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To echo A. J. Toynbee, civilizations fall not by getting murdered by outsiders: they tend to commit suicide first. Judging by our example, so do advanced species. The good news: earthlings need not dread the shocker of meteor collisions, volcanic eruptions, outer space invaders (talk about illegals!), or pernicious, end of times Raptures. Final Judgment looks more like an epilogue than cause for concern.
Ecocide, the ruination of our ecosystems, is wounding us grievously, the upshot of political and corporate mismanagement, overpopulation, climate dislocation, and collective choices – done with a shocking disregard for how fragile, and exceptional, life is. Life, at its core defined by sustainability, is the extreme exception in a cosmos of rocks and gases and dark energy.
Too bad if we exit before the aliens show up, for they’d be fun compared to collisions or eruptions. What remote species would target an overheated planet, anyway? Forget “too big to fail” or “failed states” – what about a failing species that shoots itself in its habitat, bleeds copiously, and naively waits for “relief wells.” What happens to a species clever enough to despoil its life supports but too stupid to realize avoiding calamity is the real order of the day?
The Oil Spill, and Joke’s On Us
Worst of all, for this holier-than-thou, nature-abusing culture, every oil spill singles out one culprit: avaricious, over-reaching mankind, plagued by the insupportable presumption we know what we are doing. Beyond immediate damage, this spill unearths the underlying outrage: an entire industry ambushed by an inevitable, predictable outcome. Simple recipe: allow deregulation, use defective materials, never fund robust clean-up techniques, and bingo: one debacle a generation spaced far enough apart to be forgotten by the next. Very like nuclear leaks, airplane crashes, mining collapses, and the panoply of human “accidents.”
Nor can anyone complain, “we weren’t warned,” as scientists by the boatload squawk about rising temperatures, ocean levels, carbon cycles, altogether threatening fisheries, shorelines and clean water. Scars visible from space – from strip mining, clear-cutting, tropical deforestation and oil spills – reveal more about our behavior than press conferences spewing forth misinformation. True, we’ve improved some air quality (while acidifying the oceans) and restored some lakes and rivers (no longer flammable but hardly drinkable).
That result, in great part, reflects exporting pollution: outsourcing displaces not just jobs but the impacts from dirty manufacturing, smelting and mining. It’s one globe, stupid. Take farming lowly shrimp, now Asian grown in ways so drastically unsustainable polluters simply poison one pristine site, then move down the coast, saving millions on mitigation. Less Gulf shrimping means more damage to Asian coastlines, and I predict shrimp will become, like whales, marker species of planetary health.
Drilling: Gambling with Life
We use lotteries to fund education, so why not high-risk gambling to fill our gas tanks? No fundamentalist terrorism, here or abroad, can yet match the havoc from the Bush-Cheney conspiracy with criminal drillers. Ecocide breaks all budgets, impacting billions of living creatures, probably permanently.
Notably, the growing Gulf tar pit is not the exception to the rule, but the rule, only one of hundreds of oil spills annually. Our top government guy calls spreading oil “the enemy,” likewise one newscast forecast a “war against oil” invasions. Yet, this is no war (though it drives others) but planet and life abuse, and we stand no chance against nature, finding its own equilibrium oblivious to us.
I agree: the irony is getting as thick as tar. One high-risk wildcatter hit a gusher, hooray! Except, instead of collection for fuel, gross dereliction turns positives into massive negatives. Double irony: leaving BP in charge of clean-up is like passing live grenades to errant toddlers. Note, how BP’s infantile terms fit futile fixes: top hat, hot tap, top kill, and junk shot. Why not razzle-dazzle, hell’s bells and topsy-turvy?
More Homer Simpson Than Spock
Increasingly, our species is betrayed by our own rationality, as we fabricate disruptive machinery but employ them with such disregard for consequences we defy the logic of their creation. Certainly, we underestimate the penalties for dishonoring the immutable laws of physics and chemistry, which, ironically every year, are ever more precisely depicted by top scientists.
Buffeted by Tea Parties, are we shocked at Duke University research from Dan Arialy: human decision-making (the conscious stuff) favors not “hyper-rational Mr. Spock” but the “fallible, myopic, vindictive, emotional, biased Homer Simpson”? Apparently, species “top kill” starts from underneath our top hat; our hot brain taps are full of junk shots, repulsed by planning, to a greater degree (more irony) as the potential for damage rises (warming, germ warfare, nukes).
Does human irrationality, plus adoration of comfort, not explain why our president shuns the best collective summons against against tragedy? I refer to today’s great taboo: conservation, using less energy, the cheapest, easiest, most universal option. Sacrifice itself would define community, offering redemption to impossible losses, ecosystem, wildlife, or livelihood. Irreplaceable loss calls for grieving, not faux reassurances and more denial. When does this president address consumption, the demand (and pricing) that drives our mad quest to punch holes in the earth’s skin and, then, like children, hope against hope for the best. Like suffering only a few oil spills, not too large, once in a while.
But now we have the worst and, if it takes years to stop the gushing, this dazzling omission mutely judges any assumption elected leaders know how to lead. We have slavish presidents, whether unclever ones like W., or well informed ones like Obama, who look upon threats wholly through political prisms, to be endured without confronting real causes.
What, Us Worry?
Of course, it’s not just Americans who barge ahead, willy-nilly, addicted to new inventions but not fail-safes or scientific red lights. Can we survive if we already threaten planetary health after only 500 years of industrialism, a whisker of time? Measured by population and dominance of the earth, human numbers are breathtaking, yet beware this difference: “lower” animals overpopulate, run out of food or spread disease, and 90% die off. Or go extinct (like 99% of those species once alive), yet their earthly tenure did not deny the earth freedom to liberate the next experiment, like us.
Like any trainwreck, oil spills make good TV because destruction comes so fast, a painful contrast to the millions of years oil takes in the making. Not with a bang, but incremental whimpers, we are going where no species has gone before: making our planet unlivable for complex beings for an indeterminant duration. For how long can we bet our lives, and our species, on the dubious proposition a future genius will save us from ourselves, or resolve the audacity of growth. These days, state lotteries look like a better gamble: someone on earth at least takes home the prize.