Saying Goodbye to Planet Earth

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Chris Hedges.

The spectacular rise of human civilization—its agrarian societies, cities, states, empires and industrial and technological advances ranging from irrigation and the use of metals to nuclear fusion—took place during the last 10,000 years, after the last ice age. Much of North America was buried, before the ice retreated, under sheets eight times the height of the Empire State Building. This tiny span of time on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old is known as the Holocene Age. It now appears to be coming to an end with the refusal of our species to significantly curb the carbon emissions and pollutants that might cause human extinction. The human-induced change to the ecosystem, at least for many thousands of years, will probably make the biosphere inhospitable to most forms of life.

The planet is transitioning under our onslaught to a new era called the Anthropocene. This era is the product of violent conquest, warfare, slavery, genocide and the Industrial Revolution, which began about 200 years ago, and saw humans start to burn a hundred million years of sunlight stored in the form of coal and petroleum. The numbers of humans climbed to over 7 billion. Air, water, ice and rock, which are interdependent, changed. Temperatures climbed. The Anthropocene, for humans and most other species, will most likely conclude with extinction or a massive die-off, as well as climate conditions that will preclude most known life forms. We engineered our march toward collective suicide although global warming was first identified in 1896 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius.

The failure to act to ameliorate global warming exposes the myth of human progress and the illusion that we are rational creatures. We ignore the wisdom of the past and the stark scientific facts before us. We are entranced by electronic hallucinations and burlesque acts, including those emanating from the centers of power, and this ensures our doom. Speak this unpleasant truth and you are condemned by much of society. The mania for hope and magical thinking is as seductive in the Industrial Age as it was in pre-modern societies.

Ate and Nemesis were minor deities who were evoked in ancient Greek drama. Those infected with hubris, the Greeks warned, lost touch with the sacred, believed they could defy fate, or fortuna, and abandoned humility and virtue. They thought of themselves as gods. Their hubris blinded them to human limits and led them to carry out acts of suicidal folly, embodied in the god Ate. This provoked the wrath of the gods. Divine retribution, in the form of Nemesis, led to tragedy and death and then restored balance and order, once those poisoned with hubris were eradicated. “Too late, too late you see the path of wisdom,” the Chorus in the play “Antigone” tells Creon, ruler of Thebes, whose family has died because of his hubris.

“We’re probably not the first time there’s been a civilization in the universe,” Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and the author of “Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth,” told me when we met in New York.

“The idea that we’re destroying the planet gives us way too much credit,” he went on. “Certainly, we’re pushing the earth into a new era. If we look at the history of the biosphere, the history of life on earth, in the long run, the earth is just going to pick that up and do what is interesting for it. It will run new evolutionary experiments. We, on the other hand, may not be a part of that experiment.”

Civilizations elsewhere in the universe have most probably risen, developed complex societies and then died because of their own technological advances. Every star in the night sky is believed to be circled by planets, some 10 billion trillion of which astronomers such as Frank Drake estimate are hospitable to life.

“If you develop an industrial civilization like ours, the route is going to be the same,” Adam Frank said. “You’re going to have a hard time not triggering climate change.”

Astronomers call the inevitable death of advanced civilizations across the universe “the great filter.” Robin Hanson in the essay, “The Great Filter—Are We Almost Past It?” argues that advanced civilizations hit a wall or a barrier that makes continued existence impossible. The more that human societies evolve, according to Hanson, the more they become “energy intensive” and ensure their own obliteration. This is why, many astronomers theorize, we have not encountered other advanced civilizations in the universe. They destroyed themselves.

“For a civilization to destroy itself through nuclear war, it has to have certain emotional characteristics,” Frank said. “You can imagine certain civilizations saying, ‘I’m not building those [nuclear weapons]. Those are crazy.’ But climate change, you can’t get away from. If you build a civilization, you’re using huge amounts of energy. The energy feeds back on the planet, and you’re going to push yourself into a kind of Anthropocene. It’s probably universal.”

Frank said that our inability to project ourselves into a future beyond our own life spans makes it hard for us to grasp the reality and consequences of severe climate change. Scenarios for dramatic climate change often center around the year 2100 when most adults living now will be dead. Although this projection may turn out to be overly optimistic given the accelerating rate of climate change, it allows societies to ignore—because it is outside the life span of most living adults—the slow-motion tsunami that is occurring.

“We think we’re not a part of the biosphere—that we’re above it—that we’re special,” Frank said. “We’re not special.”

“We’re the experiment that the biosphere is running now,” he said. “A hundred million years ago, it was grassland. Grasslands were a new evolutionary innovation. They changed the planet, changed how the planet worked. Then the planet went on and did things with it. Industrial civilization is the latest experiment. We will keep being a part of that experiment or, with the way that we’re pushing the biosphere, it will just move on without us.”

“We have been sending probes to every other planet in the solar system for the last 60 years,” he said. “We have rovers running around on Mars. We’ve learned generically how planets work. From Venus, we’ve learned about the runaway greenhouse effect. On Venus the temperature is 800 degrees. You can melt lead [there]. Mars is a totally dry, barren world now. But it used to have an ocean. It used to be a blue world. We have models that can predict the climate. I can predict the weather on Mars tomorrow via these climate models. People who think the only way we can understand climate is by studying the earth now, that’s completely untrue. These other worlds—Mars, Venus, Titan. Titan is a moon of Saturn that has an amazingly rich atmosphere. They all teach us how to think like a planet. They have taught us generically how planets behave.”

Frank points out that much of the configurations of the ecosystem on which we depend have not always been part of the planet’s biosphere. This includes the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water and warm air up from Florida to Boston and out across the Atlantic.

“Hundreds of millions of people in some of Earth’s most technologically advanced cities rely on the mild climate delivered by the Gulf Stream,” Frank writes in “Light of the Stars.” “But the Gulf Stream is nothing more than a particular circulation pattern formed during a particular climate state the Earth settled into after the last ice age ended. It is not a permanent fixture of the planet.”

“Everything we think about the earth just happens to be this one moment we found it in,” he told me. “We’re pushing it [the planet] and we’re pushing it hard. We don’t have much time to make these transitions. What people have to understand is that climate change is our cosmic adolescence. We should have expected this. The question is not ‘did we change the climate?’ It’s ‘of course we changed the climate. What else did you expect to have happened?’ We’re like a teenager who has been given this power over ourselves. Just like how you give a teenager the keys to the car, there’s this moment where you’re like, ‘Oh my God I hope you make it.’ And that’s what we are.”

“Climate change is not a problem we have to make go away, in a sense that you don’t make adolescence go away,” Frank said. “It is a dangerous transition that you have to navigate. … The question is are we smart enough to deal with the effects of our own power? Climate change is not a pollution problem. It’s not like any environmental problem we’ve faced before. In some sense, it’s not an environmental problem but a planetary transition. We’ve already pushed the earth into it. We’re going to have to evolve a new way of being a civilization, fundamentally.”

“We will either evolve those group behaviors quickly or the earth will take what we’ve given it, in terms of new climate states, and move on and create new species,” he said.

Frank said the mathematical models for the future of the planet have three trajectories. One is a massive die-off of perhaps 70 percent of the human population and then an uneasy stabilization. The second is complete collapse and extinction. The third is a dramatic reconfiguration of human society to protect the biosphere and make it more diverse and productive not for human beings but for the health of the planet. This would include halting our consumption of fossil fuels, converting to a plant-based diet and dismantling the animal agriculture industry as well as pursuing projects to green deserts and restore rainforests.

There is, Frank warned, a tipping point when the biosphere becomes so degraded no human activity will halt runaway climate change. He cites Venus again.

“The water on Venus got lost slowly,” he said. “The CO<sub><small>2</small></sub> built up. There was no way to take it out of the atmosphere. It gets hotter. The fact that it gets hotter makes it even hotter. Which makes it even hotter. That’s what would happen in the collapse model. Planets have minds of their own. They are super-complex systems. Once you get the ball rolling down the hill. … This is the greatest fear. This is why we don’t want to go past 2 degrees [Celsius] of climate change. We’re scared that once you get past 2 degrees, the planet’s own internal mechanisms kick in. The population comes down like a stone. A complete collapse. You lose the civilization entirely.”

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Is Climate Change the Reasons No Aliens Have Made Contact?

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Tim Radford / Climate News Network.

US scientists have calculated the conditions for the survival of a civilisation – all advanced civilisations across the vast universe. Their calculations may explain why, so far, extraterrestrial beings have failed to get in touch.

They may also help explain why climate change driven by global warming could be both inevitable and potentially calamitous.

Entirely theoretical research of this kind is the basis of astrobiology: the attempt to understand why life exists in a seemingly hostile universe, and why, if it exists on Earth, it is not visible everywhere. For practical data, astrobiologists have only one instance of life, and one of intelligent advanced civilisation to work with: planet Earth.

Adam Frank, of the University of Rochester, New York, and colleagues report in the journal Astrobiology that they considered the evidence of a vanished civilisation on Earth – the mysterious culture that flourished on Easter Island in the Pacific and then vanished by about 1500AD.

Better insight

“If we’re not the universe’s first civilisation, that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilisation like our own progresses,” said Professor Frank.

“The point is to recognise that driving climate change may be something generic. The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilisation like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it.”

The principle is that any civilisation must change its planet, and the most obvious way would be by exploiting resources in ways that might affect average planetary temperatures.

Under such circumstances the population could reach a peak – and then die off, leaving a few survivors. Or it could foresee the problems and go for sustainability rather than ever more growth. Or population and temperature could reach a peak, at which point the civilisation would collapse. Or – disconcertingly – the threatened civilisation could identify the looming disaster but fail to act in time.

Fatal delay

“The last scenario is the most frightening,” said Professor Frank. “Even if you did the right thing, if you waited too long, you could still have your population collapse.”

Geoscientists have already identified a new phase of Earth history: the planet has now entered an epoch informally called the Anthropocene. They have already established that, in principle, the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a consequence of the exploitation of fossil fuels could raise temperatures to a point that would make civilisation, and perhaps even life on Earth, unsustainable.

Professor Frank himself has explored these questions in earlier studies. In 2014, he and colleagues asked themselves how long an alien civilisation that had discovered fossil fuels, and therefore changed the conditions in which it evolved, could sustain itself.

Earlier this year he returned to the theme and asked how modern humans could ever know if some intelligent non-human civilisation had once ruled the planet and then obliterated itself. Easter Island’s vanished overlords, the people who built the vast stone statues that now stand in enigmatic silence over an impoverished landscape, become in such a case an object lesson.

Archaeological evidence suggests that a culture emerged perhaps 1600 years ago, population grew to a peak, resources were over-exploited, population collapsed and, with it, all memory of what once had been. If an isolated island had a maximum carrying capacity, then so ultimately would an isolated planet. Professor Frank sees global climate change as a planet’s response to civilisation.

“If you go through really strong climate change, then your carrying capacity may drop, because, for example, large-scale agriculture might be strongly disrupted. Imagine if climate change caused rain to stop falling in the Midwest. We wouldn’t be able to grow food, and our population would diminish,” he said.

“If you change the Earth’s climate enough, you might not be able to change it back. Even if you backed off and started to use solar or other less impactful resources, it could be too late, because the planet has already been changing.

“These models show we can’t just think about a population evolving on its own. We have to think about our planets and civilisations co-evolving.”

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Chaco Canyon, Chaco Earth

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Chris Hedges.

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, N.M.—A bitter wind whipped down the 10-mile-long Chaco Canyon, kicking up swirls of dust among the thorny greasewood and sagebrush bushes. I ducked behind one of the towering sandstone walls in the three-acre ruin, or Great House, known as Pueblo Bonito, to escape the gusts. I was in the section of the 800-room complex where burials took place. Treasure hunters and archaeologists have uncovered in these ruins and tombs delicate white-and-black painted ceramics, flutes, ceremonial sticks, tiny copper bells, inlaid bone, macaw and parrot skeletons, cylindrical jars with the residue of chocolate that would have been imported from Mexico, shells and intricate turquoise jewelry and sculptures. From this vast, bureaucratic and ceremonial complex, the Anasazi—a Navajo word meaning ancient ones or possibly ancient enemies—dominated the Southwest from about the year 850 until the society collapsed in about 1150.

The Chaco ruin, 6,200 feet above sea level, is one of the largest and most spectacular archeological sites in North America. It is an impressive array of 15 interconnected complexes, each of which once had four-to-five-story stone buildings with hundreds of rooms each. Seven-hundred-pound wooden beams, many 16 feet long, were used in the roofs. Huge circular, ceremonial kivas—religious centers dug into the earth, with low masonry benches around the base of the room to accommodate hundreds of worshippers—dot the ruins. It rivals the temples and places built by the Aztecs and the Mayans.

Radiating from Chaco is a massive 400-mile network of roads, some 30 feet wide and still visible in the haunting desert landscape, along with dams, canals and reservoirs to collect and store rainwater. The study of astronomy, as with the Aztec and the Maya, was advanced. Petroglyphs and pictographs on the canyon walls often record astrological and solar events. One pictograph shows a hand, a crescent moon and a 10-pointed star that is believed to depict a 1054 supernova, and one of the petroglyphs appears to represent a solar eclipse that occurred in 1097.

A few thousand priests and ruling elites, along their retainers and administrators, lived in the Great Houses or palaces. They oversaw the trade routes that stretched to the California coast and into Central America. They maintained the elaborate network of lighthouses whose signal fires provided rapid communication. They built the roads, the long flights of stairs carved into the rock formations, the bridges, the wooden ladders to scale the towering cliffs, and the astronomical observatories that meticulously charted the solar observations to determine the equinoxes and solstices for planting and harvesting and for the annual religious festivals when thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would gather. The buildings in the complexes were oriented to solstitial or cardinal points, a difference the anthropologist Stephen H. Lekson believes denoted not only competing cosmologies but competing political ideologies.

“Chaco was the political capital of a well-defined region that encompassed most of the Four Corners country, with more than 150 outlying Great Houses scattered over an area about the size of Ireland,” Lekson writes.

But this complex society, like all complex societies, proved fragile and impermanent. It fell into precipitous decline after nearly three centuries. The dense forests of oak, piñon and ponderosa pines and juniper that surrounded the canyon were razed for construction and fuel. The soil eroded. Game was hunted to near-extinction. The diet shifted in the final years from deer and turkey to rabbits and finally mice. Headless mice in the late period have been found by archaeologists in human coprolites—preserved dry feces. The Anasazi’s open society, one where violence was apparently rare, where the people moved unhindered over the network of well-maintained roads, where warfare was apparently absent, where the houses of the rich and powerful were not walled off, where the population shared in the spoils of empire, was replaced with the equivalent of gated, fortified compounds for the elites and misery, hunger, insecurity and tyranny for the commoners. Dwellings began to be built in the cliffs, along with hilltop fortresses, although these residences were not close to the fields and water supply. Defensive walls were constructed along with moats and towers. The large, public religious ceremonies that once united the culture and gave it cohesion fractured, and tiny, warring religious cults took over, the archaeologist Lynne Sebastian notes.

Lekson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, believes the Anasazi rulers during the decline increasingly resorted to savage violence and terror, including the public executions of dissidents and rebels. He finds evidence, much of it documented in Steven A. LeBlanc’s book “Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest,” that “Chaco death squads” were sent out across the empire. LeBlanc writes that at Yucca House, a Chaco Great House near Mesa Verde, as many as 90 people were killed and tossed into a kiva and at least 25 showed signs of mutilation.

“Chacoan violence, concentrated and brutal, appears to represent government terror: the enforcement of Chaco’s rule by institutionalized force,” Lekson writes in the article “Chaco Death Squads” in Archeology magazine. “Violence was public, intended to appall and subdue the populace. Chacoan death squads (my term, not LeBlanc’s) executed and mutilated those judged to be threats to Chacoan power, those who broke the rules.”

The anthropologist Christy G. Turner, who specialized in osteology, the study of human bones, in his book “Man Corn” cited “cannibalism and human sacrifice as conspicuous elements of terrorism.” In short, as Lekson writes, “the death squad killed you, cut you up, and then ate you in front of your relatives and neighbors.” The term “man corn” comes from the Nahuatl word “tlacatlaolli,” which Turner defined as a “sacred meal of sacrificed human meat, cooked with corn.” Debra Martin goes on to argue in a paper titled “Violence Against Women in the La Plata River Valley, A.D. 1000-1300” (located on the periphery of the Chacoan empire) that there is evidence of battered women who were perhaps slaves.

The Anasazi elites, no longer willing or able to provide social services or competent governance and plagued by shortages of natural resources, kept extracting unsustainable tribute. They resorted to harsher and harsher forms of repression. By the end, they were hated. The civilization suffered a severe drought in the year 1130. It was the final blow. The impressive structures would lie abandoned until they were discovered by the nomadic Navajos some 600 years later. The Navajos did not reoccupy the buildings, many of which contained skeletal remains, because they believed them to be filled with evil spirits.

“Parts of Chacoan society were already in deep trouble after 1050 as health and living conditions progressively eroded in the southern districts’ open farming communities,” David E. Stuart writes in his book “Anasazi America.” “The small farmers in the south had first created reliable surpluses to be stored in the great houses. Ultimately, it was the increasingly terrible living conditions of those farmers, the people who grew the corn, that had made Chacoan society so fatally vulnerable. The farmers simply got too little back from their efforts to carry on. Thus, great-house society emphasized other trade partners and supported new, lower-cost suppliers on its northern tier. This final trade network likely was focused on the continued well-being of the elites rather than the general welfare of its regional society.”

As the economic and social situation deteriorated, the elites accelerated the building of roads and Great Houses. They held more elaborate rituals and built more kivas. This is typical of decaying societies. The great Mayan city of Tikal was constructed over a period of 1,500 years, but its most impressive temples and towers were erected during its final century. These grandiose projects and spectacles were meant to project power and immortality. They exacerbated, however, the suffering of the impoverished farmers and workers and the decline of diminishing natural resources.

“At the bitter end of the Chacoan era, many elites remained in their great houses, probably trying to hold on to the past, rather like Scarlett O’Hara trying to hold on to Tara in Gone with the Wind,” Stuart writes. “But the farmers who had brought in the corn harvests were long departed, like the slaves who had supported Tara before the Civil War. Chacoan society collapsed, the framing pillar of its once great productivity shattered. The beleaguered Chacoan farmers had buried their babies one last time. Then they abandoned Chaco Canyon and most of its outlying great houses.”

“Prosperity, social integration, altruism, and generosity go hand-in-hand,” Stuart adds. “Poverty, social conflict, judgmental cynicism, and savagery do, too.”

Collapse, as Joseph A. Tainter points out, is “a recurrent feature of human societies.” Complex societies create centralized bureaucratic structures that exploit resources until exhaustion and then prove unable to adapt to scarcity. They create more sophisticated mechanisms to extract depleted resources, evidenced in our own time by the decision of the Trump administration to open up the lands around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park to fracking. In the end, the technologies and organization that make the rise of complex societies possible become the mechanisms that destroy them.

The fate of the Anasazi replicates the fate of all complex societies. The collapse came within one or two decades after the peak. As Jared Diamond writes in “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” the trajectories of complex societies “are unlike the usual course of individual human lives, which decline in a prolonged senescence. The reason is simple: maximum population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production mean maximum environmental impact, approaching the limit where impact outstrips resources.”

“Civilization is an experiment, a very recent way of life in the human career, and it has a habit of walking into what I am calling progress traps,” Ronald Wright writes in “A Short History of Progress.” “A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea; but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea. While prevention might have been easy, a cure may be impossible: a city isn’t easily moved. This human inability to foresee—or watch for—long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by millions of years when we lived hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed, and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the social pyramid. The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general population begin to suffer.”

We in 2018 are beset with signs of impending collapse. The droughts, wildfires, flooding, soaring temperatures, crop failures, poisoning of the soil, air and water, and social breakdown from global warming are leaving huge segments of the world’s poor without adequate food, water and security. Desperate migrants are fleeing the global south. Crisis cults carry out nihilistic acts of terrorism, often in the name of religious beliefs. Our predatory elites, who have retreated to their own versions of Anasazi Great Houses, with access to private security, private education, private medicine, private transportation, private sources of water and food and luxury items that are unavailable to the wider population, have walled out reality. Their hubris and myopia, as well as blind obedience to an ideology—global capitalism—that benefits them but accelerates social and environmental destruction, mean they have only bought a little more time before they succumb like the rest of us.

The poet V. B. Price, surveying the Chaco ruins in his poem “Time’s Common Sense,” understands the urgent message these stones impart. He writes, in part:

At Chaco I know I am not alone
I know I have heard even Homer
Weaving the tides of his stories,
And Sappho singing lullabies alone in the night,
Heard the footdrums in Rinconada
Like ancient surf through the stone.

This is the place
Where the past remains.
Utterly changed,
the landscape
is the same.

The future happens so fast,
It’s too fast to dread.
And now
the future is as good
as already over again.

There is one crucial difference between the Anasazi and our complex society. The collapse of past civilizations like the Anasazi’s was localized. There were always new lands to conquer, new natural resources to plunder and new peoples to subjugate. Our age is different. There is no new world left.

We can no longer live on the capital of the natural world and instead must learn to make do with the interest. This means the end to reliance on fossil fuels and the animal agriculture industry. It means adopting a simplicity that rejects the ethos of capitalism and the hedonism and gluttony that define the consumer society. It means a communal society in which inequality and income disparity are not extreme. If we continue to live as if the future does not matter, our society, like that of the Anasazi, will fracture and die. We will vanish from the earth in an act of global suicide.

The human species faces its greatest existential crisis. Yet, our elites replicate the imbecility, arrogance and greed of past elites. They hoard wealth. They shut us out from circles of power. They use brutal forms of repression to maintain control. They exhaust and poison the ecosystem. The longer the corporate elites rule, the longer we fail to revolt, the less chance we have to endure as a species. Settled or civilized life is less than 10,000 years old. Our peculiar human social construction is but a nanosecond to the universe. It may prove to be a brief and fatal experiment. Perhaps, as Franz Kafka wrote, “There is hope; though not for us.”

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