Three Paths to Near-term Human Extinction

By November 9, 2011
Out of timeYour luck done just run out, pardner. Photo: Llyn Gayatri Crounse via lynncrounse.com

About a decade ago I realized we were putting the finishing touches on our own extinction party, with the shindig probably over by mid-century.

During the intervening period I’ve seen nothing to sway this belief, and much evidence to reinforce it. Yet the protests, ridicule, and hate mail reach a fervent pitch when I speak or write about the potential for near-term extinction of Homo sapiens. I hear how:

  • We’re different.
  • We’re special.
  • We’re too intelligent.
  • We’ll find a way out. We always do.

We’re humans, and therefore animals. Like all life, we’re special. Like all organisms, we’re susceptible to overshoot. Like all organisms, we will experience population decline after overshoot.

Let’s take stock of our current predicaments, beginning with one of several ongoing processes likely to cause our extinction. Then I’ll point out the good not quite so bad news.

We’re headed for extinction via global climate change

It’s hotter than it used to be, but not as hot as it’s going to be.

The political response to this now-obvious information is to suspend the scientist bearing the bad news. Which, of course, is no surprise at all: As Australian scientist Gideon Polya points out, the US must cease production of greenhouse gases within about three years if we’re to avoid catastrophic runaway greenhouse. I think Polya is optimistic, and I don’t think Obama’s on-board with the attendant collapse of the US industrial economy.

Climate change is one of three likely extinction events. Well, three I know about: I’m certain there are others, and any number can play.

Back in the summer, the US had already tied its yearly record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters.

Russia is headed directly for loss of 30% of its permafrost by 2050. Tundra fires could accelerate planetary warming. This year, the Northeast Passage was open as of July 27th. This is a massively dire situation for the Arctic. In fact, we’ve passed a de facto tipping point with respect to Arctic ice. This latter outcome is stunning, but only to those who follow the horrifically conservative and increasingly irrelevant Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Nature is responding with hybrid bears, suggesting the near-term loss of all polar bears. Indeed, all Earth’s systems are rapidly declining. Many organisms can’t keep up as they try to stay ahead of an overheating planet.

As the living planet decays, we keep piling on. Examples abound. Here’s one tiny example among thousands, from that pesky BP well at Deepwater Horizon. It’s out of the news cycle, but it’s not done destroying life in the Gulf of Mexico. But perhaps this tidbit belongs beneath the heading of …

We’re headed for extinction via environmental collapse

Nature is bankrupt, just like Wall Street and the USA. Thanks for playing, but you lose. The banksters on Wall Street “win.” But only in the short term. In the long run, we’re all dead (as first stated by John Maynard Keynes).

Among the consequences of taking down a few hundred species each day: at some point, the species we take into the abyss is Homo sapiens (the “wise” ape). The vanishing point draws nearer every day. Our response, in the industrialized world: Bring on the toys. Burn all fossil fuels. Harvest the rain forests and strip-mine the soil. Pollute the water, eat the seed bank.

And, most importantly figure out how we can make a few bucks as the world burns.

We have our hand in a monkey trap, and we can’t let go.

We’re headed for extinction via nuclear meltdown

Safely shuttering a nuclear power plant requires a decade or two of careful planning. Far sooner, we’ll complete the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy. This is a source of my nuclear nightmares.

When the world’s 443 nuclear power plants melt down catastrophically, we’ve entered an extinction event. Think clusterfukushima, times 400 or so. Ionizing radiation could, and probably will, destroy every terrestrial organism and, therefore, every marine and freshwater organism. That, by the way, includes the most unique, special, intelligent animal on Earth.

Ready for some good news?

Meanwhile, back on Wall Street

The Securities and Exchange Commission is busily covering up Wall Street crimes, just as they did during the last presidential administration. And, as it turns out, they’ve been performing this trick for two decades. Finally, though,  Standard & Poor’s is taking the US to the woodshed, albeit mildly.

The S & P knows what the media and politicians know: US national debt isn’t really $14 trillion and change, as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, it exceeds $200 trillion. And, back when it was a mere $10.5 trillion, it exceeded the value of all circulating currencies and all the gold ever mined. It can’t be paid off —ever. The response will be default. With luck, it’ll happen quickly and completely, thus sending us directly to the new dark age (with the post-industrial Stone Age soon to follow).

The ongoing crash of the stock markets differs from prior events because, for one thing, the Fed is about out of ammunition. At this juncture, there are no easy solutions. In fact, there are no solutions at all. We’ve just
about used up all our rabbits in the hat
as far as fiscal and monetary policy are concerned.

Economics pundit Graham Summers agrees: The Fed is about to find itself completely powerless as 2008 redux appearsThe great collapse, for which 2008 was merely a warm-up act, is under way.

Think of 2008 as an economic teddy bear, and 2011 as a grizzly. And I think I mentioned this one already: The hunters are out of bullets.

The all-too-expected political response from the final remaining superpower: ratchet up covert wars. Maybe, while we’re at it, launch another World War.

The bottom line

You’ve been warned repeatedly in this space, and the Guardian finally joins the party: The industrial economic system is about to blow. This burst of hope, our remaining chance at salvation, will undoubtedly be greeted with the usual assortment of protests, ridicule, and hate mail I’ve come to expect from planetary consumers who want to keep consuming the planet.

The underlying predicament — reduction in available energy — is described graphically by former Oil Drum editor Gail Tverberg in this essay. She then tacks on fine analysis in this subsequent essay. Jared Diamond adds a dose of complexity, as described by Transition Voice publisher Erik Curren.

But these warning shots are only the most recent in a rich history dating back to Marcus Aurelius (and probably further). For materials only slightly older than me that focus on our energy predicament, take a peek at M. King
Hubbert’s 1956 paper
and the text of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s 1957 speech.

If you’re looking for a personal response to the converging crises in which we’re immersed, start by recognizing reality. And then, let go.

–Guy McPherson for Transition Voice

 

Guy McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. He’s written well over 100 articles, ten books, the most recent of which is Walking Away From Empire, and has focused for many years on conservation of biological diversity. He lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house where he practices durable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his rural community. Learn more at guymcpherson.com or email Guy at grm@ag.arizona.edu.

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