Museum Manifesto. Facing the limits

Global warming, the extinction of species and pandemics are all a warning to us: Are there boundaries that human activity should not cross? Can these boundaries be pushed back by technology? Natural history offers us an opportunity to think again about our perception of these potential changes.

Plauque décorée de figures humaines et de chars à chevaux.

Plaque funéraire, Grèce antique, (vers 520-510 av. J.-C.)

© R. Fund, 1954 / Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Within species, these boundaries create structure and enable natural selection and adaptation to occur. Every species produces more offspring than its habitat can sustain, while only certain individuals possessing characteristics favouring their survival in that specific environment successfully reproduce.

By understanding and respecting the limits of our bodies and our environment, we can live on our planet in a sustainable way. Seeking out ways of exceeding the limits enables humanity to progress, but this must not be allowed to endanger all of the planet’s ecosystems and the organisms that make them up. 

Manifeste du Muséum. Face aux limites

Museum Manifesto. Facing the limits

  • Co-publication by the French National Museum of Natural History/Reliefs Éditions
  • Auteurs: a collective headed by Guillaume Lecointre, zoologist, taxonomist and Museum professor
  • Bilingual French/English
  • 2020
  • 84 p.
  • €7,50

Squelette de Dodo, Raphus cucullatus

© MNHN - B. Faye

Limits difficult to grasp

Human beings are particularly inclined to push back natural boundaries, in part because our psychology impedes our understanding of complex systems and long time scales. We overrate the present and forget the past; a phenomenon known as generational amnesia. Thus, the authors remind us that “ the winged insect biomass fell by 80% in Europe between 1976 and 2016: who can remember windscreens covered in midges and butterflies? ”

It is also difficult to look ahead and conceive that, for instance, in the next 50 years all mammals and birds living in the inter-tropical zone and weighing over ten kilos could disappear in the wild due to fragmentation of their natural habitat.

Always more

Human development has increased without any regard for the Earth’s ability to absorb the consequences of our expansion. This has been encouraged by the dominant capitalist structure. “ The economy has developed in denial of any limits. ”

Technological progress has increased our exploitation of natural and human resources. For some, it represents the hope of going beyond the Earth’s confines. Humanity even dreams of postponing death, but this “ trans-humanist fraud ” is a denial of biological and neuroscientific knowledge.

Dessin d'un homme dont la moité du corps est recouvert d'éléments de machines.

Réinterprétation transhumanisme de l’homme de Vitruve © DR

© DR

Conversely, others believe that we have already destabilised the planet beyond repair and that we are on the brink of extinction. However, Natural history teaches us that evolution is incremental. “ If we do have to face collapse it will happen over time, and not everyone will experience it with the same level of brutality. ”

Vue de Leeds, sur la route de Kirkstall (Royaume-Uni), début du XXe siècle

CC BY Wellcom collection

Linking ecology, economy and social aspects

What is needed is global governance that is able to regulate human activities within the planet’s limits. This means integrating crucial questions about inequality between countries, cultures and social classes and drawing inspiration from the good practices of certain indigenous peoples. “ We cannot envisage a future without completely linking together ecology, economy and social aspects.  ”

The ways in which we produce and consume are changing, partly due to reports from international scientific bodies like the IPCC (on climate) and the IPBES (on biodiversity), which have raised awareness.

A scientific approach is vital in order to obtain and disseminate realistic data that is capable of shedding light on our future decisions.

Natural History thus has a crucial role to play in reestablishing constructive boundaries for human activities.

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