Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Is human extinction possible in the near future?

Dear Friends and Family,

 I can’t imagine a harder entry to write, even if I were writing to tell you that Jack or I were about to die, which we’re not. I feel like the woman in the image above. I read its title only after selecting it, and it fits my mood exactly – ‘When the sabino tree dies, we all die.’ That’s it, exactly. It seems almost impossible to start on what I want to convey. I think I can only plunge in deep, rather than make a gradual approach. I think there is good reason to believe that human extinction is possible in this century. That is, at a time my grandchildren will experience the awful process, and perhaps my children, perhaps us.

 This idea is almost impossible to get my mind around, and I’ve been watching data leading that way for years. I can hardly expect you to assimilate it as you read the words. You may be forgiven for thinking I’ve gone mad. You perhaps want to read no further.

 The nagging of this terrible thought has been getting worse for years, as datum after datum comes at me, usually spaced at intervals of weeks or more – Arctic methane escaping more and more, Arctic, Greenland, Antarctic, glacier ice melting more and more, coral reefs dying, and man-made emissions going up and up and up. Then a US academic, Guy McPherson, puts the bundle together, and there it is – human extinction is possible this century. I can’t bear it. I turn away to bake bread, water the garden, chat to friends. And there it is again. I have a sense of unreality chatting to people when I have this…this black lump in my mind. It felt like such a relief to share this horrible foreboding with one of the old friends I was visiting in Sydney a few days ago. She, brilliant woman of 79 with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had it too. I can share it with Jack, with some of my Atamai friends, and with all of my friends in The Renewables, my climate change group.

 Before seeing this video, which reached me only last week, The Renewables spent a whole meeting dealing with our feelings of despair as we processed the data bit by bit as it came in. “We’re fucked,’ said my friend, Katerina, a few months ago as we discussed one of the reports mentioned in the video. You need to watch the video. It’s just Guy McPherson talking, using mainly text powerpoint slides, summarising scientific data and the projections into the future from that data. That’s it. It’s devastating. It’s on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ina16XSJQvM&list=PLDC802B967659A416

 Guy McPherson toured New Zealand a few months ago, and even came to Atamai and had lunch at our place. I was in Wellington at the time and missed him. He briefly looked at how in Atamai www.atamaivillage.com we are trying to live with much lower carbon emissions, and even sequestering some carbon in biochar added to the soil and in reafforestation. In the video he gives few answers to what is one to do when face to face with the possibility of species extinction. And the ones he gave seemed quite inadequate, except for one – to focus on community. I strongly support this, and feel engaged in acting on it in the village and in the town I live in. But I’d want to expand on that. To focus on the good of all. Life under extreme stress could easily divide people into identity groups of one kind or another. I think you can see it in the anti-immigrant politics of many developed countries now, under conditions of financial stress and unemployment. It seems important to resolve to speak out against this divisiveness, which can only make difficulties even uglier.

 But this obviously isn’t enough. If we are to have a chance of beating the extinction odds, it will have to be by rapidly halting the processes that are increasing the odds. We’ll have to cut carbon emissions very rapidly, stop fossil fuel mining, dramatically reduce agricultural emissions and work out how to sequester carbon, by reafforestation and perhaps as biochar. Only action at national and international levels would seem to have any hope of causing effects fast enough. I think we in our village are doing the right thing by exploring and trying to show a way of life that is less harmful to the Earth. But this process will take decades to play out at best. We don’t have decades. No one can know for sure, but when I look at the projections Guy McPherson has put together, and the data that reach me day by day, it seems to me that we have, at most, one decade to act, starting now.

There is abundant reason to adopt the position of Transition Towns and other organisations which says ‘Politicians have failed us repeatedly on climate change and other ecological issues. We’ll have to proceed without them.’ I’ve been part of this position. It’s no longer acceptable to me. I can see no way of acting at a large enough scale and fast enough without political involvement. The multiple dangerous feedback mechanisms listed by McPherson show us that we have reached the danger threshold NOW. It seems to me an emergency, and the stakes are ultimate. It’s not that the human species will last forever; no species does, and the Earth won’t last forever. But we’re not ready to go yet, not this century, not with my grandchildren and yours as part of the extinction.

 There’s some research that shows that people will cooperate to avoid a dangerous threshold, even if there’s uncertainly about the impact of the threshold. But if there’s uncertainty about just where the threshold is, or when you’ve reached it, the cooperation falls apart. I think the activation of the dangerous feedback mechanisms tells us that we’re there; we have to cooperate in order to go no further in the unthinkable direction of human extinction.

 Form a group of friends. If you’re in Canada, work to stop the appalling Alberta tar sands project and its associated pipelines. If you’re in Aotearoa, work with a group to stop coal mining and oil and gas drilling. If you’re in Australia, coal is a big one. In all countries, work on getting a proper pricing of carbon emissions, not the feeble pretend efforts we have now, at least in Aotearoa. Everywhere, reafforestation with native species is a high priority to store carbon out of the atmosphere. Getting biochar into the soil looks like a promising measure, but will have to be done at a large scale.

 Most of you reading this are not activists, don’t aspire to be activists and may feel put off by the very suggestion. You need either to refute the material you’ve seen here, to show that the risk of human extinction is negligible, or justify not acting in the face of a known extreme risk.

 Dear friends and family, I feel a bit like the woman in the image, carrying that burden of knowledge. It’s knowledge that has to be shared, but sharing it necessarily will cause you suffering, unless you’re confident of refuting it. So I’m sorry for the anxiety or even despair this may cause you. May your anxiety join mine and make enough of a change fast enough to halt the burning of the future of the young.


After watching the video, my husband, Jack, wrote to Richard Heinberg seeking his view of the quite dire projections of McPherson.. Here is his reply:

Dear Jack,

Yes, I had seen this, and have followed discussion about it on various sites. I respect Mcpherson a great deal and have followed most of the research he discusses. He may well be right. One of the biggest determining factors would seem to be feedbacks, and of those perhaps the most worrisome is methane. If all the methane in tundra and undersea clathrates were to be released quickly, it would be game over. I've asked a couple of climate scientists about that and to my surprise they were less concerned than I was. Because methane "metabolizes" so quickly in the atmosphere (roughly 10 years), the release would have to be very rapid and massive to have a truly cataclysmic effect. That's certainly not impossible, but it's also not the most likely scenario in their view. I know that's not a very big peg to hang our hopes on, but it's something.

Frankly, I'm looking toward rapid economic contraction as a highly likely wild card that could result in both population reduction and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The human impact would be dreary at best, horrible at worst, but it could give future generations a chance at existence. A lot depends on how the contraction is managed. In the worst case, we get resource wars and people burning the last remaining forests for heating and cooking fuel. In the best case, we get an enlightened agrarianism. That's why I'm plugging away at writing and related work. It may make little or no difference in the end, but there's at least a chance that our efforts could help steer societies toward the best-case scenario. Even if it proves to be futile, I find the effort at least allows me to look in the mirror in the morning.

Best wishes always,