Scientists to Earth: Prepare to Abandon Planet

Earth First! Now we’ll trash the other planets. There are other planets, right? (Photo by Gideon Wright/Flickr)

Earth First! Now we’ll trash the other planets. There are other planets, right? (Photo by Gideon Wright/Flickr)

Two major scientific studies out this week agree that it may well be time to include other planets in your future relocation plans. Because we have just about finished trashing this one. One study says that of nine “planetary boundaries,” which is to say boundaries between inhabitable and uninhabitable, human activity has already wrecked four. The other finds an implacable rise in the number of mass dyings of animals, of such magnitude that they “can reshape the ecological and evolutionary trajectories of life on Earth.” And, need we specify, not in a good way. Let’s see what these studies say, and then consider what we should make of what they say.

Five years ago, a group of scientists laid out a series of benchmarks for assessing the damage we’ve done to the web of life. They established nine “boundaries” that define a “safe operating space” for humanity — theoretical limits to destruction that we exceed at our peril. They were: the rate at which species are becoming extinct; the rate of deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the flow of nutrients from fertilizer into the oceans; ozone depletion; freshwater use; ocean acidification; atmospheric aerosol pollution; and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms.

The purpose of the current paper was to refine the boundaries concept and to see how we are doing. It concluded that we have already trampled the first four boundaries and are endangering the remainder. “Human activities are destabilizing the global environment,” said the paper’s lead author, Will Steffen of the Australian National University. When exactly the system will become destabilized, putting the entire human population in dire peril, cannot be estimated with certainty but Steffen sees it happening, on the current course, in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”

Take that as the good news: the bad news is that MMEs — mass mortality events — are on the rise around the world. They key word here is mass: we’re talking about events in which at least a  billion animals die, more than 90% of an existing population, leaving 700 million tons of corpses. Believe it or not, there have been 727 such events recorded since 1940. And a survey of those events finds that they are increasing in frequency for birds, marine invertebrates and fish, while remaining constant for mammals and decreasing for reptiles and amphibians.

What are we to make of such science? Most of our brethren and, um, cistern will ignore it, as they do any science not headlined “miracle weight loss without effort.” Some of us, a decided but growing minority, will take it as further evidence of a coming collapse of the industrial age. And of that minority, a minority (Guy McPherson being a prominent example) believes that what is coming is an extinction of the human race.

I will not go that far. Not because I think I have superior scientific knowledge (than Dr. McPherson? Get out!) or can prove one case or another, but for two reasons that satisfy me.

  1. It is not useful to me to believe that all humans are going to die, or the planet is going to fry, or the sun is going to explode. So I refuse to believe it. Now, that may be as maddening in its way as the refusal of right wingers to believe in climate change despite all evidence to the contrary, simply because they don’t want to. But there is a difference. I don’t deny the possibility that Dr. McPherson et al may be right; I just prefer to act and plan and think while focussed on the possibility they may be wrong.
  2. It would be well to keep in mind, it seems to me, how wrong the scientists have been about the effects of climate change. They have consistently underestimated the speed and severity of its onset. It seems reasonable to expect them to be wrong in the future, as they try to quantify a staggering array of variables, and it does not seem reasonable to expect them to be wrong only on one side of the ledger. The two things humans have consistently underestimated is the amount of harm they are doing to natural systems, and the power of those systems to recover if we just quit doing the harm.

But all of this — the power to harm, the power to recover, the power to understand — has to bow down at present before the awesome power of stupidity in a culture that, having been told clearly and repeatedly that it is destroying the foundations of its existence, continues to do so.

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9 Responses to Scientists to Earth: Prepare to Abandon Planet

  1. SomeoneInAsia says:

    On my part, I try to take the ‘very large’ view regarding the whole thing: if the Universe can give rise to one planet called Earth, with all its amazing flora and fauna (and a certain Homo ‘ho hum’ Sapiens), then I see no reason why the Universe can’t do it again and again, even though it might take a couple quadrillion years. Heck, I don’t see why there can’t be at least a few Earth-like planets out there — though the vast distances between them and us would serve as an excellent form of quarantine, to cite C. S. Lewis.

    So, if we DO blow up this home of ours… Ah, well, I guess there’s some measure of solace to be found in the thought that it’s not the only one…

    [Quote]But all of this — the power to harm, the power to recover, the power to understand — has to bow down at present before the awesome power of stupidity in a culture that, having been told clearly and repeatedly that it is destroying the foundations of its existence, continues to do so.[Endquote]

    Don’t forget the power of GREED. It is the very elan vital of our modern economic system.

    (We probably shouldn’t forget the power of FEAR, either. Why do so many non-Westerners want to adopt the wonderful narratives created by the modern West? Because they’re scared that, if they do not do so, they’ll be ‘left behind’. That’s why.)

  2. KC says:

    “It is not useful to me to believe that all humans are going to die, or the planet is going to fry, or the sun is going to explode. So I refuse to believe it.”

    Interesting. As a Hospice volunteer I found that the family members who were most helpful to the person who was dying were those who accepted that the person was dying. They used the time they had to say what needed to be said. They didn’t push the person to live in pain longer or take painful treatments.

    So how many people can the planet support at a life style that is worth living? Keep in mind that we are now using 1.5 planets worth of resources. If the lifestyle we have in say 2nd world countries was extended to 3rd world countries and 1st world countries we would be using more than 1.5 planets worth of resources. So either lifestyle has to be reduced to 3rd world lifestyle or population has to be reduced.

    Since China’s one child policy only slowed population growth and did not stop it, clearly getting population down quickly requires something more than birth control. What shall it be – war, disease, famine. Like it or not it will be war, disease, famine, along with increasingly violent weather events and well when things collapse enough the melt down of 400 plus nuclear plants.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Interesting observations all. To be clear, I have no doubt that the coming crash will savagely reduce the number of humans on earth. It’s the idea of total extinction that I don’t accept. But those damn nuclear plants do worry me…..

  3. Tom says:

    Mr. Lewis, continue to keep up your positive attitude for as long as you can.

    From someone on the other side [i completely expect humanity to go extinct, before 2030 imho, as a result of habitat loss – the inability to grow enough food (or any food); our continuing pollution of all kinds including radiation; sea level rise; abrupt climate change; the death of the marine web of life from acidification and overheating; ozone, disease and pests killing all the trees before long (see; disease in humans and animals ramping up (and resistant to mediation); drought and floods, and the list goes on and on (because it’s all connected)] i don’t see how it can be avoided. We aren’t going to change our behavior or our effect on the biosphere because we don’t learn from our mistakes. Human population is still on the increase (last time i looked), and there aren’t enough resources NOW for all of us.

    KC: good points! However, it’s not either/or on population and life-style now, it’s both (and even that won’t be enough to stop what we’ve triggered).

    Thanks for another great essay and for your tolerance of other views (it demonstrates what kind of person you are and i hold you in high regard as a result).

  4. Jim says:

    Seems to me that your item (2) about the consistent underestimates of the speed and severity of climate changes supports Guy McPherson and fails to give you a basis to doubt him since his argument is exactly that the speed and severity of the coming climate changes will exceed any capacity of humans to adapt to these new, drastic conditions and will deprive humans of the habitat necessary for life. I don’t see how one can coherently argue that just as one has underestimated the severity of the impending disaster, one has also underestimated the mildness of the impending disaster, which is what you apparently argue when you say scientists could be wrong on the other side of the ledger. I don’t see a mild side to world-wide habitat loss and consequent mass starvation. Is there one?

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I’m happy to discuss my view with you, but must we first re-state it in a way that makes it easier to dismiss? First, there is a difference between doubting an argument, and holding out the possibility that however well grounded and stated, it may have missed a few variables; we are, after all, attempting to predict with precision the behavior of a tumultuous skin of liquids on a rotating planet that is unevenly heated.

      Nowhere have I ever suggested that the oncoming disaster is going to be mild. I simply hold to the possibility that extinction may not be total (and therefore not extinction) and that some people in some places may get through it. Surely scientists who missed, for example, the feedback loops that are hastening the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, could conceivably miss processes that could act to restore balance to the web of life before all human life is extinguished. Obviously, I do not have the scientific grounding to argue that such a thing will happen. But I think I am justified in giving credence to the possibility.

  5. Extinction is inevitable, the only question is about the Timeline.

    Guy has his Timeline down to 2030 now, which is simply outrageous. Knocking down every last Homo Sapiens that fast would take a Planet Killer Asteroid Impact.

    You operate as always, which is try to live as long as you can. That goes for the entire species just as it does for the individual.


  6. earthling3 says:

    I appreciate this discussion as well as the statement by Tom (not Lewis) above: “You were born into captivity (same as the rest of us) and didn’t know anything about fossil fuel use (or agriculture, population overshoot, shopping for junk we don’t need – all of industrial civilization) being detrimental to the environment until MUCH later, so there’s no going back or trying to atone for anything. Try to enjoy the time you have left by living a life of excellence… and being as loving and kind as you can.” — Commenter Tom (not Lewis)”

    I’m 70 yrs old and I’ve been an environmental advocate and activist all my life (since I read John Muir in my late teens). It’s been painful and horrifying to watch the assaults upon the web of life (by the unconscionable Masters of the Universe) all my life, and the acceleration of the assaults since 2000. I agree with Tom Lewis that there’s not much use or benefit in BELIEVING in near-term-human-extinction. It seems so hard for us humans to reconcile ourselves to NOT KNOWING, but the fact is that NOBODY KNOWS how it’s all going to go down. I think there is too much complexity for us to take account of it all.

    However, my gut feeling is that there is great potential for the collapse of civilization and of the biosphere to play out in a horrific way. Life on Mother Earth may become unimaginably, horrifically, painfully tragic and heartbreaking to experience as the web of life falls apart. So the idea of wanting to prolong our pathetic little human lives in such a scenario is unthinkable. However, it may well be that handfuls of humans manage to survive in isolated wildernesses or backwaters. Whether life will be worth living in the dark age of social and environmental degradation, I doubt.

    For me, staying awake as the scientific reports and projections continue to deliver worse and worse news means enduring helpless Rage and Grief on a daily basis. For me, that translates into being as tender-hearted, loving, compassionate and kind as I can be with every living being I encounter; for we are all doomed. (I keep many boxes and packets of tissues for my tears in my house and car.) But I feel very fortunate that I am not facing the oncoming catastrophe alone. I have animal and human companions to share the journey with. I wish for all awake humans to have trusted companions on the path as we head into a future of unintended consequences.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      My life has been similar to yours, and I feel great empathy with almost everything you say here. The only thing I do not share with you is the feeling of total despair you describe. Coincidentally, your thoughtful comment arrived as I was working on the essay I just posted this morning, which is a pretty specific response to your thoughts about whether life will be worth living in the aftermath of the crash. Please consider it, and let me know what you think.