It’s tempting to think these electromagnetic bursts could be used to predict when a quake will strike. Up until now, however, the cause of the strange bursts hasn’t been clear.
New research suggests that the key lies in the gases that get trapped in what’s known as a fault valve and can build up ahead of an earthquake. These impermeable layers of rock can slip across a fault, effectively creating a gate that blocks the flow of underground water.
When the fault valve eventually cracks and pressure decreases, carbon dioxide or methane dissolved in the trapped water is released, expanding in volume and pushing the cracks in the fault. As the gas emerges, it also gets electrified, with electrons released from the cracked surfaces attaching themselves to gas molecules and generating a current as they move upwards.
“The results supported the validity of the present working hypothesis, that coupled interaction of fracturing rock with deep Earth gases during quasi-static rupture of rocks in the focal zone of a fault might play an important role in the generation of pre- and co-seismic electromagnetic phenomena,” write the researchers in their published paper.
Using a customized lab setup, the team was able to test the reactions of quartz diorite, gabbro, basalt, and fine-grained granite in scaled-down earthquake-like simulations. They showed that electrified gas currents could indeed be linked to rock fracture.
The type of rock does make a difference, the scientists found. Rocks including granite have lattice defects that capture unpaired electrons over time through natural radiation rising from below the surface, and that leads to a larger current.
And the type of fault seems to have an effect as well. The study backs up previous research from the same scientists into seismo-electromagnetics, showing how carbon dioxide released from an earthquake fault could be electrified and produce magnetic fields.
Other hypotheses about the electromagnetic bursts include the idea that the rocks themselves could become semiconductors under enough strain and with enough heat, while other experts don’t think these weird bursts are predictors at all.
Until an earthquake is actually predicted by unusual electromagnetic activity – activity that happens a lot on our planet as a matter of course anyway – the jury is still out. But if this idea is backed up by future research, it could give us a life-saving method for getting a heads up on future quakes.
“As a result of this laboratory experiment, it might be possible to detect the electric signal accompanying an earthquake by observing the telluric potential/current induced in a conductor, such as a steel water pipe buried underground,” conclude the researchers.
“Such an approach is now undergoing model field tests.”
This mysterious phenomenon is thought to be driven by many factors, including the existence of vast anomalies of molten iron under Earth’s surface. But other elements also contribute, scientists say – including, amazingly enough, the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.
“Faster ice melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s,” explains lead researcher Shanshan Deng from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research in China.
In the new study, Deng and fellow researchers examined the extent to which changes in terrestrial water storage (TWS) in recent decades contributed to the amount of magnetic polar wander recorded in the same timeframe.
Basically, TWS includes changes in water levels on Earth resulting from glaciers melting as the world gets warmer, in addition to changes also produced by the pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.
Over time, the drifting adds up, with the poles traveling hundreds of kilometers, meaning adjustments have to be made to the World Magnetic Model, which underpins navigation systems such as GPS.
According to the team’s calculations – based on satellite data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission and estimates of glacier loss and groundwater pumping going back to the 1980s – the primary driver of polar drift change seen in the 1990s was ice melt due to climate change.
“The faster ice melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s,” the researchers explain in their study.
While the degree of axis shift experienced so far is estimated to be so slight that humans wouldn’t be able to perceive it in daily life, the results nonetheless suggest another alarming side effect of humanity’s unsustainable usage of Earth’s resources: planetary-scale mass rearrangements significant enough to measurably affect the revolutions of the world we live upon.
A protoplanet slammed into the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, knocking loose a chunk of rock that would later become the moon. Now, scientists say that remnants of that protoplanet can still be found, lodged deep inside Earth, Science Magazine reported.
If remains of the protoplanet, known as Theia, did stick around after the impact, that may explain why two continent-size blobs of hot rock now lie in the Earth‘s mantle, one beneath Africa and the other under the Pacific Ocean. These massive blobs would stand about 100 times taller than Mount Everest, were they ever hauled up to Earth’s surface, Live Science previously reported.
Theia’s impact both formed the moon and transformed Earth’s surface into a roiling magma ocean, and some scientists theorize that the blobs formed as that ocean cooled and crystalized, Science reported. Others think the blobs contain Earth rocks that somehow escaped the effects of the collision and nestled, undisturbed for millions of years, near the planet’s center.
He proposed that, after the moon-forming impact, dense material from Theia’s mantle descended deep beneath the Earth’s surface, accumulating into what we now know as “the blobs.” According to Yuan’s models, rocks 1.5% to 3.5% denser than Earth’s mantle would not mix into the surrounding rock. Rather, they would sink to the bottom of the mantle, near the inner core.
“This crazy idea is at least possible,” Yuan told Science.
A 2019 study, published in the journal Geochemistry, supports the idea that Theia’s mantle was denser than Earth’s — about 2% to 3.5% denser, Science reported. The study authors drew conclusions about Theia’s size and chemical composition based on an analysis of Apollo moon rocks, which contained a far higher ratio of light hydrogen to heavy hydrogen than Earth rocks, they found. (Light and heavy hydrogen differ by the number of neutrons in each atom’s nucleus.)
To supply the moon with so much light hydrogen, Theia must have been very large, nearly the size of Earth at the time of impact, and very dry, since water formed in interstellar space would contain a heavy form of hydrogen called deuterium, which Theia lacked, the authors concluded. Meanwhile, the interior of the hulking protoplanet would have held a dense, iron-rich mantle, Science reported.RELATED CONTENT
Per Yuan’s theory, while the lighter rocks hurtled into space to form the moon, chunks of the iron-rich mantle would have barreled down toward the Earth’s core in the wake of Theia’s impact, where they settled and formed the enigmatic blobs. “I think [the idea is] completely viable until someone tells me it’s not,” Edward Garnero, a seismologist at ASU Tempe who was not involved in the work, told Science.
However, not everyone’s convinced. You can read more about competing theories of how the blobs formed at Science Magazine.
Lightning may have played a key role in the emergence of life on Earth.Nolan Caldwell/Getty Images
In 2016, a family in Illinois thought that a meteorite had hit their backyard. They called up the geology department at nearby Wheaton College to say that whatever struck their property had started a small fire and had left a weird rock embedded in the scorched dirt.
“Meteorites, contrary to popular belief, are cold when they hit the ground,” says Benjamin Hess, who was an undergraduate at the college but is now a graduate student at Yale University. “My professor readily figured out that that was probably a lightning strike.”
When lighting strikes sand, soil or stone, it immediately melts the materials into a glassy clump known as a “fulgurite,” or lightning rock. When geologists excavated the one in Illinois, they found something unexpected inside — an important ingredient for life that had long been thought to be delivered to early Earth by meteorites.
A report on the find, in the journal Nature Communications, suggests that this could have been a way for lightning to have played a key role in the emergence of life.Article continues after sponsor message
Most of the fulgurites that have been studied in the past were collected on beaches or deserts, says Hess, because “it’s really easy to see a glass structure sticking out of the sand.” One that is buried in the soil and potentially hidden by random debris or vegetation is harder to spot, although it might contain different minerals produced when the bolt hit something like clay.
When the researchers dug out the fulgurite in Illinois, they first saw glassy bits on its surface. Below that was a thick, tree-root-like structure extending down about a foot and a half. “It’s just entirely made of glass and has, like, burned soil on the outside of it,” says Hess, adding that the object looked like a foggy gray mass with a lot of air holes.
Hess and two colleagues at the University of Leeds analyzed the minerals inside and found one called schreibersite. “Which was very strange,” says Hess.
This reactive mineral contains phosphorus, an essential element for life. Phosphorus “really plays a key role in a lot of the basic cell structures,” says Hess. For example, it makes up the backbone of DNA.
Phosphorus was abundant in early Earth, but geologists know that it was mostly inaccessible because it was trapped inside nonreactive minerals that don’t dissolve easily in water. That led to a mystery: Where did all the phosphorus needed to make biological molecules come from?
One possibility is meteorites, which can contain reactive minerals like schreibersite. When the Earth was forming and for the first billion years or so afterward, the planet was pelted with numerous meteorites.
“So people thought, ‘Aha! It could actually be an extraterrestrial phosphorous source that provided the reactive phosphorous needed for life to form,’ ” says Hess.
But it occurred to the researchers that lighting offered an alternative source of phosphorus for the young Earth — and one that had certain advantages.
After all, meteorite strikes declined in number over time as the solar system got cleared out, and meteorite impacts can also be hugely destructive. “Lightning doesn’t destroy an entire 100-kilometer area when it strikes,” Hess points out.
The team did a kind of back-of-the-envelope calculation to see if lightning strikes really might have contributed a significant amount of usable phosphorus.
“There are a lot of things to consider,” says Hess, “like what was the dominant rock type that was being struck on early Earth? How much land might there have been? What was the atmosphere like? How much lightning would come from that atmosphere? How much phosphorus was in the rock type?”
Data from satellites and other monitors show that these days, there are over 500 million flashes of lightning a year and that about a quarter of them strike the ground.
Climate modeling suggests that when Earth formed, about 4.5 billion years ago, to when life first emerged, about 3.5 billion years ago, there could have been 1 billion to 5 billion lightning flashes every year.
“Assuming there was a fair amount of land, it’s upwards of a billion lightning strikes a year,” says Hess.
He and his colleagues believe that around the time life formed, the amount of usable phosphorus created through lighting strikes would be about the same as that provided by meteorites. “There’s a large uncertainty there, but basically we found that they are essentially similar,” says Hess.
This new idea about lightning is “pretty cool,” says Hilairy Hartnett, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University who thinks a lot about phosphorus and its role in the potential for life on other planets.
“All life on Earth requires phosphorus, from the tiniest virus to the largest organisms,” she notes.
She thinks this team made a lot of reasonable guesses about whether lightning was important for making reactive phosphorus, but it’s just hard to know and it’s clear that meteorites did deliver large amounts of the stuff.
Still, “the lightning strikes deliver more than they might have expected,” says Hartnett.
So even if meteorite phosphorus was the big deal on early Earth, she says, this means lightning strikes are now a way that planets around other stars might get usable phosphorus, even if they aren’t constantly smacked by meteorites.
“It’s really nice,” she says, “to be able to say there’s more than one path to generating phosphorous that could be available to a planet that might be able to develop life.”
There’s no place like home—unless you’re Elon Musk. A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship, which may someday send humans to Mars, is, according to Musk, likely to launch soon, possibly within the coming days. But what motivates Musk? Why bother with Mars? A video clip from an interview Musk gave in 2019 seems to sum up Musk’s vision—and everything that’s wrong with it.
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In the video, Musk is seen reading a passage from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. The book, published in 1994, was Sagan’s response to the famous image of Earth as a tiny speck of light floating in a sunbeam—a shot he’d begged NASA to have the Voyager 1 spacecraft take in 1990 as it sailed into space, 3.7 billion miles from Earth. Sagan believed that if we had a photo of ourselves from this distance, it would forever alter our perspective of our place in the cosmos.
Musk reads from Sagan’s book: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.”https://8d566d959acc9a6fb67e31045d65b633.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
But there Musk cuts himself off and begins to laugh. He says with incredulity, “This is not true. This is false––Mars.”
He couldn’t be more wrong. Mars? Mars is a hellhole. The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).
Mars has a very thin atmosphere; it has no magnetic field to help protect its surface from radiation from the sun or galactic cosmic rays; it has no breathable air and the average surface temperature is a deadly 80 degrees below zero. Musk thinks that Mars is like Earth? For humans to live there in any capacity they would need to build tunnels and live underground, and what is not enticing about living in a tunnel lined with SAD lamps and trying to grow lettuce with UV lights? So long to deep breaths outside and walks without the security of a bulky spacesuit, knowing that if you’re out on an extravehicular activity and something happens, you’ve got an excruciatingly painful 60-second death waiting for you. Granted, walking around on Mars would be a life-changing, amazing, profound experience. But visiting as a proof of technology or to expand the frontier of human possibility is very different from living there. It is not in the realm of hospitable to humans. Mars will kill you.
Musk is not from Mars, but he and Sagan do seem to come from different worlds. Like Sagan, Musk exhibits a religious-like devotion to space, a fervent desire to go there, but their purposes are entirely divergent. Sagan inspired generations of writers, scientists, and engineers who felt compelled to chase the awe that he dug up from the depths of their heart. Everyone who references Sagan as a reason they are in their field connects to the wonder of being human, and marvels at the luck of having grown up and evolved on such a beautiful, rare planet.
The influence Musk is having on a generation of people could not be more different. Musk has used the medium of dreaming and exploration to wrap up a package of entitlement, greed, and ego. He has no longing for scientific discovery, no desire to understand what makes Earth so different from Mars, how we all fit together and relate. Musk is no explorer; he is a flag planter. He seems to have missed one of the other lines from Pale Blue Dot: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”
Sagan did believe in sending humans to Mars to first explore and eventually live there, to ensure humanity’s very long-term survival, but he also said this: “What shall we do with Mars? There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing the question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if [they] are only microbes.”https://8d566d959acc9a6fb67e31045d65b633.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlhttps://8d566d959acc9a6fb67e31045d65b633.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Musk, by contrast, is encouraging a feeling of entitlement to the cosmos—that we can and must colonize space, regardless of who or what might be there, all for a long-shot chance at security.
Legitimate reasons exist to feel concerned for long-term human survival, and, yes, having the ability to travel more efficiently throughout the solar system would be good. But I question anyone among the richest people in the world who sells a story of caring so much for human survival that he must send rockets into space. Someone in his position could do so many things on our little blue dot itself to help those in need.
To laugh at Sagan’s words is to miss the point entirely: There really is only one true home for us—and we’re already here.SHANNON STIRONE is a freelance science writer based in the Bay Area.
Astronomers have discovered the most distant object ever found in our solar system.
The planetoid — the term for a small chunk of rock or dust or ice orbiting the sun — is appropriately nicknamed “Farfarout,” after the previous record-holder, “Farout,” which was discovered by the same astronomers in 2018. After years of observing the object’s trajectory across the sky, that team of researchers announced on Wednesday that they could confidently say Farfarout is, well, much farther out than any solar-system object seen before.
Farfarout is 132 astronomical units (AU) from the sun, meaning it’s 132 times farther from the sun than Earth is, and about four times as far as Pluto. It takes about 1,000 years for the planetoid to complete one orbit around the sun.
“The discovery of Farfarout shows our increasing ability to map the outer solar system and observe farther and farther toward the fringes of our solar system,” Scott Sheppard, one of the astronomers who discovered the object, said in a press release. Sheppard works as a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
“Only with the advancements in the last few years of large digital cameras on very large telescopes has it been possible to efficiently discover very distant objects like Farfarout,” he added. “Even though some of these distant objects are quite large — the size of dwarf planets — they are very faint because of their extreme distances from the Sun. Farfarout is just the tip of the iceberg of solar system objects in the very distant solar system.”
Finding and studying other similarly distant objects could help scientists determine whether there’s an unidentified massive planet hiding in the outskirts of our solar system. Scientists have found hints of such a planet, often referred to as Planet Nine or Planet X, in the distant dark. These clues come in the form of smaller objects whose orbital paths appear skewed.
Farfarout most likely cannot contribute to that effort, however, because Neptune appears to have significantly altered its orbit.
It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that time then evolution would have come to a crashing halt and we would not be here now. So to understand how we came to exist on planet Earth, we’ll need to know how Earth managed to stay fit for life for billions of years.
This is not a trivial problem. Current global warming shows us that the climate can change considerably over the course of even a few centuries. Over geological timescales, it is even easier to change climate. Calculations show that there is the potential for Earth’s climate to deteriorate to temperatures below freezing or above boiling in just a few million years.
We also know that the Sun has become 30% more luminous since life first evolved. In theory, this should have caused the oceans to boil away by now, given that they were not generally frozen on the early Earth – this is known as the “faint young Sun paradox”. Yet, somehow, this habitability puzzle was solved.
Scientists have come up with two main theories. The first is that the Earth could possess something like a thermostat – a feedback mechanism (or mechanisms) that prevents the climate ever wandering to fatal temperatures.
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The second is that, out of a large number of planets, perhaps some just make it through by luck, and Earth is one of those. This second scenario is made more plausible by the discoveries in recent decades of many planets outside our solar system – so-called exoplanets. Astronomical observations of distant stars tell us that many have planets orbiting them, and that some are of a size and density and orbital distance such that temperatures suitable for life are theoretically possible. It has been estimated that there are at least 2 billion such candidate planets in our galaxy alone.
Scientists would love to travel to these exoplanets to investigate whether any of them have matched Earth’s billion years of climate stability. But even the nearest exoplanets, those orbiting the star Proxima Centauri, are more than four light-years away. Observational or experimental evidence is hard to come by.
Instead, I explored the same question through modelling. Using a computer program designed to simulate climate evolution on planets in general (not just Earth), I first generated 100,000 planets, each with a randomly different set of climate feedbacks. Climate feedbacks are processes that can amplify or diminish climate change – think for instance of sea-ice melting in the Arctic, which replaces sunlight-reflecting ice with sunlight-absorbing open sea, which in turn causes more warming and more melting.
In order to investigate how likely each of these diverse planets was to stay habitable over enormous (geological) timescales, I simulated each 100 times. Each time the planet started from a different initial temperature and was exposed to a randomly different set of climate events. These events represent climate-altering factors such as supervolcano eruptions (like Mount Pinatubo but much much larger) and asteroid impacts (like the one that killed the dinosaurs). On each of the 100 runs, the planet’s temperature was tracked until it became too hot or too cold or else had survived for 3 billion years, at which point it was deemed to have been a possible crucible for intelligent life.
The simulation results give a definite answer to this habitability problem, at least in terms of the importance of feedbacks and luck. It was very rare (in fact, just one time out of 100,000) for a planet to have such strong stabilising feedbacks that it stayed habitable all 100 times, irrespective of the random climate events. In fact, most planets that stayed habitable at least once, did so fewer than ten times out of 100. On nearly every occasion in the simulation when a planet remained habitable for 3 billion years, it was partly down to luck. At the same time, luck by itself was shown to be insufficient. Planets that were specially designed to have no feedbacks at all, never stayed habitable; random walks, buffeted around by climate events, never lasted the course.
This overall result, that outcomes depend partly on feedbacks and partly on luck, is robust. All sorts of changes to the modelling did not affect it. By implication, Earth must therefore possess some climate-stabilising feedbacks but at the same time good fortune must also have been involved in it staying habitable. If, for instance, an asteroid or solar flare had been slightly larger than it was, or had occurred at a slightly different (more critical) time, we would probably not be here on Earth today. It gives a different perspective on why we are able to look back on Earth’s remarkable, enormously extended, history of life evolving and diversifying and becoming ever more complex to the point that it gave rise to us.https://www.youtube.com/embed/K7hCh6v7HNs?wmode=transparent&start=0Professor Toby Tyrrell discusses his research.
Astronomers have encountered a mystery surprisingly close to Earth. The Guardian and Scientific American have learned that Breakthrough Listen astronomers using the Parkes telescope in Australia discovered a strange radio signal coming from Proxima Centauri, the star system closest to the Sun. The signal occupies an oddly narrow 982MHz band that’s unused by human-made spacecraft, yet not possible through known natural processes. The frequency shifts up, too, rather than down like you’d expect for a planet.
Don’t count on this as a sign of aliens. Although Proxima Centauri does host a potentially habitable planet, the signal hasn’t been detected since its initial observation between April and May 2019. Breakthrough Listen said it was still “carefully investigating” and that unusual signals are typically interference researchers couldn’t “fully explain.” As it is, it’s highly unlikely that a radio-capable civilization could live virtually next door without detection — Earth would have been bathed in radio signals from a planet ‘just’ 4.2 light-years away.
The most likely explanations so far are either a previously unknown source of Earth-based interference or a newly discovered natural phenomenon.
It’s still notable. Signal analysis lead Sofia Sheikh said Breakthrough Listen hadn’t seen a signal pass through “this many of [its] filters” used to catch interference and natural explanations. It’s comparable to the “Wow!” signal from 1977, she said — it’s at least attention-getting. Even though the cause is likely something other than extraterrestrial life, the eventual answer could be very useful.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE M ichael Moore and Jeff Gibbs have released a new movie. Entitled “Planet of the Humans,” the film examines the question of whether “green energy” can “save the planet” from global warming. Their answer is an unequivocal “no.” Instead, a more effective final solution is needed for the human problem.
Planet of the Humans has been received warmly by many on the right, and coldly by much of the left, because it forcefully attacks wind, solar, and especially biomass as false solutions to the energy needs of industrial civilization. The film is replete with images of giant solar energy projects built a few years ago with much hullabaloo at taxpayer expense now lying around as fields of junk, rusting broken wind turbines, and devastated forests. It does not hesitate to show how pitiful the energy yields and CO2 emission reductions from such projects have been. It is merciless in portraying Al Gore, Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club, and other noteworthy green energy promoters as profiteers, scamming the public while destroying the environment for personal greed. As a cinematic hit job on the green-energy movement, it is without peer.
That said, Planet of the Humans stands among the most perverse movies ever made, one that should not be touched by conservatives with a ten-foot pole. Green energy cannot sustain industrial civilization, Moore says. Therefore, he says, industrial civilization should not be sustained.
Moore and Gibbs affect concern for the forests that are being incinerated to produce electricity. Yet they express no interest whatsoever in well-proven technologies that make such destruction unnecessary. For example, a single 1000 MWe nuclear power plant produces about 100,000 terajoules (TJ) per year of thermal energy, saving about a million tons of dry wood from combustion. In 2019, the U.S. had the electricity-generation equivalent of 93 such nuclear plants, 182 natural gas-fired plants, 111 coal-fired plants, 22 oil-fired plants, and 32 hydroelectric stations. Collectively, this amounts to a savings of 440 million tons of wood per year, or about 90 times as much wood as actually is being burned.
Why COVID-19 previews a larger crash. What we must do to save ourselves.
William E. ReesToday | TheTyee.caWilliam E. Rees is professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia.
As the pandemic builds, most people, led by government officials and policy wonks, perceive the threat solely in terms of human health and its impact on the national economy. Consistent with the prevailing vision, mainstream media call almost exclusively on physicians and epidemiologists, financiers and economists to assess the consequences of the viral outbreak.
Fair enough — rampant disease and looming recession are genuine immediate concerns; society has to cope with them.
That said, we must see and respond to the more important reality.
However horrific the COVID-19 pandemic may seem, it is merely one symptom of gross human ecological dysfunction. The prospect of economic implosion is directly connected. The overarching reality is that the human enterprise is in a state of overshoot.
We are using nature’s goods and life-support services faster than ecosystems can regenerate. There are simply too many people consuming too much stuff. Even at current global average levels of consumption (about a third of the Canadian average) the human population far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. We’d need almost five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population indefinitely at Canadian average material standards. Gaian theory tells us that life continuously creates the conditions necessary for life. Yet humanity has gone rogue, rapidly destroying those conditions.
When will the media call on systems ecologists to explain what’s really going on? If they did, we might learn the following:
That the current pandemic is an inevitable consequence of human populations everywhere expanding into the habitats of other species with which we have had little previous contact (H. sapiens is the most invasive of “invasive species”).
That the pandemic results from sometimes desperately impoverished people eating bushmeat, the flesh of wild species carrying potentially dangerous pathogens.
That contagious disease is readily propagated because of densification and urbanization — think Wuhan or New York — but particularly (as we may soon see) because of the severe overcrowding of vulnerable people in the burgeoning slums and barrios of the developing world.
That the coronavirus thrives because three billion people still lack basic hand-washing facilities and more than four billion lack adequate sanitation services.
A population ecologist might even dare explain that, even when it comes to human numbers, whatever goes up must come down.
None of this is visible through our current economic lens that assumes a perpetually growing, globalized market economy.
Prevailing myth notwithstanding, nothing in nature can grow forever.
When, under especially favourable conditions any species’ population balloons, it is always deflated by one or several forms of negative feedback — disease, inadequate habitat, self-pollution, food shortages, resource scarcity, conflict over what’s left (war), etc. All of these various countervailing forces are triggered by excess population itself.
True, in simple ecosystems certain consuming species may exhibit regular cycles of uncontrolled expansion. We sometimes refer to these outbreaks as “plagues” — think swarms of locusts or rodents.
However, the plague phase of the cycle invariably ends in collapse as negative feedback once again gains the upper hand.
Bottom line? There are no exceptions to the first law of plague dynamics: the unconstrained expansion of any species’ population invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the expansion, thus triggering collapse.
Now here’s the thing. H. sapiens has recently experienced a genuine population explosion. It took all of human evolutionary history, at least 200,000 years, for our population to reach its first billion early in the 19th Century. Then, in just 200 years, (less than one thousandth as much time) we blossomed to more than seven billion at the beginning of this century.
This unprecedented outbreak is attributable to H. sapiens’ technological ingenuity, e.g., modern medicine and especially the use of fossil fuels. (The latter enabled the continuous increases in food production and provided access to all the other resources needed to expand the human enterprise.)
The problem is that Earth is a finite planet, on which the seven-fold increase in human numbers, vastly augmented by a 100-fold increase in consumption, is systematically destroying prospects for continued civilized existence. Over-harvesting is depleting non-renewable resources; land degradation, pollution, and global warming are destroying entire ecosystems; biophysical life support functions are beginning to fail.
With increasing real scarcity, growing extraction costs, and burgeoning human demand, the prices for non-renewable metal and mineral resources have been rising for 20 years (from historic lows at the turn of the century). Meanwhile, petroleum may have peaked in 2018 signalling the pending implosion of the oil industry (abetted by falling demand and prices resulting from the COVID-19 recession).
These are all signs of resurgent negative feedback. The explosion of human consumption is beginning to resemble the plague phase of what may turn out to be a one-off human population cycle. If we don’t manage a controlled contraction, chaotic collapse is inevitable.
Which brings us back to society’s restricted focus on COVID-19 and the economy.
Listen to the news, to politicians and pundits in this time of crisis. You will hear virtually no reference to climate change (remember climate change?), wildfires, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, sea level rise, tropical deforestation, land/soil degradation, or human expansion into wildlands.
Nor is there a hint of understanding that these trends are connected to each other and to the pandemic.
Discussion in the mainstream focusses doggedly on defeating COVID-19, facilitating recovery, restoring growth and otherwise getting back to normal. After all, as Gregory Bateson has written, “That is the paradigm: Treat the symptom to make the world safe for the pathology.”
Let that sink in: “Normal” is the pathology.
But returning to “normal” guarantees a repeat performance. There will be other pandemics, potentially worse than COVID-19. (Unless, of course, some other form of negative feedback gets to us first — as noted, there is no shortage of potential candidates.)
Consider the present pandemic as yellow flagging for what nature may yet have in store. Earth will have its revenge. Unless, to avoid full-on negative feedback, we stand back and re-focus. This means consciously overriding humans’ natural myopia, thinking generations ahead and abandoning our perpetual growth narrative.
To save itself, society must adopt an eco-centric lens. This would enable us to see the human enterprise as a fully dependent subsystem of the ecosphere. We need to script a new cultural narrative consistent with this vision. We must reduce the human ecological footprint to eliminate overshoot — below is a curve that really needs flattening.
Our cultural reset cannot end there. As medical supplies and equipment run out and supply chains stretch or break, people everywhere are becoming conscious of hazards associated with today’s increasingly unsustainable entanglement of nations.
We will have much to celebrate if community self-reliance, resilience and stability are once again valued more than interdependence, efficiency and growth. Specialization, globalization and just-in-time trade in vital commodities have gone too far. COVID-19 has shown that future security may well reside more in local economic diversity. For one thing, countries under stress may begin hoarding vital commodities for domestic use. (As if on cue, on April 3, Donald Trump, president of Canada’s biggest trading partner, requested 3M to suspend exports of badly-needed respirator face masks to Canada and Latin America.) Surely we need permanent policies for the re-localization of vital economic activities through a strategic approach to import displacement.
We might also build on the better side of human nature as ironically invigorated by our collective war on COVID-19. In many places, society’s fear of disease has been leavened by a revived sense of community, solidarity, compassion, and mutual aid. Recognition that disease strikes the impoverished hardest and that the pandemic threatens to widen the income gap has renewed calls for a return to more progressive taxation and implementation of a national minimum wage.
The emergency also draws attention to the importance of the informal care economy — child rearing and elder care are often voluntary and historically subsidize our paid economy. And what about renewed public investment worldwide in girls’ education, women’s health and family planning? Certainly individual actions are not enough. We are in a collective crisis that demands collective solutions.
To those still committed to the pre-COVID-19 perpetual-growth-through-technology paradigm, economic contraction equates to unmitigated catastrophe. We can give them no hope but to accept a new reality.
Like it or not, we are at the end of growth. The pandemic will certainly induce a recession and possibly a global depression, likely reducing Gross World Product by a quarter.
There are good reasons to think that there can be no “recovery” to pre-COVID “normal” even if we were foolish enough to try. Ours has been a debt-leveraged economy. Thousands of marginal firms will be bankrupted; some will be bought up by others with deeper pockets (further concentrating wealth) but most will disappear; millions of people will be left unemployed, possibly impoverished without ongoing public support.
The oil patch is particularly hard hit. Canada’s tar sands producers who need $40 dollars a barrel to survive are being offered one tenth that, less than the price of a mug of beer. Meanwhile, oil production may have peaked and older fields upon which the world still depends are declining at a rate of six per cent per year.
This heralds a future crisis: GWP and energy consumption have historically increased in lock-step; industrial economies depend utterly on abundant cheap energy. After the current short-term demand-drop surplus dries up, it will be years (if ever) before there is adequate new supply to replicate pre-pandemic levels of global economic activity — and there are no adequate”green’”substitutes. Much of the economy will have to be rebuilt to size in ways that reflect this emergent reality.
And herein lies the great opportunity to salvage global civilization.
Clearing skies and cleaner waters should inspire hopeful ingenuity. Indeed, if we wish to thrive on a finite planet, we have little choice but to see the COVID-19 pandemic as preview and our response as dress rehearsal for the bigger play. Again, the challenge is to engineer a safe, smooth, controlled contraction of the human enterprise. Surely it is within our collective imagination to socially construct a system of globally networked but self-reliant national economies that better serve the needs of a smaller human family.
The ultimate goal of economic planning everywhere must now turn to ensuring that humanity can thrive indefinitely and more equitably within the biophysical means of nature.