Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Quiet Earth

The Earth's been through a lot in its 4.5 billion years. About 700 million years after its initial formation is when it's estimated that the first hints of life surfaced. And through the incredibly slow and lengthy process of evolution, we've only called it home for a fraction of that, roughly 100-200 thousand years. We can only theorize with science and evidence what 4.5 billion years looks like and I don't believe the majority of humans can conceive or even fathom exactly what the Earth is beyond the confines of their own homes, property, conveniences and country.

In the past 500 million years, there have been 5 mass extinctions that have decimated life here on Earth. 99% of all life that has ever existed on Earth has been dispatched into oblivion. The largest, known as the Great Dying, took place about 252 million years ago. The reason behind it, was climate change.

As a species with the luxury of sentience, reasoning and intelligence, we've been able to carve an existence on Earth and change its very landscape to suit our increasing needs. Unfortunately, our intelligence seldom revolves around forethought. We're a reactionary species, which is likely a by-product of our evolution. We seldom go out and try to fix problems that aren't there or that are outside our perception. We await events like those experienced in Fukushima Japan in order to correct how we do things such as the notion that building a nuclear reactor on a fault line, is perfectly reasonable. However, even our greatest minds and pioneers with all their caution and planning are not immune to occasional catastrophe like the one witnessed by NASA and the Challenger disaster. We're human and with that comes the ability to be wrong. So let me put things into perspective for you regarding what we currently know about this wonderful planet.

Resources are not indefinite. Eventually you can run out of something if you simply use it without any consideration for its origins and the methods in which they are created. The current energy consumption of the world, roughly 86% of it, predominantly revolves around fossil fuels. The time it takes to create them is longer than humans have been walking the Earth. Yet, somehow, we've become entirely dependent on them. We've only recently enjoyed this technological boom thanks to the industrialization of the world for roughly a couple of centuries and depend entirely on a fuel source that takes millions of years to resupply. Does this sound like an intelligent practice to you? Well even Bill Nye has said that we will never run out of fossil fuel. Now I agree with him on a lot of things, however his statement is a drastic oversimplification. Albert Bartlett showed this using simple arithmetic. The OECD paints a rather stark picture of what it will mean when we hit peak figures by 2050. This means that the entire world will be at its maximum ability to supply before resources start to decline. There will be shortages and the world will frantically be looking for alternatives to try to keep the juggernaut, which is humanity, going. Whether this will be a slightly turbulent or disastrous transition is anyone's guess. It's likely that it won't matter though.

Since I've been in grade school, over the span of a couple of decades, the population of Earth has gone from the 4.6 billion mark to about 7.1 billion. That's almost double. We still can't even manage to feed everyone or provide clean water despite us having the ability and the resources to do so. For now. Current models are already putting our current food supply in question. First world countries are already buying land at unprecedented rates in order to meet the demands of tomorrow. So what happens when the hungry inhabitants from those places realize that their own land is being used to feed others who already have more than their fair share of resources? What happens if a world food shortage occurs in tandem with an energy crisis? These are the sorts of things I contemplate lately on Earth day.

It might already be too late though due to the facts that have surfaced regarding the consequences for the methods in which we've erected our civilization. That consequence is climate change. Sea levels will rise burying once prominent cities in water. Temperatures will rise causing water shortages and increasing problems regarding agriculture. The oceans will acidify causing life to die out, something that's already visible in Sylvia Earle's lifetime and demonstrated in the documentary Mission Blue. We still don't have solid figures on what this will do to Earth's oxygen supply considering 50% of it comes from our oceans. Life on this planet is about to get extremely unpleasant and soon.

More people, less food, less water, less fuel and an increasingly difficult time producing those key components for our survival. Does this sound like a sustainable operation to you? The Earth however will continue to go on. It's already had 5 mass extinction events it's recovered from with time. What's a 6th going to be in the grand scheme of things? It already might be too late for us. We might not even have the luxury of being able to breathe in open air the way things are going. We're too worried about lines on a map, skin pigmentation, what our imaginary friend in the sky thinks, what new toy we can add to our collection, or how much paper with dead people we can accumulate in order to give meaning to one's life. So much so that we defund organizations such as NASA that are providing this critical information so we can get more things that will be irrelevant when we're all dead. Being able to control asteroids, you know, something that may have played a part in previous extinction events might be important if one happens to be barrelling towards us to destroy all life as we know it on Earth. But no, lets defund that so we can increase defence spending to attack other countries, kill people and secure a foothold for the future of our little piece of land separated by lines that were drawn a long time ago. It's absolutely absurd and is the key reason we're all fucked.

So here's to Earth. That impressive timeless planet that's been a home to myriad species. May the next one surpass humanity's shortcomings and not be the total self absorbed, selfish, naive  fuckups we all were while fulfilling petty needs and delusions of grandeur.

Or maybe, maybe, just maybe, those who survive this mess will have enough sense to make things right so the Earth doesn't have to wait another billion years to repopulate. Now that would be something.

*****

I've decided to revisit this a year later, on Earth day to see if there's been any change in my assessment. I have been met with zero responses challenging my claims and have promoted my opinion on this matter, which happens to be supported by facts, several times over the year. 

Since then, I've been made aware that the global water supply itself is in jeopardy. Most of it, to be fair, is locked away in glaciers. You know, the things that are now melting at record rates. I've talked about peak fuel, but a concept you're going to be hearing about, and very soon, is peak water. The scary thing? We're not even sure if we're there yet.

Without water, there's no food. Without food, there's no us. "But the world is made up of tons of water!" Yeah, sure, that's salinated. Desalination, that is turning ocean water into fresh water, is not without problems. First of all, the particulates left over can't simply be dumped back into the oceans without impacting the environment. Remember that whole "50%+ of the oxygen supply comes from our oceans" thing I mentioned? Then you have the small hurdle where the majority of wildlife around these desalination plants just fucking die.

First the water's going to go, then the food, then each other fighting ourselves over imaginary lines drawn in the sand to get at the food and water that's left. The pros will be, hey, we'll have less people around to take up the resources! The con is that what's left isn't going to be much of anything worth living for. 

One of the sticking points for immediate action at the moment are those taking the lazy, apathetic and/or self absorbed position of thinking the problem will solve itself through the magic of science and human innovation. The other is fuelled by the notion that there's some magical imaginary friend in the sky that won't let anything bad happen to this planet, or more importantly us. 

Between these two immovable objects, we're faced with two choices. Either we die slowly and painfully or take out as many people on the planet as we can that are taxing it. Neither is morally justifiable but when push comes to shove, the latter will likely be the reality humanity chooses. And I really hope I'm wrong about that.

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