by Stan Hirst
It has never been said better than by Carl Sagan in his speech at Cornell University in 1994.
“…… you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there — on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The possibility that we might actually lose our home planet Earth never seriously occurred to me during most of my fourscore years on this 3rd rock from the sun. The very notion that something could go awry came to my attention only at the awe-struck age of 14 when I saw a movie called “When Worlds Collide”. It wasn’t even part of a double feature, it was the main show, so that definitely attested to the film’s status and authenticity.
I watched with rapt attention in glorious technicolour as two rogue planets zoomed through the solar system towards Earth. Bronson Alpha came within hailing distance, created spectacular tidal waves, floods, earthquakes and general turmoil. A small band of intrepid blonde and statuesque rocket scientists and bit-part actors hastily constructed a 10-mile long launching chute from whence they zoomed off in a rocket ship towards the other planet, Bronson Beta, which conveniently was already equipped with skyscrapers, roads and friendly Bronsonites. The movie was awarded an Oscar for technical effects.
Back in those days anyone contemplating the end of the world automatically thought in terms of a deadly threat coming from elsewhere in the universe. I recall a fascinating article on the back page of the Sunday Times, just below the photo of Jayne Mansfield, relating the potential threat from a death star. Apparently, the star hadn’t yet actually been seen, its presence was derived from ruminations by various mystics and the sighting of occasional flashes in the night sky. Incineration in the tail of a comet was another source of earthly obliteration mentioned in sci-fi magazines. Oddly, even a world war from 1939 through 1945, the scope and intensity of which had never before been experienced and which led to the demise of 60 million people, wasn’t enough to spark serious considerations of earthly self-inflicted -immolation.
What are the chances of Earth getting zapped by the Son of Bronson Beta or some other heavenly body? Very slim, but not impossible. Geological evidence indicates that asteroids have collided with earth in the course of geological history, the best known being the Chicxulub asteroid which extinguished all non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago. The geological record going back 440 million years reveals traces of four other major events which caused major life-form extinction; two of these were associated with asteroid impacts.
Mankind produced another potential earth-obliterating device in the ‘forties with the advent of nuclear weapons. Nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer expressed mankind’s embedded fear of self destruction when he witnessed the first nuclear explosion at Los Alamos in July 1945 and famously quoted from the Bhagavad Gita “Now I am become Death”.
The nuclear arms race started soon after, and by the mid 90s eight countries had detonated a total of 2476 nuclear devices. Within that same period in 1983 Carl Sagan introduced the unnerving concept of a global nuclear winter with his Sunday news supplement’s feature on “Would nuclear war be the end of the world?” Despite all these powerful weapons going bang in remote global locations, the most serious nuclear accident ever to occur was a civil one – the explosion in the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine in 1986, causing only 30 deaths but hundreds of radiation injuries and over 6000 cases of thyroid cancer and the relocation of 335,000 people. Nuclear radiation has created a lot of misery for many people but its likely role in earthy demise seems very slight.
It wasn’t just music, morality and media which underwent major modifications in the sixties. Rachel Carson turned her attention from marine biology to conservation and highlighted a slower, more silent form of self immolation – synthetic pesticides. Her Silent Spring (1962) pushed environmental concerns to an unprecedented profile in public interest. Her book and her finger-pointing at human hubris and financial self-interest as the crux of many problems led to widespread bans on DDT and other pesticides. That in turn inspired grassroots environmental movements that led to the creation of government environmental agencies in the U.S. and Canada. Rachel Carson’s work pointed out the now-obvious need for individuals and groups to question what governments allowed in respect of environmental management.
A second notable spokesperson in the sixties for earthy doom was Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology. (See? When you’re an Elder you remember all this stuff). In his controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb Ehrlich outlined how the world’s human population would increase to the point where mass starvation ensued. Ehrlich received tremendous opposition and suffered derision from conservative politicians in the U.S. but has ultimately been proved right. Current statistics indicate that some 800 million people in the world (about 1 in 9) do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life, and about 9 million die annually of starvation. The deep irony is that even more people in the world, 1.5 billion by one estimate, are dangerously overweight and subject to increased mortality rates.
“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” was once an archetypal measure of age and place. I remember exactly where I was (driving a VW Beetle along Church Street, Pretoria). The question has faded from use because in the present time most people were too young to know anything about Kennedy or they weren’t even born yet. But how about a more pertinent time marker: “When did you first hear about global warming?”
I can remember that too. It was 1981 and the place was the B.C. Hydro building in Vancouver. A group of environmentalists and engineers were gathered around a table trying to get to grips with the impacts of future hydroelectric dams in northern B.C. on the mesoclimates of northern Canada. Global climate change had been the subject of a recent publication in a scientific journal, brought to our attention by one of the consultants. It jolted some of us to realize that the local effects of river flow change across a landscape as huge as northern Canada could possibly eventually be dwarfed by much larger continental impacts resulting from global carbon dioxide emissions.
Over the past 30 years we have learned much more about global climate change, and the main indications are apparent to most, although perhaps not as much to elected conservative North American legislators.Now comes the latest jolt from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The 30-year old Panel has issued a report in which the world’s leading climate scientists warn there are only a dozen years left within which global mean temperature rise could be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree more will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
There are lots of “coulds”, “might’s” and “risks of” in the language used by groups such as the IPCC when warning of impending catastrophe over large areas of the Earth. Such conditional language pretty much renders a concept null and void in our present electronically besotted cyberworld, where information competes with minutiae and electronic social babble for space and relevancy. Better perhaps to refer to clear signs of global demise such as these which have already happened and are staring us in the face on daily basis.
This is bad news. Here’s worse. The recent UN’s 2018 Emissions Gap Report shows that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions show no signs of peaking. Total annual GHG emissions, including those from land-use change, reached a record high of 53.5 Gigatonnes of CO2 in 2017, an increase of 1.5% compared with 2016. The report reminds us that global GHG emissions in 2030 need to be approximately 55% lower than in 2017 to put the world on a least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5o C. The report further reminds us that current commitments expressed by all the nations are inadequate to bridge the emissions gap in 2030. If significant reductions are not achieved by 2030, exceeding a 1.5o C temperature rise can no longer be avoided.
For the past decade-and-a-half the Living Planet Index has monitored 14,152 populations of 3,706 vertebrate species (mammals, birds, fishes, amphibians, reptiles) around the world. Population sizes of vertebrate species have, on average, dropped by more than half in little more than 40 years. The data shows an average annual decline of 2 percent and there is no sign yet that this rate will decrease. If current trends continue, by 2020 vertebrate populations will have declined by an average of 67 per cent since 1970. Reasons for the severe declines? Habitat loss from human exploitation and competition, exploitation for human food, ivory, folk medicines……the list goes on.
Contemplating the end of the world as we know it is not for sissies. But what to do about it? Some of us become very angry and join the forces of protest, e.g. the Extinction Rebellion movement. Hopefully all of us will use our political freedoms to use our legislative and judicial structures to bring about rapid and meaningful changes, although we will have to admit to ourselves and others that it might not be enough in the end. Some choose quieter paths of educating, preaching, learning, politicking and the like. We’ve all been in similar situations before, we just didn’t realize the enormity of the final backdrop.