The Fall of Man

Sistine Chapel, fresco Michelangelo,

Sistine Chapel, fresco Michelangelo, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Last week’s post was fun, so I think I’ll do the same thing with another passage in the Bible. With respect to the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man, showing that this is not a literal description of what happened is shooting fish in a barrel, so I’m not going to bother. Any truth to the story of Adam and Eve, the snake, the fruit, and the Fall is mythic truth, not descriptive truth. So I’ll just make passing mention of the fact that the story isn’t literally true, and Darwin was right, and pass on from there to dealing with the story as myth. Because once you have dealt with the fact that we didn’t literally descend from a single couple a few thousand years ago of whom she was made from his rib and they lost immortality by eating a forbidden fruit under the manipulative urging of a talking snake, you have only begun; there is depth to this story and a lot of meaning once you get past the most obvious (and pernicious) misinterpretation.


Here’s the story retold in brief.


Man (the literal translation of “Adam”) and his wife lived an idyllic life in a garden made for them by God, who took care of all their needs. The garden had all kinds of good and pleasant things, but while they lived in it Adam and Eve were complete innocents. They had no knowledge of good and evil. They made no judgments for themselves, but did as God commanded and relied on him for all their moral choices.


God gave them a commandment related to their innocent status. A tree grew in the middle of the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eating the fruit of this tree would give them moral knowledge and enable them to make moral judgments. God forbade them to eat of the fruit, saying, “If you eat of it, you will surely die.”


Now the serpent was the most cunning of the animals in the garden, and he came to the woman one day and said, “Are you not allowed to eat of all the fruits of the trees in the garden?”


The woman answered, “Yes, we can eat of all of the fruit except for the tree in the middle of the garden. God said that if we eat that, we will die.”


The snake said, “But no. If you eat that fruit, your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods, knowing good and evil and making moral judgment for yourself. God doesn’t want you to have that knowledge and that’s why he forbade the fruit. You won’t die. You’ll become gods yourselves!”


Well, Eve liked that idea and picked the fruit and saw that it was good to eat and that it would give knowledge of good and evil, and being persuaded, she took a bite of the fruit. She took it to Adam and persuaded him to take a bite, too. Immediately they made a moral judgment that they shouldn’t be walking around naked (well, no promises were made as to quality of judgment) and clothed themselves, and by this sign God figured out that they had disobeyed his command.


Having done so, and having gained the ability to make moral judgments of their own, the man and the woman were not allowed to stay in the garden any longer and pick fruit from the trees, but had to earn their food by working, and eventually return to the Earth in death.


That’s the story in a nutshell, and there are many layers of meaning here. It’s absolutely packed! It has to do in part with the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and civilized life. On another level, it relates to the human ability to make moral judgments rather than simply being told what to do by authority. It relates to mortality and the loss of innocence, which carries with it the awareness of death. Now, here’s the biggest single secret contained in this story:


The “Fall” of Man was not a fall at all!


On the contrary, it was the beginning of a rise, the emergence of humanity from animal nature, and everything specifically human flows from this mythic event. (Which, again, did not literally take place. Don’t get sidetracked here.) Both God and the serpent made predictions as to what would happen if Adam and Eve ate the fruit and gained the knowledge of good and evil. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17.)


The serpent predicted: “You will not certainly die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5.)


The interesting thing is that both of these predictions came true. When they gained the knowledge of good and evil, they became mortal (or became aware of their mortality). But at the same time, their eyes were indeed opened, and they became like God, knowing good and evil. Indeed, God confirmed this: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:21.) I note in passing the implicit polytheism. But that’s not the subject of this post, so I’ll pass on.


As with all myths, there are an infinite number of possible interpretations to this one, but I see two main levels where it applies, one collective and the other individual.


Dawn of Civilization


On a collective level, the story of the Fall is about the beginning of civilized life. For most of the time that our species was on the planet, we lived like animals according to our instincts. We traveled in small bands, hunting and foraging for food rather than farming or herding, and living a simple life without nearly as much hard work to it as would afflict us in civilized times. It was in many ways an idyllic existence and the Garden of Eden is a fair mythic depiction of it. The story of the Fall reflects the loss of this pre-civilized lifestyle in such language as this:


“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”


(Genesis 3:17-19.)


Personal Awakening: Start of the Journey


The more important interpretation, however, is individual rather than collective. The Fall of Man happens in mythic time, which means it is not a single historical event but something that pervades all of time and is reenacted repeatedly. For each of us, it is the beginning of the journey, the first step on the path to self-awareness, awakening, and enlightenment. The Fall is not an error. It is necessary.


What exactly is involved in “the knowledge of good and evil”? This does not refer to factual knowledge or the kind of question we can use the scientific method to answer objectively, but to moral knowledge, the kind of question that relates to value rather than fact, and that can be answered only by an assertion of the will, a decision, a judgment. A creature without the knowledge of good and evil makes no moral judgments. Either he accepts everything reality offers without discrimination between what is desirable and what is undesirable, or else he defers all such judgments to an authority and assumes no responsibility for them himself. And of course, the authority’s first command is to do exactly that: make no moral judgments. Do not eat of the fruit in the middle of the garden. Do not gain the knowledge of good and evil. Leave all that to me.


To disobey this command is the first step on the Great Path. To make judgments of value for oneself is to assume the role to which we are entitled. The consequences are hard, because one must also face the possibility of error and live with the outcome, rather than letting another shoulder that responsibility. It means facing one’s own fallibility and, in a metaphorical (or sometimes literal) sense, one’s own mortality. Having eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, it is a long, hard journey to reach a point where this dichotomy can be transcended and, identifying with the Cosmos in mystical perception, achieve that higher octave of innocence. From the innocence of ignorance, through the burden of judgment and individual awareness, to the innocence of full understanding, that’s the journey of enlightenment (in one metaphorical conception), and there is no way to pole-vault from one state of innocence to the other; one must navigate the maze in between.





Filed under Fantasy Storytelling, Spirituality

12 responses to “The Fall of Man

  1. very fun read, thank you for sharing! namaste, and love

  2. I don’t disagree that the myth of the Garden is about the transition from hunting to farming — further clues lie in the story of Cain and Abel — but the true period of innocence it describes predates even hunting. There was a time when protohumans were “just an animal” and subject to the same kinds of ecological balance as any other animal. At some point, humans got an edge over their environment, and faced the NECESSITY of learning right from wrong, lest they overrun their sources of sustenance and perish.

    One interpretation of “covering themselves” — specifically, the genitals — carries the idea of taking control of their natural fecundity and limiting their otherwise exponential increase in numbers.

    The myth of expulsion from the Garden evokes the bittersweet memory of Eden and the desire to return. In this ecological interpretation, that would be a return to balance: where we would live like the animals, our numbers always in check to hard limits of sustainability on a finite planet, yet consciously, like the gods.

    Civilization has been one attempt to address this, but I’m not convinced it has been a successful one. We’ve merely replaced our natural predators with war: yet, not enough war to keep our numbers in check. The wealthy and the powerful in any civilization seek a perverse form of Eden perched atop the bent backs of slaves (human and animal) and ordinary citizens (bound into a system of rank and privilege), yet it is a fragile and ultimately unsatisfying Eden, never quite “enough” and subject to collapse along with the civilization that supports it.

    We have clearly found no balance comparable to the natural balance of a mature ecosystem: our numbers keep growing. We’ve eaten of the tree, but at this point, we don’t actually know good from evil — if we ever did, we’ve forgotten in the last couple of millennia, and replaced it with a mythology of endless “progress,” as though the carrying capacity of the earth were growing in synchrony with our appetites.

    • Themonthebard, thanks for contributing a very thoughtful comment. What you seem to be saying here is that human ability to create ecological havoc precedes civilization, dating maybe from late paleolithic times when pre-agricultural technology advanced to the point where it was, say, when the ancestors of the Native Americans discovered the New World. We’re talking bows and arrows, or at least spear-throwers, and maybe domesticated hunting dogs. The arrival of the Indians in North America sparked a mini-mass extinction in which all of the large game animals except the bison were hunted to death. There were once elephants in North America, and pre-1492 horses. Humanity had a very different impact in North America than in Africa. In Africa, the large game animals had time to learn the fear of man while human technology was still very primitive, but by the time humans discovered the New World it was already very advanced for a pre-agricultural society.

      About civilization and keeping our numbers in check, we’ve only reached a point where we need to do that fairly recently. In the early days of civilization, when farming was new, not only was there no need to do this, there was an imperative need to breed more and more humans. The increased food supply allowed by agriculture meant that we could, and the danger that the town across the river would, meant that we had to. Now that we do need to limit our numbers, it seems to be happening; birth rates are dropping all over the world (not just in advanced nations). It remains to be seen whether we will be able to avoid a cataclysmic die-off, but we are at least moving in the right direction.

      “The wealthy and the powerful in any civilization seek a perverse form of Eden perched atop the bent backs of slaves” — absolutely true, and yet we may be reaching a point where abolishing this system is also a requirement of survival. I don’t want to get too heavily into political discussion on this blog, but I will say that the ability of the rich and powerful to hog it all to themselves has become incompatible with a functioning economy. That’s even before we get into the problem of resource sustainability.

      “a mythology of endless “progress,” as though the carrying capacity of the earth were growing in synchrony with our appetites” — I’m going to suggest that the idea of “progress” is not necessarily synonymous with increased resource throughput. One idea that has always been a part of the concept of progress since the Enlightenment is equality. Reduced and stabilized population, combined with a lowered tolerance for greed, exploitation, and rapacity, can mean a wealthier, better lifestyle for everyone. I see us moving towards the first of those already, and the current political and economic crisis will compel us to move towards the second willy-nilly. We’ve got some tough times ahead, but if we can get past them, the idea of progress will not lose its luster, although it may be modified slightly in implication.

      One final set of thoughts for you. Recognize that the evolution of H. sapiens was not a fluke, that there were (and are now) numerous candidate species with a survival strategy based on social cooperation and intelligent manipulation of the environment. Recognize also that it’s our nature to invent new goodies and so technological progress, and ultimately civilization, are inevitable given the existence of a species with our abilities; we cannot stop doing these things, and even if we go extinct we will simply be replaced within a few million years by another species with the same capabilities. So there’s no solution possible by going back. Now ask yourself what solution is possible (and to what problem) by judiciously going forward. What, from the perspective of the planetary biosphere, is a species with human capabilities good for?

      Maybe prevention of the mass extinction events that have struck the Earth five times before we showed up on the scene?

      Maybe allowing the biosphere to reproduce by terraforming other planets, and so escaping its limited lifespan on Earth, dictated by the life span of the sun?

      We have a long way to go before we can conceivably achieve that potential, but it’s something to consider.

      • I’m hopeful for a lot of possible futures for homo sapiens, but I’m not sure that anyone but fiction writers would recognize any of them as being “civilized.”

        You’re correct in saying that our global population hasn’t reached a global limit until recently, but humankind has been wrestling with local ecological overshoot throughout our existence. We have spectacular collapses, like the Mayans or the Anasazi, or the smaller ones, like the Easter Islanders, or the Norwegians in Greenland. There are also many examples of groups that managed to reach some kind of equilibrium: the islanders of Tikopia, or the Australian aborigines.

        All of these people were trapped in a specific ecosystem by their geography and level of technology, exactly as the human population is currently trapped on Earth. There may have been (hypothetically) “other worlds” with empty lands they could have inhabited, but they were no more able to get there than we can currently push a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. Some of them found stable solutions and persisted: the Tikopians, for something like 3000 years, and the Australians, something like 42,000 years. Some of them didn’t find solutions, imploded, and vanished.

        The point being that our current ecological/civilizational dilemma isn’t really any different in kind from many situations that have existed in the past. It is unlike the smaller ones: it’s extremely unlikely that the whole world will be reduced to cannibalism and extinction, as happened on Easter Island or the Greenland colony of the Norse. But the early stages of civilizational overshoot and collapse are already starting to play out. There’s very little time left for the Lone Ranger to ride in on a fusion-powered asteroid made of solid gold, to inspire the next rush to conquer the space frontier.

        I would have to disagree that we have no option but to innovate. For one thing, we have the stable cultures (e.g. the Tikopians) that innovate very slowly. So innovation isn’t an irresistible compulsion.

        My personal experience with small towns and communities indicates that one of the first functions of our social organization is to suppress innovation, producing a hard-driven (and therefore rapidly-changeable) homeostasis. That makes sense to me: when society breaks down, which it does under stress, individuals lose the inhibition against innovation, and try everything under the sun. Most innovative attempts fail, and the innovators (and their followers) die off. Whatever works attracts others, they form stable social bonds, and innovation is once again shut down, locking in the working solution. Punctuated equilibrium at the social level.

      • We don’t disagree in regard to the overshoot problems faced by civilization at this time. I do see some suffering and breakdowns happening before an equilibrium is achieved; however, I also see us achieving it. Also, while local constraints on population growth have been experienced in the past, global ones have not since the dawn of agriculture, until recently. My point was not that it was unfamiliar to us but that we saw no need to control our numbers before. Now that we do, we’re doing it. The only question is whether we’ll do it quickly enough, and I would say not quickly enough to avoid all unpleasant consequences, but quickly enough to prevent a full-scale meltdown of civilization.

        I think the biggest point where I would disagree is in this: “I would have to disagree that we have no option but to innovate. For one thing, we have the stable cultures (e.g. the Tikopians) that innovate very slowly. So innovation isn’t an irresistible compulsion.”

        Worldwide, yes, it is. The reason is that innovation gives a culture a competitive advantage, and also that people are inherently curious. The only way that a culture can remain technologically stable is if it is isolated from other cultures, so that it neither sees examples of interesting achievements by others to want to imitate, nor sees threatening ones to copy or neutralize before they come invading. I also think that “most innovative attempts fail” is overstating the case. It’s true in a context of biological evolution, but the human brain is capable of conducting a lot of trial and error research in simulation that biology must conduct in real time. Most innovative attempts that reach the real-time trial stage don’t fail. There are vanishingly few examples of human societies that collapsed due to innovation; on the other hand, there are plenty of examples of those that were crushed for a lack of it.

      • One of the perpetual arguments apparently going on in the “sustainable living” sphere is around the question of whether it really is different this time (ecological overshoot). Of course, it’s a fool’s game to predict the future, especially one that won’t take shape until long after all of our great-grandchildren are dead. Hard to collect on our bets at that point. 🙂

        However, I tend to believe that the full-scale meltdown of our current civilization is already well underway. We’re just deep into the denial game. Three things I’ve been learning about civilizational meltdowns: our civilization is hardly the first such meltdown, meltdowns in the past have varied from swift (one or two generations) to glacially slow (centuries), and slow meltdowns are distinctly uneven. At the moment, I tend to think we’ll see a very slow — and very uneven — meltdown. Look at Detroit as a harbinger.

        The distinction between “global” and “local” is irrelevant. It’s global (to you) if you can’t get to somewhere else. It doesn’t matter if it’s relativity, a gravity well, a mountain range/desert/ocean, or just an emigration policy that stands in your way. If expansion is blocked, you have to control your population. If you fail, you starve.

        Every culture has had to deal with blocked growth and overpopulation. Most have relied upon pestilence, war, emasculation, strong reproductive taboos, natural abortifacients, and infanticide. Even with that full range of options — to which we’ve really added only the pill — many cultures have been unable to rein in their populations during good years and good environmental engineering (e.g. the Anasazi) and have overshot to the point of total societal collapse. Some (the Tikopians) have solved the problem.

        Sigh. You’re perhaps right about innovation, but I see that as a sign of the inviability of the human species. Anticipatory arms races are debilitating.

        I think we’re talking at cross-purposes wrt innovations failing, however. Most cultural innovations fail, straight out of the box. The US, in particular, has been a hotbox of societal innovations, most of which we’ve dismissed in retrospect as “cults” precisely because they failed so swiftly and completely. You’re talking about full-blown societies, which only happens after the experiments have been culled of early failures.

      • Just a few notes here.

        “Every culture has had to deal with blocked growth and overpopulation.” This is untrue. Very few cultures have had to deal with these things; those that did were isolated in a small space, unable either to expand or to trade. We face the problem on a global scale only for the second time at most. I’m thinking the first time may have been the reason for the turn to agriculture; if humans bred to the point where the land could no longer support them all by foraging and hunting, it would have been worth the backbreaking labor to farm instead. That wasn’t a stop-the-exponential-growth solution, but I see no other possibility this time; the thing is, we’ve already begun to do so. Worldwide, birthrates are plummeting. This is happening spontaneously in a collective decision arising out of many individual decisions. So we’re working on it and, unless the consequences catch up with us faster than I expect, I believe we’ll succeed.

        The thing is, checking exponential growth in numbers and resource use does not equate to ending all progress, stagnating society, ceasing to innovate, and putting our brains to sleep. It’s quite possible to maintain a vibrant, innovative culture without those gross physical growth factors.

        “You’re perhaps right about innovation, but I see that as a sign of the inviability of the human species.”

        If so, then it’s a failure of planetary biospheres in general. Any species with high intelligence, social organization, and the ability to manipulate the environment through intelligence will be innovative. And every biosphere will, over time, evolve such a species. It’s a viable survival strategy, at least in the early phases, and the thing about evolution is that ALL viable survival strategies are implemented, including that one. Suppose a plague were to come along tomorrow and wipe out the entire human race. Problem solved? No, because we share the planet with apes, monkeys, crows, ravens, parrots, bears, raccoons, and a number of other species who use the same survival strategy we do on a more primitive level. If we were to die out, an open niche would exist and it would be filled within a few million years.

        There is only one way to prevent this from happening, and that’s to wipe out all life on the planet. If we had a dead world, we would also have a stable one on which innovation never occurred. But as long as there is life, there is change. If the human race is truly non-viable for the reason you suggests, then so is life.

        Personally, I’m not prepared to give up on life just yet. Let’s see what happens.

  3. Interesting.

    “’Every culture has had to deal with blocked growth and overpopulation.’ This is untrue. Very few cultures have had to deal with these things; those that did were isolated in a small space, unable either to expand or to trade.”

    We have to be talking at cross-purposes: this appears to me as a nonsense statement, which means I’m not understanding what you’re trying to say.

    If most cultures don’t have to deal with overpopulation, why do all of them practice various means of birth control, including reproductive taboo and infanticide? This is hardly limited to small cultures in history: indeed, the founding story of Rome was of Romulus and Remus, both abandoned to the elements (“exposure,” practiced in Rome well into the fourth century). Things like bride-price discourage marriage, which in turn encourages not bringing children to adulthood, by whatever means. Wars are often a last-ditch means of abrupt population reduction, particularly of fertile young men.

    Not every culture collapsed from overpopulation: many figured out ways to cope, or fell to other causes before their overpopulation caught up with them. The Tikopians are a very small-scale example of sustainable population regulation. Shogunate Japan was a rather larger example, isolated by law and culture rather than physical barriers, and cheating a bit by bleeding the Ainu. Western Europe was headed into a full-scale Malthusian crisis toward the end of the fifteenth century that ended with the discovery of the New World (the Americas), the importation and adoption of the potato as a food staple, and eventually the first industrial-scale fertilization using bird guano imported from the islands off the coast of South America: a massive influx of new resources and technological innovations used to feed the growing population.

    I’m hardly an expert on this subject, but what I’ve read indicates that almost every culture has had to deal with overpopulation. The few exceptions were probably the earliest expansions at the beginning of the current interglacial period into the lands newly-freed from ice — resulting in migrations and a population boom that quickly became a crisis and (as you point out) probably fueled the transition to agriculture — and those cultures that managed to expand their base of resources rather than facing their population problem directly — the most notable example being Western Europe and the United States during the last five centuries of our modern history.


    On the other point, the either-or of intelligence or dead worlds, you’ve rather overstated the matter. Large brains do not result in environmental overshoot: specific examples are dolphins and elephants. Self-awareness does not result in environmental overshoot: somehow, homo sapiens sapiens managed to get along on whatever land was not covered by ice for some 120,000 years without becoming overly virulent, prior to the last 10,000 years of population bloom. There is no evidence I’ve read that humans 40,000 years ago were any different from us, save in social organization.

    Even apart from that, there is nothing that says human beings have to be a viable adaptation. A hundred millennia is an eye-blink on the geological scale. There have certainly been plenty of evolutionary maladaptations that resulted in self-extinction of that particular species: that hardly invalidates the viability of life.

    Indeed, we can look at the first organisms that ate all of the air (CO2) and poisoned it with oxygen as the first major environmental catastrophe. A variant of those organisms still exist, but I’m sure that some of the most “successful” varieties suffocated as soon as the CO2 levels dropped. Perhaps humans will die out and leave the world prepared for the next major species. Wasn’t that kind of how Walter Miller’s A Canticle for LIebowitz ended?

    • “If most cultures don’t have to deal with overpopulation, why do all of them practice various means of birth control, including reproductive taboo and infanticide?”

      Mostly for reasons of genetic hygiene, and secondarily to ensure paternity. When I say that very few cultures have had to deal with overpopulation, I mean that it is a demonstrable fact that, since the development of agriculture, and until quite recently, only small, isolated cultures have had to deal with a population threatening to grow beyond what food production could readily be expanded to support. Now, Rome as a city did see its population grow (from immigration, not birthrates) to the point where southern Italy by itself couldn’t feed so many people, but the population of the Roman empire never outgrew its food supply. As the population grew, so did the food-growing lands, adding Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa, Gaul, and Egypt one after the other the Roman breadbasket. Ancient agriculture was precarious enough that famines did happen when crops failed, but that isn’t overpopulation.

      In fact, the Crisis of the Third Century, from which the Western Empire never fully recovered, was a crisis of FALLING population due to plague and civil war. In terms of food supply, the Western Empire could have supported a lot more people than the Crisis left alive, and needed to, because the population shrank to the point where Rome could no longer keep the roads safe ad protected, and this sent intra-Imperial trade into a death spiral. Rome at that point suffered from underpopulation.

      Overpopulation is a very real concern for us, for modern times. That shouldn’t make us automatically assign it as a concern to times before it was. The invention and subsequent improvements in farming lifted the limits on population so far that, for practical purposes until recently, they might as well not have existed. There is so much resistance to dealing effectively with the fact that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, they DO still exist because for literally thousands of years, for all intents and purposes, they did not. Classical and medieval sexual morality is not designed with restricting population growth in view. It is designed to maximize population growth (most women denied meaningful work other than motherhood, women’s sexual and reproductive behaviour placed under the control of men, condemnation of homosexuality, etc.) If ancient peoples had really been on the edge of overpopulating, none of that would have been true.

  4. Ah. I’m starting to see your point, now.

    I think you’re using the term “overpopulation” in a too-restrictive sense, while I’m perhaps using it a bit too freely.

    You have overt overpopulation when the number of people outstrips the existing food supply. But it doesn’t usually work like that. Instead, a growing population forces a culture into a non-sustainable lifestyle, meaning that they are using resources — usually not food — at higher than replacement rates. This typically ends in a cascade of ecological collapses that eventually hit the food supply, and result in a population in excess of its food supply. The culture must then either innovate further (typically in even more unsustainable ways), move or expand into new territory, or cull population. In the process, the culture itself (traditions, stories, identity) may collapse. Or it may not.

    A typical resource overuse is timber/firewood, leading to deforestation. This, in turn, leads to erosion, silting of riverbeds, and loss of cropland. As a result, what was formerly an entirely supportable population becomes unsupportable. That’s what happened to both the Anasazi and the Mayans: growing population inspired some truly creative water-management technologies, which expanded their food production and fueled a population boom. Then an extended drought hit, the water-use innovations failed, the extra cropland vanished, and each culture collapsed. Similarly, the population crisis that hit Europe in the late 1400’s was a combination of growing population (recovery after the Black Death of the 1300’s), soil exhaustion, and the onset of the Little Ice Age. Had the potato not been imported from South America in the 1500’s, it’s likely that Europe would have faced a classic Malthusian crisis.

    We could debate whether the culture with a growing population, plenty of rich farmland and abundant water, but (say) unsustainable deforestation is actually “overpopulated.” I’d be happy to use a different term, if you want to suggest one.

    There’s a cultural component involved. For instance, deforestation in pre-Shogunate Japan had in part to do with necessary firewood, housing, etc., but it also had to do with a cultural competition among the nobles in building enormous compounds that took enormous amounts of timber: my castle is bigger than your castle. Or Easter Island, where deforestation had a lot to do with the process of building the stone heads. Or, of course, the modern world’s extractive economic system, where a forest has zero economic value, while a pile of timber represents “wealth.”

    So the question would be, is the United States overpopulated? In terms of the number of people we could feed with agriculture on our own soil, we’re not even close to being overpopulated. In terms of a cultural pattern of unsustainable (renewable) resource depletion, we are absolutely overpopulated. As I say, I’d be happy to use a different term for this, should you care to suggest one.

    I emphasize renewable resources, because (of course) dependence upon non-renewable resources (e.g. oil, gas) is simply suicidal. I remember reading a SF author years ago, who commented that future generations would curse us, not for “using up” all the oil, but for our failure to use it up wisely as a stepping-stone to something else.

  5. Bah. Can’t edit responses. Deforestation didn’t happen to the Anasazi or the Mayans, though that’s what I wrote. What I meant was, “A similar thing with water use happened to the Anasazi and Mayans….”

  6. “Instead, a growing population forces a culture into a non-sustainable lifestyle, meaning that they are using resources — usually not food — at higher than replacement rates.”

    This is also something non-historical. Unless you are referring to nonrenewable resources such as minerals, for which the question of replacement is not pertinent, ancient and medieval civilizations tended not to do this. Forests, fisheries, hunting grounds, and to a lesser extent soil fertility (failure of the latter arising from ignorance rather than excessive numbers) were all managed sustainably. If you look at the forests in England, for example, they were maintained in a steady state, cut back somewhat to clear farmland but only to a degree and maintained thereafter, until the discovery of coal. This was done because people depended on wood for fuel. Hunting in the forests was also a popular pastime among the nobility. Between those two, having a fairly large part of the island covered with woodland was a clear benefit. The discovery of coal, however, provided an alternative fuel source and allowed the large-scale deforestation of England to free more farmland. Without the need to maintain the forests so people could have wood for their fires, the land was more profitable as farmland than as forest.

    This is a modern phenomenon. Even when speaking of nonrenewable resources such as iron ore, ancient civilizations were in no danger of running short for many thousands of years at use rates that prevailed. The number of ecological breakdowns that ruined civilizations prior to modern times is vanishingly small. Where it did happen, e.g. in Mesopotamia, where irrigation salinated the soil and ruined what had been some of the most productive farmland in the world, the outcome was not a result of rapacious greed, still less being forced to do this by a growing population, but simply because they didn’t know what they were doing. The only true overpopulation/overshoot scenarios in history were in small habitats in which the people were trapped, Easter Island being a classic example.

    The United States clearly does practice an unsustainable use of resources and needs to change, but the United States is a modern society. This is not a characteristic of civilization per se. It’s a characteristic of, and the principle challenge of, modern times.

    To add a response to something I missed earlier: “Large brains do not result in environmental overshoot: specific examples are dolphins and elephants.” I specifically referred to social organization and intelligent manipulation of the environment as a survival strategy, not to “large brains.” Dolphins, despite their intelligence, are not a candidate species to replace ours if we go extinct, because they have no hands. There are plenty of other species that are candidates, however: monkeys and apes, crows, ravens and parrots being the main ones. A species with that survival strategy, if it evolves into something as good at doing so as ourselves, will face the same challenges we do, and such a species will always evolve given candidates and an empty niche.

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