“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
One of the most interesting recurring motifs in near-eastern religion is the idea of mankind’s fall. Preceded by a state of harmony with the natural world, and precipitated by forbidden knowledge, it is the fall that leads to mankind’s current state of toil and mortality. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth catalyzes in the tale of the wild-man, Enkidu’s, sexual seduction and resulting understanding of language and civilization. In Abrahamic mythology it takes the form of the first man and first woman’s temptation with, and eventual consumption of, the symbolic fruit of knowledge. Persisting though minor variations, all stories end with the same result: a resounding human disharmony with the natural world, and the pain of death.
The common narrative elements of harmonious innocence, sexual temptation, knowledge, and an ultimate separation from natural grace reflect both a common heritage and also a persisting resonance. As a result of the long history of the story, myriad interpretations have attempted to account for its origin and enduring power. True to that nature of myths there can be no single, all-encompassing, explanation or account. Nevertheless, from the deluge of meanings can be extracted a critical account of one of the most basic principles of humanity’s interaction with the natural world.
Population of a species at any given time are generally the result of an equilibrium between resources, depredation, and natality. Fluxes in any of these variables triggers a reactive response that adapts to the imbalances. The responsiveness of the system results in both sustainable populations as well as dynamic ecosystems that are able to recover from periods of instability. Population explosions that occur during periods of surplus are thus followed by periods of constriction when the resource is eventually exhausted. The size of this contraction naturally varies depending on the imbalance, ranging from minor seasonal variance, to outright collapse when a severe disparity between resources and a dependent population arises.
The same forces can also be seen acting on and guiding the growth of human societies. While the resource in question may vary between time and place, from grain stocks and clean water, to fossil fuels and timber, the principles remain remarkably consistent. Unlike other species however, human populations are subject to a further factor that permits ever-increasing growth and mitigates contraction. For humans, the vagaries of the cycle are mitigated by technological innovation which permits either the better use of a given resource or, far more often, the exploitation of a new resource to fill the gap left by the consumed one.
One of the earliest and most dramatic examples of this is the Neolithic revolution. Rapidly advancing cultural sophistication and a changing climate caused a human population explosion that culminated in the extinction of the large migratory herd mammals that had previously sustained the growth. The imminent collapses facing societies dependent on these species however was averted by a rapidly shifting reliance on agriculture, hitherto used only as a supplemental food source. During this period of transition, societies by necessity left behind the more prosperous nomadic hunter-gather lifestyle for the more arduous life of sedentary agriculture.
While the innovations granted by the fruit of knowledge provided a reprieve from human collapse, it has not permitted such grace for the ecosystems we inhabit, and ultimately depend upon. Lacking periods of reduced pressure, damaged ecosystems and exhausted resources are rarely allowed to recover, and are instead faced with continued human expansion. As the emergence of agriculture once triggered vast tracks of forest being burned for farmland, so now does rapid climate change and urban expansion ravage remaining ecosystems. This pattern has replayed itself without pause as civilization has spread and decimated every natural ecosystem which it has encountered.
As various inevitable end points now, at last, begin to converge in our distant view, we are faced with ever-contracting options. Unlimited growth, no matter how mitigated by technological advance, will inevitably consume all non-human systems. As we now eye the stars with greedy vision, we must face the realization that the same tree of knowledge that has saved us will destroy us, or else, inevitably lead us on into the final exile.