It is often said that the real beginning of the process now known as "anthropogenic climate change" was the Industrial Revolution. No longer were things done by human sweat and draft animals. Machines did the dirty work. And boy was it dirty.
Burning the decomposed remains of prehistoric animals and plants in the form of coal, petroleum and natural gas, we pumped out so much global-warming carbon dioxide that the planet's natural carbon cycle couldn't absorb it all. But back then, no one knew. Steam engines and internal combustion engines created the modern world -- and it was wonderful. Or was it?
With all that creation came the rather rapid destruction of the Earth's terrestrial environment and its atmosphere, making life difficult -- and in many cases, impossible -- for countless species whose habitats were destroyed by the advancement of the industrialized human civilization. And by increasing the planet's surface temperature through the emission of greenhouse gases, we have endangered our own habitat.
But there is "one firm forecast that's important," as cosmologist and Royal Society president Martin Rees wrote in a 2009 article in The Guardian : "A widening gulf between what science enables us to do, and what applications it's prudent or ethical to pursue."
And there you have it, the crux of the modern human condition. Just because we can doesn't mean we should .
"Our sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out," Rees writes. "Any creatures who witness the sun's demise, here on Earth or far beyond, won't be human. They will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug. But even in this 'concertinaed' timeline -- extending millions of centuries into the future, as well as into the past -- this century is special. It's the first in our planet's history where one species -- ours -- has Earth's future in its hands, and could jeopardise not only itself, but life's immense potential."
Indeed, we are the first species to have changed the Earth's environment and atmosphere. That is no small feat. And as a result, the 21st century will likely see a tipping point, a culmination of centuries of human civilization. Without enough food to feed the human population, with rainforests cut down to make room for livestock, with higher surface temperatures and a rising sea from melting glaciers and polar ice caps, it is going to go from bad to worse in a very short period of time.
A 1999 Cornell University study found that without "democratically determined population-control practices and sound resource-management policies...12 billion miserable humans will suffer a difficult life on Earth by the year 2100."
Most of us won't be around for that. But make no mistake -- the decisions that we make today will most certainly affect those who will.