James Lovelock died. Just one of the many of thousands who die every day. He died on his 103rd birthday in his home with his family around him. Not bad but what makes him so special?
Lovelock, a pioneer of climate science, proposed the Gaia hypothesis (represented in the graphic above from Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere published by Stanford University) in the 1960s. The earth functions as a self-regulating system with everything interconnected. Living organisms impact the environment and evolve in response to the change. Ocean, atmosphere, geology, flora, and fauna. A veritable Eden when in balance.
Sol Roth also died in 2022. Sol is a character in 1973’s eerily prescient movie “Soylent Green.” The premise is that by 2022 the planet has experienced irreversible climate change. Hot and overpopulated, it’s degraded to the point where it can’t produce enough food and the general population subsists on the artificial food Soylent Green.
Sol (Edward G. Robinson in his final role), an old man, decides on assisted suicide at one of the state-run facilities. As he dies, classical music soothes him and scenes of nature play on a surrounding screen. Flowers and lush foliage. Clean air and sparkling rivers. Oceans, land, and sky teeming with life. The Eden of his youth.
He has a final conversation with his friend Thorn (Charlton Heston), a younger man who never knew a world not despoiled.
“Can you see it? Isn’t it beautiful?”
Thorn, “Oh yes.”
“I told you.”
Thorn, “How could I know? How could I? How could I ever imagine?”
Two men died. One real, one fictional. A single theme.
Gaia, the Eden of our youth, is out of balance and tumbling rapidly toward the climate collapse hellscape of Soylent Green. We are already at 1°C above the stable climate of the last 10,000 years. Throughout this time carbon in the atmosphere hovered around 260 ppm. According to NASA, it’s now 415 ppm. Remember when 350 ppm was the red line we couldn’t cross?
Can we stop it? Can we rebalance Gaia? Can we even stabilize? It would take a series of drastic actions.
First, we need to reach the critical mass of people informed and concerned enough to organize and act. Extinction Rebellion lays out strategies and assists organization. The youth group Sunrise Movement is comprised of the living generation who will begin to experience the worst of climate change. To affect true change will require mass mobilization. This is a fight for Gaia’s life and all the plants and animals, including us, who live on her. As George Carlin said, the planet will be just fine. She’ll shake us off like fleas.
Second, immediate cessation of fossil fuel extraction and use. The apple in our Eden. Numerous obstacles stand in the path forward. We haven’t yet built up our renewable capacity and until that happens it would have disastrous effects on the economies and, more importantly, the people of the world.
Think about shipping, for example. There is no current carbon-neutral energy source to replace fossil fuels in long distance shipping. A quick fix would be to restart nuclear energy production. The risks in balance to escalating global heating look more doable.
Also, think of all the products we use daily that have petroleum as an ingredient. Plastics are the big one. Seemed like a good idea in “The Graduate” (1967) but now try to think of something that isn’t made of or packaged in plastic.
Petrochemical fertilizer. How would we transition to organic farming? Synthetic fabrics. It’s getting easier to find natural fibers like cotton, linen, or wool but polyester still dominates.
Even if we cease all fossil use at this moment, temperatures will continue to rise, although at a less accelerated rate, for decades.
We need to break the backs of the fossil fuel companies who, for decades past and continuing, block any meaningful environmental legislation and growth in renewable infrastructure. They’ve convinced us that our individual actions, recycling and such, will make a difference. They won’t. Not individually. But our actions can effect change if we organize. We can’t do that until we admit and confront our addiction to fossil fuels. Not individually but systemically. Change has to decapitate the black snake.
Third, true energy neutral carbon capture. The World Resources Institutes discusses six methods of atmospheric carbon removal. None of which alone or in tandem are equal to the scale of the problem. According to NASA it will take 300-1,000 years to return to preindustrial carbon levels without remediation. Massive worldwide R&D funds need to prioritize carbon remediation.
Gaia needs a crash cart. Immediate organized extreme intervention. The current tinkering around the edges amounts to hospice care. We’ve acknowledged the patient is dying and aim to lessen the pain. Are we willing to settle for that?
We have it now, within our grasp to determine which generation, if any, will live in Thorn’s world of Soylent Green. We, the living generations, are Sol. We have lived in Eden or something pretty darn close to it. Don’t we want at least that for our children and grandchildren?
Watch the NASA climate spiral that traces average monthly temperature from 1880 to the present. There’s a brief temperature increase in the 1940s but it began to increase rapidly by 1980.
We are now 1°C above Eden. Watch how fast that cone at the end expands and imagine where it goes in the next 10, 20, or 50 years. The lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.
Kathy Gustafson, a lifelong South Dakotan who lives in Brookings, is a mother and grandmother who is now retired and concerned about the “Balkanization” of our country. It takes a lot for her to speak out, she said, but she has reached that point