• Jap (Tanat) Sae-Tang

Live Like an Animal

Part 1: The Comfort Score


Scientists have discovered thousands of exoplanets, thousands of light-years away, the farthest recorded 13,000 light-years away. Yet, the only planet we know that can support life is planet Earth. Life is so complex, beautiful, mysterious, ordered, and somehow, we’re on top of it all. Humans are the rulers of planet Earth. So what about the other species living here with us?


Recently, we’ve grown more aware of our impacts on the planet and its ecosystem due to our activities. For instance, we’ve noticed the disappearance of more and more species off the face of the Earth due to factors like hunting and pollution. This has sparked various environmental movements around the world, all with similar goals in mind. Ultimately, the goal is to make sure every species lives the lives they should naturally, without the destructive influence from humans. I’ve formulated a concept I call the ‘comfortability score’ or ‘comfortability factor’ measured in ‘points’ to visualise our ecological relationship with other species. It measures the success of a species in terms of factors such as population size, average health, risk of death from predators and/or diseases, etc and the resulting life experience an individual or a species has. A higher comfort score means a more pleasurable experience for the individual. It’s not a defined explicit number with a unit; it’s not a metric. Rather, it’s a way to visualise how the different species and individuals on Earth coexist and affect one another as if it were a quantifiable measurement. The basic rules to keep in mind when using the comfortability factor are:

  1. It is largely determined by the amount of resources and energy which a species naturally has access to, because the resources and energy available to a species is deeply correlated to the variables in determining their comfort score like lifespan and health.

  2. The Earth in its entirety has a limited and almost fixed total comfortability score. The only time it’s added to is when photosynthetic organisms use sunlight to produce energetic materials (sugars) from non-energetic materials (carbon dioxide and water).

Plants and animals around the world have adapted to one another through millions of years of natural selection and evolution, which ended up shaping and molding the various ecosystems found on Earth like the rainforest and oceans. Animals and plants have to work in tandem with one another or else they approach extinction. A plant population, like trees, has to reproduce enough to ensure it’s continuation, taking into account the animals that consume it (that’s it’s adaptation to animals). Those that don’t go extinct, those that do get to live on. A functioning ecosystem works because the available comfort score is shared among its inhabitants. It is a closed loop of comfort points, of resources and energy moving from organism to organism, then back again. By nature, the fixed amount of comfort is shared among it’s residents roughly evenly.


An explicit example of how this came into fruition are cetacea; whales. They eat simple foods that aren’t hard to find (e.g. plankton, small fish, krill) and they spend their lives majestically swimming through the water. When they die, their bodies sink and become food for underwater life. Whales lower the comfortability score of krill and plankton (in terms of population size) and use it to raise that of the organisms that rely on the whale’s corpse (in terms of general access to resources and energy). Whales play their part in the ecosystem, helping to share their points equally, living in equality with the other residents of its ecosystem.


"Breaching Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)" by Gregory 'Slobirdr' Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Additionally, we can look at the Panthera tigris; tigers. They do what you would expect—normal tiger stuff—slay, prey, and play.


As a carnivorous species and the most dangerous carnivores of their ecosystems, tigers are the apex predators of their native ecosystems, so they control prey populations such as deer and wild cattle which in turn maintain and regulate plant populations, making sure there aren’t enough plant eaters to severely harm plant populations. In terms of the comfort score, Tigers help raise the comfortability score of plants and regulate the score of plant eaters. Tigers play a role in their ecosystems, helping to support it and being part of it, they get what they need and nothing more.


"tiger" by Mathias Appel is marked under CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/cc0/1.0/


Every species on Earth, by nature, lives with approximately the same level of comfort due the process of evolution; different species adapt to one another in order to live together. At times, one species may gain an advantage over another, in which case the other species must evolve to compensate or it wouldn’t exist today, and onwards until all species can live with one another, or even depend on one another, which is what builds ecosystems. Imagine it like putting random objects you find around your house on two sides of a balance scale until it’s balanced. This is coevolution.


Eventually, ecosystems are formed when its residents adapt to each other to the point where they start to depend on one another’s influences. That’s why an invasive species in large enough populations are hence dangerous to an ecosystem as they force themselves into an ecosystem they do not belong in effectively disrupting it as well as causing any that rely on it to change. It’s like putting in one additional object onto one side our previously balanced scale, tipping the balance.


The most invasive species on Earth are humans. Our civilization has spread worldwide and has consequently changed how the Earth works. Humans are quite different from other animals. Obviously, we don’t live like animals, we don’t have predators, we don’t have to migrate, and we know how to deal with disease (which has become apparent with recent events). We live lavishly compared to the rest of the living world, and this isn’t thanks to physical advantages like gorilla strength or cheetah speed. We are special because of our intellect and our burning desire to develop, not only ourselves but also the world around us and others. We’ve molded the world around us to fit our needs and desires, we’ve turned clay and sand into pavements, sculptures, and roads. We’ve used lumps of carbon as a source of power, basing the industrial revolution around it. We’ve turned dirt into metals, then electronics, then the internet. We’ve turned the Earth from an enclosure to a home.


Within approximately 35,000 years, humans (and other, now extinct, hominid species like Neanderthals and Homo Erectus) moved out of their native home of Africa and inhabited all continents of the Eastern World; Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australia. The Pleistocene Ice Age introduced us to the Americas 13,000 years ago which we reached by traveling across a land bridge after the water in between Alaska and Asia had frozen over.


Since the early stages of humanity, we’ve become a species that has populated most of the landmass of Earth in record time. A couple centuries later, we got on top of the comfortability scoreboard. We have taken the world so fundamentally that we are solely responsible for the birth of the unofficial current epoch, the Anthropocene. Scientists still debate whether we really have begun a new epoch or if we remain in the Holocene epoch. The very fact that this debate exists is a testament in and of itself to humanity’s impacts on Earth.



“With regard to other animals, humans have long since become gods.”


- Yuval Noah Harari. Homo Deus. page 83.



Humanity has become more aware of all this, noticing what impacts we have on nature (most of them being negative) which has pushed groups to environmental action. The goals of many of these organisations are to offer resources to nature with the aim of restoring its pre-humanity state. As previously mentioned, the Earth has limited resources and energy and a score that’s by nature, shared roughly equally between all species. Since we account for the majority of resources, (the average person has much more access to food and comfort than the average animal) we now possess most of the points that our world has, significantly more, in fact, than any other natural species. Our use of fossil fuels has changed the composition of the air, bringing us the wonders of electricity but making it more problematic to breathe and leading to climate change. Our use of wood to make our homes has evicted animals from their own homes. Even the action of putting fish on our plates as a typical meal has disrupted the marine ecosystem. The undisturbed, systematic lives of the species on Earth have now been compromised by humanity’s development. However, it is through this process that we live as we do today. Anything electrical like electric fans, phones, TV’s, fridges, air conditioning, etc, along with couches, medicine, wood, fabric, oil, meat, spices. It has created what we see today when we look outside; buildings, farms, pools, trains, planes, and cars.


It was through this process that we live in the world that we do. Put a pin on that, we’ll come back to this.


"If my parents don't pay the price... - Melbourne World Environment Day 2011" by John Englart (Takver) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


The Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world, with a surface area of 38,394 km² and a population of around 763,000 as of 2019, strangely enough, it is squeezed in between India and China.


Bhutan is more than that, it is the world’s leading country in environmentalism.


2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide is produced by the country annually, but their forests that cover almost half their landmass are large enough to be able to sink three times the amount; they remove more than 4 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.


A further 6 million tons of carbon dioxide are saved by their renewable energy production, made possible by their fast-flowing rivers. They export their clean energy, and are now working to further eradicate a total of 50 million tons of carbon dioxide every year through advancements in clean energy production.


Some countries are carbon neutral, meaning they don’t contribute to the growing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, while Bhutan is the only carbon negative country the world has, meaning it actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


Bhutan’s natural ecosystem houses some of the most threatened species in a safe haven, including the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Snow Leopard, and the Red Panda. In addition, 24 of the roughly 675 bird species inhabiting Bhutan are listed as threatened.


The country follows a Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy, written into their constitution, which includes a respect and conservation of nature, along with good governance, sustainable development, and preservation and promotion of culture. As it is a metric of both the economy and morality, it is an alternative to GDP. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, quoted that GDP was less important than the GNH in 2012.


Bhutan’s economy is not considered very competitive; they are a country with only 2.5 billion US dollars in their GDP as of 2019 and are listed as one of the least developed countries according to the UN.


This is an example of the comfortability score working but in a different way than what we would normally be used to. The limited resources and energy the world has to offer in Bhutan is being shared to the local environment and not kept largely by their civilization despite their abilities to do so otherwise. In contrast to what the rest of the developed world is like, Bhutan sacrificed what is typically considered success for a country to their adherence to the GNH, and along with that, for the good of nature.


"Local Man Keeps Bhutan's River Immaculate" by United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


The reason I bring up Bhutan is that it is an example of how people can live with nature. There are many well-intentioned organizations working towards improving humanity’s relationship with nature through methods such as the use of alternative materials to strong pollutants, like using wood or metal products instead of plastic, and promoting the protection of natural threatened plants and animals. The sacrifices they make do positively impact the environment, but put simply, it isn’t enough to undo the influence that humanity has had on the ecosystems of the globe and to reach the true goals of the movements. Even with so many environmental efforts going around globally, overfishing is still a problem, pollution is still a problem, ocean acidification is still a problem ( 50 percent of the corals in the Seychelles died in 2016).



Part 2: Us and A Future


We are simply not doing enough to meet our ideal of an ecologically sustainable world.


No, I’m not saying we should all move to Bhutan. Neither am I saying an ideal world is a global Bhutan.


Full disclosure, I could not live without modern advancements, the greediness of comfortability, I could not live like a Bhutan citizen. I live on my phone until it’s dead (hours and hours of Youtube, Netflix and Instagram). Most of the productive things that happen in my life happen on my Macbook. Everything sucks without air conditioning, bubble milk tea is a miracle and most of what’s on Starbucks’ menu is a treat. I like modern houses, stylish clothing, and electric guitars. It might sound stupid, but it’s all true. A world where all of modern humanity shares it’s comfort with nature equally, as ideal to some, could be like camping but all the time, but maybe worse. As a secondary student, who soldiered through just a week of camp without a toothbrush in the last 3 days, I can very confidently say that that’s not where I picture myself living. Ever. A trip to nature is fine, to live there is another story.


The world we live in, brought by humanity’s hogging of the comfortability score, is the foundation of who we are. Despite unethical means, we hold its products dear to our souls. Maybe some other people are willing to make such a big change in lifestyle, but I prefer to keep it. And I’m sure many other people will be pleased to do so too.


"Real chill dude in the italian market." by Dylan is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.


So what now? How, or can we even change ourselves so that we can maintain our lifestyle and regenerate the natural order of equal comfort? The goal is to live as we do now but also preserve nature. But part of that includes supplying nature with sufficient comfort points by taking it out of our own stock, enough that it returns to its original state, because that was what changed that caused the issues we worry about today. We want to preserve nature, yet on the other hand, we want to keep living the life that we do. No matter how hard we believe, it’s unlikely we can have both.


The comfortability score applies to both species and individuals, the latter of which is not talked about much up to this point of the article. Two individuals can indeed have differing comfort scores, even if they are of the same species. We see this in nature all the time, for example when dominant male lions would usually eat before the female and weaker lions, the dominant lions have a higher comfort score than female lions since they get more food.

Each individual has a minimum comfort score. Too little or no comfort means death. And so, of the score a species has, some of it has to be shared in between individual members of the species. If that doesn't happen, the member ceases to be, leaving only those with sufficient points alive. This is true across all species, social or solitary.


With every new human born, some amount of our comfort points have to be used for that individual, even more so if that human lives in wealthy environments. Each person will need shelter, food,water, waste disposal, medical care, etc, all of which require some energy and resources. In modern times, our minimum comfort has increased from simple survival to emotional satisfaction, with having shelter, education, private transport, quality food and drinks, etc. All those luxuries require deduction of resources and energy from the Earth’s supply for every human. With that, comes motivation for further extraction from nature to sustain the state of modern life. Many humans are then entitled these things, each birth promising a large sum of resources and energy going to that child. The conclusion from this, is that the more humans there are, the more dramatic our impact on the environment, and the more resources and energy are used up. More plastic waste is created, more ores and fossil fuels are mined, more farm animals are killed, more gas and coal is burned, more greenhouse gases build up. This is widely known.


It’s beyond worth addressing that sadly, the degree of how high of a comfort score each human receives varies, sometimes wildly, from human to human, demographic to demographic, due to the income and wealth gap present globally. My hypothesis is that it is similar to how lions will split prey meat unevenly, with the ‘alpha’ male getting the most meat and the weaker end of the pride getting the least; it is because of human nature that resources are distributed unevenly, the explanation possibly being an evolutionary one. This isn’t to say that it can’t be overcome.


Alright, so the solution is apparent. If the fact that there are a lot of humans is the cause of the immensely and increasing negative impacts, then to reverse those negative impacts we reduce the population.


That might’ve made you squirm a little bit, as it has connotations of genocide. That is not what I’m saying should happen, as genocide is of course, extremely unethical.


A much better way of lowering the population is through a combination of time and slowing of population growth.


Some estimates say that the population could grow by 4 billion in the upcoming 80 years. Only 80. Which might not be too surprising as the rate in which our population has grown has exploded in recent decades. During the 1800’s there were less than a billion people alive. The 1900’s had around 1.65 billion people. The 2000’s, 6 billion. The population hit 7 billion in 2011. in 2021, we’re nearing 8 billion at 7.7 billion people. This explosion in human population is credited to improvements in food and medicine.


Now obviously, we shouldn’t restrict medicine and food from certain populations, that’s also unethical. Death (and/or increasing its chances) should not be a tool in this endeavour. We simply slowed down the birth rate. As the birth rate slows, the population gets closer to growing at a slower rate. Maybe one day, when we can slow down the birth rate enough, the natural death rate will catch up and the population will decline. As long as the death rate is due to ethical reasons, then this is good progress.


Another important element in all this is to not increase our consumption of points, or maybe even decrease it. There are already many movements out there doing just this, such as those reducing plastic use. Think of it as the total number of points that we use going down due to there being less people demanding more of it.


The result is that our impact on nature goes down proportionally, until an equilibrium is reached and our species consumes just as many points as all the other species.


This, in a way, is actually already happening. All around the world, people are having fewer and fewer children. The average couple today now has half the number of children than the average couple a few decades ago. And this is simply due to the fact that having children has become more and more unappealing to people. Reasons for this includes the increased prevention of child labor, enforced after child labor increased dramatically duirng the industrial revolution. The increased life choices women have that a child burdens, decreased child mortality rates preventing families from having extra children in the hopes of making up for the ones which have passed, the increased popularity of contraceptives and the increased financial burden children now pose. Basically, bringing down motivation for having children seemed to do the trick. If this is perpetuated further, by for example making contraceptives more accessible, expanding the reaches of education, or by further enforcing the prevention of child labor, we could be seeing an ethically achieved decrease in population.


This isn’t the end of the story. If there are fewer and fewer young people being born each generation, the ratio between younger and older people shifts, with there being more older people. There are fears that there will be too many people in retirement, in disproportion to those working, which can negatively affect economic growth. Japan is currently facing that problem, it has the highest percentage of elderly people, 20% of its population is above 65 years old, with estimates saying that the number may rise to over 30% by 2030. The lack of labor and the number of people going into retirement is taking its toll on Japan’s GDP which threatens its spot as the world’s third largest economy. Japan’s response to this is to maximize the number of people working by bringing more and more people into higher levels of employment, including incentivising companies to start hiring, promoting more women and making it easier for immigrants to find better jobs.


While this is good for the reason that it increases employment rates, what happens when we manage to maximize employment rates but still not meet the required product of labor that may be in demand in a decreasing population? The solution is awesome: robots.


If we were to find efficient enough renewable sources of energy for efficient robots, we can pick up the slack of the shrinking workforce. These machines would be doing simple work that would usually take armies of people to do, leaving the more advanced, high paying jobs to humans, which may become more affordable thanks to the lowered labor costs that robots bring. This could also lower the amount of low-paying labor present in the world, in jobs such as sweatshops and mines, giving humanity its basic needs with efficient machines.

But wouldn’t that decrease the pay of those in higher positions, since there will be more people in those positions? A higher minimum wage would be the answer to that. Wouldn’t that decrease the amount of people being hired because of their higher costs to a company? Surprisingly, a higher minimum wage has increased employment rates in some cases. This is because some businesses can actually afford higher minimum wages and it attracts more people looking for employment. Maybe the businesses can benefit from the cut costs of labor brought by robotics and use that to leverage their minimum wages.


What if the robots advance and take on more jobs, until humans become redundant? That’s a problem that a lot of the most appreciated people in the world are afraid of. Elon Musk has said that when AI (artificial intelligence) becomes smarter than humans, our existence will be threatened. He even apparently put down $10 million to fund an effort against that from occurring. Bill Gates has said that he is surprised that there are people who aren’t concerned about AI out-developing humans. Stephen Hawking is hopeful for the technology, but recognises that it’s a big risk.


If we stay in control of ourselves, perhaps the growing advancement of AI and robotic technology will instead assist not only society but also individuals. Or not, we don’t know what something that thinks in more advanced ways than us will think, which is where most of the fear of this development comes from. Instead of robots all taking our jobs, perhaps there will be laws and cultures that are against the use of technology, and perhaps companies will be forced to employ enough people and pay them well. Maybe in the future, the right for every human to have a sufficient job will be created and be achievable by advancement of technology. That’s my hope and vision.


Okay well, if robots will start collecting materials, resources, basically doing the dirty work for us, wouldn’t that just cause pollution at a faster rate due to their efficiency? We could make an AI advanced yet limited enough to find a solution to this specifically. Humans have been trying to find ways of satisfying demands that are more environmentally friendly. We could keep doing that, but with the help of an AI (or even multiple AI) specifically designed to only learn in the interest of finding more environmentally friendly ways of generating needed resources, just to speed things up. This kind of development could also bring on more jobs because perhaps the AI needs humans to operate, or maybe it would also be able to help by opening up more jobs for humans exclusively. Perhaps this kind of development will happen slowly enough but at a productive rate that this becomes a possibility.


It’s important to mention that robots do indeed have a minimum comfort score; we have to supply them with materials and energy for them to operate. The main difference is that it’s possible to engineer robots to our very own will without having to worry about ethical issues, unlike how it is unethical to do the same to people for the purpose of labor. This means that we can make it so that these robots become exceedingly more efficient with their comfort, perhaps even to the point where they are able to create energy and collect resources significantly higher than was invested into them.


If all this can be achieved, we can move onto the next step, humanity’s isolation. Keep in mind, this is while the population has been decreased to the point where this is a good idea; what if we could expand natural protected areas to sizes of countries, like how Bhutan has a good portion of their landmass dedicated to nature. That way, what damage we do to the environment around us to create homes and other infrastructure would be contained. All the reduced carbon emissions and expanded forest area could be a global carbon sink. Forest land would be protected like how countries are protected, maybe entering these areas would be restricted.


What if we get so efficient that we can stop consuming extra resources and energy and instead end up making extra to improve ecological relationships? AI could help us a lot with this, we just have to be it’s master, and maybe the programmers could be so good at their jobs that this becomes the reality. We’ve turned cell phones into iPhones, why not spend a few years and a good amount of funding for another amazing endeavor?



Afterword


All this would obviously be a lot less simple than how I describe it, there will be setbacks, additional problems I didn’t think of, results that aren’t satisfactory, those who disagree. Maybe an AI that is able to learn, develop and replicate itself will go berserk and make all the pessimistic dreams of those who fear it come true. Maybe it’s impossible to decrease the population to that degree. What I am proposing here is nothing more than my thoughts of a possible good future and how we may reach it, not how it will actually turn out or even what we could hope for. It's worthy to note that these are just human predictions and they are often wrong or are used to reevaluate how we do things, which can change the possibility of that outcome, an idea shared by the author I quoted earlier, Yuval Noah Harrari. This is not a call to action, but a thought. If people want to engage in it, this can be a thought experiment. What this all is can be subjective, to me, it’s an example of how much work and change it’s going to take to balance out the comfort score once again. It’s very likely that I got some facts wrong, and made flawed conclusions as a result. There’s no doubt that one human alone can’t make something perfect. In a Discord chat, while talking to someone about a model of a molecule I was making, the person I was talking to pointed out in a list how I arranged, left out, added or colored various parts incorrectly, while I previously saw that it was fine. He tried to reassure me that he wasn’t trying to say it was bad, just that it wasn’t finished and apologised for discouraging me, despite the fact that I wasn’t. I told him “there's always going to be flaws in things we do alone.” “ain’t that the truth” he replied. But that’s what makes it so great that we’re social creatures; we have the desire to have what we do expand and be shared among all of us, and through that it has the ability to change and maybe, sometimes improve. I hope that can be done for this article.


Special Thanks to Beam P

Who took his time to read through this article meticulously so that I knew where I went wrong. An example of the point I made in the last section of my article, that work is never complete and it can improve when more people see it.



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