The Machine’s Scar on Humanity and the History of Life

We will fail to prevent climate change and environmental degradation, because we have already failed.

It is the magnitude of that failure that is yet to be determined, yet to be negotiated with our own apathy and an establishment resistant to change.  But when that final failure is tallied it will have left a great scar on the history of life on this planet and exacerbated the injustices that have been constructed into our society.

A scar in the history of life

Geologists, in pondering the Anthropocene, ask what will be the signature of this epoch – of human life and civilisation – to an observer 100 million years from now? If this epoch in Earth history is indeed transitory, what will be its accumulated sedimentary detritus, its chemical fingerprint, the facies of the human depositional environment?  The radiocarbon signature in the atmosphere will have decayed away; our monuments, statues, towers and art crumbled to dust; our satellites long since fallen from the sky.  Perhaps, analogous to the tektites, shocked quartz and iridium spike left by the asteroid impact that obliterated the pterosaurs, ammonites, dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, our residue will be nothing more than a faint chemical signature – of plastic or alloys, actinides or long-lived fission products – preserved in a single layer only a few centimetres thick.

But it is likely that the most diagnostic signal will be in the tree of life, with multiple lineages suddenly truncated, and new forms, new branches, arising from their absence, thousands or millions of years later. Much like the dominant signature of that Cretaceous-terminating asteroid.

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The End Cretaceous Boundary, from New Zealand (GNS)

It is premature to confirm whether we are indeed causing Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction; we have devasted wildlife, reducing it by over 60%, and we have caused an extraordinary increase in the loss of biodiversity, have nearly obliterated some ecosystems and have caused other ecosystems to totter on the brink of collapse.  The rainforests of our planet are greatly diminished, and we question whether the coral reefs will survive this century. We have directly caused the death of entire species, gone forever from the universe not through an act of cosmic indifference but the culmination of a multitude of conscious social acts.  We can avert this mass extinction, but just like lightning can scar a tree and not kill it, so can our actions leave a profound wound on the history of life without ending it.

Geologists tend to have a rather philosophical view of extinction and renewal.  We speak much of the five Mass Extinctions, but in fact the geological record comprises a multitude of extinctions, some caused by rapid warming and others by cooling, some by the evolution of a new competitor species and some by a new group of organisms that fundamentally change the Earth’s chemical environment; and some by an asteroid. And through all of these, the Earth survives.  And in the aftermath of each of these, beautiful, powerful and inspiring new species either take on new prominence of evolve into existence.  The extinction at the end of the Cretaceous led to the rise of the mammals and by extension the rise of hominins and eventually a species that could leave our planet, create law and democracy, split the atom, domesticate animals and paint Guernica.

We have profound concerns, but there is strong evidence that life will thrive despite our seeming indifference to its fate. The climate we are creating is unprecedented in human history – in hominin history – but it is not unprecedented in Earth history, and life thrived during past times when carbon dioxide concentrations exceeded 1000 ppm.  The rate of change is largely unprecedented, but life did survive the instantaneous catastrophic changes of an asteroid impact. We are particularly concerned about the synergistic effects of the multitude of human impacts on the environment – yes, global warming and ocean acidification but also degradation of soil, deforestation, mass agriculture and monocrops, and an accumulation in the environment of a multitude of pollutants: endocrine disruptors and pesticides, excessive nitrate, mercury and other toxic trace metals. However, those ancient mass extinctions were also a confluence of climate change and toxins and poisons – those ancient species survived and then evolved in the aftermath of catastrophic global warming, devastating erosion, acid rain, impoverished sunlight, anoxic waters and sulfidic poisoning.

I write this to provide some modicum of geological perspective; not hope.  Neither hope nor solace should come from the fact that some life will persevere despite the fact that we are currently drawing a great black line in the geological record, in the history of life on our planet. Unlike the agnostic glaciations, volcanoes and asteroids of past mass extinctions, the great mass extinction of the Anthropocene will have been one driven by uniquely human failings and one that uniquely human virtues could have prevented but failed to do so.

We have failed to prevent extinction and loss.  But we retain the capacity to minimise those losses.

But Climate Change is also an Atrocity Committed against Ourselves

The machine that has given so much to humanity is built on exploitation – of nature and our planet but also our fellow people – and through the confluence of those acts it is currently committing a great atrocity against humanity. Consequently, our failure to prevent climate change or other environmental degradation has become a multiplier of human rights abuses.

The machine has socially and technologically evolved to fill every corner of our planet, permeate the web of life, and rely on every nuance of weather, and it has done so during a time of great environmental stability; in doing so, it has ironically made itself incredibly fragile and vulnerable to any change.  But not equally fragile, not equally vulnerable; it has distributed wealth unequally, burying many in poverty, denying them power and agency.  It has also distributed environmental exploitation unequally, with the richest flying, eating, consuming, degrading and polluting the most. And it will distribute environmental chaos unequally, disproportionately exposing the poorest to floods, rising sea level, drought, famine and heat waves and disproportionately denying them the rights and means to flee.

Climate change and environmental degradation will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  Far more.

This is why we cannot fail. Or that when we do fail, we continue the struggle so that we do not fail again; and failing that, we must struggle again and again, each struggle a battle against another injustice.  Many are adopting the language of acceptance – whether that be accepting that ‘Gaia will restore equilibrium through the inevitable demise of billions’ or making peace with our own species’ mortality.  It is not Gaia who shall be the arbitrator of the lives to be sacrificed but rather the unforgiving, implacable engine of modern society, the engine that protects and preserves capital and wealth and exploits the rest.  And our own actions or lack of action will be complicit in this atrocity.  My geological perspective gives me some confidence that this atrocity will not be the extinction of our species, but it will likely be a genocide.  And accepting such an inequitable atrocity as an inevitability is an act of privilege and racism.

So we will struggle.  With love and empathy – and sometimes anger – we will struggle.

But there is another source of hope, a source of hope both for the next generation and arising from the next generation. They are currently marching in the streets and striking from their classes to demand we protect their future.  They are asking us to either have the courage to break the machine or somehow the wisdom and conviction to fix it.  But where we fall short, it is this same machine that governs the magnitude of the affliction imposed on future generations. For a given amount of warming, it is future leaders who will decide the degree and distribution of the harm it inflicts.  They will decide who can migrate; they will dictate if society is just and fair; they will be their own agents of generosity and aid, of humanitarianism towards others and their own sacrifices. They will also have the power to close those borders, to hoard their resources, to build even more terrible machines of war and exploitation.

I have hope that they will not choose the latter path.  The children of today give me great hope as they march through the streets and show solidarity amongst themselves and across borders, as they cheer and sing and chant, as they celebrate diversity in all of its forms.  And yet in recognising that we can pass along power to the next generation, we must also recognise that we are passing along privilege.  A relatively small number of us control the fate of the seven billion who live on this planet; and it is likely that a relatively small number of our children will control the fate of those to come.

And while the enthusiasm and passion of those children today gives me hope, this is not a just situation. The post fossil fuel machine could be replaced by a new, ‘greener’ machine with the same entrenched inequities and prejudices.  The exploitation of some people for the benefit of others is fundamentally linked with the exploitation of nature.  We must break the machine that we created and on which we depend; and we must help our children build something new that cherishes both nature and all people.

Bristol Youth Councillors March for Climate Justice in advance of the Paris COP21 negotiations

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