Welcome to the Planet Eaarth
Bill McKibben's book, Eaarth puts it on the line. For those who don't know this is not a misspelling of EARTH, but a spelling the McKibben has used to name a different planet. It is a planet much like the late great one we called Earth, but it is not the same. Unfortunately for we humans, it is really the Earth transformed into a potentially unfavorable environment for mankind and many species alike. And we humans are the ones who did the transforming.
April 22 is designated Earth Day around the world. It is a day to observe the state of the planet and try to grasp the effects that human industry and population expansion has had on the Ecos (home). It is a day for reflection about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what should we do differently if we don't like what we see happening. My own observations lead me to suggest a renaming of the day; we may need to call it Eaarth Day. Our planet is already very different in significant ways from the Earth I knew as a child. And I think it is a different planet because people have remained stubbornly the same — selfish and self-serving at every turn.
I thought I would do some reflecting today. This is something of a summary of everything I have written in these blog pages over the last five years. This is both a lament and a work of hope. I lament that humans have come down this particular evolutionary road, the road that will lead to an evolutionary bottleneck of our own devising. I lament the mentality that is so stubbornly blind to the evidence that is there for all to see. I lament that those who are capable of seeing and understanding are so few in number and marginalized. I lament that if not myself, my children will face unimaginable challenges as the climate continues to shift into chaos and the energy needed to do the work of mitigation and adaptation declines so that humans will face the new planet's fury with just their wits and not much more than their muscles.
State of the Eaarth
I won't belabor the facts. McKibben has done an excellent job of laying out the facts regarding the state of the planet and how it got to this point. It should be enough to note the major trends which are clearly underway and for which the evidence gathers that things will get decidedly worse. The Eaarth is warming due to the emissions over the last two hundred years of carbon-based gasses into the atmosphere. These have what is called a greenhouse effect by capturing reflected light in the low to infra-red ranges and becoming more excited. In other words they trap low grade heat, which accumulates to the point of raising the temperature. Temperature variations across the face of the planet are the drivers of weather. And the long-term patterns of weather define what we call climate. Even though we talk about the average temperature increases as if the temperature everywhere was rising uniformly, this isn't the case. Temperatures are rising disproportionately, especially across latitudes. This sets up greater differentials which is what drives weather events. As the temperature of the atmosphere and surface waters of the oceans increase differentially, we get more extreme weather events, storms, hurricanes, tornados, floods, etc. more frequently and with higher extremities. The world is already experiencing massive shifts in weather patterns that are mostly not predictable based on our old climate models and past experience in weather prediction.
The amount of carbon-based gasses that have been produced by human industry have increased exponentially since the early days of the first steam engines burning coal. The emissions continue to grow year by year. And the amount that has already been put into our ecosystem is such that continued increases in average temperature are assured no matter what we do.
Ironically, it is the burning of hydrocarbon fuels which contributed to the emissions. It is ironic because those fuels are now starting to dwindle while humanity continues to expand and develop ever more consumptive economies. And these fuels are the source of over 80% of humanity's energy needs and, one could argue, nearly one hundred percent of our high-power (energy dense) fuel needs. Solar energy doesn't come close without truly humongous light apertures that are extremely costly, in both financial and energy investment terms, to build. Furthermore, it is those fuels that would be needed to move cities inland or weather harden human shelters or reorganize food production and transportation. In one fell act of profligate spending on trivia, like the Apple iPod and NASCAR racing, or poorly devised living arrangements like suburbia, we humans have squandered our inheritance and when we will need it most, it won't be available. Its resultant by-product is now that which is causing us great harm.
The most dangerous of all consequences of our behaviors will be the disruption of food production and the availability of potable water. With changes in the weather patterns and the unpredictability associated with the chaos we are seeing, cultivatable areas are going to shift and rainfall patterns will be out of sync with the needs of the kinds of crops we generally produce in our industrialized farming systems. Couple that with increasing costs and then scarcities of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides and the picture looks terribly grim. Even if some bright bulbs are able to genetically engineer crops for, say, saltier, more alkaline soils, this will simply not be enough. It takes tremendous amounts of fossil energy to run industrial farms, and those are needed to produce the volume necessary to feed the population we have produced. This is a no-win scenario if ever there was one.
The state of the planet is not good. Not just for humans but for a wide array of life forms that have adapted to the climate and weather patterns of the last ten thousand years. Life can adapt if the changes that are wrought happen relatively slowly. Some life forms can adapt to a wide range of climates and so might survive the rapid shifts we are experiencing now and will more so in the future. But they tend to be lower order forms, like bacteria and cockroaches. Humans are not as adaptable, biologically, as we would like to believe. Our adaptation strategy which allows us to inhabit every continent and latitude except for Antarctica (until recently) is the use of exosomatic energy flows to supplement our bodily energy budgets. Take away the energy flows and we are naked and vulnerable.
I will stick to my so-far conclusion that humanity has written its own epitaph without realizing it. “Here lies a species that didn't pay attention.” As a species we are essentially entering a moribund state even while most of our kind fail to understand this. I really don't see any evidence that it will turn out differently. We will not be able to adapt to planet Eaarth in our present form.
State of the Species Homo sapiens
We humans did this to ourselves. There is no one else to blame. Nor can we fault nature for playing a cruel hoax on us. We chose to burn fossil fuels as fast as we possibly could to gain the material wealth we just had to have.
But, of course, we are just following our biological mandate to thrive and reproduce our kind, just the same as any other species. We started from basic ignorance about how the world works (science) and so you can't really say we are to “blame” for being what we are. At least this was the case in the beginning. What our industrial economy has allowed us to do is amass a considerable amount of knowledge from science about how things do work. And today, we actually know a great deal about what we should do to lessen the potential impact of the coming situation. This is where our true weakness shows up. As a species, the vast majority of our kind have decided to ignore the science and its implications because that would mean giving up a lot of those creature material comforts and that is something our intellects (on average) are incapable of doing it seems. Instead we have collectively decided to deny that there is any problem in spite of the amassing evidence. It seems that humanity has decided that if we ignore the evidence perhaps there really isn't a problem. Besides, we've always managed to overcome nature's limits in the past.
The most pervasive form of denial that I see today is what I will call the Thomas Friedman Syndrome. It involves an unshakable belief in innovation and technology to get us out of the climate/energy bind. Friedman writes incessantly about how, if only we Americans would invest in innovation (ala the Bell Labs of the 1960s), we would find wonderful new ways to produce energy that would allow us to keep right on growing the economy and providing creature comfort wealth to an expanding population. Friedman, like so many others, have engrained in their thinking the model of increasing functionality in diminishing scales of the digital devices that so pervade our lives today. Computer and communications technologies have benefited from the development of solid state devices that allow more information per unit of energy (matter too) to be processed per unit of time. Moore's Law (named after Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel Corp.) is really not a law of nature but a heuristic that describes how more processing power comes from shrinking the transistor elements and wires that can be etched into a slab of silicon. It works for electronics because it deals with information. It cannot be applied, even in principle, to matter and energy which are subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Friedman's call for Energy Technology (ET) sounds like a rationale that says, if we could do this for computers, surely we can do it for energy production. He is, of course, tragically wrong.
I'm not sure how to characterize the other major mental breakdown that seems to have overtaken our species. The symptoms are seen in the irreparably broken American political and governance systems, but are also seen in those systems in just about every other nation-state in the world today. Our politics is a charade. It is a total farce from the nomination of candidates right through the elections and into the governance process. What we Americans are witnessing today that passes as a legitimate political process is pathetic. I just don't know what else to say.
The Republican candidates were a mix of every imaginable clown saying every imaginable lie in order to win votes. Even the man left standing now, Mitt Romney, is a caricature for all that is corrupt and vain about the Republican party and the conservative agenda. And this appears to be the best the Republicans can do. Is it better or worse than George W. Bush? It almost doesn't matter. Bush turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. We are suffering long after his reign and so is the Middle East. So is the rest of the world. Republican economics is based on greed and selfishness to the extreme. They favor the very rich and provide exceedingly weak rationalisms based on the known untrue claim that the rich are the “job creators”. They have one formula for curing the economic ills and that is lower taxes (especially for the wealthy). Their ideas are morally corrupt compared with the ideals, espoused by so many of them, in the Christian religion. Up is down. Right is left. War is peace. And on and on.
And then there are the Democrats. The incumbent president is, I'm sorry to say, no better than his Republican rival; he's just bad in different ways. The Democrats and their progressive base start with a very different philosophy with respect to care for their fellow human beings. They are less individualistic thinking and are willing to see that not everyone really does have the opportunity to become wealthy if they would just put their minds to it. As such they have basically good hearts as far as it seems to me. But they apparently lack any intelligence since they sincerely think that if we just take care of everyone who can't take care of themselves everything will work out. At least that is the way they look on paper. If you were to take a closer look at what they have actually done when they held the power you would see a different face.
Democrats are every bit as smitten with the economic growth/prosperity theory as are Republicans. They only differ in terms of what they think the best path forward should be. The Democrats are OK with raising taxes but want more government spending to boost the economy and increase the number of jobs (in theory). They are sticking with the vision of a vast middle class of happy consumers whose taxes (under a progressive tax rate scheme) would help pay for government and basic services for those less fortunate. Nice sentiment, perhaps, but totally unrealistic. The American success story was really based on cheap fossil energy being extracted and applied through new machines to produce more, and ever more novel, products and services. But the Democrats pretty much buy into the same fantasy that the Republicans do, that a growing global economy is the key to happiness for everyone. They are every bit as ignorant of the real nature of physical reality as are the Republicans.
In truth, all humans have a basic, native intelligence that could let them understand the realities of natural law and the consequences of our past and continuing actions. But something else is preventing them from exercising those gray cells properly. In order to admit of past mistakes and learn why we are in our current predicament, as prelude to thinking up mitigation strategies, we need to have wisdom. We need to be much more sapient beings in order to override our baser instincts and to guide our intellects in learning and deciding. And that is exactly why we are in the predicament in the first place. As a species we lack the native capacity to obtain and use wisdom to the extent needed to prevent our doing stupid things, or at least compensate appropriately if we do.
Human beings lack the level of sapience needed to cope with the predicament. They lacked it historically which is why we have the situations we have today, and they lack it now to provide a guide in deciding how to best deal with the predicaments we face. Ergo, nature will impose its laws on us at last, and our species, like so many before us, will go extinct.
Which leads me to the hope. I offer none for Homo sapiens. We have sealed our own fates and, indeed, our own coffins. Rather I have hope for evolution to continue to work its magic! Just because our species will expire does not mean our genus will too. Evolution has a history of fits and starts on Earth. Our planet has never been the absolute same planet over the course of geological time. It has always been in flux as far as climate and conditions have been concerned. So in that sense what is coming is actually nothing new in form. What is different is the speed with which the changes will overcome us. It is that rate of change that will create the problems for us and other species. But change is exactly what drives speciation. It has been implicated in the evolution of humans and this coming change will most likely result in yet another round of speciation for the genus Homo. There will be a few who have the right traits to allow them to adapt to whatever changes ensue. They will be, in a sense, pre selected for survival and procreation. They will be the parents of a new incipient species of humanity better suited for some future environment.
What those traits will be is not something we can predict. Evolution is a highly stochastic, chaotic process and the law-like parts of it we understand do not yield reliable predictions regarding what will be fit and what won't. Even so, my money is on one trait that seems to me advantageous under a wide variety of conditions, and that is wisdom. Sapience — long-range, strategic, systemic thinking coupled with strong group moral sentiments — is the basis for acquiring and using wisdom. The higher sapient beings in our population are probably not in denial and are, indeed, currently laying plans for how to survive an evolutionary bottleneck. If mostly highly sapient beings survive and produce offspring that carry that trait, then there may yet be a new kind of human with a capacity to think more wisely than we have. Perhaps there will one day be happy, adapted inhabitants of Eaarth.