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Planet Eaters: Chain Reaction,
Black Holes, Climate Change
And Existentialist Philosophy

By Andrew Glikson & Emily Spence

20 October, 2008

“Dear Caesar
Keep Burning, raping, killing
But please, please
Spare us your obscene poetry
And ugly music “

From Seneca’s last letter to Nero


According to Albert Speer, German physicists, apprising Hitler of the possible development of an atom bomb in the spring of 1942, noted a reservation by Werner Heisenberg about a potential conflagration of the atmosphere: "Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule might be transformed into a glowing star." The same awesome possibility, fusion of atmospheric nitrogen and oceanic hydrogen, turning the planet into a chain-reacting bomb, was considered a few months later by Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, Hans Bethe and other physicists. New calculations indicated atmospheric conflagration was unlikely. The trinity nuclear test in the New Mexico desert went ahead.

A critical parameter in Drake’s Equation, which seeks to estimate the number of planets that host civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, is L — the longevity of technological societies measured from the time radio telescopes are invented in an attempt to communicate with other planets. Estimates of L range between a minimum of 70 years and 10,000 years, but even for the more optimistic longevity scenario, only 2.31 such planets would exist in the galaxy at the present time.

It is another question whether an intelligent species exists in this, or any other galaxy, which has brought about a mass extinction of species on the scale initiated by Homo sapiens since the mid-18th century.

The history of Earth includes five major mass extinctions which define the ends of several periods, including the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Each of these events has been triggered by extraterrestrial impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or methane release and related greenhouse events. Yet, with the exception of the role of methanogenic bacteria in relation to methane eruptions in the past, the Sixth mass extinction is a novelty: For the first time in its history, the biosphere is in crisis through biological forcing by an advanced form of life, namely the activity of a technological carbon-emitting species.

The sharp glacial-interglacial oscillations of the Pleistocene (1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago), with rapid mean global temperature changes by up to 5 degrees Celsius over short periods of centuries and, in some instances, a few years (cf. Steffensen et al., Science Express, 19 June, 2008), culminated in an extreme adaptability of Homo. Of all the life forms on Earth, only this genus mastered fire, proceeding to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum, split the atom and travel to other planets—cultural change overtaking biological change.

Possessed by a conscious fear of death, craving God-like immortality and omniscience, Homo developed the absurd faculty to simultaneously create and destroy, culminating with the demise of the atmospheric conditions that allowed its flourishing in the first place. The biological root factors which underlie the transformation of tribal warriors into button-pushing automatons capable of triggering global warming or a nuclear winter remain inexplicable.

Inherent in the enigma are little-understood top-to-base mechanisms, explored among others by George Ellis, who states: “although the laws of physics explain much of the world around us, we still do not have a realistic description of causality in truly complex hierarchical structures.” (“Physics, complexity and causality”, Nature, 435: 743, June 2005):

Sixty-five million years ago, huge asteroids hit the Earth, extinguishing the dinosaurs and vacating habitats for the flourishing of mammals. Fifty-five million years ago, in the wake of a rise of atmospheric CO2 to levels near-1000 parts per million, the monkeys made appearance. Thirty-four million years ago, weathering of the rising Himalayan and Alpine ranges sequestered CO2, Earth began to cool, ice sheets formed and conditions on land became suitable for large, warm blooded mammals.

Three million years ago, in the mid-Pliocene, when temperatures rose by 2- 3o C and sea levels by 25+/-12 metres, accentuation of climate oscillations were followed by the appearance of Homo erectus. The mastering of fire and, later, stabilization of the climate between about 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, saw the Neolithic and urban civilization take hold. Processes during this period, termed the Anthropocoene (cf. Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill, Ambio, 36, 614-621, 2007), led to deforestation and the demise of an estimated twenty thousand to two million species during the 20th century, ever increasing carbon pollution, acidification of the hydrosphere and radioactive contamination.

Acting as the lungs of the biosphere, the Earth’s atmosphere developed an oxygen-rich carbon-constrained composition over hundreds of millions of years, allowing emergence of breathing animals. Planetcide results from the anthropogenic release into the atmosphere to date of more than 300 Gigatons of carbon (GtC), the product of ancient biospheres stored by plants and animals, threatening to return Earth to conditions which preceded the emergence of large mammals on land.

Planetcide emerged from around pre-historic camp fires, from deep recesses of the mind, the imagination of individuals trying to survive adversity. Atavistic fear of death leads to a yearning for god-like immortality. Once the Holocene climate stabilized and excess food was produced, fear and its counterpart, aggression, grew out of control, generating pyramids dedicated to the idea of infinite immorality and sweeping murderous orgies, called “war”, designed to conquer death and appease the Gods.

War is a synonym for ritual sacrifice of the young. From infanticide by rival warlord baboons to the butchering of young children on Aztec altars to the generational sacrifice of WWI, youths follow leaders blindly to the death, women condemn defeated gladiators, fundamental priests promote ignorance, misery and crusades, breeding grounds for believers. Hijacking the image of Christ, a messenger of justice and peace, they promote a self-fulfilling Armageddon: “Hallelujah the rupture is coming,” while other see their future on space ships and barren planets.

With estimated profitable carbon reserves in excess of 5000 GtC, further emissions could take the atmosphere out of the ice ages back to Mesozoic-like greenhouse conditions, a state during which large parts of the continents were inundated by the sea. Most likely to survive would be the grasses, insects and birds, descendants of the fated dinosaurs. A new evolutionary cycle would commence. Homo sapiens will survive. Their endurance through the extreme climate upheavals of the glacial-interglacial periods has equipped humans to withstand the most challenging conditions.

The Sixth mass extinction does not rise exclusively from global warming, and can be brought about, separately or in combination, by design or accident, through the probability of a global nuclear cataclysm. As time goes on, a possibility becomes a probability becomes a certainty, an increasingly likely prospect on a warming planet burdened by resource wars. Following trials on the inhabitants of two Japanese cities, with time, the Damocles sword of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) strategy can only fall. The hapless inhabitants of planet Earth are given no choice between progressive global warming and the coup-de-grace of a nuclear winter.

Further experiments with the fate of Earth are underway. Once the Hadron Collider has been deemed “safe,” pending further science fiction-like experiments yet to be dreamt by ethics-free scientists, Earth may not become a black hole. Unfortunately little doubt exists regarding the consequences of the continuing use of the atmosphere, the lungs of the biosphere, as open sewer for carbon gases.

As stated by the renown oceanographer Wallace Broecker in 1986, “The inhabitants of planet Earth are quietly conducting a gigantic experiment. We play Russian roulette with climate and no one knows what lies in the active chamber of the gun." If the Nazi’s constructed gas chambers for millions of victims, ongoing climate change threatens to turn the entire Planet into an open oven on the strength of a Faustian Bargain.

From the Romans to the third Reich, the barbarism of empires surpasses that of small marauding tribes. In the name of “freedom,” they never cease to bomb peasant populations in their small fields. Only among the wretched of the Earth is true charity common, where empathy is learnt through their own suffering.

Planetcide challenges every faith, ideal and social system humans ever held. Individuals are crushed, as in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds, when cells rebelling against the insanity of a murderous global Martian society are destroyed by the parent organism.

Planetcide is a child of Orwellian “Newspeak”, where modern societies, underpinned by subterranean drug rings, weapon smuggling networks and intelligence agencies, poison their young’s minds with commercial and political lies, a propaganda machine Joseph Goebbles would envy.

Nature is full of examples of parasites, viruses destroying their host, sea anemones seducing their prey, but Homo sapiens has perfected untruths to a form of fine art. Defying the scientific method and the peer review system, so-called “sceptics”, lured by ego and money, serve as mouthpieces of air-poisoning lobbies, which have already delayed humanity’s desperate attempt at mitigating the fast deteriorating state of the atmosphere by more than twenty years.

Having lost the sense of reverence possessed toward the Earth by prehistoric humans, there is no evidence that civilization is about to adopt Carl Sagan’s sentiment: "For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: star stuff pondering the stars: organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for the Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980)

Humans live in a realm of perceptions, dreams, myths and legends, in denial of critical facts (Janus: A summing up, Arthur Koestler, 1978). They wake up for a brief moment from an infinite universal slumber to witness a world as cruel as it is beautiful, a biosphere dominated by the food chain. An inverse relation may exist between the level of consciousness achieved by a species and its longevity, once it creates machines and processes that it can not control. If looking into the sun may result in blindness, so, according to as yet little-understood laws of entropy, the deep insights into nature that humans have achieved may bear a terrible price.

Existentialist philosophy allows a perspective into, and a way of coping with, all that defies rational contemplation. Ethical and cultural assumptions of free will rarely govern the behavior of societies or nations, let alone an entire species.

And although the planet may not shed a tear for the demise of technological civilization, hope, on the individual scale, is still possible in the sense of existentialist philosophy. Going through their black night of the soul, members of the species may be rewarded by the emergence of a conscious dignity devoid of illusions, grateful for the glimpse at the universe for which humans are privileged by the fleeting moment:

“Having pushed a boulder up the mountain all day, turning toward the setting sun, we must consider Sisyphus happy." (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942)

Andrew Glikson, Earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University.

Emily Spence, environmental and social policy writer, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

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