I delivered a short presentation to a group of International Environmental Law students in Brisbane, Australia on 28 May 2017. My presentation was delivered electronically from western Belize. The resulting video was recorded and edited by Pauline Schneider with my thanks. The 20-minute video is embedded below, and is followed by a transcript of my presentation (from which I deviated occasionally). I’ve added a few embedded links in this written version.
What would you do if you had 10 years to live? How would you act? How would you live?
What if it was 4 years?
What if it was 14 months?
What if it was 4 months?
Would you live more fully every day? Every moment?
Would you prioritize your work differently? Or your relationships?
What is important to you? Who is important to you? Are you acting NOW as if these things and these beings are important?
I’ll talk primarily about 5 topics today: (1) habitat for human animals, (2) Civilization as a heat engine, (3) the Catch-22 of terminating civilization, (4) the Sixth Mass Extinction on Earth, and (5) how we respond to a terminal diagnosis.
First up: What is habitat? According to the first definition in my Merriam-Webster online dictionary, habitat is “the place or environment where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives and grows.”
I’m professor emeritus of conservation biology, and I largely agree with this simplistic definition. Habitat is one of the three pillars of conservation biology, along with speciation and extinction. Speciation is the process of how, when, and with what ancestors a species comes into existence. For example, our favorite species, Homo sapiens, came into being about 300,000 years ago, is descended from earlier members of the genus Homo — all of which are now extinct — and is currently represented by some 7.6 billion specimens. Some of these specimens were clever enough to choose their parents and their date and place of birth in a manner that allowed them to seek degrees in law at a certain university in Australia.
Extinction is the process by which a species meets its demise. So far, more than 99% of the species to appear on Earth have gone extinct. Based on substantial evidence, our own species is headed into the abyss of extinction far sooner than most people realize.
According to James Hansen, the godfather of climate science, we’ve had humans on the planet up to about 2 degrees Celsius above the 1750 baseline, when the planetary temperature was about 13.5 C. Hansen reported this conclusion in a legal brief filed on August 12, 2015. I suspect 2 C above the 1750 baseline is the maximum temperature at which we will have habitat for humans on Earth. We’re currently at least 1.6 degrees above the 1750 baseline. No species persists long without habitat, not even the clever ones.
A synthetic paper written by Oliver Tickell and published in the Guardian on August 11, 2008 concluded via headline, “On a planet 4C hotter, all we can prepare for is extinction.” That 4 C number seems a tad high to me. The paper goes on to explain that humans will persist up to 6 C above the 1750 baseline, thus about 19.5 C. I doubt there will be a tree on the planet, or much other complex life, with a rapid rise to 17.5 C. But we don’t know, because we’ve never experienced Earth with humans at anywhere close to 4 C above baseline, much less at 6 C above baseline, about 19.5 C.
Onto Item Two, Civilization as a heat engine. Tim Garrett is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah. He has been studying the thermodynamics of civilization for several years, and wrote the signature paper on the topic in 2007. In that and subsequent papers, Garrett concluded that civilization itself is a heat engine. His initial paper on the topic was submitted in 2007, rejected by ten journals, and finally accepted for publication in the prestigious journal Climatic Change in 2009 by a courageous editor during his final months on Earth. The paper was ultimately printed in February 2011. The initial paper is supported by subsequent papers that point out that the heat engine of civilization can be stopped only when civilization collapses.
Civilization is a tricky subject, so I’ll clarify what it means, from Garrett’s perspective. Civilization refers to the set of living arrangements into which most of us were born and to which we’ve all become accustomed. Collapse of civilization means no fuel at the filling stations, no food at the grocery stores, and no water pouring out the municipal taps. This civilization — industrial civilization — is like all previous versions of civilization in that it depends upon the production, storage, and distribution of grains at considerable scale. Without storing food, there is no means by which humans can go into human-population overshoot.
Civilizations first arose a few thousand years ago in more half-a-dozen places around the globe. No civilization came into being for the first 2.8 million years of the genus Homo, or for the first roughly 300,000 years of the species Homo sapiens, and suddenly civilizations were popping up like trolls on YouTube. People within these early civilizations discovered grains such as maize and wheat, thus enabling humans to survive through the droughts and other environmental inconveniences. Large-scale production and storage of grains also allowed control of the local food supply, hence control of the people. Thus did the sociopaths assume control.
Why did several civilizations arise essentially simultaneously a few thousand years ago? Apparently to the answer to this question is found within the global-average temperature of the planet. Coming out of the last Ice Age, the global-average planetary temperature rose from 12 degrees Celsius to about 13.5 degrees C. More importantly, planetary temperature stabilized at that point. This relatively cool and stable temperature allowed grains to be grown in sufficient quantities to allow development of cities. The word “city” shares the same root as civilization, Civitas, and the building of cities is the very definition of civilization. After all, cities allow human-population overshoot, initially locally and ultimately globally, because they depend upon surrounding areas for the delivery of clean air, potable water, healthy food, and the wood, bricks, and mortar by which structures are created.
Not only is civilization a heat engine, even if the civilization is powered by “renewable” energy, but each civilization trashes the planet to provide conveniences for city-dwellers. Consider, for example, the 200 or so species being driven to extinction every day, the fouling of the air, the pollution of the waters, the utter destruction of the soil, and the many other undesirable outcomes of this version of civilization.
The story we tell ourselves about ourselves — to use one definition of civilization — is filled with contradictions. This civilization, like others, is characterized by endemic racism, endemic misogyny, endemic monetary disparity leading to poverty, overshoot of the human population, accelerating extinction of non-human species, and various other undesirable characteristics. Unlike other civilizations, this version is characterized by the infinite-growth paradigm, nuclear materials sufficient to cause our own extinction via multi-generational horrors resulting from lethal mutations, and also a much quicker means to our end: global dimming.
Global dimming is the Catch-22 of human extinction, our item three. Civilization is a heat engine that is in the process of killing all life on Earth. Turning off civilization destroys most complex life on the planet, even faster than keeping it running. Allow me to explain, albeit briefly.
As we all know, industrial civilization puts into the atmosphere greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and a few others. These greenhouse gases serve as “blankets” that hold the heat provided by the sun close to Earth. As it turns out, industrial activity also produces particulates that serve as an “umbrella” and protect the planet from incoming sunlight. These particulates are cooling the planet to the tune of about 3 degrees Celsius. Industrial activity constantly puts these particulates into the atmosphere, most notably by burning coal high in sulfur. The particulates constantly fall out, very rapidly. If we suddenly stop burning coal and other fossil fuels, the global-average temperature of Earth heats to more than 4.5 C above baseline in a few days.
The slow rise in planetary temperature to date has destroyed habitat for myriad species including, in many places, humans. The gradual rise in global-average temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is proceeding 10,000 times faster than vertebrates can adapt, according to the stunningly conservative refereed journal literature. Abrupt climate change has recently begun. An abrupt global-average rise in temperature resulting from the loss of global dimming taking Earth to more than 4.5 C above the 1750 baseline, with the vast majority of the temperature rise occurring within a few months, surely will destroy habitat for our species and many others far faster than expected. It’s difficult for me to imagine much multicellular life on our only home with a rapid rise from the current temperature to a much warmer temperature in a matter of decades, much less months.
We are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction on Earth. This is item four. The current rate of extinction of species, along with the current rise in planetary temperature, is unprecedented in planetary history. The ultra-conservative refereed journal literature caught up to the Sixth Mass Extinction on June 19, 2015 with a paper in Science Advances. Coincident with release of the paper, lead author Gerardo Cellabos concluded via interview, “life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on.” Indeed, a United Nations report issued during August 2010 conservatively estimated the extinction rate of 150-200 species each day. Nearly five years later, the journal literature caught up to the ongoing genocide.
The worst of the previous five Mass Extinction Events occurred about 252.2 million years ago. The Great Dying was characterized by a global-average rise in temperature from Ice Age — 12 degrees C — to hothouse and beyond: 23 C. This is the warmest temperature experienced by Earth during the last 2 billion years. It has happened once. According my own conservative analysis from August 1, 2016 analysis on my blog, guymcpherson.com, we are headed for a similar temperature by mid-2026. That’s in less than a decade. I simply added the primary contributors to global heating to come up with this result.
According to an analysis posted on the Arctic News blog on April 24, 2017 that assumes exponential temperature rise, rather than simply adding up the primary contributors of temperature rise, the planet will reach 23 C — some 9.5 degrees above the 1750 baseline — in 2021. That’s in four years. Lest you believe this is crazy, a similar analysis conducted in 2012 predicted only a global-average rise in temperature of 4 C above the 1750 baseline by 2030. The analysis from 2012 has proven wildly conservative.
We’re headed for an ice-free Arctic, as predicted by the United States Naval Postgraduate School. This event last happened some 3 million years ago, before our genus appeared on Earth. In 2013, the School predicted an ice-free Arctic in 2016, plus or minus three years. We’ve dodged four bullets so far, and it appears our luck is about to run out. An ice-free Arctic, which appears imminent this summer, seems likely to trigger the 50-Gt burst of methane from the relatively shallow sea floor of the Arctic Ocean described by field researcher Natalia Shakhova and colleagues at the European Geophysical Union meeting in 2008 as “highly possible for abrupt release at any time.” Such as event would raise global-average temperature beyond the temperature experienced by humans in the past, and almost certainly would cause the demise of civilization as a result of our inability to produce and store grains at large scale, thereby adding another 3 C or so to global-average temperature. Thus could Earth reach 19.C C, about 6 C above the 1750 baseline of 13.5 C, by next summer. That’s in 14 months.
People in bunkers might survive a few years. They’ll be dehydrated, hungry, lonely, and living within a bleak world nearly devoid of other complex life. Their survival will be a day-to-day proposition, with every day more tenuous than the day before, much as it is today for non-human species.
Or perhaps civilization will reach its overdue end as a result of the demise of the petro-dollar this September, consistent with the kinds of events that have occurred historically during past Septembers. I’m not predicting this outcome. And I’m not ruling it out. If it occurs, we can expect an abrupt global-average rise in temperature well beyond the temperature at which Earth has harbored anything resembling humans. Most people dwelling in cities will die within a few days as a result of dehydration or starvation. October 1 is 120 days away.
Finally, then, as item five, I’d like to consider how we act. I strongly suspect we are the final humans on Earth. In light of this knowledge, will you live more fully every day? Every moment?
Will you prioritize your work differently? Or your relationships?
What is important to you? Who is important to you? Are you acting NOW as if these things and these beings are important?
Are you passionately pursuing a life of excellence? Or are you stuck on the treadmill onto which you were born? Do you reinforce the jail cell into which you were born with bars comprised of societal expectations? Are you pursuing a life of your own choosing, or are the cultural shackles strong enough to control your every action?
To summarize, I have three essential messages:
Remain calm, as nothing is under control.
Pursue excellence, even within a culture of mediocrity.
Pursue love, contrary to the messages we receive every day from this culture.