Imagine Planet Earth 250 years in the future. And then a billion years from now. Does it make any difference? To you? To any present inhabitant of our planet? Can you, or any living creature, imagine such a distant future? It probably depends on our beliefs, religion, knowledge, customs, ethics… In short, it depends how your, my or anybody else’s mind works. The fatalist might wave the hand and say, “I don’t care I won’t be here,” while a parent or grandparent might look at the babies and say that we need to save the planet for future generations.
Well, we can’t. Human life represents a very short passage in the existence of our planet and of the universe as a whole. Scientists are convinced that, in the next billion years, all life on our planet will cease to exist, since all the sources and conditions necessary for life on Earth will be exhausted. Earth will then look similar to Mars or any other dead planet. Was there ever life on any of them? Perhaps on Mars, but its life, if it ever existed, obviously never reached the level of our destructive civilization. So all that we, as humans, can do before we disappear is to prepare a package of relevant information for a possible outside explorer, who, a gazillion years from now, might roam around the universe in search of life. The way we are studying our future now, we seem to continue in the hope of extending human life by transplanting it to some other planet for another billion years.
Me? I’m an optimist. I’m rooting for a longer run. I want the human adventure to continue beyond the next 250 years. I am convinced that by 2250 we’ll still have things to explore and stories to tell.
But this might not happen.
If the forecasts and warnings from scientists are true, Earth has already entered its sixth mass extinction, which is progressing with unprecedented speed. While the previous five mass extinctions in the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history were gradual and took millions of years to kick in, the present one only just started with humanity’s population boom and accelerated with industrialization, particularly in the past half century. This past Earth Day, the Daily Dot published a wonderful animated illustration of the previous five mass extinctions. As you may notice, every previous mass extinction was caused by some dramatic change that somehow contributed to the evolution of a new form of life. The fifth extinction, when completed, wiped out the dinosaurs and brought mammals to life. It allowed for the appearance of homo sapiens and their domination over the planet.
But, as the most recent reports show, we humans might now become the dinosaurs of the sixth mass extinction. The human population, with our lifestyles on this planet, our limitless exploitation of the Earth’s resources, our enormous population increases, and the resulting collapse of the existing biosphere, endangers the existence of our own species. And since we humans are on the very top of the food chain, we might be wiped out just as the dinosaurs were 65 millions year ago. If this really happens, the hope is that the disappearance of the human race will at least create the conditions for a new, higher form of life, as happened in previous mass extinctions. But we cannot know for sure that this will happen.
All that we know is that we had our chance and we blew it. Did we have a good time? Yes we did.
But let’s get back to our daily life for a second. Near the building where I hope to live for at least another 250 years, strange things are happening. On the corner of Broadway and 112 Street is a small diner called Tom’s Restaurant. It’s not at all appealing. In the last four years, I only went there twice for breakfast. Run by a Greek family, like most of the diners in Manhattan, Tom’s serves tasteless sausages and watery coffee. People, tourists mostly – American and otherwise – keep stopping in front of this nondescript place, taking pictures and selfies. Why? I initially asked myself. For bad sausages and unfriendly attitudes? The answer is that Tom’s was the setting for a famous, long-running American sitcom, Seinfeld. I recently discovered that the building containing Tom’s Restaurant houses something far more important if we’re really worried about our human legacy. For more than forty years now, the floors above the restaurant have been occupied by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), a critical center for tracking our climate future. In another country and another time, this place might be under maximum security, though that seems to be impossible given the crush of Seinfeld selfie tourists. Here it seems like an afterthought. At the entrance of the building there is a (outdated) sign for Columbia University Law School. When you enter, walking into a clean, narrow corridor, a security guard IDs you and confirms that you are at the entrance of the GISS.
“I am not worried for humanity, I am much more concerned about society,” GISS Director Gavin A. Schmidt said in a recent interview for Motherboard, in a video accompanying an article by Brian Merchant entitled “Apocalypse Neuro: Why Our Brains Don’t Process the Gravest Threats to Humanity.”
For more than three decades, GISS has been observing global change by creating over 500,000 models and using them to run powerful simulations about global climate change. The Institute combines analyses of global data sets with models of atmospheric, land surface and oceanic processes, comparing them with simulations and past climate changes. If GISS’s goal is to insert every type of particle that floats around the globe into their models, it would certainly seem to imply that Schmidt hopes we can may find a path to persistence, even if his position is still very grim.
“If we continue to burn all the fossil fuels, there will be no tomorrow. But I don’t think that we can talk about the disappearance of humanity as a whole. The crucial question is what kind of society we will be able to form on the planet which will suffer such a dramatic climate change”, Schmidt concludes in his interview.
As the consequence of climate change, global temperatures will increase by two to four degrees by the end of the century. That will raise sea levels, and result in increased amounts of rain in higher altitudes and decreased amounts in already arid lands. That, in turn, will all lead to huge political tensions and conflicts, calling for more authoritarian regimes, Schmidt seems to imply. The director of GISS is not alone. The predictions of nearing global conflict can be heard from multiple sources. The increased tensions between superpowers like the U.S., China and Russia are evoking the drums of the Cold War – this time no longer based on ideological differences but rather on global repositioning dictated by the need to access resources in a world with a booming population and changing climate. World War III is on the mouths of many. Even the Vatican, with its large influence among the Christian population, has jumped into the debate The representative of Christ, Pope Francis, no longer thinks that a prayer is enough to stop conflict. He is joining forces with those who think that preventing the extinction of humans is still possible. By stopping climate change, that is.