Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
All species eventually go extinct. Yet, the rate of extinction varies, and studies suggest we are currently running at 1000 times the normal rate. This rate of extinction is only seen in the fossil record. As a rule, huge asteroid strikes or super volcano eruptions are blamed. On the other hand, in this instance it's pretty certain that humans are the cause of this modern day extinction bonanza. We are busy changing the climate, whilst encroaching on our co-species habitats.
This will eventually rebound on us. As biodiversity erodes, this removes components of the biosphere that feed and protect us. So, besides altruistic concern for other species, we are going to kill ourselves off unless our habits change.
I suppose the trouble is we’ve created a narrative that humans can overcome all challenges. This is a story that we tell ourselves that arose around the time of the industrial revolution. Before the late 1600s, we lived an agrarian existence dependent on the seasons. Wind and water provided us with the power to do stuff. In turn, we were dependent on the vagaries of the weather. You couldn’t sail the oceans to trade unless the winds cooperated. Mills grinding flour needed flowing water.
All that changed with the steam engine. Even though using steam to produce motion had been around for 2000 years, no one perfected it. Those early devices proved inefficient ornaments of fancy. Thus, although we’d started on the road of technology, mankind still viewed himself as at the mercy of nature. Humble and wary, our ancestors took care not to offend the forces of nature. Religions evolved to ensure we kept the 'Gods' on our side.
Then in the early 1770s, the steam engine proper appeared. At first, a clumsy device, it worked in a fashion without much impact. Until in 1781, James Watt filed a patent for an engine that produced continuous rotary motion. He'd perfected the process. This was the game changer.
Suddenly, factories no longer need flowing water to drive their machines. Ships needn't wait for the trade winds to set out on the oceans. This, in turn, meant people could be moved and concentrated. The industrial revolution was underway.
In the process, a narrative evolved that we controlled the forces of nature. Our advances in science fed that account of ascendancy. The night became day with lighting; diseases cured and held in check. We even ventured into near space. Everything and anything appeared possible. It’s fair to say we developed a ‘God’ complex, as masters of our domain. Unfortunately, this is a delusion fed by hubris.
Instead, there are signs all around us that we don’t understand the complexity or consequences of our actions. Nature has taken to reminding us of our fragile grip. For example, scientists claim to have mastered nuclear forces with promises of safe clean energy. That assertion is wearing thin. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima are the well-known mishaps. That excludes 21 other serious incidents at nuclear power plants that resulted in deaths and radiation releases. This data does not include the military mishaps, which number in the hundreds. Confidence about understanding and controlling the power of the atom appears somewhat overstated. Our narrative is slipping.
Likewise, economics. All those clever men and women, with years of training and education. Yet, they are unable to predict the disastrous consequences of economic policies.
Then we come to the greatest lie we tell ourselves. That's the one about the impact we’re having on the very system that sustains us. Climate change and its associated issues are not accepted by many. In this internet age, it appears getting a common narrative on any issue is near impossible. On the internet, our main forum of debate, is an interwoven subjective thread that wanders. It's endless, it goes nowhere and gives no consensus. It's all too tiresome and draining. Who can be bothered to follow it?
It seems to me that anyone proposing an approach to deal with these issues gets accused of propaganda. At the same time, the pseudo intellectuals emerge to assert you are being reductive. Thus, we’ve replaced a common view born of discussions and reasoning, with a tangle of infinite viewpoint clusters. This morphs, flips and evolves, then fragments.
Of course, none of this changes some fundamental facts. Situated on a small planet, in an unexceptional part of the galaxy, we don't have many options for relocation. Our Sun has about 120 million years on the clock before it burns the last of its hydrogen. Then it bloats up as a red giant to consume Mercury and Venus. By then all life on the surface of the Earth will already be gone. Incinerated to a crisp.
Unless we can crack the challenge of space travel, we disappear. That’s if we are still around. Biologist Erst Mayr's research indicates that most species last 100,000 years before disappearing. Modern humans have been around for between 100,000 to 200,000 years. If Mayr is right, we are approaching that average extinction time. On a more positive note, human population numbers are levelling off. By 2100, the population should stabilise and then fall. That may take some burden off the biosphere depending on our habits.
Bottom line … we can’t get off this planet for some time. Our technology is not good enough. Also, where are we to go? Thus, we’d better take care of the place. Our narrative of ‘god-like’ control through science is false. I’m not going to get all ‘dippy-hippy’ to cite spiritualism or some Russel Brand clap-trap as the solution. Granted our ancestors can teach us much about respecting the balance of life, but we don’t need to adopt the mumbo-jumbo of worship. As far as I’m concerned science helped get us into this mess; science will help us out, if we adjust our approach.
Our first realisation needs to be that we are not dominant or independent over nature. We co-exist in a complex biosphere that is adaptable, given time, however, it also has limitations.
Our second realisation is that our actions, in all forms and directions, have an impact on the biosphere. When we change things, that change rebounds on us in some manner. That can be positive or negative.
Our third realisation, is that we can coexist and prosper within the biosphere. If we act with moderation. With algorithms, it should be possible to assess the impact of our activities. Then we can take a reasoned decision on whether to proceed, adjust or stop an activity. If that’s too utopian, then a few other simple initiatives are possible.
We need to keep large biosphere reserves that are not encroached upon. This is already underway with national parks. The programme needs expanding.
As regards energy, let's be clear, there is no shortage. We circle a massive fusion reactor that is pumping out vast amounts of energy. It will function for the expected duration of our tenure here. More important is how we trap that energy, harnessing it for our purposes. Again, science should have the answer.
Rubatosis, the awareness of your own heart beat, is unsettling. That’s because it reminds us we are fragile, temporal creatures leading an unstable existence. If we could hear and see the impact we are having on nature, we’d be equally unsettled. It’s time. Stop, observe and listen.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.