The Earth Has Survived Worse – So Have We

Burned out oak, Sonoma Count, California fire 2017

Our old valley oak Senex days after the Sonoma County, California fire in 2017 burned my childhood home. Photo by Mekiele Perkins

To paraphrase Paine, these are the times that try our souls. In case you haven’t heard, the October 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that humanity likely has about a dozen years to radically transform global civilization or climate change will be irreversibly catastrophic.

Very likely the catastrophe is coming soon. Very likely, mass extinction will accelerate, marine ecosystems will collapse, and war, mass migration, and famine will disrupt billions of lives and kill many millions. It is a time of grieving. But it is not the end.

In the December 2018 issue of The Progressive, Dahr Jamail argues that the Earth “is in a hospice situation.” I admire Jamail’s tireless work on behalf of the planet, but I don’t hold with his metaphor. The biosphere is not dying. Bar some massive nuclear war, life on Earth overall is not facing obliteration. The Permian Extinction (252 million years ago) killed over 95% of all marine species. But consider the astounding biodiversity of the oceans we have known. Life recovered; it will again. The Permian Extinction, like our present extinction, was probably tied to climate change, with average temperatures as high as 29 degrees Celsius, higher than any prediction I’ve head for our current climate change event. If life survived the Permian Extinction, it will surely survive this.

Humans will likely not go extinct in the foreseeable future either. Studies suggest that the human race was once reduced to just a few thousand individuals. We survived. Climate change will kill millions, and might kill billions, but I haven’t read any credible projection, none, that suggests it will kill 99.9 percent of us. Cold (warm?) comfort perhaps, but humanity almost certainly has a future, hopefully a wiser one.

But if all that is too geologic to be of comfort, here’s a more personal perspective. Our family home in California burned in the climate change-related fires of October 2017. I went back to visit a week or so after the fire, and what I saw renewed my respect for the tenacity of life. I saw acorns, hardened like stones, sitting on the charred ground waiting to germinate. I saw new grass already growing in the wake of the autumn rain. I saw deer droppings scattering the black ground, the ravens in their usual tree—and when I returned in the spring, I saw most of our oaks putting out new leaves (straight out of their trunks—very odd). Everywhere, even in the first wake of the disaster, was beauty, the typical autumn colors roasted into sharp organes and pinks against the perfect blue sky.

Tennyson was right, you know: “Tho’ much is taken, much abides.”

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