Is this the end of the world?

doomday Earth

Does global anthropogenic climate change mean the end of the world?

[The following text was originally part of “The Snap of Thanos,” but it was getting so big and bulky that I decided to make it a separate entry. You might want to read the rest of the original article for context.  In that essay, I make reference to the Fermi Paradox - not really a paradox, but a strange fact, which is difficult to explain: namely, that we can see billions of stars, and yet we see absolutely no evidence of alien civilization, or alien life of any kind, anywhere.] 

Is this the end of the world?

First of all, we need to be asking this question.  The stakes really are high enough that this is the frame in we should be thinking.

We have to give up the notion that there is some "Mother Nature" that is keeping everything in balance, which will ensure our continued survival.  Given the Fermi Paradox, the inescapable conclusion is that nature - the entire 93 billion lightyears of it - is at best indifferent to life, and mostly profoundly hostile to it.  There is no reason to think the world will keep on existing, and, given the second law of thermodynamics, every reason to think it will cease.

Next we have to distinguish between "world" and "Earth".  Obviously, it's not the end of the Earth itself.  The Earth will keep spinning, until it doesn't.  The effects of anthropogenic climate change are likely to last a few thousand years, which is a mere blip in geological terms, and then somewhere between 25,000 years and 50,000 years from now, the interglacial period will end, and we will return to an ice age.  And then that ice age, too, will end.  This cycle will continue for a while, but other factors will come into play: the angle of Earth's rotation is very slowly tipping towards the sun; due to tidal forces with the moon, the earth day is gradually getting longer (but the moon may one day escape Earth orbit); the Milky Way galaxy is on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy.  Most importantly, the sun is gradually getting hotter and hotter as it depletes its hydrogen fuel - but at the same time, and for the same reason, it is losing mass and therefore the orbital radii of the planets are very gradually increasing.  One day, perhaps 7 billion years from now, the sun will evolve into a red giant and engulf the Earth, vaporizing everything on it.  Long before then, at most 1.2 billion years from now, Earth will be so hot that the chemical process of photosynthesis will not work, making all green plant life impossible.  And chances are pretty good that sometime between now and then, there could be a large enough meteor or blast of gamma radiation, which if it hit the Earth, could potentially wipe out all life.  That could really come at any moment.


So: will life manage to survive anthropogenic climate change?  It's possible that it won't, but my guess is that it probably will, in one form or another.  There have been many mass extinctions in Earth's history.  It has become customary to speak of the present age - the "anthropocene era" as geologists are calling it - as the "Sixth Extinction".  (See for instance, this excellent book by Elizabeth Kolbert.)  But arguably there have been around 22 to 24 mass extinctions, or more, depending how you count.  Usually, this is how it works: the big, slow, dominant animals die off, along with many other animals and plants, etc., but quick, little, adaptable critters somehow manage to survive, and then after the mass extinction is over, for the next few hundred million years they grow into the next big, slow, dominant animals, and then there's another mass extinction, etc..  Of course everyone knows about the age of dinosaurs, which was actually a few different ages, punctuated by a few mass extinctions, like the mass-extinction between the Triassic and Jurassic periods, or before that, the mysterious End-Permian Event, which wiped out 95% of species and nearly ended life on Earth.  In addition to this there was the Devonian age, when gigantic sharks ruled the waters, until a mass extinction wiped out 75% of shark species.  There's the Quaternary extinction event, which wiped out giant woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceri, and my favorite, the glyptodons.  There was even an age of giant, human-size scorpions.

Even if all of the big, multicellular life is wiped out, this time around, there will still be archaea and bacteria, which are pretty difficult to get rid of.  Scientists have discovered all kinds of "extremophiles" - organisms that can live and thrive in the most seemingly inhospitable environments.  There are single-celled pyrolobi that can live in literally boiling water, synechococci that can live in solid ice, bacilli that can live in pure acid, deinococci that can live under extreme radiation, and so on.  And there are plenty of multicellular organisms that can do pretty well, too: scientists have found arthropods that can live in molten rock, deep in the Earth.  And then there's the mysterious "water bears" (tardigrades), which can survive all kinds of extreme environments, including outer space - where they are not only frozen and deprived of oxygen and pressure, but also subjected to the sun's radiation and cosmic rays.  I have no doubt that some kinds of insects, given that insects already form an enormous component of Earth's biomass, will evolve to adapt to the new environment and thrive, even as vast numbers of other insects are going extinct. Maybe, one day, some extremophile microbe will evolve into a new form of intelligent life.  Or maybe not.

In fact, scientists speak of the latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG), which says that the richness of species increases exponentially as you travel from the poles to the equator, quite drastically: tropical forests, for instance, which comprise only 6% of the Earth's surface, contain more than half, perhaps three quarters of all the world's species of plants and animals.  (Of course, the Amazon rain forest, as well as forests throughout Africa, are on fire, currently, wiping out many habitats very quickly.)  Many more species are concentrated in our coral reefs, which are disappearing extremely quickly and may be completely gone in 30 years.  But as the Earth heats up, the hot areas that contain the largest numbers of species are expanding.  Does that mean that biodiversity could actually increase, in a hotter world?  Not so fast.  Life on Earth has survived and thrived through many atmospheric and oceanic shifts in temperature, chemical composition, and so on, but these changes have usually taken over periods of millions of years - not mere decades.  When change happens this quickly, it does not give most organisms enough time to adapt evolutionarily through natural selection.  Yes, certain populations of some species may increase, but they will likely invade the domains of other species, out-compete them, and wipe them out - causing a net decrease in biodiversity.  The pervasiveness of invasive species is already one of the major causes of shrinking populations and extinction.  And humans are speeding up this process, by accidentally introducing flora and fauna to new environments - bringing their pet cats with them to islands that never had cat populations (cats are some of the most efficient predators), accidentally carrying spiders in their shipments of fruit, bringing GMO seeds to plant in huge agribusiness farms, and especially moving sea life around in the ballast water and wakes of our boats.  See, for instance, Hawaii, where invasive species have almost completely replaced native species (especially bird species, but also plants and mammals).

Which brings us to our more self-centered question: will humanity survive global climate change?  Again, I think it will.  Humans are incredibly adaptable animals - we have evolved to live in almost every climate on Earth, not only learning to adapt to the local environment, but transforming our local environment to adapt it to ourselves.  Because we can adapt through memetic evolution, which is many, many generations faster than gene evolution, we can respond to Earth's transformation quite quickly.  No doubt many or most plant and animal species will perish, but like certain bacteria, insects, and other rapidly reproducing (and thus rapidly evolving) species, humanity will be one of the last to go extinct.  This of course does not mean that many millions or billions of humans won't die - of course they will - but I feel confident some small portion of the population may survive.  Undoubtedly we will use technology to stay alive in the new climate.  Most likely, the ones that survive will be from the economic top 1% - that is, the 70 - 100 million people who are most privileged on Earth, and who will find it psychologically necessary to pretend that the suffering 99% of humanity simply don't exist, as well as continuing to deny that climate change is happening.  The humanity that survives global climate change may be unrecognizable from our limited perspective, but it will exist in some form.  (Perhaps we will genetically modify ourselves to exist in the new normal.)

Will civilization survive?  It's an important and difficult question.  Jem Bendell thinks the answer is likely no.  Of course this depends on how we are defining civilization, but by most measures, I think the answer is, mostly yes and partly no.

Will many people die?  Yes, obviously everyone will die.  Everyone dies.  No matter what.  (Again, another consequence of living in a universe that obeys the second law of thermodynamics.)  That's not the right question.  Will the global human population of the Earth go down?  That's closer to the right question, but still a little off target.  For the record, I expect Earth's human population to increase, at least for a while.  Humans are one of those invasive species that are pushing out the others - the most invasive species of all, in fact.  At least for now.

But if we think of civilization in terms of the accrual of science, technology, math, art, religion, culture, and general information that has been built up over the last few millennia, then I expect this to continue to exist in various forms.  Once a piece of information has been learned, it's difficult to force a population to unlearn it (another consequence of living in an entropic universe) - for the better, and for the worse.  The benefits are obvious.  Among the many drawbacks: once a population has grown accustomed to a certain way of life, in which they get to consume a certain level of products, foods, entertainment, lifestyle, etc., it's very difficult to get them to unlearn this way of life.  That's one reason why anarcho-primitivism is doomed to fail. 

However, there are ways in which civilization is likely to change - and perhaps "collapse" is the correct verb to use here.  Most of these involve government and the economy, as well as healthcare systems, education systems, and so on.  And indeed, the political transformations we see all around the world right now (Trump, Brexit, Putin, etc., etc., etc.) all seem to me to be results and symptoms of the environmental transformation that has been devastating the world for the past several decades, if not centuries.  I will write more about that here, so stay tuned.


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