The Gaia Hypothesis (named after the Greek goddess of the Earth) first postulated by James Lovelock is the belief that the world is one big, single organism, with all its part—us, the ocean, the atmosphere, the continents, everything—all compromising one whole, just as our organisms, intake, bacteria and such compromise us.
Coupled with it is the concept of Gaia’s Revenge, the notion that the Earth will react negatively through our parasitic and illness-like affect toward its; responding with devastating weather, rising temperatures, disease, and the like; as it holds on to sustain itself. As ‘hippie’ as it all sounds, it’s becoming—with some debate and controversy—an increasingly scientific theory. And whatever one thinks of it, the Gaia concept makes for a compelling point.
This organism, this planet, is officially dying. Various reports I’ve read from numerous sources (Nature, the Economist, Foreign Policy, World Policy Journal) have reached the grim conclusion that we’re only a few years away from reaching a state of unstoppable catastrophe, culminating in eventually collapse. Much of the damage is already irreversible: one report, based on data gathered regarding global warming and its effects, concluded that even if we were to do everything we could starting tomorrow, it wouldn’t repair the devastation that has been wrought. The simple days when it was only nuclear war, ozone depletion, or terrorism to fear are now long gone: now it’s all three and more, with natural forces now spun out of control by our own negligence and parasitic existence.
It will take several tens of thousands of years for sea life to recover to its previous level; it may take the same amount for land species as well. Already 75% of marine life is set to collapse within a few decades or so. For many, including several species of whales, tuna, and sharks, there is nothing we can do: stocks have declined to such a point that even if we were to leave every last one alone they’d die off from genetic deficiency (and no, cloning won’t work, even if it were possible). Overfishing isn’t even the only problem. There is enough garbage splurged in the oceans to fill up the United States, clogging up ecosystems and killing scores more life. Most in danger are coral reefs, where 25% of ocean life lives, set to disappear in about 10 years or so (along with tropical rainforests). The water’s entire chemistry has actually been altered by the amount of pollution—both air and sea borne—that has infested it, causing permanent damage that will also take about 20,000 years to set itself right (and that’s the best case scenario, assuming we act now). Most fish can no longer adapt to the sheer rapidness with which all this pollution has been wrought. Keep in mind that 75% of this planet is covered in water and that innumerable ecosystems depend on what originates from its massive pool of life. If the ocean fails, so does Earth.
If only it were our only concern. Global Warming, the quintessential global issue, has accelerated beyond all predictions. Scientists have admitted to underestimating its speed. The world is already 1 degree hotter, a very considerable amount. The proof is everywhere, including in the previously mentioned besieged oceans, which are overheating. Storms are more powerful, frequent, destructive, and bizarre than ever before: Brazil and Canada have counted their first Hurricanes in Earth’s history, occurring in waters that never used to be warm enough to spawn them. Melting ice caps are raising the sea level at an alarming rate, expected to increase 25 ft before the end of this century. For the 700 million people who currently live at sea level (along with half of all the world’s largest cities and entire countries likes Holland, Bangladesh, and those in Oceania), that means migrating into the interior, which will cause numerous social and economic tensions and place a strain on already dwindling food and water supplies, to say nothing of space.
Droughts are increasing as well, and some of the largest crop failures in history are occurring due to this as well as to changing climate and temperatures. We’re still in the midst of a continuing food crisis, in which 100 million people (mostly the poor of course) are threatened with starvation, with millions more to come. Add to the fact that fertile soil and fresh water are scarce as well, and one has the ingredients for a world-wide famine altogether. Studies have already shown that the world water supply will decline by 30% to 40%, and water may be the 21st greatest source of war, according to most analysts. And let us not forget disease: most diseases are tropical in nature and with temperatures increasing world-wide so too will the range of diseases. Malaria and Dengue, both spread by tropical mosquitoes, are slowly but surely finding victims in previously untouched areas as well; as things get hotter in this more integrated world, the chances of other diseases to follow will surely increase.
The world can no longer sustain us. Not just our actual numbers, but specifically our consumption. Many societies, and America especially, waste and over-consume more than what can be provided. Remember, most of the world is poor and has little in the way of material wealth. If we’re running low on everything now, imagine when all those billions of poor eventually join us. Sadly, our own prosperity will push us to the breaking point. But that’s assuming they even get to that point, because even as we stand we’re set to lose…a lot. Water, food, soil, land, fish, and most minerals (including iron and oil) will be depleted or rare anywhere from now to 2025. The waste we produce will no longer have anywhere to go, as land, air, and sea are utterly deteriorated.
Eventually, according to some studies, it won’t be a matter of ‘how do we stop global warming and all that’ but ‘how will we adapt and get used to it? This reveals the grim calculation that, pretty soon, we’ll be in a world of hurt that will require us to somehow adapt to a planet that may be a lot more hostile—and wholly different—then we’re used to. That’s already the case with some things (fish farming for example will have to be one of our main sources of seafood from now on). But imagine adapting to a hotter, more desolate planet?
But will we be able to? Besides the obvious effects of having no fuel or food, think of the indirect affect, i.e. how human society will be affected. Wars between nations will be fought for resources, while anarchy within nations, particularly already unstable ones, will soon take world. Criminal syndicates will attempt to exploit all this as well (as they already are, generating an estimated $1 trillion last year). Imagine smuggling water and food as a source of mafia activity? Countries with lots of fresh water (such as Russia, which has 25% of the supply, as well as Peru and Colombia) good be the next superpowers. Then there is there growth of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, especially in the poorer, more affected countries. Fear and instability are, after all, the ingredients for such tyrannies. The fear and desperation will drive us into perhaps our most terrible and anarchic state yet.
Global society cannot and will not survive in the midst of starvation, massive population transfers from the coast, pandemics, pollution, and war? What about with already existing issues like growing crime, poverty, inequality, pollution, Israel and Palestine, and terrorism? And what about this economic depression, which analysts are saying may get worse? What about the aging of the world’s population, where the average person in over four dozen countries (including all of Europe, Japan, and China) will be 50 years old by 2050, leading to a population decline and more strain on the rich world? Hell, even depression and suicide are both growing world-wide!
All these volatile problems alone are devastating and distracting enough, but together, and all at once, we’re looking at a cocktail of destruction at a literally unimaginable scale. I am reminded of a theory by an Italian scientist whose name escapes me, one that states that intelligent civilizations are destined to destroy themselves by their own development. We’ve reached a peak of civilization, conquered so many problems and diseases through technology, innovation, and social progress. And in return, as if to fulfill the pro and con duality of existence, we’re risking our own existence as species (along with the whole planet) in the process.
All this isn’t just some science-fiction, post-apocalyptic take on the future. I’m not trying to scare or alarm anyone The scenarios that I’ve listed have been postulated by a growing consensus of scientists, social analysts, and other intellectuals. These are all real possibilities, possibilities that we’re closer and closer to reaching as we accelerate our own demise. By now, we’re all desensitized to all these warnings and concerns, aren’t we? We’re used to hearing such bad news, for many of us grew up with many of these same warnings and alas we’re still here. Our own individual lives don’t experience these problems, so we fail to notice them or take them as being so bad.
We need to start thinking outside our individual lives and experiences and see the bigger picture. There is a difference here from the past warnings: we’re slowly but surely, on a global scale, seeing the effects of all this finally play out. It’s already happening and already visible if we’re willing to look at accept it. It’s strange that we all can continue to go on with our lives while the world burns and slowly collapses around us, often with little indication to our daily lives (we still see food in our markets and experience manageable weather after all).
Unity is the other key. The whole world needs to be in on this, however unlikely that may be considering that we can’t even get people within countries to get along, much less people across 192 of them. But damn it, we all have an interest here. I’m not asking for harmony, for such a thing isn’t likely nor is it necessary. Cooperation, though ideally should be by harmony, can be accomplished by mutual interest. The US may have enmity with Iran for example, and vice versa, but both countries will equally perish if things in the world get out of control. Better we survive with our enemies than that we die with them. While some extremists may not care, most of the average people in the world do, and majority is good enough if we want to get through this. I don’t think anything else can unite humanity more than the threat of global extinction
I’m holding on to hope because it’s all we have. Being nihilistic about it all will make no difference: a little cynicism never got anyone anywhere, but a little hope sometimes does: even if it’s a small chance, it’s better than no chance. Humanity is on the verge of extinction in just a few decades, but it is also on the verge of a great change. Never before have we arrived so close to destruction, true, but never have we attained such a level of technological, scientific, and social advancement. Never have had the means to stop all this, to fix and reverse it as best could.
We’re at the edge, the precipice, the borderline. In the face of it, we can collapse into the spiraling apocalyptic ruin I’ve mentioned grimly above. But we have an equal chance, in my view, to persevere and make history. For most of our history, the overwhelming majority of humanity lived short, brutal, ignorant lives. Warfare, disease, and famine were more rampant; slavery, discrimination, and fear were accepted. All these vices remain, of course, but nowhere near the way they used to. We’ve come so far, we’ve changed so much, and accomplished once deemed impossible, even unthinkable. Human history is one of progression, perhaps in the face of the same old problems true, but still progress somewhere. Whatever you think of it, humanity has immense capacity. Our only major weakness as a species is our own ironic sense of misanthropy, which belittles the awareness, hope, will, and unity needed to get through this existential threat.