The MacCready Explosion

Written by Harold McNeill on May 8th, 2019. Posted in Tim Hortons Morning Posts


The MacCready Explosion

Each day as I read, write, and listen to podcasts and debates, I came across this idea on Ted Talks, The MacCready Explosion. It came up when researching a Green Party article, and it struck me as having considerable potential when assessing what is happening on our planet.

Many have heard the dire reports about species extinction and of the perma-frost being in serious decay, but have you thought about livestock and how that species affects global warming?  The idea, of course, relates to the title of this post and is embedded in the following short introduction.

Culture as a Major Transition in Evolution
D.C. Dennett
Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts 02155

Excerpt:

According to calculations by Paul MacCready (1999), at the dawn of human agriculture 10,000 years ago, the worldwide human population plus their livestock and pets was ~0.1% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass. Today, he calculates, it is 98%! (Most of that is cattle.) His reflections on this amazing development are worth quoting:

Over billions of years, on a unique sphere, chance has painted a thin covering of life—complex, improbable, wonderful and fragile. Suddenly we humans . . . have grown in population, technology, and intelligence to a position of terrible power: we now wield the paintbrush. (MacCready 1999, p.19).

Some biologists are convinced that we are now living in the early days of a sixth great mass extinction event (the “Holocene”), to rival the Permian–Triassic extinction ~250 million years ago and the Cretacious–Tertiary extinction ~65 million years ago. And because, as MacCready puts it so vividly, we wield the paintbrush, this mass extinction, if it occurs, would go down in evolutionary history as the first to be triggered by the innovations in a single species.

Compared to the biologically “sudden” Cambrian explosion, which occurred over several million years ~530 million years ago, what we may call the MacCready explosion has occurred in ~10,000 years, or ~500 human generations (of course, thousands of prior generations were required to set up many of the conditions that made this possible).

There is really no doubt, then, that it has been the rapidly accumulating products of cultural evolution—technology and intelligence, as MacCready says that account for these unprecedented transformations of the biosphere. So Maynard Smith and Szathmary (1995) are right to put language and culture as the most recent of the “major transitions of evolution.”

This is a most astounding revelation that likely accounts for much of that which we now call “climate change” or “global warming”.   We strongly suspect these changes are related to human activity, yet we don’t know to what extent we can mitigate the outcomes. To this point, we seem focussed on fossil fuels as a major culprit, yet I don’t know how much we have considered other sources.

That being stated, if climate change is largely caused by human activity, and I’m certain it is, I choose to believe we can at least try to do something to change the outcome. To not even try seems crazy.

I think we can and it comes in the form of another paper, one by Nathan Daly, a software engineer, titled “Digging into the disappearance of nature’s land-living vertebrates.”  It’s not a long read and you can skip the data contained with each of the several charts. You will see that simply reducing the number of livestock, and therefore our consumption of meat is likely to produce significant results. Given that livestock is a major contributor to greenhouse gas, that step provides a double win.

Comparing the introductory chart for his post with the one above, reveals the biggest single reduction can be made in the area of livestock. It’s somewhat harder to get rid of humans although we are well along the path of reducing our rate of growth.

Presented as ‘food’ for thought.

Cheers,

Harold

Note:  I have not found any information that outlines how the author developed the data that support his conclusions so, at present, it is just another theory that seems worthwhile pursuing.

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  • Harold McNeill

    October 18, 2021 |

    This email from Pal Slavid in Norway received October 10

    I simply must tell the following story; before a flight from Aberdeen to Bergen/Norway (it must have been around 2005), I had purchased a couple of “Pilot’s Notes” in a bookshop in Aberdeen. Among these one for the Mosquito. At the flight I was reading some pages in the biography of Douglas Bader (Reach for the Sky), and suddenly this elderly gentleman sitting beside me points to the book and says: “I knew this guy”. This gentleman turned out to be Mr. Bert Ramsden, and I was fortunate enough that he shared some of his story with me on this flight. And when I was able to pick up from my bag, a copy of the Pilot Notes which he had used during his training, we read it more or less together, and he commented with great knowledge. As an WWII aviator geek, this flight became a great memory for me, and I even got his signature on the Pilot Notes.
    With great respect,
    Pål

  • McNeill Life Stories Protecting Canada's Health Care - McNeill Life Stories

    September 20, 2021 |

    […] One of the many defining features of Canada is our Public Health Care system. While the system continues to provide high-quality care to a broad cross-section of Canadians (rich and poor), funding cuts have led to longer wait times and other shortfalls in service. This has become particularly evident during the current pandemic as Covid19 patients fill beds normally be set aside for ongoing treatments. (What is happening in our hospitals) […]

  • Harold McNeill

    July 25, 2021 |

    Glad you enjoyed Craig. It was fun researching and writing that particular post. It seems I was in school many years before you, the 1950s to be more precise. Cheers, Harold

  • Craig Patterson

    July 18, 2021 |

    Thank you for sharing this. I grew up in Cold Lake (former town of Grand Centre) and we’d heard many stories over the years. Today I was talking to my Mom about the Kinosoo and I came to this article when I was searching images of the fish — I recall when I was in school in the 80s where was a photo supposedly taken (I think it’s the one of the ice fisherman above).

  • Harold McNeill

    January 15, 2021 |

    Wow, Graham, I was taken by surprise (but then again that’s not too hard). Having all you fine folks (my children by other fathers and mothers) would have been great. I’m hopeful that sometime in the not too distant future, we can reprise that trip. Perhaps we’ll just set aside a time for someone else’s landmark day, and we can surprise them. Love to you two. Harold

  • Graham and Nazanin

    January 15, 2021 |

    How could we miss this historic event my friend!!!
    Nazy and I were booked for that cruise Harold, we were looking so forward to it.
    We will be together soon! We both wish that continued unconditional love you receive from everyone to continue as you are that special someone that makes a difference in this world.
    Happy birthday sir, cheers!

  • Harold McNeill

    January 7, 2021 |

    Glad you found the site and that Dorthy enjoyed. I’ve added a lot of school photos in other locations linked to the High School Years stories. Cheers, Harold

  • Shelley Hamaliuk

    January 2, 2021 |

    Hi there, I am Dorothy Marshall’s (nee Hartman) daughter. Mom was quite excited when she discovered this site while surfing the net yesterday, so excited that she told me to have a look! She quite enjoyed taking a trip down memory and seeing old pictures of herself.Keep up the great work!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Rick,
    Great to hear from you and trust all is going well. Our family members are all doing well but it must be pretty tough for a lot of people. I had once heard you were going to do some writing but never heard anything further. I would be most interested, but do you think the OB News have archives back to that time. Any link or information you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Did you keep copies? Regards, Harold

  • Rick Gonder

    April 14, 2020 |

    Hi Harold
    About 22 years ago I spent several weeks going through the OBPD archives. I wrote several stories that were published in the OB News. Feel free to use if they are of value to what you are doing.
    Keep this up, I’m enjoying it and it brings back memories.