Bombs are falling on Kiev in a war whose outcome could bring unimaginable consequences. As if the environmental crisis were not dangerous enough for life on Earth, we must wonder: is humanity incapable of mastering its own demons?
We have been blessed with an amazing planet born 4.5 billion years ago; a small fireball that time would turn into a bluish orchard, full of life; a complex system in which nothing is isolated or immutable, whether living or inert. We are throwing the Earth system out of balance as we continue to kill each other. We desperately need a profound revolution that will lead us to revalue life.
Permanent change has been and continues to be one of the hallmarks of the Earth system, the engine of evolution. Life needs change as much as stability to consolidate its roots. It demands balance. The processes that maintain terrestrial equilibrium interconnect all species with the inert components of the planet: the Earth’s crust, its atmosphere, and oceans. The myriad interrelated processes that make up the Earth system include precipitation, ocean currents, the carbon cycle, the albedo effect of forests, O2 enrichment by phytoplankton, plant evapotranspiration, and surface warming due to the greenhouse effect.
None of these processes remains static. They all shift over time due to many causes, both external and internal. Like the dancers in a ballet, who adapt their movements to one another and to the rhythm of the music without losing the harmony of the whole, the processes evolve, adapting to each other as they carry the system from one point of equilibrium to the next.
But throughout our vast history, there have been events that have thrown the system out of balance, breaking the harmony of the dance while wreaking havoc on life. 250 million years ago a titanic volcanic eruption in what is now Siberia destabilised the system and led to the Permian extinction, also known as the Great Mortality, which annihilated 95% of marine life and 75% of terrestrial species. And 66 million years ago, a massive meteorite struck what is now the Gulf of Mexico, wiping out the dinosaurs and countless other species.
The threat that faces us now could be on a similar scale. Global heating, which scientists have been warning about for decades, is becoming an event capable of causing catastrophic damage to life on Earth – including to the species which triggered its current upward trajectory: Homo Sapiens. Human civilization itself is under threat.
The increase in average temperature of the planet is not a problem in itself. Life has flourished in much warmer environments than the present one. The real problem is the speed at which the change is occurring. Many different planetary elements interact with one another through different processes each with their own time scale, like a huge machine in which all parts work in sync. If one element, such as greenhouse gas emissions, changes slowly, then the other processes adjust to one another without losing balance, and the system evolves smoothly. But if there is an abrupt change, the system runs amok. This is why the Earth is now being knocked out of its present equilibrium – with terrible consequences for life.
When we approach an equilibrium tipping point, there is a risk of feedback loops exacerbating the situation. We know that the temperature will skyrocket when the permafrost thaw, which is already underway, starts releasing huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere. The same will happen when frozen methane, locked on the ocean floors, is freed by the heating oceans and bursts into the atmosphere. This process has already been detected in seafloor sediments off the coast of Brazil.
We are running out of time and approaching a point of no return; a point from which the Earth system will reconfigure itself to find a new state of equilibrium. The impact on terrestrial life of this drastic reconfiguration could match the scale of major events in the past, and be so extreme that there may be no viable future for coming generations.
Why is humankind failing to act accordingly?
Unless they are profoundly psychologically unbalanced, when faced with extreme danger, parents will put their own lives at risk to defend their children. This is a well-known universal rule of evolved life on Earth. But in the face of the well-anticipated climate tragedy, very few people seem willing to accept that we must make radical changes to ensure the safety of our inheritors. It’s true that the necessary changes entail sacrificing comforts to which we have become accustomed. But is that all that is making us turn our backs on our own children? Is the psychological dislocation of our society so profound that unnatural selfishness has become a feature of our era?
There are two paths we could take, but only one of them will work. The first is the route of the techno-optimists, who believe that the current combination of market-plus-competition-plus-technology will solve the problems, with the help of enough greenwash. This is a profound mistake. If we get out of balance, there will be no technology to get us back to where we were. Everyone must take responsibility without taking refuge in technological fairy tales.
The second route involves a change of perspective. The great philosopher Aristotle defined economics as the “art of living, and living well”, differentiating it from the “art of acquiring money”, which he considered as morally reprehensible. A life lived well, he argued, is a life with its own inherent balance. In this paradigm, everyone seeks what they need from the community, both materially and emotionally, and appreciates everything for its true value, be it a ray of sunshine, the call of a bird, or a friend’s embrace.
Appealing to the sustainability of our current system as a solution to our problems is a fallacy due to our current misconception of what wealth is. Building an economic system based on Aristotle’s “art of living, and living well” is a complex task, but not impossible. As individuals, we can start by learning to revalue the enormous wealth that we have around us and abandoning the wheel of consumption that damages the planet while enslaving us.
And, above all, we can learn to revalue life. Let us all do our utmost for the victims of the Ukrainian invasion, and all the bloody wars that ravage a humanity that is running out of time.
Ana Campos is a digital transformation consultant with a PhD in Astrophysics. She writes non-fiction and scientific divulgation articles. Her books can be downloaded here: https://www.bubok.es/autores/anacampos1
CALL TO ACTION:
Read the amazing Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, about healing our relationship with the world and awakening the ecological consciousness we need.