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(Last updated 5/5/03)



COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ask Jeffrey McKee whether the planet would be a better place without humans and he’ll qualify his answer:
“It certainly would be better with fewer humans.”

That may seem a strange response for an anthropologist who has spent his career studying both the bones of our million-year-old human ancestors in Africa and the ecological drain modern humans place on their world.

McKee, an associate professor of both anthropology and of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University, argues his point in his latest book, Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity, (Rutgers University Press, 2003).

“As an anthropologist, I’m obviously fascinated by humans,” he proclaims, “but at the same time, humans have been around for a very long time and we have to take some responsibility as a species for what we do to the planet.

“This includes curbing our reproductive habits,” he says.

This thin tightrope McKee walks between ecology and anthropology gives him what he believes is a rare insight into the impact humans have on all other life on the planet. And if something doesn’t change, he warns, we’ll lose many more species and dramatically impact our daily lives.

“You can have all of this religious zeal in respect for the land but whatever you do has impacts in one way or another. That’s true for all species – even humans."

“Humans have been in competition with all other species for space, energy and resources for millennia. We can look back and see that 1.8 million years ago, we began losing biodiversity in Africa. Starting around 10,000 years ago, this loss accelerated dramatically. Now we can actually put a number to how many extinctions are occurring worldwide and tie it to the impact of human populations.”

Part of the problem, he believes, is our short-term orientation. “Human beings have evolved to notice things that are happening right now. They don’t normally think about the distant future. That needs to change.”

McKee points to agriculture – one of humanity’s greatest innovations – as an example of our short-sightedness. “I’m sure that at the origins of agriculture, no one worried about the possibility that by irrigating fields, they would increase the salts in the soil, depleting them. But that is what happens.”

The problem is endemic to all humans, he says, even to indigenous peoples who are often seen as “closer” to the land. These people respected and cherished the land but they still had to support themselves and their populations kept growing, he said.

“You can have all of this religious zeal in respect for the land but whatever you do has impacts in one way or another. That’s true for all species – even humans. They are all in competition with others for resources,” McKee said.

He believes that anthropologists have a slight edge over ecologists in seeing the extent of the threat on biodiversity. “Ecology is largely a science that deals with the present,” compared to anthropology, he says, and the study of millions of years of evolution gives perspective to the current urgency over endangered species and our relationships to them.

Conservationists and ecologists have trouble convincing the public that this problem has been facing us for an extremely long time. And many critics are skeptical about whether the public will recognize the problem and take it seriously.

“I think they will,” he says. “Deep down, humans are basically reasonable, and this message can get out: By sparing nature, we spare outselves a lot of future grief. The message has to get to the people who make decisions, however.”

But recently, American decision-makers seem to have ignored such issues. Refusing to agree to the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change is an oft-cited example by critics. But McKee doesn’t see that failure as a pattern.

“We’ve won other battles over air and water quality and in both cases, those campaigns were driven by a grassroots effort,” he said.
Most animals on the planet are adapted to a particular environment or food supply and when that fades, so do they. But humans, he says, can adapt to almost any environment and be successful.

“I’m an optimist. People are adaptable and we can learn to live differently. We are the only species that can recognize what we are doing, if we look close enough,” McKee said.

“Then we can do something about it.”


Contact: Jeffrey McKee, (614) 292-4149; mckee.95@osu.edu
Written by Earle Holland, (614) 292-8384; Holland.8@osu.edu