Monday, August 29, 2016

Lord Martin Says the Anthropocene Doesn't Have to Be All Bad

He's one of the best scientific minds Britain has produced in the postwar era. Lord Martin Rees (Baron Rees of Ludlow to the likes of you) has been Britain's Astronomer Royal for the past 20 years, former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and past President of the Royal Society. In other words, he's got a lot of cred.

Responding to the announcement that Earth has now entered a new geological epoch, the man-made Anthropocene, Rees has penned a commentary in The Guardian. His message is that all is not lost but it's our choice.

Should we be optimistic or anxious? It’s surprising how little we can confidently predict – indeed, we can’t predict as far ahead as our forebears could. Our medieval ancestors thought the Earth was only a few thousand years old, and might only last another thousand. But they didn’t expect their children’s lives to be very different from theirs. They built cathedrals that wouldn’t be finished in their lifetime.

...Our time horizons, both past and future, now stretch billions of years, not just thousands. The sun will keep shining for about another 6bn years. But ironically we can’t forecast terrestrial trends with as much confidence as our ancestors could. Their lives and environment changed slowly from generation to generation. For us, technological change is so fast that scenarios quickly enter the realm of wild conjecture and science fiction.

...The darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere. Darwinian selection would resume, perhaps leading, in some far-future geological era, to the re-emergence of intelligent beings. If this happens, or if there are aliens out there who actually visit and study the Earth, then, digging through the geological record (and applying archaeological techniques as well) they would uncover traces of a distinctive transient epoch, and ponder the all-too-brief flourishing of a species that failed in its stewardship of “spaceship Earth”.

But there is an optimistic option.

Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us. The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch would then mark a one-off transformation from a natural world to one where humans jumpstart the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities, that transcend our limitations and eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth.

Even in a cosmic time-perspective, therefore, the 21st century is special. It marks our collective realisation that the Anthropocene has begun – and it’s a century when human actions will determine how long that epoch lasts.

So, what does all that mean? To me, he's saying, "no more drunk driving." We have to sober up, realize we alone are at the wheel, and start figuring out where we're going and how we'll get there. It's the Anthropocene. We made it. On a geological time scale we made it in the briefest of instants. That doesn't matter now. We're here. It's ours while it lasts and we get to decide how long what we have created will last or how quickly it will end.

The modes of organization that got us here have lost most of their utility and threaten our continuation. These modes - social, economic, geopolitical, industrial, environmental, the lot - need a major overhaul to reflect this new reality. We can't afford the "game of chance" mentality of the past. That's the worst bet of all.


Lorne said...

I read an article on Truthout today, Mound, that suggested there is indeed hope for the future, largely though technology ( I have to confess I am unconvinced, as i am with the guardedly optimistic outlook of Lord Martin. Too much seems to revolve around an ability to practise a form of enlightened self-interest. Given the atomized nature of the world today, I am very dubious of such possibilities.

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the link, Lorne. I read the article and it sounds much like several others in recent years. Each time I'm left wondering where are the major sponsors that should be flocking to get behind these technologies for many, many reasons? Where are they? If they're not turning up, why not?

It does sound like a fairy tale.

What also troubles me is the idea that we can "reset" human civilization by lowering atmospheric CO2 loading. That will help but will it address our other existential challenges such as overpopulation and overconsumption? It's difficult to imagine how which brings me back to the idea of focusing on putting out the kitchen fire while the rest of the house succumbs to the fire.

It strikes me that with a huge dollar initiative such as this fellow proposes, you had better be able to solve all the existential challenges before you'll have much chance of governmental support.

Just imagine governments wrangling over how much of this multi-trillion dollar tab each should absorb? Then imagine these same governments fighting over the tab while their nations or regions are destabilized by the impacts of overpopulation and overconsumption.

Anonymous said...

Managing without money, where people are not to live beyond their means. How does one get around that? By charging people who take more from our living earth than they are entitled?

Troy said...

My own people have a belief. An old one, hardly spoken anymore, except by the elders.
We currently live in the age of animals. But eventually, they would disappear. And we humans would be alone on this earth, and it'd be the age of humans. We'd have to relearn entirely how to live on this world, and without animals to guide us, we'd be in for a difficult time.
It's basically a core belief which was probably the foundation of our belief in how we needed to be caretakers of this earth, because we have such great power, we could cause grave unintended consequences.
This blog post, and a recent news report how over 300 reindeer were killed by a lightning strike made me think of that old belief.

Anonymous said...

"The modes of organization that got us here have lost most of their utility and threaten our continuation. These modes - social, economic, geopolitical, industrial, environmental, the lot - need a major overhaul to reflect this new reality. We can't afford the "game of chance" mentality of the past. That's the worst bet of all."
i don't see in any way
the bulk of humanity can get on side ....ever
the percentage of sociopaths and psychopaths
or the stampeded lower IQs'
those with their back to the wall
all have a chance of being the apple that spoils the barrel
you have better odds of divine or alien intervention
than the hope of humanity with its limited mental capacities
getting us out of this
with minimal damage

Anonymous said...

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

This attitude has been ingrained in us for 2000 years.
We have been programmed with such thoughts, believer or none believer.
The Abrahamic faiths also have and end times vision of the world; not very reassuring.


The Mound of Sound said...

@ Troy - thanks for that insight. Is there any way you can explore, document that tribal belief about an age when man lives without animals? It's more than intriguing and, while it's vital to preserve it, beliefs like this deserve to be rehabilitated, disseminated. The Judaic/Christian tradition resurrects many accounts told in far earlier religions, adopting that lore as their own gospel. By contrast the beliefs you reference have not been shared, whittled, shaped and polished by a series of successive interests but have a degree of continuity to them. These must not be lost.