If you're looking to read about the transcendent majesty of humankind, you might want to skip George Monbiot's column in the Guardian. As he puts it, the piece will leave you with a "soul scraping sadness—without an obvious antidote." Essentially, we've made a mess of things on the planet since our arrival, he concludes after attending an Oxford conference assessing the human impact on the planet. Just look at the fossil record: "Almost everywhere we went, humankind erased a world of wonders, changing the way the biosphere functions." Modern humans, for instance, arrived in Europe and Australia between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, developed a taste for meat and a knack for hunting at a distance, and, sure enough, mass extinctions followed.
The effects go well beyond the loss of a particular species. In Australia, for instance, "the sudden flush of vegetation that followed the loss of large herbivores caused stacks of leaf litter to build up, which became the rainforests' pyre: fires (natural or manmade) soon transformed these lush places into dry forest and scrub." And this isn't just the stuff of ancient history—just look at the fast-dwindling numbers of elephants in Africa and Asia. "Is this all we are?" asks Monbiot. "A diminutive monster that can leave no door closed, no hiding place intact, that is now doing to the great beasts of the sea what we did so long ago to the great beasts of the land?" Maybe, he suggests, we can finally put our "ingenuity" to work not for destruction but to "defy our evolutionary history." But he doesn't sound optimistic. Click for Monbiot's full column. (More early humans stories.)