Will COVID-19 Trigger Extinction of All Life on Earth?

Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


Small lives matter. Indeed, the “human body contains about 100 trillion cells, but only maybe one in 10 of those cells is actually — human.” We are comprised of bacteria and other tiny living organisms, as well as non-living entities such as viruses. One such virus has captured the attention of the world, and with good reason. The novel coronavirus could trigger extinction of humans, and therefore the extinction of all life on Earth.

I frequently hear and read that COVID-19 is a nefarious attempt by the so-called “elite” among us to depopulate the burgeoning human population on Earth. Other conspiracy theories abound, including COVID-19 as an attempt to further reduce human rights, promote expensive medical therapies, and otherwise enrich the wealthy at the expense of the bamboozled masses.

I do not doubt the ability of the informed wealthy to fleece the ignorant masses. Nor do I doubt the ability of the informed wealthy to turn virtually any situation into an opportunity for monetary gain. A quick glance at the past two centuries provides plenty of examples. However, I doubt the monetarily wealthy among us are interested in accelerating human extinction, even for financial gain. As I explain below, the ongoing reduction in industrial activity as a result of COVID-19 almost certainly leads to loss of habitat for human animals, hence putting us on the fast track to human extinction. I doubt the knowledgeable “elite” are interested in altering the sweet deal they are experiencing with the current set of living arrangements.

The aerosol masking effect, or global dimming, has been described in the peer-reviewed literature since at least 1929 (A. Ångström, “On the Atmospheric Transmission of Sun Radiation and on Dust in the Air,”Geografiska Annaler, volume 11, pages 156-166). Coincident with industrial activity adding to greenhouse gases that warm the planet, industrial activity simultaneously cools the planet by adding aerosols to the atmosphere. These aerosols block incoming sunlight, thereby keeping cool our pale blue dot. Reducing industrial activity by as little as 35 percent is expected to cause a global-average temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius within a few weeks, according to research on the aerosol masking effect. Such research was deemed collectively too conservative by a paper in the 17 January 2019 issue of Science, which is among the most highly respected of peer-reviewed journals. As pointed out by the lead author of the paper in Science on 22 January 2019: “Global efforts to improve air quality by developing cleaner fuels and burning less coal could end up harming our planet by reducing the number of aerosols in the atmosphere, and by doing so, diminishing aerosols’ cooling ability to offset global warming.” The “cooling effect is “nearly twice what scientists previously thought,” and this 2019 paper cites the conclusion by Levy et al. (2013) indicating as little as 35% reduction in industrial activity drives a 1 C global-average rise in temperature, thereby suggesting that as little as a 20% reduction in industrial activity will drive a 1 C spike in temperature within days or weeks. Additional support for the importance of the aerosol masking effect comes in the 18 July 2019 issue of Geophysical Research Letters and also from the 27 November 2019 issue of Nature Communications. Additional research indicates loss of aerosols exacerbates heat waves. So, too, does the ongoing, abrupt loss of Arctic ice.

As I have explained previously for Weekly Hubris, civilization is a heat engine. However, slowing or stopping industrial civilization heats the planet faster than maintaining the ongoing, omnicidal approach. Of course, the situation is worse than that. Human extinction might have been triggered several years ago when the global-average temperature of Earth exceeded 1.5 C above the 1750 baseline. According to a comprehensive overview published by European Strategy and Policy Analysis System in April 2019, an “increase of 1.5 degrees is the maximum the planet can tolerate; … at worst, [such a rise in temperature above the 1750 baseline will cause] the extinction of humankind altogether.” Earth’s global-average temperature hit 1.73 C above the 1750 baseline by April, 2018, the highest global-average temperature experienced by our species on Earth, according to a 2017 paper in Earth System Dynamics by James Hansen and colleagues. The much-dreaded 2 C above the 1750 baseline was crossed by 13 March 2020. In other words, human extinction via the death-by-a-thousand-cuts route might be locked in with no further heating of Earth.

In light of the ongoing pandemic, the ongoing Mass Extinction Event, and abrupt, irreversible climate change, I am pleasantly surprised humans still occupy Earth. I strongly suspect the ongoing reduction in industrial activity will reduce the aerosol masking effect sufficiently to trigger a 1 C temperature spike, as described in the peer-reviewed literature. In fact, I suspect it already has. The outcome is not yet obvious because the timing of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was favorable for human habitat. Trees produced leaves in the Northern Hemisphere spring of 2020 as a result of carbohydrates stored the previous year. Grain crops were harvested before the novel coronavirus emerged. I suspect the results of the recent and ongoing rise in temperature, which has already been reported in China and India, will become obvious to most humans when many more trees die. Large-scale die-off of trees likely will approximately correspond with catastrophic crop failure. This might occur by the end of this year, although I would rather it not.

Every civilization requires bread and circuses. There is little doubt the circuses attendant to industrial civilization will continue until the end of the planetary show for Homo sapiens. Bread, however, requires wheat. Wheat production requires a delicate balance of growing conditions that, like habitat for humans, teeters on the brink. The path to near-term human extinction thus runs from a tiny virus underlying a pandemic through a reduction of industrial activity that overheats a planet already running a fever.

Deadly diseases and their potential impacts have been described for decades. As a minor example, I delivered the commencement address to the graduating class in the Master of Public Health Program at the University of Arizona on 17 August 2007. As part of my address, I pointed out that we will “see pestilence — what we call disease, when it happens one person at a time — making a big comeback.” Unfortunately, we are evidently headed for our cosmic exit far earlier than I was willing to admit in 2007.

COVID-19 could very well be the event that accelerates human extinction via reduction of industrial activity. If so, the resultant catastrophic meltdown of the world’s nuclear facilities bodes poorly for all life on Earth. As Albert Einstein indicated when he realized his research on particle physics led to the development of nuclear power: “If I had known they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker.”

Nuclear catastrophe is only one of the means by which humans are capable of causing extinction of all life on Earth. Anthropogenically driven abrupt, irreversible climate change could produce the same tragic result.

History is replete with examples of human hubris. We thought we were mighty, and we thought we were human, whatever that means. Collectively, we certainly have left our mark on Earth. How embarrassing for the big-brained human species that a microscopic virus could pull the trigger on our extinction. How wonderful for thoughtful individuals that we get to ponder our deaths, and therefore our lives. We get to contemplate not only our lives, but also how we live.




Special Notification:

The 57-acre homestead I occupied in western Belize has been re-listed for sale (click here for listing). My partner, who owns the property, must spend time with her family in Florida. She is selling the homestead at a monetary loss to be closer to her family.


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