A recent article in the Washington Post cited a paper published last week in the Journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.
Editor’s Note: It was important that I read the condensed version of this paper in the Post, as my personal knowledge of science is limited to kind-of, sort-of understanding that my water turns into ice cubes when I put them in the little blue plastic tray that lives in my freezer.
According to these researchers, there are nine “planetary boundaries” in nature, and breaking through these could lead to the extinction of humanity. Of course, one could argue that the presence of basic humanity has been missing for some time now, so...
But I digress.
The researchers have determined that we’ve crossed the threshold in terms of deforestation, the extinction rate, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean. That’s four out of nine categories. A batting average like that gives you your own wing in the Hall of Fame.
“The boundary is not like the edge of the cliff,” cautioned Ray Pierrehumbert, an expert on Earth systems at the University of Chicago. “They’re a little bit more like danger warnings, like high-temperature gauges on your car.” Pierrehumbert was not involved in this research paper, simply commenting for the Post story, and added that a planetary boundary “is like an avalanche warning tape on a ski slope.”
So, now I’m supposed to be afraid of avalanches, too?
Look, I’m no doomsdayer when it comes to the world around us. It’s not that I don’t believe in climate change, or what wrath that could bring with it — I just kind of feel like that’s millions of years away and I have work to deal with right now. So don’t bother me.
But we also have to be somewhat realistic. If you believe that we’re the only lifeform in the solar system that walks around on two feet, chews gum and watches reality television, then you pretty much also have to realize that the environment of Earth must play a part in that. And if said environment is beginning to deteriorate, then, well, that could be a problem, right?
My original thought when reading this was that people much smarter than myself — and that is indeed an enormous list of people — will figure it out in plenty of time to keep us in business for years to come. They’ll use technology to steer us in the right direction or combat environmental regression, and I can go right back to blindly living my life without fear of being sucked into a giant vacuum that...
But I digress. Again.
“The trends are toward layering on more and more technology so that we are more and more dependent on our technological systems to live outside these boundaries,” said Pierrehumbert. “... It becomes more and more like living on a spaceship than living on a planet.”
Hel-lo. Did he say we could be living on spaceships?
Fine, looking back on it, that’s not at all what he said, but a man can dream, right?
Once I got over my short-lived fantasy that we’d all be living on spaceships, I started taking stock of what could happen if we indeed ruined the world around us and caused mass extinction. Again, I’m no doomsdayer, but consider what’s going on around us — environmental decay, terrorists around the globe, political infighting in our own borders, massive atrocities in Africa, North Korea being North Korea, etc. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that human beings as we know them might soon be running out of sand in the hourglass.
Editor’s Note 2: I know the following sentence is going to send shivers up your spine. I apologize for that in advance.
That got me thinking...
When that next species of life takes over the planet, and their archaeologists start sifting through what we left behind, what will they find? Weapons? Computers? Twinkies?
Will they view us as ingenius creatures who built skyscrapers and flew in outer space, or as simpletons who couldn’t recognize our own immortality or refused to learn from our mistakes? Will they actually be much more rudimentary than us and live in awe of the great beings that existed before them?
Or, will there just not be any more species, and this planet will be a giant landfill hurtling through space?
Actually, I’m bored with this talk now. When do pitchers and catchers report for spring training?