Museum Manifesto. Facing the limits
Global warming, the extinction of species and pandemics should all serve as a warning. Are there boundaries that human activity should not cross? Can these boundaries be pushed back by technology? Natural history suggests we reconsider how we view these potential changes.
Within species, 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 the characteristics that favour their survival in a given environment are able to 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 ways to exceed these limits enables humanity to progress, but it must not be allowed to endanger all the planet’s ecosystems.
Limits difficult to grasp
Human beings are particularly inclined to push back natural boundaries, in part because our psychology hampers our understanding of complex systems and long-time scales. We overvalue the present and forget the past; a phenomenon known as generational amnesia. As the authors point out: "between 1976 and 2016, the biomass of winged insects fell by 80% in Europe: who can remember windscreens covered in midges and butterflies?"
It is also difficult to look ahead and imagine that, for instance, within the next 50 years all mammals and birds that live in the inter-tropical zone and weigh over ten kilos could go extinct in the wild due to fragmentation of their natural habitat.
Human activities have expanded without 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 grown in denial of any limits."
Technological progress has increased our exploitation of natural and human resources. For some, it means the hope of going beyond the Earth’s confines. Humans even dream of postponing death, but this "trans-humanist sham" belies biological and neuroscientific knowledge.
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."
Linking ecology, economy and social aspects
What is needed is a form of 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 are capable of shedding light on our future decisions.
Natural history thus has a crucial role to play in reestablishing constructive limits for human activities.