Surviving Nature’s Ruin

Rats, crocodiles and Wile E. Coyote have been much on my mind lately.

I’m going to Kenya tomorrow. The guidebook warns against swimming in inland waters, infested as they are with crocs and bilharzia. But that’s not what brings these thoughts to mind. While on the subject, my daughter’s too young to appreciate Chuck Jones. And rodents have left my larder alone for a few years now.

Something else brought these delightful creatures up: Lemmings. People digging deeper holes. And those bacteria reproducing geometrically in their Petri dishes, until the music stops.  Let’s face it. We like crocodiles at a distance, safely penned in a cage. If those poor Kenyans have to deal with the brutes on a daily basis, we, at least, are spared.

Not for very much longer, alas. Within a few centuries, the way we’re pumping carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll be back in the delightfully balmy days of the Cretaceous, when crocodiles sunned themselves on the banks of rivers at the north and south poles (they’re crafty, those crocs. Dinosaurs got wiped out, but they thrived.)

By then, of course, we will have other fish to fry. Within a few thousand years, the Antarctic ice sheet will be gone (them crocs don’t like ice, so it follows.) So will San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Hamburg, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Karachi, Lagos etc etc etc. Those balmy days mean that, eventually, we can count on about one third of the current land surface to be submerged again. Amusingly, we have Exxon’s clever geologists to thank for that insight.

So we know. But we can be downright stupid. BP – yup, the Macondo Well heroes – just published their 2030 Energy Outlook. They see oil dominance, a strong rise of natural gas, a “strong” growth for renewables (to a miserly 11% of world energy production), and, oh, some increase in energy efficiency too. They admit this will lead to much higher carbon emissions, but that doesn’t seem to worry them too much. Nor does it worry the American chamber of commerce or the entire Republican party. Bring it on, they say. Wile E. is running off the cliff, heedless of the International Energy Agency’s Bugs Bunny, Chief Economist Fatih Birol, who calls the evidence the way it should be called.

We’re great, we humans. We’re clever enough to adapt to anything. Deserts, forests, grasslands, plains, mountains, rivers, oceans, poles, tropics –  you name it, it’s got a subdivision on it (or at least a few cabins). We’re a bit like rattus norvegicus, in fact: clever, social, omnivorous, and living everywhere.

Primates usually have a hard time of this life business. Long gestation periods, small litters and years of juvenile dependency on adults ensure that chimps and our other cousins find it really hard to grow their populations quickly. But we? We’re more like bacteria. Thanks to medical care, agriculture, technology and above all cheap energy, we reproduce like them, at geometric rates.

That population growth makes for a pretty curve. The line soars away as time progresses, optimistically rising to an ever more populous tomorrow. When it measures money, it’s a line to gladden an investors’ heart. When it measures jobs, it guarantees a president’s re-election. And for those very few of us whose incomes track that line, life’s a party.

But it comes from somewhere, that line. It also tracks our consumption of energy (that’s the limiting factor in our human Petri dishes.) And it looks uncannily similar to the famous hockey stick of greenhouse gas emissions or of global temperature rises.

Once you start looking, that line is everywhere. It tracks the loss of tropical rain forests. The number of fully exploited ocean fisheries. The nitrogen flux into the seas. Great floods. Species extinctions. The amount of land taken under cultivation. Wherever you turn, you see those graceful lines, sweeping skywards. The Age of Acceleration, indeed.

Yeah yeah, we’ve all heard it before. Malthus. Energy wars. A hot hell for our children. So what else is new? Well, I’m writing to bring a bit of optimism to the table.

Sure, most of our cities will be underwater in what is, in the 200,000 year history of our species, the blink of an eye. Many, probably most, of the species we share this planet with will have been driven to extinction. The tropics will be too hot for humans to live in. Any surviving crocs will sun themselves in Antarctica.

Yet the planet will survive. Easily. A few million years later, new species will have evolved to fit the ecological niches left vacant by our slaughter. And we, too, will survive. Certainly not in huge numbers. But, like Wile E. Coyote, we’ll pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and try again. The panda, the tiger, coral reefs, whales, and so on will go. But we will adapt. We will survive, together with our cousins, the brown rats.

Photograph courtesy of caruba. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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