Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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Beyond the Decade of Reckoning

DESERT - Bad Future for the Planet
DESERT - - - Photo: Prilfish, Courtesy Flickr CC

“I have a child who is of an age that he could live to see the year 2100. So this isn’t such a remote problem.” — David Wrathall, Oregon State University climate migration researcher

You’ve probably seen a Star Wars movie where the characters scurry around without space suits on a remote desert planet. (That’s impossible on planet without plants and therefore without oxygen, but…that’s Hollywood.) Keep that background scenery in mind, because those barren Star Wars sets could resemble the future appearance of our own planet.

This is the third and last of a series of posts on our “bad future” — the possible fate of the earth and humanity if we don’t change our ecocidal ways. The first post explained that by 2050 there will be one billion people displaced by environmental crises, squeezing into cities or crossing national borders.

The second post explained how the mounting strain of environmental crises could begin to bankrupt governments, driving us into a deep, global depression. It also tentatively predicted a future “Decade of Reckoning” — sometime between the late 2030s and the 2060s — when the cumulative effects of our environmental mismanagement will not only crash the global economy but also dismantle the planet’s environment.

The column postulates that future wildfires will make today’s massive conflagrations “look like controlled burns.” Additionally, mega-storms of all types — typhoons, monsoons, hurricanes, tornadoes and “arctic inversions” — will become far more frequent and intense, approaching their peak destructive power during the period. And decade- or century-long droughts will spread and become more severe, rendering greater and greater swaths of land useless for agriculture, if not entirely uninhabitable.

Looking back on the Decade of Reckoning from, say, 2060 or 2070, we would know that we had passed the thresholds where the world’s principal rainforests and the glacial ice masses that hydrate continents were irretrievably lost; where the Sixth Extinction, wherein the majority of the world’s species would go extinct, was unstoppable; and last, but far from least, where global temperatures would inevitably rise above 3ºC (a full degree above the Paris Agreement’s red line for allowable heating) and would be well on their way to 4ºC.

What then? What happens to the ecosphere and humanity between the Decade of Reckoning and 2100?

Autotrophs, self-nourishing organisms such as plants and algae that use the energy from sunlight to build their own tissue, are the food source for almost all other life forms on the planet. A mass die-off of autotrophs means a mass die-off of almost everything else — it’s that simple.

Now, it’s unlikely that plant life would disappear from the planet in one fell swoop, say, in a period of 50 years. It seems more likely that biomes — vast ecosystems such as a rain forests and grasslands — would begin to die from their drying borders inward and from their damaged interiors outward. The interior die-offs would likely be from a “shredding effect,” where large swaths of plants would die due to drought, fire, disease and insect infestations in seemingly random, or at least largely unpredictable areas. These interior dead patches, in turn, would spread toward one another, killing ever-greater areas of the biome.

Critically, there would be no recovery, as there is in, say, today’s forest biomes where stable environmental conditions and the surrounding healthy forest facilitate the quick healing of wounded patches. There would be no stable environmental conditions, nor fully healthy surrounding ecosystems, to support rejuvenation.

And humans? Those who survive the environmental crisis would perforce abandon their cities and farms and drift to the diminishing number of biomes — increasingly separated by vast, desertified areas reminiscent of a Star Wars set — that could still support them on a subsistence basis — at least temporarily.


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Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.