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The Blue Crystal Ball

By Dean Hepburn

18 September, 2008

Earth conjures many perspectives of where humans are placed. Some believe that the Earth is here for our exclusive benefit, others believe that all creatures’ great and small have a place, and others believe that the Earth would be best served if humanity were not here at all. In a few million years it is predicted that a meteorite will collide with Earth and kill anything that is living at the time. Will humanity be existing elsewhere at the time?

By the time of the meteorite, many believe that humanity will have leapt into the stars and be looking for other planets to colonise. And in that time we will have been able to evolve into highly intelligent creatures that have developed the capacity for time travel. As we travel through the stars and time, I wonder how we will look, and more importantly, how we will look at the universe. Will we still be divided into those that believe that the universe is for our exclusive benefit, for all the creatures of the universe or better off without us?

While there are many different timelines that people accept as the
origin of Earth, current scientific knowledge tells us that the Earth is about 4.7 billion years old. It is also largely accepted and taught that the first forms of life were single celled organisms which eventually became bacteria. If all organisms on Earth were given a democratic vote, the Secretary General of the United Nations would be a bacterium, the deputy would be an algae and humanity wouldn't have a seat. With the impact humanity is presently having on the planet, it is likely the United Nations would view humanity as a threat to their survival. In other words – we would be seen as truly global terrorists. With that, I can envisage some dominated and agitated fungus cultivating certain human strains to kill the hegemonic bacteria.

Going over the last few billion years there have been some amazing responses to geological mechanisms, geographic locality and atmospheric conditions. While plants have created much of our present atmosphere and have dominated for hundreds of millions of years, it is arguably humans that have made the most profound of actions. We have cleared millions of
square kilometres of native vegetation, conducted great earthmoving endeavours, choked the skies and waters with toxic pollutants, created a long list of extinct species and so on. Nearly all of this has happened in the last thousand years which is a mere speck on Earth's historical timeline.

By twenty thousand years ago, humans had spread to most continents and many islands. After that we had the Egyptians, Mayans, Inca's and other groups building civilisations, China playing their version of Dynasty, Rome building an empire and war virtually everywhere. A thousand years ago in the 11th century, Europeans had developed into highly productive and inventive beings. Buildings such as Westminster Abbey were built, the Domesday Book had been written, William the Conqueror was King of England and the Crusades began. We can track the next thousand years till today with relative ease, however we can't track the coming thousand years much at all.

Humanity has one of the greatest gifts ever to have been provided to a species- foresight. We can plan our day and year; we can do a shopping list with the knowledge that we can save food for another day and we know that a day will come on which we will die. For all our inventiveness, for all our intelligence, for all our knowledge of history and for all our foresight, we cannot say what Earth will look like in a thousand years, and we can’t stop destroying it.

For the next century at least, it is most likely that humanity will
continue the degradation of Earths natural resources until we hit a
series of catastrophes. Such events will be based on famine, disease and war or a series of climatic events which lead to famine, disease and war. We know that the weather is changing; we know that we are contributing to it; we know that our population will hit about 10 billion by the year 2050 and we know that agricultural systems will not be able to provide nutritious food for such an increasing population forever. Not only that but we are expected to consume more, our economies are based on consumption and we know that our economy must be fed in order for our social services to be provided. So it seems that we are developing to death.

‘Economy’ has become a word so revered that it now has a God or master like status. On any given day you can bet that our politicians and financial gurus will be screaming ‘economy must be fed or we all will die’. Our appetite for consumable products which feed the economy is voracious. World product has increased a massive 1600% since only 1950, whilst trade in that time has increased from less than $500 billion (in today’s money) to more than $8 trillion. It is predicted that by the year 2050, the vast forests of Asia, South America and central Africa will have been consumed and be replaced by representative patches called National Parks while the rest of the land will become sterile pine forests and agriculture. In many instances, and this includes Australia, lands presently or formerly containing forests or grassland filled with a plethora of biodiversity will become barren wastelands caused by unsustainable farming practices and climate change. The loss of such forests will allow greenhouse gases to increase in the atmosphere causing higher rates of climate change leading to more dramatic climatic events such as floods and longer, drier droughts. This alone, it is estimated, will contribute an extra hundred million or more refugees looking for a new home.

For all this talk of human apocalypse it is almost reassuring to know that something will eventually destroy the planet no matter what we do to it in the interim. We have an opportunity to shoot for the stars, yet no realistic capacity exists for us to survive for more than a few months outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The United States has had a couple of tries at creating an enclosed sustainable ecosystem called Biome 1 and Biome 2, yet both failed within the first two months. These systems were in an ideal environment on Earth beneath good sunlight and within easy escape to the pleasant outside world.

At present and for the foreseeable future, there exists no way that such an ecosystem could survive on a Martian environment. Space debris would tear the ecosystem’s skin, the sun would not be powerful or constant enough to promote enough photosynthesis and the humans would die of asphyxiation, thirst, starvation or lack of televised sport. As we need plants to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and we eat biological matter, so it should be obvious that humanity needs other organisms to survive so we cannot maintain our belief that the Earth is here for our
exclusive benefit.

For the great majority who see that all creatures have a place, they had better hope it isn’t in the global ballot booth or we will be the next endangered species. And for those who believe that Earth would be better off without us, what benefit will the universe have if the only known intelligent life is killed alongside the most basic of bacteria?

So what can we learn from this? Only 50 years ago, new frontiers
seemingly opened in the ‘wilds’ of South America, central Africa and New Guinea. It appeared the world was still getting bigger. However in 1968 Apollo 8 provided us with a photo of Earth. It showed an encased blue planet- a limited one. It made some of us realise that there were boundaries, and others, that we had broken a fictitious boundary. No longer were we limited by atmosphere. Once again we are divided.

The unifying aspect is that we all need clean air to breath, nutritious food to eat, a safe home and love. Tragically, all these appear harder to attain as we supposedly progress. The air is no longer clean, food is less nutritious, a safe home can only be found behind security screens and trends show increasing divorce rates and loneliness. The dream of a bright future hid the fact that in dreams begin responsibilities. So what does the future really hold for humanity?

With a moment of clarity, let us look into the blue crystal ball called

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