Saturday, October 20, 2007

What is at stake

The folks at Blogger have compiled a list of exceptional environmental blogs in the wake of the Blog Action Day on the environment. You can see the full list at one of the named blogs The Conscious Earth. Many on the list were already familiar to me, but one that was new to me was Earth Meanders a blog by Dr. Glen Barry a conservation biologist and political ecologist who is eloquent and passionate on the environmental disasters that modern society is creating.

I agree with Barry's assessment of the dire environmental consequences of modern civilizations current economic and social choices. We are indeed going to ecological-hell-in-a-handbasket and taking uncountable species down with us. But is the "earth" dying as a result of our actions, as Barry claims? I think not. Oh, I think we humans are capable of destroying "the earth" -- we have enough nuclear weapons stockpiled, which if strategically placed and detonated all at once might create forces capable of causing the earth to break up and become a new asteroid belt, or destabilize earth's orbit and send us out careening into the sun, or spinning out in to the cold blackness (yeah, I did love Space 1999). But to accomplish that would require a level of international organization and cooperation that humans have never shown any indication we possess.

Let me clarify. The planet Earth and life (any kind of life) on planet earth, is extraordinarily resilient, and has withstood destructive forces far greater than those currently commanded by human societies. The natural destructive forces of the earth are such that no trace exists of the original earth's surface from four and a half billion years ago. The oldest rock identified on the surface of the earth is just under four billion years old, some grains of zircon have been discovered that have been dated to 4.2 to 4.3 billion years ago. Since that time the planet's surface has been made and remade, abducted and subducted, and moved about over and over again. There have been periods of time vastly warmer than our man-made global warming is likely to create in the next few hundred years, and periods of time colder than the last ice age during which humans evolved.

The first evidence of life on earth dates to three and a half to possibly 3.8 billion years ago -- meaning that planet earth existed for nearly billion years before there was life. There may have been life before that, but we have no evidence because no trace of the earth's surface older than 3.9 million years ago exists. The oldest fossils are 3.5 billion years old.

This three and a half billion year record of fossils tells us a story of change and extinction, new species, growth, change and new extinctions. During this incomprehensibly long period of time, continents rose and crashed into each other and were torn apart, by unfathomable tectonic forces. To quote from one of my favorite books (J. D. MacDougall A Short History of Planet Earth, John Wiley and Sons, 1996):
"Throughout the earth's history species and families have arisen, prevailed for a time, and then disappeared. But at times, for reasons not wholly understood, rapid and wholesale destruction of large fractions of the plant and animal kingdoms has occurred. Usually, after these crises, there was a rapid proliferation of new and sometimes quite different species. Such abrupt changes in floral and faunal assemblages are reflected in the fossil record. It is only quite recently that geologists have begun to examine these mass extinctions in terms of periodic catastrophes such as the collision of comets or asteroids with the earth, or dramatic changes in the global climate."
Let us be honest. Planet earth, and life on planet earth are not at stake. Earth is not dying, life will not cease to exist as the result of human action.

What is at stake is human life and human civilization, and the life of species of plant and animal that sustain human ecosystem ecosystems. We can't destroy the earth, and we can't destroy life on earth, but we sure as hell can destroy ourselves and most of the species we rely upon for our lives. Moreover, anthropogenic climate change, pollution and all the other environmental problems spawned by modern society, will first and foremost kill societies long before impacting the presence of the human race. I'm a Jew, so the New Testament is not one of my religious books, but I've been thinking quite a bit about Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in which he say "blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth." It occurs to me that this might end up being literally true -- if one defines "meek" as those simple societies where people live in small bands or tribal groups subsisting by foraging or horticulture (farming with hand tools).

Talking about killing Earth, is not only hyperbole, it is counter productive. What we want is to change human behavior, especially the behavior of those who are rich enough and powerful enough to determine the direction of business and industry, and national policy. At a secondary level we want to change the behavior of millions of consumers in affluent, industrial nations. Most people, including those whose behavior need to change, operate most of the time out of self-interest. Talking to them about a dying earth isn't going to change their behavior. Appealing to their altruism for other species is not going to change their behavior. Making poster children of polar bears is not going to change their behavior. But possibly change will occur if we can get the message through to the rich and powerful that the complex society on which their profits depend is at risk (notice that at least some of the oil companies have figured out that the future of profit is in renewables); and the message to the average consumer that the food and beer will disappear from their local grocery shelves, and the gas for their ATV's will be gone, and the nice cushy life they value is endangered.


E. R. Dunhill said...

I don't think those of us living in industrial societies have enough of a connection with the natural world to even understand what such hyperbole means. Farmers, hunter-gatherers, &c understand what it means for a blight or a flood to make life nearly unlivable. They "get" the relationships and the consequences. Not so for those of us who get water from a tap and eat fresh oranges in January.
What we need is a shift in culture and industry similar in magnitude to what occurred in the West during the Second World War.

Sue said...

hi, erd! (I thought I heard your "voice" in some anonymous posts here and elsewhere). Actually, I think that we are talking more about the kind of shift equivalent to the industrial revolution and the political revolutions that quickly followed. The period of 1750 to 1900 is probably more like what we should expect -- with all the accompanying negative consequences, such as population dispolacement, extremes of poverty and hunger, and political upheaval. I think that there are things we can do to make the transition less disruptive, but I don't think a change of the magnitude that is needed to adjust to a different climatic regime can happen without some conflict and dislocation.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Alas, I stick out like a sore thumb. I keep singing the WW2 chorus as an analogy to an environmental revolution, because I think that image is familiar to the average person (esp in light of Ken Burns' recent documentary); because of the time-frame involved (I don't think most greens want to spend 150 years realizing some of the key steps); and because WW2 was an effort in which existing governments and vast numbers of people worked together in a way that has not been seen before nor since.
On a completely unrelated note, what are your thoughts on the Gospel Правда from FEMA last week? I don't think there's been nearly enough ire, nor enough public beatings over a government agency engaging in self-serving state-media. This is dangerous.

Sue said...

erd -- I hope it doesn't take 150 years! I think my analogy was more interms of the kinds of dislocations. Have you ever read A. Asimov's original Foundation trilogy? The basic premise was that Hari Seldon foresaw a collapse of his galacic empire that he believed would through the galaxy into 10,000 years of chaos. But he devised a plan to reduce that to a mere 1000 years, and significantly reduce the chaos. I think that the most realistic view is that leaders with a global consciousness will be able to take enough small and moderate sized steps to reduce to the time and chaos involved in moving to a post-fossil fuel, warmer world.

Although I'm still hoping that world governments can be mobilized to significantly reduce carbon emissions and reduce the amount of climate change humans will face in the next 100 to 200 years. But, I'm not a "cockeyed optomist" (Rogers and Hammerstein), and fear that the size of effort required is beyond the will of our present leadership. This does not mean that we should throw up our hands and give up. As I suggested above, even small changes can mean the difference in how long the transition takes and how much chaos is involved.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I'm musing about some future plans. Would you have any interest in being involved in a collaborative blog, possibly to launch in mid-2008? Environment, ethics, education, economy, et cetera.


Sue said...

erd -- yes that would interest me very much.