Tuesday, March 28, 2006



When I was in college, I remember saying to my date, as we stood in line on a cold winter's night for a movie, that I wasn't worried so much about my own death as about the death of the earth, which I could not contemplate. Now, forty years later, we face the unthinkable. The earth is not dying, but the folly of unbridled industrialism has brought us to the perceptible curl of a massive wave that will destroy civilization and bring to an end this magnificent geological era, the Cenozoic, cradle of the greatest efflorescence of species this planet has ever seen. We do not know if this magnificent, interlocking complexity has ever been achieved in the universe. But we can now see that the earth has reached climax, and we, the Caretakers, have been the cause of its premature harvesting.

We have been told at least since the late 70's that we have "ten years" in which to right the world or it will collapse. U Thant, then secretary-general of the UN, gave this warning in 1979. Every decade since, we've heard the same thing, and the public has become inured to the dire predictions, hearing the cries of Wolf and Chicken Little. But the latest warnings, coming not from statesmen (where are they?), but from climatologists, that we might have the rest of the decade, less than four years, may well be the cry of the farmer who doesn't see that the Climate Wolf got in the back of the coop and already has an insatiable taste for the Chickens of Habitual Comfort. The signs are now unmistakable that our comfort zone, weather patterns that have persisted for fifty million years, including the minor inconvenience of a few ice ages, is breaking up as fast as chunks of polar ice are melting. This comfort zone has allowed not only our late-blooming species to flourish, but the whole web of relationships in the Cenozoic.

Now James Lovelock, author of the Gaia Hypothesis, has published The Revenge of Gaia, in which he claims that it's already too late. Since he laid the groundwork for the multi-disciplinary field of climatology (including the atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, and ocean life as one interconnected system), he is someone to listen to. An optimist, he writes of the coming end of civilization - and of the vast chunks of the biosphere which we'll take down with us - after careful consideration and with great reluctance. What the scientifically literate among our species have long worried about has happened: the earth system is in runaway. That means that all the mechanisms which Gaia has evolved to buffer the various excesses of exuberant life in any of her parts are now working to magnify rather than damp local aberrations. Atmospheric and oceanic warming lead to the melting not only of floating ice, but continental ice, which, once it attains the sea, raises ocean levels even before it finishes melting. And as the tundra melts, methane, which is much more effective at heat-trapping that CO2, will be released in large quantities (also from the sea floor, where there are already signs of a climate that has not been as hot for 55 million years via fossils of tiny organisms, foramenifera), further accelerating the process.

According to Lovelock's modeling, global warming will not end until at least an 8 degrees Centigrade rise in average earth temperature, which is humongous. At that time, in a hundred years, there will be no ice left in the northern hemishere, and any human habitation will be limited to the polar regions. The rest will be too hot and too dry. He goes through a chilling scenario for rolling collapse in his book, and the suffering and carnage are unimaginable.

Of course, the earth herself will die when the sun reaches burn-out, in another 4.5 billion years. The present massive climate shift means she has reached climax in about half her projected life, perhaps not such a surprise. But the speed at which this is happening, a collapse rather than a gradual withering into old age, is shocking. Earth is becoming widowed, destitute of her richly-bedecked Cenozoic cornucopia, and the agent of this premature harvest is our species, supposed Caretaker of the riches. If the idea "sustainable," a term as unnecessary to the aboriginal First Peoples as "nature," had caught on rapidly enough, this premature rupture would not have occurred. But "sustainable" appears to be oxymoronic to industrial capitalism and the deeply-rooted greed of the species.

The end of civilization, and certainly many more than the conservative scientific estimate of a few years ago, "one-third of species by 2050," does not mean the end of life on earth, nor my dreaded, unimaginable death of the earth. But the probable end of our species and so much that frames its terrestrial life is almost as difficult to contemplate as the death of the earth itself.

NEXT: Human precognition of death: the effect of expanding this reflective characteristic to extinction of the species. Philosophical and religious responses to this inevitable extension of consciousness.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Dying Coral Reefs: a Net Loss


The world's coral reefs are dying. Coral are very delicate organisms that thrive in a very narrow temperature range. The reefs are wonders, the eco-equivalents of tropical rainforests. they are home to a huge number of species, for which they provide a breeding and feeding ground. The assault on these magnificent lodes of aquatic life has been led by fishermen, who harvest with dynamite, the most efficient way to insure an abundant catch. This is real eco-terrorism, far worse in its effects than spiking old growth trees.

But ocean warming is proving to be much more catastrophic for teh reefs. The Economist reports that 50-95% of coral reefs in Indian Ocean are gone. It happened over a two year period, almost unthinkable. They could only stand slight, maybe up to 2 degrees C rise in temp. The recorded temperature rise was 3 degrees C. This is a local phenomenon caused by an unprecedented becalming of the Indian Ocean, allowing the spike in temperature, not representative of other oceans, but one more wake up call among many. It is the most extreme case of a scenario that is being repeated around the world. All coral reefs are at risk due to ocean warming. And if the reefs go, then a large chunk of species die with them, as much as 25% of all ocean creatures.

Reeling from this information, I found my mind inexplicably filled with that image of the little girl fleeing the burning village in Vietnam, naked. I guess this is my image of habitat destruction. The inundation of the Indian Maldives would be more appropriate, since all the inhabitants of those Indian Ocean reefs are now homeless, nowhere to breed and eat. The village in Vietnam has been rebuilt, and that little girl now probably has children and grandchildren.

We human beings are clever, inventive and flexible - "amphibilous" as the wonderful seventeenth century preacher-poet Thomas Browne once called us. But without our context, our earth home in its endless variety, we cannot live. We are nothing. We will all die, for we are but one link in the chain that our actions are rapidly destroying.

Hindus and Buddhists have a marvelous image for our interrelationships with other humans and the cosmos: the jeweled net of Indra, where every one of us is jewel reflecting all the others. Imagining this as a neural net, it is the wondrous feedback loop which connects us to all sentient life everywhere. But if the electricity in the circuits dies, then the whole fabulous net is but an ossified piece of crystal, a museum piece for future beings to marvel at. Like a dead coral reef.

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