Will Earthlings Survive the Earth – Or Vice Versa?

What’s scarier than severe recession? Okay, depression. Terrorism looms still, but for sheer panic, nothing matches 90% species die-off. Not from asteroids, nor nukes, nor is our planet doomed, though the approaching Andromeda galaxy looks to digest our Milky Way – but not for billions of years. Let’s worry instead about our progeny and how they sustain humanity if James Lovelock is right. He foresees shrunken habitat, resource wars, scorched landscapes, and gruesome casualties.

Erratic populations are hardly novel: 99% of earth’s emergent life forms have gone extinct. The demise of dinosaurs, awarding an obscure, half-pint mammal a leg up, dramatizes extinction – and yet a billion birds came forth. Our species is special in this regard: we hog 40% of global energy, but nothing (but the Rapture, a variant end of time fable) overrules physics, chemistry, and biology – or willful blindness towards overpopulation, pollution, and rising oceans.

Scads more of us jeopardize all, as oxygen-breathing, carbon-dioxide exhalers burn down life-forests that freely redeem oxygen from carbon dioxide. If we “grow, baby, grow” then we must “build, baby, build” and “drill, baby, drill” beyond sustainable practices. Actually, anointing ourselves “earthlings” doesn’t change our newcomer status: our million year genealogy pales next to a planet pushing 15 billion years. Lowly snapping turtles are 200 times older. On a 24-hour clock tracking 15 billion years, Homo sapiens span 10 seconds. And may not make 15.

The 10% Doctrine

So, by logic alone, should we be gobsmacked when Lovelock, pre-eminent British wizard who authored the stunning Gaia Theory, predicts 90% species die-off when heat storms erupt – and without a sharp tipping point, “just a slope that gets ever steeper.” Destined for emergency action, survivors will “escape to higher ground. We have to make our lifeboats seaworthy now [and] stop pretending there is any way back to that lush, comfortable, and beautiful Earth we left behind sometime in the 20th century.” Post-apocalypse, planetary carrying capacity: 700 million, 10% of today’s booming population.

In comparison, Cornell ecologist David Pimentel figures two billion will live decently, though 12 billion more will scrape by, plagued by heat and famine. Irony reigns: too much procreation equals the opposite, and success spells failure. So effective in decimating other creatures, our species stands as the first to jeopardize its own existence, perhaps life on the planet – and, doubly doomed, be conscious of it. We are masters of our fate, but not as anticipated, potential fossils done in by addiction to fossil fuel. And some doubt God’s peculiar sense of humor.

For Lovelock, Rising Seas Tell All

Lovelock favors sea levels to track global heating, his marker we’re beyond return to a 1950’s earth. Yet why the steep slope, not incremental change? The explanation lies in “positive” feedback loops by which one kind of warming feeds another: greenhouse gases melt reflective ice caps, thus more of the sun’s heat gets absorbed, thus warming oceans, thus fewer carbon-feeding algae, thus more greenhouse effect. Feedback loops amplify the rate of heating, causing today’s rising ocean elevations double official U.N. predictions.

In the process, Lovelock debunks politically-popular “green” scams as half-assed, feel-good dodges, even snake oil, profiting tech and finance opportunists but not deflecting catastrophe. Included scams are “cap and trade,” the incentive program to reduce emissions, and carbon trading, whereby one entity, having reduced carbon-dioxide pollution below set levels, sells this “gain” to those above allowances. Three years ago, at 87, he published The Revenge of Gaia, warning the window to save the earth was shutting. Now comes Vanishing with his dire call, like J. Robert Oppenheimer after creating the atomic bomb, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Gaia Rings the Globe

Two decades ago, Lovelock introduced his own feel-good theory, encapsulating the planet with a mythological name. Gaia science depicts a self-adjusting, homeostatic balancing act in which major biosphere constituents – plants, animals, minerals, gases, the sun’s heat – interact to sustain a life-friendly habitat. Unless one clever, greedy animal finds a way, say running dirty industrial machines for 150 years, to overtax innate safety values. What Gaia provides Lovelock is a predictive global model more comprehensive, he claims, than experts monitoring parts of the whole. Thus, his focus on rising sea levels, not temperature, for they measure two heavy-duty warming sources: “the melting of glaciers and the expansion of water as it warms. Sea level is the thermometer that indicates true global heating.”

Admittedly, Lovelock is a minority doomsayer, but what if there’s a 1% chance he’s right? Or 10%? If Dick Cheney’s 1% Doctrine on terrorism holds for this greater menace, shouldn’t we do more than organize summits? Cheney equated a 1% chance of renewed terrorism with certainty, thus feeding wildly counter-productive over-reactions. Happily, Lovelock’s solutions don’t involve unwinnable wars against wrong foes, or thrashing humane Geneva Conventions or basic privacy rights, simply respect for science and technology, like nuclear power.

Epilogue on change

In The Black Swan, economist-finance guru Nassim Taleb delivers his own wake-up call: what impacts history isn’t foreseeable change, thus the past serves as notoriously misleading guide. Taleb argues paradigm shifts come out of the blue, consequences are disproportionately transformative, and disruptive shocks often contaminate best responses. Take 9/11 as “black swan:” Bush-Cheney egregiously misread terrorism, inflating it from incendiary, symbolic tactic into full-fledged assault on civilization, thus instigating a trillion dollar “global war on terrorism.”

We’ve handled the Internet better, a black swan whose seismic shifts persist, unintended or not, positive or not. I find Lovelock useful, even as alarmist, by projecting a worst case – well, short of extinction. Yet Lovelock remains a humanist, reinforcing Santayana’s maxim, “those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We need far more scientific literacy that honors empirical data, trends, and methodology: otherwise, wise and rational planning will again be trumped by paranoia and ideology. What if planetary disruptions are ultimately more predictable than one-time shock treatments malevolent radicals think will change the world for the better?

Educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English) Robert S. Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. "Writing for the public taught me how to communicate." From '92-02 he did marketing consulting, grant, and business writing. Since '02, he scribbles on politics, science and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows. Read other articles by Robert.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Justin said on August 31st, 2009 at 11:03am #

    There are some fields of biology and ecology which champion a cornucopian view of the environment; that is, with our potential technologies (we’ve certainly sacrificed many for destructive technologies), we have the ability to interact with the land so as to promote bounty as opposed to dearth.

    It seems to me that, yes, we are entering a considerable human bottleneck, and that, most importantly, it is being used by the influential as a means to an end. That is, to thrust upon the underclass of the globe a totalitarian system that hoardes resources for the center of the empire (the superclass).

    Unfortunately, as resources become more scarce (as they already artificially are), people will turn inwards and rely moreso upon the instinct of self-preservation. Paradigm shifts do come out of the blue; a morsel of hope.

    9/11 was an inside job so as to, according to the Project for a New american Century, achieve “the social transformation desired.”

  2. Don Hawkins said on August 31st, 2009 at 1:00pm #

    Australia, California, Canada, Utah, Alaska, Europe, the forests are burning people. On many of the reports, articles I read at the end they will say and some say climate change could be one reason, what. It is not one reason it is the reason.

    http://features.csmonitor.com/environment/2009/08/31/our-best-guess-about-global-warming-may-be-wrong/

    In about six months we will know if the World will try. So far it doesn’t look good. A Herculean effort is needed so should be kind of easy to see.

  3. Don Hawkins said on August 31st, 2009 at 3:07pm #

    “grow, baby, grow” then we must “build, baby, build” and “drill, baby, drill”

    And tonight on the Glenn Beck show and what a show it is Capitalism is under attack and in the White House right now Marxists with much power and Democrats and republicans independents wake up. Then he said something about pot smoking hippie stoners. I think many think like Glenn and somehow the story doesn’t have a good ending pot smoking hippie stoners

  4. Don Hawkins said on August 31st, 2009 at 4:07pm #

    This group of people who think we are all pot smoking hippie stoners heck what is there group gang. They drink orange juice and suit and tie is a must and loving there fellow man right at the top of there list and all you have to do is sign up for the newsletter and get the book and your on the road to becoming one of the beautiful people and the moon is made of green cheese climate change is a hoax and health care reform is a Marxist plot hell I could keep writting for an hour.

  5. Charlie said on August 31st, 2009 at 4:34pm #

    Interesting and well-written, but you may want to correct the statement about the age of the Earth (“our million year genealogy pales next to a planet pushing 15 billion years.”) The Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old. It’s the universe as a whole that’s been estimated to be 15 billion years old.

  6. Robert Becker said on August 31st, 2009 at 5:33pm #

    Thanks, Charlie:

    Right you are about my little brain freeze on the age of the earth. I meant to say approaching 5, not 15 billion years — and got the related time numbers distorted, too. You know the old saw, a billion here, a billion there . . .

    Appreciate the correction.

    R. Becker

  7. Don Hawkins said on September 1st, 2009 at 3:32am #

    Rogers said the fire’s appearance, almost five weeks before the official bushfire danger period begins on October 1, was an ominous sign for the upcoming summer in the southern hemisphere.

    Drought-hit Australia has just endured one of the hottest winters on record and Rogers said meteorologists were predicting weather patterns that would send hot, dry winds across the already-parched landscape.

    “Given that 65 percent of the state is in drought and there’s a prediction of an El Nino event, it’s quite concerning for the fire season ahead,” he said.

    NSW Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan said the severity of the fires was unprecedented so early in the year.

    “People here in the fire control are telling me that they haven’t seen fire behavior like this at this time of year before,” he told ABC Radio. AFP

    They haven’t seen fire behavior like this and there seems to be behavior not with just fires but human’s we have not seen before. Yes Capitalism is under attack and health care reform is bad for American and the kid’s there future the old college fund and old people will be put in camps or if you live in LA dropped off in West or is it East LA as part of your treatment. Climate change is to big and listen to people in $5,000 dollar suits and designer dressers they know best for you and if they ask you to carry a bucket of crap for them by all means do it. Calm at peace and think of this as kind of a war.

  8. Don Hawkins said on September 1st, 2009 at 5:54am #

    “It’s burning everywhere,” said U.S. Forest spokeswoman Dianne Cahir. “When it gets into canyons that haven’t burned in numerous years, it takes off.”

    The fire also was nearing the historic solar observatory and television transmission towers on Mount Wilson.

    Officials said a fire in San Bernardino County was spreading out of control, threatening 2,000 homes in the apple-growing community of Oak Glen near Yucaipa, the Los Angeles Times reported. However, the so-called Oak Glen III Fire has spared the apple crop so far, officials said. UPI

    Is this because of climate change no this just normal. I keep hearing well it’s cold in the Northeast and what they don’t tell you on the weather channel or the news is the reason it’s cold is because the temperatures in the Arctic are about 10 degrees above normal for years now and the ice is melting and the water is warming and changing the weather patterns those highs and lows and as the West burns and hot the Northeast is colder at least for now. Yes a little something you don’t hear on the news. Buy those oil stocks and I hear coal looks good now. Listen to Glenn Beck and Fox News, CNBC or any of the business channels can point you in the right direction. Well that is if you like pure unadulterated bullshit as a direction.

  9. David said on September 1st, 2009 at 9:32am #

    If the last hundred years of first world history have taught us anything, it’s that humans are batting close to zero when it comes to successfully making complex decisions.

    This, of course, includes Messrs. Lovelock and Taleb, both children of the present.

  10. Don Hawkins said on September 1st, 2009 at 11:51am #

    Complex decisions is that what we see an attempt at in the greatest nation on Earth. Things should be made as simple as possible but not simpler as this complex thinking better known as bullshit has got us to this point. Cap and trade is complex and much better way simple and to the point. It’s the to the point that a few try and make complex.

  11. Don Hawkins said on September 2nd, 2009 at 4:31am #

    The Arctic is warming at twice the global average causing the dramatic loss of sea ice. Nearly 40% of sea ice that was present in the 1970s was lost by 2007, which will severely influence atmospheric circulation and weather in the Arctic and beyond. The warming of the Arctic is projected to change temperature and precipitation patterns in Europe and North America, affecting agriculture, forestry and water supplies. GLAND, SWITZERLAND — (Marketwire)

    Do we see any changes in atmospheric circulation now today? Yes we sure do and this is not the beginning as we are well on our way to affecting agriculture, forestry and water supplies. The deciders, have you ever heard of them, just what is it they have decided? Well first of all the problem is to big for them as trying to solve this one with third grade level thinking and doing that with a rather old way of thinking thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines well no wonder it’s to big for them. To watch so called leaders all the groups, gangs and how they rationalize there thinking to hide from the truth is mindnumbing new word. Yes it is true that many don’t hide from the truth they know the truth and just don’t care and yet they say they do but they don’t. There’s a word for that asshole. We get to see many of these asshole’s very soon decide if future generations will have a fighting chance and very sure many will say we can’t try because it will hurt future generations the little people third grade level thinking. Anyway the next few month’s probably zero on the try part from the asshole’s. We need to drill for more oil keep burning coal and go shopping watch your parking meters listen to your so called leaders as we all go down the drain in not such slow motion and call call now in Clowntown USA. Yes the next few month’s then what? Then what?

  12. Don Hawkins said on September 2nd, 2009 at 5:29am #

    Let’s think of this as kind of a war. What would the battle lines look like or what do they look like. About two trillion barrels of oil still in the ground harder to get and yes about twice as much as we have already used up and we are now using it up faster. Coal still being used on a grand scale and the system known as Capitalism kind of likes more then more to keep going at full speed. If we keep burning fossil fuels at the same rate or more for just the next 9 years probably can’t slow a warming Earth and in twenty years or there about’s is when survival starts for the human race in a very real way. You can add to this cutting and burning as if we need more burning of the forests Worldwide and water fresh water that will become more rare like life on this planet. The answer from a few is drill more burn more coal burn more forests for the more have more and so be it. Not to bright and lazy and all done with third grade level thinking. How do you like them Apples well forget Apples as the Bee’s are now going along with the forests. Pot smoking hippie stoner go hug a tree. Anything you say asshole.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 4th, 2009 at 4:46pm #

    Don, I think our predicament, (and we are already definitively stuffed, no matter what we do now, too late), is rooted in human nature. A certain percentage of humans are evil, vicious and stupid. Add greedy, insatiably greedy. The inability to appreciate the idea of ‘sufficiency’ may be the basic psychopathology. In nature, everything comes to balance, or, if one species proliferates beyond the bounds of sufficiency, the ecosystem collapses, to a more primitive, less diverse state, and the process of diversification begins again. When this collapse occurs on a planet-wide scale, we get a ‘mass extinction’ event. We are now in the sixth such in the planet’s history, the first caused, not by meteorite or comet strikes, or massive volcanic eruptions, but by a living organism-us.
    In a sane society, one dedicated above all to the preservation of life and its sustaining ecosystems, the insatiably avaricious, the predators on others, those lacking empathy and indifferent to the fate of others ( including future generations) and those prone to the use of violence and intimidation, would be strictly controlled, kept away from power and, if reliable stigmata for these diseases of the soul could be identified, drowned at birth. In our market capitalist society, on the other hand, these are the types who are in control. The system suits them, and they suit it. All other types are marginalised, or exterminated. The triumph of market capitalism in the late 20th century ushered in the end times of unhindered exploitation and biosphere destruction. The process has now gone too far to be reversed, decades of warnings from non-psychopathic scientists and informed lay-men having been treated with contempt by the intellectually challenged and morally diseased market theocrats, whose ruthless monoculture of the mind and soul refuses, above all else, to accept reality.
    Perhaps a useful project for our last decades would be to produce as many documentaries exposing the mental, behavioural and spiritual evil that is market capitalism, and broadcast them into the cosmos, in all directions. Perhaps some other sapient (so-called) species will pick them up in the future, and learn a useful lesson from our bitter experience.