Posted on 20 July 2009.
Who Are We?
The term “human” is actually the common name given to any individual of the species “Homo sapiens.” Homo sapiens belong to the family Hominidae (that also includes the gorilla and chimpanzee) whose members possess a backbone (phylum Chordata), a segmented spinal cord (subphylum Vertebrata) and suckle its young (class Mammalia).
So we now know how a human is classified within the Animal kingdom but the question still remains. What does it mean to be uniquely human? At first glance, it would seem that human’s capacity for rational or abstract thought is the key to our uniqueness within the animal kingdom. But is that really enough to separate us from our nearest animal relatives? Well, not necessarily. First of all, “abstract thought” is such a vague notion. What does it really mean and how can we be sure other animals haven’t had them? Secondly, good cases can and have been made for rational behavior among subhuman animals. So with rational and abstract thought not being all that uniquely human, where does that leave us?
Humans have a unique capacity to assign to things and events certain meanings that the senses alone cannot comprehend. This consistent ability, called “symboling,” has been proposed by many experts to be a more suitable explanation as to how humans differ from other animals. Language is a good example of this ability. In speech, the meaning of the words we utter is not entirely inherent in the sounds themselves. Humans assign meaning to those sounds freely and arbitrarily. This is the essence of symboling.
How did humans come to develop the ability to symbol?
Oddly enough, it all began with posture. Erect posture freed the arms and hands of our ancestors from its earlier function of locomotion. This made possible an extensive and versatile use of tools and the eye-hand-object coordination involved in using tools stimulated the growth of the brain, especially the forebrain. This enlargement and specialization of the brain allowed for refined control of the lips and tongue, which allowed for the development of, you guessed it, speech! And speech, as mentioned earlier, is one of best examples of symboling.
The introduction of symboling into primate social was nothing short of revolutionary. It changed everything. The world of nature became alive and acquired new meaning. The ability to symbol added a new dimension to primate existence. Tools became symbols of authority, mating became marriage and social relationships became moral obligations. Man had at last arrived.
Culture refers to a society in which many members share common rules of behavior and a basic social organization. Culture and society are somewhat interchangeable. But while many animals live in societies, such as a pack of wolves, only humans have the capacity for culture.
Because human societies do not exist in complete isolation to one another, they tend to exchange culture in the form of ideas, people, goods and natural resources. Today, cultural exchange has led to many people around the world using the same kinds of technology-cars, telephones, computers and televisions. Communication technologies and commercial trade has effectively created a global human culture and people around the world are doing what they’ve done throughout history-they are adapting.
The ability to adapt to cultural changes has made humans one of the most successful species on the planet. When the natural environment changes, culture can help human societies survive. For example, when the earth warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, game animals disappeared, and a great majority of the land areas were submerged by rising sea levels. But people survived. They developed new technologies and learned how to subsist on new plant and animal species. Throughout history, major developments in technology, medicine, and nutrition have allowed people to reproduce and survive in ever-increasing numbers. The increase in global population rates, which has risen from 8 million during the Ice Age to almost 6 billion today, can be seen as a sign of our success.
But the success of culture has also led to some problems. Over the past 200 years, people have begun to use massive quantities of natural resources and energy. This has led to the production of an enormous amount of material and chemical waste and the altering of the world’s climate in unpredictable and possibly harmful ways. And if that wasn’t enough, the global population’s consumption of crucial natural resources (petroleum, coal, natural gas, timber) far outpaces nature’s ability to produce them. And as the world’s population continue to grow, so to will its need for energy. Some experts expect that need to double every twenty years or so and if that happens, we are bound to find out exactly how limited these natural resources really are.
In all human cultures, there exists the belief that we are connected somehow to spiritual powers beyond our existence. These sacred powers may be within us, external to the self or both and come in the form of gods, spirits, ancestors or any kind of sacred truth. The practice of interacting with these supreme powers and the sacred reverence and attention to which we bestow them is collectively known as religion. Historically, the number of spirits within a particular culture has been virtually limitless. However, over the course of time, spirits that play a more important cultural role usually develop into gods. The history of religion has also shown a natural tendency to move beyond multiple gods toward one central, all-powerful God.
Humans and the Global Ecosystem
An Integrated System
The earth can be viewed as a single integrated system. The epitome of balance. Throughout history, species have co-existed in naturally evolved communities that have kept populations relatively stable and resources plentiful. Enter humans. Though humans are not the only species in history to have changed the environment, there’s little debate that we have done so on a substantially larger scale than any other species in history. Humans have at times disturbed the naturally balanced system developed over the generations. One microcosmic example of this type of disturbance is the introduction of goats by settlers to isolated oceanic islands. Intending the goats to roam free and be a readily available source of meat, the settlers did not realize that their introduction of the goat effectively drove many native animal species to extinction. Without a natural predator to keep the goat population in check, the goats thrived and, in the process, overgrazing occurred. Overgrazing created a change in the plant composition that disrupted the natural order of the island ecosystem resulting in the extinction of native animals not capable of adapting to such rapid changes. In a truly integrated system, one simple action can have unpredictable and often dire results.
Many experts place human population growth at the root of virtually all of the world’s environmental problems. As more and more people are added to the world every year, more pollution is generated, more habitats are destroyed and more natural resources consumed. The population division of the United Nations predicts that the 5.63 billion humans alive in 1994 will increase to 6.23 billion in the year 2000, 8.47 billion in 2025 and 10.02 billion in 2050. The UN’s estimate assumes human population to peak and stabilize at 11.6 billion in 2200. Others predict that number to be as high as 19 billion in 2200.
The population growth problem affects the entire human community. Although it is true that rates of population increase are much higher in developing countries, it happens to be members of the developed world who have a much greater environmental impact. This is due to the fact that developed nations utilize much larger amounts of resources per person than less developed countries. So in the developed world, it is vitally important that conservation strategies be in place that would greatly lessen environmental impact without substantially altering lifestyle. In the developing world, where rates of population growth are highest, evidence suggests that democracy and social justice are important factors in lowering population growth rates. It has been shown that population growth rates have fallen in areas where literacy rates have increased. Similarly, population is much lower in areas where women are given the same economic status as men allowing them to hold jobs and to own property. The availability of information on birth control as well as the freedom for women to make their own reproductive decisions is also important if lower population growth rates are to be achieved.
A Global Environmental Consciousness
Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, international concern over the environmental has increased sharply. The world has come to realize that most forms of pollution do not respect national boundaries. In 1972, the United Nations sponsored the first major international conference on environmental issues was held in Stockholm, Sweden. The most important outcome of the conference was the creation of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).
Since the late 1960s, international concern over the environmental has increased dramatically. The world has come to realize that there are no national boundaries when it comes to most forms of pollution. In 1972, the United Nations sponsored the first major international conference on environmental issues held in Stockholm, Sweden. The most important outcome of the conference was the creation of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). UNEP was designed to be “the environmental conscience of the United Nations.” It worked to achieve scientific consensus about major environmental issues and to study ways to encourage sustainable development thereby increasing standards of living without destroying the environment. UNEP was also the first UN agency to be headquartered in a developing country, with offices in Nairobi, Kenya. This was a symbolic gesture to the developing countries of the UN who were concerned that a global focus on environmental protection was a way for their developed counterparts to keep them at a disadvantage. When the UNEP was created back in 1972, only 11 countries had environmental agencies. Ten years later that number had increased to 106 with developing countries accounted for 70.
In 1975 the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) went into effect with the goal of reducing commerce in animals and plants on the edge of extinction.
The Earth Summit
In 1992, twenty years after the Stockholm Conference, a UN Conference known as the Earth Summit, became the largest gathering of world leaders in history. The Earth Summit produced two major treaties. The first was an agreement to reduce emission of gases leading to global warming, and the second was a treaty on biodiversity requiring countries to develop plans to protect endangered species and habitats.
The Green Parties
Green Parties are political parties whose emphasis was largely on environmental protection. The first green party to be created was the Values Party in New Zealand, which formed in 1972. By far the most successful green party is the Die Grunen of West Germany, which in 1983 won nearly 6 percent of the seats in the West German Parliament. Green parties have developed in almost all countries that have open elections. However, they tend to be more successful in nations governed by a parliamentary system. In 1993, green parties from eastern and western Europe came together to form the European Federation of Green Parties. With a unified green party, they hoped to gain enough leverage to demand that environmental issues such as pollution control, population growth, and sustainable development be more fully addressed.
The Kyoto Protocol
The 1992 Earth Summit agreement on global warming limited each industrialized nation to emissions in the year 2000 that were equal to or below 1990 emissions. Unfortunately, these limits were voluntary and the agreement itself had no enforcement provisions. By 1997, it became clear that these goals would not be met. In a follow-up conference in Kyoto, Japan, representatives from 160 countries signed a new agreement, known as the Kyoto Protocol, which called for the industrialized nations to reduce emissions to an average of about 5 percent below 1990 emission levels and to reach this goal by 2012.
Most Populous Country
China has the world’s largest population, with an estimated 1.24 billion people in 1998. It grows at a rate of approximately 44,000 people a day.
Least Populous Country
The Vatican City, with an estimated 870 people in July 1999, is officially the world’s least inhabited country.
Most Densely Populated Countries
In 1997, Bangladesh had approximately 2,200 people inhabiting every square mile.
Most sparsely Populated Country
In 1997, Mongolia had approximately 4 people inhabiting every square mile.
Highest Life Expectancy
People in Japan enjoy the highest life expectancy in the world at approximately 84 years for women and 77 years for men.
Lowest Life Expectancy
In Sierra Leone, life expectancy is approximately 40 years for women and 36 years for men.
Highest Birth Rate
Niger’s has the highest birth rate in the world with approximately 55 births per 1000 people in 1996.
Highest Death Rate
Sierra Leone has the highest death rate in the world, with approximately 25 deaths per 1000 people in 1995-96.
Lowest Death Rate
Kuwait enjoys the lowest death rate in the world, with approximately 2 deaths per 1000 people in 1995-96.
Most Polluted Major City
Mexico City has levels of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and suspended atmospheric particulate matter more than double those considered acceptable by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Highest CO2 Emissions
Based on sheer volume, the United States emits more carbon dioxide than any other country in the world. In 1995, the US emitted an estimated 5.1 billion tons. Relative to population, the United Arab Emirates is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, with a total of 29.6 tons per capita emitted in 1995. This is compared to 20.2 emitted per capita by the US in 1995.
Biggest Consumer of Energy
The United States holds the record for being the world’s largest consumer of both fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and of commercial energy (nuclear and hydro power). In 1998, the US consumed almost 2 billion tons of oil equivalent of fossil fuels and an equal amount of oil equivalent of commercial energy.