People, people everywhere, and not a drop to drink: the folly of humanity’s disconnection with our underlying biology

by David Smith

Almost twenty years ago, during filming for Earthwatch on ABC TV, I stood knee-deep in water in a semi-submerged office constructed 20 metres offshore at Williamstown near Melbourne.

The point of the exercise? To drive home in a graphic – if deliberately tongue-in-cheek way – the seriousness of possible implications of global warming. If sea level rose by an average of two metres,” I said, as my ‘secretary’ Meredith Abbott swam in with a cup of tea, “this would be the result!”

I had discovered during research for the series and also for the series Nature of Australia that Australian scientists such as CSIRO’s Dr Barrie Pittock and many others were becoming increasingly concerned at the consequences of what they saw, all those years ago, as the reality of global warming. My many interviews and readings of this scientific research compelled me to try and help bring the message to a wider audience. I distilled more than five years of research into a book and documentary titled, aptly in my view, Continent in Crisis (Penguin Books, 1990; The World Around Us, Seven Network, 1991).

At that time, in the mid- to late 80’s, I had perhaps naively assumed that documentaries and books could help raise awareness among the general public of the absolute urgency of finding ways to offset global warming and its potentially catastrophic consequences. In part I was correct and was certainly in good company: in Hearts and Minds: Creative Australians and the Environment (Hale & Iremonger, 2000) Michael Pollak and Margaret MacNabb show how the creative output of a large group of writers, artists, poets and film makers – including Peter Garrett and Tim Flannery – has indeed been influential in shifting public perceptions of the environment towards sympathy and concern. Such a shift is not only welcome but essential. My naiveté was in expecting similar shifts of attitude among business leaders and politicians.

In recent weeks, following the release of Britain’s Review on the Economics of Climate Change by Sir Nicholas Stern, there has been a surge in reporting about climate change and its possible consequences. The reason this has sparked interest among politicians and some business people seems to be the conclusion that expenditure on countering global warming will not amount to a cost, but to a saving of potentially billions of dollars as the potentially dire effects of melting icecaps, rising sea levels and shifting rainfall patterns are offset.

But why is it that our business and political leaders only sniff trouble when there are dollars involved? I believe the answer lies in the failure of human societies, of whatever political persuasion, to grasp the reality that humans are an integral part of the living world, not in any way separate from it. For hundreds, possibly thousands of years, we have turned our backs on our underlying biology and this has had critical consequences – now we have reached pay-back time.

In the mid-1800s the French physiologist Claude Bernard wrote eloquently about what he termed the ‘milieu interne’, by which meant the internal chemical environment of our bodies. Walter Cannon took this further, introducing the ‘doctrine of homeostasis’ whereby, despite external variations, the chemical composition of our cells and their bathing fluids is normally maintained within remarkably close tolerances. Over the past century, it became ever clearer that whether we are speaking about the internal workings of our bodies, or about the dynamics of how whole populations or ecosystems operate, in biology steady states are the norm. Too great a deviation from the steady state leads inevitably to death. James Lovelock attempted to encapsulate this notion of planetary homeostasis in his Gaia hypothesis and physiologists have long understood the importance of the body’s internal regulatory systems and gained great insights into how they achieve the regulation of blood pressure, tissue oxygenation, glucose levels and all those other myriad variables which if left unregulated will surely kill us.

As our society has developed we have progressively uncoupled ourselves from our underlying biology. In our writings and musings we have seen ourselves as different to the animals and certainly superior to them, placing ourselves with no hint of modesty at the top of the evolutionary tree. The greater the divergence between us and our biology, the more important has our technology become in bridging the ever-widening gap. Thus we have remained comfortable with the scheme of things even though the environmental cost of this technological band-aid has been increasing exponentially.

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