Humanity’s killing spree about to come full circle

With apologies for an uncharacteristic outbreak of navel-gazing, below, my article as it appears in the current issue of ‘Village’ magazine…

My interest in environmentalism is barely 10 years old. For the bulk of my adult life, far meatier concerns occupied me. Breaking into journalism and establishing a publishing business were of infinitely greater concern to me than the state of the rainforests, ozone layer, polar bears or saving the proverbial gay whales. I remember thinking people like Sting, who droned on about these topics, were just out-of-touch elitists who knew nothing about the real world.

In my book, the real world was the world of work, of bills, by-lines and balance sheets. There was room in this world for family and close friends, but little besides. As the years went by and the business prospered, I felt in control, confident. Though unmapped, the future held no great fears.

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts”, wrote philosopher, Francis Bacon, “but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”. Sure enough, these certainties came crashing down around a decade ago, around the time of the birth of my first child, when ‘the future’ turned from a vague abstraction into the place my children would one day have to make their way.

Everyone’s epiphany is different. Mine sprung from a chance reading of Something New Under The Sun, a survey of the parlous state of the biosphere in the 20th century by science historian, Prof JR McNeill. Convinced he must be mistaken, I began reading up obsessively on environmental, energy, resource depletion and biodiversity topics, steering clear of the conspiracy theorists and sticking to the peer-reviewed stuff where possible. McNeill, it turns out, was something of an optimist.

Some two dozen books later and, like the character Neo in The Matrix, I finally awoke in a sweat-drenched panic from the vivid dream I had all my life mistaken for reality.

Neo’s nemesis, the relentless Agent Smith explained it thus: “When I tried to classify your species I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure”.

Coming to terms, first intellectually but much later, emotionally, with the wrenching truth of being of a species that can and will destroy both itself and much of the rest of the world has been life-changing. Nor are the timescales encouraging. Even though now in my 40s, unfortunately I’m probably young enough to live to see at first hand the death spiral of industrial civilisation triggering the greatest, most irremediable die-off in all of human history. For many, the relentless rolling global financial crisis that flared up in 2008 resembles a series of arrhythmias presaging a final, fatal event.

What goes around, comes around. Humanity has been on a long killing spree since we first exterminated our cousin primates, the Neanderthals. Our ancient ancestors, with only the tiniest fraction of today’s killing power at their disposal, wiped out much of the megafauna of Australia, Europe and the Americas. As our power has grown, so the carnage has intensified and spread to every corner of the planet, and against every species, including our own.

Barring other calamities, humanity’s hegemony will have committed probably 50% of all species alive today to extinction this century – that’s around 10 million species as genetically unique, even as important, as the genus homo sapiens, driven off the Earth to feed the insatiable appetites and acquisitiveness of just one species.

Consider the leatherback turtle, which has plied the Earth’s oceans since the Cretaceous period 110 million years ago. Today, it is on the brink of extinction, as are most species of sharks. The dominion of these apex predators stretches back over 200 million years before the dinosaurs. The species that is hunting, harrying and poisoning them to oblivion is itself less than a quarter of a million years old.

The only sentient species the world has ever known has waged and is winning its war against the very foundations of life on our small blue planet. To have evolved a god-like capacity for reason, to be the one remarkable branch of life that gave the world Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Einstein – that has even begun to journey into our Solar System – yet to be doomed to die of collective stupidity, is truly the cruellest paradox.

Today, there’s a small but growing band of ‘early accepters’ whose efforts are being channelled into bracing for the inevitable impacts in an as yet unknowable future that confronts us. I’ll return to this in depth.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
and is on Twitter @think_or_swim 

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    That’s a very dramatic announcement, John; I’m wondering what
    it means. What are ‘early accepters’? Are they people who have given up
    believing that we (as in ‘the human race’) can prevent six degrees and more of
    warming and that most living things will be wiped out, along with the ability
    of the world’s population to feed itself? I know we’re on course for that
    already, and that unless the world as a whole leaves four-fifths of the
    remaining oil and gas completely untapped, from today, we will remain on that
    trajectory, unstoppably. But do you really believe the world will do nothing,
    or not enough, to save the day? Don’t you hold out even the faintest hope, or
    don’t you think it is still worth fighting to save the day? Have you really
    thrown in the towel or is this just a ploy to rouse people out of their
    suicidal sleepwalk towards armageddon?

     

    The words ‘early accepters’ sound very final; but what do
    they really mean in your case? Are you a ‘doomsday prepper’ like those
    gun-slinging Americans with basements full of dried food and ammo? Do you
    really think everything is going to end up like ‘The Road’ within your
    lifetime? Could you be thinking that, when all systems collapse and everyone
    goes to war for the remaining resources, there will be destruction and famine
    on such an epic scale that most of the world’s population will be annihilated,
    and that what emerges on the other side will be a very small cadre of
    pre-prepared accepters who will do the necessary to restore the Earth’s
    atmosphere? Will you be one of those people stumbling out of the fog in muddied
    t-shirt, clutching a smoking gun and staring in dumb horror at the devastated
    landscape before sitting down with your family and other early accepters to
    make the world better again? Though with runaway climate change it won’t be
    possible – or will it – to restore the atmosphere after we pass the tipping
    points, which some say we have already passed, just we haven’t seen their full
    effects yet?

     

    Yes, a few years ago the
    mantra was that we had ten years to save the day; then we had five years. Now I
    notice no one ever says how many years we have left, so we must be past the
    point of saving ourselves or at least future generations. But we are not past
    the point of making things less worse than they can be. We can still make a
    difference (damn, I’m beginning to sound like Obama, and I mean that in a bad
    way). As I said a bit optimistically some months or years ago, here on this
    site, if the world focused not just on stopping all further emissions of
    greenhouse gases but in actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as
    well, we could still prevent the worse, couldn’t we? If every country put in
    place its share of carbon-removing devices, we could lower the concentration of
    carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rebalance the climate. The devices have
    been designed already. All countries would have to agree to it, but they know
    they have to, there is no other option (except the future you envisage). It
    will cost unbelievably large amounts of money, but the world’s economies have
    it, for the moment. (It will not solve anything immediately, though, because
    the heat the oceans have accumulated over the years will take ages, perhaps
    hundreds of years, to dissipate.) If the carbon removal is not done in a collaborative
    and collective way, then wealthy nations will step in and try to geo-engineer
    their own solutions, which could be catastrophic too. Maybe, as you suggest,
    there is no chance at all and we are in fact already doomed. Are we, John?

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Coilin

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    Thanks, John. I’ll be looking forward to the second part of your feature, which Village magazine notes will be in their next issue, which is when…next January? Jeez, so much for the Internet Age. Pity you couldn’t have put the whole lot in their current issue. No chance of a sneak preview here, I suppose?

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    Stephen Mulkey, President of Unity College in Unity, Maine, wrote on the Climate Progress website today:

    “We are running out of time. While our public policy makers equivocate and avoid the topic of climate change, the window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is rapidly closing.

    “While there is much uncertainty about how climate change will play out with respect to specific regions and weather patterns, one thing is very clear: our current emissions trajectory will carry us beyond 5°C average global warming by 2100. This will be a planet that is not consistent with our civilization, and science shows us that the impact will be largely irreversible for a millennium. I don’t know how the stakes could get any higher.”

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    “A hundred years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change. Everything else—the financial crisis, the life or death of the euro, authoritarianism or democracy in China and Russia, the Great Stagnation or the innovation renaissance, democratisation and/or political Islam in the Arab world, Newt or Mitt or another four years of Barack—all this will fade into insignificance beside the question of whether we managed to do anything about human industrial civilisation changing the climate of Planet Earth”

    The above is not from the usual ‘green’ sources, ie environmental NGOs, or even a climate scientist. It is in fact the opening paragraph from a posting on the Economist magazine from December 2011, just ahead of the (failed) Durban climate meeting.

    The author lists all the usual ‘must do’ items, but doesn’t sound too convinced any of them will actually come to pass. The conclusion is blunt, but honest: 

    “Maybe a hundred years down the line, nobody will look back at climate change as the most important issue of the early 21st century, because the damage will have been done, and the idea that it might have been prevented will seem absurd. Maybe the idea that Mali and Burkina Faso were once inhabited countries rather than empty deserts will seem queer, and the immiseration of huge numbers of stateless refugees thronging against the borders of the rich northern countries will be taken for granted. The absence of the polar ice cap and the submersion of Venice will have been normalised; nobody will think of these as live issues, no one will spend their time reproaching their forefathers, there’ll be no moral dimension at all. We will have wrecked the planet, but our great-grandchildren won’t care much, because they’ll have been born into a planet already wrecked.”

    You can read the whole piece here:
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/12/climate-change

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    Can’t agree with the sentiments expressed there, John, in terms of the early 21st century not being looked back on as etc etc. I think the history books (assuming there will be a civilisation to write them) will look back on this time, especially the Copenhagen summit, as the turning point in the fall of modern civilisation or the creation of a completely new one. America is wobbling on the brink, the hysteria of Tea Partiers and Fox News the first signs of collapse. I hope they can get on top of things, they still have the wherewithal.

  • Eric Conroy

     Well done on your article. Like Colin, I can’t wait for the next instalment of your article. Will we have to buy the Village to see it (which I don’t mind doing) or will you upload it on Think or Swim?

    Like you, I am a pessimist that we will not solve the huge problem of climate change, and have felt like this for a while. I get no real reaction from friends and family when I bring it up and what needs to happen to arrest it. When I see no debate at all on climate change in 5 presidential debates (incl. 2 vice-president ones) in the US, I am horrified that nobody is taking this issue seriously at all. Are we completely off the wall (incl. 2000 scientists in the UN climate change arena) in our major concern about CC? I really despair of humanity’s stupidity in sticking to a completely unsustainable way of life.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Eric, of course you’ll have to buy ‘Village’! Print-based journalism (and Michael Smith’s worthy endeavours with this mag) deserve our support. I’m afraid your pessimism is well-founded. The only people blasé about climate change/resource depletion, biodiversity loss etc. are either the terminally disengaged or the ideologically blinded. For the rest of us (including that stubborn 97% of publishing scientists) the facts are what they are, and to paraphrase the Bard, from now on, the readiness is all…

  • Donalcusack9

    clever and resourceful enough to become the dominant species on earth, yet stupid enough to precipitate our own extinction; a paradox indeed…

  • M Costello

    great column on web and in the paper John.

    On a more positive note I have some research indicating extinction rates are not (yet at least) as bad as predicted because people are doing something about protecting species and habitats, species are hanging on in secondary habitats, and some estimates of extinction rates were far too high.
    I think it is highly unlikely that there are more than 10 million species on Earth; more like 5 million as Bob May and others proposed. About 1.5 million have been named. Although only 1/3 to 2/3 may have been named, the rate of discovery is at an all time high, in part due to new researchers in South America and Asia as their economies develop. Also, half of all recent animal species described new to science in Europe were by ‘amateurs’ (people without institutional addresses), so there is an increasing role for the public to play in discovering biodiversity.

  • larusargentatus

    John, it seems you are suggesting once again (by your comment “The readiness is all”) that some sort of personal preparedness and adaptation to climate change is the only way to go. While that might see you and your children through the next 50 years, it won’t do anything for the generations that follow and who, by 2100, will be trying to survive in a by-then uninhabitable planet. So if you have more to say, could we hear about it, please? Meanwhile, Eric, and anyone else wondering if there are any activists out there who haven’t given up, well, Bill McKibben is doing a tour of American universities and cities called the “Do the Math” tour, and this will be going worldwide, though I’m not sure if Bill himself will be doing that or delegating the task to local groups. In any event, he has given up on the White House, doesn’t expect anything from politicians blue or red, and so he is now going after the fossil fuel industry using people power. It sounds like the biggest grassroots movement ever, so if it doesn’t get results, nothing will. Look at 350.org, and also Grist.org. And for regular updates on what’s going on in climate change, both in terms of the science and the politics, Joe Romm’s Climate Progress website reports on everything, almost as it happens. Columnist David Roberts who you will find on Grist is also very good and is still holding out hope of something happening on Capitol Hill, such as a good cap-and-trade agreement. He doesn’t think a carbon tax will happen, or will work effectively, because for it to be any good on mitigating climate change, it will have to be ramped up every year until it’s really hurting, and he knows the politicians will run scared of that. Also, he doesn’t believe a carbon tax would be any use if it was revenue neutral because, as he sees it, all of the money raised by the tax would have to go into supporting the rollout of renewables, and he doesn’t think they’ll do that either. However, there are a lot of people who disagree with him and who think a carbon tax, together with cap-and-trade, plus anything else that can be thrown at the problem, would all be good and should all be introduced at the same. And yes, this is the voice of Americans, odd though it may seem. Almost every useful movement starts in America and eventually gets here. – Coilin MacLochlainn

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Thanks for the feedback. Like you, I’ve been following the science on extinction rates, and it’s good to hear you feel it may not be in a ‘worst case scenario’ right now. However, I’ve seen nothing in the data to make me revise my general impression that humanity (and much of the rest of nature) is in an extraordinarily dangerous situation, a crisis without precedent and a crisis without end. Take your pick: ocean acidification, species loss, Arctic cap melt, Greenland and permafrost destabilisation, ongoing ancient forest annihilation, peatland destruction, atmospheric pollution, marine dead zones, the Pacific plastic gyre, mass marine extinction through overfishing, pollution and climate change, etc. etc. There are many bullets heading our way. We may well dodge one or two, but the overall prognosis, on current trajectory, is bleak.

  • Bridget Whitehead

    about time abortion on demand, at least before 12 weeks, was allowed. We are running out of planet, it is irresponsible to keep breeding so fast, also large families should be seen as the selfishness they are now that reliable contraceptives are available.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Human numbers are undoubtedly one huge additional pressure on the biosphere. I view abortion as first and foremost a woman’s choice; if men could become pregnant, I’m pretty sure our institutional attitude to abortion would be quite different. Of course, effective, cheap and widely available contraception is by far the more preferable option. 
    Odd, therefore that the very folk who get so exercised about abortion spend so much time denying women access to effective birth control options. Says a lot about their actual motives, I suspect.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Coilin
    Allow me to take a selfish moment here. I’ve been writing, arguing, talking (ranting, some say) solidly now for the last five years. In that time, things have gone from bad to terrifying. Nobody is getting on board, politicians are disengaged, media are totally at sea, while the general public is utterly unaware of just what shit is rolling down the mountain. I admire and follow McKibben, Dave Roberts, 350.org, Joe Romm, etc., as you do. 

    However, I too can ‘do the math’ and the fact is that we’re collectively heading over a cliff. It’s going to be ugly, it’s going to be unbearable, and even thinking about it fills me with a sort of constant, low-level terror. What can I do about it in the wider sense? Having tried, the answer is of course: absolutely nothing. What can I do for future generations who find themselves shuffling through the remains of industrial civilisation? Again, I can offer them nothing but my heartfelt, albeit useless apologies on behalf of this generation. 

    What else does that leave? Looking after one’s own neck, and the necks of immediate, extended family and close friends, I imagine, just like people have always done. Problem here is that realism and defeatism sound very similar; I believe I remain firmly in the former camp, but I try to keep my decision making as evidence-based as I can, and the evidence here is quite overwhelming. 

    And this only relates the the risks we know about. As things deteriorate, my suspicion is that black swan events are going to become almost routine, things that right now aren’t even on the radar. When unknowably complex systems begin to unravel, there are going to be entirely unpredictable consequences, quite apart from the stuff the science is already warning us about. We continue to fight the good fight, while all the while eyeing up the lifeboats behind us…