When Zeus filled Pandora’s jar with the evils of the world, he saved Delusional Hope for last – to prevent humans from committing mass suicide as they were overcome by the other evils.
A year of blogging Desdemona has helped me to overcome the curse of delusional hope. Hope prevents us from seeing things as they are; hope immobilizes us. It is vital that we, as a species, abandon all hope for the world that birthed us. We have destroyed the Holocene biosphere, and it can never be rebuilt. We have inadvertently terra-formed Earth into a different planet. This act cannot be undone; it is thermodynamically irreversible. Desdemona’s message: Deal with it.
What have we learned in the last year? Here are some highlights:
- Microbe-dominated dead zones and lifeless deserts are spreading rapidly throughout the oceans.
- Desertification is converting most productive land to wasteland.
- The transition from forest to desert happens rapidly, by mega-fires.
- Most charismatic megafauna species will be extinct in the next decade or two.
- The “methane bomb” has already detonated.
- The Arctic permafrost is already melting.
- Large areas of Earth are likely to become uninhabitable to mammals and plants.
- Sea level will continue to rise for centuries.
- God will not intervene.
Because “God” will not spontaneously remove a trillion tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere and oceans, there are only three strategies that humanity can pursue: (1) gain control of the global carbon cycle; (2) learn how to colonize the much more desolate Earth, or (3) choose extinction.
The first option requires controlling diffuse carbon fluxes on the scale of many gigatons per year. I would like to believe that human ingenuity is up to it, but the immensity of the task is overwhelming: we need to pull 1 teraton of carbon from the atmosphere-ocean system to return to the geochemistry in which humans evolved, while simultaneously preventing the emission of another 1 teraton of carbon from melting permafrost and who knows how many gigatons of methane from undersea clathrates. There are no technologies on the drawing board that begin to achieve that scale.
Choosing extinction is the default option, which humans are embracing with gusto. Because there is no reason to think Homo sapiens sapiens is exempt from the accelerating Holocene megafaunal extinction event, it’s entirely likely that humans will follow elephants, rhinos, whales, and most of the other Cenozoic species into oblivion. In some tens of millions of years, other organisms will evolve to fill the empty niches.
Finally, if humanity doesn’t have the wherewithal to develop planetary climate-control technology, we may undertake a desperate effort to colonize the Wasteland Earth. This will be a much less hospitable biosphere than the one in which humans evolved, characterized by extremely limited freshwater, H2S-poisoned atmosphere and oceans, severe ozone depletion, and droughts lasting centuries that are punctuated by destructive flooding events.
Desdemona counsels that we weigh everything against these realities. Most human concerns pale to invisibility against this looming background of doom. Grieve for the world, certainly. But then move on to acceptance. Desdemona has helped me to understand the truth of Woody Allen’s immortal words: “I felt much better after I gave up hope.”