Climate and the destiny of the species, part 2
Creationists come up with many arguments in support of their religious beliefs, most silly, but a few quite clever. For example of the latter: How come there are so few transitional fossils — aka missing links — in the evolutionary record? If stuff becomes more disordered over time as the scientists’ laws of entropy say, how could multicellular life evolve since that involves the reverse?
And: if intelligence is such a positive reproductive/evolutionary trait, as evidenced by our own explosive growth to over seven billion individuals in a geologic blink of the eye…
Why hasn’t intelligence evolved before?
This is a very good question that just might have a very unexpected answer.
(warning: lots and lots of words in this post. Crossposted from Wordpress.)
It’s become a station of the Cross by now for every article about climate change to include, if not focus on, a standard plea for someone to do something about all this. “If we don’t demand radical change,” activist and author Naomi Klein said, “we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists,” quotes a typical piece.
This is intentional. “Reminder that climate defeatism — arguing that we are already so screwed that there’s no real point in acting to limit climate emissions or ecological damage — is absolutely a form of denialism,” intones another expert. That is to say, if you are a liberal journalist or politician or scientist not constantly pushing for changes such as carbon restriction and the like, you may as well be a lobbyist for the coal industry.
Which is partly why readers absolutely lapped up David Wallace-Wells’ famous “The Uninhabitable Earth” piece from 2017, which dispensed with the usual “somebody do something” message and went straight to the point of what our future may bring. Despite becoming NY Mag’s most-viewed article ever, other liberal journos were aghast. “Feeling hopeless about a situation is cognitively associated with inaction,” lectured the Guardian. “The narratives we read, hear and see informs how we understand climate change, and that understanding dictates whether we act or don’t.” Vox has a helpful explainer on how to always turn climate conversations back on the need for “action,” as if common people like you or I or even a coastal elitist journo could change the tide of inevitability any more than King Canute.
Of course, if in the liberal media, the only proper climate story is the “somebody do something” story, to even admit to climate change in the conservative media is heresy almost as blasphemous as mild criticism of Donald Trump.
This is a shame, because there is a real need for hard, practical advice and info on how to navigate our changing earth. Not the usual preaching. Not the urgent pleading to switch to a Prius and stop eating cheeseburgers to save the earth. Not the “why do you distract yourself with that when we could be discussing mulching right now” explainer. And of course, not the “lol it’s all fake news” rubbish from a FoxNews primetime host.
I’m talking about the market for pieces such as: “Should I land a 30-year mortgage in Miami or will I literally go underwater?” “Enough with the preaching. Here are your cooling options in Los Angeles ten years from now.” “We know what’s doomed. So what parts of the country or world are best suited to weather the next century?” “Is there any prepping my Texas family can do now for the next mega-storm, and if so, what?”
Which is why the first piece of this series was admittedly wild. I skipped straight past the “let’s recycle and put in a carbon tax” denialism and went straight to the domed cities as humanity’s final outposts. The reason was simple. There is no stopping this. Perhaps we can slow it down a bit here and there, but ultimately, our fate has already been sealed.
pictured: me, I guess.
Not right away! Don’t rush out to your survivalist bunker quite yet. This process will most likely take centuries from now to complete. But we are, as the biologists would put it poetically, a dead clade walking. Part 3 of this series will go into why.
But first, let’s take a trip with the last of a fictional species experiencing something like what may be our own endgame. Fortunately for her, she does not know that she is the last. And hers is a story of hope.
Her name is Bhatana. She is sitting in the wreckage of her survival shelter, with only a portable oxygen tank and mask keeping her alive. She is the sole survivor; her husband’s head lay on her lap.
If Bhatana had allowed her mind to entertain that she was, at that moment, indeed the final member of her kind, an endling, she perhaps would have realized it. It was her final blessing that her mental discipline forbade it.
She caressed her partner’s lifeless body. She imagined his breaths merging with hers in her rebreather mask as she stroked the same scaly cheeks she had for decades. He was gone now; his fixed and motionless gaze registering nothing. But he was still hers. She murmured pleasant, meaningless words, words that he would not have heard even if he were alive through the mask.
It had happened so suddenly. So randomly. The storm, if she had ranked it, would not have even measured in the top 20 of recent memory. But somehow, the westward strut of the shelter, the great dome that had housed roughly a hundred of her people, had randomly buckled, then broke, through the face of the windstorm, sending a great slab of structure directly onto the hatchery. Now, as Bhatana’s oxygen cylinder began to run low, she reflected how that was a blessing.
All along, Bhatana and her people had focused on the plastic shell of their home, the clear PVC-like material keeping the precious well-filtered air in and toxic atmosphere out, as the weakness. It was the great and durable wall of their shelter that they had been readied for decades to fix at a moment’s notice with sealants carefully stored and preserved over generations, younglings trained on their use by their elders. Yet, it was the struts, the titanium alloy struts that had looked invincible, that had slowly degraded in the face of decades of assault of an increasingly sulfuric atmosphere.
Bhatana was not born in the shelter. She grew up in a village far to the north from here. Her parents said they even vaguely remembered the great cities when they were young. They painted tales of the mighty palaces of her people; everything from ramshackle slums to the gleaming glass and steel domes of the high-born along the shores of the great ocean.
How she envisioned her clan’s old home as the tall, proud city it was! Yes, her folks told her of the breathing problems that everyone had, the lung diseases, the gasmasks, the brutal autumn storms from the sea; her parents just saw it as something that was always there. It was still an almost mystic testament to all her people had achieved. Free water on demand. Food of every description and taste at every market. Great sky-busses to sail her people across the great continent, even across the vast and boundless sea to other vast cities full of people.
Different people, to be sure. There were clashes, wars among her kind back then; violence she could not even imagine. But they were still all the same as her.
Bhatana carefully set her mate’s head down on the dirt; earth that had been part of their home but an hour ago. She cautiously rose to her feet, old knees creaking, to survey her lost home.
The storm had thankfully passed. So had the screams. Not too many of her people met a violent end as the egglings had, although her great friend and co-leader of the tribe had. A jagged piece of plastic, forged well over a century ago, had cleaved her torso almost in half but a few paces from Bhatana. She lowered her gaze in sorrow.
Most, though, had quietly drifted off to an endless sleep, bloodstreams awash with alien levels of carbon dioxide and other chemicals such as hydrogen sulphide. Her own partner was one. He had seemed resigned, rather than panicked. He had always known that this was a likely end.
They all had, of course.
Bhatana had just a few memories of her home village before the night they fled. Cramped home dome — her kind had always preferred the dome for buildings, apparently. Aging, loud, clanky air purifiers in every room, in every home, in every store. The wonderful winters when she and her friends could play outside for 30, even 45 minutes at a time. The terrifying, terrifying summers.
And the night the power went out. She was woken up, practically dragged to the family car and its life-saving air purifier. The panicked drive, her parents arguing about the often blocked or destroyed roads, about how the village power generator failed (her father remained convinced for the rest of his life that it had been sabotaged). The desperate haggling with someone she recognized as her mother’s friend at the gates of this place that would be her home for the rest of her life.
Bhatana looked to her left. Crop fields extended out into the whispering dust, full of the ripening t’kwana, one of a few tough and bitter vegetables that had sustained her clan for decades. A lone roxo ambled through, its snout nosing against the crops, choosing between them like a buffet; Bhatana felt an instinct to shoo the squat, shin-high animal scavenger off before reminding herself that it may as well be something that eats this season’s yield.
When she was a whelp, people still went outside the shelter without oxygen tanks to tend the crops up to a full hour at a time, although a trip that long was already regarded as foolishness itself; the headaches would sideline them for the next day. (Maintenance and replacement of the oxygen tanks remained an important priority for the increasingly grim scavengers on their city runs.) Back then they even had ammunition to shoot the occasional roxo for some animal meat, as leathery and tasteless as it was. Despite her fears, the adults back then never had occasion to shoot at bandits or raiders. Only a few haggard survivalist types ever came to the front gate. After maybe a decade, not even that type would come by.
Nobody discussed the implications of that.
She could no longer pull breath from her rebreather. Bhantana checked the oxygen cylinder. Its needle was now past zero. She took off the mask and, for the first time in decades, breathed in full the rotten-egg aroma of her world.
She thought back to her last radio conversation with Immyt, five years ago. As with her clan, his restricted the radio to leaders only. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about their chat. He talked, as always, about crop difficulties. About how hard it was getting to find spare parts in the ruins of his closest city. And, as usual, he ended with a joke about going for a swim in the ocean. Immyt’s survival dome was identical to hers, clearly made by the same people at the same time. He lived roughly a thousand miles away by the old maps. Nothing noteworthy of the chat, other than that she never heard from him again.
Eventually, her people stopped asking about him.
Bhatana’s lungs burned. Already, she felt herself getting lightheaded. How long did it take her mate to pass into stillness, half an hour? He had insisted she take the only working oxygen tank left. He had sworn to destroy it if she made him take it instead. So typical of the hopeless romantic. Bhatana whispered tender words of admonishment.
She kneeled back down and laid on the earth next to her mate. She nuzzled against his shoulder as she always loved doing, every night. She wondered, briefly, foggily, about who would bury their bodies. Then she actually snorted a little laugh. One last time, her sense of humor kept her mind from going down a dark hole.
The great wooden desk giving her shield against the sun stood, impassive, in her dimming field of view. Far above, obscured by haze, some torn, clear plastic still remained, hugging onto a still-intact strut. All she heard was the breeze, and the metallic creaking of some object she hadn’t been able to discern, swinging to and fro, as she revisted happy moments of her past. Her last thought before she drifted off to a painless, dreamless sleep was the day she fell in love with Bommo, her mate for life.
As Bhatana’s brain expired, so too did her species.
No longer did the thoughts of sentient minds echo across the planet’s plains, deserts, oceans, or its skies. A great silence of thought settled across the world as the squat little roxo ambled their way through ruins and forests and Bhatana’s own crop fields and destroyed dome. She and her mate would quickly fill the bellies of a few of the omnivores, but they mostly became the food of insects and germs.
It would be just a few days before yet another storm swept through the area, lifting up pieces of furniture and dome fragments, blowing apart the nest-bed of Bhatana and Bommo, scattering decomposing corpses every which way. About a dozen roxo have made the ruins their temporary home, and now hide under the desks and chairs of the dead, or shelter behind the still-standing fragments of dome. Soon, they will resume their feasting of the crops and the villagers’ food stores. When every last morsel has been eaten, they’ll slowly scatter, resuming their wandering ambles.
A hypothetical alien visitor within a few years would be able to deduce what had happened from the bones and the rusting titanium supports still securely anchored deep into the soil. Of course, such a visitor would be more interested in the bones of the cities of the youth of Bhatana’s parents, at least those that had not yet been reclaimed by the ever-rising seas and their ever-angrier storms. Toxic winds smelling of rotten eggs whistle through shattered domes far greater than hers; cracked canals and terraces; broken streets and sewer lines; in a few places, great subterranean train tunnels, or at least those that had not yet flooded.
The visitor would be hard-pressed to find many surviving books or paintings or electronic media if they wished to learn more about this culture, even a few years after Bhatana’s passing and a century after the last cities’. The art galleries would yield a few paintings to study, especially those that had been placed in storage; at least, those that had not been looted by the last survivors or exposed to the increasingly hostile elements. The towering stone statues that her ancestors had carved, though — these all still stood proud against the bitter gusts, and would surely feature prominently in such a visitor’s report. They would also no doubt include mention of the curious, gentle little roxo roaming about the ruins, perhaps along with glimpses of tiny rat- and lizard-like creatures darting underfoot.
Years pass; decades; centuries. All the world’s remaining bridges have fallen. The cities and surrounding villages and towns have been mostly reclaimed by wildlife, although despite the richness of carbon dioxide in the air, even the plants struggle to thrive against the worsening heat, storms, and soil acidity; as with the animals, only a few hardy species remain. You see, Bhatana lived through what was just the beginning of a cataclysm. Long after the last of her people filled a car’s gas tank, cut down a tree or operated an electric turbine, the atmosphere continued to choke with increasing levels of what we humans call greenhouse gasses.
This is due to the violence of the oceans, which had long received the brunt of the abuse, including the carbon dioxide, unleashed by her people. Methane and hydrogen sulphide continued to bubble out of the seemingly ever-warming waters. For whatever the conditions were on land, it was far worse in the seas. Fish and invertebrates died off in astonishing numbers due to both heat and lack of oxygen, their decaying corpses only adding to the poisonous brew escaping into the air. For centuries, land species including Bhatana’s people unknowingly had been protected by the ocean as a vast buffer for carbon dioxide. Now, the debt was being repaid.
Increasingly savage wildfires helped scour the land of plant species, their own bodies adding to the CO2, serving as an additional executioner of entire species. Our hypothetical alien visitor from before would be better served in a full-body astronaut suit at this point.
She would now have a harder task piecing together what the old cities had looked like, as most organic matter, including wood and even much of the plastic, has degraded away. She would be able to deduce the domelike shapes of the buildings from the ruins but not precisely what they looked like. Metal tools, weapons, and toys not exposed to the elements would lend themselves to conjecture of their former owners’ lives. Richer in archaeological findings would be the soil with all its wires and pipes and sewer lines, not to mention the bones of its builders. The only media, electronic or paper, she would find would come from specially prepared time capsules and the like.
Hopefully, our alien finds one, as these may be the only records of Bhatana’s people and their art, their music, their culture; their great political debates, drama, wars; their loves, their families, their hopes, their gods; their science and technology that allowed them to build not only the cities, but even the astonishingly sturdy survival dome that had kept Bhatana and her clan alive as a relict decades into a new geologic era.
Elsewhere, the vast deserts continued their march to the poles, a march that had been ongoing during Bhatana’s life. As fires, heat, and drought annihilated plant life, soil turned to sand at ever-higher latitudes. Not even the hardy roxo would find life tenable in these parched lands, being pushed poleward like most other life, land and sea.
Millennia pass. The air, the sea, and the storms continue spiraling into further chaos, as positive-feedback loops still feed the surge of greenhouse gasses and the resulting heat. Nothing remains of Bhatana’s dome or her clan besides, if one looked carefully, the badly degraded struts buried in the soil. Not much is left aboveground of the cities either, for that matter. The giant stone sculptures, however, as weathered or buried as they may be, remain proud and beautiful.
A curious change has happened with the great rivers that her people had once navigated for trade. With the loss of plant life and soil, they’ve eroded the banks and many of the bends that had kept them on their meandering paths, now running straighter, like braided hair. If ships had still run, they’d probably now run aground in these wider yet much shallower rivers.
A few more dozen millennia pass, and the atmosphere has stabilized at last. A new equilibrium holds at roughly double the carbon dioxide that Bhatana had breathed at her end. Parched of life, the land still has not seen the levels of death the hot oceans saw. The descendants of the roxo remain the largest animals on land.
A million years go by.
The atmosphere remains choked in the new, toxic equilibrium. Only the roxo’s descendants, and few other hardy species, roam the soil under which traces of the survival dome’s parts remain buried. This part of the continent is now on the edge of a vast desert, extending thousands of miles, through the equator and towards the other pole. Our alien explorer looking for signs of sentient life would move on from this world after a few cursory sensor readings. A more determined expedition might eventually come by the eroded, yet still obviously artificial, face of a stone statue as proof that this arid world once hosted an intelligent species.
Thirty million years go by.
While carbon dioxide levels remain high, the more poisonous chemicals have at last cleared from the atmosphere, and diverse life has again blossomed across the planet. The roxo and its descendants are long gone, outmatched by animals more able to specialize. Although animals remain quite tiny compared to the fauna of the early days of Bhatana’s people, their sheer variety points to a healthier world with a healthier future. Plant life has rebounded, pushing the great deserts back towards the equator, finally able to enjoy the air’s rich CO2 levels without suffering from the toxic soil.
Two hundred more million years go by.
Life continues in all its astonishing variety on Bhatana’s world. Carbon dioxide levels have long ago returned to normal, thanks to plant life flourishing across almost every continent and ocean. Species appear, develop, die off; individuals are born, thrive, and die. Animals now can grow larger, sometimes astonishingly so. There is not even the faintest direct trace of Bhatana’s people left buried, each shred having long been ground to dust by the slow but unstoppable forces of geology. She would have been gladdened to know how the planet’s life had reasserted and maintained itself, even if it remained silent of sentient thought.
And then, after a few more millions of years — I told you this was a story about hope! — something incredible happens.
The first hints of what will become self-awareness returns to Bhatana’s planet, a quarter-billion years after her death. A species takes its first step down the same road that hers did so very long ago. Literally: it has, quite awkwardly, begun walking on two feet instead of four.
Over a span of another few million years — a long time, but in perspective, not that long — other traits that researchers of Bhatana’s parents’ generation would have recognized as that of intelligence unfold, one after another, in this animal’s descendants. They learn how to fashion primitive, shaped-rock tools to give themselves an advantage in hunting.
Perhaps a million years after that, a further descendent becomes the first to cook with fire, thus giving its species another competitive advantage. Stone tools get a little more complex. A few hundreds of thousands of years later, they even learn how to fashion huts for shelter. Our hypothetical alien scout would, at last, once again find this planet interesting.
Now things begin picking up steam, each development coming faster than the last. True weapons, such as the spear. Communication develops; further descendants learn to modulate their animal sounds to convey more complex ideas. The first art appears. They have become so good at hunting, they are many animals’ apex predators. The walking animals even begin decorating themselves with beads.
Agriculture reappears with these heirs of Bhatana’s world, and then things really start to move forward. Animal husbandry. Cities. Metal. Writing. It’s not all good — organized warfare is another development. But within a few thousand years of the first written word, a blink of an eye in the timescale we’ve been discussing, really, these animals are communicating with each other by sending words over the internet to and from their sprawling cities, as large as those that came before, only with rectangular shapes instead of domes. And these animals give their cities names such as Oslo and Shanghai and New York City. In one of their many languages, they name the planet that Bhatana had walked so may years ago Earth.
Of course, the dread warning signs that Bhatana’s forebears recognized all too late have once again returned to the planet. The fires. The storms. The dying oceans. Above all, the spiking of atmospheric carbon dioxide. No need to belabor what’s in every news channel and site.
What’s important is that just about every metric — CO2, rise in temperature, ocean anoxia, ocean acidity, you name it — eerily mirrors exactly what Bhatana’s fictional(?) species experienced, during the very much nonfictional event that we humans now call The Great Dying, or the Permian-Triassic (P/T) extinction event. Scientists have even found telltale signs of burning coal at this moment of crisis in the planet’s history. It remains the most catastrophic mass dying in the planet’s history, far more lethal than the more famous one that felled the dinosaurs.
We don’t know what caused it. Paleontologists currently favor the theory of mass volcanism, specifically from the Siberian Traps, as the only thing that could possibly spew carbon dioxide that rapidly into the ancient atmosphere.
But then again… that’s not true, is it?
What if the answer of what caused the P/T extinction event has been staring us in the face… maybe even from the mirror?
I mentioned the creationist’s paradox at the beginning of this piece. That is, if smarts are so great, why hasn’t any species evolved it before?
But what if that is just begging the question?
It goes without saying that there is no direct evidence to support such an outlandish theory as Bhatana and her people not being fictional after all. All we have is the circumstantial evidence of the climate charts.
The problem is, after 252 million years, it’s hard to say how there possibly could be direct evidence. Archaeologists have enough trouble digging up cities from a few thousand years ago. The idea of anything recognizably artificial surviving a quarter-billion years of tectonic-plate shifting appears absurd on its face.
Of course, I’m sure any paleontologist with a PhD would find the whole venture absurd. Hell, The Atlantic interviewed one who doesn’t even think we’re in the midst, or the cusp, of a mass extinction event whatsoever, which would render drawing parallels to the P/T boundary specious to begin with. As with the climate-change-deniers, I certainly hope he’s right, although I suspect that he is not. His reasoning seems to be: we can’t be in the middle of an extinction because otherwise, in his words, “go get a case of scotch.”
“People who claim we’re in the sixth mass extinction don’t understand enough about mass extinctions to understand the logical flaw in their argument,” he said. “To a certain extent they’re claiming it as a way of frightening people into action, when in fact, if it’s actually true we’re in a sixth mass extinction, then there’s no point in conservation biology.” [emphasis mine -FC]
And we all know how the media feels about climate defeatism.
But the obvious response: if wishes were beggars. “We can’t be in an extinction event because I don’t want us to be; because that’s just too awful to contemplate” is simply not a logical argument.
Anyway, I’m bringing up this Atlantic piece now because of a more germane observation to my hypothetical end-Permian civilization and their lack of fossils. To quote further:
Passenger pigeons all but serve as the mascot of the “sixth mass extinction,” their extirpation an ecological tragedy on a massive scale, and proof that humans are a geologically destructive force to be reckoned with.
“So then you ask: in a non-archaeological context, how many fossil passenger pigeons are there? How many records are there of fossil passenger pigeons?”
“Not many?” I offered. “Two,” he said. “So here’s an incredibly abundant bird that we wiped out. But if you look in the fossil record, you wouldn’t even know that they were there.”
And passenger pigeons are only a few million years old. If billions of bipedal, sentient creatures spread across the earth for just a few tens of thousands of years 252 millions ago until their relatively abrupt demise, their absence from the fossil record would be hardly surprising, especially if they practiced funereal rites such as cremation. In fact, their presence would be so astounding, paleontologists would most likely dismiss it as a hoax.
But think of it. If an actual people lived then, walked the same earth, breathed the same air… just how astounding would that be? That thinking, working, loving people breathed these airs, sailed these waters, probably flew through this air long before us? Saw this same sun, maybe even landed on that same moon? If it were possible for them to create a time capsule that would survive 252 million years, imagine what absolute wonders it would hold!
And think of the terrifying implications, which we’ll save for part 3. No atmosphere CO2 charts will be needed.