As global concerns about climate change continue to grow, could it be that our basic human nature is part of the problem? In this segment of FM89’s series of commentaries known as The Moral Is, Fresno State Biology Professor Madhusudan Katti suggests that our planet Earth will not accommodate our human frailties as much as we must adapt to its changing dynamics.
We humans are aggressively territorial, willing to defend what’s ours against all comers. By no means the only territorial species, we are surely the most extreme.
Animals mark territories to ensure access to crucial resources: food, shelter, mates. Many defend territories aggressively, risking injury or death to stave off challengers. We see this all around us: in the sweet birdsong filling our gardens, male birds proclaiming dominion, and in our dogs marking their territories at every fence and lamp-post. Even plants employ covert chemical warfare to prevent other plants from growing under their canopies, sucking their supply of water and nutrients.
Yet no animal takes territoriality as far as humans. Most animals reserve their hostilities towards members of their own species. Scent marks, scratched tree trunks, vocal proclamations: these reinforce the shadow lines by which most animals defend resources for their exclusive use. Territories rarely pass on to progeny, who disperse away seeking their own homes. Boundaries are defended fiercely, but remain fluid and ever changing, reflecting the dynamic geography of our planet.
But humans take territoriality to whole new levels. We’ve not only sought to make our territories permanent—building fences and walls to keep intruders out—but we’ve also enshrined territoriality into elaborate systems of laws that regulate ownership and inheritance. Unlike any other species, we exhibit territoriality across large social hierarchies: from individual homes to clan and tribal domains, to kingdoms and empires, to modern nation states. We even carve out and defend boundaries in the oceans and the air.
Uniquely, we humans seek to control every element within our domains, extending our territoriality against all species. Whether it is ants in our kitchens, squirrels in our gardens, or species we label as aliens invading our national boundaries, we are at constant war against many a species, themselves eking out a living in the interstices of our rigidly demarcated landscapes.
Our extreme territoriality flies in the face of a dynamic planet on whose surface hardly anything stays put, not even the very continents over which we wage epic and devastating wars. A key to evolutionary success on our dynamic planet is an ability to adapt to changing landscapes, and a willingness to move with shifting habitats. Yet we have painted ourselves into Cartesian prisons, investing far too much in static territories built over ultimately ephemeral habitats. Rising seas threaten cities that we built for eternity. Sandstorms herald the march of deserts, glaciers and polar ice-sheets melt, yet we cling to our cities and homes, unable to move, like deer frozen in the headlights of planetary change.
If we are to ride the tides of climate change and other unpredictable events our planet throws at us, we must find ways to ease our attachment to rigid territories, we must soften our boundaries, and allow other creatures, and ourselves, more room to share the resources of this pale blue dot.