Extinction of Humankind?
“At this point 29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed — that is, their catch has declined by 90 percent. It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating. If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime — by 2048.”
~ Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, reported at discovery.com - Giant jellyfish have already replaced the Japanese fishery.
This is not a particularly cheerful essay. It is about the probability of man’s long term survival. Just how much longer will man be around on planet earth? Man is a relative newcomer to the planet, but gives all signs he will be a bust, and will soon be gone.
Our HeritageReading about our ancestors, you have to marvel at how they persisted through extreme hardships. Man is an adaptable animal that managed to survive from the arctic to the equator, in deserts and on the oceans. We have even survived ice ages.
We lived in small groups where everyone knew each other, and where your loyalty was to the group. There was no need ever to plan more than a year ahead.
Yet, even before we invented technology, we stripped the forests of Greece bare and denuded her soils. The fabled Cedars of Lebanon were gone long before the chainsaw was invented.
Our PredicamentMankind faces a series of unprecedented threats. He is not capable of dealing with them because they overwhelm his here and now focus. They require thinking of the world as a whole. They require considering the effects on generations to come, not just the next quarter bottom line. I will consider only four of dozens of major problems threatening mankind: oil depletion, germ warfare, global warming and nuclear war.
Oil DepletionMankind today depends on technology and oil for the green revolution to feed her teeming billions. Oil is used to make fertilizers, pesticides and fuels for farm machinery and food processing. Without that, the population of the earth will have collapse back to under a billion — what it was before these things were invented. According to Scientific American, by 2020 the flow of oil will have reduced to half what it was in 2000. The price will far more than double, effectively cutting off the poorer half of the world from having any. There is hope some new technology will help fill the oil-gap, but so far it is just a trickle. However disruptive oil depletion may be, it is not extinction.
Germ WarfareMankind has discovered how to create life, molecule by molecule. Even an undergraduate geneticist can cook up a new form of AIDS or polio. The very first thing man did with this new found knowledge was to create super bugs for germ warfare — e.g. innoculation-resistant smallpox. If these pathogens are ever let loose in error, by terrorists or by armies, they may kill billions, but that is still not extinction. However, as understanding of human physiology increases, it is only a matter of time until we learn to create pathogens completely lethal to everyone. That is extinction. Humans, genetically, are almost clones. We are much more susceptible than other species to this sort of attack.
The USA and Russia foolishly did the research to make it easy for every two-bit terrorist to destroy a city.
Global WarmingMankind is embarking on a strange ecological experiment. Over a couple of centuries, man is burning the carbon accumulated over millions of years by plants. The CO2 levels are now at the level of the Permian extinction. There have been two mass extinctions in earth history, the Permian, 230 million years ago, was the worst. 70% of all species were lost. It was caused by natural global warming when volcanoes released greenhouse gases. (The other more familiar to most people was the more recent KT Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass Extinction event, 65 million years ago. It was caused when an asteroid plunged into the earth at Chicxulub Mexico wiping out the dinosaurs and half of earth’s species.)
We are re-experiencing the same global warming conditions that triggered the more devastating Permian extinction, only this time it is man made. When it gets too hot, plants die. When it gets too hot and dry, massive fires ravage huge areas. When plants die, insects and herbivores die. When insects die, even heat-resistant plant’s don’t get pollinated and die. Birds die without insects to eat. Carnivores die without herbivores to eat, all triggered by what seems so innocuous — heat. Similarly, in the oceans, when they get just a few degrees too warm, corals expel their symbiotic algae and die soon thereafter. When coral reefs die, the fish that live on them die, triggering extinction chains. Satellites can chart the loss of vegetation over the planet.
We are losing 4 species per hour, a rate on the same scale as the Permian and KT extinction events. Man has no ability to live without the support of other species. We are committing suicide and killing the family of life on earth along with us. The question is, will we wipe ourselves out along with the rest of the planet’s ecology? Man is very adaptable. He will destroy his food supply on land and in the oceans as a result, but some people will survive. That is not complete extinction.
Mankind has discovered how to harness the atom. The first thing he did with that knowledge was vaporize two Japanese cities. Now he has stockpiles of weapons capable of killing everyone on earth many times over. Extinction becomes a distinct possibility. All it takes in one person in the next 500 years with access to trigger a war, and it is all over. Perhaps a handful of humans might survive in some remote Amazon jungle, but man will have put himself back to the stone age level of culture. Everything we have achieved will be lost.
John Kennedy estimated that the odds were between one in three, and one in two, that he would start a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Except on Star Trek, you can’t repeatedly do things that dangerous and live to tell about them. The odds eventually catch up with you.
Even after nuclear war, some life will survive. We humans may all die, but some species would survive, and evolution would continue its slow pace, eventually bringing a new crop of creatures to earth.
To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.This may sound like science fiction, but in the not too distant future we will be creating microscopic robots called nanites by the bucketful. Eventually we will create self-replicating nanites, ones that build more copies of themselves all on their own. It is not hard too imagine a runaway overpopulation process, much like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. If anybody ever slips up in “birth control” for these critters they could bury us all alive in great grey goo as they turned everything on the surface of the planet into still more nanites.
~ Farmer’s Almanac , 1978
~ Farmer’s Almanac , 1978
This is not my private paranoid fantasy. It is shared by distinguished futurists such as Raymond Kurzweil.
"If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization."
~ Weinberg’s Second Law (born: 1933 age: 77)
~ Weinberg’s Second Law (born: 1933 age: 77)
Technological societies are so finely tuned that they can collapse at the tiniest provocation. There are only three days worth of food in the supermarkets. Terrorists can blow up high voltage transmission lines, subways or freeways. A single accident on the Mississippi river fouled up gasoline production in the USA for a month.Modern farming exposes the soil to erosion. We have lost more soil in the last century than took hundreds of thousands of years to build up. You can’t grow crops without soil. Every year Kansas loses 2 to 8 tons of soil per acre of farmland. Yet, we refuse to address the problem.
Global warming will cause a dust bowl in the corn belt of the USA, ending its agricultural abundance.
Corporate CapitalismMan is naturally greedy and short-sighted, but the invention of corporate capitalism (as compared with free-market capitalism) has magnified that tendency. We have created powerful institutions who bribe government officials to do things that help the short term profit of companies, but which hurt the health, safety of citizens and long term profit of corporations.
Corporations are pseudo people with psychotic personalities, required by law to be devoid of conscience. They are not permitted to be concerned with the interest of the stakeholders: the employees, the customers, the people living where the corporation does business. By law they must consider only profit for the shareholders.
They will do things like bribe the government to allow them to dump pollutants such as pig manure into the water, then fob the cost of cleaning them up on the public, rather than building them into the cost of the product, the way you would in a true free-market economy. Lack of care of the soil is good for short term profit, but soil loss is disastrous for the crops of future generations.
The problem is, these corporations are actively working as hard as they can against the public interest. For example:
- They are trying to increase oil consumption.
- They are trying to increase research into ever more lethal germ warfare.
- They are trying to increase the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the air.
- They are trying to increase the sales of nuclear weapons and home and abroad.
- They are trying to discourage space exploration in favour of military spending where there is no clear deliverable.
JehovismIn the Jehovist (extended Judeo-Christian) family of religions I include, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I might exclude the Quakers. The Jehovists are weak in preserving life on planet earth. This anti-life, anti-earth attitude has several roots:
- In Genesis is the source of the belief that man is a special animal with dominion over all other species to do with as he pleases. Jehovists are so vain as to imagine the creator of the universe prefers habitually take the shape of a primate on an obscure planet in a remote corner of the Milky Way, named Homo Sapiens. They pretend not to notice the other intelligent more peaceful species on earth, the elephants, dolphins and whales.
- The emphasis on the unimportance of the physical world as unreal, just a test for the afterlife, a temporary world until Christ returns, a source of temptation from the spiritual life and the domain of Satan.
- Jehovists distinguish themselves from other religions that honour the earth, trees, rivers etc. Jehovists are proud of the fact they do not honour the environment. They consider that sacrilegious.
- The precise rules for various mandatory blood animal sacrifices consume most of Leviticus.
- The stance that non-believers are inferior beings whose life has no value. Even people in slightly variant sects treat each other as enemies.
- Jehovah himself is depicted as violent, bloodthirsty, arbitrary and unjust. How can you expect his followers to behave any better?
From my point of view, they are like Vikings who have accepted violence and destruction as perfectly normal. They don’t even notice what they are doing. Everywhere they have spread they have stripped the planet bare, polluted its waters, overpopulated, made war, enslaved others, exuded greenhouse gasses with abandon, squandered the resources of earth in conspicuous consumption, exterminated species after species and generally behaved like the proverbial savages they claim everyone else to be. They are far too vengeful to be entrusted with dangerous tools like the atom and biotechnology. Too bad. They already have them…
Do We Deserve To Live?
Mankind is like a monkey. He is clever but not wise. It is only a matter of time until he kills himself with his cleverness and lack of caution.Man has little concern for other species on the ecological health of the planet as a whole. He ignores natural limits, simply because they are inconvenient. He imagines his economic activity can grow without limit, he can burn oil without limit, he can pollute without limit, he can extract resources from the earth without limit.
He is fiercely loyal to his country, his company, his team, his tribe, his family, no matter what evil things they have done.
Only a tiny fraction of the planet’s inhabitants see themselves as citizens of planet earth first, and of some particular country second. Only a tiny fraction of the planet’s inhabitants care about people outside their immediate families. Only a handful of the planet’s inhabitants think deeply about the effect they will have on generations to come. It seem unlikely these altruistic survival traits will spread in time. Hanging on tenaciously to the outmoded us-vs-them mentality and short-term greed seals our doom. We deserve to die.
It may be a Good Thing™ that man blows himself up before he develops the technology to destroy an entire galaxy.
The EscapeOnce man has colonised several planets, one planet could go up in a nuclear conflagration without destroying the rest. The survivors would be stonily shocked into giving up such foolish weapons. Until that point, if earth goes, man goes.
Unfortunately, exploration of space has taken a back seat to military exploitation of resource-rich third world nations.
The other escape would be nuclear disarmament. Man is too stupid. He would rather see everyone die than his neighbour potentially take advantage of him. The USA wants its nukes not for defence, but to intimidate and bully the nations of the earth to bolster its economic exploitation. It won’t give up that privileged position.
Rays of Hope
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.Young people are much clearer about man’s fragility than their elders. If we are lucky, the old farts like George W. Bush will die off from cholesterol poisoning before they have totally destroyed the planet.
~ Margaret Mead (born: 1901-12-16 died: 1978-11-15 at age: 76)
~ Margaret Mead (born: 1901-12-16 died: 1978-11-15 at age: 76)
Computers with the memory capacity and computing capacity of the human brain are due about 2020. They will do some things amazingly better than humans, just as now. Most likely, they will run circles around us in logical thinking. If we are very lucky, they may be very good at simulating the effects of various policies, and will be able to explain with 3D graphics exactly what the effects of the politicians’ actions will be. If they are sufficiently good salesmen, they may save earth. In the process though, we will have become obsolete ourselves.
I have one other thread of hope. Back in 1969, I was the only person on earth I knew of who felt that gays should be treated with respect. Even my fellow gays seemed to think they deserved contempt. I started my little gay lib project knowing it was completely futile. I thought, even if I did seven lectures a week and managed to change everyone’s mind in the audience, it would make only a tiny dent. Yet within three years we had the first gay rights legislation in British Columbia. Perhaps it was not just a co-incidence. I discuss this in my essay on quantum miracles. It may be your personal choice whether you live in a world where man goes extinct or in one where he prevails.
OverwhelmedThe natural reaction of someone reading this essay is to go into overwhelmed mode. This is just too much bad news to digest at once. People have their own various techniques for dealing with it. The most common is denial. Gloom and doom must automatically be false. Folks will happily ignore the hard facts of global warming, soil erosion and aquifer depletion, and glom onto any unscientific crackpot like Bjørn Lomborg or George Bush so long as he paints a rosy picture. Some will comfort themselves with wishful thinking. “God won’t let things get that bad.” totally forgetting God has been quite happy to permit even worse suffering in past. Some will simply put these issues out of mind.
The problem is this denial makes the problems worse. Not only to people fail to take action, they actively interfere with others taking action. So to be optimally effective, you must upset and worry.
SummaryIt seems unlikely man will survive the next hundred years. The question then becomes, how many other species will man take down with him. Will the dolphins, elephants and whales have to die too?
Does this mean you should just give up and die right now? No. Butterflies and roses live only a day, yet they have value in the moment. If you were on a sports team playing a much stronger team. Would you give up just because the odds were against you? Of course not. Here the stakes are much higher than any sporting event, namely the survival of our species and most of the other species of our planet.
By Roedy Green
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