Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Elephant Skin Table: a Reminder of Human Cruelty at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

One of the participants (*) of the Summer School of the Club of Rome looks at an exhibit of the "La Specola" museum in Florence. This table is made using the skin of an elephant and it was a kind of furniture that was fashionable during the 19th century. The museum has inherited several items of this kind. Correctly they are not normally shown to the public except in special occasions, such as the visit by the participants of the Summer Academy. Yet, these objects remind us a human attitude toward wildlife that's still common among us. 

For many of us, it is a surprise to discover that, today, 97% of the vertebrate biomass on land is composed of humans and of domesticated animals, leaving only 3% for wildlife (these numbers are obviously approximate, but they seem to be reasonably accurate.) 

Apparently, something monstrous has been taking place during the past few centuries: we managed to exterminate most of the Earth's wildlife and we keep at that as if it were the true human purpose on this planet. As the human population continues to increase, the wildlife population must necessarily decrease. How far are we from the time when there will be no wildlife left? In 1970, Isaac Asimov had optimistically estimated as 2430 AD the year when the last animals of the planet would have been killed but, at this rate of increase of the human population, the complete extermination of vertebrates could take place much sooner. It is an enormous change, something that compares with the greatest disasters recorded in the history of the biosphere  

But human beings seem to be unfazed, or at least most of them. Evidently, they are humanocentric and things haven't changed much from the time when the elephant skin table shown in the La Specola museum was made. Humans continue killing everything as they increase in numbers and whatever disputes the human right of appropriating all the spaces and all the resources of the Earth is ruthlessly eliminated.. 

Will humans ever change their attitude? Hard to say but, at least, I saw these numbers shown for the first time in a public debate at the 1st Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, in Florence, in Sep 2017. The issue was raised by the Club's co-President, Ernst von Weizsäcker, who noted already on the first day of the school how most of the current ideas on how the world is supposed to work were developed in an age when the earth was almost empty of human beings. 

Today, von Weizsäcker noted, the situation is completely different and he mentioned the data about the 3% of wildlife remaining. Then, we should change the way we see the world; challenging the humanocentric view of the world that remains entrenched in the mainstream environmental movement. 

Yet, this information didn't seem to make inroads in the discussion. As far as I can tell, it was never mentioned again in any of the many sessions of the Summer School in Florence. Let's say that von Weizsäcker's talk was a start, at least; but was it already too late?

*(image reproduced with the kind permission of Joséphine von Mitschke-Collande, who appears in the photo)


  1. I was a bit shocked when one of the participants illustrated in a presentation why reducing human population would have been a bad idea. In essence, this would have lead to the collapse of civilization due to the lack of a working retirement system for elder people.

    I am not far for retirement age, so I should be sensitive to this argument. But my first reaction, after a week of doomsday narrative (and yes, the 3% figure shocked me too) was "who care". I doubt this argument is true anyway, but civilization will not collapse for lack of MY retirement plan. It could collapse for lack of wildlife.

  2. The thing that has allowed humans to aggrandize so much primary photosynthetic productivity is our ability to use massive amounts of fossil energy. It's only a high-energy industrial civilization that can manage such dramatic changes to large percentages of earth's land area.

    When our energy supply is gone, industrialism withers and human populations crash, the earth will re-wild itself rapidly. Old and new species will occupy the newly abundant habitats created by our abandoning so much land.

  3. R "Will humans ever change their attitude?" Does it all rely on changing attitude? What about humans actively reducing human biota sheer mass? Could it be considered appropriate in order to save other species, expecially the most intelligent ones?

    1. What about humans actively reducing human biota sheer mass?

      What do you mean by "actively", kill each other or commit suicide? Not having kids will do the trick eventually; too bad we didn't make that choice a priority.

  4. This is what I think is the most likely scenario:

    We will not change our ways. Most of us will remain ignorant of the nature of the crisis that is engulfing us. The economy will get worse, as will the weather, there will be increasing conflict and decreasing resources of all kinds. Life will get much harder.

    Death rates will go up, birth rates will go down, and we'll have a self-reinforcing cycle of violence, population loss, technological and social simplification. A.k.a collapse.

    The natural world will recover from the temporary burden of so many humans, new species will evolve and ecosystems re-diversify. 10 million years from now it will be hard to tell we were ever here.

    I don't think this is avoidable, and I'm not convinced we should try to avoid it either. To me, an apt analogy is the terminal cancer patient. Why would you make them suffer through pointless and expensive chemotherapy? Palliative care is appropriate, and is a worthy goal.


  5. Are we creating an increase in biomass due to our careful stewardship of the planet? No! Absolutely not. We are so numb. 3%, well got to run "America has talent" is on.

  6. ill humans change their attitude? That is, how many know entropy? About one thousand, perhaps even less here in Italy and in the western world. In a mass of 7.3 billion people, it is enough to limit the number of entropic reality enthusiasts to a few tens of millions and here is the worm ewes. The answer is no. The BAU is inexorable, but it is also the thermodynamic laws. Man can only be deceived to be the creator of his destiny, but there are internal and external forces that can not change and destroy it. Yet it would be enough for a healthy morality, but I would ask too much, a healthy religion to be in agreement and respect these forces and these limits.

  7. It's even worse than that, it's not just wild animals
    Amazon's remote tribes are being exterminated right now

    by gold miners, people admittedly at the lowest level of consciousness about how things work, but essentially hired by the western most sofisticated humans.
    To do what? to search for gold, the most obvious monument to human stupidity, to dig for something which will be amassed without any real use in the vaults of central banks all over the planet.
    This episode is probably a small thing in the global picture but is indicative of what's wrong: we are wasting the most precious thing on earth, the lives of the most innocent humans, for the most plentiful resource on earth, something we already have unused reserves for hundred of years.

    1. "the most precious thing on earth, the lives of the most innocent humans, for the most plentiful resource on earth, something we already have unused reserves for hundred of years."


      Gold notwithstanding (I do not defend its market value), I would ask why "the most precious thing on earth" should be defined, instead, as human life.

      The lives of humans are, objectively, one of the most plentiful resources on earth, of which we have "unused reserves for hundreds of years".

  8. Well,yes: the tiny minority of the Wise can do nothing in the face of the great majority pursuing survival, comfort, idleness and wealth. Entropy? Over-shoot? What's that?!

    As things go badly wrong, people will seek to solve the matter in two ways: theft through force (governments, mafias, corporations), and by redistribution dressed up as 'social justice'.

    Neither will work, and they will go to their graves ignorant as to what is really happening.

    Puts one in mind of the Taoist saying:

    'You complain the Tao is ineffective in this world? That's like asking for a unicorn to fly when it is tied down on all sides!'

    Only so much is possible on this Earth. We played our games when we were just one species among many and comparatively weak, this balance has been hopelessly wrecked since 1800.

  9. Regarding retirement benefits, etc, I have been reflecting on this, and realised that I have learned most from two elderly people who would most certainly have died long before I could have known them in the pre-antibiotic/safe surgery/ fossil-fuel (pensions) age.

    I loved them while they lived and venerate their memories.

    Younger people are naturally too busy ape-signalling social status, dreaming of what they might be in life, disgustingly ambitious,and then taken up with their families if they have children to communicate fully.

    And of course, playing dumb games on those glowing screens.....

  10. You throw out these questions to consider when the answers are already known. Since humans have already brought under their control every available part of the biosphere, our global civilization has essentially covered the continents and wrecked the oceans with acidification and giant garbage gyres (mostly plastics), drastically reducing the profundity of nature along the way (monocultures, species extinctions, population collapses, etc.). We are analogous to yeast that consumes all available resources and reproduces to the exclusion of everything but itself. The extraordinary reduction of wild terrestrial animals to a mere 3% over a few centuries sends a resounding message: no, we won’t change our thinking (or our nature). Instead, we’ll keep on keeping on until, at last, we can’t anymore, and like yeast, die en masse. Wasn’t the time to heed the message back in the 1970s when the population explosion and the ecology movement were existential dilemmas? Didn’t Albert Bartlett explain this issue pretty well decades ago? Some few of us may know what’s happening to the world, but the mass of us learn nothing.

  11. We have spent the last 5 month on the farm of a friend. The arable land on the farm is leased out to an organic farmer. The farmer grows crops in a certifiably organic manner. This is laudable of course but seeing the process of growing crops for human consumption has made certain paradoxes apparent to me. The first one is that prior to planting a new crop, the farmer plows and then a few weeks later tills the field before planting it. In effect, the farmer first endeavors to kill as many plants and animals as possible that are living on that plot of land in order to plant the crops that he will take to market. He is in effect waging war on the ecosystem that would like to exist on that land of its own accord.
    The second paradox is that even if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you are still participating in a massive biocide simply by depriving non-human vegetarians and carnivores of a place to live.
    So yes, to let other species live, we would have to let go of agriculture and in turn our civilization and reduce our population to a level that made room for other species to survive.

    1. Human beings (Homo Sapiens) arguably lived quite content on Earth for more or less 280K years before any form of civilization was even attempted. Not wishing to be rude by hammering this point over and over, I understand that no one is prone to even consider or imagine returning to pre-civilization mores (not even to pre-industrial ones, for that matter). Having reached the present situation and with no sign by any government, political or scientific body clearly stating that only a global combined effort in reducing - or outright eliminating - some economic and behavioral "undisputed truths" (perpetual growth based on neverending, cheaply acquired natural resources, anthropocentrism/anthropolatry, religion of progress) could eventually provide an acceptable outcome, bringing us close to the aforementioned state, what else there is other than human extinction?

  12. Can I make a plea for altering the headline for the chart at the heart of this post? Smil is actually talking about estimates of land-living (terrestrial) mammals, not 'vertebrates'. The latter is a larger category.

    There is a lot in Prof Smil's paper that deserves a radical examination. Habitats have survived massive retreats in past glaciations including regular subsequent re-invasions of the northern land mass from refugia. What humans have done especially in the industrial period is different and what is going to happen in the next century and more will be different again. I would like to see regional analysis as well as global numbers. We cannot just extrapolate from present BAU. The explosion in Soya fed livestock for vast urbanising populations - allied with the so-called 'Western Diet' - is having large human as well as environmental effects. And then there is Palm Oil.

    1. Yes, I took that diagram from the Web, it should read "land vertebrates" rather than "terrestrial", even though it is specified in the text what we are dealing with. Another problem is that the 3% estimate is all based on Smil's work. I don't know of any other estimate, although I haven't looked very hard in the literature. Generally speaking, Smil is reliable, but nobody is omniscent.

    2. After a discursive introduction covering the earlier spread of humanity there are sections covering, first, “Biomass changes” and then a section: “Global anthropomass and domesticated zoomass”, Prof Smil uses alternatively the terms: “wild mammalian terrestrial zoomass” and “wild terrestrial vertebrates” apparently inter-changeably.

      For instance he states: “even the largest species of wild terrestrial vertebrates now have aggregate zoomass that is only a small fraction of the global anthropomass.” But, ending one paragraph he says: “… by 2000 the zoomass of all wild land mammals was only about a tenth of the global anthropomass.” In the next sentence beginning the next paragraph, he reverts to the wider term. “… the zoomass of wild vertebrates is now vanishingly small compared to the biomass of domestic animals.”

      I note that Table 2 talks about “Wild Terrestrial Mammals”.
      I think his essay needs further work.


    3. Mmm... yes, it would need independent confirmation.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017