On the survival of civilization – Earth Day 2020

Unusual Weather Leads to Ozone Low Over the Arctic
Ozone depletion over the Arctic. NASA Earth Observatory

An Australian NGO has been following the anthropogenic decimation of our planet for the past few years. The group, known as The Commission For The Future of Humanity, notes that there are ten existential issues that could spell the demise of civilization during this century. No single one of these is unfolding in isolation because they are potentially mutually reinforcing calamities on a global scale. Note also that the Commission identifies ten issues, which is a suspiciously round number that is easily cited. To be sure there are other factors that reinforce the ten that they identify.

The 10 existential threats to civilization are:
1. Climate change
2. Environmental decline and species extinction
3. Nuclear weapons
4. Resource scarcity
5. Food and water insecurity
6. Dangerous new technologies
7. Overpopulation
8. Universal pollution by chemicals
9. Pandemic disease
10. Denial, misinformation, and failure to act

All of these are to some degree a consequence of human hubris and the deeply held assumption that we are separate from nature and thus masters of our destiny. Perhaps the universe is amused by this whenever she happens to look our way. These ten are also intersectional with and deeply linked to issues of social and environmental justice. It should be obvious in the midst of what is likely to be the hottest year on record and the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic that many of these dire threats are unfolding as we march inexorably toward a population of 9-10 billion by midcentury.

The Commission offers its views on how to get out of this mess, and I am sure that every armchair authority is certain that they have the correct solution. I encourage you to look up their work and read about the Commission’s approach. I also think you should STFU and listen to experts and scientists because you don’t know squat about it if you haven’t studied these issues – I am tired of hearing from you that it is simply overpopulation – you are wrong (equal rights does not mean that your uninformed opinion is equivalent to my 40 years of scholarship). In that vein, I offer the following observations that I hope will put the living parts of the Earth System into the mix as part of our understanding of these unfolding horrors.

The Earth System has been developing for over 4 billion years since the formation of the planet Earth. It is the climate, the biosphere, the geosphere, and the oceans. Most people cannot fathom the concept of deep time, but I encourage you to consider that the rhythms of energy and material flux on Earth operate on a timescale that is centuries to millennia to millions of years.

This means that the disruptions that we have applied to the Earth System in a mere 200 years have occurred far faster than only the rarest of occurrences in prehistory. Such rare events are things like an asteroid strike. Although the event itself may occur in the wink of eye, the transformation of the Earth System in response to such an event unfolds over tens of thousands to millions of years.

The implication of the role of deep time in the dynamic flux of energy and material in the Earth System is that our present disruptions will not be repaired or “fixed” on any meaningful human timescale. There is no technological trick or form of geoengineering that will reverse what we have done. For example, removing CO2 from the atmosphere through technology that is barely proven at present would not keep ecosystems from continuing with ongoing massive transformation.

Ecosystems exhibit system-level hysteresis. Thus large scale perturbations such as the mega-drought of the American West or the deforestation and burning of the Amazon will play out over hundreds or thousands of years before those ecosystems achieve a relatively stable relationship with the Earth System. The bottom line is that the ecology and climate of the “normal” 20th century are gone forever.

We must be prepared to manage the Earth System in perpetuity for so long as civilization is to thrive. We will not fix it and then all will be well. It is important to realize that the latter part of the Holocene is remarkable for its stable climate and this is the period during which all of civilization and agriculture developed. This goldilocks climate may very well have been a one-off in the history of glacial advance and retreat over the last 1.8 million years. No, this is not evidence of god, but merely the complexity of the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Forget about any moral obligation that you may feel toward the other living things on Earth. You had better worry about your own ass and those of your descendants trying to survive in a disrupted biosphere. It is a requirement that we manage the biosphere. Either we do it, or face collapse, and perhaps down the road beyond this century, extinction. We cannot decouple human use of energy and material from the dynamic flux of energy and material in the Earth System. What is truly remarkable is that we appear to have acquired this understanding in the nick of time.

You and I are gardeners and we live in a very ailing garden. Pick up your hoe and get to work, and hope like hell that it is not too late to save those parts of the garden that we need to survive.