Knowing The Score

Everything is hard-edged and gray. There is no light. No color. It clangs painfully, and drones dully. The heartbeat of the world is slowing. Slowing. What do you do when there’s nothing left? What do you do when every resource on earth has been exhausted? When water, air, and food must evermore be recycled to use? What do you do when earthly beauty has become a distant memory, relegated to myth? When official liars deny that it ever even existed? When it becomes a crime to measure one world against the other, the other being our ‘wonderful’ modern era? When all that remains, after eons of evolution, of the bold struggle to adapt and survive is … people? What do you do when there is nothing left? Nothing but anger and sadness. The heartbeat of the world is slowing, slowing. Soon, it will stop.

From the prologue of Opalescence

People today are overloaded with things to think and worry about. We have to work and make a living; that’s number one, and it saps a lot of our energy. There are causes galore, most of them good ones, or at least, well meaning. Then there are the many distractions that consumerism regularly brings our way with help from relentless 24/7 advertising on television, radio, billboards, email, print, etc. We can’t really enjoy life without this or that thingy.

With regard to causes, though we might like to, we just don’t have the time (or energy, after all the foregoing) to consider every single one of them. But some causes aren’t really causes per se. My dictionary defines “cause” in this context as “belief, conviction or charity”. You get the idea of something that is optional, something non-essential. That’s not the case with the biosphere that we, and all of our sister species, depend upon to live. Like every other form of life on this spinning world, we are, when all is said and done, simply organisms. Remove us from any of those qualities that we need to live – food, water, air, and a healthy environment – and we die, simple as that. Stick us in the vacuum of space and we’d be dead in seconds. Yet our biosphere, this wondrous place that feeds and clothes us, is under slow motion attack (slow in terms of a single human lifespan, but extremely fast in terms of geological scale), an inexorable incursion by us, everywhere. More specifically, it’s under attack by the huge economic machine we’ve created.

According to scientists, the earth is in the beginning phases of a “mass extinction” (see my Extinction link to the right for more). A mass extinction is usually defined as the loss of 50% – 75% or more of the world’s species. There have been five previous mass extinctions: the Ordovician event ending 443 million years ago with a loss of 86% of species; the Devonian event ending 359 million years ago – 75% of species lost; The Permian event, ending 251 million years ago – 96% of all species; The Triassic event of 200 million years ago – 80% of all species; and the infamous Cretaceous event of 65 million years ago with the loss of 76% of species. Various reasons for these extinctions exist but they usually or always involve a relatively sudden change in the global environment, especially the climate (heating or cooling), which itself may have been caused by factors ranging from an asteroid strike to volcanism.

The present mass extinction, though, the world’s sixth, is entirely human caused – and entirely unnecessary. Yet, not only are we changing the climate, we are directly assaulting the very foundations of the biosphere, and, by extension, the species dependent upon it (all known life), on many fronts. Here’s what David M. Raup in The Role of Extinction in Evolution has to say about the conditions necessary for a large extinction event:

“Extinction of a widespread species, or a widespread group of species, requires an environmental shock (physical or biological) which is not normally encountered during the geological lifespans of such species or groups, and the shock must be applied rapidly enough over a broad geographic area to prevent adaptation by natural selection or escape by migration. If the most effective extinction mechanisms are beyond the experience of the victims, a high degree of apparent randomness should be expected…. The most intense episodes of extinction, like the Big Five, produce major restructuring of the biosphere. Three-quarters, or more, of the standing diversity is removed, and diversification of the surviving lineages yields a global bio-sphere very different from that before the extinctions.”

He also says that “Several important biologic groups, including the ammonites and dinosaurs, now appear to have existed at full diversity right up to the K-T boundary.” So it’s sudden, radical changes in the environment, what he calls “catastrophic effects of extremely rare physical events” that species can’t adapt to, or adapt to quickly enough, that causes mass extinctions. The span of time during which the human species has been wreaking its own havoc is also sudden, just a blink geologically.

Some will argue that the earth has recovered from these devastating events in the past, so why worry now? Yes, fortunately it has, yet how long does it generally take for the biodiversity to recover from a mass extinction and return to a semblance of the normal? The range is from an average of 10 to 30 million years! I’m sorry, but that’s a damn long time to wait! For our children, and children’s children it might as well be forever!

Some will also argue that the trade off for some level of intentional extinction, a much more prosperous life for humans, or at least the present generation of humans (OK, 1 or 2 percent of the present generation of humans) makes the trade-off worth it. But besides the patent selfishness and disregard for future generations of such an aim, what a shame it is to see animals and plants that should still be here, which have a role to fill in the biosphere, disappear forever. Rather than richer, we are all the poorer for every animal and plant species lost. Every loss is one more strand in the great web of life broken. Will there soon be a tipping point when those strands left can no longer sustain the whole?

“The authors note that studies of small-scale ecosystems show that once 50-90 percent of an area has been altered, the entire ecosystem tips irreversibly into a state far different from the original, in terms of the mix of plant and animal species and their interactions. This situation typically is accompanied by species extinctions and a loss of biodiversity. Currently, to support a population of 7 billion people, about 43 percent of Earth’s land surface has been converted to agricultural or urban use, with roads cutting through much of the remainder. The population is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2045; at that rate, current trends suggest that half Earth’s land surface will be disturbed by 2025. To Barnosky, this is disturbingly close to a global tipping point.”

I once saw in a magazine (which I can’t locate now) a picture of a mural on a wall in some future museum. In it a mother is standing by while her child, in awe, is touching a strange but beautiful fluttering-looking thing painted on that wall, a representation of something that once lived on earth. It’s a butterfly. Long gone by then. How sad that would be. How lonely for us.

Following is a link to pictures of the many animals that have gone extinct in just the last 100 years.

What can we individually do? Anthony Barnosky, once a worker for dirty energy (oil, coal) changed when he figured all of this out. Now a noted professor of paleontology, he’s written a book with concrete suggestions for us called Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth.

If you can, please see his video Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink

“My view is that humanity is at a crossroads now, where we have to make an active choice,” Barnosky said. “One choice is to acknowledge these issues and potential consequences and try to guide the future (in a way we want to). The other choice is just to throw up our hands and say, ‘Let’s just go on as usual and see what happens.’ My guess is, if we take that latter choice, yes, humanity is going to survive, but we are going to see some effects that will seriously degrade the quality of life for our children and grandchildren.”

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