Hubris of this sort is, however, only one of the ways in which we invite the planet's ire. Far more dangerous and provocative is our poisoning of the atmosphere with the residues of our resource consumption, especially of fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, total carbon emissions from all forms of energy use had already hit 21.2 billion metric tons by 1990 and are projected to rise ominously to 42.4 billion by 2035, a 100% increase in less than half a century. The more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we dump into the atmosphere, the more we alter the planet's natural climatic systems and damage other vital ecological assets, including oceans, forests, and glaciers. These are all components of the planet's integral makeup, and when damaged in this way, they will trigger defensive feedback mechanisms : rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, and increased sea levels, among other reactions.
The notion of the Earth as a complex natural system with multiple feedback loops was first proposed by environmental scientist James Lovelock in the 1960s and propounded in his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. (Lovelock appropriated the name of the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, the personification of Mother Earth, for his version of our planet.) In this and other works, Lovelock and his collaborators argue that all biological organisms and their inorganic surroundings on the planet are closely integrated to form a complex and self-regulating system, maintaining the necessary conditions for life -- a concept they termed "the Gaia Hypothesis." When any parts of this system are damaged or altered, they contend, the others respond by attempting to repair, or compensate for, the damage in order to restore the essential balance.
Think of our own bodies when attacked by virulent microorganisms: our temperature rises; we produce more white blood cells and other fluids, sleep a lot, and deploy other defense mechanisms. When successful, our bodies' defenses first neutralize and eventually exterminate the invading germs. This is not a conscious act, but a natural, life-saving process.
Eaarth is now responding to humanity's depredations in a similar way: by warming the atmosphere, taking carbon from the air and depositing it in the ocean, increasing rainfall in some areas and decreasing it elsewhere, and in other ways compensating for the massive atmospheric infusion of harmful human emissions.
But what Eaarth does to protect itself from human intervention is unlikely to prove beneficial for human societies. As the planet warms and glaciers melt, sea levels will rise, inundating coastal areas, destroying cities, and flooding low-lying croplands. Drought will become endemic in many once-productive farming areas, reducing food supplies for hundreds of millions of people. Many plant and animal species that are key to human livelihoods, including various species of trees, food crops, and fish, will prove incapable of adjusting to these climate changes and so cease to exist. Humans may -- and again I emphasize that may -- prove more successful at adapting to the crisis of global warming than such species, but in the process, multitudes are likely to die of starvation, disease, and attendant warfare.
Bill McKibben is right: we no longer live on the "cozy, taken-for-granted" planet formerly known as Earth. We inhabit a new place, already changed dramatically by the intervention of humankind. But we are not acting upon a passive, impotent entity unable to defend itself against human transgression. Sad to say, we will learn to our dismay of the immense powers available to Eaarth, the Avenger.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil , is available from the Media Education Foundation.
Copyright 2011 Michael T. Klare