Not so with Homo sapiens; our population has reached 7 billion, and natural resources are near exhaustion. Today, we need to develop sustainably. Say, for example, we convert an acre of natural forest to a monoculture of palm trees for biofuels. Producing biofuels does not make this development sustainable. For this to be sustainable, we have to ensure that all the oxygen produced by the natural forest we removed, all the atmospheric carbon dioxide it sequestered, all the fruits, nuts and mushrooms it produced, all the soil it retained, all the water it purified, and everything else it provided, isn’t lost. Now, one might argue that there are still 3.3 billion acres of forest left on earth, so the conversion of one acre, or even a few hundred, isn’t significant.
This idea, that a little more conversion of nature won’t hurt, worked for Homo erectus whose environmental footprint was very, very small, but our footprint is enormous. We’ve already converted about 12 billion acres of forest to development, without thinking much about all the things those forests did for us. Now that they’re gone, climate is warming, soil is eroding, and flooding is rampant. The same story for forests applies to all ecosystems–grasslands, wetlands, even deserts. The idea of sustainable development is immensely popular today. The big question is: is it feasible? The answer is “yes.” It’s just a matter of remembering, as we develop, to retain everything that ecosystems provide us. It’s not going to be easy or cheap. But we’re not Homo erectus, the hominid species that simply stood erect; we’re Homo sapiens, the hominid species who is wise.
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