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???
“3D visualization” of the Australian fires by Anthony Hearsey, compiled from NASA satellite data collected across the span of a month/an injured koala bear sits alone on the ‘apocalyptic’ Kangaroo Island
The year is 2020 and climate change-related disasters are in full swing while at the same time, the most influential country in the world is under the leadership of someone who calls scientists “foolish fortune tellers.” Australia, another country being led to its slaughter by the willfully and criminally ignorant, is literally going up in flames as we speak. Its rich millennia-old evolutionary legacy is disappearing before our eyes. The pictures of charred kangaroo corpses entangled in barbed wire fences and koala bears curled up in the fetal position as they tried to flee the fires are gut-wrenching and should be a wake-up call to our leaders. The platypus, another of the country’s iconic creatures, is dying off in drought-stricken cesspools. To make matters worse, recent heavy rains are causing massive fish kills as bushfire ash washes into rivers. More than a billion creatures(excluding frogs, insects, other invertebrates, or livestock) are estimated to have perished, and the wildlife that do manage to survive the country’s apocalyptic conditions are now at risk of starvation. Scientists fear these fires are causing the extinction of entire species of insects which play a vital role in “processing waste, pollination, providing nutrition for other species, and myriad other ecological functions.” While warming at twice the global rate from humanity’s fossil fuel binge, Australia continues to be the biggest net exporter of coal in the world, thus fueling its own conflagration.
The Australian mega-fires are not a one-off, but just the latest manifestation of an increasingly disrupted global climate system. Australia’s fate was predicted by scientists many years ago. The forever legacy of greenhouse gas emissions means the dust won’s settle in any time scale appreciable to humans. Sea levels will continue to rise for millennia, droughts and storms will grow in frequency and intensity, thousand-year rains will become common occurrences, entire ecosystems will unravel, and the human experiment will undoubtedly come to an end. To quote an Australian on Reddit:
This is what disturbs me about my countrymen. This is not just a one-off terrible event, this is a permanent step down, a large nail in our collective coffin. Long before we recover from this, we will suffer it again, and again. Those poor animals. Worse than being glorified, or not televised, our collapse is being looked at without seeing. It is misunderstood and denied.
For those not from here I’d say that one can’t overstate what is happening here, it is truly awful. We will never recover.
Australia’s annual fire season is only at its midpoint, yet the massive pulse of carbon from these bushfires is now estimated at 900 million tons —double the country’s annual emissions. As horrific as the fires have made life on land, what’s happening in Australia’s oceans out of site and mind is equally disturbing, but of course this is not confined to Australia. Scientists have found that a ‘heat blob’ in the north Pacific ocean killed a million seabirds and wiped out 100 million cod.
We are destroying the life support systems to which all creatures, including man, are dependent, yet it does not appear that any climate disaster no matter how catastrophic will alter mankind’s tragic path to extinction. Wiping out an entire continent’s flora and fauna does not register on the Stock Market. No number of five-alarm fire warnings planet Earth sends will be heeded by this cabon-fueled corporate kleptocracy which carries us all toward a very dark future. Why would we expect any differently from an economic paradigm that tolerates no disruption as it plunders the planet in search of the almighty dollar? A report from two years ago called Australia’s extinction crisis a “national disgrace” and described its institutions tasked with protecting threatened plants and animals as “broken”. We see today that nothing has changed to prevent Australia’s natural treasures from disappearing into the black void of the Anthropocene extinction, never to be seen or heard from again. In fact, current assessments show extinction rates are accelerating:
Nature is in ‘unprecedented’ decline. A substantial proportion of assessed species are threatened with extinction and overall trends are deteriorating, with extinction rates increasing sharply in the past century.
This decline is a direct result of human activity, the most devastating being changes in land and sea use, including natural habitat destruction.
Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius. 75% of fossil fuel burning and anthropogenic CO2 emissions in the atmosphere has occurred since 1970; their effects are just beginning to be felt.
Increased human population and per capita consumption is a key driver of the above.
By destroying the foundations of Earth’s interconnected web of life, we are threatening our own health and existence.
I am loath to repeat these numbers because no price can be placed on intact ecosystems, but the economic costs of this year’s fire season in Australia are estimated to be approaching $100 billion, the costliest natural disaster in that country’s history. And in the U.S., the last decade has been ‘unprecedented‘:
The U.S. billion-dollar disaster damage costs over the last decade (2010-2019) were also historically large, exceeding $800 billion from 119 separate billion-dollar events. After adjusting for inflation, the U.S. experienced more than twice the number of billion-dollar disasters during the 2010s than the 2000s decade: 119 versus 59…Clearly, the historically large U.S. losses from hurricanes and wildfires over the last few years have further skewed the total distribution of extreme weather costs. This increase reflects a combination of increased exposure, vulnerability and the fact the climate change is playing an increasing role in the frequency of some types of extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters.
The finance industry is starting to see that climate change is an existential crisis, yet offer no alternative to their ideological stalemate of infinite growth on a finite planet. In fact, they believe that the personal sacrifices needed to halt greenhouse gas emissions will create a public backlash towards such efforts. In other words, business-as-usual will rule the day until the hard laws of physics, chemistry, and biology make our bubble economy impossible. We’re undergoing that process right now as anthropogenic climate disruption returns planet Earth to the chaotic climatic conditions of the Pleistocene —a time in which organized societies and agriculture will be impossible. Water shortages, degraded soils, and loss of pollinators will only compound the problem. No amount of accounting tricks will bring back the habitability of the planet.
Cheap and abundant fossil fuels have given us modern science and technology which have allowed humans to feel detached and independent from nature, but when this civilization inevitably collapses we will once again be at the mercy of the natural world. If we have destroyed the biosphere and set in motion a mass extinction event at a time when we strongly need to rely on nature, then our prospects for survival are very grim indeed! Yet another study released this week shows that Earth’s biodiversity is crashing under a perfect storm of global warming, extreme weather events, and human activity. Collapse of industrial civilization and its vast amount of specialization along with a simultaneous planet-wide ecological collapse can very easily lead to human extinction. It’s not hard to imagine a Third World War being ignited by deteriorating environmental conditions and resource depletion as nations fall under the sway of propaganda from demagogues inciting fear, hatred, and violence.
With Earth Overshoot Day arriving ever earlier each year, we have arrived at the last stage of global civilization’s doubling time. The next twenty years will be the final tick of the clock in which our mass resource extraction, consumption, and waste irreparably damage the planet’s regenerative abilities and life support systems. Decades of greenwashing, empty rhetoric, and regulatory capture by the fossil fuel industry have brought us to this precipice:
As you can see, any mitigation efforts at this late date rely heavily on the fantasy of carbon capture with nonexistent technologies that, truthfully, will never scale up to the enormous problem. To some degree or another, we are all in denial of what is unfolding in our final century as we go about our daily lives within a set of living arrangements completely incompatible to the survival of our descendants. Everyone is riding the peak of industrial civilization as we watch the world fall apart on our smart phones and LED TVs. In the meantime, the nightly news drones on about hyperpartisan politics and economic growth. That barely a vague mention is made in the news cycle of the most important story in mankind’s history tells you all you need to know about who controls mass media and why the story of our imminent demise will remain buried.
Our fossil record will be comprised mainly of plastics, radioactive waste, and billions of human bones and that of our domesticated animals. The remnants of wild animals will be extremely rare since we have supplanted them with our livestock. All civilizations, especially complex ones, eventually collapse. Ours, like many before, will be undone by overshoot of the environment’s carrying capacity, albeit this time on a planetary scale and with no second chance for a do-over.
“My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
~ David Buckel
Today’s global consumption of fossil fuels now stands at roughly five times what it was in the 1950s, and one-and-half times that of the 1980s when the science of global warming had already been confirmed and accepted by governments with the implication that there was an urgent need to act. Tomes of scientific studies have been logged in the last several decades documenting the deteriorating biospheric health, yet nothing substantive has been done to curtail it. More CO2 has been emitted since the inception of the UN Climate Change Convention in 1992 than in all previous human history. CO2 emissions are 55% higher today than in 1990. Despite 20 international conferences on fossil fuel use reduction and an international treaty that entered into force in 1994, manmade greenhouse gases have risen inexorably. If it has not dawned on you by now, our economic and political systems are ill-equipped to deal with this existential threat. Existing international agreements are toothless because they have no verification or enforcement and do not require anything remotely close to what is needed to avoid catastrophe. The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, with the top four in the past four years, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Ice loss from Antarctica has sextupled since the 1970s and Greenland’s pace of ice loss has increased fourfold since 2003. The Arctic ocean has lost 95% of its old ice and total volume of ice in September, the lowest ice month of the year, has declined by 78% between 1979 and 2012. With grim implications for the future, Earth’s air conditioner —the cryosphere— is melting away.
An article from a few months ago lays bare the reality that throughout the past two hundred years and with recent “alternative” or “renewable” energy sources, humans have only added to the total energy they consume without ever having displaced the old, polluting ones. An alternative energy outlook report by Wood Mackenzie foresees that even in a carbon-constrained future, fossil fuels would still make up 77% of global energy consumption in 2040. The world economy remains hopelessly tethered to fossil fuels. We are kidding ourselves if we think there will be any sort of orderly transition to sustainability with which modern civilization appears to be wholly incompatible. We are, as Nate Hagens says, energy blind.
Modern civilization has become so intertwined with petroleum-based products that their remnants are now found in our excrement. It seems no living thing can escape microplastics, not even the eggs of remote Arctic birds. This should come as no surprise if you look at the scale of the problem. Plastic production has grown from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to roughly 400 million metric tons today(more than 99% of plastics made today are with fossil fuels and only a tiny fraction of it recycled). There are five massive oceanic gyres filled with pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other human detritus; one of the these gyres, named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is three times the size of France and growing exponentially. The health and environmental effects are grim; organized society may not even be around to examine the long-term effects of these persistent synthetic materials:
“Health problems associated with plastics throughout the lifecycle includes numerous forms of cancers, diabetes, several organ malfunctions, impact on eyes, skin and other sensory organs, birth defects” and many other impacts, said David Azoulay, a report author and managing attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law…”And those are only the human health costs, they do not mention impacts on climate, impacts on fisheries or farmland productivity.”
Making things more efficient and convenient has its limits, but humans keep trying to beat the consequences of Earth’s dwindling natural resources while ignoring the environmental costs. Jevons paradox be damned! To make matters worse, the fossil fuel industry has employed a well-financed and highly effective global disinformation campaign to confuse and sow doubt in the public mind about the reality of climate change. And to top it all off, we have a leader who reinforces the ignorance of climate change deniers:
It’s a cruel irony that this President’s emergency declaration for building a border wall comes at a time when migration from Latin America is near a 40-year low and the majority of those now seeking asylum are families fleeing climate change-related disasters. This President and the craven politicians who line up behind him are an abomination! At a time when compassion, cooperation, and scientific reasoning are needed to deal with the multiple crises we face, politicians are instead conjuring up xenophobia, racism, and conspiracy theories. As inequality grows and the once-stable climate continues to unravel, expect the super-rich to barricade themselves behind heavily fortified mansions while treating climate refugees and the most vulnerable among us with extreme prejudice. A new study shows increasingly severe weather events are fueling the number of ‘food shocks’ around the world and jeopardizing global security:
These “food shocks” —or, sudden losses to food production— are hitting local communities hard, in addition to impacting the global economy, with long-term implications. “Critically, shock frequency has increased through time on land and sea at a global scale,” the study notes. “Geopolitical and extreme-weather events were the main shock drivers identified, but with considerable differences across sectors.”
Hawaii is losing plant species at the rate of one per year, when it should be roughly one every 10,000 years. “We have a term called ‘plant-blindness’… People simply don’t see them; they view greenery as an indistinguishable mass, rather than as thousands of genetically separate and fragile individuals…”
The bedrock of our food, clean water and energy is biodiversity, but its loss now rivals the impacts of climate change. Without biodiversity, our food sources, both plants and animals, will succumb to diseases. Microbes and hundreds of different life forms interact to make soils fertile. Without them, soils will be barren and unable to support life. Monocultures can only be held together through artificial means(fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizer and toxic pesticides) and are highly vulnerable to diseases, yet industrial monoculture farming continues to dominate the globe. Most Worrisome are the recent studies indicating that biodiversity loss raises the risk of ‘extinction cascades’. Insect numbers, the base of the terrestrial food chain, are in steep decline and starfish, a common keystone species in coastal ecosystems, are facing extinction due to some sort of wasting disease likely caused by climate change:
“Many of these outbreaks are heat sensitive. In the lab, sea stars got sick sooner and died faster in warmer water… A warming ocean could increase the impact of infectious diseases like this one…We could be watching the extinction of what was a common species just 5 years ago.”
And here is Professor Stephen Williams discussing the recent mass death of Australia’s flying fox bats in which 30,000 —a third of their remaining population— died in a single extreme heat wave:
“A lot of tropical species are much closer to the edge of the tolerances, so they very much are the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for the world in what’s going to start happening with climate change…The fact that we’re now seeing things endangered occur in places that you would’ve thought to be pretty secure, that’s the scary bit…I suspect the next wave of extinctions is going to be mostly due to extreme events — extreme climate events like heatwaves.”
These disturbing headlines indicate to me that the Sixth Mass Extinction is gathering pace and the real stock market underlying our very existence and survival is crashing before our eyes!!! Four of the last five mass extinction events were preceded by a disruption of the carbon cycle. When renowned paleoclimatologist Lee Kump was asked whether comparisons to today’s global warming and that of past mass extinctions are really appropriate, he ominously said, “Well, the rate at which we’re injecting CO2 into the atmosphere today, according to our best estimates, is ten times faster than it was during the End-Permian. And rates matter. So today we’re creating a very difficult environment for life to adapt, and we’re imposing that change maybe ten times faster than the worst events in Earth’s history.” Humans are recreating the past extinction known as The Great Dying at a much faster pace and at many more human-forced levels that leave no ecosystem on Earth intact.
By orders of magnitude, the human endeavor has grown much too large for the Earth to support; climate change, plastic pollution, and biodiversity loss are just a few of the symptoms of this global ecological overshoot. The people who have studied this problem for years and from every angle have come to the same conclusion —technology simply won’t save us, but that won’t stop humans from experimenting. By far the most effective way to reduce future emissions and resource consumption is to reduce human birth rates, yet the global population is still increasing at about 90 million people per year despite the geographic shift in fertility rates.
Humans recognized decades ago the threats they are now facing, yet nothing was done due to political inaction and industry malfeasance which continues to this very day. The scientists who wrote The Limits to Growth decades ago were expecting our political institutions to take action back in the 1970s, but they were met with ridicule and now we stand at the doorstep of modern civilization’s collapse. Political inaction and regulatory capture by the fossil fuel industry appear to be intractable barriers that have condemned the human race to a hellish future. Anyone waiting for some sort of seminal climate change event that is going to galvanize the world’s leaders into action will be tragically disappointed. If seeing the world’s coral reefs dying, its glaciers disappearing, permafrost melting, and the steady uptick in extreme weather and wildfire events does not spur them to action, it is much too late to hope that any single event will ever do so. The time to act would have been before we were seeing all these environmental degradations and tipping points, not afterward. There is no way to put the CO2 genie back in the bottle. The Earth cannot even begin to reach a new climate state until humans stop emitting the roughly 40 to 50 gigatonnes of CO2 per annum and stop altering and destroying global ecosystems. This fact is our daily nightmare.
A myth that many uninformed people hold is that biospheric health will quickly bounce back after we humans get our act together. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the damage we are already seeing is irreversible on human time scales. Positive feedbacks were already occurring at less than 1°C of warming. Many carbon sinks are on the verge of becoming or have already become carbon sources. As we race toward a nightmarish future with no realistic way to stop, we leave behind a “forever legacy” that will haunt mankind for the rest of eternity.