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Why greens are on the wrong planet

By John G. Lankford
web posted December 2, 2002

This Thanksgiving now past, we can all add a belated note of gratitude that so many of us, more than six billion, are still alive. About 75 000 years ago, one of Earth's routine natural events killed all but a few thousand of us. Another such event is about 40 000 years overdue. That 40 000 years improved our prospects immensely. But, it appears, the next major setback is impending. It's a wonder it hasn't happened yet.

It's called a supervolcano, or a caldera structure eruption. The one we expect will blow next is underneath Yellowstone National Park, where it powers those fascinating geysers. It is also shoving the park's surface upward to a degree now noticeable to the casual observer. When it goes, most people in North America will probably go with it. Billions will join us shortly thereafter in the ashfall, water supply ruination, agricultural land blanketing, and ensuing ashen-sky-engendered ice age.

Lava flows of the Mono-Inyo Craters volcanic chain in Long Valley Caldera, California. The most recent eruptions from along this chain occurred about 250 and 600 years ago. Photo courtesy the USGS
Lava flows of the Mono-Inyo Craters volcanic chain in Long Valley Caldera, California. The most recent eruptions from along this chain occurred about 250 and 600 years ago. Photo courtesy the USGS

Just in case the Yellowstone boomer fizzles, there is another one handy under Long Valley, California, and it has also been getting frisky in recent years. Actually, there is nothing that would absolutely prohibit either setting off the other, too. And maybe several more scattered around the world. But that would be showing off: all it really takes is one.

The last time one of these beauties let go full scale, about 74 000 years ago on what we now call Indonesian Sumatra, it reduced the world's human (Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal, at the time) population to just a few thousand specimens. In our surviving branch, the drastic culling effect is still detectable in DNA.

Having been around between 100 000 and 150 000 years, our species should now exhibit a more diversified genetic spectrum than it does. Due to that drastic kill-off, two chimpanzees with the same parents are almost certain to be more genetically disparate than the two most dissimilar humans alive.

Of course, all the world's chimps went through the cataclysm with our ancestors, but chimps are tougher than we are. Our gang invested a remarkable amount of potential wiriness and vigor into exceptionally powerful brains instead. These turbocharged contemplators consume about a third of the oxygen and nutrient our blood circulates, thus shortchanging the brawn departments. Some of us use that brainpower to assimilate information and perform reasoning based on it. Others use it to invent dream worlds they would prefer to inhabit, pretend they do inhabit them and demand everyone else conform to their pretensions.

They envision a world that will maintain a wiggly but almost perfect equilibrium, biologically, geologically and in general if human beings will only refrain from engaging in heating, lighting, cooking, manufacturing, powered transportation, and probably operation of cigarette lighters. According to their "precautionary principle" you have a duty to re-think the candles on that next birthday cake, because the heat they generate could be the one spark that will set off a cataclysm and ruin it all.

The fact is, it all ruins itself, or is ruined by cosmic events, periodically, and humans and other species are ruined with it. Whoever and whatever is left starts over, each living being doing what all living beings are biochemically programmed to do: preserve life, improve it, multiply it and spread it around.

The fact that caldera-type supervolcanoes exist and explode on occasion has to be added to the facts that noticeable objects from space strike the planet from time to time, that there are floods, droughts, ice ages, plagues, famines, wars and other genocidal jamborees. Caldera-structure supervolcanic eruptions and really big space rock strikes just remind Earth creatures that catastrophes and calamities aren't everything: there are also cataclysms.

Although those grim realities have to be acknowledged, a sense of futility is not called for. Like flight, brainpower is a very unlikely and expensive survival adaptation, born of cataclysmic desperation. Dinosaurs remaining after the comet strike north of the Yucatan Peninsula, or whatever killed so many of them, were driven to adapt to flying and become what we now know as birds. Flight being such a strenuously expensive expedient, bird species that have found a way to do without it, such as penguins, abandoned it.

Humans remaining after the Sumatra blow, or any comparable earlier cataclysm(s), resorted to thinking and learning. Human intelligence is the most unique and miraculous phenomenon, short of divinity, in the universe. If we are lucky and work very hard, we may achieve it any time now. That promise in view, it would be unworthy of us to languish and sulk and wait for the Yellowstone-Long Valley obliteration.

On the one hand, it does not make a lot of sense to cramp ourselves for the sake of obscure vermin and weeds that are doomed in their natural environment anyway. That does not mean we should go to ravaging the terrain deliberately or with gross negligence, diminishing our prospects by fouling our nest. It does mean we are the only hope of all that lives now, or as much of it as we can salvage with some number of our own feisty kind, and we had best decline to pretend they will be all right without our best and brainiest efforts and get about something that actually promises to work -- starting yesternow.

The last time we had to recover from a world cataclysm, that Sumatran blast, the survivors were still in the Paleolithic Age. What could be done with rocks and sticks, and not the full extent of that, as the subsequent Neolithic Age proved, was about the extent of technology. Organized agriculture was still more than 60 thousand years in the future, assuming it hadn't gotten started somewhere and been snuffed out and further assuming the middens our archaeologists have found so far are the oldest ones.

This time we have advanced considerably further, what with powered industry and transport, globalized satellite communications and moon landings, et cetera. There are those of the environmental absolutist persuasion who would have us return as closely as possible to at least late Neolithic conditions and live at that level so as not to damage the Earth. But, as pointed out above, that does not acknowledge that the Earth will certainly damage itself considerably if a big space rock does not do the job first.

That simply leaves us with the question whether we should plan to recover from the next world cataclysm from a Paleolithic or at least Neolithic starting point or from as much of a powered-technology one as we might be able to salvage. The cataclysm certainty cancels the rationale for a voluntary return to the Neolithic stage. So does the hardwired human imperative to compete for ascendancy: You can impoverish yourself if you care to, but you may not survive a try to force me, or most other people, to resume historical squalor.

The Neolithic option ruled out, the remaining question is the vast bundle of questions as to how to select, stage and harden, and prepare to operate the powered technology we decide to keep on hand to dig our way out of the ashes and resume improving our lives and spreading our kind around. That would make for an article many times longer than this one.

But space will permit adding that spreading our technological achievements around the globe, especially to the half of humankind that has very little of them yet, will make it all the more likely that a considerable share of them will survive. If the hardened staging bunkers prove not hard enough, or are buried under too much ash, a spot on the other side of the world might do.

The point here is to highlight the reasons why extreme solicitude for every discoverable species and every specimen thereof is ludicrous. Just as our lives as we know them if not our lives absolutely, they're inevitably goners. We might better consider preserving some DNA along with the selected, stored, hardened, and prepared technological assists.

All of us will not survive the cataclysm. Most of us will not survive the cataclysm. But our proto-intelligence and often-claimed compassion do compel us to arrange to have as many humans and, even if only as resuscitatable DNA, other species, survive and recover as possible. If for no other reason, there will be another cataclysm, and another, and so on on this planet or any other we eventually infest.

We cannot afford to keep getting knocked back to our savage beginnings. Instead, we owe it to our nature and its glimmer of intelligence to try to proliferate among planets and then stars and achieve circumstances in which cataclysm on one planet is no more significant than a calamity on one island on present-day Earth. And that certainly requires resuming our progress as quickly as possible after each of these rude interruptions.

This is John G. Lankford's first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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