Climate Change, Collapse of Industrial Civilization, Donald J. Trump, Ecological Overshoot, Entropy, Ernst Mayr, Evangelical Right, Fossil Fuel Dependency, Global Pandemic, Global Warming, Haber–Bosch Process, Human Exceptionalism, Jevons Paradox, Joe Biden, Joseph Tainter, Mass Extinctions, Omnicide, Prof Tim Garrett, QAnon, Second Law of Thermodynamics, Sedition, Techno-Fix, White Nationalists, White Supremacists, William Catton
I recently asked a scientist on Facebook how he copes with the knowledge that we are destroying the planet within the geologic blink of an eye. Here is his answer:
Pot helps! 🙂 But psychologically, I reread Catton’s Overshoot recently, where he talks about how once humans started burning fossil fuels, we evolved (devolved?) into detritivores, species that depend on dead organic matter for our sustenance. This led me to think about Human Exceptionalism. The classic view is that humans’ assumed superiority has caused us to not consider the welfare of other species and blinded us in our ignorance to how our lifestyles were jeopardizing life support systems worldwide (including for us); I agree with this view. But I’ve also come to challenge another view of Human Exceptionalism; namely, that we have the intelligence and capacity for compassion to override what is every species’ imperative (humans and all other species): that is, to continuously consume available resources with no concern for future sustainability, with its concomitant and inevitable population boom and bust. Thus, I try to cope by accepting, with sad resignation, that we’re not any more special than other species – we’ve just lacked apex predators to keep our population in check and have used hundreds of millions of years of stored solar energy (i.e. fossil fuels) to temporarily shield ourselves from our population crash. This final kicking us off our superiority pedestal has helped me “let go” and inspired me to aspire to be more in tune with natural processes (such as organic gardening, which also helps on a very small scale to restore the soil biodiversity we’re regularly destroying with the Haber-Bosch process). How do you cope? 🙂
I replied later that day…
To cope, you first must know the truth. Our modern global civilization is a heat engine, subject to the second law of thermodynamics just as every civilization that came before. Our massive burning of fossil fuels has not only blanketed the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and acidified the oceans, it has given humans the unfortunate ability to disrupt all the major biochemical processes of the planet, thus making the current civilizational collapse one of global proportions. There is no putting that genie back in the bottle and the environmental disorder it has unleashed. Thus we are firmly in the grips of entropy and no amount of techo-fixes, such as walls to hold back the rising sea or geoengineering schemes to blot out that fiery orb in the sky, will change this stark fact. As Jospeph Tainter argued, further complexity only brings more unforeseen problems that must be solved. Higher efficiency only leads to increased consumption (i.e. Jevons paradox). As you say, humans are no different than any other organism in that they will expand to consume all available resources until reined in by environmental limits. Our superior problem-solving capabilities have allowed us to dramatically overshoot the planet’s natural regenerative systems. And so it seems that Ernst Mayr was correct when he said human intelligence is a fatal mutation in the evolutionary process. According to Mayr, intelligence is a double-edged sword, serving as a tool for our survival or rapidly carrying out our own annihilation. How do I cope with all that? Other than adopting a stoic attitude towards our predicament, there is no coping. It is what it is. Find simple joys in nature while nature is still around. I love hummingbirds and watch them at the feeder when I am home. Live in the moment when you can. Enjoy mankind’s ability to create beautiful art. Be kind to your fellow human and nonhuman. We’re all just temporary passengers on Spaceship Earth.
Now that America’s wannabe dictator has vacated the White House, maybe we can get back to pretending we’re doing anything of significance about climate change and the ghastly future bearing down on us. I’m sure we’ll get right on that existential crisis as soon as we tamp down the current global pandemic, sort out Trump’s QAnon and white nationalist seditionists, and bring together a country where half the population believes their cult leader’s endless lies and the evangelical Right idolize Trump as a vessel anointed by God. So much for heeding warnings against idolizing false prophets. Despite all those minor details, we’ll all be on the same page, right? Well won’t we???