© 2019 Catherine Ingram
All rights reserved
by Catherine Ingram
“The heavens were all on fire; the earth did tremble.”
Henry IV, Part 1
For much of my life, I thought our species would soon go extinct. I assumed we might last another hundred years if we were lucky. Now I suspect we are facing extinction in the near future. Can I speculate as to exactly when that might happen? Of course not. My sense of this is based only on probability. It might be similar to hearing about a diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer. Is it definite that the person is going to die soon? No, not definite. Is it highly probable? Yes, one would be wise to face the likelihood and put one’s affairs in order.
First, let’s look at climate data. Over the past decade I have been studying climate chaos by reading scientific papers and listening to climate lectures accessible to a layperson. There is no good news to be found there. We have burned so much carbon into the atmosphere that the CO2levels are higher than they have been for the past three million years. In the last decade our carbon emission levels are the highest in history, and we have not yet experienced their full impact. If we were to stop emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, we are still on track for much higher heat for at least ten years. And we are certainly not stopping our emissions by tomorrow.
This blanket of carbon in the atmosphere has triggered, and will trigger, further runaway warming systems that are not under our control, the most deadly of which is the release of methane gases that have been trapped for eons under arctic ice and what is now euphemistically known as permafrost (much of it is no longer permanent frost).
Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon, and much faster acting. In the first twenty years after its release into the atmosphere, it is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Whereas the full effect of heat from a carbon dioxide molecule takes ten years, peak warming from a methane molecule occurs in a matter of months.
As if these emissions were not daunting enough, a heretofore little-known gas, sulphur hexafluoride or SF6, used in many green and renewable technologies, is 23,500 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. It leaks from electrical production sites and stays in the atmosphere for a thousand years.
The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps are melting at rates far faster than even the most alarming predictions, and methane is pouring out of these regions, bubbling out of Arctic lakes, and hissing out of seas and soils worldwide. Some scientists fear a methane “burp” of billions of tons when a full melt of the summer arctic ice occurs, something that has not happened for the past four million years. Should such a sudden large release of methane occur, the earth’s warming would rapidly accelerate within months. This alone could be the extinction event.
The Arctic summer ice is currently two thirds less than it was as recently as the 1970s, and the arctic is warming so fast that a full summer melt is likely within the next five years. The continent of Antarctica is also rapidly melting at an acceleration of 280% in the last forty years. The massive ice melts that are happening there, such as the breaking off the Larsen B ice shelf defied scientific predictions; the ice shelf known as Larsen C, which broke off in July of 2017, was 2,200 square miles in size.
The Arctic ice has been the coolant for the northern part of the planet and it impacts worldwide climate as well. Its white surface also reflects back into space much of the heat from the sun, as does the Antarctic ice. As the ice melts, the dark ocean absorbs the heat and the warming ocean more quickly melts the remaining ice. Over the past three decades, the oldest and thickest of the Arctic sea ice has declined by a whopping 95%, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2018 annual Arctic report.
The U.S., Russia, and China are now vying for hegemony of the Arctic region in order to get at the massive reserves of oil that exist there and will be accessible as the ice melts. Aside from the real possibility of military conflagrations over control of the region, moving tankers through and drilling in this sensitive eco-system would cause the dual destructions of rapidly deteriorating whatever ice is left, thereby speeding up the release of methane; and then burning all that stored carbon of newly found oil reserves into the atmosphere. For instance, Russia has recently launched a floating barge on which two nuclear reactors will be wired into its infrastructure to power gas and oil platforms in remote regions of the Arctic.
These and all the other warming feedback loops are now on an exponential trajectory and becoming self-amplifying, potentially leading to a “hothouse earth” independent of the carbon emissions that have triggered them. Each day, the extra heat that is trapped near our planet is equivalent to four hundred thousand Hiroshima bombs. There are no known technologies that can be deployed at world scale to reverse the warming, and many climate scientists feel that the window for doing so is already closed, that we have passed the tipping point and the heat is on “runaway” no matter what we do.
We are now in the midst of the sixth mass extinction with about 150 plant and animal species going extinct per day. Despite the phrase “the sixth extinction” making its way into mainstream awareness via the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book of that title, most people still don’t realize that we humans are also on the list.
Some of the consequences we face are mass die-offs due to widespread drought, flooding, fires, forest mortality, runaway diseases, and dying ocean life—all of which we now see in preview. A few of these consequences could even result in the annihilation of all complex life on earth in a quick hurry: the use of nuclear weapons, for instance, as societies and governments become more desperate for resources; or the meltdown of the 450 nuclear reactors, which will likely become impossible to maintain as industrial civilization breaks down. Since 2011, when a tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan and caused a near meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, it has taken more than 42,000 gallons of fresh water per day to keep the reactors cooled. Keeping the radioactive elements contained requires dangerous jobs for the workers and building a new steel water tank every four days to store the spent radioactive water.
If we were to make it through this gauntlet of threats, we would still be facing starvation. Grains, the basis of the world’s food supply, are reduced on average by 6% for every one degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial norms. We are now about one degree Celsius above and climbing fast; the oceans are warming twice as fast and have absorbed a staggering 93% of the warming for us so far. If that were not the case, the average land temperatures would be a toasty 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) above what they are now. Of course, there is a huge cost for ocean warming in the form of dying coral reefs, plankton loss, ocean acidification, unprecedented storms, and increased water vapor, which is yet another greenhouse blanket holding heat in the atmosphere.
As I became aware of these facts and many hundreds like them, I also marveled at how oblivious most people are to the coming catastrophes. There has never been a greater news story than that of humans facing full extinction, and yet extinction is rarely mentioned on the evening news, cable channels, or on the front pages of blogs and newspapers. It is as though the world’s astronomers were telling us that an asteroid is heading our way and will make a direct hit destined to wipe out all of life to which the public responds by remaining fascinated with sporting events, social media, the latest political scandals, and celebrity gossip.
However, beginning about six years ago, a few books and other sources of information began to address the chances of full extinction of all complex life, and these became my refuge, even though the information was the most horrific I had ever imagined.
For decades, I had sensed that things were dramatically worsening, the rate of destruction increasing. As a journalist from 1982 to 1994, I specialized in social and environmental issues. I had written about global warming, the phrase we used in those days, numerous times in the 1980s, but because it seemed a far-off threat, we could intellectually discuss it without fear of it affecting our own lives in terribly significant ways. As time marched on, I began to awaken to how fast the climate was changing and how negative its impacts. It became a strange relief to read and listen to the truth of the situation from people who were studying the hard data as it affirmed my instincts and threw a light on what had been shadowy forebodings, dancing like ghosts in my awareness. It is an ongoing study that has taken me through a powerful internal process–emotional and cathartic–one that I felt might be helpful to share with those who have woken to this dark knowledge or are in the process of waking to it, just as I, over time, found comfort in the reflections of the small yet increasing number of comrades with whom I share this journey.
Because the subject is so tragic and because it can scare or anger people, this is not an essay I ever wanted to write; it is one I would have wanted to read along the way. But the words on these pages are meant only for those who are ready for them. I offer no hope or solutions for our continuation, only companionship and empathy to you, the reader, who either knows or suspects that there is no hope or solution to be found. What we now need to find is courage.
You got me singing, even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing, even though it all looks grim
You got me singing the Hallelujah hymm
“You Got Me Singing”
For the last quarter century of his life, Leonard Cohen was one of my closest friends. We would often talk at the small kitchen table in his modest home in Los Angeles until the wee hours of the morning, and when I would make a move to leave, he would bring out a fine port he had been saving or show me some of his recent drawings, or regale me with a story of his time in Cuba in the early Sixties. He loved engagement and there was no place in conversation he wouldn’t go. In his company I never censored my thoughts. Since his passing I have realized that he was not only a close friend but a life mentor. One of the most inspiring aspects in this regard was what one could call his heart bravery. It is, in my way of seeing, the highest form of courage. In fact, the word courage comes from the Latin coeur, meaning heart. Leonard’s special genius was his ability to communicate both the sorrow and the beauty of the world, even in the same sentence. He never looked away from either, not even in his final months when pain wracked his body. He had a twinkle in one eye and a tear in the other.
In those last years of his life, we had many conversations about climate chaos, as he knew I was studying the subject. He always listened intently and asked pertinent questions throughout our discussions. Although climate had not been his own focus (his was more a passion for world politics), there was no surprise for him in seeing how close we are to the edge. He understood human nature and assumed we would do ourselves in. One need only listen to his song, “The Future” to know how prescient he was on the matter.
And yet, we laughed over all the years. Laughed like crazy. Leonard was a master of gallows humor, and I have a well-honed appreciation for that form as well. The power of gallows humor, and I highly recommend it in these times, is that it allows a sideways glance at the gathering clouds while one is still sipping tea in the garden. All of these small moments of recognition serve to accustom our awareness to difficult realities, to hammer at the chains that bind, to allow us to let go a bit. In sharing gallows humor, it is also comforting to know that your friend sees the tragi-comedy as well. There is an amortizing of the burden when we share a heavy load.
Courage is often confused with stoicism, the stiff upper lip, bravado that masks fear. There is another kind of courage. It is the courage to live with a broken heart, to face fear and allow vulnerability, and it is the courage to keep loving what you love “even though the world is gone.”
DISTRACTION AND DENIAL
They are as children, playing with their toys in a house on fire.
Never have these words of the Buddha been more true. We love to be distracted from ourselves, and we have myriad ways of doing that in our time. We pay big money for the privilege and we run about chasing objects and experiences in its service. We seem to be evolutionarily designed to put aside or entirely ignore future threats and instead focus only on immediate concerns and personal desires. This is understandable since for most of human history there was nothing we could do about future possibilities or events occurring far from where we lived. With some notable exceptions, evolution didn’t select for long-term survival planning. Being concerned about climate change does not come naturally to us. Daniel Gilbert, author and Harvard professor of psychology, proposes four features for why our brains respond primarily to immediate threats.
First, we are social animals who have evolved to think about what the creatures around us are doing; we are highly sensitive to intentions, especially if they seem threatening. Second, climate change does not challenge our moral sense of right and wrong and thereby stir the brain to action. As Gilbert notes, if it was clear that global warming was deliberately killing kittens, we would all be marching in the streets.
Thirdly, unless climate chaos is a threat to us today, we don’t think about it. I find that a lot of the data we see in conservative climate reports refers to horrific changes that will happen by 2100. When we see the year 2100, we easily think, “Whew! No problem.” Of course, changes occurring by 2100 is an overly optimistic timeline, yet it shows how the brain responds to slow motion threat in the future, even when it will affect the lives of children whom we know in the present. Gilbert’s fourth reason for why we ignore climate threats is that for millennia we have relied on our highly developed sense apparatus as physical creatures to gauge changes and threats in our environment—changes of temperature, weight, pressure, sound, or smell. If changes occur at a slow enough pace, they can fly under the radar of our notice. The frog boiling in the pot that is only gradually being heated.
During the historic floods in Queensland, Australia in early 2019, the rivers broke their banks and washed into the city of Townsville. As a result, there were crocodiles and snakes in the flooded streets and in people’s back yards. It might well concentrate the mind and promote a flight response to find oneself wading in floodwater on a street or yard that contained crocodiles and deadly snakes. But short of such clear and present dangers, our threat response is slow.
It seems even our genes favor short-term gain over long-term trouble. The twentieth century biologist George Williams recognized that, due to our genes having multiple functions, some genes have opposing functions. That is, for example, a gene can have great benefits for early life and at the same time cause great harm in later life, a process known as biological senescence. Evolution naturally selects for those genes since the organism doesn’t always make it to later life, so the early benefit has been accrued while the later harm has less chance of being activated.
Biologist Bret Weinstein sees a cultural analog to this process, “culture is biology, downstream of genes.” As he explains, “Ideas that work in the short term but fail and cause vulnerability in the long term tend to survive in our system because they often produce economic benefit. So if you produce a technology that has benefits for humanity over the course of several decades but the harm of that technology comes only in later decades, you will have become wealthy in the short term and that wealth will have resulted in an increase in your political influence, which will reinforce the belief structures that made it seem like a good idea in the first place. The market tends to see short-term gains and discount long-term effects until the political structure has been modified by that success. Just as in biological senescence, cultural senescence manifests in a system that is incapable of going in reverse and would drive itself off a cliff rather than recognize that something at its core was leading us into danger. We now have a cultural system that is making us very comfortable in the short term, but it is liquidating the wellbeing of the planet at an incredible rate.”
Evolution also didn’t select for us to be overly conscious of personal death itself. It would otherwise be emotionally paralyzing. Ernest Becker’s seminal book The Denial of Death, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, examined the awareness of death on human behavior and the strategies that developed in humans to mitigate their fear of it. “This is the terror:” Becker wrote, “to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression—and with all this yet to die.”
Sheldon Solomon, author and legendary professor of psychology at Skidmore College, spent thirty-five years conducting experiments based on Becker’s ideas. This body of work culminated in what Solomon and his colleagues call Terror Management Theory and relies on proving a central thesis of Becker’s work: that it is through cultural worldviews and through self-esteem that humans ward off the terror of death. As Sheldon told me in an interview in 2015, “What Becker proposes is that human beings manage terror of death by subscribing to culturally constructed beliefs about the nature of reality that gives them a sense that they’re valuable people in a meaningful universe…And so for Becker, whether we’re aware of it or not, and most often we’re not, we are highly motivated to maintain confidence in the veracity of our cultural worldview and faith in the proposition that we’re valuable people, that is, that we have self esteem. And whenever either of those, what we call ‘twin pillars of terror management,’ –culture or self-esteem– is threatened, we respond in a variety of defensive ways in order to bolster our faith in our culture and ourselves.” Listen to the full interview here.
Becker’s work relied on examining defense strategies for denial of personal death. We are now faced with the death of all. Therefore denial and defense of denial are accordingly amplified and dangerous. There is now a desperate rise of religious fundamentalism, superstition, and new age magical thinking, as predicted in 1996 by astronomer Carl Sagan in his final book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. To an increasingly anxious species, cultural and religious belief systems offer the promise of eternal life. And people will literally fight to the death for them.
Or they will offer up their children. From the Mayan priests who threw children from cliffs to the families of suicide bombers in present time who joyously celebrate the martyrdom of their son or daughter in the streets with their friends, people would rather see their children die than forego the preservation and defense of their culture or religion. In places where climate chaos is already underway, we are seeing a solidification of tribalism and battle lines drawn between communities who have formerly lived together in relative harmony. These pressures are bound to increase.
We also find it difficult to think exponentially. We might grasp the concept of an exponential factor but it is not our natural way to perceive. Therefore, as exponential warming triggers other imbalances that also become exponential, we perceive them only as linear problems and assume we will have time to address them. We carry on with business-as-usual and return to “the matrix,” the illusion that things are fairly normal, where our ordinary problems, comforts and entertainments await our attention, just like in the movie. But we have now come to the point of “amusing ourselves to death,” as Neil Postman put it in his 1985 book by that title.
As you begin to awaken to the specter of extinction, you will likely feel the powerful lure of your usual distractions. You may want to go back to sleep. But denial will become harder and harder to maintain because once your attention has turned to this subject, you will see the evidence of it everywhere, both locally and globally.
And you will find yourself among the throngs of humanity who are easily distracted and amused, playing with their toys as the house burns, “tranquilized by the trivial,” as Kierkegaard said, and speaking of the future as though it was going to go on as it has. After all, we made it this far. We have proven our superiority at figuring things out and removing obstacles to our desires. We killed off most of the large wild mammals and most of the indigenous peoples in order to take their lands. We bent nature to our will, paved over her forests and grasslands, rerouted and dammed her rivers, dug up what journalist Thom Hartman calls her “ancient sunlight,” and burned that dead creature goo into the atmosphere so that our vehicles could motor us around on land, sea, and air and our weapons could keep our enemies in check. And now we have given her atmosphere a high fever. But, as the old adage has it, (a phrase I first heard in the 1980s, which has informed me ever since), “nature bats last.”
You may find yourself in the company of people who seem to have no awareness of the consequences we face or who don’t want to know or who might have a momentary inkling but cannot bear to face it. You may find that people become angry if you steer the conversation in the direction of planetary crisis. You may sense that you are becoming a social pariah due to what you see, even when you don’t mention it, and you may feel lonely in the company of most people you know. For you, it’s not just the elephant in the room; it’s the elephant on fire in the room, and yet you feel you can rarely say its name.
I once asked Leonard for his advice on how to talk with others about this. He replied: “There are things we don’t tell the children.” It is helpful to realize that most people are not ready for this conversation. They may never be ready, just as some people die after a long illness, still in denial that death was at their doorstep. It is a mystery as to who can handle the truth of our situation and who runs from it as though their sanity depended on not seeing it. There is even a strange phenomenon that some of my extinction-aware friends and I have noticed: you might sometimes find relaxation in the company of those who don’t know and don’t want to know. For a while you pretend that all is well or at least the same as it has been. You discuss politics, the latest drama series, new cafes. You visit the matrix for a little R & R. But this usually doesn’t last long as the messages coming from the catastrophe are unrelenting.
The Parent Trap. There is one category of people that I have found especially resistant to seeing this darkest of truths: parents. A particular and by now familiar glazed look comes over their faces when the conversation gets anywhere near the topic of human extinction. And how could it be otherwise? It is built into the DNA that parents (not all, of course) love their children above themselves. They would sacrifice anything for them. So to think that there will be no protection for their children in the future, that no amount of money or homesteading or living on a boat or in a gated community or on a mountaintop or growing a secret garden will save them is too unbearable a thought to hold for even a second. I have also noticed a flash of anger arise in the midst of the distracted look on their faces, an almost subliminal message that says, “Don’t say another word on this subject.”
It is a subject I have learned to avoid in the company of parents although, to my surprise, I am recently finding more of them coming to terms with it. It is an added layer of grief, to be sure, and I can only admire and grieve with them in the knowledge that it is unlikely their children will live to old age, leaving aside what they may suffer beforehand.
I had my own battle of despair with this. As I began to realize the gravity of our situation, I quickly recognized that my own death was not much of an issue. After all, I have lived a long time, longer than most people in history. I certainly have preferences about how I would like to die, and I don’t make any claims about having no fear of death at all, but the fact of my own death is something I have considered since my teenage years and has been part of my many decades of dharma interest. No, the despair came from the thoughts about my young great nieces and great nephew with whom I am close. All nine of them were under the age of ten when I began to realize that they are not likely to have long lives. The anxiety and despair into which I sank was such that I became very ill. I developed a massive case of shingles covering large areas of my torso, front and back in two zones (apparently it is rare to have more than one zone) and I ended up in the hospital. Shingles (way too puny a word for a disease that feels like your nerves have been set on fire from the inside) is considered a stress-related illness. My anxiety and despair had made me physically sick. Once home and bedridden for the best part of a month, I had a chance to consider how unaffordable my fear and anxiety would be going forward. I had to find a perspective that would allow me to access at least some quiet underneath the profound sadness, some whisper that says, “This is the suchness of things. Everything passes.”
Of course, there are now many millions of parents in the world who have already had to come to terms with this. Hundreds of millions of climate refugees for whom any fretting about the future would seem the greatest of luxuries and privileges. They are struggling for survival due to climate catastrophes, even as you read these words.
I’ve seen the future, Brother.
It is murder.
Of all the threats we face, the one I find most frightening is the breakdown of civilized society. We now see large regions of the world that are no-go zones. Failed states, where life is cheap and barbarism reigns. Huge swaths of Africa are now lawless and controlled by armed and violent men and boys roaming the countryside in gangs, engaged in despicable acts too sickening to write. The Middle East is much the same as are parts of South America. All of these areas are enduring severe drought. As professor and journalist Christian Parenti said in an interview with Chris Hedges, “How do people adapt to climate change? How do they adapt to the drought, to the floods? Very often, the way is you pick up the surplus weaponry and you go after your neighbor’s cattle or you blame it on your neighbor’s ideology or ethnicity.”
In his book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Parenti writes: “Climate change arrives in a world primed for crisis. The current and impending dislocations of climate change intersect with the already-existing crises of poverty and violence. I call this collision of political, economic, and environmental disasters ‘the catastrophic convergence.’ ”
In their desperation, people, especially women, sell themselves into prostitution and other forms of modern slavery. Or they are taken and sold by others. Human trafficking is now big business worldwide. People also sell their own children to save the rest of their families. I saw a CNN news interview with a widow and her son and daughter in a refugee tent in Afghanistan. Having left the drought-ridden area of her home region, she was explaining to the reporter that she was selling her six-year-old daughter to an old man so that she could feed herself and her son. The little girl sat quietly by her side, looking sad and bewildered, perhaps dimly aware that whatever change to come in her already difficult life was going to be a far worse fate. Nearby sat the old man who was purchasing her as a “gift” for his ten–year-old son, this rationale most likely for the benefit of the reporter, one that I didn’t believe as I suspected an even darker plan for the little girl. Apparently, this is a common practice now in the Afghan refugee community.
It is no wonder that people leave these hellholes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and make their way, often risking death, to countries of greater abundance and saner policies. It is also no wonder that those countries don’t want them. At some point in loading a rowboat, even one extra person will sink it. And many of the refugees are nationals of countries with almost opposite values of those of their new host countries. Europe is now on the front lines of the refugee crisis and is struggling to hold itself together. It is one of the great historical ironies that the European countries, perhaps the most enlightened and progressive of all time, are employing greater and greater draconian measures to try to preserve what they have. But the refugees will keep coming, in the millions and then the hundreds of millions, and there will be no walls or armies strong enough to stop them. This is true not only for Europe but anywhere there is potential for a better life.
The places where there still exists “a better life” are rapidly deteriorating as well. In Chris Hedges’ book, America: The Farewell Tour, he forensically chronicles the decline of 21st century America. The “flyover” states, that is, almost everywhere except the coasts, are ridden with poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, drug and gambling addiction, porn addiction, violence, inferior education, depression and other mental illnesses, poor physical health, and suicide. “The diseases of despair” as sociologists call them.
These diseases of despair likely have a correlation to our severance from the natural world. At the 2017 Bateson Symposium in Sweden, Rex Weyler gave a thought-provoking presentation called “Ecological Trauma and Common Addictions.” Weyler, one of the founders of Greenpeace, defines ecological trauma as “the experience of witnessing – consciously or not – the pervasive abuse and destruction of the natural world, of which we are a part, and for which we have a primal affinity. Almost everyone in the modern, industrial world can tell stories of treasured childhood experiences in natural settings or wilderness sanctuaries that have been obliterated for a shopping mall, parking lot, highway, or other industrial, consumer function.
“Modern neuroses and addictions, prevalent in industrial nations, can be traced, at least partially, to the trauma of separation from natural security and the trauma of witnessing the abuse of nature. The marvels and conveniences of technological society provide only a thin veneer over our natural being. We remain biophysical animals akin to ants and raccoons.
“Regardless of prevailing conceits, we retain patterns learned from fifty million years of primate evolution, five million years of hominid development in productive ecological habitats, and 500,000 years of fire-bearing, tool-making hunter-gatherer culture. During this long genesis, humanity grew within the comfort and constraints of an intact ecosystem that supplied sustenance, vital lessons, wonder, and a home. Watching that home fall under the blade of industrialism shocks our system, whether we know it or not.
“Within the last few hundred years, industrial culture has widened this separation from nature, divided families, and destroyed communities, creating alienated individuals clinging to scarce jobs and rewarded with packaged food and entertainment, like the “bread and circuses” that Roman emperors bestowed upon disenfranchised peasants.”
In fact, for the past two years, average life expectancy in the USA has declined due to suicide and opioid overdoses. The U.S is now in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in its history; more people die from opiate overdoses than from car accidents or gun homicides. Due to the poverty existent in these communities there is also a breakdown of law and order as well as basic services. The local municipalities are going broke and are beginning to function like banana republics.
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the largest utility company in the United States, provides gas and electric power for two thirds of California. It just filed for bankruptcy protection against lawsuits of an estimated thirty billion dollars due to its power lines blowing about and possibly starting some of the deadly fires that recently occurred in California. Who bails out the utility companies when these things occur? The Federal Government, which means the taxpayers get the bill. How long can governments bail out corporations? The US national debt, for instance, now stands at 22 trillion dollars. At what point is the “let’s pretend” game of currency value over? How long will we be able to exchange pieces of paper for food? And what will happen when we are forced to make extreme sacrifices?
The richer countries are particularly intolerant of making even relatively small sacrifices that might have a future benefit; for example, the “yellow vest” riots that began in Paris in October 2018 and spread throughout the country.
The fracas started when French President Emmanuel Macron announced an “eco-tax” on fuel in an attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to address global warming. Soon after the rioting began, the government walked back any talk of the tax, but by then the rioters had added on a host of other grievances and the mayhem began to grow, becoming more violent, destructive, and deadly. These are not people who are starving or being removed at gunpoint from their homes. These are people who are being asked to sacrifice some of their income for the greater good. But as we are seeing there and elsewhere, short-term greed prevails.
What is happening in France is no doubt a cautionary tale to other progressive world leaders who dare to challenge Big Oil and its hungry consumers. It is a mark of immaturity to be unable to delay personal satisfaction for the chance at greater wellbeing for all at a later date. And it is yet another wearisome example of why we humans are in the mess in which we find ourselves. We see it throughout human history. Greed is not new to modern times. We can easily understand the greedy impulse as most of us are afflicted with it. Perhaps the evolutionary imperatives from ancient times would have had no use for delayed gratification since servicing immediate needs often meant the difference between life and death. However, we can now see that being enslaved to our base desires and impulses is contraindicated to our survival. Seeing disintegrations occur in the developed countries gives a glimpse as to what societal and economic breakdown will look like when there are widespread food shortages everywhere and when the infrastructures, including the electric grids, become spotty, too costly to maintain, or are no longer working.
OVERPOPULATION AND CO-EXTINCTIONS
In 1952, when I was born, there were approximately 2.6 billion people on earth. There are now 7.7 billion, a more than threefold increase in my lifetime. Our use rate of resources would allow for our planet to sustainably host only about one billion people. As William Catton explained in his 1980 book Overshoot, we are in “carrying capacity deficit.” In other words, the load on resource use is far in excess of its carrying capacity. Of course, the only way we have been able to pull this off is by stealing from the future, just as we might have a garden of food that could last ten people through the winter and instead we have a wild party for a thousand and go through the entire supply in an evening.
It is also troubling to realize that whatever reasonable measures we might attempt to mitigate our situation, and there are none known that can be done at scale, the addition of roughly 220,000 humans per day (births minus deaths) would curtail our efforts at mitigation.
According to many scientific studies, some of the inevitable outcomes of overpopulation are severely polluted water, increased air pollution and lung diseases, proliferation of infectious diseases, overwhelmed hospitals, rising crime rates, deforestation, loss of wildlife leading to mass extinctions, widespread food shortages, vanishing fish in the oceans, superbugs and airborne diseases along with diminished capacity to treat them, proliferation of AIDS, less access to safe drinking water, new parasites, desertification, rising regional conflicts, and war. As astrobiology professor Peter Ward explained in a story on the BBC, “If you look at any biological system, when it overpopulates it begins to poison its home.”
Of course, when we speak of overpopulation we specifically refer to humans. In fact, human activity is causing massive die-offs of the other species.