In the set-loose process scientists call “positive feedback,’’atmospheric warming causes the release of methane and carbon dioxide that had long been naturally stored in places like forests, peatbogs and permafrost. Their release warms the atmosphere even more, causing more gas releases, which in turn cause more warming, which causes… a cyclic feedback loop of runaway, unstoppable, global overheating. The consequences of positive feedback being certain, it doesn’t seem very “positive” to chance releasing the truly enormous quantities of clathrates stored in the deep oceans. In pursuit of mining the fortune in minerals we know are down there, uncontrolled corporations risk setting loose a doomsday scenario antithetical to most plant and animal life forms we know and love.
Methane clathrates are able to form only under the intense pressure and cold temperatures of the deep sea, and they remain stable only so long as they stay under those cold and pressurized conditions. When disturbed, they rise and break the surface—as vast fields of bubbles, or sometimes as colossal belches that explode water hundreds of feet high—and enter the atmosphere. In the 1990s scientists found evidence that billions of tons of the stuff were released from Atlantic seabeds—when?—55 million years ago. One big release resulted from massive avalanches on the continental slopes off Florida. Then in 2007 came reports of long-term outpourings of basaltic lava from extensive volcanic eruptions across the North Atlantic seafloor—also 55 million years ago. In one case the lava pushed up into carbon-rich coal-bearing layers, thus adding the coal’s massive carbon to the methane released by the extended volcanism. The evidence is sufficient for concluding that ancient disturbances on the ocean floor released enormous volumes of methane and carbon dioxide that in turn brought on the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum with its environmental mayhem—so very like that we are facing today.
That’s not all we are facing today, and the deadly gas releases aren’t all buried in history. Some readers will remember the release in 1986 of massive clouds of carbon dioxide from the bed of Cameroon’s Lake Nyos. Erupting suddenly in a gas-water guyser three hundred feet high, the invisible cloud then spread over adjacent shores and asphyxiated 1,700 people, mostly asleep in their beds. Similarly, off the coast of Namibia, methane effervescing up through the seafloor carries up with it, and releases, massive amounts of toxic hydrogen sulfide. Every ocean creature in the vicinity dies and the poisonous sulfide’s rotten egg odor and corrosive effects waft ashore to enrich the lives of nearby residents. Similarly vulnerable coasts lie in California, Morocco, Peru and Mauritania.
Mining corporations are undertaking mining of the ocean floors in search of new sources of ores such as iron and copper that are becoming depleted on land. That huge area of the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone—1.7 million square miles lying between Hawaii and Mexico—has already been laid out and divvied up. Their mining method involves dragging a giant scoop over the ocean floor, picking up everything in the top few feet, flushing it, keeping the useful/profitable stuff, and dumping the waste back as a vast muckish plume that environmentalists warn will spell disaster for sea creatures.
It is hard to imagine that the big scoops dragged over pristine ocean floors by the barons of mining will not also disturb methane clathrate deposits and release further gigatons of carbon, as the barons grow filthy richer from the mineral bounty of our ocean deeps.
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I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that millions, and later billions, of people will die in such a scenario. In Gaian terms, I suppose, the planet would be trying to restore a balance.
Mark Lynas: Six Degrees
I wrote this paragraph—the very one you’re now reading—before I encountered Mark Lynas’ comment quoted above. So I later came back and added the word “too” into this paragraph. I too am unable to envision any scenario for the coming fifteen to twenty decades in which our dynamic, wonderful human society, built up over ten thousand years, can avoid a societal collapse so nearly total as to be indistinguishable from it. I have tried, but I know too much about our trajectory and our human habits. I know more than I want to, and logic is hard to argue with. Our civilization, with all that’s right and good in it, isn’t just declining—we’re throwing it away. My heart is saddened, for the loss will have been so needless, so unnecessary—driven by greed as it was, and self serving, with absence of caring for one’s fellow humanity, as if they did not matter.
What are we here for? What are we doing? And why in the hell are we doing it?
I am no Pangloss, but I perceive that despite all our faults and tragedies, we have today—or at least had for two generations after 1945—something approaching the best that our world can be. Knowing some details about human culture and the earth’s natural systems is enough to convince me, but if that weren’t enough a little knowledge of nineteenth-century dentistry alone would certainly be convincing. But we are throwing it all away. Or more accurately, those in power and controlling the majority legislative votes are throwing it all away. Saddest of all, I cannot see how anyone looking logically at the scientific facts now available to us all—so many don’t even bother to look—can reach any different conclusion.
Overpopulation. Overconsumption. Overexploitation. Massive pollution. Overheating on a global scale. Willful denial. All the hopes and dreams…
But I did have that M’sippisea dream… so hope remains, tenuous though it is. I believe (but don’t know) that our species will suffer but survive, and we will not be reduced to abject barbarism skulking in caves. That will have to be enough. For it I am grateful.
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The logical chain of reasoning we started a while ago leaves no doubt that there are now and have for some time been too many people on this planet. And from that solid fact a number of solid conclusions follow.
There’s no surprise in the fact that we’re putting way too much carbon dioxide into our atmosphere—of course we are, with this many people it really can’t be stopped. What choice do you and I have but to cause CO2 pollution by driving our cars or taking public transport to work, by eating food that releases CO2 by the very act of being grown, by wearing and sitting on synthetic fabrics spun from oil, or sheltering in a house or apartment constructed of building materials that released lots of CO2 pollution simply by being manufactured? Food, clothing, shelter—life basics. We cannot be islands, separated from the very society we were born into and which sustains us throughout life. We cannot avoid polluting, we must pollute because we every last one of us are embedded integrally in a societal system that meandered into polluting ways that are hard to change.
That system came about, and still happens, inch by inch and day by day. Recall in your mind any busy highway during rush hour, then the slightly-less heavy traffic on that highway all day long, every day. Envision all the other many highways just like this highway now crisscrossing the world, all filled with cars and trucks, together totaling billions of exhaust pipes that every single day spew carbon dioxide and other chemical pollutants into the air we breathe—that same thin envelope of air which every moment of our lives is being further polluted by the vast daily traffic of aircraft, ships at sea, our own gas furnaces and the coal-burning power plants that power the many electric appliances in each and every household connected to the power grid. Then, as Mark Lynas advises, “remember that this situation goes on day and night, 24/7 across the whole of the globe. …each breath you inhale has more carbon dioxide in it than any breath ever taken by any human before you over the entire evolutionary history of our species.”
The real problem is overpopulation, yes, but the real problem is also the system, “our system,” painstakingly evolved like Topsy over recent centuries—a system that is really a melange of human generalities called The Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, capitalism, militarism, totalitarianism, nationalism, selfish arrogant individualism, globalism, worldwide digital interdependency, plastic, colossal pollution, willful ignorance, an unbroken history of wars, and burgeoning waste of valuable energy on trivial conveniences, silly fashions and digital baubles we really never needed at all.
Can 7.8 billion people change themselves—enough to change the worldwide system we all depend on—in time to avoid the collapse of all we hold dear? What do you think?
Some people think we can maybe perhaps possibly at least slightly slow down the stampeding increase of our human population in time to drastically reduce the out-of-control corporate profit-abetted human over-consumption that is discharging vastly too much carbon pollution into our atmosphere where it inevitably lingers to trap the sun’s heat within our planetary atmosphere thus causing worldwide average temperature to rise a bit higher every year thereby making it increasingly difficult to grow enough food to adequately feed the too-many human mouths that increasingly demand input in the form of nutritious food to eat and fresh clean safe water to drink not to mention a motor scooter or a used car or a big-ass pickup truck with dark windows and dual chrome exhausts implying the girth of the driver’s scrotum plus a smart phone with apps and indoor plumbing and real imported plastic bamboo furniture all of which have to be hauled in on carbon-based fuel-guzzling trucks, ships and airplanes that discharge still vaster quantities of carbon dioxide into our collective commons known as the very air we breathe, and they further think we can of our own free will continue indefinitely acquiring all this stuff and God or somebody will take care of us notwithstanding that ever-constant driving urge in all young men and many young ladies that causes the miracle of birth thereby creating ever more of us on our way to ten billion people and the collapse of our beloved civilization, the one we take for granted.
Do I think we can reverse the over-populating cause of global warming that assuredly is going to kill most of us if we don’t? No, frankly, I don’t. I still harbor a small hope that we might respond to global warming, but as to the real cause, procreation, no—I don’t.
I think that even if we had the moxie to reduce and turn around global overheating, which we don’t, we’d still leave untouched the real problem which is over populating the earth by daily creating more new babies than there are people dying that day. The real real problem is that every person who has ever experienced the better-than-drugs euphoria of an orgasm has this compelling desire to experience that groaning euphoria again, and again…and yet again. Life’s compelling urge to survive and reproduce is killing us.
We all know full well that, by chance, sex causes babies to arrive with hungry mouths to feed—but where opportunity exists how many even try to resist that deep primal urge to do it again?…and again and again? My my. Besides—didn’t God tell those old desert tribesmen to be fruitful and multiply so there would eventually be enough of them to take first Jericho, then later Canaan’s milk and honey and virgins? This land is our land.
Be fruitful and multiply, yes. The Vatican and its minions of clergy are for it. Islamic imams and conservative anti-government Republicans and Christian protestant homeschoolers and polygamous Mormons are for it. African men who vainly value siring a yard full of children as a status symbol of their studly manliness are for it. And, among oh-so-many others, they’re all against birth control and contraception of any mildest sort which might result in reducing the baby count, notwithstanding the moral inconsistency that many people who despise abortions also condone and practice female genital mutilation. Besides all that, sharing regular orgasms—assuming they’re mutual—can make it easier to get along with your mate. So here’s to lots more unprotected sex—that’s all too obviously what they all think. What do you think?
I sincerely wish that it may be as clearly foreseen by every good citizen, that whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives, America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: “FAREWELL! A LONG FAREWELL TO ALL MY GREATNESS.”
Publius, Federalist No. 2