Sunday, October 05, 2008

The End of the Biosphere as We Knew It

Apr/May 07 Grassroots Press column:

If we reduced the Earth to the size of a large onion, the atmosphere would be about half the thickness of the onion’s papery outer skin. Life on our planet is confined to this thin layer; we call it the biosphere. People have no clue how fragile the biosphere really is. Or was.

From now on, we can refer to the biosphere in the past tense since it is continually degrading; there is no longer any stable point of reference. We can no longer say, "this is what the biosphere is;" we can only say, "this is what the biosphere was." By the time you read this sentence, the biosphere is already measurably degraded compared to its condition when you started reading this article. Every second, another acre of rainforest is destroyed. Every second, uncounted kilotons of ice melt, never to refreeze. Every second, another four human babies are born, which works out to 96,000,000 each year. And so forth. We have finally managed to destroy Earth’s equilibrium, and still our human madness continues... only faster. We are insisting on accelerating into the brick wall. We are the generation that will leave a ruined planet as our legacy.

Back in the 60s, I started out my professional life as a planetary astronomer, specializing in weather patterns on the planet Jupiter. Instead of pursuing this career, I decided to live more in harmony with the Earth, so I dropped out and went back to the land (where I still remain). I have always viewed Earth in planetary terms, and keeping track of our planet has long been a hobby of mine. I have spent decades waiting in vain for any evidence that our species is capable of reversing its deadly trajectory.

It is my considered opinion, based on decades of reading and pondering, that our planet will eventually experience a massive dieoff -- not only of humans, but of many (or most) other species as well. It is impossible to say when this will actually happen, but a destroyed planet is all but guaranteed. This should come as no surprise to people aware of the enormity of the environmental crisis we have unleashed.

I have always been a liberal tree hugger; I wear the insignia proudly on my sleeve; I support Al Gore and all the rest. But the evidence is so overwhelming, so compelling, that as a scientist I have no choice but to draw the logical conclusion: massive dieoff relatively soon. The essence of science is to (a) make accurate observations, and (b) to draw the logical conclusions from these observations. As time goes on, and we accumulate more information, our conclusions might change. Unlike the faith-based elements of our society, scientists always reserve the right to change our minds. But at this point in time, the logical conclusion – a massive dieoff – is inescapable. Whether or not humans manage to pull off a last-second reprieve remains to be seen.

One factor worth watching is the melting permafrost in Siberia. When temperatures increase a bit more, and the permafrost starts to melt in a serious way, enormous quantities of CO2 and methane will be released, which will double the percentage of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. This will cause temperatures to rise even faster, which will release even more greenhouse gases, and so on. Needless to say, the climatologists are keeping a close eye on this situation.

It is commonly said that we have ten years in which to start reducing the CO2 level in our atmosphere. After that time, it is said, the point of no return will have been passed, and out-of-control global warming will be inevitable. But I see no particular reason to believe this rosy scenario, and consider it a typical exercise in feel-good nonsense. (Americans prefer their reality filtered through a thick layer of sugar and spice.) I think a case can just as well be made that the point of no return was passed a decade or more ago.

Regarding sustainability, America in 2007 is marked by an astounding level of inaction. Sure, there’s lots of talk, lots of bravado and wishful thinking, but what we need is meaningful, tangible action – LOTS of meaningful, tangible action -- such as reducing the CO2 level in our atmosphere, pronto. But the reality is, the human population is still growing, CO2 emissions are still increasing, and Americans are still hypnotized into believing "there are no limits." Life goes on as usual.

Politicians talk about reducing emissions by 15% by 2015. This is pitifully inadequate, but in their bubble world, they congratulate themselves for their bold initiatives. What a crock. Instead of bold politicians leading the way, what we actually have is a classic case of too little, too late.

Americans will remain paralyzed as long as the status quo socio-economic system remains in power. Perversely, the status quo system is becoming more powerful all the time, even as it approaches its inevitable collapse. Not only are Americans physically dependent on the system for every iota of their sustenance, but their very identities and innermost thoughts and fears are skillfully manipulated by the system. As long as America remains a totally-owned subsidiary of the Military-Industrial Complex, and as long as our economy is based upon exploitation, constant growth, and debt speculation, our creativity will remain strangled and ineffective. By the time we run out of the oil that makes the status-quo economy possible, we will wish that we had been more proactive -- because we will find, once the clusterfuck starts, that we have run out of time.

Please view all this as a hypothesis. Nobody knows the future; all we can do is project present trends. As we accumulate new information, we modify our hypothesis, and after being refined as often as necessary, the hypothesis becomes an accurate predictor of future events. In my opinion, my hypothesis (massive dieoff) is already an accurate predictor of future events. The skeptics will require more convincing, and the die-hard faithists will never believe anything their leaders don’t want them to. I think that within a decade or three (or possibly much sooner), we will have an all-too-accurate picture of what is really coming down.


Post a Comment

<< Home