The human race is almost run

Below, one of my articles from the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine….

‘Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule’ – Friedrich Nietzsche

I like people; indeed, some of my best friends are humans. As individuals, as families, even as communities, we have much to offer. The creative output of talented individuals and groups in the arts, sciences, in technology rank among the wonders of the world. As a species, quite apart from our intellectual prowess, our sheer inventiveness is probably unique in the half a billion years that that complex life has existed on this planet.

All this serves to deepen the irony, on the other hand, that the greatest blight ever to blacken the face of this Earth is, yes, this same humanity – organised, murderous, atavistic, superstitious and, more recently, driven literally insane by the organised greed we call neoliberal capitalism. To blame any one system is to miss the point entirely.

The brilliant US physicist, Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which successfully developed – and detonated – the world’s first nuclear weapons. Reflecting on what he had done in later years, Oppenheimer said: “We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few cried, most were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

Eleven years ago, the book ‘Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man’ was published by Prof Michael Boulter of London’s Natural History Museum. An expert in botany, geology and paleobiology, he concluded that mankind may be much closer to extinction than previously thought. Nor is this specifically about climate change or peak oil. This is the altogether more mundane reality of what happens to any species when it overwhelms the carrying capacity of the ecological systems upon which it depends.

But what really stuck in my mind was a BBC interview he gave some years later. Speaking more in regret than anger, he said: “I think human beings are a failed species – we’re on the way out. Our lives are so artificial they can’t possibly be sustained within the limits of our planet. The planet would of course be delighted for humans to become extinct, and the sooner it happens, the better.”

It was, for me, an electric moment. His comments were clearly not some kind of PR stunt. This quiet-spoken academic simply and calmly spelled out, for anyone with ears to listen, that the human race is almost run. The evidence is piling up around us, in our atmosphere, in our poisoned oceans, in the rapidly diminishing biological diversity as some of the world’s most valuable ecosystems, from rainforests to coral reef systems, collapse under the weight of human encroachment.

Rainforest clearance is continuing at the rate of around 6,000 acres an hour, that’s close to 50 million acres a year. Apart from their many other critical functions, rainforests process 28% of the oxygen in circulation on Earth. Kill them, as we assuredly will, and every aerobic organism is going to be literally gasping for breath.

And, as Ireland convulses in ritual angst over the humanity of cystoblasts and foetuses, globally, some 80 million more humans, one more precious and unique than the next, are born each year than die. It took all of human history until the 1804 for our population to reach the one billion mark. We now casually add that mind-boggling number every 12 or 13 years.

The great broadcaster David Attenborough put it in the plainest of language recently: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Environmentalists believe that we are in a battle to avert calamity. Yes and no. I believe the evidence that humanity will become either entirely or virtually extinct in the coming decades is almost overwhelming. What is less certain, of course, is how exactly this will pan out, and over what time scale. It’s hard to imagine it will be anything other than a wrenching, horrible affair, on a par with any of the very blackest moments in our species’ brief, blood-soaked history.

Still, could our collective fate be much worse than that of the tens of millions of indigenous peoples of the Americas whose populations, within decades of the first arrival of rapacious Europeans, crashed by 95% on average in a pulse of relentless savagery and theft on an epic scale. The golden palaces of imperial Europe, from London and Paris to Madrid and Rome were built on the systematic rape and plunder of half the world. This is what we humans do.

Who now remembers the Guanches, the indigenous population of the once-verdant Canary Islands? The entire population of 80,000 were exterminated in less than a century by the invading Spaniards, who left the islands the barren wasteland that greets today’s sun-seekers. This same grisly story, from Tasmania to the Belgian Congo, is repeated to a lesser or greater extent. The problem with living on a globe is that, sooner or later, you come full circle.

The only remaining uncertainty is just how long it will take the severely damaged and weakened biosphere to recover anything approaching the astonishing diversity that existed before the Age of Man. One UN estimate says the oceans could take up to a million years to recover from the damage already inflicted.

While our fate as a species is sealed, there remains an outside chance that human impacts may trigger runaway global warming, as happened eons ago on Venus; this led to a vicious cycle as soaring atmospheric CO2 levels caused the planet’s oceans to literally boil away, leaving a lifeless steaming cauldron behind.

Still, since this is human nature, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for merely being ourselves. Philosopher Immanuel Kant put it thus: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made.”

 

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1328238106 Sean Cody

    No one wants to know. I’ll get a hundred likes for my LoL facebooks or infantile tweets but nothing when I share these articles. The only discernible impact is to diminish the enthusiasm of those who actually do care. I agree we are doomed, but if so why subscribe?

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

    Not sure I follow your point, Sean. Certainly, getting people to engage on this is damnably difficult, impossible perhaps, but what choice have we but to keep on trying? It’s the only moral option available, in my view. 

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    Excellent polemic, John, and vitally
    important to get the message out, it takes something to stick your head above
    the parapet. If I wasn’t scared before, I am terrified now. Who’d have thought
    the Earth could end up like Venus, with the seas boiled off into the atmosphere?

     

    The maddening thing is that people find it
    so hard to believe. And the reason why? They expect the press would be all over
    a story as important as this. Which of course it isn’t, it avoids it like the
    plague. And given that the Irish papers and RTÉ give it such a wide berth, the
    average joe on the street could be forgiven for thinking it’s all just crazy
    talk.

     

    I was talking to a brother of mine on the
    day that Village magazine appeared on the shelves and I thought I’d share with
    him the doom-laden contents, notably your two articles. He could not believe
    them, and he thought I was nuts to believe Village magazine, which of course he
    has never read. This is what we’re up against, people’s complete inability to
    accept what is staring them in the face, and why you are probably right that
    the human race will go down in flames sooner than actually deal with the
    problem.

     

    I think that part of the denial stems from
    people’s inability to imagine life without all their creature comforts. Which
    is odd, because when I was young everyone went to work on a bus or a bicycle,
    hardly any households had a car, no one was obese and everyone was perfectly
    happy. Well, as happy as they are today anyway. So why can’t we go back to that
    low level of consumption?

     

    Even if you go back to Ireland in the
    so-called age of saints and scholars, between 400 AD and 800 AD, Ireland seemed
    to have a peaceful, contented society, and yet the vast majority of people were
    peasants.

     

    And if you go back to Greece in 700 BC,
    they had an advanced society, they held Olympic Games in a stadium with a
    capacity of 45,000, they had geniuses like Archimedes who actually worked out
    how far away the moon was… and they were all peasants too.

     

    What I’m trying to say is that if we cut
    fossil fuels out of the energy mix entirely and switch to renewable sources of
    energy such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal, we might not get the same
    bang for our buck from these sources; air travel will end, car transport will
    become prohibitively expensive, there will definitely be sacrifices to be made;
    but happiness will not disappear, it will remain common currency everywhere,
    just like the old days. People really hate this kind of talk, I know; they say
    the ‘greens’ would have us all back in the Stone Age, but I think it’s a safe
    bet we will never regress like that, we have the technology and the
    wherewithall to continue to improve everything. I’m just saying that the
    conspicuous consumption of the last 30 years will become impossible in the
    future (quite soon, actually) and will be looked back on in time as a grotesque
    stain on the human record. Assuming that the human race persists, of course,
    which isn’t looking very likely at this point.

     

    The ‘do nothing’ option is infinitely worse
    than switching to a zero-carbon economy within the next twenty years. ‘Do
    nothing’ will mean the end of everything, with death, famine and war on an epic
    and unimaginable scale. As your article points out, the human species is
    merciless in its treatment of its own kind. That’s what’s so frightening about
    the changes that have to happen. Can they happen peacefully? It could go either
    way. My brother said everyone will be in the same boat, so we’ll figure things
    out collectively. That was the only sensible thing he said, but let’s hope it’s
    true.

     

    I was somewhat heartened by the Prime Time debate on
    wind energy (Tuesday, Feb 12th), chaired by Pat Kenny, who (through
    gritted teeth) allowed a lively discussion on proposed wind farms in the
    midlands, with Minister Pat Rabbitte and wind entrepreneur Eddie O’Connor
    (ex-Bord na Móna) both extolling the virtues. At last it looks as though things
    are beginning to move in the right direction.

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

    Coilin, I have plenty of sympathy with your ‘doubting’ brother; after all, it does all sound like another kooky conspiracy theory (‘global extinction looming’, ‘billions face starvation on climate-ravaged planet’, etc.). Add in the unfortunate propensity of some greens to be highly economical with certain truths (nuclear power, GMOs, etc.) most reasonable folk who haven’t looked too closely must reasonably assume this is another “millions will die as a result of Chernobyl” load of leftie hokum. I wish your brother were right, I really do. 
    You mentioned a PrimeTime debate – just last night a well known green activist, Pat Finnegan, outlined his outright opposition to nuclear energy for a range of reasons – too costly, too risky, too big, too unpopular, etc. At no point could he be specific and admit that, OK, take nuclear off the table and there is precisely ZERO chance of transitioning towards the zero carbon future that the science tells us we must, at all costs, achieve. Finnegan argued that investing in nukes would divert money from renewables, but where’s the evidence for that? 

    Renewables alone cannot transition us away from hyrdrocarbons, certainly not in time to avoid disaster. Why not accept that basic fact, and agree to renewables AND nuclear programme for the short to medium term, with a view to perhaps easing nukes out in the longer term, once the serious business of keeping our planetary climate from going berserk has been accomplished. Right now, humanity is in no position to be picking and choosing its zero carbon energy options. The longer we dither, and the longer greens persist with this ideological opposition to nuclear as part of zero carbon mix, the poorer our chances of collectively surviving through mid-century become.

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    John, I agree, nuclear power is an
    essential part of the solution, I have been of that opinion for a decade at
    least. But whether it should be part of Ireland’s energy mix in the near- to
    medium-term is not so obvious.

     

    I believe the countries that already have the
    technology should build many more nuclear power plants, as quickly as possible.
    Ireland could certainly do with one or two nuclear power plants, as they could
    supplant existing coal- and gas-fired stations; and the power could be
    distributed via existing networks, which is not the case with wind energy.

     

    But nuclear requires massive investment, and
    all the technology and expertise would have to be imported. Some transnational
    corporation would sail in, install everything, hand the government a whacking great
    bill and then agree a contract for sale of power to the national grid for the
    next 99 years. We would get the cement-and-brick work, but not much else. I
    don’t know if that’s how it would work, there might be some private public
    partnership, or maybe a semi-state would be tasked with going nuclear, but the
    question is, would it impact on investment in renewables like wind and solar?

     

    If it did, then that would be problematic,
    as Ireland needs to develop its indigenous renewable energy resources for energy
    security reasons; the long-term goal is to be fully energy-independent or
    self-sufficient in energy. And nuclear is not a long-term solution, because the
    raw, radioactive materials are in limited supply worldwide and will run out.
    There is enough to see us through the transitional stage to full renewables and
    a zero-carbon economy, but I’m not sure how much more besides.

     

    With Britain willing to finance the
    construction of mega-windfarms in the Irish midlands, to improve its own energy
    security, the opportunity to develop very substantial wind-energy
    infrastructure in the near term is open to Ireland. There are some environmental
    concerns, though fewer if the turbines are put offshore, but we cannot lose
    sight of the threat to life on Earth: this must inform any decisions on the infrastructure
    and where it goes.

     

    Another problem with nuclear is the time it
    takes to bring a station on-stream – it’s something like ten years or more.
    Emissions need to be cut sooner rather than later, because the more carbon
    there is in the atmosphere, the more intractable the problem becomes.

     

    It’s not like a few more years are neither
    here nor there; such is the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere every
    year now that the problem is intensifying exponentially.

     

    To put this in perspective, the amount of
    carbon dioxide released in the last thirteen years is equal to all of the
    carbon released prior to then since the start of the industrial revolution 200
    years ago. (I’m not sure it’s thirteen years, but something like that.) Just
    imagine what another thirteen years of unabated emissions could do.

     

    There is another issue with nuclear energy:
    it is often seized upon as the best option by those who want a ‘techno-fix’ to
    climate change. In your latest article, you describe the search for a
    techno-fix as being part of the desperate, bargaining phase of grief. I hope
    Pat Kenny will not take offence if I suggest that he falls into this category
    of wishful thinker. Also Mark Lynas (look him up).

     

    This doesn’t mean nuclear is not good, it
    is good, it is even essential, just like you said. But its loudest advocates
    are often those who wish to maintain the status quo, the ‘business as usual’
    model, and endless economic growth, and who think nuclear energy will make that
    possible.

     

    But it won’t, because we have already reached some of
    the planetary limits to growth. Global warming is just a symptom of how we are
    exceeding the planet’s ability to support us. Reining in carbon emissions is vital
    but is just one of the steps that have to be taken so the world can get back on
    an even keel.

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    I should add that it’s not crucial that
    Ireland becomes 100 per cent self-sufficient in energy. There is much to be
    said for an EU-wide energy network, drawing on solar power from the Sahara,
    nuclear power from France and England (etc), wind power from Ireland, Scotland
    (etc) and so on. Power could be traded for other things. But it would be useful
    to have the capacity to fall back on our own energy resources if the EU grid
    was prone to power cuts or interruptions.

  • ikallicrates

     The cause is nothing less than the survival of this planet and every living thing on it. We don’t fight for the planet because we think we can win. I suspect we won’t (although I hope I’m wrong). We fight for it because it is the most important cause. Everything and everyone else is secondary.