A retired Professor from the University of Arizona, Guy McPherson, told an audience in New Zealand last year that the human race will be extinct from climate change in a decade.
Except here. Apparently we’re well placed at the bottom of the South Pacific to survive. And there’s a precedent. Until the 1280s, for the most part New Zealand retained its late Cretaceous-era flora and fauna – sans large dinosaurs, but otherwise very much the ‘lost world’ of that era.
Exactly how well Kiwis might survive is another matter. We rely absolutely on imported technology and material to sustain our First World life. If that stops flowing our civilisation would break down fairly quickly. Kiwi ingenuity doubtless could keep things going a while, but the risk of eventually dropping back to hunter-gatherer life seems high.
To my mind, though, such doom-saying is overstated. There’s no doubt in my mind that humanity is well on the road to extinction. We take pride in our achievements, but they’ve come at the cost of the climate. The fact is that by nature we relentlessly destroy the environment we need to survive, all the while fighting viciously with each other over everything, including over whether we are doing damage to the climate or not. Probably that was a survival technique in the last ice age – but back then, we could always move to another environment. Now we can’t. And when things finally break – which I expect will be fairly sudden – we’ll likely lose our civilisation first, then our population. That will leave the last survivors, who will be back living as hunter-gatherers – vulnerable to extinction like our ice-age cousins.
Recent studies suggest that drastic climate change could indeed occur, enough to wipe out animal populations – there is evidence of just this happening for natural reasons during the last ice ages. Climate is a meta-stable system, meaning it can flip from one pseudo-stable state to another quite quickly, particularly where atmospheric and oceanic jet-streams (which carry heat from place to place) are concerned.. But even this drastic-change scenario spanned at least a century.
So while I certainly think that human-invoked climate change has potential to accelerate things, we’ve got a bit more time than just the next decade.
It also seems to me that when we fall into extinction, it’ll be in ways we probably haven’t considered – and which are likely unstoppable. Probably it’ll be through our own doing, given the very fragile nature of the civilisation we’ve built; but we can’t rule out external factors. My favourite is the gamma ray burst from a supernova thousands of light years away. A few minutes of shine from one of those suckers, and we’re GONE.
More to the point is why the thinking of ‘sudden doom’ gains traction. We’re often confronted with popular scare-stories of imminent demise. Some of them are obvious woo-woo, such as the ‘Niburu’ fantasy or various ‘prophesies’ wrung out of supposedly mysterious ancient writings. Others, such as McPherson’s climate-change scenario, are quite credible although I dispute his timing. But the idea of imminent Armageddon isn’t unique to western culture – it features in a lot of cultures through our history, to the point where it appears to be hard-wired into the human psyche.
To me that’s the interesting point. Why? I can only speculate, of course, but the story might be in our genetics. All humans alive today – all of them – are so close genetically that if we were dogs, we’d be a single breed. This degree of closeness is unusual and implies that at some point in our relatively recent past, a few tens of thousands of years, we went through a ‘genetic bottleneck’, in which our population was reduced to a few hundred individuals.
Apart from pointing up the fact that we came very close to following our cousin species – Neanderthals, Denisovans, ‘Hobbits’ and Red Deer Cave people into oblivion, that highlights something else. That bottleneck was an exceptional crisis. But in general, life was probably close to the edge quite often, in various ways – mostly local, as a specific hunter-gatherer group ran out of resource and had to move elsewhere. The chance of things collapsing around them, often fairly quickly, could well have been part of the calculation.
Could an evolution through ice ages studded with periodic crises have left a mark? I hesitate to speculate. But it’s an interesting thought.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017