by Geoffrey Chia
Does humanity deserve to go extinct?
“Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown” – A. Ransome, Swallows and Amazons
This turned out to be another long essay. However it is not possible to frame complex ideas into a thirty second soundbyte that the short attention span audiences of today have come to expect, courtesy of the mainstream media.
I have learned a great deal from the writings and presentations of Dr. Guy McPherson however I do not agree with all his conclusions or views. When evaluating any person (which we all do – to say we never judge people would be a lie) I tend to ask myself a few questions:
– Everyone gets things wrong, everyone makes inaccurate statements from time to time whether intentional or not. On the whole however, is this person honest, do they double check their facts, do they generally try their best to get things right?
– At their core is this person basically kind, generous and benevolent to others or are they a self serving egoist?
– Of course, whenever I point a finger at another person, there are three other fingers pointing back at myself, hence do I personally have any right to criticise Guy or am I being an even bigger hypocrite by attempting to judge him?
In answer to the above, the evidence I have seen so far is that Guy is on the whole honest (but does occasionally get things wrong – which he then admits and corrects), is generally benevolent (although irritable at times, but far less irritable than I would be in his situation) and I suspect I am a bigger hypocrite than he is. Thus, consistent with my hypocrisy, I will now proceed to criticise some of Guy’s views I disagree with.
In recent times Guy has repeatedly stated that his worst mistake was to walk away from empire to set up his mud hut and try to live a low carbon, subsistence lifestyle. I disagree. He may have regretted the personal pain he suffered as a consequence, however that does not mean his decision was a mistake. One major reason Guy now has credibility with so many people is that he had the courage to take ownership of his moral position and do the difficult thing. If his goal was to serve as an example to others to do the same – to live more simply so that others may simply live – and he failed in that goal, then the blame for that failure lies squarely with others, with the clueless sheeple. I may be among a tiny handful of people who are trying to emulate his example, albeit in a more cowardly fashion (I am too much of a coward to exit cold turkey) and there are certainly others trying to do the same. If Guy had not at least attempted to do what he believed was right at the time, that would have been a mistake.
I too have experienced failure in my previous ineffective, puny and pathetic actions to introduce some sanity into this corrupt GIMME* establishment. Just because I failed miserably does not mean those attempts were a mistake and I do not regret them. You never know till you try.
My major disagreement with Guy is whether humanity definitely will go extinct ie. his seemingly absolute belief in the 100% inevitability of NTHE. My major critique of some of the NBL hangers-on are their anonymous repetitive useless miserable whining and the idea that humanity should go extinct since they assert all humans are irredeemably corrupt and destructive.
I reiterate: I regard Guy as analogous to an experienced top-notch cancer specialist who has reviewed all the evidence and come to the conclusion that the imminent demise of a patient, who is riddled with advanced metastases, is overwhelmingly likely. Indeed to arrive at any other conclusion would be dishonest, stupid or insane. However my position is that no medical specialist, even the most highly experienced practitioner in the world, is a clairvoyant and can perfectly know the future beyond any shadow of a doubt. There have been documented rare cases of unexpected recoveries from advanced cancer, presumably by the rallying of the immune system through mechanisms not yet understood. We can only talk in terms of probabilities. I agree that NTHE could well be >99.9% likely. My point of contention is in the remaining <0.1%
Based on the updated Limits to Growth projections (where all scenarios result in global collapse, even those with unrealistically optimistic inputs) and the multiple severe insults which will afflict human populations this century, it is impossible to conceive of any credible scenario in which the mass dieoff of billions of people will not occur this century. Mass culling is guaranteed. George Mobus made a good argument for this case: read “How we could save humanity” (half way down the page) on http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2013/11/index.html
Is it however possible to conceive that a small number of humans may be able to survive the next couple of thousand years (given adequate preparation, in certain selected geographic pockets) until the overall global climate becomes more conducive to humans? I admit it may seem highly improbable, but I assert it is not impossible.
What future do we face? There are a bewildering array of different projections of likely temperature rises by 2100 (more important will be the actual equilibrium temperature we eventually reach, which may take a couple of hundred years). Let us reject the “worst case” scenario of the IPCC AR5 (of 4.8degC on top of the existing 0.8degC – say, a total of 6degC), as being way too low, because actual events have been consistently worse than the IPCC worst case projections so far. Let us accept David Wasdell’s judgement that a global average temperature rise of at least 5degC above baseline is now baked into the cake on the basis of our existing CO2 concentration, even if all anthropogenic emissions were to cease tomorrow. Let us accept that the positive feedback loops may raise global temperature by perhaps another 7degC above baseline (the exact equilibrium temperature will be anyone’s guess). Let us say there is a global average temperature rise of 12degC. This will mean higher average temperatures (to, say, 18 or 20degC) over the continents, particularly over the Northern hemisphere. Everyone there is toast. However small favoured locations will not rise by the same amount. Consider certain islands in the deep South of the Southern Ocean near the remaining Antarctic ice eg the Falkland Islands, Stewart island (NZ) and probably the best candidate, Tierra del Fuego. Perhaps these favoured locations may rise by, say, an average of 7degC. The question is whether humans may be able to survive in those selected locations till global circumstances improve.
According to current records, average maximum summer temperature in Tierra del Fuego (January) is 15degC, hence if it rises by 7degC, average maximum temperature will be 22degC and if heat waves of an additional, say 10degC occur, it can intermittently rise to 32degC. That future maximum temperature in TDF will therefore be much lower than the present heat waves in Tasmania, which in recent years went up to 41degC (Tasmania is too far North and can be dominated at times by incendiary heat waves from the Australian continent). Severe weather events (including the fierce circumpolar winds around the Southern Ocean) will be a huge challenge, but the survival of a handful in the deep South may still be possible. Rainfall is likely to remain reliable around that area due to the prevailing Westerly winds caused by the rotation of the Earth, which is “unlikely” to stop.
Planetary temperatures will eventually cool in the long term (ie. a few thousand years) in the absence of large numbers of humans. The death of >99.99% of humanity soon, which may occur quite suddenly (eg over a decade or two), will result in the abrupt cessation of anthropogenic GHG emissions, a negative feedback loop. Arguably the various positive feedback loops already well established by then may release GHG equivalents well beyond that of historical human emissions, rendering the cessation of human emissions relatively unimportant. Having said that, without billions of humans around to interfere with the natural regeneration of the biosphere eg reforestation, a substantial degree of biosequestration of carbon will eventually occur, given time. Despite one contrary evaluation by Berger and Loutre, numerous scientists reckon we are now moving into a cooler Milankovitch phase, which will lead to global cooling possibly over a couple of thousand years or so. Indeed, without the extra GHGs, we could be headed toward another ice age in that timespan. This view is consistent with the icecore data patterns which suggest this planet, under “normal” circumstances (ie without humans), would now be scheduled for a cool transition.
How fast will our temperatures rise in the near term due to GHGs? Again it is impossible to know for sure. Using the paleorecord to extrapolate to our future has been one way of making an educated guess. Prior to one particular paper claiming that during the PETM, temperatures rose by 5degC over just 13 years
it was generally thought that the rise of temperatures during the PETM (6degC) actually occured over 20,000 years http://climatediscovery.com/tag/petm/
Where does the truth lie? The fact is, the further back we look into time, the less precise we can be about the exact duration of severe events. For example we can make a fairly precise assessment about the duration of a severe climatic event which happened 500 years ago, by looking at tree rings and other abundant corroborating data. Further back in time data become more sparse and it may be impossible to tell if an event which happened, say 100 million years ago, occurred over the space of 10 years or over the space of ten thousand years, as our temporal resolution is just too poor that far back. Judging the duration of a global temperature rise which occurred 56 million years ago is prone to difficulties. Furthermore just because temperatures may have risen 5degC in 13 years in one location during the PETM does not mean it happened that quickly worldwide. It is easy to conceive today of the temperature rising 5degC over 13 years on the coast of the East Siberian sea where the summer ice has disappeared and methane is being exponentially liberated, but such rapidity will not occur in locations near the vast Antarctic ice sheets which will take a considerable time to melt, certainly more than 13 years.
The PETM was not regarded as a major global mass extinction, but a lesser extinction event. If temperatures did indeed suddenly escalate by 5degC worldwide over just 13 years and did not cause global mass extinction then, perhaps that is good news for us, because somehow the majority of plants and animals did manage to survive such a rapid rise at the time.
How reliably can we extrapolate previous warm extinction events to the future of the human animal? It is generally correct to state that a rapid rise in global average temperature is fatal for this particular category of animal: the apex predator large mammal. And of course human beings are apex predator large mammals. We know in general that apex predators (especially those with specialised diets) are the first to go extinct with ecosystem perturbations. We know that large bodied mammals, due to their low surface area to volume ratio and inability to lose excess heat, are the animals most vulnerable to temperature rises. However human beings are not the same as polar bears or elephants. We have the ability to understand the reality of our situation, to quickly migrate large distances in advance to escape the most hostile habitats, to transport the seeds and livestock on which we depend with us and to plan systematically for a dire future (OK, perhaps not 99.99% of humanity – who are either clueless sheeple or defeatist nihilists, but perhaps 0.01% can understand and plan and act). We have the ability to use technology to achieve remarkable outcomes.
By invoking the word “technology” here, am I turning into the type of “techofix delusionist” or “cornucopian technofantasist” I myself have sneered at in the past? I do not envision us developing large scale thorium fission nor nuclear fusion nor artificial photosynthesis to generate endless sources of energy, nor do I believe in the prospect of colonies in space (although I have written a satirical science fiction novel on the latter). By technology I mean the ability to dig into hillsides to survive, surrounded by the protection of thermal mass, even as the exterior wetbulb daytime summer temperature exceeds human body temperature. By technology I mean the ability to construct massive stonewall windbreaks to shelter crops against the prevailing winds in the latitudes of the furious fifties or higher. By technology I mean the ability to take advantage of the long hours of summer sunlight in high latitudes to grow excess grain, then to store that grain for rationed consumption during the neverending night of winter in those high latitudes, perhaps even to survive on Antarctica after the ice has melted there. Such measures cannot be scaled up to save billions or even millions of people, but conceiveably may be employed to enable the survival of a a small number people in small favourable locations. All it takes to avoid NTHE is for a few breeding pairs to survive in just one location in the long term.
Even during the great dying of the Permian extinction, land vertebrates of reasonable size (eg considerable numbers of the pig sized lystrosaurus), made it through. Indeed it is estimated up to 30% of land vertebrates did not go extinct then (although 96% of marine animals perished). We shoud not just extrapolate bad news from the paleorecord to our future but also consider the possibility of good news: that it is conceivable a few humans could make it through.
Consider this scenario which I call “Project Ark”:
Mr BBB is a benign benevolent billionaire (billions of dollars are not actually necessary to fund Project Ark – a couple of hundred million should suffice – the cost of one hollywood movie). Unfortunately most super wealthy individuals are males, hence I use the title “Mr” rather than “Ms”. He has amassed great wealth via the GIMME establishment but feels empty and is searching for a cause which will confer a meaningful legacy to his life. His assistant brings his attention to the dire information on NBL. Mr BBB, being scientifically literate, becomes aware of the threat of NTHE. Governments are worse than useless – they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. BBB believes that by using his exceptional access to resources during this window of time prior to global financial collapse, he can confer a comfortable existence to a few thousand young people in the coming decades of turmoil and possibly facilitate survival for a handful of humans in the extended future. If he succeeds, he will be viewed by posterity as the saviour of humanity. What greater lifetime legacy can any person leave? If he ultimately fails, so what? There is nothing better to do anyway and no matter how unlikely long term success may seem, it will be exceedingly stupid not to try. If for no other reason, there is intrinsic merit in providing good quality prolongation of life (perhaps 30 extra years) to a substantial number of deserving young people, when their peers will be dying prematurely elsewhere.
Mr BBB contacts Guy McPherson (GM), hoping to enlist him as project consultant, to tap into GM’s expertise in establishing permaculture homesteads (experience GM would not have acquired if he had not previously attempted to walk away from empire). GM’s roles are to be in project planning and to educate participants in the method of scientific enquiry as the best way to figure out reality and solve problems. He is also asked to conduct workshops to help them emotionally grasp the difficult future they face, with a shot at, but no guarantee of success. GM is initially reluctant to join as he had already resigned himself to an early death and Project Ark contradicts his latest catchphrase of “don’t do something, just sit there“. However after intense persuasion, BBB finally convinces GM that the choice of an early death would be extremely selfish, as GM still has many years of life left to provide important service to others if only he would accept this opportunity. GM cannot be persuaded to live for himself but he can be persuaded to live for the sake of others. Accordingly GM turns away from self destructive nihilistic navel-gazing and chooses a life of service to humanity for the next three decades.
BBB and GM meet with Godofredo Aravena in Santiago to work out the details of Project Ark. Godofredo is asked to be the Chilean liaison who helps deal with the local authorities and is also commissioned by BBB to establish a fleet of sailboats which will provide passenger and cargo transport for Ark communities up and down the Chilean coast. Ray Jason is asked to be sailing consultant to the fleet, who researches suitable anchorages along the coast and corresponding land access to the intended permaculture homesteads.
The principals draw up a list of criteria for Ark participants: all are under age 30 (unless they have exceptional skills or expertise to offer) with a track record of community service and/or environmental activism and with characters deemed honest, diligent, reliable, selfless, generous and cooperative. Potential sociopaths and phoneys (and government “Judas goat” infiltrators) are actively excluded. Carolyn Baker (who appoints two other professional colleagues for assistance) conducts the candidates’ psychological screening for suitability. Selection is provisional for 6 months and depends on subsequent performance. In terms of skills, candidates have practical expertise in growing food, raising livestock, carpentry, metalwork, plumbing and even with diesel engines and offgrid electrical systems (such machinery will still be available for at least the next couple of decades). Many have been active in their Transition Towns groups. Some have been wandering about as WWOOFers. They may be single or may be young couples without (but preferably with) young children, all are in good physical health. They have little or no money. It will be impossible to buy a ticket into this project anyway, only merit can earn them a place. Many are burdened by outrageous student debts – which are immediately paid off by BBB.
Fifteen hundred candidates are chosen, to populate 10 communities of 150 people each, stretching from the vicinity of Concepcion in the North to the vicinity of Punta Arenas (near TDF) in the South. The land areas purchased for this project towards the South are progressively larger, those near TDF being more than 10 times bigger than the one purchased near Concepcion. In the initial years, fossil fuels are used to establish the homestead infrastructures and artificial fertilisers are provided to grow crops. It will be silly not to use those resources while we still have them, but their long term goal is to free themselves from such dependency.
BBB acquires a massive resource of various food crops ranging from tropical to temperate. Climatically appropriate seeds, saplings, cuttings, roots and shoots are distributed to the various communities at different latitudes to kickstart their permaculture villages. One long term seed repository is established near Punta Arenas in a cold vault at the outset. As Concepcion becomes tropical, tropical plants and livestock are cultivated in that homestead and as the tropics move further south, these tropical saplings, seeds and animals are transported to more southerly homesteads by sailboat. As the lower latitude Northern communities become unlivable due to excessive warming, residents will be progressively evacuated by sailboat to the higher latitude Southern communities. Ultimately all participants will live in the vicinity of TDF, by which time it may be possible to cultivate tropical or subtropical produce there, the experience to do so being gleaned from those who originally established the Northern communities.
What livestock will be chosen? In the absence of human intervention, possibly 70% of all land species will go extinct. Humans will choose certain favoured species to bring along with them to the favoured locations. The rest of the planet will be completely ravaged. In past epochs after mass extinctions, it could take perhaps 10 million years before planet wide biodiversity was restored.
In the worst case scenario, if the vicinity of TDF ultimately becomes too warm to live in, residents can be evacuated by sailboat to Antarctica (a relatively close landfall being the Antarctic peninsula), bringing their seed bank and livestock with them. Notwithstanding the wild winds and seas south of Cape Horn, there will be occasional windows of relative calm to enable successful voyages. Some of the possible challenges to settling on Antarctica are outlined below.
Bill Gates, Richard Branson or James Cameron, are you reading this?
What is the absolute worst case scenario? Just as we can dismiss the low ball “worst case” temperature scenarios of the IPCC as being nonsense, we can also dismiss the high end ludicrous scenarios by some pundits who claim the oceans will boil off and Earth will become like Venus. The oceans did not boil off when the methane gun was fired during the Permian extinction and it will not happen in any forseeable future (not for more than a billion years, anyway).
We are too far away from the sun for the oceans to boil off and indeed in the distant past, around 650 million years ago, when simple photosynthesizing organisms sequestered too much carbon dioxide, this planet turned into “snowball earth”, entirely covered by glaciers, even at the equator, even though the Earth was closer to the sun at that time (as the eons pass, the Earth is slowly moving further away from the sun – the orbital distance is increasing).
I reiterate: the guaranteed dieoff of billions of people will be one negative feedback loop this century and our likely transition into a cooler Milankovitch phase may be another negative feedback loop in the longer term. I am not sure on what basis some scientists calculated that the Earth is on in the inner (hot) edge of the “Goldilocks zone” for life (viz distance from the sun), however we know that, at least over the past 800,000 years, glacial periods have tended to be the norm on our planet and interglacial periods have tended to be briefer. If that is considered the hot part of the Goldilocks zone, I hate to think what the cold part is like.
In the near term what could be our absolute worst case scenario? The rest of the planet could very well become too hot for humans to live in, but significant areas of Antarctica, as they become ice free, will enter a temperature range suitable for us. In the past, large dinosaurs thrived in tropical ice free Antarctica. Large dinosaurs certainly generated and retained substantial internal body heat from their metabolism – some may have been truly warm blooded. Furthermore they would have had difficulty dissipating heat due to their low SA/volume ratio ie gigantothermia. If temperatures were suitable for large dinosaurs in tropical Antarctica in the past, they are likely to be suitable for humans in the future. The big challenge for humans on Antarctica will be producing food in the initial phase when attempting to settle on the coast. Furious winds and stony barren soils may render traditional agricultural methods impossible. Fresh water may be abundant in some areas from rivers fed by glacial melt, but torrential floods could be a problem. One possible solution could be the hydroponic cultivation of food. Enclosures must be protected from high winds while still allowing ample light in. In a barren landscape nutrients will have to be completely recycled and no organic matter can be allowed to be lost. Specifics can be worked out now, by conducting practical trials in locations which may approximate the future thawed Antarctic.
Once again, my assertion is we can only talk about future outcomes in terms of probabilities. I argue there is a nonzero chance that a small handful of humans could make it through the next couple of thousand years or so, till global temperatures become more conducive for more widespread human existence again. Giving up now, throwing up our hands in despair and not planning ahead is more likely to guarantee NTHE – to turn it into a self fulfilling prophecy. Planning ahead for a dire future may however confer a fighting chance to a select few.
Physiologically and anatomically modern humans lived in harmony with the planet for at least 150,000 years before the advent of civilisation. Even though over the past 6000 years civilisations rose and fell and caused some environmental damage, none caused irreparable harm to our biosphere before the advent of industrialisation. Pre-fossil fuel civilisation was not incompatible with sustainability.
History shows that many world changing events often hinged on a single critical decision or a chance occurence. Complete plunder and devastation of the entire world was never a foregone conclusion. Human history has largely been that of warfare and conquest, however there have been instances of voluntary retreat and contraction.
The largest land empire in history was that of the Mongols who almost never lost in battle. They were ruthless, cruel and merciless. Before the mid 13th century they had overrun Hungary, Poland and Croatia, had sacked and burned down Kiev and were hammering on the gates of Vienna. They had devastated the Rus (or land Vikings), whose abiding visceral dread of the Mongols lives on in Russian lore. In 1241 they inflicted simultaneous crushing defeats upon the Germans near Breslau and upon mixed European cavalry near Buda. The outlook appeared hopeless for Europe. Then it all stopped. The sudden death (from a drinking binge) of the Grand Khan at the time, Ogedei, required that all the generals withdraw back to Karakorum to work out the succession. Europe was saved by a chance event. After political infighting, the Mongols ultimately decided to cease their Western expansion and to focus on their occupation of China and India which were the main sources of wealth in the world at the time. A rational decision, to avoid overreach, not to acquire territories which were relatively worthless then (Europe).
The Chinese eventually expelled the Mongols to establish the Ming dynasty, during which they built fleets of ships which voyaged to southeast Asia, India and Africa (probably no further, despite the claims of Gavin Menzies). The first Ming fleet, consisting of 27,000 troops in hundreds of ships, voyaged in 1405, almost a century before Christopher Columbus and his three ships. The Chinese had paper, printing, the compass and ocean going ships – innovations Francis Bacon later cited as being crucial for the subsequent Western domination of the world (however he did not acknowledge their origins). The Chinese invented gunpowder which they did not bother to significantly weaponise. After the seventh Ming voyage in 1433, they suddenly stopped. After their own political infighting, they decided they had enough resources in their own country and were not interested in conquest, nor in substantial trade outside China. They had enough, and enough is as good as a feast.
The Mongols never regained their historical ferocity, not because of military defeats, but because they were eventually tamed by the gentle philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism. If one were to experience the kindness, friendliness, hospitality and generosity of modern Mongolians today, it seems impossible to imagine that their forebears historically killed, raped and pillaged all across Eurasia.
My point is this: there were examples where empires chose to voluntarily contract, rather than to overextend then collapse. Gentle philosophies can tame violent and murderous tribes and supercede the paradigms of violence and domination.
Even rapacious Western Industrial civilisation did have times of restraint as exemplified by the dismantling of the Standard Oil monopoly by the US government just before the turn of the 20th century. After the start of the Great Depression in 1929, the US government enacted Glass-Steagall in 1933 which protected the savings of Americans for many decades to follow from predatory psychopaths.
Arguably Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 election due to the humiliation of the failed rescue of US hostages in Iran. The major reason for that failure was the sandstorms which caused mechanical problems with the helicopters. If not for the sandstorms, if the rescue had been successful, if Carter had been re-elected – would the US have gone down a different path by developing solar energy and reducing oil dependency (notwithstanding the Carter doctrine)?
George Bush Jr was appointed POTUS by the Supreme Court in 2000 and it is possible he may not actually have won the election. If Al Gore had become President by a fair vote count instead, we know for sure he would not have invaded Iraq in 2003 for their oil and he would have been a genuine advocate for renewable energy.
Is activism useless? For women in Britain to win the vote, the suffragettes had to be willing to go to jail for their cause. Civil rights in the US were not handed to African Americans on a silver platter, they had to fight for them and must continue to fight for them. Good on you Rosa Parks!
Not all human beings are irredeemably violent, stupid and greedy. If sufficient numbers had opposed the agenda of the psychopaths, things might have been different. In 2013 a young progressive Marxist woman, Kshama Sawant, won a seat in the Seattle city council by popular vote. In 2011 human rights lawyer Park Won-Soon was voted mayor of Seoul. He had previously been jailed as an environmental activist. He has championed progressive policies and established a chain of thrift shops for the poor specialising in the repair of and cheap resale of second hand goods. Too little too late? Perhaps, but these are real world examples that true democracy can work if the voting public are active, educated and enlightened.
I previously questioned whether human dieoff was in the long run inevitable, by invoking game theory: the tragedy of the commons and the parable of the tribes. However using the examples above, I now conclude that even though disaster seemed probable, it was never absolutely inevitable.
By me stating that historical events were not foregone conclusions, that nothing was ever certain till they actually happened, am I contradicting my previous statement that we will see a guaranteed dieoff of billions of people this century, an event which has not yet happened? Not at all. We have already reached atmospheric CO2 of 400ppm, we have already witnessed (and continue to witness) exponential release of methane in Arctic coast and tundra, we have already consumed all the easy oil and are facing inadequate EROEI for industrial society to continue. We have already fallen off the cliff. What is not certain is whether the last few stragglers who fall off the cliff may achieve a relatively soft landing on the preceding pile of corpses and merely break a few bones, but are able to survive and crawl off.
Here then is my disagreement with Guy’s blog policy. I understand he values free speech and is reluctant to moderate any posts. Having said that, there is a huge difference between thought-police censorship and necessary editing. For example I am sure he would not tolerate anyone posting a groundless ad hominum attack, accusing him of being a pedophile, nor should any of us tolerate such a despicable lie. Such a post should not see the light of day and if it inadvertently does appear, should be immediately deleted. That is necessary editing.
Free speech is not a right unless also accompanied by responsibility. The key principle here is responsible free speech. Lies, abuses of free speech and use of profanity, especially by anonymous cowards, even if in support of Guy’s position (eg groundless ad hominum attacks) should be edited out.
Should Humanity go extinct?
I agree the worst outcome will be if a handful of humans survive and ultimately end up repopulating the planet to repeat the same criminal abuses against Gaia as our fossil fool generations have. Future planetary abuses on such a large scale however will be unlikely, because future generations will not have the same easy access to abundant fossil fuels. Our generation has already greedily harvested the low hanging fruit. Most importantly, an archive of the history of human stupidity must be preserved so that future survivors can learn from it. I suspect they will develop a strong ethic of planetary conservation because copious evidence of the misdeeds of previous generations will be strewn about everywhere, in the form of nonbiodegradable rubbish, toxic waste and abandoned concrete jungles.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
– PB Shelly
Will it be better for the Living Planet if human beings go extinct? The average human would probably say no. All the other untold millions of species, if they could answer, would probably say yes, good riddance to all humans, good riddance to bad rubbish. However they cannot answer, they lack our special cognitive abilities. Humans are also a species of animal on this planet and even though as a group we have messed up big time, do at least some less culpable humans not also have the same right as other species to exist? Do the best accomplishments of human culture and the scientific insights we have achieved (which no other species could have attained) not warrant preservation and perpetuation? Of course in a meaningless universe there is no “correct” answer to this question, merely one’s point of view. However on the basis of statistical probability I believe intelligent life in the universe is exceedingly rare and wise life is even rarer and if some humans survive this bottleneck and ultimately do achieve wisdom and learn to live sustainably within Nature, then humanity 2.0 will become a deserving species.
I agree with Godofredo Aravena that it will be necessary, now that we understand the pathogenesis of this godawful mess we created, to shape a framework of philosophy and code of behaviour for future humans to follow in order to avoid making the same mistakes. We need to ensure our policies are determined by evidence, reason and fairness to serve the long term common human good and planetary good. Perverse policies to favour a psychopathic few at the expense of the many (now being pursued in all capitalist countries today) must be rejected. It may be necessary to ensure the ruthless extirpation of psychopaths (who will always keep popping up, mutant like, from time to time) from future communities to prevent them from ever gaining power and driving humanity off the rails again.
We know this for certain: The moon landings would not have occured if the US had not pursued the Apollo project in a methodical and systematic manner to bring about success. When JFK made his declaration of intent, relying on as yet uninvented technologies, the likelihood of success within a decade seemed slim.
NTHE is certainly more likely if we make no concerted attempt to avoid it. My arguments outlined above show there is a nonzero chance that methodical and systematic planning may save a small number of people in the long term, using simple, basic technology. We do not need to invent anything new but we do need to conduct trials in various locations to see what works in practice. Project Ark should be attempted because it will be exceedingly stupid not to even try. Even if project Ark fails in the long run it will be worthwhile doing, if only to give a few young people a few extra decades of good quality life. Any attempt by the whiny naysayers to sabotage such a prospect for those young people will be simply mischevious.
Geoffrey Chia, June 2014
1) Here is a question specifically for Godofredo Aravena: in the absence of a benign benevolent billionaire to bankroll the Ark project, surely it will be possible for a few self organised community groups of far sighted Chileans to undertake similar survival projects on their own initiative, using their own resources?
2) A brief history of parasites
It has been estimated that the number of bacterial and parasitic cells on and in the human body outnumber our actual human cells by more than ten to one. Under normal circumstances many of these parasites extract nutrition from their host in a sustainable manner, not causing ill harm. Many of the bacteria on our skin and in our gut are in fact essential for our good health as they crowd out potentially pathogenic bacteria and in some cases even produce essential substances for us, such as vitamin K.
Organisms recently evolved to become parasites are the most lethal, because they have not yet learned how to live in harmony with their host. They frequently kill their host and therefore also themselves. For example, plasmodium falciparum is the most lethal human malarial parasite and can be regarded as being more poorly evolved than, say, vivax. Each time the plasmodium (and their antigens) are released into our bloodstream we develop a fever as our body tries to reject them. Given a few millenia the natural course would be for falciparum to evolve into a more benign form, as that would be in the interest of the parasite itself.
The planet now has a fever and will shed its load of pathogenic parasitic humans very soon. Whether a tiny fraction of those humans can survive the great dying and ultimately learn to live in harmony with the planet and evolve into non-pathogenic benign commensals is unknown.
3) *Glossary for NBL newbies:
EROEI = energy return on energy invested
GHGs = greenhouse gases
GIMME = Government, Industrial, Military, Media, Economic establishment
NBL = Nature Bats Last website
NTHE = near term human extinction
PETM = Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum
POTUS = President of the Unhinged States (of America)
TPTB = the powers that be
WWOOFers = willing workers on organic farms
Here is another abbreviation I offer, which in future (actually, even now) will be applicable to shale or coal seam gas fracking, unconventional oil production and the keystone XL pipeline (and also to climate geoengineering attempts if it comes to that):
SLAGIATT = seemed like a good idea at the time
McPherson’s comment: I disagree with essentially nothing in Chia’s essay except the harsh tone and inappropriate attacks on other people. We can quibble about the details, but I’d rather not. I’d like to think we can carry out a civil discussion in this space, regardless how dire the topic.