Oil eating naked hive monkeys
Oil eating naked hive monkeys
We speak about nature and the natural world, and usually when we say this sort of thing we don't mean cities, homes, people, pets, livestock, roads, power poles, drainage canals, animals living amongst us in our cities, etc. This distinction would be unlikely to occur to an alien observer. If aliens were filming Planet Earth, Sir David Alienborough (a crystal-gas-cloud hybrid intelligence and universe renowned public broadcaster; his black and white videos from the big bang are classics) would get very excited when describing us: the most widespread and largest biomass species on Earth. He'd barely catch his breath (assuming he breathed, and further assuming he'd have gender and even further assuming that his language used gender for disambiguation) as he went on about the marvels of these swarming naked hive monkeys and their massive hive structures that are visible from space and even glow at night.
"Unlike their close cousins, the naked hive monkeys are terrible at climbing trees...", he'd ironically intone, pausing, and then in a rising voice of astonishment: "...but they nonetheless can fly" (cue footage of a passenger jet taking off).
There would be a hilarious montage of great apes grooming each other and of us giving each other colonoscopies.
We are unable to see our place in the natural world, which is too bad because we are such a massive part of the world ecosystem that we can't really understand it without that perspective. Rare species like pandas can safely ignore their role in the ecosystem. They barely create or impact any habitat at all. If we replaced them with Disney animatronic panda robots I guess China would have a bit more bamboo? We on the other hand! The farms that feed our hives are responsible for 1 pound of plant out of every 50 on Earth. Our livestock represent 2 pounds of animal out of every 50 on Earth. We and our livestock are almost 100 times more massive than all wild mammals combined.
Consider the black bear. It is not a hive species, but it is our size and like us it is an omnivore. Black bears need ranges of 8-15 square miles of habitat but can also reach densities of 2 per square mile. This suggests that the state of Washington could support somewhere between 5,000 and 150,000 bears. There are about 25,000 actual bears here and if we imagine they could double their population to 50,000 then they need about 1.5 square miles of land each. Our needs if we were non-hive omnivores should be the same, so instead of supporting 8 million people, Washington state should support about 50,000 of us. By this metric, the whole dry surface of the Earth would support 38 million of us if we didn't live in hives. But we do and there are 8,094 million of us.
Where I live the deer breed out of control because we do not allow any other large predators to share our habitat, but we also don't hunt deer near where we live. And we live nearly everywhere. So there are lots of deer feeling very safe as they eat our lawns. We joke that if the food stops coming we can eat the deer, but that would only be food for a day or so. Food from local farms? Lunch the day after that. It is our large factory farms that feed us. They operate intensively using fertilizer and robotic tractors, store the food using machines that keep it cool, and deliver it using trucks and trains to warehouses spread throughout our cities. If the farmers stop doing this we would all die. Well, I suppose there is room on Earth for about 38 million of us.
Fertilizer, tractors, trucks, trains, cities? Yep, oil. Oil powered machines allow us to work huge farms without getting so hungry from the effort that we'd have to eat all the food from the farm ourselves. Oil powers the cooling machines, the transporting machines, oil even paves our roads. Natural gas is turned into fertilizer via the Haber process. One pound out of every 50 pounds of CO2 we emit is emitted by this process, and half of the nitrogen in our bodies can be traced directly to this process. In a real way we can be said to eat oil. Which is how we manage to number 8,094 million in a space that should only support 38 million.
Another way to think about climate change is that it is the experience of living within an enormous monkey hive. And it is a sobering perspective from which to consider "net zero". Stop eating oil? Could bees stop eating pollen? We could get rid of our livestock... Instead of spending energy to support those animals we'd grow more of a few key crops. We'd use a bit less energy, but it wouldn't meaningfully change the "eating oil to support billions" equation. And what an environmental catastrophe in exchange! A diversity of creatures (the livestock as well as other animals and plants that live in their habitats) would be replaced with yet more genetically identical single crop farms. We are the environment. Those livestock species live in symbiosis with us. They would all become extinct if we stopped caring for them.
If we were trying to manage our species as some alien wildlife manager we would consider the hive monkey "of least concern" and probably even offer a bounty for our pelts. So what about just getting rid of us?
Well, yes. But you first.
No volunteers? Well, what if we all coordinate to reduce our consumption and our numbers so that within a hundred years we will no longer be the dominant ecological force on Earth? To coordinate this we'd need to be in just one hive, with just one queen. The Han people of China are our largest single ethnic group. And they have in fact formed a large hive that attempts to control its numbers (they were trying to reduce them with the one child policy, now they are trying to increase them again, go figure). In order to reach this stage and have control over 1,412 million people, they had the cultural revolution, the little red book, massacres, wars, widespread rape and brutality. Recently they welded people with covid inside their homes. They appear to be trying to eliminate the Uyghur people. There's no "I" in hive, at least not in Mandarin.
Big predators often kill brutally. You've probably seen the orcas playing with the poor helpless seals before eating them. We humans have John Wayne Gacy and so on to our credit. I would take the chaos of these randomly distributed monsters any day over the coordinated efforts of 1,412 million people all trying to eliminate me. What if John Wayne Gacy ends up leading the one big hive? The history of human organization for a common purpose is not a reassuring one. The French Revolution comes to mind, with the slogan "Liberté, égalité, fraternité", but with the reality of the reign of terror. And I doubt I need to mention those German boogeymen.
We seem too unruly to organize on a planet wide scale, which is some relief when thinking of the kinds of leaders we produce, but also means there isn't a solution to the global warming that will soon change everything for us. At least not one that will happen fast enough. In time one can imagine breakthroughs in energy storage to enable reliable consumption of wind and solar. This along with lots and lots of nuclear power could run our transportation and farms and make our fertilizer using electricity alone (including creating oil (green hydrocarbons) from the air itself). This infrastructure and the workers who make it will consume a lot more oil in its creation and so CO2 emissions will get worse for a while and then slowly begin to turn around. Until then, if it helps, imagine Sir David Alienborough narrating the various die-offs from crop failures, supply chain disruptions, heat waves, cold waves, and so on. No alien naturalist could be too concerned about our species losing a few billion.
In the meantime, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Our greatest value isn't our stable breeding population or our lovely plumage. It's our Beethoven, BTS, Beatles, Baryshnikov, Biles, Bogart, Bacall, beef tartare, blintzes, burritos, bao buns, bariatric surgery, ballistic missiles, batik, bikinis, bowling, boolean logic and so on. We burn a lot of CO2 making, being, and doing all those things. It seems unlikely that 38 million hunter gatherers would come up with it all. For my part I've been making vermouth and amaro, trying to sort-of copy Campari (Compari!) and Sweet Vermouth, allowing me to make Mygroni's and Myhattans and Boulevardi-moi's (cocktails with some of my own ingredients). It's not much, and my variations aren't as good as the originals yet, but they are my own, and an effort to do something interesting with my share of the CO2. Oh yeah, and I've been fixing up an old sailboat, pictures below. If my efforts come up short, I hope one of the other 8,094 million naked hive monkeys will pick up the slack.

Fixing up Ariadne