Are humans an itch the Earth wants to scratch?

The music that comes to mind is When the Music’s Over, by The Doors. These lines especially:

  What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her.
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn and
Tied her with fences and
Dragged her down
.

(Warning: be careful what you click on.)

I suppose there are more charitable ways to view how human beings have gouged and stained the Earth. Charitable toward humans, anyway.

The older I get, the more I view the human contribution to geology — that is, toward the Earth itself — as catastrophic. That is, a moment of difference recorded in the fullness of time.

Most of your large geological features are catastrophic in nature. The Himilayas are mostly sea floor pushed northward by the prow of India, which broke away from Africa a few dozen million years ago, plowed across the ocean and smashed hard into the side of Asia — an event that’s still in progress. (The east coast of Madagascar and the Malabar coast of India are two straight lines that used to touch.) As John McPhee likes to remind us, all of geology can be encapsulated in a single fact: that the summit of Mount Everest is marine limestone

And no one fact about human habitation of the Earth sums our contribution more than amount of dead matter we have burned for energy — and will continue to burn until it’s gone. Never mind the elemental materials — the ores of copper, iron, uranium and other solids in the periodic table. Mining and burning of oil and coal will do. At best these materials — which took many millions of years to make, and which won’t be renewed for millions more, if ever — will be gone in a few hundred years, tops. Most of us don’t care because we won’t be here. And we care no more about our nameless descendents than we do about our nameless ancestors. We hardly care that burning fossil fuels is melting the ice caps and raising the seas. Humans on the whole don’t seem to be built for that form of contemplation. What we are built for is plunder. We do that out the wazoo, and we rationalize every bit of it, from burning rain forests to emptying mountains and prairies of coal.

After taking thousands of pictures out the windows of airplanes, it is clear to me that our species is pestilential, and that we’ll continue to exploit the Earth until it can stand no more, and collapse will follow. This event will also be recorded as a momentary discontinuity in the long saga of Earth’s history — one that went for billions of years without us around, and will surely continue for billions more, until the Sun burns out and the larger cycles continue spinning.

Of course, we can attempt to educate ourselves, and I salute the good folks who try. One is Patrick Gregston, who says here that we should watch this video here. Do that. It’s one among many wake-up calls we’ll all be getting in our short lifetimes.

Odds are, however, that most of us will keep hitting “snooze”.

14 comments

  1. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    You could consider the Earth as an egg.

    A shelter with a finite amount of resources usually sufficient to enable the embryonic organism to become self sufficient and viable once the egg has been consumed and its shell breached.

    Let’s hope that we’re the ‘usual’ case.

    There are plenty more life bearing planets in the universe if this one proves unviable.

  2. James Robertson’s avatar

    Sea level is rising based on this being an interglacial period – it’s been higher in the past, and lower in the past. Regardless of what we do (or don’t do), it will rise more until another glacial period starts.

    As to the video you link to as “very important”, the guy who is speaking might want to note that birth rates around the world are falling, and that in the West as a whole (plus Japan and China), it’s under replacement level everywhere except the US (where, outside immigration, it’s roughly replacement level).

    The biggest issue across the developed world over the next century is going to be figuring out how to adequately fund any kind of welfare state with a steadily aging (and shrinking) population. Modern welfare systems all assume a steadily rising worker population that funds the older people; that assumption isn’t holding any longer.

    Another point from the video: He might want to look here
    Even with (and partly because of) logging, the amount of forested land in the US is rising.

    You can let the rest of us know when the people who think that video is relevant escape from the 1970s, and learn a few actual facts about population trends.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    James, I’m with you on sea levels going up and down; and I’ve said many times that much (if not most) of what we call Global Warming is a trend that would hapoen with or without human assistance.

    And maybe that videoi is off base on the population question. I didn’t watch all of it.

    My point has to do with the pestilential nature of human treatment of finite resources. I think that’s easily observed, and deserving of long views that are uncoupled from political (and even scientific) prejudices.

    I don’t thnk the jury’s out on our chances of surviving limitless exploitation of resources, or on the likelihoodl that we’ll continue to exploiting them regardless of increasingly obvioius consequences. We’re going to continue, and we’ll pay a high price for it. Perhaps, for our species, the highest price.

    One man’s opinion, of course.

  4. The NOAA Climate Story » Blog Archive » How you think is more important than how you breed’s avatar

    [...] points out the pestilent nature of mankind in a post today. A commenter criticized the video pointed to [...]

  5. John Quimby’s avatar

    James, the aging population includes the farmers of North America.
    The kind of collapse your observing isn’t just numerical, it’s cultural.

    I’m wondering what happens if the next generation can’t feed itself from it’s own homeland. What about importing food with imported energy? What happens when food security shifts from an individual issue to a national one?

  6. Mary Schmidt’s avatar

    One of my (admittedly tree-hugger) pet peeves is people who dismiss global heating with “It’s gonna happen anyway” and blithely go on their way, mass consuming, using and abusing.

    We humans have been really lucky – for the last 10,000 years or so we’ve had relatively tame weather. (There’s a reason ol’ Oog and Moog didn’t live on the seashore…) So, we think things will always be this way.

    If it’s “going to happen anyway” shouldn’t we be getting prepared? (Duh-oh.)

    Of course, I look out (as I’m typing this) on a 10,000 ft. high pile of granite and limestone, topped with ancient seabed (the Sandias) so I have a good perspective whack right there in front of me every day. I think the Earth at best tolerates us – in any event, one of these days we’ll be just another funky image in the rock (if we’re lucky – 90% of the species that ever lived didn’t make it into the fossil record.)

    As for agriculture, I’m more concerned about water. There’s only so much and that’s it. We’re composed of and drink the same H20 that the dinosaurs were and did.

    ‘cuse me, I’ve got to go put another layer of paint on my soapbox…

  7. Mike Taht’s avatar

    Thank you for another rhyme for post environmental collapse song I’ve been working obsessively on this past week.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mary, were you perhaps somewhere in here?

  9. Zac’s avatar

    James, while the number of trees used for logging may be rising (because they use quartering tactics, like farmers, to ensure the health of their crops my logger friends tell me), it misses the point.

    The question we should ask is to what degree biodiversity has been maintained. If the land only has one type of tree and not much else, it’s not a very habitable place for all the bacteria, bugs and weeds that make up the base of the food chain in a given area, supporting greater numbers (diversity-wise) of the charismatic creatures that end up as the face of environmentalism.

  10. Kathryn in California’s avatar

    James,

    The amount of forest is growing in the US, but the author you quote doesn’t cover what it used to be.

    We’re at 1.17 million square miles of forest now, but in 1491 we had 1.5 million square miles ( 1 billion acres, so we’re still down by 33%.

    Of course even back then that forested land was heavily managed: the population at the time was 1/6 to 1/10th of today’s 300 million. But that management style still led to diverse forests, not monoculture row-crops seen in many “forested” tree plantations.

  11. Chip’s avatar

    Doc et al
    Longish reply so I blogged it
    http://looneydunes.blogspot.com/2008/03/reply.html

    Not pollyanna, but trying to take along term view

    Some other points
    Population : I brought up the eventual decline in conversation last night, pending demographic “brick wall” in various countries

    Farmers : European families leaving farming in North America, Hispanics are the new farmers.

    Forests – I’ll post on that sometime, we own a woodlot and we manage it for diversity and long term growth. Working with others to do the same.

  12. Gil’s avatar

    All species are pestilential. They thrive and expand up to the point that their environment doesn’t support their expansion any further. Protozoa populations grow until the food/O2/waste balance in their environment is such that they can’t grow further. Rabbit populations grow until they hit limits on the food supply, or the supply of predators catches up with them. Whitetail deer populations grow until the number of predators (I’m counting cars as predators here) catch up with them.

    We’re no different. Eventually, the environment will change (with our contribution) in a way that limits the growth of the human population. That’s what life is. That’s what life does.

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