Climate Change Drought

Couple looking at drought (© PHdJ - stock.adobe.com)

ORONO, Maine — Human evolution might be the biggest threat to solving the climate crisis. Scientists at the University of Maine set out to understand how the process of cultural adaptation to the environment, a significant driver of human evolution, impacts our ability to address global environmental issues. The findings reveal some counterintuitive insights.

The study aimed to answer three critical questions: how human evolution has functioned in relation to environmental resources, its contribution to global environmental crises, and how environmental limits might influence human evolution in the future.

Over the last 100,000 years, human groups have progressively exploited a wider range of resources with increasing intensity and environmental impact. This expansion, facilitated by cultural adaptation — developing social systems and technologies for resource exploitation — has been beneficial for our species.

“Human evolution is mostly driven by cultural change, which is faster than genetic evolution. That greater speed of adaptation has made it possible for humans to colonize all habitable land worldwide,” says study author Tim Waring, an evolutionary biologist and associate professor with the University of Maine Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and the School of Economics, in a university release.

Climate change
Human evolution might be the biggest threat to solving the climate crisis, researchers explain. (© parabolstudio – stock.adobe.com)

However, this success comes at a cost. Humans have exhausted the physical limits of the biosphere, and our cultural adaptations, such as the industrial use of fossil fuels, have led to significant environmental problems.

In exploring how to address challenges like climate change, Waring’s team found two patterns. First, sustainable systems often emerge only after resource struggles or failures, as seen with the regulation of sulfur and nitrogen dioxide emissions in the U.S. in 1990. Secondly, effective environmental protection systems usually address issues within societies, not between them.

Addressing the climate crisis effectively will likely require new global regulatory, economic, and social systems.

“One problem is that we don’t have a coordinated global society which could implement these systems,” explains Waring. “We only have sub-global groups, which probably won’t suffice. But you can imagine cooperative treaties to address these shared challenges. So, that’s the easy problem.”

The study also indicates that cultural evolution among sub-global groups might exacerbate resource competition, potentially leading to conflict and even global human dieback.

Earth attacked by greenhouse effect air pollution, climate change
Humans have exhausted the physical limits of the biosphere, including evolving to use fossil fuels. (© Quality Stock Arts – stock.adobe.com)

“This means global challenges like climate change are much harder to solve than previously considered,” notes Waring. “It’s not just that they are the hardest thing our species has ever done. They absolutely are. The bigger problem is that central features in human evolution are likely working against our ability to solve them. To solve global collective challenges we have to swim upstream.”

Looking ahead, researchers propose further studies to understand the drivers of cultural evolution and explore ways to mitigate global environmental competition. Waring expresses cautious optimism, citing past successes in international environmental policy, but acknowledges the unique challenges posed by climate change.

“Our paper explains why and how building cooperative governance at the global scale is different, and helps researchers and policymakers be more clear-headed about how to work toward global solutions,” Waring concludes. “If our conclusions are even close to being correct, we need to study this much more carefully.”

The study is published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

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1 Comment

  1. D C M says:

    Self-hat isn’t the answer to any problem.
    You can see humans as life’s response to asteroid collisions since we can divert or destroy them. But you’ve been indoctrinated by generations of negative anti-human propaganda.