Skip to comments.The Case Against Human Extinction
Posted on 07/31/2002 5:46:56 PM PDT by Sir Gawain
Human extinction is now tacitly accepted as the proper and moral solution to environmental problems. Whether in the writings of the Unabomber or Al Gore, humans are identified as the primary danger to the ecosystem. Both agree with the self-proclaimed "deep ecologists" that all ecological problems would disappear along with our species. This is the late 20th century's standard ecological paradigm, taught in every public elementary school, Captain Planet episode and graduate social-science course. "Everything was fine in the forest before the evil humans came with their 'technology' and their 'culture', and everything will be fine again if humans all catch Ebola or Marburg and die. The deer will scamper happily through the forest as their guts are torn out by the happy wolves, until they are all covered quietly by the happy continental ice sheets..." .... or maybe the Unabomber/Gore types didn't think quite that far ahead.
The human species is not the source of ecological Original Sin. For any real "deep ecology" theory, the long-term survival of life requires an intelligent species to develop the necessary technologies. Contrary to myth, humans have benefited the ecosystem; already we may well have prevented the Final Ice Age.
First of all, a reality check. All species up to this point have killed off other species. Nature (or the gods, if you prefer) gave them no choice, because they were all playing a zero-sum game. All life on Earth depended on two energy sources: the hydrogen fusion in the sun that powers photosynthesis in plants, and the radioactive decay energy that powers chemosynthetic bacteria in the deep-sea volcanic vents. All life is nuclear powered, but until recently no life form was making any new energy. From humble fern to mighty Tyrannosaurus, every life form had to displace another to take a share of the fixed amount of available energy. Winners lived, losers died.
Reality check two: most everything is dead. The Solar System is not full of planets covered by sunlit glades and happy bunnies. The majority of the Sun's fusion energy that misses the Earth heads out into dead vacuum; a little bounces off dead asteroids, the dead acid clouds of Venus and the frozen dead wastes of Mars. You can't blame this on Homo sapiens or any other species. Entropy kills. Asteroids blast planets, supernovas irradiate systems light years away, planetary climates freeze and fry. Entropy is the ultimate source of ecological evil. We have only our intelligence to fight this ultimate enemy. The survival of other Earth species depends on how well we use the intelligence that grew out of our fight with other species over energy.
Our Cro-Magnon ancestors played Nature's zero-sum gladiator game well. The woolly mammoth, the Maltese elephant, the North American ground sloth, and the carnivores that depended on them disappeared as humans took their energy. The process continued into historical times with the Dodo and the Moa, and continues today in the oceans as hunting humans with no concept of property rights race each other to the last fish.
Once the convenient big game animals were gone, the descendants of the Cro-Magnons developed farming to take even more energy out of the ecosystem. Farmers take ALL the energy for themselves through their crops and herd animals. The early farming civilizations drove more species to extinction. As civilization developed in complexity, it demanded more and more energy. This energy came from the ecosystem in the form of firewood and the labor of agriculture-fed work animals. Just like flowering plants or dinosaurs, humans continued to displace earlier species and take their energy.
But then, for the first time in two billion years, a new thing happened.
Humans started to get energy from coal, oil, and natural gas. Energy that didn't come out of another currently living being (some of the gas was never in a living being). Some of this energy was converted to food energy; energy in nitrogen bonds in fertilizers, energy for tractors instead of draft animals and slaves. There could now be more humans without killing off other organisms to make room. In the 20th century United States, farms actually shrank and forests grew back.
The new human powers also defended Earth against the Cold Death that killed Mars.
In the time of the dinosaurs, perhaps the peak of biodiversity and ecological exuberance, there was a lot of carbon. The atmosphere was around 1% carbon dioxide. But as the radioactive energy that powers volcanoes runs down, carbon keeps getting trapped in dead organisms and covered by sediments, leaving the biosphere. During the last Ice Age the CO2 level fell below .02%. This is a serious problem for an ecosystem based on photosynthetic plants. Someone (perhaps his third grade teacher) should have told Al Gore; when the CO2 concentration is too low everything photosynthetic dies.
In the 1800s, CO2 levels were measured at .028%. Human use of fossil fuels has raised that to .037%; still far below optimum for plant growth, but better. The slight increase in greenhouse effect also gives the Earth a little more protection against ending up like Mars, with our CO2 lying frozen on the ground. (It is, however, a VERY slight increase in greenhouse effect. Most of Earth's greenhouse effect comes from atmospheric water.)
The dinosaur eras were 10 degrees warmer than today, and the ecosystem liked that just fine. It's been less than 15,000 years since the last Ice Age. Anyone concerned about the ecology as a whole must worry far more about Ice Age than about greenhouse effect.
Of course at some point there will be enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to ensure against an asteroid hit or episode of volcano activity darkening the skies and triggering the next Ice Age. Fossil fuels can't be used forever, and they don't produce enough energy for a real technical civilization anyway. Burning coal may be good for the ecosystem as a whole, but it isn't good for individual humans. Just the radioactive pollution from coal burning is hundreds of times worse per watt than from even the current crop of early fission reactors. This radioactive pollution is miniscule compared to the natural background, but the chemical pollution from coal could be significant for long-lived, cancer-prone species like humans. Fortunately humans learned to tap nuclear energy directly. All life is nuclear-powered, but now humans can get their nuclear fuel from places denied to other life forms.
Now, if they choose, humans can leave most of the solar energy that reached the Earth's surface for the use of other species. Life is no longer a zero-sum game. There is room for wolves, deer.... and woolly mammoths, with the new life-giving powers of biotechnology. Humans can not only live without exterminating, they can resurrect the long dead. Humans can even carry life to places that it has never been. Bacteria have probably journeyed between planets as well, but nuclear-powered humans can actually change the dead planets to make them support life.
Or, if they choose, humans can continue the old genocidal ways. Unfortunately there are humans, like the Unabomber and Al Gore, that don't want to leave Earth's meager solar power for our cousin species. They want to darken the world with solar collectors and leave nothing alive underneath.
Now, this could be done, given some optimistic engineering assumptions and a total disregard for environmental cost. Department of Energy report #:DOE/EIA-0484(2002) from March 26, 2002 estimates that the total human energy use in 2005 will be 439 quadrillion BTU, or 129 trillion kilowatt-hours. Solar energy reaches the Earth's orbit at the intensity of about 1.4 kilowatts per square meter. However, the Earth's surface receives only part of this due to clouds, dust, night, etc. So even a reasonable good location for solar power only gets an average of 200 watts per square meter. Assuming an unrealistically good solar-cell conversion efficiency of 20% cuts this to 40 watts per square meter. This energy has to be stored for use at night; an unrealistically good storage efficiency of 80% and now we're down to 32 watts per square meter. Ignoring transmission losses completely (this energy does have to get to Seattle and Sweden somehow), we find that we can produce this much energy while smothering all the life on only 176, 583 square miles. Of course the energy-storage system will cover up yet more area (especially considering that the only practical utility-size storage systems are hydroelectric dams.) So a static, impoverished, (this energy isn't going to be cheap) lower-technology human civilization could be powered at current levels by destroying all life in an area about the size of Texas. If humans do this, then they do deserve to be extinct... and they will be, because any civilization that turns inward and away from space is doomed to be blasted one of the many Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids anyway.
But, if I were arguing before a jury of other species, I would ask them to withhold their judgment. It is likely that a few more of these destructive solar power plants will be built. But economic reality will check their spread. Eventually, the only solar power plants will be over other human structures, not over forest. In general, humans who use energy from outside the ecosystem will do better than those who try to live parasitically on the ecosystem. Within a few centuries almost all the original energy in Earth's biosphere will be returned to the use of other species because it will be cheaper to use other, more concentrated sources. Nuclear fusion from helium-3 extracted from the gas giants (or some other, more advanced nuclear energy source) will power a human civilization that protects the Earth's ecosystem from Ice Age and brings new ecosystems into being on other planets.
Humans are a very young species, only tens of thousands of years old. Many of the dinosaur species were around for millions of years. Give us a million years, and see what we can do.
Bill Walker is a Research Associate at the Shay-Wright lab at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Despite our obvious flaws, WE are the "Primary Sentient Species" on Earth!
Either we "Get our SH+T together," & promote our World's Survival, or we ALL DIE!!
Like it or not, the survival of EARTH is NOW "Contingent upon" the Survival of Mankind!!
"Earthlife" NOW survives BECAUSE of MAN--NOT "DESPITE HIM!!"
It should be noted that "benefited" is a subjective value judgment. In order for such a judgment to be made, there has to be a valuer, a conscious entity making the value judgment. The Earth isn't a valuer. The ecosystem isn't a valuer. Only man values.
So when we say that an ecosystem is "good" or "bad", the only thing it can rationally mean is "good or bad for man". With that in mind, let's look at some of man's environmental choices:
Eradication of smallpox: good.
Eradication of dire wolves: good.
Eradication of sabertooth tigers: good.
Near eradication of whales: bad.
Plowing under the Great Plains and sharply reducing the bison herds: good.
Closing ANWR to oil production: bad.
Eradication of Steller's sea cow: bad.
Man doesn't always make the best environmental choices, but some of what are presented as his worst choices are actually among his best.
The VHEMT website is here.
I don't really disagree with your point, but there's another outcome to consider IMO. Some in the middle class will finally revolt and bring about a serious reduction in the plundering (taxation.) Probably will be a revolution of sorts.