Futurcide: is the story of how humanity now faces the stark reality of our evolutionary success. Our future is now what we make it. We now control all life on the planet, including our own. Will we choose a safe, just and sustainable future or collapse like all the great civilizations before us?
Our differences are small and inconsequential. For our entire history we have been explorers and one people sharing a lonely spaceship, hurtling through the void of space and time. The laws of the universe are strict and sometimes difficult to understand. Those laws are unforgiving and non-negotiable. If we look hard enough to understand and use them wisely; our species has no limits. We have arrived at a moment in time when our future, and the future of all life on Earth, rests entirely in our hands. But first we must accept that we are of one mind seeking truth, justice, equality, and a sustainable future on the one place we all call home. Individually we may seem weak, just as a single stick may break; but when humanity pulls together, like sticks in a bundle, we are strong. The question of our time remains unanswered. Will we collectively choose a path of prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability or will we choose the existential collapse of civilization and mass extinction? The need to choose is immediate and absolute.
One of the Sea Shepherd fleet:
Photo credit: BY CIMSEC 2016-09-14 20:04:40
Humanity has created a world we are not genetically programmed to thrive in. The pace and complexity of human enterprise now encompasses an environment that provides one hundred percent of the goods and services for our civilization. The pace of change and environmental depredation confounds the ability of humanity to comprehend, and therefore govern the interactive forces that control our lives. In basic terms, our grasp now exceeds our knowledge.
Our future survival is at stake. "We're the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it."
- Governor Jay Inslee, Washington State
The exceptional warming we experience today is undeniably the result of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from our modern industrialized civilization. This extraordinary warming causes the atmosphere and global ocean to change. Those changes alter the usual circulation patterns in the ocean and atmosphere — and with that the climate.
The same thing happens in a closed pot on the stove. As the heat increases, the liquid in the pot begins to circulate more vigorously. The atmosphere above the liquid also begins to move in a different pattern than when the pot was cool.
The crises humanity faces is not only global warming and subsequent changes in the climate — it is a synergy of intertwined forces driving a cascading collapse of security in multiple spheres. Unprecedented climate extremes become more frequent and pose a threat multiplier on many fronts. The root threat may be environmental but inaction is social and economic.
Climate change is not what you see outside today. The global climate is a multi-decade trend over the entire planet. One day in January 2019 there were blizzard conditions and -35℉ in Fargo, North Dakota. At the same time it was 49.5℃ (121.28℉) in Port Augusta, Australia. Neither of these temperatures is that striking on a yearly basis. What is atypical is that both cities are experiencing a warming trend when viewed over the past 50 years. This trend is happening around the world. By July of 2019, two locations in the Middle East hit record temperatures of 53.9℃ (129℉). The overall global trend is clearly warming at a pace that may be unprecedented in geologic history. Models indicate that some areas of the Middle East could approach summer temperatures of 57.2℃ to 60℃ (135℉ to 140℉), making them uninhabitable by mid-century. What happens to the millions of people living there? The consequences are far worse than most of humanity realizes.
We have dithered away our chance for an inexpensive, safe transition to sustainable development. The worst-case models have proven close but still short of reality. The most contemporary field measurements indicate rates of change that are even greater than many of those worst-case scenarios. We are rapidly approaching the limits of Earth's resilience to human insult. On a business-as-usual (BAU) pathway, there is a better than even chance that two in seven living today will die prematurely by mid-century. The United Nations warns that there is a less than five percent chance that humanity will be able to cut emissions enough to stay below 2℃ (3.6℉) of warming before the end of this century. With a BAU scenario, there is a ten percent chance warming could exceed 6℃ (10.8℉) and continue to warm for centuries. If humanity doesn't act in unison and immediately, there is the stark probability that we face a brutal dystopian world depicted in pulp fiction and film. We are now faced with the cost and urgency of saving civilization and most of life on Earth.
Economies that measure progress by annual gross domestic product (GDP), baulk at the potential cost of reducing emissions by decarbonizing the global economy. They blanch at the cost of transitioning to sustainable energy; and adapting infrastructure to greater extremes of storms, floods and drought. Cynics may simply pass the cost to future generations. Future cost will not be measured in GDP, but in lives.
Could this be climate alarmist hyperbole, as a highly vocal minority claims? The short answer is an emphatic, no. There are eighty nations with national academies of science to inform policy makers of the state of science and knowledge. None of the national academies of science disagree that human activities are the major contributor to global warming and subsequent changes in the climate. Even the most cursory investigation of the subject, at any major university in the world, comes to the same conclusion.
"Earth's climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of civilization. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future — but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur." (2018, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II; Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States)
Why is it so difficult to transmit these dire projections to the general public? Our human habitat now encompasses the entire surface of Earth. Our senses deceive us. At first glance these truly are the best of times. How can things be so good and the future so promising, yet be on the verge of total collapse? We stuff ourselves on the last helpings of Earth's banquet. Like a candle that flickers the brightest just before it dies, our global civilization booms with prosperity while teetering on the edge of unperceived disaster.
We lurk like a spider at the center of a vast interconnected web of planetary goods and services. We pluck filament after filament, oblivious or uncaring of the consequences. In an orgy of gluttony we feast, plunder, waste and throw away without regard. The basic economy of nations is founded upon consumption. But the laws of nature are absolute. We wager too much, forgetting that Mother Nature always holds the high card. To survive, humanity must live within the bio-geochemical boundaries that make our habitat livable. We have the power of gods but little of the wisdom or self-restraint. Adults admonish children to clean their rooms. Meanwhile adults blithely pollute and foul the only habitat we have. It is little wonder that young people distrust adults and the institutions of adults?
"Climate change affects the natural, built, and social systems we rely on individually and through their connections to one another. These interconnected systems are increasingly vulnerable to cascading impacts that are often difficult to predict, threatening essential services within and beyond the Nation's borders." (2018, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II; Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States)
The U.S. Department of Defense has repeatedly warned that failure to address climate change has become the single greatest threat multiplier to modern security. At least two billion remain on the edge of calamity without enough clean water for basic needs. Nearly a billion do not have safe water to drink. Ground water is being depleted faster than it is replenished. We are losing arable soil while the demand for more food increases. As stressors multiply it will become more difficult to maintain prosperity for rich nations and impossible for the poor.
A sustainable future will soon be impossible. We have no more than eight to ten years before our options end and nature plays her high card with sublime indifference to the arrogance of this strange biped that presently dominates the planet.
Two hundred years of investigation and overwhelming evidence has only increased the resolution of scientific assertion. Still, there are those who seek to create doubt in the public mind and sway government policy. Who bears the responsibility for this deception? Special interests seek out chinks in the system and corruptible government officials with lies and half-truths. These half-dozen special interest businesses are among the wealthiest in the world, yet they have only one product to sell. To preserve the global economic dependence on that one product, they seek to create uncertainty in science and scientists.
The following message is repeated, often verbatim, in the media silos of ultra-conservative propaganda.
There are thousands of scientists that dispute that global warming is even happening. Scientists say increased CO2 will only make the planet greener.
The above claims are corporate sponsored, pre-meditated lies and half-truths designed to create distrust in the government and disbelief in solid empirical science. There are not thousands of actual climate scientists that dispute global warming. The actual number is estimated to be less than 3% according to seven peer-reviewed studies. The extraordinary warming we witness today; is not caused by the orbit of the earth, volcanoes, the way the planet wobbles on its axis or sunspots. Those influences on Earth's climate cycles have been well understood for more than a century.
What about that 3%? There has not been a single proven alternative hypothesis that successfully refutes human induced global warming. The evidence has only become clearer as the science and technology has progressed. There is no credible evidence contradicting fossil fuel emissions of CO2 as the major cause of today's unprecedented warming. Denial without evidence supporting a rational argument is unworthy of a response.
When asked how she responds to these false claims, Greta Thunberg, sixteen-year-old climate activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee said, "I don't."
The Ocean Crisis
Approximately 71.2% of the Earth's surface is covered by water. Without it, we could not exist; yet we waste it, poison it, pollute it and acidify it with little regard. The 2018, 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment puts it this way.
"The Nation's valuable ocean ecosystems are being disrupted by increasing global temperatures through the loss of iconic and highly valued habitats and changes in species composition and food web structure. Ecosystem disruption will intensify as ocean warming, acidification, de-oxygenation, and other aspects of climate change increase. In the absence of significant reductions in carbon emissions, transformative impacts on ocean ecosystems cannot be avoided." (2018, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II; Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States)
Roughly sixteen percent of our food protein comes from the sea. Marine fisheries and fishing communities are at extremely high risk as climate-driven changes alter the distribution, timing and productivity of fishery related species.
The ocean absorbs over 90% of the energy striking Earth and circulates massive amounts of that energy by ocean currents. Those circulation systems determine wind patterns, precipitation distribution, and the climate over the Earth’s continents.
For every one degree centigrade (1.8℉) of warming approximately five to seven percent more moisture is evaporated into the atmosphere. Because water vapor is also a greenhouse gas, this creates a feedback loop of increasing water vapor, causing more warming, causing more water vapor, and so on.
Radiant heating is greatest near the equator so the tropics are warm, but mid-latitudes may be even warmer and certainly drier. Why is this? Warming near the equator pumps evaporated water vapor into the atmosphere, constantly pushing toward the poles. As tropical air rises, it cools. The water vapor condenses and falls as precipitation. The remaining dry air then descends. This pattern of moist warm air rising, precipitation, and warm dry air descending creates warm, wet; and hot, dry bands that appear at specific latitudes around the planet. These bands are called Hadley cells. Hadley cells expand as the ocean absorbs more energy. The wet bands tend to become wetter and the dry bands tend to become drier. The tropical latitudes are experiencing more intensive rain and heat than usual. They are also experiencing unpredictable changes in monsoon patterns critical to agriculture. Moderately dry areas like the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Italy, Greece, and North Africa are experiencing heat waves and droughts that are predicted to intensify. Much of the Middle East is projected to become uninhabitable by the end of this century if emissions remain on a BAU trend.
For millennia the ocean was considered accessible to everyone. Like the atmosphere it belonged to everyone because it was vital to everyone for food and trade. Roughly forty percent of the human population lives within sixty miles of the ocean. When something belongs to everyone it is referred to as the commons. The ocean is the reason there is abundant life on Earth. The ocean distributes and circulates heat energy around the planet. Marine plants produce over half of the oxygen we breathe and nearly all of the potable water through evaporation and precipitation.
Despite the ocean's vital importance, there are very few international maritime laws to ensure that the ocean continues as part of a protected global commons. Enforcement of what laws there are is almost entirely voluntary. Mineral extraction, over-fishing, pollution and strategic control of critical shipping lanes have made the ocean a major source of contention. Piracy still rages where nations fail to guarantee shipping lanes are safe. At the same time commercial vessels are prohibited from carrying weapons for defense.
There are laws protecting a few marine species; yet enforcement is often left up to private, non-profit organizations like Sea Shepherd. Whaling bans serve only as voluntary guidelines for most nations and are totally ignored under false pretenses by others. There is a tendency to look the other way when international bodies lack the will or resources to enforce those laws. When private non-profits step in, there is a narrow path they must tread between hero and villain, even for the most noble of causes.
The Grand Banks cod fishery — a case study in over-fishing:
In the 19th and early 20th century, cod was nearly a staple in the American diet. North Atlantic cod fishing had flourished for nearly 500 years. Fisheries like the Grand Banks were considered inexhaustible. Codfish oil was considered a miracle cure and source of vitality and long life.
I first read Captains Courageous when I was seven. Kipling gave an accurate account of Gloucester fishermen, their almost mythical schooners, and the seemingly endless bounty of the Georgian and Grand Banks cod fishery. Men in sleek wooden dories baited hooks and pulled hand lines until the dories were awash with flapping tails. The dories fed the schooners where the fish were processed, salted and put into the hold.
These sleek schooners, sporting sails measuring thousands of square feet, were euphemistically called “knockabouts.” They were also deceptively fast, really fast. Once filled to the gunwales with cod, they raced to be first to market. Those that arrived at port first could ask the highest price.
Knockabouts were so quick in the offseason they took on the best that international yacht racing could offer. Perhaps the most famous of these working class schooners was the “Bluenose.” For two decades no other design could compete. One yachtsman was asked why he lost the America’s Cup to the “Bluenose.” He replied, “We race for fun. These fishermen do it for a living”.
A single “knockabout” could salt up to 250,000 pounds of cod in the hold. The work was hard and dangerous. Each year as many as four hundred “knockabouts” went to sea. Each year a dozen or more of these sleek craft never returned.
Fishing vessels and equipment made a great leap forward when power replaced sail. More vessels brought in more fish. Gradually a fishery decline became apparent. By 1970 foreign fishing vessels were banned, but American fishing continued the harvest with even more efficient technologies. By the 1990s, both Canada and the U.S. agreed to close fishing for all bottom-dwelling species, including cod. There were hopes that the fishery would recover but recovery did not happen. Warming waters in the Atlantic further compromised the resilience of cod stocks. Other species soon replaced the cod niche in the ecosystem. Once an ecosystem adjusts to new condition, it never, ever, returns to what it was. The cards have been shuffled and a new game has begun.
The demand for cod remains high with increasing pressures on stocks elsewhere.
What Caused the Commercial Fishery Collapse?
The history of cod and the Grand Banks fishery serves as a lesson for fisheries generally. Four factors appear to be primarily responsible for commercial fishery collapse:
In the absence of international protections for the ocean commons, nations are expanding their territorial waters to protect vital protein resources. It remains to be seen how long those remaining fisheries will last under the ever-increasing demand for fish protein.
The Spratly Islands of the South China Sea are over five hundred miles from the China mainland. China has turned these distant shallow seamounts into militarized islands to further expand their territorial waters. China now claims that these new islands justify title to most of the South China Sea. The speed and scale of China’s effort has alarmed the international community and surrounding nations of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Japan. Satellite surveillance shows the construction of airstrips, port facilities and military assets. Access to productive fisheries and free passage for trade is threatened. This is a breech of international maritime law but who is willing to enforce against a powerful nation like China?
Other nations may use more covert hit and run tactics. Foreign fishing vessels have routinely invaded U.S. territorial waters for more than a century. When they are pursued, they drop their nets and skedaddle. The abandoned nets continue to kill fish for decades, further depleting fish stocks. These ghost nets pose a hazard to marine navigation and make up approximately ten percent of all marine litter.
A core problem in fisheries management is that economic pressure often has greater influence on regulatory governance than the findings and advice of science. Illegal practices and overfishing continues to contribute to the depletion of stocks. Fish stocks in many parts of the world are unsustainable because of a lack of oversight, regulatory control, and sound science-based policy.
At least a quarter of all fish stocks are overexploited or dangerously depleted. Nearly eighty percent of larger predatory fish species like Salmon, Bluefin Tuna, Swordfish, Grouper and Atlantic Halibut are already endangered. Fishing vessels have to travel farther to find their prey. More frequently, the fishery rests in someone else’s territorial waters. Fishing techniques have become more efficient at catching target species but often kill other species that are simply treated as waste. Bottom dredging destroys bottom habitat that may not recover for years, if ever.
Ocean acidification and warming waters are a death-knell to marine coral. Coral reefs are a critical habitat for twenty five percent of marine life. Without habitat, native species are unlikely to ever recover.
Still, most fisheries can be saved by proper regulatory oversight. With proper management, their recovery could even be seen in a few years rather than decades. Some of the largest fisheries, however, are in more serious trouble. Some have collapsed and may never recover. Without regulatory oversight and enforcement; waste, bycatch and mismanagement continue to threaten production of our entire global fishing industry.
Note: ‘Bycatch’ refers to other marine species that are caught unintentionally. It is either of a different species, the wrong sex, undersized, or juveniles of the target species.
The demand for fish protein continues to rise, as the human population increases and living standards improve. The pressure to catch more falls on the fishing industry as well as the social structures that establish fisheries policy. Education and changes in behavior becomes even more important as declines in native fish stocks threaten ancient economies and the livelihood for tens of millions worldwide.
To fill the demand for fish protein, markets have increasingly turned to aquaculture. Replacing wild production with aquaculture places new demands on both the economy and natural systems. In the wild, species like cod are part of an ecosystem involving many species and bio-geochemical systems that are still not fully understood. When we remove one part of the ecological web, we alter the entire system. Aquaculture presents a host of new management problems. What do we do with fish waste? Are hatchery-raised species as nutritious and robust as wild species? Are they more prone to disease? Where do we get the nutrients to feed hatchery fish?
What once seemed inexhaustible has proven vulnerable. The story of cod is happening with hundreds of marine species. We are at an apex where we have to choose between stewardship or to be overwhelmed by unregulated economic demand.
We are polluting the Earth’s oceans. What once seemed so vast and imperturbable is now clearly vulnerable to the flotsam and jetsam of our global civilization and marine trade. Our oceans absorb about thirty percent of the carbon dioxide we produce by burning fossil fuels. That is changing fundamental ocean chemistry. The pH scale ranges from 14 to 0. A pH of 7.0 is neutral. As more carbon dioxide is absorbed, ocean chemistry changes from the preindustrial state of about pH 8.3 to a new global average of roughly pH 8.1. This 0.2 change in pH may seem slight but represents a thirty percent change.
The present rate of acidification is ten times faster than at any time in the past fifty million years. That thirty percent change erodes the shells and exo-skeletons of mollusks, crabs, corals and plankton. Plankton forms the foundation of the marine food pyramid. Acidification may lower metabolic efficiency in some photosynthetic plankton. Increasing ocean acidification can reduce photosynthetic plankton’s (phytoplankton) ability to metabolize carbon dioxide and produce oxygen (Crawley and Kline, 2010) (Brading and Warner, 2012).
The link between marine photosynthesis and oxygen in the atmosphere is important. Photosynthesis by marine plants produces over fifty percent of atmospheric oxygen. Brian Palmer, science reporter for the National Resource Defense Counsel puts it this way. “…do you like oxygen? Phytoplankton — tiny plants floating near the surface of the ocean — produce around half of the oxygen we breathe. Does it make sense for the source of every other breath to exist in an ill-governed part of the world?”
Pacific Northwest Shellfish farmers have suffered up to an eighty percent loss in production because of marine acidification. Periodic upwelling currents release accumulated carbon based minerals. This further lowers the pH of marine waters. Recently some northwest marine acidification measurements ranged from pH 8.2 to as low as pH 7.6. Model projections indicate that acidification could increase as much as 150 times by the end of the century. On a business-as-usual pace the impact on marine ecology and planetary systems would be devastating.
Washington State’s seafood industry generates more than 43,000 jobs and $1.7 billion annually. Greg Dale, southwest operations manager at Coast Seafoods Company in Northern California summed it up this way, “The ocean drives everything — the whole food web, our weather, clouds.”
Global warming and subsequent changes in the climate, begin and end, with the oceans that allow life on this beautiful Blue Marble spaceship we call Earth.