Eudald Carbonell


“We are speeding towards another glacial period”

Archaeologist Eudald Carbonell argues that it is too late for humans to avoid disaster but that there is hope for the species if we can learn from our mistakes

“Globalisation is probably the biggest mistake homo sapiens have ever made” “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN LIFE IS, AS A SPECIES, NOT TO MAKE MISTAKES”

Settled for 15 years in Castile and León, where the archaeological site of Atapuerca is located, archaeologist and anthropologist Eudald Carbonell was recently in Catalonia. His new book, Humanització o extinció, will be out in October.

You say the collapse is already here and that it is irreversible.
For 20 years, many scientists have been talking about the inability of humans to manage our processes. We enter into a process naturally, but then we’re unable to take control. Whenever there’s a change in social systems, as happened in the Industrial Revolution, it ends up in major wars and a huge loss of human life. The First and Second World Wars took the lives of two hundred million people. The collapse of the scientific-technological revolution has begun; everything is in place for the same thing to happen and the loss of 20% of the population.
How would you define the current era?
We are in an age characterised by fundamental issues such as historical acceleration, that is, things that once happened in a year now happen in a week, so social relations are extremely accelerated. We’re at a point of the socialisation of the scientific-technological revolution, in an exponential convergence of changes that we won’t be able to control.
This is the feeling we have that things are going very fast?
Yes, exactly. If we think something is going to go wrong it will end up going wrong. It’s a very curious thing about life. I tell my students that if you do things well, there’s a good chance they’ll turn out well; do things poorly and they will always turn out badly. It’s something like a law of human evolution.
In one article you discussed the need for a universal protocol for the species.
Globalisation is probably the biggest mistake humans, homo sapiens, have ever made. And we’ll pay dearly for it. From the evolutionary, social, scientific and political point of view, what globalisation has done is homogenise the species. Without identity there’s no diversity, and the loss of diversity will make these issues we’re talking about reach a point that will eventually lead to the destruction of the systems in which we live.
Are the pandemic, climate crisis, the wars, all opportunities to reflect on where we are?
I think that this molecule that’s contaminated our respiratory system, that’s killed so many elderly people and caused so much stress for families must be seen as a warning about the difficult situation we are in. When things go wrong it’s because you’ve done things wrong. The most important thing in life is, as a species, not to make mistakes. When you have to make a decision, you can’t do things that you know aren’t going to work out well or that put a lot of people at risk. Of course, we all make mistakes and our ability to gauge what we’re doing is limited, but we do have the ability to reflect on what we’ve done and that is something we often don’t use. For me, now, thinking and having an influence is very important because I am also part of this species. It’s like a good carpenter who makes a good house. We evolutionists also work in the field of society, in the evolution of humanity, and we can build and contribute a lot, we must return our knowledge to the species in the form of reflection.
We’ve heard these types of considerations for a long time but they don’t seem to have an impact on society.
The issue here is that we are an idiot species, and of course, it’s very difficult for an idiot species like us to reflect. The most important thing is to be self-critical. We may be homo sapiens but were also idiots. Imbecility in the human context is very important, and since so many of us are idiots, then it’s a problem for evolution itself. We must break with this series of mistakes that we have made in our evolution so as to be able to govern our future. But as we still haven’t done that we have no control over what we will face. These new crises will come and our species will disappear. All species go extinct, at least until now; technology may prevent that but what needs to be done is to try to make the conditions of life better, not worse.
Technology has also played an important role in the pandemic.
The technology has been very good because it comes up with processes to protect the species. If we hadn’t been able to vaccinate like we did we would probably have had many millions more dead. But I think the pandemic has made us worse. As I said, everything is happening as a result of our globalising. The pandemic has acted as a warning but it has made us more incapable of understanding that collective individuality is very important.
A debate is underway on renewable energy. Are we moving from a fossil fuel to a renewable civilization?
Technology allows us to accelerate these changes and develop these substitutes. I have quoted many times the great economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, who raised the question about the expense of burning a kilo of coal given how long it takes for logs to turn into a kilo of coal and the effort to extract it from the ground. In that sense, burning coal is monstrous. There are a lot of people who are happy to devour everything we produce, and that too is monstrous. With renewables we’re talking about types of energy that are in the Earth’s system, which need to be integrated with the human system. Is it bad to burn coal? As with anything, not as long as you do not exceed the limits. You can use coal, or any energy source, as long as you use it rationally. Everything has this production cost.
What do you mean?
Solar panels may make less energy than the energy it took to produce them. There’s always a loss of energy, a balance of energy. We know that methane takes decades to disappear from the atmosphere and that CO2 has a brutal greenhouse effect and this can affect the change in temperature, thermohaline currents, warming... We must understand that if we continue to accelerate these effects, we will bring glaciation upon us in next to no time. People know that warming is happening but after that the cold will come. We are accelerating the arrival of a glacial period. We haven’t had one in 10,000 years. Humans cannot change the climate of the planet but we can accelerate climate change and that’s what we’re doing.
Do we shield ourselves from some issues to keep our consciences clear?
We shouldn’t have a clear conscience because it is the driver of social consciousness. If our conscience is clear we won’t get anything done. There are two concepts that I’ve been developing in my books: responsible evolution and conscious progress. Am I against wind turbines at sea? No, what I’m against is not doing them well. You can’t be against progress, and progress must be conscious.
How do you see things turning out in the future?
They can eventually turn out well. After the collapse, once we’ve made all the mistakes we need to make, human beings can then emerge with an understanding that there are mistakes that cannot be repeated. People say that those who will have the worst time of it are our children, our grandchildren, but that’s not right, those who will have the worst of it are us here now. People see what’s going on in distant exotic places and think it can’t happen here.

interview social science

A life studying humans

Eudald Carbonell (Ribes de Freser, 1953) explains that our species is distributed in such a way that from the age of 60 you are an old man and from 70, ancient, and so as a result since he turned 60 he has been giving up positions and responsibilities. For example, he is the former director of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), and also of the Atapuerca Foundation. He continues as co-director of the Atapuerca Project, although he says that in 2024 he will retire and “somehow” find a way to leave it. And he still teaches at Rovira and Virgili University for three months a year. Reviewing his career, he recalls his first contact with fossils was as a child, when visiting his grandparents in the summers in Santa Maria de Besora. He also mentions his link to the PSUC communist party. At the age of 23 he became a member of the party’s central committee and stood as a back-up candidate for Girona behind Paco Frutos in the 1979 general election. “I come from a revolutionary background and also a scientific and historical background. I think they are linked. For example, we studied history to understand our social functioning as people, but the scientific side was what attracted me most,” he says.

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