Farewell to the Hairless Ape
The End. Charles Taze Russell and his Jehovah’s Witnesses believed it would come in the year 1914, but although the World went to war, the ground did not dry up and the seas did not boil. A number of acquaintances of mine, who spend much of their time searching for certain species of wild fungi, cite 2012 as the point at which mankind will slip into a state of chaos, because the Mayan calendar says so.
All forms of life become extinct or evolve. The total human population is currently going through the sort of population spike which, when studied in colonies of bacteria, always leads to a depletion of resources and subsequent total extinction (the J-Curve). Without spouting out paranoid fables or going in for the all-too-predictable ringing of the doomsday bell, we may well ask if the end is coming soon. But why?
And how? And will mankind’s greed lead to his extinction, or will a collapse of civilisation as we know it simply bring about a simpler tribal way of life, albeit carried out on abandoned freeways and in absurd gladiatorial pits featuring Tina Turner? Salient feature writer Tristan Egarr ponders such questions.
Yea, and all the people shall drip into space on the sweat of the warm globe:
“all these concerns about the world getting warmer, well people thought that they were just being rewarded.” – The Postal Service
For about as long as man has told stories, he has told stories about the end of man. And while he finds much to like in the weather – after all, without either wind or rain, he would not be alive – he cannot control it, as it too often stars in his fears.
Shakespeare’s cataracts and hurricanes spouted, till they had drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks. The weather lurks rather ominously in our apocalypse of the moment: climate change. But unlike King Lear, we have scientific data to back up our paranoia.
The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spent 2007 issuing an updated report, which states that, partially due to the natural warming/cooling cycle but mainly due to a sharp spike in emissions of CO2 (exhaust fumes), methane (cattle fart) and nitrous oxide (laughing gas), the earth is warming at 0.2 degrees celsius per decade, and will rise between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees over the 21st century. This will in turn see sea levels rise between 18 and 59 centimetres. But it hardly sounds like the most dastardly sign of the apocalypse, does it now? Of course, this is to be accompanied by more frequent heavy rain, heat waves and droughts, and more extreme hurricanes and cyclones (since the sea soaks up 80 per cent of the increasing warmth, and apparently this causes storms).
Some temperate-to-chilly areas will of course benefit, so anyone keen to profit from the inevitable warming would be wise to relocate here (Invercargill or Gore anyone?). For low-lying areas such as the Cook Islands and Bangladesh, rising seas will mean the deaths of millions of largely impoverished human beings who lack the means to relocate. The IPCC states that while we need to stop pumping crap into the atmosphere if we really care about these people, but that whatever we do to change our behaviour, the masses of greenhouse gasses already pumped out mean that much of the damage is already done.
The choice, then, is between a slightly uncomfortable and slowly developing decline in habitability in dry and low-lying areas, or an extreme and gleefully apocalyptic version of the same – “this is your weather, in a mosh-pit, on methamphetamine.”
Yea, and all the world shall run out of drink and cease to sweat; And low, the humans shall be thirsty.
“Do you like the way the water tastes / like gunfire?” – Deftones
It may seem that global warming can be handled by simply embracing callousness, ignoring the countries worst effected, and moving farmers from our (soon to be infertile) East Coast to Southland. But alas, global warming is not the sole cause of the coming apocalypse. More frightening is our mineral gluttony, our over-consumption of resources. Proponents of the peak oil theory supply fairly convincing evidence to suggest that oil will become impossibly difficult to extract within decades; and the New Scientist argued in May that the rare elements (such as platinum) used to make many of the gadgets we couldn’t bear to live without (from cellphones to laptops) will also run out within our lifetime. And among all natural resources, there is one we simply cannot afford to waste: water.
But wasting it we are.
According to UNESCO’s World Water Development report, 40 per cent of the Earth’s population currently lack adequate or safe drinking water for their minimal hygiene needs. UNESCO predicts that the average quantity of drinking water available to each person will decrease by 30 per cent in the next 20 years. Given our reliance upon water, it is not surprising that areas with the most marginal water supplies – the desert regions of Africa and the Middle East – are also the main centres of political violence. The ‘Arab world’ holds only 1 per cent of the world’s water but 5 per cent of the world’s population, many in polluted urban centres, (that they also sit upon much of the dwindling oil supply so coveted by the world doesn’t help either).
Such water supply problems are exacerbated by climate change: the IPCC states that in Africa alone, “by 2020 between 75 and 250 million people are predicted to be exposed to an increase of water stress due to climate change.” What makes this so tragic is that it should be avoidable, since only 15 per cent of the global human population’s water use is for household needs. The majority – 70 per cent – goes on irrigation for agriculture, yet irrigated (as opposed to rain-fed) crops only account for 10 per cent of food production. However, if global warming sees currently water-marginal areas become drier, our need for irrigation will only become more demanding.
Intensive irrigation then salinates soil by washing salts to the surface, further reducing fertility in a neat spiral of doom.
Speed Kills: Birth and Copulation and Death
“Can you calm down on your rutting for just a couple of seconds while we sort out this food, air deal?” – Bill Hicks
The biologist-historian Jared Diamond has argued that crises such as resource depletion and climate change are dangerous not only in themselves, but because any attempt to tackle either problem will ultimately fail unless the other problem is also addressed. Furthermore, we are fairly well locked into a state of constant and accumulating growth of consumption.
The principle of continuous growth which underpins capitalism allows us to create, enjoy and build things on our own initiative. But to maintain a healthy economy in which more stocks rise than fall and more individuals profit than lose, the net amount of stuff taken from the earth, transformed and traded has to keep increasing, while the gross amount of water and fertile earth is not limitless. This fundamental need to grow is compounded by our exponentially increasing population. The entire homo sapiens species has a sexually transmitted dilemma: over-population.
It took us millennia to reach 1 billion people, yet only another century to reach seven billion. This shape is known to biologists as the J-Curve, and leads to collapse.
A massive and massively growing human population is not in itself a problem. If we abandoned all of our energy-guzzling labour-saving devices and embraced a primitive life of local food production, we could all fit together in one singing state of global subsistence.
But we would lose the networks between cultures from all corners of the planet which these energy-guzzling devices allow us to create; we could not collect the vast body of scientific wisdom we enjoy; and we will lose this if we do not slow down.
Admittedly, we could leave the planet and find one more well-stocked – but to do so we need resources to build and power intergalactic spaceships, and this we will lose too if we do not slow down.
Embracing the End of the World (plus a juicy bit about filth diseases)
“Save it for your own and the ones you can help.” – Soundgarden
Let us say that we refuse to give up all the wonderful gadgets which are sucking the world dry. Accepting extinction is after all an option – since most species become extinct it is hardly unnatural. In fact, the loss of adequate resources probably won’t lead to total extinction, since as the situation worsens countries with large guns can decide to live at others’ expense. Given that millions of people vocally resist slowing down, it is worth taking an honest look at the consequences, which are perhaps best shown by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The August 2005 hurricane did not stop at bursting New Orleans’ 40-year-old levees, causing $81.2 billion damages and leaving 1,836 dead. Despite the evacuation of some million inhabitants, around 60,000 remained as the flood waters filled up with faeces bringing diseases aplenty (and subsequently draining along with 6.5 million gallons of oil into Lake Pontchartrain) while the city’s main hospital remained closed until earlier this year. Simultaneously, 6,500 National Guards moved in with M16 rifles following media reports of looting; several gun battles ensued, and the city’s murder rate has since soared above already dire levels. What we see, then, is pestilence and violence.
First, this matter of disease. As water becomes sparse we will have to wash ourselves less and less. At first we will merely smell, bust since we will be hard-pressed to keep our flushable toilets going, we will have to become involved with the removal of faeces. Faeces + lack of washing = filth diseases!
My personal favourite is cholera. Cholera can cause you to shit out your own intestines. Then again, I do love my V8 town car, my ten fat children and my plasma screen TV…
And lo, they shall be killing one-another for the good of the species.
“In 25 minutes, a single seater F-15 jet can burn 625 gallons of fuel, more than the average US motorist uses in a year. An aircraft carrier will use that much in under seven minutes.” – Earth Island Journal, February 1991
Secondly, we have war. Mass warfare is technically a solution to over-population and consumption, since it allows us to thin out our numbers to the point where we can no longer make a demanding impact upon the planet.
In a controversial December 1994 article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “Must It Be the Rest Against the West?”, historians Paul Kennedy and Matthew Connelly argued that when sub-Saharan Africa and India can no longer support their populations, they will understandably use all possible means to enter the developed world: “the rich will have to fight and the poor will have to die if mass migration is not to overwhelm us all”.
Europe, North America and Australasia have already been through and finished a population boom which began in the 18th Century, though we continue to over-consume. The developing world is right in the midst of an overpopulation crisis and has not even really begun to over-consume. While we can, in all honesty, advise other people that they should avoid overpopulation, we can hardly tell them it is immoral to come and invade our environmentally richer lands when much of the wealth we consume was produced by their hands.
If we insist upon destroying our planet until it cannot support our population, and every group refuses to slow down from either populating or consuming, then we are going to have to face facts and start killing one-another with no more justification than kill or be killed.
But the real kicker here, besides the way that war flows from the effects of global warming and resource depletion, is the fact that warfare in turn feeds into and exacerbates both of these environmental problems. War is both a cause and solution to the End. According to the Earth Island Journal, the US military consumed 8 billion gallons of oil in 1989 – 14 times as much as “the entire US urban mass transit system” in the same period.
Spending precious resources on plastic computers is one thing; wasting them on killing machines quite another. Now consider the impact was has upon carbon emissions: when Saddam Hussein set fire to 640 oil wells in Kuwait during the Gulf War, he burned an estimated 2.5 billion gallons of oil, again more than the US mass transit system in that year. We can convert everyone in the world to driving hybrid cars, but we are still going to destroy our earth and imperil our species if we keep on doing this kind of shit. It is unlikely that we can halt global warming without achieving global peace, and I’m afraid peace isn’t exactly knocking on the door as we speak. Bummer.