Thinking about the current massive transformation of the earth’s systems, the... destruction? flattening? of global ecosystems, the mass extinction that we’re currently perpetrating against the planet, tends to make me feel a combination of angry, depressed, guilty and ashamed.
The shame is the worst. We’ve come this far as a species, figured out how to occupy all these planetary niches, we have the science to be able to see in excruciating detail how our behaviour is affecting the earth, and yet we can’t stop ourselves ripping out our own life support systems? It’s embarrassing, truly.
No other species has developed the self-awareness to be able to observe its own behaviour in the depth that we have, no other species has photographed itself from outer space, but the only thing we’re using these powers for is to watch ourselves commit planetwide murder-suicide in excruciating high definition.
There’s no reason to expect that we’ll go extinct in the next few centuries – some humans will manage to eke out an existence on a depleted, damaged planet, why not? – but like all complex organisms, we’re undoubtedly susceptible to changes in our environment. Our ability to use our brains to extract resources from our surroundings is going to become less valuable as our environment degrades into patchy deserts and algal blooms.
Humans have been around, give or take, for 300,000 years. I wouldn’t put money on us lasting another 300,000. And when we go, we’ll leave behind a world in which 90 per cent of the world’s rivers no longer reach the sea, a world full of jellyfish, rodents and beetles struggling to get by on a diet of delicious microplastics.
In time, it will work itself out. Earth has ways of taking care of itself. Over tens of thousands of years, all the excess CO2 that we’re putting into the atmosphere will be drawn back down into rocks, through a process called silicate rock weathering. Last time we had a runaway greenhouse effect (an event called the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, around fifty-five million years ago), it took about 100,000 years before the atmosphere stabilised again.
Over the next couple of million years, one adaptable species that manages to survive the current mass extinction will blossom and spread widely. Its descendants will gradually diverge into more and more specialised species, until they grow to fill all the niches of a rich ecosystem. After the dinosaurs perished, it took less than ten million years for a kind of tiny mammalian dog to spread out and give rise to everything from whales to elephants to wolves to tigers to monkeys to bats.
(Which lowly creature will be the progenitor of the next great dispersal of terrestrial fauna, the ancestor of the future Earth's grazers, climbers, burrowers, massive herbivores and apex predators? ? Will it be rats? Pigeons?)
Eventually, tens or hundreds of million years from now, another species will emerge with a complex social structure and an extraordinary cognitive ability. They’ll find ways to draw energy from their environment and buy themselves leisure time. Then with that leisure time, as any species in their situation would, they’ll begin to speculate about the planet they live on. How did it get to be this way? They’ll dig down, start examining rocks, and put together some facts about their planet’s history.
Looking at the rock strata and fossil record, they’ll be able to tell that Earth has had a number of periods of flourishing life, interrupted by sharp shocks. One shock was caused by a massive asteroid smashing into it and triggering a nuclear winter, which ended the dominance of the (flightless) dinosaurs and ushered in a phase of mammal-dominated life.
But the sixth mass extinction, the one that wiped out the big cats, the elephants, the whales, the monkeys, what caused that? I imagine this future sentient species puzzling over the evidence, trying to put it together.
It wasn’t a massive asteroid. It wasn’t a period of unusual volcanic activity. It looks like it was a runaway greenhouse effect: the atmosphere rapidly heated and triggered a whole series of other feedbacks. The methane trapped under the northern oceans broke loose and bubbled to the surface, the oceans acidifying out of control.
But what caused that greenhouse effect in the first place? And how do you explain the fact that in the period just before that mass extinction, the earth’s geology seemed to go crazy? Heavy minerals that had been buried in rock deposits all around the world suddenly vanished from those mountains and appeared in weird clusters all over the planet. Nitrates that virtually never occurred naturally were unexpectedly everywhere. Species that had always been confined to one continent abruptly appeared all over the planet, like the deck of ecosystems was reshuffled at random. Fossil fuel deposits buried under the earth for hundreds of millions of years were inexplicably released back into the atmosphere. And most incredibly, a massive spike of radioactive dust settled all over the globe.
How do you explain all that?
These future scientists, if they’re perceptive enough, might just be able to piece the evidence together and conclude the truth. If not, the aluminium will give it away.
There’s really only one way to produce aluminium: smelting tin in a very powerful furnace. Traces of aluminium in the fossil record are a clear indication that someone was here.
So these sleuthing historians will be able to come to this conclusion: it was a particular animal that did it, probably one of the mammal species that were prolific at that time. They somehow achieved a kind of global domination, enough that they were able to transform the planet to suit their needs, exploit the earth’s systems to their advantage, and in doing so, utterly devastated the planet. So much so that even they couldn’t survive the long-term impacts of the changes they made.
But here’s the joyful bit, for me: these scientists may be able to tell that it was one out-of-control species that fucked up the earth, but they’ll never guess it was us.
Once the dust has settled (in the geological sense), our legacy on Earth will be no more than a thin smear of plastic, crumbled concrete and decimated ecosystems. There’ll be the occasional fossilised Homo sapiens skeleton drowned in a muddy lagoon, sure, but no solid proof connecting them with the destruction we caused. Any other species active on the earth at this time might also have been at fault.
Our future scientists might blame the big cats. They were everywhere on the planet, and they look pretty ferocious, even in fossil form. Or it could have been dolphins – they had a suspiciously large brain for their body size. What were they doing with all those thoughts?
But in the end, I think they’ll pinpoint chickens as the real culprit. Their beaks and claws look far more capable of manipulating objects than our clumsy primate opposable thumbs. In the span of less than a century, these small flightless birds ballooned from an average weight of 800gm to 4.2kg – they grew five times in size. And where they’d previously been confined to a few temperate ecosystems, they were suddenly everywhere, and there were billions of them. If that’s not a sign that they were running the planet, what is?
My friends are concerned that we’ll leave behind some evidence that fingerprints us. Muttley says, “There’ll be fossilised chairs clearly designed for humans, that will last tens of millions of years.” Jack says, “All it takes is finding one fossilised primate with a gold tooth.” These are smoking guns, it’s true.
“But,” Jack continues, “while it feels like hard, thankless work trying to arrest our planetary slide into catastrophe, it would be relatively easy to spend our last hundred years as a species erasing evidence and pinning it on another creature.”
(In my head I’m imagining taping a mobile phone to a lion’s paw and dropping it in a muddy swamp where it’s certain to fossilise.)
Jack’s right, it’s far easier to cover up the scene of your crime than to try and repair the damage you've caused. It’s a strong and viable Plan B. And given our species is midway through a gleeful, fevered kamikaze trip, I’m all for Plan Bs.
Yes, we’re committing a kind of planetary-scale annihilation that is claiming a vast range of creatures and will, in the long term, claim us too. But once the earth recovers from the shock we’re inflicting on it, life will continue on, in all its wonderful complex weirdness. The earth won’t blame us, the earth won’t remember us. And if we’re lucky, future sentient species won’t either.
These days we take our solace where we can find it, hey.
This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #37 as part of the Levity series.
David Finnigan is a writer, theatre-maker and pharmacy assistant from Canberra. He is a member of science-theatre ensemble Boho and an associate of Coney (UK) and the Sipat Lawin Ensemble (Philippines). davidfinig.com