A thought-provoking essay on how we interact with our environment

November 20, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Nature

I saw the following essay on the great geek forum Slashdot, a site that a decade ago published a story on the company I co-founded. The site isn’t as important as it once was, but it’s still big.

I don’t know the real-world identity of the essay’s writer. I presume he or she wrote it quickly, not aiming for accuracy or to withstand heavy criticism, but to get people thinking.

I prefer not quoting others at length, but the essay provoked my thought too much not to. If you read it overly critically you’ll miss its meaning. The writer plays loosely enough with details that you know not to take them too seriously, but has enough of them to realize there’s something meaningful. That is, if you think he or she seriously predicts raccoons will evolve the way he or she describes, you’ve lost the forest for that tree.

But the details, however loose, still have meaning. That is, if you think our species has no risk creating its own extinction due to its own behavior, you also missed the boat. If you think it’s just whining, you’ll notice it doesn’t whine. Or blame. It just plays out a possible future.

I like its perspective that we are but one species that happens to dominate the planet now, but we aren’t the first and won’t likely be the last. Like other species that dominated the planet, changing it at the global level risks changing its habitability for us. Intelligence and group behavior help us solve problems in groups of hundreds and larger, but not necessarily at the global level. Also, like most other animals, we can’t stop reproducing and growing our population, even when we reach levels that we can’t stop polluting our environment enough to decrease everyone’s quality of life. And we may not have the skills to foresee or stop changes on a global scale that we can’t observe and whose outcomes unequivocally predict, like global warming, depending on single species of plants for food, or harvesting resources to where they can’t sustain themselves.

And as much as we believe our intelligence is what’s enabling our progress, it might just be our ability to use fossil fuels and nuclear energy to overcome otherwise impossible challenges, like flying and building tall buildings. If fossil fuels are essential enough for our sustenance, running out of it or reaching a point where their pollution and other costs outweigh their benefits, we may face a collapse we can’t stop. Same with nuclear.

Again, if you read it to think, you’ll enjoy it. If you read it to criticize details you’ll find it annoying. And, again, I don’t know who wrote it. I just thought it was worth saving from only being a small post on a thread no one would read again.

Where is the USA headed?

I will tell you.

In 100 years there won’t be a USA. There will be a north American confederacy of states, composed of what was the USA and Canada. It will be a massively decentralised confederacy. Most transportation will be by electric train. Personal transport will be by bicycle. The suburbs will have been abandoned and plowed back into farms. Much of the midwest USA will no longer be habitable due to drought and the collapse of the acquifers from draining them and from poisoning them via gas fracking earlier in the century. This confederacy will eventually unravel as the temperatures increase and the southern sections migrate north. Plagues (most flu but also drug resistant bacteria) will sweep through the urban populations, killing millions. In 1000 years, the population, compared to 2013, will have been more than decimated. What is left of humanity will live in valleys in high elevations, or near the Arctic and Antarctic circle. There will be very little metals left, and many people will live as hunter gatherers. Those cursed with civilisation will mostly live in coastal cities in Siberia and Canada and the horn of S. America. Fishing villages will appear in the archepelago of Antarctica. The level of technology will, at best, be roughly that of the 16th century.

In 10,000 years, the few metals will have long ago oxidised. The few million remaining people will live as hunter gatherers in Siberia and Canada and Antarctica. Everything between the 50th parallels will be a hot desert or a hellish jungle where the wet-bulb temp far exceeds human survival. The few temperate forests left will be in the far north and south. The pyramids will be underwater, and the rest of the world’s cities were dismantled and stripped for metals 9,500 years earlier. The Anthropocene will have disrupted the glacial cycle, and the world won’t grow cold again for another 50,000 – 100,000 years. In 100,000,000 years, the earth will be a bit warmer than today, as the sun continues to increase its radiance as helium “ash” collects at the core. The decendants of racoons will have evolved and grown into furry bipeds with opposable thumbs and complex social systems. They will re-invent the wheel, and perhaps the scientific method. They will dig into the earth and find a thin layer of carbon and radioactivity. They will find our skeletons, most of them dated to within a few millennia, and realise what happened:

At the edge of the forest is where there is the most activity and disruption. Weed species abound – crappy, sappy, trees with shallow roots, shrubs and grasses that strangle other plants, and this constant churn over territory and nutrients bounded by the soil and the sun permits for a great deal of opportunity for animals and plants to reproduce. One of these weed species evolved in Africa 103,000,000 years earlier than these racoonish scientists. The species was bipedal and omnivorous and highly social. Breaking into bands of 30 to 50 and assembling into crowds of 150 they believed that unseen beings controlled their world. They built shrines to these beings after a particularly cold ice age. To build these shrines they needed members of their society in place all year round, and thus devised small villages and agriculture. This permitted over population, but it also created hierarchy in their society. Where previously sociopathic behaviour was not tolerated in the small bands (murderers were punished by death), sociopaths were now able to flourish and institute systems of slavery and domination. These systems evolved the villages into cities; areas of such density that they required the import of resources. Emphasis on require. Soon, millions of people were slaughter by one city or group of cities for their resources. Shortly there after, the species discovered huge carbon deposits which were burned as fuel, and powered this weed species into planetary dominance. The oceans were quickly emptied of fish, and the air was filled with CO2, and the population skyrocketed. All of the metals that could be extracted, were. All of these carbon deposits were exploited and burned. Somehow, they generated huge amounts of radioactive materials that got into the atmosphere and soils. That couldn’t have been good. The result was an ecological catastrophe and a die off. The weed species that created this system moved north and south. After the carbon deposits were burned up, there was a die off of their own population – a true decimation. After that, they went back to hunter-gatherer methods of acquiring food energy, and after 100,000 years of being ravaged by diseases they created, they disappeared from the fossil record. In terms of geology, their reign was a momentary blip, just a thin layer of carbon and radioactivity, but their impact was huge as they caused one of the top five extinction events in the history of the planet earth.

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