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.

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