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Planet Eaters

By Andrew Glikson and Emily Spence  Posted by Emily Spence (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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"Dear Caesar
Keep Burning, raping, killing
But please, please
Spare us your obscene poetry
And ugly music "

From Seneca's last letter to Nero


According to Albert Speer, German physicists, apprising Hitler of the possible development of an atom bomb in the spring of 1942, noted a reservation by Werner Heisenberg about a potential conflagration of the atmosphere: "Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule might be transformed into a glowing star." The same awesome possibility, fusion of atmospheric nitrogen and oceanic hydrogen, turning the planet into a chain-reacting bomb, was considered a few months later by Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, Hans Bethe and other physicists. New calculations indicated atmospheric conflagration was unlikely. The trinity nuclear test in the New Mexico desert went ahead.

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A critical parameter in Drake's Equation, which seeks to estimate the number of planets that host civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, is L - the longevity of technological societies measured from the time radio telescopes are invented in an attempt to communicate with other planets. Estimates of L range between a minimum of 70 years and 10,000 years, but even for the more optimistic longevity scenario, only 2.31 such planets would exist in the galaxy at the present time.

It is another question whether an intelligent species exists in this, or any other galaxy, which has brought about a mass extinction of species on the scale initiated by Homo sapiens since the mid-18th century.

The history of Earth includes five major mass extinctions which define the ends of several periods, including the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Each of these events has been triggered by extraterrestrial impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or methane release and related greenhouse events. Yet, with the exception of the role of methanogenic bacteria in relation to methane eruptions in the past, the Sixth mass extinction is a novelty: For the first time in its history, the biosphere is in crisis through biological forcing by an advanced form of life, namely the activity of a technological carbon-emitting species.

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The sharp glacial-interglacial oscillations of the Pleistocene (1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago), with rapid mean global temperature changes by up to 5 degrees Celsius over short periods of centuries and, in some instances, a few years (cf. Steffensen et al., Science Express, 19 June, 2008), culminated in an extreme adaptability of Homo. Of all the life forms on Earth, only this genus mastered fire, proceeding to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum, split the atom and travel to other planets-cultural change overtaking biological change.

Possessed by a conscious fear of death, craving God-like immortality and omniscience, Homo developed the absurd faculty to simultaneously create and destroy, culminating with the demise of the atmospheric conditions that allowed its flourishing in the first place. The biological root factors which underlie the transformation of tribal warriors into button-pushing automatons capable of triggering global warming or a nuclear winter remain inexplicable.

Inherent in the enigma are little-understood top-to-base mechanisms, explored among others by George Ellis, who states: "although the laws of physics explain much of the world around us, we still do not have a realistic description of causality in truly complex hierarchical structures." ("Physics, complexity and causality", Nature, 435: 743, June 2005):

Sixty-five million years ago, huge asteroids hit the Earth, extinguishing the dinosaurs and vacating habitats for the flourishing of mammals. Fifty-five million years ago, in the wake of a rise of atmospheric CO2 to levels near-1000 parts per million, the monkeys made appearance. Thirty-four million years ago, weathering of the rising Himalayan and Alpine ranges sequestered CO2, Earth began to cool, ice sheets formed and conditions on land became suitable for large, warm blooded mammals.

Three million years ago, in the mid-Pliocene, when temperatures rose by 2- 3o C and sea levels by 25+/-12 metres, accentuation of climate oscillations were followed by the appearance of Homo erectus. The mastering of fire and, later, stabilization of the climate between about 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, saw the Neolithic and urban civilization take hold. Processes during this period, termed the Anthropocoene (cf. Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill, Ambio, 36, 614-621, 2007), led to deforestation and the demise of an estimated twenty thousand to two million species during the 20th century, ever increasing carbon pollution, acidification of the hydrosphere and radioactive contamination.

Acting as the lungs of the biosphere, the Earth's atmosphere developed an oxygen-rich carbon-constrained composition over hundreds of millions of years, allowing emergence of breathing animals. Planetcide results from the anthropogenic release into the atmosphere to date of more than 300 Gigatons of carbon (GtC), the product of ancient biospheres stored by plants and animals, threatening to return Earth to conditions which preceded the emergence of large mammals on land.

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Planetcide emerged from around pre-historic camp fires, from deep recesses of the mind, the imagination of individuals trying to survive adversity. Atavistic fear of death leads to a yearning for god-like immortality. Once the Holocene climate stabilized and excess food was produced, fear and its counterpart, aggression, grew out of control, generating pyramids dedicated to the idea of infinite immorality and sweeping murderous orgies, called "war", designed to conquer death and appease the Gods.

War is a synonym for ritual sacrifice of the young. From infanticide by rival warlord baboons to the butchering of young children on Aztec altars to the generational sacrifice of WWI, youths follow leaders blindly to the death, women condemn defeated gladiators, fundamental priests promote ignorance, misery and crusades, breeding grounds for believers. Hijacking the image of Christ, a messenger of justice and peace, they promote a self-fulfilling Armageddon: "Hallelujah the rupture is coming," while other see their future on space ships and barren planets.

With estimated profitable carbon reserves in excess of 5000 GtC, further emissions could take the atmosphere out of the ice ages back to Mesozoic-like greenhouse conditions, a state during which large parts of the continents were inundated by the sea. Most likely to survive would be the grasses, insects and birds, descendants of the fated dinosaurs. A new evolutionary cycle would commence. Homo sapiens will survive. Their endurance through the extreme climate upheavals of the glacial-interglacial periods has equipped humans to withstand the most challenging conditions.

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Emily Spence is a progressive living in MA. She has spent many years involved with assorted types of human rights, environmental and social service efforts.

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