DEAR DR. FOX: I have studied Earth processes for over 40 years as a geologist, both in R&D and commercial capacities. Most of my career, ironically, was spent as an explorationist in the fossil fuel industry.
What we know is that the Earth has undergone five major extinctions in the last 500 million years. With the possible exception of the Cretaceous extinction event, these were primarily caused by dramatic changes in the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, in the case of past extinctions). Too little, and the Earth freezes; too much, and it overheats, acidifying the oceans in the process. A dramatic reduction in species accompanied all five extinctions, with the Permian event being the worst: The planet lost 90% of all its life and came perilously close to sterilization.
We are currently experiencing a sixth major extinction. Like the others, the cause is an imbalance of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Unlike the others, the trigger is a single species: humans. It is why many scientists have unofficially dubbed the current epoch the Anthropocene.
Past extinctions occurred over tens of thousands to millions of years -- an eternity, by human standards. But the current extinction is happening over decades to hundreds of years. Estimates suggest that humankind is injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at 10 times the rate it was being added naturally during the Permian extinction. In my opinion, any curtailing of it at this point, although admirable, is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent catastrophic and lasting climate events. The damage that is already done (e.g., to the coral reefs) will certainly not be repaired naturally for many human generations.
You might enjoy the following books if you haven't read them already: "What We Know About Climate Science" by Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT; "The Ends of the World" by Peter Brannen, science journalist; and "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer at The New Yorker. -- D.H., Ph.D., Tulsa, Oklahoma
DEAR D.H.: Many readers will appreciate your synopsis of our planet's geo-history and where we are now. Others may experience intensified environmental anxiety -- or absolute despair. But much can be saved, including our sanity!
The Anthropocene Epoch began with our ability to make fire, which led to pyro-technology and the wanton waste and pollution from burning fossil fuels. This was followed by other technologies, including chemical, atomic/thermonuclear and genetic engineering. Some of these technologies were weaponized to fight adversaries, human and non-human, with little regard for their adverse consequences to the biosphere.
All of these technologies have had their own consequences, interacting in ways we still may not understand. And we certainly do not know the long-term consequences of all this unbridled, unexamined "progress." Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we have increased the metabolism of the planet to unsustainable levels of extraction and consumption, which now calls for sound, science-based, public policy corrective action and international cooperation.
The expanding human population, along with our food crops and livestock, have decimated natural ecosystems and healthy plant and wildlife biodiversity -- contributing, in large measure, to epizootic and pandemic diseases: the blights, plagues and pestilences of biblical record. The increasing burden of these adverse consequences may prevent future generations from ever evolving into the ecocentrism needed for effective planetary CPR: conservation, protection and restoration. My friend the late Father Thomas Berry called this the "ecozoic" era of human evolution. I hope and pray for this empathic and informed transformation in human consciousness and action to come without delay!
When we forget our history, we relive it. According to the United Nations report Groundswell, by 2050, 200 million people may be climate-change migrants seeking refuge from uninhabitable homelands. Even if we did not have this existential crisis of climate change, we would still face the issues of overpopulation, overconsumption, economic and political refugees and the violence and inhumanity toward each other and other species. And none of these issues are helped by political and public paralysis of will and action -- nor by denial.
Denial was especially evident in the U.S. at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in the face of this crisis, which some see as the latest of nature's "bioweapons" to control the human population, many people saw mask mandates as a violation of their personal freedoms. Clearly, the educational system has been deficient in teaching civics, ethics and critical thinking. An even worse revelation is that even while facing the common enemy of this virus, we seem incapable of effective international cooperation.
Political scientist William Ophuls writes, in his essay "What Can Give Us Hope?": "But the prophetic madness attending the death throes of industrial civilization will also contain a small but significant ray of hope: Out of the welter of false prophets there may arise one whose message will effect the metanoia that is the only real way out of the impasse. For only by transcending our obsession with material power and progress, and recovering a deep empathic connection to the planet and the life it bears, can we hope to reconstruct civilization to be sane, humane and ecological."
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