New Report: Small Habits' Big Impact On Climate

In the 20th century, the greatest threats to civilization arose out of ecstatic emotions, especially when they united thousands of people. The last century's true believers rallied, wept and sang about superhuman faith, overwhelming feeling, single decisions that changed their lives and the world. They quivered to think of their heroes, who had "the power to raise up broken hearts and despairing souls." They believed that History was calling.

Decade after decade, the consequences were disastrous: rabid nationalism, Fascism, Nazism, Communism, anti-Communism and all the other isms in whose name millions died. (That praise of heroes who lead noble causes comes from Mein Kampf.)


The 21st century is different. Today, it's the small emotions—undramatic, common, seemingly inconsequential—that most threaten humanity. Enjoyment of those comfort foods you grew up with. Anxiety to get along with the neighbors. Guilt that makes you want to keep the children happy. Thousands of little daily impulses like that are the reasons people in the United States might, for instance, drive the neighbor's SUV to pick up the kids at school, then let the car idle, and then drive somewhere for a cheeseburger.

Today, at the end of the Garrison Institute's conference on behavioral research and climate change, I heard an announcement that quantifies the impact on climate of humdrum daily American life. According to research prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council (pdf downloadable at the link), the United States could reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 1 billion tons per year with minor changes in the way people travel, eat, work and spend their time at home. (Full disclosure: I have written for OnEarth, the NRDC's magazine, as have many writers I admire, but I have no connection with this work.)

One billion tons would be almost 15 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions from the United States—removed by actions like letting cars and buses idle only half as much as they do now, eating chicken instead of red meat once a week, inflating everybody's tires, and cutting by one quarter the amounts of food Americans waste.

The work assumes 100 percent compliance with its recommendations. So it's a goal, not a plan. And even a cut of 15 percent by 2020, as imagined here, is not enough (80 percent is more in line with what looks necessary to avoid disaster), which means this problem can't be solved by individual virtue all by itself. Hard political struggles are still waiting.

But it's impressive to see how much "trivial" choices and small habits affect the fate of the world.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.