I think if SARS2 should have taught us anything, it’s that there are no technological solutions to our predicament, because our real problem is a lack of humility before nature. Surprising to me and the reason I got so angry about the lockdowns is that most people drew the exact opposite conclusion. Instead of swallowing our pride, we began to isolate even further from nature. We began wearing masks and eventually most people received some state of the art mRNA therapy.
We’re guests on this planet, staying here at the mercy of nature. We are always one gentle nudge away from a collapse of civilization. One megatsunami, one big volcanic eruption, one new virus, it’s fundamentally not hard to get rid of us. We have so far seen 26 million excess deaths since 2020, with no end in sight.
But rather than recognizing ourselves as guests, we see ourselves as born into meaningless chaos that can be rearranged to solve a technical puzzle that will grant us control over nature. There’s always supposed to be some next button on the tech tree where we can click “research”, some electric car, some bioalgae fuel, some fourth generation nuclear reactor, some mysterious glowing blue cube that gives us everything we want.
And if we can’t have everything we want? If we have to accept that electricity is available during the day, that we will feel cold during winter, that we can’t fly around the world, or put animals in cages, that we will have to ride our bicycles to work, that we will have to fairly share the limited resources we have left with eight billion people?
Well that idea is so atrocious, so antithetical to the American entrepreneurial spirit, that we’d rather just watch the whole world die in a blaze of glory of course! I’d love to say this is hyperbole, but this is the reaction I tend to get: “Well then I’d rather just let everyone go to shit than live in your dystopian totalitarian green dictatorship.” When pressed, most people will say they would rather witness billions of deaths, over having the standard of living their grandparents had in the 1950’s.
To that I can only say: Careful what you wish for. We’re vulnerable. We broke the Western population’s immune response to a SARS virus that has so far killed 26 million people worldwide. I’ve shown you the IgG4 problem, I’ve shown you the T-cell exhaustion now observed in the whole population. We’ve intervened in things we just don’t understand very well and the signs suggest we broke things, with all sorts of weird compensatory adjustments you would normally not expect to see as part of an immune response to a virus like this.
We’re now entering the next stage, with multiple divergent serotypes circulating simultaneously. By now, BA.2.86 is already making up 9% of detected infections in the Netherlands and Denmark. We haven’t really seen this happen before, as Omicron wiped out the pre-Omicron serotypes. BA.2.86 seems unable to do this, the XBB and BA.2.86 families will instead circulate together. The only other case I can think of where we gradually saw people exposed to a growing number of different serotypes of the same virus was Dengue. This led to a huge increase in the death toll.
Like every other species, we’re supposed to enrich the ecosystems we inhabit, delivering a positive contribution to the system as a whole. Predators keep their prey healthy, beavers build dams in which little fish can lay their eggs, oysters filter the water, worms decay leaf matter andsoforth.
Humans can fulfill many roles. We fulfilled some accidentally. We brought successful generalist species to multiple new continents. There are now pigs roaming America, camels in the Australian desert and parrots in Europe. In the long run, this enriches life on Earth. The number of species in many parts of the world has gone down, because specialists are going extinct. But if you look at higher categories, like the total number of families, you can see an increase in some places.
We’re also able to bring life to the deserts. There are vast oceanic deserts, that only miss attachment points for seaweed and shellfish to grow. Cast a rope out onto the sea and the first lifeforms will attach themselves to that rope. Then eventually shells will fall to the floor and crabs will use them for shelter, fish will spawn their eggs in the seaweed, seagulls will steal some of the oysters and a dead place will be brought to life.
And finally, we were granted the unique ability to use fossil carbon as a source of energy. When we began doing this in the 19th century, our planet had two billion people and we thought that over thousands of years this would green the world. The problem unfortunately, is that we increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere by 36% in a century. We made changes much faster than anything we can observe in the geological record.
If we had been able to accept some limits to our greed, this ability of our species to use fossil fuels would have been positive-sum behavior. During the 20th century you could see food production increase, as our crops responded with increased growth. You could also see that deserts were shrinking, as higher CO2 concentrations have a fertilizing effect on plants.
Most low status white males know this, but lack any nuance and draw the wrong conclusions from it. Up to about 350 parts per million of CO2 it seems we don’t destabilize the climate system. There is some concern that the Greenland ice sheet slowly melts above 300ppm, but nothing apocalyptic should happen.
Over time, plants would draw down such input. With a slow input of fossilized carbon into the atmosphere, plants have an opportunity to increase their soil carbon content, the oceans will increase their carbon stock too if we let them.
On the coast of North America you will find the Redwood trees, the largest and tallest trees on the planet. They were living fossils, surviving in an atmosphere that poorly fits them. During previous eras of geological history, with higher CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, Europe used to be covered in the close relatives of these trees. We could have had a beautiful planet, with such enormous fire-resistant trees covering the European continent again.
That is, if we had used the fossil fuels sparingly. But we have now reached the point where our overall greenhouse gas forcing heats the planet so much that ecosystems are dying. We increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere at least ten times faster than during known mass extinction events.
And so, rather than being like a stage magician who becomes a welcome guest to a party, the rest of the biosphere sees us as a creep who showed up, performed his tricks and should now leave. The reason for this is because we behaved like a dick.
This is really the only message I care about offering. If you behave like a dick, you’re going to get thrown out of the party. The failure of our species to take the concerns of non-human species into consideration, means that we have turned into an unwelcome guest. This is very tragic, but there is no other outcome.
Nature has no other option than to force us out, because we’ve settled on the path of refusal to co-exist with non-human species. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, we’re still stuck on a path that will result in most of the planet becoming too hot for above-ground mammal lifeforms. Our failure to stop the emission of greenhouse gasses means that nature becomes forced to stop us.
Consider here part of the problem:
You can argue that it’s very difficult for us to avoid emitting carbon dioxide, trapped as we are by our industrial infrastructure. But methane concentrations in our atmosphere increased even more rapidly than carbon dioxide. We know why this is. It’s mainly because we dominate the entire planet with our herds of cattle. That’s a choice that we made, that we did not have to make.
Carbon dioxide has properties that help plants adjust to the heating effect it has. With higher CO2 concentrations, plants become less sensitive to heatwaves, they can tolerate higher temperatures. They also start losing less moisture during photosynthesis. Methane on the other hand, has none of these properties. Its only good quality is that it rapidly decays within a few years.
And so I have to emphasize again, that if you think we were faced with some sort of impossible hurdle to overcome, that we were trapped and had no other choice than to incinerate the biosphere and damage the atmosphere, then I have to disagree with you. Mother Nature opened the cookie jar and rather than grabbing one cookie, we began to empty the jar, until she told us to stop, at which point we began making promises about stopping with emptying the cookie jar, that we then failed to live up to.
Part of the problem is that humans seem naturally inclined to relate to other humans, especially if those humans look similar to them. This is to some degree a choice you make, you can find numerous examples of children raised by animals who behave like animals. But rather than trying to relate to non-humans, we spend most of our time trying to relate to other humans.
That’s how we got kicked out of the party.