In last week’s posting, based on a book that I recently read – 1177 B.C., The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric Cline – I described the abrupt fall of the prominent Bronze Age empires, and speculated that our contemporary globalized world could be due for a similar crack-up. Such fears may seem overblown, even silly. Those ancient societies were culturally sophisticated, no doubt, and politically functional in their day, but their scientific and technological know-how, and their methods of gaining and disseminating information, were far inferior to ours. Surely, we can confidently diagnose and resolve the sorts of social, economic, logistical, environmental, and health problems that baffled pre-modern governments.
Actually, it’s not at all certain that we can. Unfortunately, the technical advances that’ve enhanced our ability to devise solutions have simultaneously given us new, and far bigger, problems. It remains to be seen whether we’ll do any better at handling our pending difficulties, than the Bronze Age societies did with theirs.
The prognosis isn’t particularly good.
That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn from the other book I’ve recently read, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. This work documents the utter devastation visited upon other forms of life, by the advent of the human race. It’s a sad, sad tale, with no happy ending in sight. Steller’s sea cows, great auks, and dodos are all gone; coral reefs, frogs, and bats are dying off rapidly; rhinos, elephants, and tigers are critically endangered, all thanks to homo sapiens. Kolbert reviews some of the examples in detail but – as her title indicates – her concern extends far beyond the plight of a few especially large and noble creatures. Natural scientists have come to believe that we’re in a mass die-off as serious as the one that terminated the dinosaurs.
And, yes, we humans are to blame.
I won’t go into all the scientific stuff about global warming, ocean acidification, habitat loss, feedback loops and the like. Kolbert discusses these, and you can get the grim details from her book. She points out how people have disfigured Mother Earth in many important ways, in a very brief time period. Human usage has altered between a third and half of the planet’s land surface. We’ve dammed or diverted the majority of the major rivers and we take more than half of the freshwater runoff. Human shipping has brought the animals and plants of widely separated continents together. And we’ve significantly changed the chemical makeup of the atmosphere.
Most living things can’t adapt to these changes fast enough. Kolbert refers to an informed estimate that 5,000 species are dying off every year – almost all on account of us – which works out to a little over one extinctification every two hours. Most of these are teensy worms or flies or slugs that no one even noticed before they were gone. Still, it’s as bad as when an Everest-sized asteroid landed on T-Rex. All kidding aside, this is a travesty. To Pagans, who regard the natural world as sacred, it’s a crime, a sacrilege, a break in the Great Chain of Being, a mortal sin.
But I don’t want to dwell on that aspect of the situation.
Right now, I’m going to concentrate only on the immediate implications for my overbearing species. We’re dependent on other living things for our sustenance, and they on yet other living things, and on a certain balance of the elements – and when the Earth’s natural cycles are seriously interrupted or disturbed, we’re just as vulnerable to a population crash as any other large, over-abundant life form. Certainly, the delicate political, social, and economic arrangements that undergird our global civilization can be unsettled in ways that would result in the deaths of a large percentage of our people. It happened in the Bronze Age, and it could well happen to us.
And, of course, humanity faces many environmental threats that don’t arise from the possible extinction of species we find dear. Rising sea levels will be very bad for us, regardless of the effects on other living things.
Like everybody else, I was irritated when our so-called President withdrew from the Paris climate accord; it was the act of an ignorant fool. But I was a bit less concerned than some others were, because I suspect we’ve already done so much damage – we’ve put so much CO2 in the air, for instance – that there’s no way we can escape ecological disaster. Kolbert’s book simply reinforces my suspicions.
And there are threats to our society that have little to do with the environment. The globalized economic order could implode, leaving billions of people with no way to purchase food. Wars, civil unrest, religious conflicts, mass refugee movements, plagues – these things are as likely in our time as in any other.
Even if there is a path by which civilizational catastrophe can be avoided, what’s the chance that Trump and Putin will find it?
My point is only this: other great cultures and mighty empires of the past have crashed and burned, and there’s no reason that our country and our world should be immune from the kinds of factors that led to their fall. Our powers are unprecedented – but so is the complication of challenges we face. And the wisdom of our leaders might not be wholly unquestionable.
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