Eating the Woolly Mammoth to Extinction

Earlier this year, I listened to a podcast about extinct foods. It opened by claiming that the woolly mammoth went extinct because of humans. Wikipedia is not as definitive about it, although I did find some other articles that also argued humans played a strong role.

These days, it’s de rigeur to blame all of our most extractive, unsustainable practices on capitalism. Capitalism deserves its share of blame, but I think this kind of reasoning is overly simplistic. Animals are not ecologists. Animals behave in ways that are fundamentally selfish and sometimes destructive. Ecosystems succeed when there is just the right mix of competing and cooperating species. There is no management from above.

We are most definitely animals. It doesn’t surprise me that humans have been eating animals to extinction long before higher order economic systems existed. But, we are also theoretically capable of seeing and understanding ecosystems in the way other animals are not. In order to do that, we still have to figure out ways to see how our practices in aggregate impact the world at large. Furthermore, those feedback loops must not just be intellectually understood, but felt. Charts correlating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with climate, for example, clearly aren’t enough.

This is what scares me about the de-extinction movement. It’s amazing that we can now revive the Woolly Mammoth, but should we? I would feel better about our chances at doing this “right” if we were better at building social systems with feedback loops that helped us make better collective decisions. I believe that we are capable of this, but our track record hasn’t been stellar.