Science convinces me of the self-inflicted doom of our species

Emotion takes a while to follow intellectJohn Gibbons 


My interest in environmentalism is barely 10 years old. For the bulk of my adult life, far meatier concerns occupied me. Breaking into journalism and establishing a publishing business were of infinitely greater concern to me than the state of the rainforests, ozone layer, polar bears or saving the proverbial gay whales. I remember thinking people like Sting, who droned on about these topics, were just out-of-touch elitists who knew nothing about the real world.

In my book, the real world was the world of work, of bills, by-lines and balance sheets. There was room in this world for family and close friends, but little besides. As the years went by and the business prospered, I felt in control, confident. Though unmapped, the future held no great fears.

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts”, wrote the philosopher Francis Bacon, “but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”. Sure enough, these certainties came crashing down around a decade ago, around the time of the birth of my first child, when ‘the future’ turned from a vague abstraction into the place my children would one day have to make their way.

Everyone’s epiphany is different. Mine sprang from a chance reading of ‘Something New Under the Sun’, a survey of the parlous state of the biosphere in the 20th century by the science historian Professor J.R. McNeill. Convinced he must be mistaken, I began reading up obsessively on environmental, energy, resource-depletion and biodiversity topics, steering clear of the conspiracy theorists and sticking to the peer-reviewed stuff where possible. McNeill, it turns out, was something of an optimist.

Some two dozen books later and, like the character Neo in The Matrix, I finally awoke in a sweat-drenched panic from the vivid dream I had all my life mistaken for reality.

Neo’s nemesis, the relentless Agent Smith explained it thus: “When I tried to classify your species I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure”.

Coming to terms, first intellectually but much later, emotionally, with the wrenching truth of being of a species that can, and will, destroy both itself and much of the rest of the world, has been life-changing. Nor are the timescales encouraging. Even though now in my 40s, unfortunately I’m probably young enough to live to see the death spiral of industrial civilisation triggering the greatest, most irremediable die-off in all of human history. For many, the relentless rolling global financial crisis that flared up in 2008 resembles a series of arrhythmias presaging a final, fatal event.

Humanity has been on a long killing spree since we first exterminated our cousin primates, the Neanderthals. Our ancient ancestors, with only the tiniest fraction of today’s killing power at their disposal, wiped out much of the megafauna of Australia, Europe and the Americas. As our power has grown, so the carnage has intensified and spread to every corner of the planet, and against every species, including our own.

Barring other calamities, humanity’s hegemony will have committed probably 50 per cent of all species alive today to extinction this century – that’s around 10 million species as genetically unique, even as important, as the genus homo sapiens, driven off the Earth to feed the insatiable appetites and acquisitiveness of just one species.

Consider the leatherback turtle, which has plied the Earth’s oceans since the Cretaceous period 110 million years ago. Today, it is on the brink of extinction, as are most species of sharks. The dominion of these apex predators stretches back over 200 million years before the dinosaurs. The species that is hunting, harrying and poisoning them to oblivion is itself less than a quarter of a million years old.

The only sentient species the world has ever known has waged and is winning its war against the very foundations of life on our small blue planet. To have evolved a god-like capacity for reason, to be the one remarkable branch of life that gave the world Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Einstein – that has even begun to journey into our Solar System – yet to be doomed to die of collective stupidity, is truly the cruellest paradox.

Today, there’s a small but growing band of ‘early accepters’ whose efforts are being channelled into bracing for the inevitable impacts in an as yet unknowable future that confronts us. I’ll return to this in the next edition.


John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and is on Twitter @think_or_swim