A Challenge – Not a Curse

Near-Term Extinction – Not going to happen

As I write, leaves are erupting from branch-tips and thick grass is rising over the ground. Life is powerful !

Humans have emerged from the thriving Earth to become a dominant force. A force which, unfortunately, sometimes undermines the support systems that make our lives possible. So seriously are we disturbing planetary systems and so deeply are the problems denied politically that talk is emerging about the Near-Term Extinction of humankind. That is, an expectation that we humans will cause our own extinction in as little as thirty years.

Helping people to understand that we have serious challenges is necessary. Accompanying that news with assertions that our situation is hopeless makes the problem worse.

Two deeply held beliefs have endured in the popular mind for many centuries.  One is the belief that human ingenuity (science and technology, in this age) will overcome all problems.  The other belief is that we are in such deep trouble that nothing we can do will save us.  While these two perspectives seem very different, they both imply that believers can sit back and not worry about changing their habits or making any extra effort.

There is truth to each of these views.  Yes, we are extremely clever, and yes, we are facing enormous challenges.  With an eye on both of these realities, the conclusion is not to do nothing.  We need to apply our vast abilities to solving the big problems.  The technology-will-save-us crew needs to learn about the mushrooming confrontation between human expansion and the limits of our planet.  For the we-are-doomed crowd, if cause for hope is rejected, a moral appeal is in order.  Ten thousand generations have struggled to hand us the privilege of being human.  What right do we have to say that it is all over with our generation?  Every person is called to action and our prospects improve with each individual that responds.  We can be grateful that we don't have to sleep in trenches as we rise to the challenges of our times.

To be fair, the near-term extinction (NTE) message is usually accompanied by advice to spread compassion in one's community, and make the remaining time enjoyable. This is good advice that should be seen as positive action toward a better future rather than as a balm for despair. Enjoying ourselves is a key part of solving the complex of problems we face. Seeking satisfaction through ever more accumulation and consumption is a big part of the problem. www.sustainwellbeing.net/life.html

The sense of NTE is not new. Louis the 14th was the longest-reigning king of France. In 1715, after 72 years on the throne, he is said to have uttered the phrase: "Après moi, le déluge!" He couldn't imagine France continuing without his guidance, and imagined that all would go to ruin when he died. Many who have tried all their lives to correct today's emerging problems have a similar sense that things are falling apart. Such concern can in part be countered by considering the many eons over which life has endured and the countless capabilities life has developed over that time for living, loving, thinking and action.

Over the course of 600-plus discussions on the "Living on Earth as if we want to stay" theme, www.sustainwellbeing.net/challenge_and_goal.html I've noticed a direct relationship between the age of individuals and their optimism/pessimism balance. For the grey-haired crowd, the future looks bleak. Many have seen the problems getting worse over time, they have seen the lack of action from the established order and they have less personal energy for the big tasks needing attention. Young adults have a different perspective. Their lives are ahead of them and they know the problems have to be dealt with if they are to live out their lives. The option of dying to escape is more remote. Their fresh and sometimes still-forming minds and world-views come up with new ideas for stimulating change and many have abundant personal energy. They will exert themselves mightily to raise the children that they love.

The problems are real

Make no mistake, the problems of climate change, resource depletion, toxic waste, corruption and inequality are enormous, and the lack of effective action to deal with them presents a very real possibility that civilization will end. There is an enormous difference, however, between the end of civilization and the end of the human species. Given its deep flaws, the end of the present civilization may be necessary before human communities can build a healthy, enduring relationship with our planet.

Much of the NTE narrative hinges on runaway climate change - the possibility that increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to climatic conditions that are intolerable and that there will be no place where humans can sustain themselves.

Floods, droughts and intense winds do cause hardship, but they fall short of being able to end the presence of a species as adaptable and widespread as humans. Recall the enormous typhoon that struck the Philippines in 2013. As many as 10,000 people may have died. While this was an enormous tragedy, it represents less than 1% of the millions of people whose lives were disrupted by the storm. In turn, that population is only a small portion of the nearly one hundred million people who inhabit that country. As heart-rending as the losses were, within a week, the population of that nation had grown to exceed its pre-disaster level.

Drought can be considerably more destructive. Whole sections of the world can become too dry for people to live. Thousands of years ago humans drew pictures of giraffes, hippos and catfish in the Sahara desert region

No one lives there now.

While whole new areas seem destined to become inhospitable, a lesson can be learned from the Great Ice Storm of 1998. When it hit Quebec and Ontario, a lot of trees lost a lot of limbs. When Spring arrived, it was instructive to note that the trees put no energy into the fallen branches. All their resources were directed toward what remained. Where I lived in Merrickville far fewer trees died as a result of ice damage than died because people gave up hope and cut them down.

For the world's deposits of coal, oil and natural gas to be formed in the first place, lush growing conditions had to exist, even in the Arctic. All the carbon that fossil reserves contain was in the atmosphere when that process began. While some areas will get drier, a warmer climate will cause more water to evaporate, making many places wetter. Some will experience flooding and occasional landslides, but there will be abundant vegetation thriving on the heat, water and increased CO2. Releasing vast quantities of stored carbon is foolish, but it will not lead to a world that cannot support life. We humans can eat practically anything. We may not get to eat what we like to eat, but we will eat whatever we can and supply whatever food we can, rather than starve, or see our children cry from hunger. In a few generations we will come to like the foods that make our lives possible.

The NTE argument claims that the climate will change so quickly that life forms will not be able to adapt fast enough. While this would compound the tragedy, it would not be terminal. Any species which can make do or adapt in a new climatic situation will thrive if there is little or no competition. There are also programs being conceived to identify what plants might grow well in different places as the climate changes. Those who have not given up hope will move species about to give them a jump-start in the shifting climatic landscape.

Another major concern within the NTE perspective is the acidification of the oceans. As CO2 concentrations increase, more and more gets dissolved into the water, creating carbonic acid. The oceans are becoming more acidic. As the pH falls it becomes harder for sea creatures to build the shells that protect them. Of particular concern are the tiny phytoplankton at the base of the food chain. At present, they capture the sunshine that feeds most ocean life. Without them many species would starve, or so it seems at first glance.

During an earlier CO2-driven extinction around 200 million years ago, while the tiny shell creatures died back, blue-green algae thrived, replacing the plankton at the base of the food chain. Some species could not adapt, while others changed their diet and did okay. Life went on.

Rest assured that I am not apologizing for the terrible mismanagement of Planet Earth by the present order. We are making serious mistakes and our form of human culture will be viewed as infamous due to the catastrophe we are bringing on in the natural world and to ourselves. Nevertheless, I recognize the enormous potential of being human, and write and talk at every opportunity about the direction in which human beings can head to minimize disruption.

The message that we will "go extinct" as a result of our mistakes is misguided, and counterproductive to long-term well-being. An inhospitable world is considerably less severe than an intolerable one. In J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Return of the King," Gandalf set the tone when he said:

The rule of no realm is mine, but all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care.  And for my part, I shall not wholly fail in my task if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come.  For I too am a steward.  Did you not know?

2000 humans

DNA research has revealed that in a hard time due to an enormous volcanic explosion some seventy thousand years ago, the human population dropped to as few as 2000 people.

The point was made by an NTE proponent to show how close we have come to extinction. Two thousand people is not many, but the fact that we are here today speaks more to our resilience than it does to the danger of oblivion. What would have been the wisdom of counselling those 2000 people to go home and ease the trauma of their loved ones and embrace the end of our kind? While "letting" humans become extinct would have prevented all the human suffering since, it would also have rendered a world without the wonder and laughter of children.

Selective Extinction

We would be ill-advised to think that civilization is not threatened. Collectively, we face great danger and the end of civilization is not unlikely. There are, however, numerous different parts to our civilization. Some will fare better than others.

Homo automobilis is likely doomed. A culture that depends on billions of people being able to travel long distances with a ton and a half of iron on a daily basis will have increasing difficulties finding enough energy.

Homo technologicus is endangered. Technology is any technique of which we have knowledge. Technologies range from the lullabies that we sing to babies, through the various sorts of tools we make to extend the functioning of our hands, to satellite tracking systems that enable millions of people to find their destinations without knowing how to read a map. The modern interpretation of technology tends to focus on the complex end of this spectrum – techniques that involve thousands of people, multiple supply chains and large quantities of refined energy. High-tech systems are vulnerable to disruptions at many points amidst their complexity.

Homo corporate gigantus is also endangered. The coordination of vast numbers of people over vast territories is subject to the same problems as Homo technologicus. These and the fact that decision-making on the gigantic scale is often done without awareness of the negative impacts of those decisions put it at risk. In addition to expanding the rich/poor divide, huge organizations tend to require large amounts of natural resources and produce much waste and social disruption.

The good news is that Homo habilis (human, maker of things) is well positioned to ascend. Those who know how to take natural resources and turn them into food, shelter and the utensils and artifacts that are useful to themselves and their neighbours will be in high demand. They have the capability to sustain their families and launch successive generations wherever climate and social circumstances are not overly disruptive.

This leaves Homo sapiens. From all signs, there has never been a species as adaptable as Homo sapiens. We are incredibly capable. Besides being able to eat practically anything, we have thumbs, memory, and compassion among other qualities. Our biological "hardware" is capable of running a wide variety of cultural "software". While our present culture is making huge blunders, our versatile mental ability and manual dexterity can operate with customs from any of the thousands of cultures that have emerged over time. We could choose to do a survey of the many ways in which people provide for their needs and select the techniques that offer the greatest potential with the smallest impacts on the planet. Homo sapiens could be thriving on Earth for as long as the Sun is our kind of star.

The near-term extinction people are raising an alarm. It is important to notice the grave danger that we are in. Your effort is needed. Beware though of the toxicity of hopelessness; it can poison the conventional wisdom as surely as toxic chemicals poison physical life. What is needed is a radical approach to stabilizing humanity's impacts on the planet. Life is powerful and humans are an extraordinary species. It is possible for us to thrive into the long-term future. Some might say that radicals are not realists.  They want to change the system, rather than go down telling us how bad it is.

Your choice matters. Choose transformation.