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Fintan O’Toole: Humans are just apes who burn stuff. Now we must put out the fire

Cop26 delegates have the power to create a turning point in the evolution of our species

“Habit,” says Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, “is a great deadener.” This is now literally true. If we humans continue with our current habits, we will destroy the life support systems on which we depend.

But we don’t just have to break the habits of a lifetime. To grasp the scale of the challenge facing the global leaders gathering for the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, we must acknowledge that it demands nothing less than breaking the habits of our entire existence as a species.

Burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon into the atmosphere is not just something we humans do. It is who we are. It is in our guts and in our brains.

We burn organic matter, it sustains us, we need to burn more stuff – and so on. It's the deep history of our species, stamped on our bodies, wired into our brains

Chew on this: if we did not cook our food, we would have to spend, as our nearest cousins do, six hours a day just chewing our food. We would, like them, have huge rib cages to contain all the guts we would need to digest it.


We are who we are because we took a brilliant evolutionary shortcut: burning stuff to make fire. It may have begun millions of years ago with our hominid ancestors. It certainly goes back hundreds of thousands of years to the beginnings of homo sapiens.

Setting fire to wood allows you to cook food, which releases more calories with much less effort. It allows you to sleep on the ground because the fire scares off predators.

The campfire, in turn, is where stories are told and language develops. Its warmth allows the new species to lose its covering of fur, so that it can run for longer distances without overheating and thus catch more prey. More food fuels bigger and denser brains – and so on.

No fire, no humanity as we know it. We’re the burning ape, the one that knows how to release the energy stored in wood and turf and then in coal and petroleum and natural gas and shale.

We burn more and more organic matter, it sustains more and more of us, we need to burn more stuff – and so on. It’s the deep history of our species, stamped on our bodies, wired into our brains, implicit in our cultures.

And of course, we never intended in all of this to release more and more carbon into the atmosphere. For most of our evolution, we had no real idea that we were even doing it.

It is, in this light, not so surprising that humanity as a whole has been very slow to accept that combustion is leading to a bust. Burn, baby, burn is written in our DNA.

Puritans telling people to stop having sex had little long-term success. Scientists telling societies to stop burning fossil fuels are making a demand that goes almost as deeply against the grain of both human nature and human culture.

The consequent delay could be fatal. The scale and speed of what has to be done now – the elimination of carbon emissions in just 30 years – would have been much less daunting if the process had begun sooner.

In 1979, when the then US president Jimmy Carter had 32 solar panels installed on the roof of the White House, he reflected that this symbolic act could be for future generations, "an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people".

It was, of course, the former. His successor Ronald Reagan had the panels ripped out – an equally symbolic statement of intent to carry on carbonising the atmosphere. Every subsequent step along that path to destruction has made the return journey more arduous.

Stupidity, malignity and the political power of the carbon producers ensured that little was done to avoid the known consequences of global heating. It is both necessary and reasonable to be enraged by that colossal failure.

And yet, taking a very long-term view, we can also see that the transformation we have to undergo is breathtaking. It is not just a technological revolution and a massive shift in global governance.

It is the cutting of the umbilical cord of human evolution. The lifeline that has fed our growth since time immemorial has become a noose rapidly tightening around our necks.

This is terrifying. But it is also immensely exciting. We are on the brink, but that brink does not have to be the edge of the abyss. It can – it must – be the threshold to a radically new relationship between humans and the physical world in which they exist and have evolved.

Can we escape the paradox that the things that have made us strong as a species are also, in the long run, killing us?

At this juncture, there is a conundrum. Burning stuff allowed our brains to develop so remarkably that we can understand clearly the dangers we face.

But are those brains sufficiently developed that we can take a collective decision, as a species, to stop burning stuff? Can we escape the paradox that the things that have made us strong as a species are also, in the long run, killing us?

If the answer to that question is positive, humanity will, over the next century, live through an astonishing transformation. Its story will have a dramatic and irreversible twist in the plot, a great leap beyond its own origins.


Politicians like power. In this broad context, no politicians have ever had more power than those who are gathering in Glasgow – not Genghis Khan, not Napoleon, not Alexander the Great.

Those bloody conquerors merely ruled some of humanity for a short time. The Cop26 delegates can change humanity for good. What a privilege it is to find yourself at the one moment in hundreds of thousands of years when such an epic renovation is within your grasp.

"There is," as Brendan Behan sardonically put it, "no place on Earth like the world." There is also no species on Earth like humankind, the one that has given itself the capacity to alter the whole course of its own evolution.

It has taken too long for these truths to translate themselves into real imperatives for action. It has taken too many apocalyptic wildfires for humanity to see that the sparks that it lit at its own dawning have created a deathly glow on the dark horizon of its future. Our burning ambitions have led us towards self-immolation.

We have arrived, nonetheless, at a unique moment of collective self-awareness. We know where we stand on Earth. We know what we have to do. We know how to do it. We know the consequences of not doing it.

It is a matter of choice. Our ancestors decided to start the fire and created marvels as a result. We can choose to put it out and, in doing so, create a world no less marvellous.