What To Do When You Are Engulfed in Flames

I think it’s safe to say that the planet has been in a bit of a slump for the past four million years. For those of you keeping up with current events, that’s roughly how long humans — or our earliest recognizable ancestors — showed up on the scene. If you choose to interpret things Biblically, that’s fine, just have your pastor read it aloud and add, “That’s God’s truth” or “Donald Trump said it” at the end of the statement to contort it to your worldview. For the grown-ups, as many scientists have noted, species go extinct due to natural causes all the time. What no one mentions is that rate has gone up a thousand-fold (according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica)(also, I think that’s E.O. Wilson’s estimate) since our pestilential species wandered out of the forests and onto the unsuspecting plains.

Although there are details I’m leaving out, it’s not a massive stretch to say that the general history of humans is that we arrive someplace new, bulldoze the habitat and then leave when the ecological going gets tough. I’m leaving out genocide, slavery, warfare, and all the other horrible things humans directly do to each other, because this story actually isn’t about us. It’s about the only home our species has ever known.

Let’s just say that you were a smoker. Let’s say you fell asleep one night with a lit cigarette, suffered severe burns, and burned down your home. After settling with insurance and finding temporary housing, would you, A. buy better insurance, B. quit smoking (or at least cut back), C. switch to vaping, or, D. smoke more, because, if you’re burning down houses accidentally, you might as well get your moneys’-worth before your insurance company discontinues coverage? If you’re human, you go with D. This might seem like a straw-man argument, or a reductio ad absurdum fallacy, but that is, historically, how we’ve approached catastrophic climate change. We’ve known about it since 1882, when it was initially reported on by Nature (Dec. 7, 1882; p 127), there’s a column from 1912 that’s making the rounds on the Internet that predicted climate change. I first learned about global warming in 1990-ish (or the last time I was at the Lawrence Hall of Science; my memory before age six is a little muddled)(however, that ‘You’ll burn alive” type of threat tends to stick in one’s psyche, as religions have noticed). How did we respond? We made it cheaper to buy an SUV (to the point where the Ford F150 is the best-selling car in the world). If I wanted to change my hypothetical unrepentant smoker to more accurately portray humanity as a whole, I’d have to work in an option where they become a professional arsonist.

Forbes is already exhibiting the same moronic what-about-ism that we usually reserve for school shootings by disputing the claim that the burning Amazon (and other forests) are “the lungs of the world.” Basically, they’re claiming that the ability of the rainforest to absorb CO2 is, from a global basis, negligible. Relax, cigarettes aren’t that bad for you. Fine. Let’s assume that an irreplaceable, ancient ecosystem containing (according to one archaeology book I’ve skimmed) archaeological evidence for dozens — if not hundreds — of prehistoric tribes and civilizations, isn’t terribly relevant to global warming. What about the enormous amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning it? Are the talking heads going to suck that in and make it ecologically friendly? This is like the Waltons talking about how unions are a thing of the past, or the NRA telling us all to stop freaking out about little kids being shot — when the people with a vested interest in the status quo tell you to cool down, they’re worried that you’re going to do something rash, like vote climate change denying politicians out of office, or demand legislative action on the issue. How about this one? We take a few billion dollars out of the DoD budget (which is now over a trillion dollars), and give it to Halliburton to put out those fires? This isn’t some sort of pipe-dream; Halliburton rose to prominence in the first Gulf War by handling oilfield fires in Kuwait. I’d imagine that putting out fires that aren’t literally being doused with oil would be a cakewalk for them. And — this is just a delightful bonus — we might slow global warming down.

Just like gun control in the US, this is a case where a major catastrophe is being enabled and supported by a tiny fraction of the populace who somehow thinks that they will survive Waterworld eating their bales of money and/or precious minerals. Speaking of which, my favorite response to this ongoing disaster was Twitter pointing out that G7 offering $20 million to make the fires go away was a laughable amount, given that the budget for Waterworld was almost $200 million.

What we shouldn’t be doing right now, is sitting back and debating semantics and minor points of the discourse. Care for another cigarette?

“In 2100, the natural world is suffering terribly. The frontier forests are largely gone — no more Amazon or Congo or New Guinea wildernesses — and with them most of the biodiversity hotspots. Coral reefs, rivers, and other aquatic habitats have deteriorated badly. Gone with these richest of ecosystems are half or more of Earth’s plant and animal species. Only a few fragments of wild habitats persist as relics here and there, guarded by governments and private owners rich and wise enough to have held them fast as the human tidal wave washed over the planet.
Like human genetic diversity, the fragmentary biodiversity that survived to 2100 has also become much more geographically simplified. The cosmopolitan flow of alien organisms has flooded each fauna and flora with immigrants from multiple other faunas and floras. To travel around the world along any chosen latitude is to encounter mostly the same small set of introduced birds, mammals, insects, and microbes. These favored aliens compose the small army of companions that travel best in our globalized commercial transport and thrive in the simplified habitats we have created. An aging and wiser human population undestands very well — too late now — that Earth is a much poorer place than it was back in 2000, and will stay that way forever.
Such is likely to be the world of 2100 — if present trends continue. The most memorable heritage of the 21st century will be the Age of Loneliness that lies before humanity. The testament we will have left in launching it might read as follows:
We bequeath to you the synthetic jungles of Hawaii and a scrubland where once thrived the prodigious Amazon forest, along with some remnants of wild environments here and there we chose not to lay waste. Your challenge is to create new kinds of plants and animals by genetic engineering and somehow fit them together into free-living artificial ecosystems. We understand that this feat may prove impossible. We are certain that for many of you even the thought of doing so will be repugnant. We wish you luck. And if you go ahead and succeed in the attempt, we regret that what you manufacture can never be as satisfying as the original creation. Accept our apologies and this audiovisual library that illustrates the wondrous world that used to be.” — Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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