The Anthropocene Event (Part I)

The BBC reports today that at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan the new Red List of Threatened Species has been unveiled.

(You can go to the IUCN’s Red List online (free registration required) but the database is such a welter of species level information that it’s impossible to see the soon-to-be-dead forest for the about-to-be-extinct trees.)

The gist of it, of course, you know; and it’s not good news. One fifth of life (at the species level) is threatened with imminent extinction. Amphibians are most at risk (at least among tetrapods); birds least. (The bolide impact didn’t kill off the theropods, so why should humans be able to?)

None of this is new, of course. Habitat destruction in Asia is the largest factor at the species level right now. This warning only deals with imminent threats which are visible in a particular species’ numbers. It doesn’t deal with near term threats from ocean acidification, ever-growing ocean dead zones from excessive nitrogen and phosphorus runoffs or the incredibly complicated series of threats posed by carbon emissions.

I bring up all of this, not because it’s something that’s new, but rather because of a little talk I attended last night. Richard Leakey, famed paleoanthropologist and noted East African conservationist, traveled to a tony New York City suburb last night to speak at a public library, evidently to raise money for an initiative he is promoting with the State University of New York at Stony Brook. (I say “evidently” because he did not make an explicit appeal for funds and I did not pick up any of the available literature on my way out or give my email address to receive “further information.”)

There was no information explaining what he would be talking about before the event, so I assumed we’d be hearing about 50 years of finding bones in the Rift Valley. But he immediately disclaimed any further interest in finding bones and began with a film about the “Sixth Extinction.” The point of it and his talk was that we are in the process of reducing the Earth’s animal species by one-half within 50 years. This would be a record time for any of the 5 previous Mass Extinctions (perhaps surpassed by the speed of the K-Pg Event if all the dying was the result of the thermal heat caused by the impact: my qualification; not his).

His insight into the discussion was that his study of ancient man has shown that “compassion” developed, perhaps 2 million years ago–as a result of human adaptation to a bipedal lifestyle. His reasoning was that Africa is a hostile place, and humans were unlikely to live very long bipedally without assistance. As an example, Turkana boy (which he excavated) showed signs of a spine disease–which he would have been unlikely to have dealt with absent help from others. Of course, Turkana boy never made it to adulthood, and taking care of an impaired infant or juvenile is not particularly a unique hallmark of humans.

But he used the point to say that if we can do that, why can’t we stop the killing of life on earth? He said that astronomers were discussing how to ward off asteroid strikes, so why don’t we do something about this?

And here is the rub. When asked to list what were the biggest problems to tackle, he listed: population and then dependence on mono-culture agriculture. He then declined discussing politics on a “tea party” level, because he said he never got involved in “that side of things.” And when pressed on what to do, he said, Let’s not tell young people that science is bad. And politicians should give university grants for scientists not for 5 years but for 25. The initiative he is involved in is to study the fossil record in Turkana from the last 65,000 years to see if DNA can be recovered to determine when “humanness” was acquired (I put that badly. It’s not quite that stupid. And he kept swallowing whole parts of his sentences so it was difficult to infer what he was doing–he never came right out and said it.)

My 11-year-old daughter concluded that “He didn’t say much.” And, frankly, he didn’t.

It is all well and good to say that “humans” ought to use their grey matter to solve the threats to life, but you have to come to grips with what has to be done. It’s not enough to note the irony of being intelligent and doing stupid things. We’ve all incorporated this irony into our intellectual genetic code since watching “The Twilight Zone” as children. The fact is we are fundamentally flawed psychologically and sociologically.

Our greatest strength–our ability to deal in abstractions–will, I’m afraid to say, kill us. We can imagine the effects of climate change and even find its cause. But we can also convince ourselves that “there’s no evidence,” “there were ice ages before, it’ll happen again,” “science doesn’t know enough.” The latter abstractions which will dominate the political discussion in the Industrial World are probably believed by no one, but will be accepted as the conventional wisdom because that’s what our social organization depends on.

And despite our “wisdom” there is no evidence that we have ever addressed a threat whose solution requires social re-organization unless it involves killing people. We can deal with a threat of “invasion,” by massing the manpower to repel the enemy. We do not have the ability to impose a carbon tax to reduce consumption.

And this doesn’t even deal with the population problem.

Leakey expressed a fondness for the organization of social insects because the workers lack the ability to question the commands given. And yes, it would be nice if someone could say, Stop using bottled water in plastic bottles, and everyone would agree. That certainly wouldn’t end our problems but might mitigate a small fraction of it. But we can’t even do that.

At Copenhagen, they “agreed” that an average global temperature increase of 2º C is the limit of what we should allow. This of course would put our planet at the average temperature of the end of the Jurassic Period. And it will bring enormous stress on a vast portion of the planet as now organized. And we don’t even know if we stopped all carbon emissions now that current warming trends would stop at 2º C. But given all that, and given the low goal they were seeking to achieve, the nations of the earth were unable to agree to any plan that would in any way move in the direction of implementing their agreed upon concern.

Ultimately the problem is that the planet cannot support a population with the per capita consumption we now have. And there is nothing in place to stop the increase of population and per capita consumption. If the solution is to be found in the organization of social insects, then he should just come out and say it: we need a form of Chinese-style communism with its one-child policy or a European-style fascism with its various “solutions.”

Of course Westerners have been so imbued with the Age of Reason’s principles of individual rights and the myth of the social contract that they will not (I hope) easily give in to a totalitarian social order, even to achieve ends that are necessary to save life on Earth.

So we have to get involved in “that side of things”–the hand-dirtying, stomach turning business of politics. But even here humans are not free from their biological and psychological constraints. And Leakey, of all people, should know this. He lost his legs in a plane crash widely suspected to be the result of sabotage. He was twice driven out of government because his views on conservation and corruption conflicted with the powers that be. If people were willing to kill for a small amount of ivory or governments can’t wean themselves of corruption, then how is this much bigger existential problem going to be addressed?

And either way this will be an existential question: our physical or economic existence will be impaired whatever decision we make. And that’s where the “Tea Party business” come in. This is not a group of people who like to dress up in 18th century costumes simply to look silly. This is a group which is mouthing fundamental concerns about their way of life–their existential question. And currently nobody is addressing their concerns or explaining how they are moving in the wrong direction.

Unless this is done, we will not be able to deal with the very real problem facing our very existence, because we will have an even more immediate problem–a political and social system that is unable to address any problem. But that will have to wait until the next post, which you can find here.

  1. so horrible!

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