The planet strikes back: Why we underestimate the Earth and overestimate ourselves
This essay was originally published on TomDispatch and is republished here with Tom’s kind permission.
In his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, environmental scholar and activist Bill McKibben writes of a planet so devastated by global warming that it’s no longer recognizable as the Earth we once inhabited. This is a planet, he predicts, of “melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat.” Altered as it is from the world in which human civilization was born and thrived, it needs a new name — so he gave it that extra “a” in “Eaarth.”
The Eaarth that McKibben describes is a victim, a casualty of humankind’s unrestrained consumption of resources and its heedless emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases. True, this Eaarth will cause pain and suffering to humans as sea levels rise and croplands wither, but as he portrays it, it is essentially a victim of human rapaciousness.
With all due respect to McKibben’s vision, let me offer another perspective on his (and our) Eaarth: as a powerful actor in its own right and as an avenger, rather than simply victim.
It’s not enough to think of Eaarth as an impotent casualty of humanity’s predations. It is also a complex organic system with many potent defenses against alien intervention — defenses it is already wielding to devastating effect when it comes to human societies. And keep this in mind: We are only at the beginning of this process.
To grasp our present situation, however, it’s necessary to distinguish between naturally recurring planetary disturbances and the planetary responses to human intervention. Both need a fresh look, so let’s start with what Earth has always been capable of before we turn to the responses of Eaarth, the avenger.
Our planet is a complex natural system, and like all such systems, it is continually evolving. As that happens — as continents drift apart, as mountain ranges rise and fall, as climate patterns shift — earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, typhoons, prolonged droughts, and other natural disturbances recur, even if on an irregular and unpredictable basis.
Our predecessors on the planet were deeply aware of this reality. After all, ancient civilizations were repeatedly shaken, and in some cases shattered, by such disturbances. For example, it is widely believed that the ancient Minoan civilization of the eastern Mediterranean collapsed following a powerful volcanic eruption on the island of Thera (also called Santorini) in the mid-second millennium B.C. Archaeological evidence suggests that many other ancient civilizations were weakened or destroyed by intense earthquake activity. In Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God, Stanford geophysicist Amos Nur and his coauthor Dawn Burgess argue that Troy, Mycenae, ancient Jericho, Tenochtitlan, and the Hittite empire may have fallen in this manner.
Faced with recurring threats of earthquakes and volcanoes, many ancient religions personified the forces of nature as gods and goddesses and called for elaborate human rituals and sacrificial offerings to appease these powerful deities. The ancient Greek sea-god Poseidon (Neptune to the Romans), also called “Earth-Shaker,” was thought to cause earthquakes when provoked or angry.
In more recent times, thinkers have tended to scoff at such primitive notions and the gestures that went with them, suggesting instead that science and technology — the fruits of civilization — offer more than enough help to allow us to triumph over the Earth’s destructive forces. This shift in consciousness has been impressively documented in Clive Ponting’s 2007 volume, A New Green History of the World. Quoting from influential thinkers of the post-Medieval world, he shows how Europeans acquired a powerful conviction that humanity should and would rule nature, not the other way around. The 17th-century French mathematician René Descartes, for example, wrote of employing science and human knowledge so that “we can … render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.”
It’s possible that this growing sense of human control over nature was enhanced by a period of a few hundred years in which there may have been less than the usual number of civilization-threatening natural disturbances. Over those centuries, modern Europe and North America, the two centers of the Industrial Revolution, experienced nothing like the Thera eruption of the Minoan era — or, for that matter, anything akin to the double whammy of the 9.0 earthquake and 50-foot-high tsunami that struck Japan on March 11. This relative immunity from such perils was the context within which we created a highly complex, technologically sophisticated civilization that largely takes for granted human supremacy over nature on a seemingly quiescent planet.
But is this assessment accurate? Recent events, ranging from the floods that covered 20 percent of Pakistan and put huge swaths of Australia underwater to the drought-induced fires that burned vast areas of Russia, suggest otherwise. In the past few years, the planet has been struck by a spate of major natural disturbances, including the recent earthquake-tsunami disaster in Japan (and its many powerful aftershocks), the Jan. 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Feb. 2010 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, the March 2011 earthquake in Burma, and the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake-tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries, as well as a series of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions in and around Indonesia.
If nothing else, these events remind us that the Earth is an ever-evolving natural system; that the past few hundred years are not necessarily predictive of the next few hundred; and that we may, in the last century in particular, have lulled ourselves into a sense of complacency about our planet that is ill-deserved. More important, they suggest that we may — and I emphasize may — be returning to an era in which the frequency of the incidence of such events is on the rise.
In this context, the folly and hubris with which we’ve treated natural forces comes strongly into focus. Take what’s happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in northern Japan, where at least four nuclear reactors and their adjoining containment pools for “spent” nuclear fuel remain dangerously out of control. The designers and owners of the plant obviously did not cause the earthquake and tsunami that have created the present peril. This was a result of the planet’s natural evolution — in this case, of the sudden movement of continental plates. But they do bear responsibility for failing to anticipate the potential for catastrophe — for building a reactor on the site of frequent past tsunamis and assuming that a human-made concrete platform could withstand the worst that nature has to offer. Much has been said about flaws in design at the Fukushima plant and its inadequate backup systems. All this, no doubt, is vital, but the ultimate cause of the disaster was never a simple design flaw. It was hubris: an overestimation of the power of human ingenuity and an underestimation of the power of nature.
What future disasters await us as a result of such hubris? No one, at this point, can say with certainty, but the Fukushima facility is not the only reactor built near active earthquake zones, or at risk from other natural disturbances. And don’t just stop with nuclear plants. Consider, for instance, all those oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico at risk from increasingly powerful hurricanes or, if cyclones increase in power and frequency, the deep-sea ones Brazil is planning to construct up to 180 miles off its coast in the Atlantic Ocean. And with recent events in Japan in mind, who knows what damage might be inflicted by a major earthquake in California? After all, California, too, has nuclear plants sited ominously near earthquake faults.
Hubris of this sort is, however, only one of the ways in which we invite the planet’s ire. Far more dangerous and provocative is our poisoning of the atmosphere with the residues of our resource consumption, especially of fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, total carbon emissions from all forms of energy use had already hit 21.2 billion metric tons by 1990 and are projected to rise ominously to 42.4 billion by 2035, a 100 percent increase in less than half a century. The more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we dump into the atmosphere, the more we alter the planet’s natural climatic systems and damage other vital ecological assets, including oceans, forests, and glaciers. These are all components of the planet’s integral makeup, and when damaged in this way, they will trigger defensive feedback mechanisms: rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, and increased sea levels, among other reactions.
The notion of the Earth as a complex natural system with multiple feedback loops was first proposed by environmental scientist James Lovelock in the 1960s and propounded in his 1979 book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. (Lovelock appropriated the name of the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, the personification of Mother Earth, for his version of our planet.) In this and other works, Lovelock and his collaborators argue that all biological organisms and their inorganic surroundings on the planet are closely integrated to form a complex and self-regulating system, maintaining the necessary conditions for life — a concept they termed “the Gaia Hypothesis.” When any parts of this system are damaged or altered, they contend, the others respond by attempting to repair, or compensate for, the damage in order to restore the essential balance.
Think of our own bodies when attacked by virulent microorganisms: our temperature rises; we produce more white blood cells and other fluids, sleep a lot, and deploy other defense mechanisms. When successful, our bodies’ defenses first neutralize and eventually exterminate the invading germs. This is not a conscious act, but a natural, life-saving process.
Eaarth is now responding to humanity’s depredations in a similar way: by warming the atmosphere, taking carbon from the air and depositing it in the ocean, increasing rainfall in some areas and decreasing it elsewhere, and in other ways compensating for the massive atmospheric infusion of harmful human emissions.
But what Eaarth does to protect itself from human intervention is unlikely to prove beneficial for human societies. As the planet warms and glaciers melt, sea levels will rise, inundating coastal areas, destroying cities, and flooding low-lying croplands. Drought will become endemic in many once-productive farming areas, reducing food supplies for hundreds of millions of people. Many plant and animal species that are key to human livelihoods, including various species of trees, food crops, and fish, will prove incapable of adjusting to these climate changes and so cease to exist. Humans may — and again I emphasize that may — prove more successful at adapting to the crisis of global warming than such species, but in the process, multitudes are likely to die of starvation, disease, and attendant warfare.
Bill McKibben is right: We no longer live on the “cozy, taken-for-granted” planet formerly known as Earth. We inhabit a new place, already changed dramatically by the intervention of humankind. But we are not acting upon a passive, impotent entity unable to defend itself against human transgression. Sad to say, we will learn to our dismay of the immense powers available to Eaarth, the Avenger.