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Book Review: Homo sapiens: An appraisal of modern humans

Posted by David Penney on

A nice review of our recent title: Homo sapiens: An appraisal of modern humans by Rajan Jaisinghani has just been published in the Spring 2016 edition of Population Matters Magazine.

clicking the cover will take you to the product page

The full review (pages 23-24) can be read by clicking here. Unfortunately, the author of the review, Richard Vernon (Secretary of the Oxford Branch of Population Matters), was limited in the word count by the magazine, which allowed him to do little more than cover the content of the book, without being able to expand on his perceived importance of the work. What follows is a more thorough review which he kindly sent to us. Please note his concluding statement: "...  this is one of the most important books, for humanity, the environment and hence our future, that I have read. The publishers are to be congratulated for offering it at such an affordable price."

We are very grateful to Richard Vernon for taking the time to write and share this extensive review:

"This book is essentially a plea to ‘live lightly on this Earth’, for the sake of all who currently occupy living space on it and those coming after us, backed up by a formidable road map of how this might be done. It is very timely. If indeed Jaisinghani and those few thinkers with the wit and courage to recognise our predicament succeed in turning our headlong rush up the J-curve of population to a saner path, the task now is huge, much bigger than if we had taken the allegedly premature warnings of Malthus, Ehrlich, E.O. Wilson etc seriously earlier. No doubt Homo sapiens did once so live lightly but since our enormous surge in population, particularly following the Industrial Revolution, our heavy footprint is now felt, destructively, world wide.

Jaisinghani has not written a ‘science book’ on the grounds that the scientific method, with its rigorous pursuit and presentation of proofs, has failed, as have scientists, to persuade the public and thence our leaders, of the importance and urgency of the issue. His goal is to instill in the lay reader some insight of what humans are doing to the ‘only planet that we know is hospitable to us’, and lay out essential pre-requisites for solutions.

Chapter 1 explores several components of the planet’s environment: climate, atmosphere, water (oceans and freshwater), the land, and biodiversity. All are interconnected such that changes in one have repercussions in others. The system as a whole is very complex yet as it and living things have developed simultaneously, over eons of time, their interconnected development has led to living things being matched by their particular environments. Such natural balanced systems are to be admired but can be vulnerable to interventions that significantly alter one or more of the systems’ characteristics. We humans have been doing just that, particularly since our dramatic increase in numbers, by nine times since the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. With our new-found world dominance on the back of our population growth we are simultaneously stewards of the planet and have its resources at our disposal, a combination we have yet to learn to manage well.

One of many of our impacts has been pollution. Jaisinghani describes a few examples. Mercury, sulphates and black carbon dust circumnavigate the world in the atmosphere causing a host of health problems such as neurodegenerative disorders, cancer and emphysema. Mercury is emitted especially from coal-fired power plants, cement plants and incinerators around the world. Asia is estimated to release c. 1,400 tons annually, much of it on behalf of the West.   

Another serious case is the huge misuse of the oceans by we seven billion people. The oceans were probably where life originated, and certainly where higher life forms developed before moving on to land. They are key to maintaining the planet’s temperature, and are the planet’s main storage system for heat and carbon dioxide. Sadly they have also become the planet’s major storage system for humanity’s increasing waste. The Eastern Garbage Patch of the Pacific Ocean, comprising domestic and industrial refuse, particularly plastics, is estimated to be the size of Texas and growing, and some 30 to 60 metres deep.  The pollution of oceans is causing increasing damage to the multitude of creatures living there. Some toxins move up the food chain and reach us as we eat products of the sea. The oceans are also becoming a threat to low-lying lands as ice, melting at an increasing rate, raises sea levels. Jaisinghani observes that successive predictions of sea level rise have been proven by actual rises to have been under-estimates.

In Chapter 2 the author poses the question of why humanity continues with behaviour that is changing the face of the planet in ways likely to be hugely prejudicial to our own species and others not just in the future but already today. He points to our earlier evolution under sparsely populated well-resourced conditions where survival required rapid, short-term and relatively simple decisions, in the search for food and defence against predators and hostile peoples. For this the more primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, is admirably suited, with its nanoseconds response time. There was no need for long-term thinking. The focus was on one’s own immediate interests and those of family and tribe. The more advanced, slower part of our brain, the cortex, is able to take on the more contemplative thinking needed for more complex issues and those with longer term implications which would include global threats. In our daily lives the amygdala with its faster reaction time takes precedence in much, perhaps most, of our decision making.

Risk Analysis is important in assessing the relative seriousness of known dangers, but we are shown to be very irrational in judging their seriousness in that the perceived levels of danger differ markedly from those calculated from actual disaster records. Jaisinghani points to powerful innate human tendencies to react to risks perceived as imminent, but to largely ignore those of the longer term, even when the latter are shown to have much bigger consequences, and when avoidance measures taken soon will be much less costly than if postponed. Dangers with an emotional element are responded to much more readily than those derived from statistical records even when the latter show a much more serious end-result if ignored. Short-term self-interest takes precedence over cooperative behaviour, as illustrated at many levels, personal, local, national and regional, in, for example, climate change discussions. This human characteristic leads to the development of opposing groups, often based on minor differences, which he calls Otherness, also known as ‘irrational opposition’, with blame attributed to others often invoked. It is used by failing leaders to divert attention from real causes by blaming others, and leads to prejudice, genocide and war. It has existed from our early history, such as Mayan cruelty to their enemies who were murdered in public events, to the Crusades, slavery, the Nazi’s Holocaust, and the genocide in the break up of Yugoslavia and Sudan. It is pervasive at all levels and is accentuated under today’s increasing population density. Some 21 million people are today exploited in slavery. The largest group example is that of women who suffer degrees of subjugation around the world. Often beliefs are substituted for knowledge and facts. Solutions are marginalised because they are inconvenient. The phenomenon is one of the greatest obstacles to the cooperation needed to solve our existential problems of the planet. It seriously impacts perception by the majority population of the long-term risks facing humanity with grave consequences for our future.

Chapter 3 examines particular issues of our burgeoning population, not least of which is the uniqueness of our position as a single species having requisitioned 40% of the planet’s dry land to grow our food and consuming 30% and 50% respectively of the primary productivity of marine and freshwater environments. The process is displacing and rendering extinct increasing numbers of other species. The impact has been so profound that scientists have proposed that the latest geological period, the Holocene, be declared over and the current epoch, from about 1900, be called the Anthropocene: the age when humans dominate the planet’s physical, chemical, and biological conditions. Jaisinghani regards this as our biggest problem, from which most others emanate.
He uses India, his country of birth and which he visits most years, as an example in that in the last 50 years the human population has gone from some half a billion to 1.2 billion. This has seen dramatic technological and economic development and simultaneously serious declines in standards of living amongst the larger population. Such declines include the disappearance of city parks and roadside trees, replaced by high-rise housing blocks, shanty towns, the homeless, garbage, rat infestations, open sewers, and serious atmospheric pollution, Delhi’s air quality being declared to be the world’s worst. The last is partly due to adoption of ‘the American model of transport’, the motor car, which, for those able to afford it, protects the occupant from collision injury and street pollution rather than offering speed. Indians complain about these things, along with a lack of uniform justice for the rich and poor, corruption at all levels, increasing malnutrition, now affecting 60% of the people, shortages of water and sanitation , and increasing crimes against women. Jaisinghani is bemused that citizens’ response is to attribute blame: politicians and parties are blamed for them all with the belief that if these are changed the problems will be solved. There is little or no discussion, even during election campaigns, on causes or real solutions of these manifest problems, and none at all on the root cause of them all, an exploding population. At best, unless full-blown disaster is imminent, some mitigation may be proposed which in effect merely passes the problems to following generations. He suggests that India’s experience of rapid large-scale population growth and its consequences might serve as a model for the rest of the world, but warns it is a gamble from which there may be no recovery.

At a global level he points out that the doubling time for the human population is less than the average human life span, especially in developing countries. The consequences on so many other factors are severe and the world is so inter-connected that these will be felt world-wide.

Chapter 4 looks at our modern political, governance and economic systems, and finds here the roots of the planet’s major current and, more seriously, future problems. Politics is meant to be a means whereby society is managed for the benefit of the whole but almost invariably, even in so-called democracies, results in power being drawn into the hands of a small oligarchy, inevitably to their minority advantage. Even the fourth pillar of democracy , the media, which should bring such errant behaviour to public notice, is itself bought out by a wealthy few, serving the interests of large and very large corporations often, through their immense wealth and lobbyists, with even greater power than and influence over governments. In such a scenario the prospects for governance in the interests of the majority are small. Moreover the powerful rely on a growing economy, as that is the model that suits their short-term profit-focused thinking most effectively. They appear unable to grasp that the economy is merely a sub-system of the much greater natural systems of the planet.

An analysis of several aspects of this disingenuous and retrograde position is given. One example is national budgets. These are based not so much on the needs of society and the environment but to favour large corporations and powerful media owners. Assurances to the contrary in pre-election campaigns are often ignored post election. In the author’s view so-called Defence spending is often excessive, sometimes 20% to 40% of budget, while that on research and development for civilian advantage is too little, generally less than 4%. He finds India’s $5.4 billion healthcare budget woefully small, with only some 1% spent on family planning - ‘India’s and the World’s largest problem, to which India makes the greatest contribution’. This compares with India’s $46 billion spent on defence.

Chapter 5 discusses pre-requisites for solutions, of which the author lists six where great change is needed, to be implemented simultaneously. Leadership and education are particularly important, the others are: voluntary population reduction incentives, change from consumption & growth to conservation, economic valuation changes and elimination of wars.

“Real leaders” are rare. They are able to earn the respect and trust of the masses to the extent they can coax a population to do the ‘right’ thing, to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain, even when the public view lies in another direction. Emperor Ashoke (304–232 BC), Franklin Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela are given as examples, with descriptions of their leadership in action. The World needs a number of leaders of this calibre, with mutual respect to work together on the other five pre-requisites.

Education is needed to ensure a public able to understand the threats facing humanity and recognise the need to make sacrifices for the common, world-wide, good, and accordingly vote in the appropriate government. Details of the sort of broad education needed are given.

On the need for voluntary population reduction incentives Jaisinghani points out that of the current 7 billion people nearly one billion do not have even the bare minimum levels of nutrition, yet we are set to reach 10 billion by 2050. The challenge is severe, the greatest threat to mankind. He proposes goals of 8 billion by 2100 and 5 billion by 2200 and spells out steps to achieve this.

Then we need to change from consumption and growth to conservation. Growth is ubiquitous: it involves expansion of consumables, of energy, water and land use, and of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, of environmental damage and species extinction, health effects and societal stress, a self-feeding system that is unsustainable. The issues are discussed along with ways forward.

The author then turns to the changes needed in economic valuations, which currently ignore environmental, disposal, health and other costs thus passing them on to following generations. The incorporation of cradle-to-grave costs in pricing is essential, with penalties on ‘disposable’ products.

Finally he turns to the elimination of wars which, with the concomitant ‘defence’ budgets and then reconstruction costs, are a huge diversion of resources and an impediment to necessary global collaboration.

Chapter 6 describes a fictional 2050, seen through the eyes of a middle-class resident of a ‘mega metropolitan area’ in a developed country.  This has of course to be speculative but the author draws on some current reports and trends to postulate what might lie ahead with an assumed world population of nine billion, only slightly less than current forecasts. Thomas Piketty et al have shown how inequality in wealth distribution has grown as economies matured. Jaisinghani puts this at an all time high leading to increasing shortages of clean water, housing, and jobs and thence to higher crime rates, particularly in the enormous, overcrowded, city populations. There is a continuation of the separation of a small oligarchy of the very rich, with favoured life styles and services, from the rest, and postulates that such wealth inequality may be the only sustainable pattern as the planet with such a large human population cannot support a higher standard of living for all.

The book lacks an index which is a handicap to the serious reader of such a factual text, page headers give the book title and author where chapter titles would be more useful, and there is some repetition. But this is one of the most important books, for humanity, the environment and hence our future, that the reviewer has read. The publishers are to be congratulated for offering it at such an affordable price."

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  • How could any of this be better stated? It co’dtnul.

    Foge on

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