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Review: Under a Green Sky
Alex Steffen, 27 Apr 07
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Scientists are telling us that we need to rapidly and substantially reduce our ecological footprint -- think one planet, three decades. We're optimistic that such a transformation is possible, Because we focus on solutions here, we rarely think about, much less report on, what might happen if we fail to miss that mark.

True insight into our day, into what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the fierce urgency of now," demands knowing the stakes for which we're playing. It requires knowing what awaits us if we fail. In this regard, Worldending has it's place, especially when it helps us grasp a possible future which cuts against the grain of our expectations.

That's why paleontologist Peter Ward's Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future is a worldchanging book: not because it points the way to a solution, but because it provides a new and insightful resource for thinking about the true magnitude of our climate crisis. This is an important piece of green futurism.

We still carry in our minds a popular conception of mass extinctions as the product of asteroids -- a group of grazing dinosaurs in a prehistoric swamp looking up as a gigantic ball of fire comes screaming out the sky to cause them a Very Bad Day. We still, as it turns out, live in a cosmic shooting gallery. What we're less familiar with is the threat of a disastrous climate meltdown. But the climate has collapsed in the past, and it hasn't been pretty.

It is one of the difficulties of our day that the unthinkable nature of the future towards which we are sliding makes it mentally invisible to many of us. "How bad could it get?" we think, trusting that because we've muddled through so far, all will probably be okay in the end, no matter how badly we mess up the planet. But the planet, we're coming to realize, is chock-a-block with non-linear systems: systems in which things go okay, they go a little poorly, they go a little more poorly, and then come flying apart in utter chaos. Climate, it turns out, may be the most dangerous non-linear system of all. Put enough carbon in the atmosphere and all manner of dark weirdness (from melting ice caps to ocean currents gone awry to the biological death of undersea life) erupts.

Ward takes us into the deep past, to the end of the Triassic, as a guide to what atmospheric carbon of 1,000 ppm (a concentration we will hit within the century if we don't change our ways) might be like if we believe the paleontological record:

Waves slowly lap on the quiet shore, slow-motion waves with the consistency of gelatin. Most of the shoreline is encrusted with rotting organic matter, silk-like swathes of bacterial slick now putrefying under the blazing sun... [W]e look out on the surface of the great sea itself, and as far as the eye can see there is a mirrored flatness, an ocean without whitecaps. Yet that is not the biggest surprise. From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple color -- a vast, flat, oily purple. No fish break its surface, no birds or any other kind of flying creatures dip down looking for food. The purple color comes from vast concentrations of floating bacteria, for the oceans of Earth have all become covered with a hundred-foot thick veneer of purple and green bacterial soup. ...There is one final surprise. We look upward, to the sky. ... We are under a pale green sky, and it has the smell of death and poison. We have gone to Nevada of 200 million years ago only to arrive under the transparent atmospheric glass of a greenhouse extinction event, and it is poison, heat and mass death that are found in this greenhouse."

In other words, despite what some conservative pundits have written, you might not want to vacation in an extreme greenhouse world, after all. Forget "breeding couples" camping out in the Arctic, we may not have flowering plants or any but the toughest insects left (the cockroaches from my first apartment will almost certainly make it).

The basic take away? Climate can go crazy, and when it does, you don't want to be in the room (or on the planet). As Wallace Broecker says, ""The climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks" Or, as Ward tells it:

"Our world is hurtling toward carbon dioxide levels not seen since the Eocene epoch of 60 million years ago, which, importantly enough, occurred right after a greenhouse extinction."

This could begin to happen as soon as 2100, Ward says. Many babies today will be alive then. This is not some woo-woo future: this is the world we may be cooking up for our children.

Which is not to say that we are certain to bake our planet into a nearly lifeless, anoxic swamp. We have the time and capacity for innovation and mobilization to create one planet lives with a carbon footprint of 400 ppm or less -- which is the baseline standard around which a new consensus seems to be emerging. Even if we are too greedy and stupid to change, we might get lucky and dodge the bullet of a climate extinction. Scientists have been wrong before (though since we're looking at an ice-free world with massive sea-level rise, I wouldn't buy any beach-front property).

The warnings are ever-clearer, and ever-more-dire. We can now see catastrophe drawing near: but we can see, too, a new day at hand. Forewarned is fore-armed. We know how much we have to change, and we know such change is possible: what we don't yet know is how to get there. That voyage, from catastrophic stupidity to ecological intelligence in a few short decades, is the greatest adventure upon which humanity has embarked since we captured fire, learned to gossip and set out to see the world. We know the cost of failure. Let's find the bounty of success. With a grim understanding of the costs of defeat, let's imagine victory.

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Climate change and the "gray goo scenario," together at last.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 28 Apr 07



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