Thursday, September 29, 2011

Can—and Will—Mankind Survive?

When one stops long enough to consider existential questions about our societies and our civilization, thoughts usually drift to global warming and the gradual changes that ensue. John Terborgh has written an article for the New York Review of Books titled: Can Our Species Escape Destruction? His intention is to remind us that global warming is only one of our survival issues, and to make sure we realize that not all catastrophic change need be gradual.
The purpose of his commentary is to provide a review of a book by Tim Flannery, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet. Terborgh recognizes Flannery’s skill at producing entertaining material, but he believes that the book is too optimistic about the future.

"By the end, one doesn’t know quite what to make of it. Does the book have a clear message other than that we humans have to cooperate with one another better than we have in the past? As the brief chapters fly by, punctuated with anecdotes and biographical snapshots, the answer to the question is not clear. Many books concerned with the earth’s future thunder doom and gloom on every page. Flannery handles the material with a lighter touch, buoyed by the soothing principle of Gaia, the earth’s propensity to maintain a stable environment congenial to life."

The idea that the planet is somehow tuned to be accommodating to life as we know it is a fantasy in Torborgh’s opinion. In his view the planet goes its own way and life forms either keep up or they die away and are replaced by other life forms. End of story.

"For roughly half of the earth’s history, the atmosphere lacked oxygen and was replete with noxious gases: carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane. Still, life originated under these alien conditions. Oxygen appeared much later with the ascendancy of photosynthesis as the dominant process by which the energy of sunlight converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds."

"Early earth history includes a massive collision that liquefied the earth’s core and spun off the moon, a long period when the atmosphere was replete with greenhouse gases but lacked oxygen, and a time about a billion years ago when the entire earth froze over. Where was Gaia then? On a time scale of millions of years the earth’s geological processes can attain a dynamic quasi equilibrium that permits life to flourish and diversify; but on a scale of billions of years, the story becomes, from a human perspective, one of forbidding strangeness and intolerable conditions."

One way of assessing the survivability of a species is to observe that the species has been around for a long time. In that context, mankind has little reason to be optimistic. Our brief existence of 50-70,000 years provides us with small comfort. We have not been around long enough to demonstrate that we can come to equilibrium with the planet on which we reside. Indeed, that is the issue we face. Unique among the species we are capable of modifying not only our local environment, but that of the globe as a whole.

"It has been obvious for a long time—many decades—to legions of individual scientists, and to prestigious scientific organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Academy of Sciences, that the global human enterprise is on a collision course with the physical and biological limits of the earth."

"Estimates of how bad the situation is, of course, differ, but various assessments agree that the global economy is consuming resources at a rate equivalent to 1.3 to 1.5 times the earth’s capacity to supply them sustainably. The only way this can happen is for us to be consuming the resource capital from which we should be harvesting only the interest. The consumption of resource capital is evident in the sluicing of millions of tons of topsoil into the oceans, the drawing down of underground aquifers, the salinization and desertification of erstwhile croplands, the depletion of fisheries stocks, the overharvest of forests, and on and on. We, the prodigal sons of the modern era, collectively seem powerless to stop any of this."

Global warming is in addition to all these environmental assaults. And while we think of our interaction with the earth as a slow continual process, that need not be the case.

"The earth maintains a stable environment because it is a dynamic system and dynamic systems possess stable equilibriums. Less widely recognized is that the earth is a complex dynamic system. A cardinal feature of complex dynamic systems is that they can attain multiple forms of equilibrium."

In other words: abrupt changes can come rather abruptly.

Interestingly, James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, became the darkest of the gloom and doom authors a few years ago when he published a book: The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. His conclusions are described here.

"In his latest book....he argues that Earth’s system of self-regulation is being overwhelmed by greenhouse gas pollution and that Earth will soon jump from its current cool, stable state into a dramatically hotter one. All climatologists acknowledge the existence of such climatic jumps—as occurred for example at the end of the last ice age....A new climatic jump, he concludes, will occur within the next few years or decades, and will involve an abrupt increase in average global surface temperature of 9 degrees Celsius—from 15 to 24 degrees Celsius (59 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit). Such a shift, he contends, will trigger the collapse of our global civilization and the near extinction of humanity."

Torburgh does not comment directly on such predictions. He also provides his gloomy statistics merely in order to get our attention. His focus is not on the particulars of how mankind might mend its evil ways. Rather, and more interestingly, he asks whether mankind, given its short and focused evolution, is even capable of addressing the planet’s needs.

"Humans compete for resources, living space, mates, social status, and almost everything else. Each living human is at the apex of a lineage of successful competitors that extends back to the origin of life. We are nothing if not fine-tuned competitors. The compulsion to compete enters into nearly everything we do, whether we recognize it or not. And the best competitors among us are often the best rewarded. One needs to look no further than Wall Street for a flagrant example."

"It is becoming increasingly apparent that competition has a dark side, for a competitive system provides no rewards for restraint; to the contrary, lack of restraint is often rewarded. Being born into a competition-based society can be likened to entering a major marathon. Thousands surge forward at the starting gun and about two hours and ten minutes later, one person crosses the finish line. Most runners are far behind, not even within sight. Economic competition produces similar outcomes."

His analogy to a marathon race is compelling. The distribution of incomes within our societies tends to look like the exact inverse of finishing times in a marathon. If our societies are to survive as individual entities, a means will have to be found to restrain (not eliminate) this built-in desire on the part of individuals to compete and acquire ever more resources. Similarly, if our civilization is to survive it must find a way to restrain nations from their individual wills to compete and win the quest for resources.

"The human predicament of overpopulation and overexploitation of resources is fundamentally driven by the primordial impulses that drove our ancestors to achieve above-average reproductive success. In the contemporary world, these impulses form the self-interest of competitively driven entities, be they individuals, corporations, or nation-states. Will giving license to human greed bring us all down, or will the collective assert itself in time to tame the worst excesses of the few? This is the existential question that lurks in the background of every chapter of Flannery’s book."

"The world needs to impose collective restraints on many fronts, but so far self-interest and competitiveness have trumped most efforts to respond to the needs of the collective whole."

Individuals and nations have shown that when necessary they can work together, but never has the whole world collaborated on such a level. Unfortunately, by the time the necessity is sufficiently obvious to generate action, it may be too late. We don’t really know how much time we have.

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