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The Decline and Fall of the Human Empire

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The decline and fall of the Human Empire
Posted on June 11, 2011 by John Gibbons
Below is my article, as it appears over four pages in the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine:

Doomsday cults are as old as human civilisation. The Bible is a rich sourcebook for ‘End Times’ enthusiasts, who pore over Iron Age manuscripts purporting to pinpoint a particular day that heralds the Apocalypse. Another such date passed on May 21st last, with the ‘Rapture’ now rescheduled to October.

But just because they’re crazy, doesn’t always guarantee they’re wrong. “An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium,” says celebrated naturalist Prof EO Wilson of Harvard. But, he adds, “it is not the cosmic war and fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.”

In the half a billion year history of complex life on Earth, five mega extinction events have been catalogued. The last one occurred around 65 million years ago, most likely triggered by rapid global cooling resulting from an asteroid strike. It brought the 160 million year reign of the dinosaurs to an abrupt end – along with around half of all other species. Their misfortune was to be our lucky break, as this calamity opened the evolutionary window for the rise of our ancestors, the early mammals.

Today, what scientists have designated as the ‘Sixth Extinction’ is already in full swing, with an astonishing 50,000 species disappearing every year and the very face of the planet being re-shaped. For the first time in Earth history, the actions of a single species are threatening to overwhelm the entire biosphere.

Homo sapiens is a young species, barely 200,000 years old. In the 10,000 years of human history for which some records exist, there has never been an age like the modern industrial era, and there has never been a century remotely like the amazing 20th century.

My grandmother was born in 1901. Over the brief three-generation span from her life to mine, global population quadrupled, the world economy grew 14-fold, and industrial output shot up 40-fold. All this astonishing growth was fuelled by a 13-fold increase in energy usage, compared to the already industrialised 19th century.

Along the way, we chopped down a quarter of the world’s forests, exterminating tens of thousands of species in a frenzied scramble to convert the natural word into saleable goods and lebensraum for people, our agriculture and our livestock. Two fifths of the world’s land surface has already been sequestered for the exclusive benefit of just one species. This human tsunami also unleashed a five-fold increase in air pollution, and a 17-fold increase in emissions of the critical trace ‘greenhouse’ gas, Carbon dioxide (CO2).

This ongoing orgy of extraction, consumption and population growth was predicated on one key ingredient: cheap, plentiful energy. In the 20th century, humans employed more energy than in all the previous 1,900 centuries of recorded history – combined. All these trends have accelerated through the tumultuous first decade of the 21st century, as China and India in particular have clambered enthusiastically aboard the ‘globalisation express’.

The energy involved in reshaping the planet is almost unimaginable. Since 1970, the rate of energy building up within the biosphere is on a par with exploding 2.5 of the bombs that levelled Hiroshima every second, or 216,000 atomic bombs a day, every day, for the last four decades. Minus the radiation, of course.

Another example that vividly illustrates the might and scale of human planetary reengineering is the Syncrude mine in Canada’s Athabasca tar sands. This one project involves displacing some 30 billion tonnes of earth – that’s twice the total tonnage of sediment carried down all the world’s rivers in a year. For better or for worse, man is now the dominant force of nature on this planet. As Brian Cowen reminded us, being in power should not be confused with being in control.

“The human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the Earth”, is how environmental historian Prof John McNeill put it. The bubble of spectacular affluence and comfort enjoyed by many of us in the Western world has been sustained by spending down the Earth’s finite natural capital and exhausting its ability to absorb wastes at an ever-increasing rate.

The WWF’s Living Planet Index (which measures trends in biological diversity) found that between 1970 and 2007, global biodiversity had declined by an astonishing 30 per cent. “This global trend suggests we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history,” says the WWF. The UN Environment Programme concurs, adding: “The world is currently undergoing a very rapid loss of biodiversity comparable with the great mass extinction events that have previously occurred only five times in the Earth’s history.”

The mass die-off of the Sixth Extinction that has already spelled the end for vast swathes of the natural world has not – yet – impacted directly on human numbers. But since we are perched precariously at the apex of a global food chain that itself is a subset of a biosphere in freefall, this is no longer a matter of if, but when, and just how severe it will be.

Not everyone is alarmed. “I think human beings are a failed species – we’re on the way out,” is the blunt assessment of Prof Michael Boulter of London’s Natural History Museum. “Our lives are so artificial they can’t possibly be sustained within the limits of our planet.” Looking down the road, he adds: “The planet would of course be delighted for humans to become extinct, and the sooner it happens, the better.” The Professor’s prognosis may be accurate, but that hardly makes it any less unpalatable to us humans.

The scientific warning bells have been tolling ever more urgently recently. In May 2011 an expert group that included 17 Nobel laureates issued the ‘Stockholm Memorandum’ urging emergency action to reduce human pressures on the global environment. The language is plain: “Science makes clear that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years. Evidence is growing that human pressures are starting to overwhelm the Earth’s buffering capacity. Humans have propelled the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene – the Age of Man”.

Its conclusions are unambiguous: “We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial”.

The Stockholm Memorandum was widely ignored, both here in Ireland and elsewhere. After all, with a banking fiasco, unemployment and a debt mountain to worry about, who could possibly be exercised by such seeming abstractions as our unravelling ecological web, or that, in less than the time it takes to read this article, another entire species has been driven into extinction?

While the scale of the existential threat to human and wider ecosystem well-being is extremely well documented across the spectrum of the physical sciences, what is perhaps most astonishing is the degree to which human societies and the wider global community have failed – or simply proved unable – to respond. The problems, while vast, are potentially fixable. But as the clock ticks towards midnight, we’ve given up even the meaningful pretence of trying. Why?

Tempting though it is to lay the blame at the door of energy industry propaganda, the cynical and corporatised media and marketers or the malign influence of right wing economists on careerist politicians, the true answer appears to lie deep within human psychology.

As a species, we have rarely faced a collective crisis of this magnitude, and our ancient so-called reptilian brains, have proven ill-equipped to respond to a slow-moving disaster. We are hard-wired only to react to immediate threats via the ‘fight-or-flight’ endocrinal reflex. Evolution also makes us prone to heavily ‘discount’ future costs against even modest present gains. It is extremely difficult for most humans (or our media) to stay focused for long periods on threats that appear abstract, distant or are complex and multi-dimensional.

Not understanding or choosing to ignore a threat rarely makes it less real. False optimism can in fact be positively hazardous. In the 1930s, as fascists seized power in Europe, the British public wilfully ignored the gathering storm. Winston Churchill chose instead to “prick the bloated bladder of soggy hopes” that peace would last. For his efforts, Churchill was – literally until the bombs began to fall – maligned by politicians and the press as a war-mongering alarmist.

“Awakening to the prospect of climate disruption compels us to abandon most of the comfortable beliefs that have sustained our sense of the world as a stable place”, argues public ethicist, Clive Hamilton. The foundation beliefs of modernity are on the line. “When we recognise that our dreams of the future are built on sand, the natural human response is to despair”.

In the current circumstances, Prof Hamilton argues that clinging to hopefulness is just another form of denial. “We must allow ourselves to enter a phase of desolation and hopelessness; in short, to grieve”. That grief is for the loss of the future. The destruction of what is known as our ontological security – the mental stability derived from our belief that there is order and continuity in our lives – is deeply traumatic.

“At present, the early mourners feel lonely and isolated, sometimes keeping their thoughts to themselves for fear of alienating those around them with their anxieties and pessimism”. It is, he suggests, like having just learned from the doctors that there is no hope for recovery of a sick child, while your relatives crowd around reassuring you the child will be just fine.

The three stages he suggests we as individuals must pass through are: i) Despair; ii) Accept; iii) Act. Sugar-coating the scale and sheer intractability of the climate and ecological crisis to anything other than radical measures (a route favoured by many environmentalists) has manifestly failed. The roots of denialism run too deep, the crisis is too pressing, the vested interests too powerful and the time remaining in which our actions can have effect too short.

Changing lightbulbs won’t matter unless we can somehow also change a system that is bent on self-immolation. The current growth-economics model, based on globalised smash-and-grab of natural resources while ‘externalising’ the cost of emissions from the polluters to civilisation as a whole and our children’s generation in particular is a highway to climate hell. If globalisation is allowed to steam ahead at full speed until it spontaneously collapses, this will simply mean deeper immiseration for billions.

Meanwhile, as transnational corporations privatise the profits of resource plunder, they socialise the risks. Every year, the felling of forests is depriving the world of some $2.5 trillion (yes, trillion) of critical environmental services. The UN environment programme estimates that some 60% of the Earth’s natural resources have been “severely degraded” in just the last quarter century.

A formidable array of crises is now converging to challenge humanity’s dream of planetary hegemony. These include biodiversity loss, global warming, ocean acidification, peak food, peak water, runaway population growth and peak oil.

Oil is the black blood of modern industrial civilisation. Transportation and food production are just two of our critical systems completely dependent on converting cheap oil into energy and calories.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global ‘peak oil’ actually occurred in 2006. Humanity is now perched precariously at the apex of a bell-shaped production curve. It’s time to buckle up, as it’s all downhill from here.

The collapse in oil supply has been spectacular: “The existing fields are declining so sharply that in order to stay where we are in terms of production levels in the next 25 years, we have to find and develop four new Saudi Arabias”, according to the IEA. Of course, there never will be another oil field found as enormous as Saudi Arabia, let alone four.

A spike in oil prices in mid-2008 was the trigger event for the financial crisis that came within a heartbeat of obliterating globalisation itself that September, as well as crashing Ireland’s property pyramid scheme. The next spike, apart from ratcheting up global food prices to incendiary levels, will most likely induce another potentially lethal arrhythmia of panic.

A 2010 report from Feasta, the Irish-based Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability argues that, as energy flows begin to falter: “there is a high probability that our integrated and globalised civilisation is on the cusp of a rapid and near-term collapse”. What this means for countries like Ireland is that “starvation and social breakdown could evolve rapidly”, according to report author, David Korowicz.

Debt can only be repaid via constant economic growth. Once societies finally accept that resource constraints make sustained economic growth impossible, he argues that credit will evaporate, and with it, globalised trade and finance. The US, ostensibly the world’s richest nation, sits atop a national debt mountain of $14,000 billion – and rising. Before this bubble blows up in our faces, “what we now require is rapid emergency planning coupled with a plan for longer term adaptation,” adds Korowicz.

Techno-optimists will argue that shale oil and gas, plus ever greater usage of coal, along with a sprinkling of renewable and nuclear, will fill the void left by dwindling oil supplies. Let’s say they’re right, and, against the odds, the globalised economy continues to run full-throttle for the next 20 years.

Today, atmospheric CO2 levels are the highest they’ve been in at least three million years. Ocean system inertia means we haven’t yet felt the recoil of the colossal energy imbalance building up within the biosphere and threatening to jolt Earth into a new, much hotter, equilibrium.

And abrupt is the word. Sudden and unimaginably violent climate shifts have taken place in the ancient past. Some 251 million years ago, a rapid 6C temperature spike caused the Permian era to end in a cataclysm that wiped out over 95% of all life on the planet, and which took 100 million years to recover diversity.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected average temperature rise scenarios this century ranging from 1.8C to 6.4C. This spectrum runs from dangerous to deadly. The higher figures, unfortunately, reflect the business-as-usual path we have chosen to follow.

Expert consensus is that, to avoid the most severe impacts, temperature increases must be kept below the 2C mark. Beyond that awaits a Pandora’s Box of ‘positive feedbacks’ that, once unleashed, render all human attempts at intervention futile. Indeed, the IEA’s chief economist Fatih Birol recently described current efforts to keep the dial below 2C as “just a nice Utopia”. The Agency’s own forecasts see a hellish 6C average rise this century, in line with the IPCC’s worst-case scenario.

This level of temperature rise in a short period will push all life on Earth to the edge. Soaring temperatures will trigger droughts, famines, coastal inundation and warfare over shrinking water supplies. In a heavily armed, overpopulated world riven by energy, climate and resource crises we seem determined not to even try resolving, the likely scale of the coming die-off approaches the very edge of our ability to contemplate.

I am not alone in finding the lack of response to the impending events puzzling, indeed heartbreaking. Nobel laureate economist, Paul Krugman recently confessed to profound personal feelings of despair. “If you’ve been following climate science, you know what I mean: the sense that we’re hurtling toward catastrophe but nobody wants to hear about it or do anything to avert it. Dire warnings aren’t the delusional raving of cranks. They’re what come out of the most widely respected climate models, devised by the leading researchers.”

Almost half a century has passed since President, John F. Kennedy stated baldly: “The supreme reality of our time is the vulnerability of our planet”. To borrow another motif of that era: we did not listen; we’re not listening still. Perhaps we never will.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and blogs at
Sun Jun 12, 2011 10:43 pm
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