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Thriving on Earth Forever
Alex Steffen, 16 Oct 06
imgtimes.jpg

I've now gotten about twenty emails pointing out the accompanying graphic from the Times of London and this New Scientist story on how long it would take for humanity's impacts to vanish from the Earth:

If tomorrow dawns without humans, even from orbit the change will be evident almost immediately, as the blaze of artificial light that brightens the night begins to wink out. ...With no one to make repairs, every storm, flood and frosty night gnaws away at abandoned buildings, and within a few decades roofs will begin to fall in and buildings collapse. ...Long before any of this, however - in fact, the instant humans vanish from the Earth - pollutants will cease spewing from automobile tailpipes and the smokestacks and waste outlets of our factories. ...The humbling - and perversely comforting - reality is that the Earth will forget us remarkably quickly.

This stuff is zooming around the green blogosphere, people in part cheered by the idea that the planet is resiliant and -- if we'd just go away -- could largely heal itself.

But this sort of Worldending thinking is poisonous. Like so many other ego-apocalyptic fantasies, it plays off two toxic memes: the idea that collapse is a positive force, and the idea that people have no ecologically acceptable place on this planet. Better writers than me have explored why both of these ideas are insane. What isn't explored often enough, though, is the effect these ideas and their like have on our culture: they sap our will to do better.

Collapse and extinction scenarios stoke our resignation, and let us off the hook for taking the tough, hard steps we'll be called to take over the next century if we are to build a sustainable civilization. We can't build what we can't imagine, but there's a corollary as well: what we imagine has a way of deeply influencing us (or, as Montaigne put it, "A firm imagination often brings on the event.").

A culture full of engaged, creative optimists with visions of a bright green future will produce a very different world than a culture of jaded misanthropes waiting for the Planetary Melt-Down. Optimism is a political act, challenging as it does the primary defense of the status quo -- that change is impossible. It is also a creative one. Yet our culture is full of portrayals of the end, and almost completely empty of images and stories and plans that show today to be the beginning of a new era. That's dysfunctional.

We know that we can do profoundly better than we are, that indeed, there's no technical reason why we can't build a society whose impacts on the natural world are positive.

So, yes, it's interesting to read a story about how long it would take for our skyscrapers to fall into ruins -- but it'd be thrilling to read a story about what it would take for humanity to thrive on Earth forever.

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Comments

what we imagine has a way of deeply influencing us (or, as Montaigne put it, "A firm imagination often brings on the event.")

"Faith in a fact can help create the fact." - William James

http://cogo.com/index1.html

Really good post. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the conversation-ender "Earth will be fine in the end" -- which is so trite, irresponsible, and nihilistic, it makes my stomach turn.

Suffering matters. Life matters. And it's our duty to try to reduce as much as we can the former and protect as much as we can the latter -- for it's the rarest of miracles in an otherwise dead universe.

I think the kind of people who put forth those nihilistic notions fancy themselves some sort of Taoist/Chirstian hybrid -- you know, being "aware" that nature balances and that God has it all figured out. These comments are often accompanied by variations like "it's arrogant to think we humans can affect the climate [or harm the planet]."

There's really no way to deal with someone who's chosen that attitude.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 16 Oct 06

"...and the idea that people have no ecologically acceptable place on this planet."

Very good point. Yes, Humans cause a lot of harm, but they do a lot of good as well. Example: If humans were to leave (or die off...either way) tomorrow, Bees would be in a very bad place. in many parts of the world Bees are only kept alive by humans, and without bees you'd be missing most kinds of flowers.


Posted by: Andrew on 16 Oct 06

Ever since seeing a documentary portraying the scale of devastation visited on the surface of Earth by the asteroid 65 million years ago, I've been astonished by the biosphere's resilience, and more than a little suspicious that rhetoric of "save the world" - from hippies or technologists - is overblown. The world will be fine. It's ourselves and the other life we're taking with us we need to worry about.

It's easier to hold one perspective than many, but I think we need to learn to hold many in order to thrive. If people have problems reconciling "the biosphere will be fine in the long term" (as a way of appreciating the power of nature on the timescales evolution itself works on) with "we need to do something NOW to avert disaster"... well, it just shows a poverty of imagination, a lack of sophistication in appreciating the differences and interactions between culture and nature. And it's these root issues we need to address, alongside direct action against the pressing, converging ecological issues.

I thought the Times' graphic was interesting, and drawing direct links between this and inaction should probably be binned along with over-simplistic "violent films cause violence" arguments.


Posted by: Gyrus on 16 Oct 06

Hear, Hear.

We may disagree on some points about HOW best to achieve the goal (eg: the usefulness of nuclear fission), but keeping that goal in mind is essential.

I would also keep in mind a bigger goal of not only keeping earth & human culture alive & well, but expanding life & humanity in such ways as building O'Neill type space colonies.


Posted by: Jim Baerg on 16 Oct 06

The world will be fine. It's ourselves and the other life we're taking with us we need to worry about.

OK, so you're now expressing the very sentiment under critique, so perhaps you can explain how that works. If humans are gone and we take the rest of life on the planet with us, what exactly is remaining? Right - a lifeless hellhole. And in the process of getting there, untold suffering will occur.

You're probably right - the world will likely be fine. Probability would dictate that based on past experience of the living planet getting this far. But past experience doesn't dictate certain future outcomes. It's akin to the "technology will save us" notion, or "God will take care of it". Sure - comforting and simple. But it ignores that human action has dictated the course of things throughout history - for good and bad. If we were all to just sit back and "let things happen", nothing would happen. And there's that simplistic pseudo-Taoist mentality at work.

Action matters and risks exist.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 16 Oct 06

There are some human caused impacts on ecosystems around the globe that will never go away: There are thousands of species we have driven to extinction, permanently ending their existence and changing the evolutionary paths of the other species who interacted with those now extinct species. We have also introduced new species to areas that they have never been before, again causing permanent change to those ecosystems.

The graphic is also assuming that we have not already passed a tipping point on CO2 levels. An assumption that I am not sure is correct.


Posted by: jim moore on 16 Oct 06

As the late Dana Meadows wrote, the Planet is not in danger - our ideas are. It is extremely unlikely that we could extinguish life on this planet. We can only perturb the Earth, but we could destroy ourselves.

Many cherished stories about ourselves are ending now, so often tales of hubris and separation. These include stories of ourselves as Nature's Conquerers, but oddly, as Fallen From Paradise, or as Meta-Cancer.

Surely we need new stories of Symbiosis and Co-Evolution, to acknowledge the marriage of Nature and Culture. As Gregory Bateson taught, we must recognize the unity of Mind and Nature.

But that unity depends on far more than stories. We need to discover our instructions. The planet is telling us, ever more clearly, to learn more, act accordingly, and do better.

This isn't optional. We can't negotiate with physics. Nature doesn't care about the stories we tell ourselves for reassurance: about our cleverness, our technology, our markets, our exalted station, our connection to the divine. Nature tells us: Discover, Learn and Act - and Continue.

Or Fail and Perish.

We can't build what we can't imagine... So true, but that's not enough. We can't build by mere imagination. Stories matter less than instructions. Sustainability isn't how we feel about it, whether it's convenient now, or compatible with "human nature". Sustainability isn't concerned with Invisible Hands, Dialectical Materialism, Radical Anarchy, Heroic Individualism, Manifest Destiny, Charismatic Fundamentalism, Deep Ecology or other conceits.

Sustainability is about Mutually Assured Co-Evolution.

We have between 10 and 100 years to get this right, which, from the Planet's perspective, means Now. Thriving on Earth Forever means Choosing Correctly Now. The next several eons will be the emergent property of human choices in this century. Amazing, yes?


Posted by: David Foley on 16 Oct 06

This post and its conclusion has provoked a set of interesting responses.

One normally thinks the unthinkable in order to avoid it. At least, that's how I tend to approach this sort of exercise. As such, it is an interesting but harmless reverie. I doubt it will induce apocaphiliac thinking.

It reminds me of a similar, smaller scale exercise that New Scientist carried out a few years ago (see here): what would happen if London were suddenly abandoned? It drew from observations of Chernobyl etc.

Last thing to go was Canary Wharf! (~1000 years)

(However, people were still around, I think London became a wilderness area! Not sure what happened to the Lake District, though)

Anyway, the dolphins and white mice would carry on! Or is that a toxic meme as well?


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 16 Oct 06

But this sort of Worldending thinking is poisonous. Like so many other ego-apocalyptic fantasies, it plays off two toxic memes: the idea that collapse is a positive force, and the idea that people have no ecologically acceptable place on this planet.

That is your reaction to these theories. Regardless of whether or not you like the way people will be influenced by them, it is important to publicize such investigative material. It is after all, further news that applies to a "changing world." You may feel that it promotes irresponsible activity, I feel otherwise. The things some of us wish to make as a permanent testament to humankind: buildings, monuments, earth sculpting; will fade away where as the stuff none of us wish to make permanent: dangerous chemicals, radioactive waste; will live on far past us. I don't see anything negative about such research and speculation. It is, after all just research and speculation: each of us draws our own conclusions.


Posted by: richard on 16 Oct 06

I think the assumption, and I agree with it, is that it should be possible for poor countries to one day rival post-industrial standards of living without turning the planet into a parking lot.

But I forsee a lot of gritty, problematic muddling through in the decades to come. We will work hard. We really will. But these are tough problems, the toughest. Political institutions takes time to change. The economy takes time to change. Infrastructure takes time to build and alter. Developmental paths take time to start, end, change or reverse. And all the while the legacy systems continue to grind salt in the wounds.

We'll do it. We have to do it. Our survival is at stake. The ecosystem will heal and live on after we've killed ourselves through stupidity but, that's little consolation for us. This problem is personal. It's not the death of the planet or the ecosystem--those things are eons old and are very tough. What's really at stake is the death of our civilization.

And maybe it will get easy one day. Some speculation suggests we'll "disappear" anyway. The biology of homo sapiens may one day change radically into something posthuman and at that point our environmental impact may drastically reduce. Or maybe most of the economic activity will shift to deep space and most of us will migrate off the planet sort of like most of us are migrating to cities now.

We won't really disappear. But I think in the centuries to come we will change radically in ways unimaginable now.

But before all that science fictional blue sky centuries down the road, I forsee lots of gritty muddling through.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 16 Oct 06

OK, so you're now expressing the very sentiment under critique, so perhaps you can explain how that works. If humans are gone and we take the rest of life on the planet with us, what exactly is remaining? Right - a lifeless hellhole.

I'll concede that it's vaguely possible we could take the rest of the planet with us, via some extreme grey goo nano-nightmare. My point is that on a geological timescale, nature will very likely regenerate even given very bad scenarios for our civilization's future.

I don't dispute that there are scenarios, if we don't act, that will involve immense suffering, which should obviously be minimised.

(As a sidenote, I'm constantly gobsmacked that the desirability of the minimization of suffering isn't taken as read. Short of hard evidence that someone genuinely wishes pain upon people, to assume that they do, based on their beliefs about possible future scenarios not being all good, seems to be a veiled form of misanthropy. Why such a low opinion of people's compassion? I'm not sure you're assuming this, Joseph, it's just something that often comes up here and it's pretty insidious.)

My basic point is that if we're trying to foster intelligent, imaginative responses to long-term issues, we need to appreciate the actualities of the system we're embedded in. We do pose some grave risks to the biosphere, but I think a lot of the time the fears about "life itself" being threatened are the flip-side of the very hubris and inflated self-opinion that have got us into this mess in the first place.

But past experience doesn't dictate certain future outcomes. It's akin to the "technology will save us" notion, or "God will take care of it". Sure - comforting and simple.

You've missed what I said. I didn't say "It'll be alright, let's not do anything." I said in the long term, nature will probably be fine, but that in the short term we really need to get our arses in gear to save ourselves, and all the other life that we're hooked up to that we might drag down.

I mourn every lost species, but it's kind of sentimental to think "nature" does. Nature works on creating and losing species. Nature's fine with loss - death is part of the process. It's us who are petrified of death, loss, recession and collapse. When Alex argues against "collapse as a positive force", I'm charitably assuming he's taking a stand against the counter-productive idea that letting civilization just collapse is best for humans. But if we're truly trying to foster ecological consciousness here, we have to grapple with the fact that while nature is based on symbiosis as much as red teeth and claws, it' still cycles of growth and collapse, life and death, that are the basis of the whole game. And we need to question why, exactly, we think modern Western civilization is the first process in the history of evolution to be magically exempt from this.

I admit that it's maybe over-optimistic to expect the general populace to grapple with reconciling long-term acceptance of natural cycles with short-term efforts to act and change, but hey, aren't we supposed to be optimistic here? ;-) Personally I don't see a true dichotomy - I think we need to act, and fast, but that the actions we need to take are for the most part to do with a "managed collapse". We could be the first civilization to embrace natural cycles, and take the downward slope with grace and intelligence; instead of just being the latest civilization to think it'll last forever and fall on its face.

And there's that simplistic pseudo-Taoist mentality at work.

You're very right that the attitude you've described is pseudo-Taoist. But it's not my attitude, and it's (obviously) not real Taoism. It's largely a Western misconception that wu wei, "without action" means just loafing around. Wikipedia gives its actual meaning as "knowing when to act and when not to act". Perhaps we could apply that here and say we need to see when we need to grow and when we need to contract.


Posted by: Gyrus on 17 Oct 06

Beautiful, Gyrus.

Contributing another voice, I would say this: We are facing serious challenges at this time, which naturally raises fear. That's OK. It's what we do with it. Here are some options:

* Deny it, saying that climate change is fiction

* Avoid it (spiritual), embracing some kind of apocalyptic fantasy or belief that God will save us

* Avoid it (secular), believing that technology will magically save us

* Fall head over heels into it, becoming depressed and cynical

* Try to contain/isolate/tame it, accepting only positive stories about the future, criticizing anyone who makes a negative comment [really another kind of denial]

* Accept it. Embrace it. Understand it. Allow others to move through their own paths of understanding without trying to tell them how to be. And then direct your energy to doing the right thing, which is always the next thing right in front of you.

We each have a choice of response (including many other responses not even listed). And we have each played all of these roles at some time or other.


Posted by: Kim on 17 Oct 06

We are so kind to include all of humanity with us - the future-thinking problem solvers. But in fact, much as we here might envision a way out of this jam, most of humanity is just trying to survive by any means possible. And many of our fellow educated humans are just trying to enrich themselves by any means possible. And then, there's politicians. So in terms of worldchanging, we are sort of captives to the vast majority, are we not?

We do have a chance to come up with workable solutions, but we also need to somehow catalyze a change in consciousness to get enough participation for our solutions to work. Either that change happens due to reason or it happens due to crisis-driven necessity, which may be too late for most of us humans.

So how do we get people to change under conditions of a probable future threat?


Posted by: Cliff on 17 Oct 06

Talking Heads, '(Nothing But) Flowers.'

I think you're looking at this data backwards. If it takes 200 years for metal and glass buildings to collapse, then we better design buildings to be beneficial for 200 years. If it takes 10 years for methane in atmosphere to 'go away,' then we better start thinking of methane as a 10-year-plus problem. If it would take 50 years for fish stocks to return, what are we doing to speed up that beneficial process?

The basic assumption here is that humanity *won't* disappear (otherwise why make the study and publish the graphic?). So if plastics will be here for 50,000 years, how are we going to learn to live with 50,000 years of bad design decisions?


Posted by: Enoch Root on 17 Oct 06

I don't care whether the planet will be "allright" after we are gone because I won't be there to enjoy it. So yeah, it is poisoness thinking. It's also a meme that leads to an even more distructive meme, the Neo-Hippy Apocolypse. This is a belief that humanity is vastly overpopulating the world and the only way to "cure" our planet is if 95 percent of all Humans die of some plague. Some have even advocated a man made plague for their "goals".


Posted by: Chris on 17 Oct 06

"So if plastics will be here for 50,000 years, how are we going to learn to live with 50,000 years of bad design decisions?"

This bears repeating. Thanks for the perspective... I hadn't even thought of reading the graphic that way.


Posted by: Bolo on 17 Oct 06

"So if plastics will be here for 50,000 years, how are we going to learn to live with 50,000 years of bad design decisions?"

Bears repeating twice, actually, and is an excellent point.

But I think the overall point stands: by and large, these sorts of presentations of information are used in a way that convinces people more of the hopelessness of our situation than in a way which is as clear-headed and optimistic as Enoch's quote.

But thanks for an excellent comment thread. Eager to hear more.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 17 Oct 06

i thought i'd share some quotes about the future that feel like they fit into this dialogue. really appreciate the article and the comments.
Quotes about the future


"We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." - Roy Amara, leader at the Institute for the Future, a think tank

"Discovering which technologies hold the greatest promise and preferentially advancing those in a beneficial manner, while regulating and delaying destabilizing ones, is the essence of our individual and social choice." - Part of the mission statement of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, led by John Smart, 2005

"In the end, what will shape the future is a creative potential that inheres in the new technologies." - Ithiel de Sola Pool, "The Human Use of Human Ideas," 1983

"The future is already here - it's just unevenly distributed." - William Gibson, author and futurist, a statement he repeated throughout the 1990s

"What makes the future different from the past is the choice that the participants are obliged (and privileged) to exercise on the basis of their imperfect understanding." - George Soros, founder of the Open Society group

"All plans imply an attempt to impose the values of the past...on the future." - Alvin Toffler, 1969

"The trouble with our times is that the future isn't what it used to be." - Attributed to French poet Paul Valéry in the mid-1940s and to many others since then

"What we call our future is the shadow that our past projects in front of us." - Marcel Proust, "A l'ombe des jeunes filles en fleurs," 1918

"The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented." - Dennis Gabor, winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics, "Inventing the Future," 1964


"The knowledge of future things is, in a word, identical with that of the present; it is a knowledge in repose and thus a knowledge transcending the processes of thought." - Plotinus, Roman philosopher, early 200s

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims." - R. Buckminster Fuller, 20th century engineer, mathematician, and architect

"The only way you can predict the future is to build it." - Alan Kay, turn-of-the-millennium technology innovator

"This is the first age that's ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one." - Arthur C. Clarke, 20th century writer and visionary


Posted by: sheri on 17 Oct 06

Well, I found that article helpful. I've started, by fits and starts, an SF story set two million years into the future, and part of it's set on an Earth without humans - without homo sapiens, that is: the bipedal apes in evidence are GE/Med erectines and habilines originally made as zoo exhibits.

On the question of whether it's alarmist or not, I think it's neither. Us humans have had a huge inpact on the natural surroundings, we had it even during the Stone Age - anyone seen any giant wombats, giant carnivorous kangaroos, or moa lately? But then, so did the various large mammals preceeding us, and let's not start with the dinosaurs or those even earlier.

On the question of what do we do about the sheer scale of the mess we are creating? Learn. Try out promising ideas. Try to control the human mess as much as we can, without compromising our shared humanity.


Posted by: Wesley Parish on 18 Oct 06

"But that unity depends on far more than stories. We need to discover our instructions. The planet is telling us, ever more clearly, to learn more, act accordingly, and do better....

We can't build what we can't imagine... So true, but that's not enough. We can't build by mere imagination. Stories matter less than instructions..."

David - I'm intrigued by your notion of "discovering our instructions" and emphasis that these are more important than any stories we use to make sense of our world.

Two things in particular come to my mind:

"You understand the instructions only after you've assembled the red wagon." - MG Taylor axiom

This speaks to what I believe is a common experience. Even when we have the instructions, we cannot expect to understand them before we begin acting with them. Listening, learning, acting, doing are all nested within each other, each informing and informed by the others.

Also, it seems to me that our instructions may be embedded in stories - in the stories we tell, as well as the stories nature tells, and that we can use stories to make instructions much more meaningful.


Posted by: todd on 18 Oct 06

"There are thousands of species we have driven to extinction"

The graphic might include "Time for biodiversity to return to pre-human levels"

"it'd be thrilling to read a story about what it would take for humanity to thrive on Earth forever"

I want to see more exciting MOVIES that approach the difficult mobilization problems we have to overcome to achieve sustainability in different realms. We can have creative action succeed (by the skin of our teeth).

A friend of mine is fond of noting that perhaps the most important thing to work on is an ethos of sustainability that becomes mainstream. If Christianity could invade the Roman Empire ...

To quote Ken Wilber: "... what we call real or what we think of as given is actually constructed—it’s part of a worldview."


Posted by: Malcolm Best on 18 Oct 06

Todd, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You're right of course: we learn through stories, and they pattern our behavior. In fact, the "moral" of many stories is an instruction.

We've told ourselves some peculiar stories for centuries, and the instructions implicit in them include:


  • Be fruitful and multiply.
  • Have dominion over the Earth and its creatures.
  • We are made in the image of God.
  • Human beings are the culmination of evolution.
  • The economy must always grow.
  • There are no limits to humanity's power to control its destiny.
  • Human nature is preordained.
  • The future is preordained.

Lately, we've heard some new stories, some grim and misanthropic, some no more than pixie dust, and I think it's the morals of these stories that Alex objects to:


  • Humans are Fallen, inherently flawed, separate from Nature.
  • We are like cancer on the planet.
  • It would be inherently better if humanity perished so Nature could thrive.
  • Mere humans are doomed, but we can re-engineer ourselves and then we'll be fine.
  • The extra-terrestrials (angels, etheric beings) will arrive soon and save us.

... and so on.

What I'm trying to say, badly, is that we've had the luxury of choosing stories and implicit instructions that we like. In the United States, for instance, we've loved the story of the Frontier and the Cowboy, even though it never was true. Until now, we had wide aesthetic latitude to embrace stories, and instructions, even if they were at odds with physical reality. Not entirely, of course, but as far as planetary limits were concerned, we could ignore reality for a long time, because the cost of doing so wasn't apparent - or because, secretly, we think that witnessing humanity blow it and perish would be the ultimate Schadenfreude.

No longer. Now, we need the stories and instructions that Work, and no others. This isn't a matter of our preference, unless it's our preference to see civilization endure. I'm often astonished by people who think that facts matter less than how they feel about them, or who reject vital information because it conflicts with their prejudices. We can't do that anymore - the stakes are too high.

Or as folk singer Greg Brown wrote, "The world ain't what you think it is, it's just what it is."


Posted by: David Foley on 18 Oct 06

By the way, here's a pretty good story and set of instructions for our times: The Wombat.


Posted by: David Foley on 18 Oct 06

It seems to me that the original post, and some of the follow-ups, appear to be muddling together the purpose of the magazine's article with the uses that others are making of it.

The New Scientist article is a think-piece, to allow us to examine how long it would take for evidence of our species' existence to disappear if we were no longer there to maintain the infrastructure we've created. For that matter, it is not the first such article the magazine has published; a similar piece, addressing the resilience of our building, bridges, roads, tunnels, etc -- and thus how long it would take them to decay, collapse, become overgrown and disappear -- appeared a year or so ago.

But these article are not programmes for action, or fantasies about green regeneration, or whatever. Those are the uses to which the article is being put by others, which is entirely their affair. It is entirely legitimate to criticise what others are making of the article; but to lump the magazine in with them, and to assume that to publish such an article amounts to endorsement of their views, is entirely to mistake the targets.


Posted by: Joseph Nicholas on 20 Oct 06

"With no one to make repairs, every storm, flood and frosty night gnaws away at abandoned buildings, and within a few decades roofs will begin to fall in and buildings collapse."

To me this evokes a negative reaction. To me it represents our infrastructure, its a symbol of our memory. These are the support systems that allow us to live long and prosper. This is a part of who/what we were. Sad.

"Long before any of this, however - in fact, the instant humans vanish from the Earth - pollutants will cease spewing from automobile tailpipes and the smokestacks and waste outlets of our factories."

This is joyfull almost (for the ecological balance). I'd love to see a world without the pollution and loss of biodiversity. This is a natural human response. We all would like to see a clean earth.

The issue here is you need to look at what its saying, not at us. A world without our mark is a sad world, indeed. To lose the things that allow us to thrive and share our experience is nothing to praise. To lose the thing that makes us who we're would be a sorrowfull matter for all things. Noeone wants that. On the other hand, a world without our pollution and extinction is a pleasant thought. This has nothing to do with us. This has everything to do with the planet. Noeone wants to see people die, but noeone wants to see biodiversity degradation either. What everyone wants to see is a peacefull, co-existence that is fair and diverse. If it works, it works for everything, not just humanity. Noeone wants a planet that just has humans on it. That is not fair and it is not diverse either. If we want to be so human-centered in our perspective than we should go into space and take our issues with us where they won't harm the planet's biodiversity. The issue I see so often is that some people are too human-centered and do not appear to value biodiversity. They seem to unfairly focus on how important humans are and how special they're, and in this process they have abandoned the planet to fate. They don't want to compromise, but that is what the planet requires of us. We either become troglodytes (living deep under the surface) or we go into space. Our other choice is to apply strict limits to our growth patterns on the Earth's surface (there is a much larger volume of area underground). This would mean enacting limits on many fronts. Most people would not be willing to abide by these constraints. But once you offer them the vastness of space, they have no real excuse to stay here. The real challenge ahead of us is population growth and its legislation.

Here is a quote from my physics book (p. 125):

"With the rules of physics to guide them, technologists are presently reseasrching newer and cleaner ways to develop energy sources. But they race to keep ahead of a growing world population and greater demand in the developing world. Unfortunately, so long as controlling popoulation is politically and religiously incorrect, human misery becomes the check to unrestrained population growth. H.G. Wells once wrote (in The Outline of History), "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

-Conceptual Physics, 10th Edition-
-Paul G. Hewitt-


Posted by: john on 26 Oct 06

There is a very deep point in that image that I think was missed by all but one commenter who mentioned it in passing. The image is based on an assumption, and that assumption is a most likely a lie.

We have already exceeded the natural system limits for CO2 alone. If we maintain the current CO2 production, the Oceans will all die due to acidification.

We have already reached a tipping point, where previous (lasting several warming periods) permafrosts are melting. One dramatic example of this is swamp areas in Siberia that are melting, and will (unless humanity takes aggressive action to prevent this) melt and release massive amounts of methane and CO2 that have been produced for thousands of years. These greenhouse gases are stored in ice, and the short term release is a tipping point that starts other tipping points in a domino-like chain reaction.

Other examples of things that are happening *right now* that will continue if we are here or not: ocean dead zones are growing, desertification of the Earth to hit 33%-50% based on glacial disappearance and climate change (50% based on minor greenhouse effect), sea level rise of 200 feet (if CO2 in atmosphere hits 300 ppm, all of the ice melts. We are currently 382ppm and rising logarithmically), and many more (species loss, water table loss, etc).

If we walk away from the Earth right now, the Earth as a living system may actually die. The same is also true of returning to pre-industrial levels of technology.

Based on my study of the environmental living systems, I claim that the image featured in the article is completely false.

Regarding species loss as natural: yes species die, but the crucial functions they provide are still necessary. If other species provide that same function, they often increase to fill the void in the niche. If all species capable of a crucial function die, what happens next?

Another falsehood was thinking that Genetically Engineered organisms simply disappear from the biosphere. This is an outright lie, and we don't even need massive studies to proove it. GE crops infect other crops. See Monsanto in Canada, Mexico and GE Corn, the GE Grass on the loose in Oregon that doesn't require germination, etc.

Lastly, there is another possibility for complete and utter destruction of all life on Earth that I call "green goo" instead of "grey goo". There is Department of Energy funding for genetic engineering (an outright competition) to turn cellulose into ethanol. The organism is supposed to be fast breeding, but containment doesn't appear to be an issue. I have friends at labs where people are competing for this funding prize. What would it mean if any competing lab "leaked" GE organisms (bacteria or virii) onto their cotton clothing? The potential death of all plant life. Green goo - the world's plants turning to ethanol.

I do agree with Alex Steffen, and I'm working on creating a sustainable civilization. Not a qualitatively "slightly better but still horrible" version but a truly sustainable future that can be proven as sustainable.


Posted by: Ian Smith on 29 Oct 06



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