By Donella Meadows
–December 4, 1997–
I may have made a mistake when I evolved that two-legged, large-brained life-form.
They have a wonderful intelligence, those creatures, my first full-fledged experiment with Reason and Moral Intuition. It’s been fun to watch them learn and develop. But I can see some problems in the design. They confuse the inventions of their minds with the realities of my laws. They have a hard time dealing with the long-term effects of their short-term actions. And I’m afraid I’ve made them think they’re a lot smarter than they actually are.
Right now they’re meeting in a place they call Kyoto, trying to agree on the formula for air. They’re arguing whether the CO2 content of the atmosphere should be 450 or 750 or 1000 parts per million.
That’s awfully arrogant of them. I’ve already done more experiments with that formula than they can imagine. I began with a lot of atmospheric CO2 — 3 percent, or 30,000 parts per million. Then I started playing around with life. I created the blue-green algae, which slurp up CO2 as their food.
For eons now, those algae, and the plants that evolved out of them, have been constructing themselves out of CO2, dying, sinking to the bottoms of swamps and oceans, compressing the carbon they took from the atmosphere into oil and gas and coal. The CO2 in the air has been going down and down and down, with a lot of short-term variation. During the last few hundreds of thousands of years it’s been as low as 180 ppm in ice ages and as high as 280 ppm in warm spells.
Those variations have really walloped the life forms. The ones that couldn’t adapt were wiped out. I keep evolving new ones, though, ever more resilient and ingenious, and, I must say, beautiful. I’m getting pretty proud of the result. Intricate! Complex! You should see my rainforests!
Then, just a couple hundred years ago, an eyeblink by my reckoning, the big-brainers figured out how to burn oil and coal and gas. The long-stored CO2 started pouring back into the atmosphere. They’ve already raised the CO2 in the atmosphere from 270 ppm to 360, and it’s going up ever faster as they race around in cars, generate electricity, heat shelters, raise food, make all sorts of toys to play with, and increase their numbers.
Now I’ve gone through plenty of climate upsets — big ones — ocean currents changed all around, a thousand-mile-deep ice cap right over that Kyoto place, howling deserts where now there are forests, forests where now there are deserts. Wiped out most of the life forms several times and had to start again with the algae and the crawling things. They’ll survive. I’ll survive. I don’t know that the big-brains will. Their “civilization” based on burning stored carbon won’t. They’ve made themselves too dependent on the sea level staying put, the rain falling in specific places at specific times, the rivers and winds and storms staying within bounds — their bounds, not mine. Their bounds won’t hold, not given what they’re doing to the climate.
It’s touching to see how many of the big-brains have figured out the basic outline of their self-created dilemma. (They’re a long way from getting the details right.) But the flaws in my design for intelligence are apparent — they’re using their strange creation called “money” to decide what to do.
“Money” is one of their symbols. It’s their way of keeping track, like poker chips or chess pieces, in a game they invented that has to do with which of them has power over whom. They can buy each other with their money chips, but they can’t buy a sunny day or a clean river or an atmosphere that’s back at 270 ppm CO2. They can pour all the money they have into my coffers and it won’t cause me to send rain to their crops or call off a flood. Deciding the composition of the atmosphere by counting up money “costs” makes as much sense as deciding whether a plane will fly by the position of a football on a field. Wrong measure. Wrong field. Wrong game. Planes fly by my laws; so does the climate, no matter which big-brained primates end up with however much of the stuff called money.
If they don’t figure that out, I’m going to have to take a few million years and try to evolve a higher form of intelligence. It’s a shame that the money-worshipers will probably take down the chimpanzees and gorillas with them — those apes were good rough drafts; I could have used them once again as evolutionary platforms for intelligence.
Well, I can build from the dolphins, if they get through this rough spot.
Maybe that won’t be necessary, though. I nearly got intelligence right this time. The big-brains do have the capacity to see beyond power and money, see into the future, understand the fundamentals of my laws, distinguish between symbols and reality. Some of them know how many kinds of energy they can harness that don’t put carbon back into the atmosphere. It’s not impossible for them to get it right
But they’d better hurry. The gases they’re spewing out will hang around for centuries. The climate shifts they’ve started will go on unfolding for decades, even if they wise up right now.
I hope they do. I’m really quite fond of them.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997