Pre-Extinction Follies: Addendum

Posted: October 22, 2014 in Environment, Industrial Collapse, Science
Tags: , , , ,

I am usually so slow getting posts finalized that the subject matter has already been treated voluminously by others better equipped than me in terms of timeliness and comprehensiveness, often in book form rather than news reports or blog posts. However, I sometimes get to something first, such as a brief article in the New York Times entitled “Three Divergent Visions of Our Future Under Climate Change,” which resembles my blog series reviewing three different approaches to the prospect of NTE. I won’t congratulate myself with the inference that the NYT got the idea from me, since it reviews three books rather than three blog posts as I did, but the subject matter overlaps. The three books are these:

  1. The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman,
  2. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and
  3. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein.

Links go to publishers’ websites rather than I have little to add to the exceedingly light NYT book review other than to observe that, in typical degraded journalistic fashion, it entertains both sides of the issue before arriving wanly at the conclusion that the worst-case scenario contemplated by Oreskes and Conway probably hews closer to reality than those offered by the other two authors.

Beyond pointing to further treatments of the dark prognosis for the planet, I want to collect my thoughts on the topic. No one has asked for such a summary, just as no one has made a substantive comment (as yet) on any of the posts in this series. That’s not sour grapes; I write this blog primarily for my own sake, mostly to solidify my thinking, and rather expect to be completely irrelevant in the wider public sphere. The usual multiple agendas to drive traffic, sell books, campaign for office, indulge in punditry, or otherwise influence the public mind are not part of my motivation.

Over time, numerous summaries have appeared that take stock of our position in history, looking forward to what flows logically from various circumstances we have often knowingly engineered for ourselves and looking backwards to various branching points that may have led to more salutary circumstances had we acted differently. Such points of inflection or discontinuity bear plausible witness to our predicaments and often explain from one perspective or another how it was either a foregone conclusion written into our genes, instincts, and style(s) of social organization (i.e., politics and economics) or was the direct result of a narrow class of oligarchs and plutocrats who systematically stripped value out of everything and everyone until dire consequences because unavoidable (but still deniable). Whether one of these poles (or some undefined blend of them) is more accurate is not so important to me anymore. However, the product of human activity over some 10,000 to 13,000 years has demonstrated convincingly that humanity is the greatest change agent of the last 10 millennia. There have been others before us and will undoubtedly be others after us, typically engaged in blind, purposeless transformation that in turn gives rise to favorable and unfavorable conditions for life on Earth. Our own behaviors looked innocent and harmless enough for a very long while, but there can be little doubt that the death pulse we initiated (the sixth extinction) came up rather suddenly — not quite as instantaneous as a massive meteor hit but nearly so when viewed on an evolutionary or geological timescale.

So what did we do, exactly? Long story short (and radically simplified), we created (and procreated) and innovated, consumed and exploited nature, and polluted and destroyed the biosphere relatively modestly up to the Industrial Revolution (deforestation 3,000 to 2,000 years ago might be a notable exception), whereupon we learned to tap the latent energy and calories present in fossil fuels and proceeded to burn through in a few hundreds of years stores that took hundreds of millions of years to collect. This process raised our standard of living and grew our population, both autocatalytic processes, until steady industrial growth altered the very air, water, and earth on which life depends. True, atmospheric alteration may be measured in only a few hundred parts per million (ppm), and oceanic acidification may be measured by a mere 0.1 drop in pH on a 14-pt scale, but delicate balances that allow life to flourish in the temperate zone are surprisingly sensitive. Turns out that the planet is not in fact too big for us to wreck it by inflicting thousands (or billions) of cuts.

Extrapolating trends already underway in the 19th century was not really so difficult, and many scientists and philosophers of the 1800s did just that. However, the bounty and abundance the modern world produced — at the greatest possible eventual cost, we now know — was too appealing in the short term to resist, so we proceeded heedlessly until eventualities came more glaringly into view in the 1970s with the Oil Crisis, the Ecology Movement, and anxiety about overpopulation. That decade may have been the last point in time when we could have altered course meaningfully and established a social model based on something other than perpetual growth. Alas, ringing klaxons were ignored again (and again and again) until we passed the knee of the curve, so to speak, where upward trends no longer slope gracefully but go more nearly vertical. Now we’re almost topped out, and soon the only way forward will be back down those same steep slopes.

Today, we founder in uncharted waters while our political and cultural leaders fail to address the real perils we face. Whether denial is better than truth is an open question, since desperation and panic would undoubtedly ensue if the mood of the public turned sour, hastening the suffering to come. But that’s another eventuality, anyway. Hard to imagine and admit, but delaying the inevitable might be as good a strategy as any. Who can judge, really?

  1. Brian Miller says:

    I finished “The Collapse of Western Civilization” last week. A quick read it clocks in at only 52 pages. It is an interesting, if slight work, that doesn’t really add anything to the discussion of peak resources and climate change. It reminds one of MacKinlay Kantor’s piece “If the South Had Won the Civil War” and others in that alternative history genre written by academics; a sub-genre of the Harry Turtledove crowd.

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