minimum size for an ecosystem to be viable). In other words, we need a lot of areas where humans are not present or, if they are, they live naturally as pre-industrial hunter-gatherers, in harmony with the ecosystems and their other species. This scenario is not possible with anywhere near the current human population.
Today, there are only about 3-400,000 hunter-gatherers left on the planet. It took humans 10-12,000 years to get into this mess, and we’re not getting out of it overnight or even anytime in the near future. But our ultimate goal regarding how we get food should be to return to living as hunter-gatherers, as all other species live, and as humans and hominids lived our entire history for millions of years until the past 10-12,000. This is obviously a very long-term goal that will probably take thousands of years to accomplish even if we start immediately. But if we don’t start, it will never happen unless there’s a huge physical catastrophe that affects the entire planet, such as a large meteor that wipes out civilization, or unless humans destroy civilization with their own actions like global warming/climate change and/or causing massive extinctions, ocean acidification, and destruction of ecosystems.
As to directly dealing with overpopulation, the most effective non-coercive solution is the empowerment and education of girls and women. This has worked so well that by getting most women PhDs and creating a society with a 100% literacy rate, Kerala, India went from having the highest birth rate in India to the lowest one, at or just below replacement level. However, societies are all different and this might not work in some places.
The most effective coercive solution is a one-child-family policy, such as China’s incredibly successful one that was credited with preventing approximately 400 million births in China. (This policy was not just coercive, as there were major incentives for limiting one’s family, such as free health care and education. This policy is more accurately described as a carrot-and-stick approach.) Not only has China greatly reduced its birthrate, but even though China changed to a two-child-family policy, most young people there still don’t want to have more than one child, because that’s what seems normal to them and because they now realize that their lives will be much better with one child than with more than one.
Limiting family size to replacement level will not do anything to solve this problem. Humans need to start limiting their families to one child at most in order to start reducing human population. Lowering human population to a level where the Earth can sustain us without destroying ecosystems or killing other species (except to eat) will take approximately 200 hundred years at least, but it’s certainly doable if people are willing to limit their families to one child.
We need a combination of solutions to deal directly and immediately with human overpopulation. For example, perhaps people in certain countries will not limit their families just by empowering and educating girls and women. To be as humane as possible, the least coercive methods should be tried first. But human overpopulation is the biggest and worst problem on the planet. If we don’t greatly lower our population, no substantial or permanent environmental or ecological solutions will be possible. For both moral and utilitarian reasons, overpopulation must be addressed by dealing with births, not by killing anyone. But with that limitation, we must address this problem by any means necessary.
The following is a noninclusive list of problems caused by overpopulation:
- To put it simply and very generally, there are so many people on Earth that the plants and animals have nowhere to live. Humans, their agriculture, and their infrastructure now occupy more than half of the terrestrial (i.e., dry) land on Earth. This is quite obviously exponentially too much for just one species of large animal like us, and especially so because many if not most other species cannot exist where humans do.
- The current extinction crisis tracks exactly with human population expansion since the year 1800. To be clear, there were already far too many people on the planet in 1800, but what this strongly indicates is that human overpopulation is the main driver of the extinction crisis.
- The only number of humans that can be said to be in ecological balance with the Earth and its ecosystems is the 5-10 million that existed before agriculture, because agriculture is unnatural and is ecologically destructive. (By definition, “agriculture” is killing native plants and the animals that depend on them in order to plant what humans want.) We now have cities with more people than that, to give you an idea of how overpopulated we are.
- If there were, for example, 50% fewer people on Earth, there would be 50% less pollution and other environmental and ecological harms, all else being equal.
- However, all things are not equal. For example, without gross human overpopulation, industrial society wouldn’t even exist, and neither would cities.
- Because humans are overpopulated, humans as a whole would be overconsuming as a whole even if individually no one overconsumed at all.
- While overpopulation and overconsumption – the latter including consuming things we should not be like fossil fuels and farmed meat – are twin physical roots of all environmental and ecological problems and must both be eliminated in order for humans to stop unnaturally harming life on Earth, if you could only fix one of these, greatly lowering human population would do more than greatly lowering individual human consumption. To be clear, it’s irrelevant which is a bigger or more important problem because both must be fixed, but many people have argued that overconsumption is the problem on which we should focus more, and this is simply not true.
This is about focusing on being instead of on having, so to speak, as a movie character put it. We need to become a lot more Buddhist in this respect; realize that only by eliminating material desires can one achieve true happiness, because attaining material desires just causes people to desire even more. Desire is a never-ending vicious cycle, and the only way out is to break the cycle. This is of course merely the personal aspect of this problem. The much larger aspect is that overconsumption, which includes consuming things that humans should not consume like fossil fuels, farmed food, and trees, destroys ecosystems and kills massive numbers of plants and animals, leading to extinction or extirpation in the worst cases. Destruction of native forests in order to consume wood, which humans have done since the beginning of civilization, is a leading cause of the current global warming/climate change crisis. Everything comes from something, and needlessly consuming things causes both human and nonhuman others to suffer.
The solution to this is to consume only what we need. Specifically, for people in more developed countries, getting started would include examples like organizing your life so you don’t need to drive regularly, generally limit buying things to food and clothing, and don’t buy things that cause a lot of harm. But note that this would just be the start. Eventually, the only things that humans should be consuming is food, water, basic clothing, and basic shelter.
The biggest issue with technology is production of energy for modern society. (Another major technology issue is genetic engineering, due to the danger of contaminating natural ecosystems and wildlife with artificial genetically engineered forms of life that did not evolve naturally. This technology, whose mindset is no different from that of the Nazi master race one, should be immediately and completely eliminated.) While some technologies are clearly less harmful than others, they are all harmful. For example, the least environmentally harmful way to get electricity is from rooftop solar panels, but even solar panels require mining for silicon and fossil fuels for transportation. (Some people use these harms to illegitimately claim that we should use the most destructive energy sources because it makes no difference, but that’s clearly immoral, wrong, and illogical.)
Because all technology causes environmental and ecological harm, we need to do two things regarding technology: use the least environmentally and ecologically harmful technologies and use as little technology as possible. The latter is another long-term solution; people are not going to give up technology overnight, but we can certainly move away from it by incrementally consuming less and less. At some point in the distant future, the ultimate goal should be humans going back to living naturally with no technology at all (with the detail of the definition of “technology” to be worked out later).
Unfortunately, humans are going in the opposite direction, becoming DEVO and Borg instead of human. On public transportation one sees many if not most people connected to and fixated on their smartphones like robots, for example. The desire to use advanced technologies for things like communication and transportation is certainly understandable, but because these technologies are harmful and because using them instead of working toward raising one’s consciousness moves humans in the opposite direction of accomplishing the latter, using advanced technologies is not a good thing. Again, reversing this will be a long and slow process, not something that we can accomplish overnight. Like organizing one’s life to not drive regularly, giving up the most advanced technologies first, like smartphones, would be a good start.
Because humans are vastly physically inferior to other species of similar size – humans are much slower and weaker – and because humans provide no necessary function in any naturally-evolved ecosystem, it is clear that humans’ only proper role on this planet is to expand their consciousness. Humans must stop obsessing on intellect, ego, and unnaturally and very harmfully manipulating the physical/natural world, and instead focus on growing empathy and wisdom.
Humans need to greatly lower their population and consumption, and make their lives about expanding their personal consciousness and human consciousness as a whole instead of about consuming things and playing with toys like smartphones, as fun as that might seem to be. A truly evolved human race would look like the advanced people in the Star Trek episode “Errand of Mercy;” if you came to Earth you would barely if at all notice us. Instead, we are moving in the opposite direction, a direction whose ultimate result will be the end of most or virtually all life on Earth. We need societal leaders who are willing to do what is best for the Earth, for all that lives here, and for all or the large majority of people, not for themselves and their rich and powerful friends at the expense of everyone and everything else. Replacing the massively egotistical leaders with these leaders is a very difficult problem for which no solution has been identified, but it is clear that if humans don’t majorly change course very soon, there will be very little left very soon in geological time.
 Humans caused species extinctions by overhunting after leaving Africa even before practicing agriculture, but that issue is not addressed here.
 DEVO is a new wave band formed in 1973 whose ideology was that humans were devolving into a race of robots.
 The Borg are a fictional race from the Star Trek TV series that are part natural being, part robot.
I became an advocate for the natural world ever since I started riding horses in the country about 40 miles from where I lived when I lived in Chicago in the 1970s, and I’ve always felt a strong affinity for nonhumans. I was an Earth First! “campaigner” in the 1980s and was a Greenpeace employee for a couple of years during that time. Today, I continue to advocate for the natural environment and all the life therein.