Friday, 29 June 2012

Eco Worrier Series - Falling off the Edge of the World

Individually we can live anywhere from zero to about 120 years of age, then we die; it’s a biological certainty everywhere except in the annals of science fiction.  As a species we also have a use by date.  Scientists provide murky prophecies by dissecting the entrails of our environment, from the microbes of disease to the pH level of our seas and the health of our atmosphere.

Some days it seems we’re leaning hard on the kill switch, as though by some subconscious collective desire we’re keen to get on with our extinction phase.   Against all genetic reasoning I’ve kind of got to like the idea that we end.  I can console myself that I’m not alone in this. We’ve always had a fascination with the end of the world, and looking back at popular culture it’s interesting to note the change in plot lines, from the alien fearing days of the Day of the Triffids and War the of the Worlds, to man-made post apocalyptic scenarios such as Mad Max, through to the growing popularity of environmental disasters with such movies as Waterworld and The Day after Tomorrow, and the BBC TV series, Outcasts.
It’s a theme littered throughout literature too. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, death, war, famine and pestilence have always been waiting in the wings. I like Pratchett and Gaiman’s concept in Good Omens of the four sidling into society and providing us with the means to our own end, like calorie-less food, till we all, by personal choice, gorge ourselves to  emaciation.  It’s clear - while they court us with death we groom their horses.  There are few options for extinction that do not require our assistance.    
But it wasn’t till I’d read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman that I started to seriously consider an earth without humans.  Weisman posits that, for whatever reason, we no longer exist, and explores what would happen to the earth from an hour later through to millions of years – and it seemed, at least at first, that nature can grind us down fairly quickly, that our traces would be, if not wiped up with a wash cloth, obliterated by time and those all powerful microbes. Towards the end of the book it seemed as if it was one of those cleaning jobs that once tackled one realises the item in question may no longer be of an aesthetic or practical value and it would be easier to throw it away, start again. 

But nature has less of a throw away approach and eventually our damage will be undone.  Though until such time as a plastic chewing microbe evolves polymers will be one of our most lasting mementos.
Will we go out with a whimper or a bang? The disaster movies proliferating prefer the CGI excitement of the bang theory - it makes for better ratings.  Though I suspect our descendants will eke out a marginal existence for centuries till they’re no longer viable.  Inevitably our reign will be over.  It will take millions of years for other species to evolve and rule the earth. I wonder if they will find us in peat bogs and disturbed cemeteries. What will they think of us?  Will they sift through our bones looking for clues or will they chew on them? 
There are days I wax lyrical on human extinction, but most times I cling feverishly to the hope that the environment we live in can survive our excesses, and that we can reduce them to the point it can do so on a long term basis and that our descendants will laugh at our naivety as we do at our ancestors’ fears of falling off the edge of the world.


Rebecca said...

Yes the world probably will get on just fine when we’re extinct. Plastic will decompose over the next 100,000 years and in a million the Earth will probably look very different to what we humans have ever seen (or postulated to have been) before. But what will it lose?

With exception of animal species to varied degrees (but elephants, dolphins, primates, etc could all be extinct by then anyway), the capacity for love, empathy, grace, fairness and community seems to be most clearly expressed by humanity. Modern research might show that these characteristics are beneficial in the evolutionary process, but until very recently they were fairly well overwhelmed by survival of the fittest (or most able to access the available resources). As a species we are now supreme at accessing resources. The limitations are now not our capability to feed ourselves and our offspring, but the ability to limit ourselves to what we need (not want) so that the limited resources are equitably shared by the Earth/environment and humanity both now and in the future. Surely greed is driven by innate survival instinct. If so, survival (at least in the geologically short term) requires us to escape the clutches of classical evolutionary pressures. Then community is the only evolutionary pathway out of here. There is some reason to hope.

(Sorry about the rave - starting to sound like I grew up in the 60s now. Perhaps it’s time for a revival...)

Linda Cockburn said...

It's great to have a positive view. But I just can't quite get there. I have a saying that goes, I love humanity, I just don't like people :-) Not really true, but it sounds good.
Unfortunately though, plastic doesn't decompose. Polymers are forever, they just break down into smaller pieces than then end up in the food chain ... they're ingested, but pass through. Adding endocrine disruptors etc into the system.

Humans are also the only species that goes to war. The only species responsible for so many other species extinction, and animals generally do show capacity for love etc. There may be exceptions, but they are exceptions, not the rule.