My first goal would be to reduce the perturbation in the carbon cycle. That would mean using carbon neutral sources of energy, and changing our agricultural practices to be less disruptive and polluting. I'm not talking about a policy here so much as changing the way our infrastructure works. That's why I'm so fascinated with changing the way we build cities, because they are the most developed forms of physical infrastructure for human habitation.
I think it's the process of demystification, and realizing that we are not talking about some supernatural nightmare - we're talking about a natural process that the planet has gone through before, and which animals have survived before.
I don't know if most people have truly taken on board what this says about our place in the natural world. It doesn't mean that humans are dominating the Earth, ruling over all of nature. In fact, it is a reminder that we are only a tiny part of nature, at the mercy of a system whose operations predate us by billions of years, and will continue billions of years after we're gone.
Cities should function more like ecosystems, or even metabolisms. When we build, we should be thinking about how we can integrate into the ecosystems around us, but without sacrificing all the niceties of civilization like good restaurants, concert halls, and high-speed Internet access. I'm saying that partly tongue-in-cheek, but I'm also deadly serious. The future of technology is sustainable ecology.
I think that humans are also set up to survive. We're not as small as rats, but we make up for that by being intelligent enough to make our own hiding places and to adapt to new habitats, even if they are changing very quickly. We have an enormous population, and can afford to lose billions of people without suffering very much as a species. Indeed, some would say losing five billion people would be good for the planet - I disagree with them, but can't deny that we would do just fine if there were two billion of us... Read more »
Sometimes it's hard to take everyday concerns seriously when you think about vanished ecosystems that existed 300 million years ago and were eradicated by giant explosions. My goals haven't changed, because my goal has always been to save the world!
We are headed to a radically new Earth, at least from our perspective. But from the planet's perspective, this is nothing new. As the geologist Peter Ward is fond of pointing out, we are actually heading back to a time kind of like the Miocene. The Miocene ended about 5.5 million years ago, and it was the last time that the planet had no icecaps.
It's only been in the past two generations that we truly understood the impact our civilization has had on the natural world. To our credit as a species, we have turned this obscure scientific fact about carbon cycles into one of the most important political issues of the 21st century.
I think small animals can escape from many kinds of natural disaster more easily. There are just more places for them to hide, and more ways for them to find safe habitats. So this means that rats are set up to rule the Earth, but most of us already knew that. Now you know why.
Survivor species tend to have huge populations, so they can afford to lose many individuals and still survive as a species. They also tend to be small. If you're small, you need less food - which is great in a situation where famine is everywhere.
think we're still stuck in that agricultural mindset, where we imagine that we can shape the Earth. Sure, we can do that. But the Earth has the power to shape us much more powerfully. To survive climate change, we'll have to realize how dependent we are on our ecosystems for our own survival.
The fact that we have been able to perturb the carbon cycle with our industrial revolution is evidence of how vulnerable we are - because when we destroy our environments, we destroy our food and energy supplies. In short, we destroy ourselves.
Amphibians are dying out like crazy, and frogs and salamanders may be largely extinct by the end of the twenty-first century. Imagine an animal that begins its life in the water, but ends it on land - already, that's pretty weird. But, also, a lot of them are incredibly tiny and look wildly improbable. They have funny little toes, they stretch their throats into weird bubble shapes when they croak, and some of them are poisonous to the touch. I think kids from the twenty-second century might mythologize amphibians the way kids today mythologize dinosaurs.
GMO agriculture will probably save the world in this century. But in the developed world, where few people are haunted by the specter of famine, people are free to fetishize heirloom tomatoes and worry about the provenance of what sits on their dinner tables.
I try to be realistic and pragmatic. I have a lot of hope for humanity as a species, but obviously as individuals we can be extremely flawed. We may have to go through some very terrible times in the near future, even if we ultimately survive as Homo sapiens.
With enough money and international coordination, we can push incoming asteroids out of Earth's path. We might even be able to bring back extinct animals in the lab. The problem really isn't scientific - it's cultural. We aren't yet able to coordinate ourselves as a global civilization to do something simple like bring food to a famine-stricken region. We can actually use current satellite technologies to predict where famine will strike next, but we can't get food there - usually for political reasons.
In terms of fiction, there are a number of writers who are thinking about the future of the environment whose work complements mine. Kim Stanley Robinson's novel 2312 is a great example, as is Tobias Buckell's novel Arctic Rising.
If we return abruptly to a Miocene-like climate, it's reasonable to think that we would experience a lot of extinctions, and maybe even a mass extinction in the long term. Would the life on Earth be radically different? Of course we can't say for sure, but I think a lot of it would look familiar. Like a lot of people, I worry a lot about whether marine mammals would survive, especially whales. Ocean acidification is one of the major killers in climate change events, and that makes the ocean a very inhospitable place.
Humans are a great survivor species but our survival will be pretty grim if all of the plants and animals we depend on die out. That's why any human survival strategy has to include a plan to maintain our environment roughly in the state that it's in now.
Some time ago we discovered the carbon cycle - a long-term set of chemical reactions that govern climates based on how much carbon is free in the atmosphere. At that point, it became clear that humans were affecting our environments far more profoundly than we realized. By releasing so much carbon and greenhouse gas into the environment, we're making long-term changes to every aspect of the natural world.
I disagree that we need to contemplate eliminating ourselves in order to move forward. Sure, I think a good dystopian story can serve to steer us on the right path toward a better world. But we also need stories that offer solutions to our problems that are realistic, and workable today.
Using virtual world, a scientist in Japan can conduct an experiment using a special facility in California, watching the entire thing via a live stream - and possibly controlling the experimental equipment remotely. We can use that same kind of technology to control a robot on Mars.
There are plenty of publicly-funded organizations and nonprofits that are trying to develop GMO crops that could help feed people in developing nations by producing disease-resistant or drought-resistant strains of staple crops like cassava or bananas.
In fact, the early demographer Thomas Malthus believes that the only way the human population would ever check itself was by running headlong into a disaster, like a pandemic or famine. Sometimes we get so frustrated with the slowness of human political processes that we wish a giant flaming rock would solve the problem for us.
A lot of environmental and biological science depends on technology to progress. Partly I'm talking about massive server farms that help people crunch genetic data - or atmospheric data. But I also mean the scientific collaborations that the Internet makes possible, where scientists in India and Africa can work with people in Europe and the Americas to come up with solutions to what are, after all, global problems.
Even though I now know that it's likely the Earth will suffer through mega-volcanoes or meteor strikes that could take out millions or billions of people, I feel less anxious about it because I actually understand what the threats are. There's nothing like researching something exhaustively to make it less terrifying.
The fact is that humans have been shaping the genetics of what they eat for thousands of years. Genetic engineering simply speeds up the process that used to take generations. Preventing people from getting things like golden rice or disease-resistant cassava destroys human life, and does not spare the environment in any way.