“Looking back is a way of looking forward.”
~ Scott Wing – Paleontologist, and Curator of Fossil Plants at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution
The month of January gets its name from Janus, the two-faced god of the ancient Roman Empire. One face looked to the past. One face looked to the future. Janus was the god of beginnings, transitions, and endings.
Today as we mark the movement from one calendar year to the next, I want to suggest that we (Homo sapiens) need to be like Janus. We need to look back in order to see a picture of the future, a future that we are now creating. So today we are going to take a look way-way back in geologic time, fifty-six million years ago. It was a time in Earth’s 4.5 billion year old history eerily similar to the world humanity is fashioning here and now.
While we are often advised as individuals to ‘live in the present moment,’ I am suggesting today that such individualistic, existential short sighted behavior cannot and will not sustain human civilization and life on Earth as we know it. A sustainable, thriving future for all creatures (flora and fauna) great and small requires a wise and moral human population that understands past events not in the narrow window of calendar time, but in the big picture of geologic time. It will take such ‘epochal’ thinking coupled with ethical, just behavior to change the course of the calamitous climatic future that we as the planet’s dominant Alpha species are creating.
If we could take that giant leap back in time to fifty-six million years ago, we would land in a period of geological history known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). This was a global climate anomaly caused by a massive release of greenhouse gases, likely triggered by volcanic activity. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose to (and beyond) the levels that we are now experiencing today. And in response to that phenomena, global temperatures rose and rose and rose. The oceans grew acidic and lost oxygen. And species, aquatic and terrestrial, died en masse. It then took Earth around 150,000 years to neutralize that excess carbon dioxide.
As a reference point, let’s note that civilization as we know it is only about 6,000 years old, and industrialization started in earnest as recently as the 1800’s. Let us also note that for more than the past 8000,000 years carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere ranged (for the most part) from 190-300 parts per million (ppm). Since the mid 1800’s the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by more than half due primarily to the combustion of fossil fuels and more intensive land use practices.
At the close of 2023 levels are at 422.33 ppm, and according to NOAA the concentration of carbon dioxide is growing by about 2.48 ppm per year. Data from NOAA also indicates that if we do not change the way we think and behave we will by the end of the century have created a green house gaseous world of over 900 ppm. Or in other words, humanity will have in the blink of a geologic eye recreated the nearly uninhabitable ‘thermal maximum’ world of fifty-six million years ago.
Perhaps no one in recent history has done more to paint for humanity a picture of the futuristic ‘thermal maximum’ world we are creating than David Wallace-Wells. I invite everyone to pause at the start of a new calendar year to follow this LINK to the New York Intelligencer piece on his book, The Uninhabitable Earth.[Note: You’ll get one free peek at the article.] If you are willing and able to read it, you will find that it concludes like this:
“The planet is not used to being provoked like this, and climate systems designed to give feedback over centuries or millennia prevent us — even those who may be watching closely — from fully imagining the damage done already to the planet. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.”
The intent of this first post of 2024 is to aid us in truly seeing the world we’ve made, a world not unlike that of fifty-six million years ago, and in that seeing find a way to make it livable for the generations whose future we are creating. In 2024 the ultimate outcome of that future will be profoundly impacted for good or ill by the outcome of the elections taking place across the United States. Indeed, they well may determine the fate of the democratic experiment begun in 1776. And a loss of American democracy also spells defeat for any progress in reducing the green house gas emissions that fuel the demise of a climate conducive to a thriving biosphere.
An August 7, 2023 article in the New York Times by Lisa Friedman reveals a battle plan for the first 180 days of a Presidency under a new administration. She states, “The climate and energy provisions would be among the most severe swings away from current federal policies. The plan calls for shredding regulations to curb greenhouse gas pollution from cars, oil and gas wells and power plants, dismantling almost every clean energy program in the federal government and boosting the production of fossil fuels — the burning of which is the chief cause of planetary warming.”
The alarming report continues: “The $22 million project also includes personnel lists and a transition strategy in the event a Republican wins the 2024 election. The nearly 1,000-page plan, which would reshape the executive branch to place more power into the president’s hands, outlines changes for nearly every agency across the government.
The Heritage Foundation worked on the plan with dozens of conservative groups ranging from the Heartland Institute, which has denied climate science, to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which says “climate change does not endanger the survival of civilization or the habitability of the planet.”
Bottom line, the plan is truly Draconian. Read the full article at this LINK.