ecology

Stepping up to the Plate

apokalypse

Woodcut from Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer. (1498.) (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Here’s a few facts to brighten your day:

It’s official: 2016 was the hottest year on record. Plus, to make matters worse, global warming may soon accelerate, and continues to broil the planet at an unthinkable pace.

Meanwhile, with the inauguration of a childlike multi-billionaire as the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, the U.S. government’s webpage on climate change has been removed from the White House’s website. (So have its pages on civil rights and LGBT rights.)

Note that Trump, a mega-rich narcissist, has vowed to scrap one of the few (and all admittedly meager) attempts at dealing with the oncoming apocalypse. (Obama’s Clean Power Plan.) He may also very well put an end to the Green Climate Fund, through which the U.S. [had] agreed to pay $3 billion to help developing countries maintain some semblance of social order in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. (Although the American government, via Obama, only managed to commit $500 million and, in reality, the world will need impossibly large sums of money to prevent civilization from collapsing outright this century.)

Now add to this the claim by a Yale University economist that “devastating” climate change is no longer preventable because the world’s politicians’ response to the issue has mainly consisted of meaningless rhetoric.

Remember that in 2009 Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change in the U.K., submitted the horrifying claim that if the global temperature were to rise 4C above pre-Industrial temperatures (a rise which is slanted to happen this century), only 10% of humanity (around 500 million people) would survive.

Keep in mind that, in a worst-case scenario, we could reach 4C by 2060.

That means that, in a worst-case scenario, in just 43 years 90% of humanity will be wiped out.

If you’re reading this, that number probably includes you, me, and all of our loved ones.

Many may not realize it, but the primary question for the people of the 21st century has quickly become, “How can we prevent a collapse of civilization in the next hundred years?”

The answer to that question will doubtless require technological innovation and social change at a scale never before witnessed.

Humanity is staring down the barrel of a gun. When are we going to really step up to the plate? And, better yet, why aren’t we doing that right now?

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Peace in Our Day (Tranquility in a Time of Ruin)

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

The Blue Marble, a famous photograph of Earth taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972. (Photo source unknown.)

I was raised a Catholic. As it is, I don’t much go to church anymore. (Mea culpa.) On Sundays now I’m more apt to sit in front the window in my kitchen, drinking coffee and waiting for the peculiarities of life to bubble up from out of where only God himself knows.

Every Sunday, at church, there was a long procession down the center aisle, under a colorful velvet light that flooded in through the stained glass on either side of the sanctuary. Smoke wafted from the acolyte’s censer and projected translucent shadows onto the walls. Then the priest, at the helm of the procession, halted in front of the altar, and the liturgy was spoken and intoned.

Then, about two thirds of the way through the Mass, after the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, the priest would say an embolism. In Latin it used to go, “Libera nos, quæsumus, Domine, ab omnibus malis, da propitius pacem in diebus nostris…” Since the 60s a less literal version of the English translation has been used:

“Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day…” Every Sunday he said that without fail.

My little trepidations and larger concerns were, at one point in my life, overshadowed by an unshakable faith. After all, what’s on the news, or beyond the horizon, or down the street that can stand against a firm sense of religion?

God is a bulwark for the mind. That I quickly came to realize. I understood, though I was young then, that the world could be harsh, and sometimes so harsh, in fact, that only its creator and superior could circumvent disaster. Thus, he could also intervene in the mind. What was there to fear, then? What could happen to me or anyone else that divinity couldn’t rectify?

Of course, people change. People are always changing.

So it was at some point, now vague in my memory—sometime in adolescence—that my faith was shaken. I can’t really remember what lead me to my current outlook, or why, but that’s beside the point, anyway. I have since understood, in my own way, that God doesn’t deliver us from every evil. Very much the contrary, actually: In fact, evil seems to be closing in at every turn.

The insistence is always that, as we humans are now the masters of our destiny, and that we have within our power the ability to create something that at least approaches utopia.

Yet the reverse is hard to ignore: We are the “masters” of our collective fate inasmuch as a heroin addict is of his individual one. Let’s own up to the facts: We are myopic creatures, addicted to our own greed, wrath, and ignorance. We are the supposed stewards of this planet, but our bang-up job has so far consisted of an unconscionable destruction of the world’s ecology and a destabilization of the climate which makes it humanly habitable in the first place.

We are the makers of the Anthropocene, a time when, as they say, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and more than ever that being true. The ability (and incentive) to act responsibly on a global scale is being crippled, however, as governments falter under the pressure to preserve what’s left for a world that consumes and pollutes and reproduces with unbridled apathy toward an inevitable and unspeakable outcome. And, while some positive steps are being taken—e.g. COP21, the historic climate agreement that took place in Paris this past December—I’m left to wonder how effective these will really prove over time.

My news for you is this: God is not coming to save us in the event of a massive disaster, whether it’s a protracted problem like anthropogenic climate change; or a relatively sudden one, such as a nuclear attack. There is no deus ex machina built into the equation of human flourishing, or even the basic survival of species. Pray to whatever being you please, asking for “peace in our day.” (I am not debating the existence of a deity, benevolent or otherwise. On that matter I’m agnostic.) But the fact remains that nearly all of the creatures which have, at one point or another, called this planet home, have gone extinct, and neither we nor our cherished way of life are immune to the same fate.

Peace neither of mind, nor in the world at large, has ever been guaranteed. Throughout history all manner of turmoils have been commonplace. It is at this pivotal junction in the story of the human race that we may either choose prosperity or destruction, love or hatred, greed or charity. If we have any concern for the collective life and flourishing of this world, we must act immediately and without restraint to combat the forces which threaten to undo everything good we have secured for ourselves.

I worry. I worry about the world and how the people in it will fare in the coming decades. I know worrying never makes up for action, and I was tired of never acting on my worries, so I put down the cup and decided to write. These words were born of that impulse, and from the desire for “pacem in diebus nostris.” That is, “peace in our time,” and, at that, for all time to come.

Taking a Hint From the Georgia Guidestones

The U.S. state of Georgia has something of a personal Stonehenge. And, while I’ve never been to Georgia—and, really, I’ve never been inclined to go—I think I can assume that these stones are a bit… heterodox… for their place below the Mason–Dixie line.

When I think of large tablets being erected in some southern state, I imagine a marble copy of the 10 Commandments making an awkward addition to a courthouse or State Capitol. But the Georgia Guidestones, nestled in the earth in the state’s Elbert County, are anything but religious strictures. They are, rather, suggestions and “guidelines” on how humanity can conduct its affairs on this planet, rather than please a celestial being beyond the Earth. Having derided the Guidestones as artifacts of the “New World Order,” tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorists have desecrated them a number of times now. But the message of the Guidestones still stands strong. It reads:

  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.
The Georgia Guidestones. (Source unknown.)

The Georgia Guidestones. (Source unknown.)

I can pretty much agree with all of this. But the most important guidelines, I would say—especially considering humanity’s current predicament on a fragile planet of finite resources—have to be 1, 2, 9, and 10. Let’s look at the current state of world affairs, and dissect the importance of the first and last two guidelines:

1. “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.

Current population levels, clocking in at about 7.2 billion (as of 2015), are wildly unsustainable. We have committed ourselves to serious overshoot. With this many people on the planet, and the population expected to rise to between 9-11 billion by the end of the century (if our species can even make it that far without wiping itself out, and much of the Earth’s biodiversity with it!), we are barreling toward catastrophe. Couple this with climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and pollution, and it becomes clear that we are leaving ourselves, and our decedents (if they even manage to survive), a hell on earth. I don’t think that 500,000,000 needs to be a strict number which we should follow, but in general we should aspire to have a much lower number of humans living on the planet. This would free up a huge amount of resources for both humans and other lifeforms to reap and share. When we look at the dramatic loss of fresh water, as well as mineral depletion and the fast-approaching “peak everything,” it becomes clear that this is a better course of action. The loss of half the world’s wildlife should serve as a wake-up call.

2. “Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.

I will say that I’m not to keen on the “fitness and diversity” bit. (It sort of smacks of eugenics.) But, in any case, we most certainly should guide our reproduction wisely. To begin with, isn’t it morally questionable to bring a child into a world whose future looks as grim as ours? Secondly, if we do bring children into this world, why are we bringing so many of them into nations where poverty, war, instability, and food and water scarcity run rampant? The explosive population growth of developing countries shows that many parents are not considering their children’s futures, nor the future of the planet. It doesn’t take much brain power to realize that, on a planet quickly entering the opposite of an ice age, and one of finite resources, having a bunch of kids is not only bad for oneself and one’s country, but for society, the world’s ecosystems, and the future as a whole. People should consider where and when they have children, and how many they are going to have. Granted, many pregnancies are unwanted, and a lack of access to birth control thus imperils many societies. Sadly, for cultural and religious reasons, many countries still ban contraception. My contention is that they only do so to the detriment of their own national stability.

9. “Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.

Before you pass this off as some cliché hippie platitude, I would suggest that you take into account the fine points of this statement. The operative phrases in this passage—”truth,” “beauty,” “love,” “harmony,” and “infinite”—are some of the most important aspects of the human experience, and well represent the goals and aspirations of many people the world over! The personal and spiritual achievement of self-actualization (though implicitly indescribable), could be very well expressed using these phrases. And what does this world need more, if not a change of heart—a collective heart that embraces opportunity, infinity, harmony, and love—that leads to prosperity for all living beings? As comedian Russell Brand has stated, “The fusion of spirituality and activism feels like it is emerging for the first time since the Sixties.” I hope he’s right.

10. “Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

We seem to be doing a terrible job on this last one. All of the aforementioned issues add up to this: humans are currently a disease to the biosphere. In our current predicament it seems that humanity, and the biodiversity of the planet, will be destroyed by selfishness, greed, and ignorance. (Buddha was on to something!) Perhaps we would like to save ourselves, our children, and future generations from the calamity of climate change and ecological destruction? We must dramatically change course if we want that better future, and, as of right now, it has been decided that extra yachts are more important.

We can change our practices and policies in order to live more harmoniously with the Earth’s ecosystems, thus ensuring not only the survival of many plant and animals species, but also our own.