In Ancient Greek mythology, the Earth Goddess Gaia had nine titan sons, who attempted to control not just the Earth, but the entire Universe. I’d like to introduce another. It’s a new creature who emerged only in recent decades. But it’s a creature who is already as influential over life on the planet as the phytoplankton or forests that regulate global temperature, the weather and the air we breathe.
That new creature is us, or more precisely, what humanity is becoming. The entirety of our species, Homo sapiens, is evolving into a superorganism; We’ll call this new life force Homo omnis, or ‘Homni’.
We have now become the dominant force shaping our planet. Some say that because of our actions we have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, or the age of man. Homni is a product of this age, a product of human industrialization, population expansion, globalization and the revolution in communications technology, and he is immensely powerful. Homni can influence the biosphere, and has needs – currently, he uses 18 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy at any time, 9,000 billion cubic metres of water per year, 40% of global land area for farming, and a plethora of other natural and mineral resources.
Only time will tell if he will be a benign caretaker, or a monster that destroys life and with it himself.
Humans may have evolved through a process of natural selection – essentially outcompeting rivals to death – but as paleontologist Tim Flannery says, this has led not to a “dog-eat-dog world”, but to a cooperative society. He believes we are in the process of forming an interdependent global society with a set of shared beliefs – a “civilization of ideas” – that will transform Earth into a more equitable and ecologically curated planet. It’s an optimistic view of Homni, based on the fact that most people want to get on with each other and look after their neighborhood environment. Whether, or to what degree, Flannery’s altruistic view of humanity bears out is the big question.
Although individuals may be able to steer Homni to some level, it is far from obvious how we might do this to ensure our survival through the Anthropocene. Homni’s influence is already being seen in planetary changes unprecedented for millions of years, affecting humans and our relationship to the natural world. We are changing the climate by increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; we’re reducing the planet’s biodiversity, causing what scientists fear may be the sixth mass extinction in its history; and terraforming Earth’s land surface with multiple megacities of concrete, steel and glass.
Homni is essentially a concept – because our superorganism has characteristics that go beyond the simple accumulation of humans. In other examples from the animal world, like bee hives or ant nests, killing the queen results in the collapse of the entire colony. Homni has no single queen, though, and in this way he is as robust as a forest. It would take a catastrophe on an epic scale – an epidemic, massive environmental change, an asteroid impact, or nuclear war – to possibly kill Homni, leaving a straggle of human survivors.
But our impulse would always be to strengthen rather than kill Homni – we are social collaborators and most of our recent discoveries, inventions and successes have been born out of group effort. And the secret to ensuring a better Anthropocene is in recognizing Homni’s power, but also nurturing his human side, the side committed to improving relations with the neighbors and cleaning up the neighborhood. Will we achieve this through global international agreements? Possibly.