We are a peculiar culture. We are extremely reluctant to accept the possibility that our civilization might decline and fall, like all those which have preceded us, yet consider the idea of utterly trashing the biosphere with a fascination which would have made an early twentieth century symbolist uneasy. We have had another example of it with a paper published in the June issue of Nature.
The paper itself is quite serious. The authors' thesis is that our dumping loads of CO2 into the atmosphere will cause Earth to undergo a state-shift, that is, that the climate of the planet will, abruptly, become something totally different. It is quite possible. In fact, given our remarkable ability to do nothing to make our lifestyle more sustainable, it is quite likely.
The problem is the way it was relayed. Thus, in the (highly reputable) French paper Les Echos, we could read La fin du monde en 2100 ?, which translates as The End of the World in 2100 ?. The idea is that the change will be so dramatic and so brutal, that life will be unable to adapt and we will be left with with a warmer version of Mars.
At this point, it may be interesting to go back a bit in time, say 250 millions years. Then most land masses were collected in a single super-continent, which, like most super-continents erred on the dry side. This did not keep, mostly reptilian, life from thriving, with such specimens as inostrancevia a bear-sized reptile with 12 cm long saber-teeth. The vegetation was not exactly lush but there were still vast expenses of forests, mostly in the south.
It was not a paradise, especially if you stumbled on a inostrancevia in a dark wood in the middle of the night, but it was a functional world, with functional ecosystems.
Then, everything which could possibly go wrong did.
A magma plume burst through what would become Siberia, burning through the largest coal seam of the time. The Siberian traps, as they are cold, covered 2 millions km² with lava and released an embarrassing surplus CO2 into the atmosphere – enough to raise global temperatures by 5°C. This was enough to destabilize oceanic methane clathrate, send a lot of methane into the atmosphere and turn an already hot and dry world into something reminiscent of Arakis.
The oceans became severely deficient in oxygen, but unfortunately not quite dead. Its normal inhabitants were just replaced by hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The oxygen level in the atmosphere plummeted, making life quite difficult for those few animals which had not been baked to death.
Yet life could survive in a overheated desert bordered by a steaming ocean and surrounded by a poisoned atmosphere, and did.
Hard as we try, we can't even get close to the disaster that was the Great Dying, as the Late Permian extinction is called. The best – or rather the worst – we can expect is a speedy return to the hothouse conditions that were the norm during most of Earth's history.
It may comes as a surprise for most of you, but our planet is going through an ice age, an unusually cold and dry period, with a low biodiversity. The climate has been getting colder and colder for the last 30 million years and had the trend continued, we would have been headed toward a full-fledged glacial period, a few tens of thousands years from now. It seems we'll get a swamp and jungle world instead, with some deserts as well, and a lot of shallow seas. It will be teeming with life, probably more so than ours.
Of course, a lot of species will disappear during the transition, like at the end of the last glacial period or during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Others will prosper, as did our ancestors at the beginning of the Eocene.
The problem, is that most crops we are dependent upon have evolved in a Mediterranean setting and won't fare well in the new environment, not to speak, naturally of the slow invasion of the lowlands by the sea.
We won”t be able to use our usual strategy of social complexification and investment into technology. We don't have the resources we need to face the situation this way, even today, just after what was probably the peak of our power and richness. With the beginning of the energy descent our capacity to make investments to face such or such emergency while keeping our infrastructures in working order will shrink. At some point, we will probably be obliged to dismantle vital infrastructures, or allow them to decay, to free the resources we desperately need to keep short term crisis from spiraling out of control.
One can even argue that it is what is happening right now with the slow unraveling of the welfare state and the shrinking of public services in Europe.
The only strategy which will work in the long run is the one our ancestors used before the European expansion : cultural diversification and local adaptation. Since local conditions will have changed nearly everywhere, that means hat all cultures will have to reshape themselves, probably beyond recognition.
And yes, that is also true for so-called traditional or tribal cultures. After all, you cannot stay seal hunting Inuits if your glaciers have turned into alpine meadows and pine forests. You can, however, become Kalaallisut speaking herders and fishers.
But Inuit culture will be essentially dead, as will be all other modern cultures.
It is probably because, as a civilization we somehow feel this, that we have such a fascination for death, a fascination which manifests itself through zombies and vampire movies as well as through Les Echos's apocalyptic vision of a lifeless Earth. We, as a civilization, feel that something, big, and dark, and terrible is coming. We don't know what it is, we don't know when it will strike, but strike it will and it will destroy everything in its wake, a destruction we both fear and relish.
It is not an unprecedented feeling. It was particularly widespread in the Russian intelligentsia before 1914. The country was rapidly industrializing and while the countryside was still backward, a modern middle class was growing in the cities, as well as a radicalizing working class which would latter swell the ranks of the Red Guards during the October putsch.
Yet the government was controlled by an aristocratic clique headed by a brutal – and incompetent – autocrat right from the XVIIth century. The contradiction was so glaring that it was obvious to everybody that something was to happen. Few if any people expected this something to take the form of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, but most felt that it would be destructive, and many welcomed this coming destruction, not as a renewal, but for itself.
Thus, the poet Alexander Blok exclaimed after hearing about the sinking of the Titanic : “the ocean is alive !”. In case you wonder, it was an expression of joy.
In one of his latter poems, The Twelve, written in January 1918, where he describes the bloody march of twelve red guards as a mystical event, the same Alexander Blok writes :
Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
... So they march with sovereign tread ...
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag ~
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed ~
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.
The problem is that where Blok took a pen, others took a gun and acted out on these necrophiliac tendencies, leading to both the Bolshevik hell and the Nazi death cult. It is perfectly possible that the present fascination with death leads to similar results – similar, not identical, Nazism and Communism are spent forces but the impulses behind them are well alive.
It is easy to imagine a radical movement emerging from those apocalyptic fantasies and promising to exorcise them by bringing about the same kind of storm which engulfed early twentieth century Russia. It is also easy to see how such a movement could get into power when the present ruling class will have sufficiently undermined its own legitimacy.
This would be a massive disaster, on many levels. What we need is a pragmatic policy aimed at cushioning the descent and at making it as bearable as possible for the common people, without any delusion about what we can do and hope for. This may, and probably will, imply the removal of the present kleptocracy, but this is quite incompatible with the kind of ideological fantasies which generally emerge from apocalyptic feelings.
The first step in avoiding them is to recognize that our actions have only a limited influence upon the fate of the Earth and our delusions of power are just that, delusions. Then we might begin to lead meaningful lives, within the strict bounds set upon us by the laws of Nature.
As for the Earth, well, as Sara Teasdale said :
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.