Now to the point: What would Charles Darwin say if he came back today and saw the mess that we’re making of planet Earth? All right, “mess” is a vague word, but please note that I don’t ask, What would he say about climate change? That’s putting the question too narrowly.
Although anthropogenic climate change is at last getting its due attention, we need to remember that it isn’t the biggest ethical and geo-bio-physical crisis we face; it’s only a subcategory of the biggest.
The biggest, of course, is the crisis of plummeting biological diversity, presently occurring by way of species extinction, the eradication of localized subspecies, the simplification of ecological processes, and the reduction of genetic variation within populations. Stated plainly, in terms so familiar they’ve begun to seem dreary: we are perpetrating a mass extinction.
And as we’ve all heard before, this event bodes to descend to a superlative nadir of awfulness, commensurate with the five greatest mass extinctions in Earth’s history: the Ordovician, the Devonian, the Permian, the Triassic, and the Cretaceous. We can call this one the Holocene extinction (as some experts have proposed), since that’s our present geological epoch. And we shouldn’t forget that, unlike all others, the Holocene extinction is attributable not to asteroid impact or catastrophic vulcanism or some other form of external accident, but to the actions of a single earthly species: us.
Those actions and their direct effects fall under six major headings: habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, overharvest (especially on islands and in the oceans), transfer of invasive species from one ecosystem to another, cascades of extinction that tumble through ecosystems, and finally, climate change, yes, because it exacerbates the effects of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and invasive species. The combined result of these six trends is so egregious that eons from now, when paleontologists from the planet Tralfamadore arrive to investigate, they will wonder what the hell happened in the late Holocene to life on Earth...
And then there is Quammen's essay Planet of Weeds (Harpers Magazine, October, 1998). I have re-printed part of that essay below. Along with Quammen's book Song of The Dodo (1996), Planet of Weeds greatly influenced my evolving views in the 1990's, when I was still a long, long way from understanding what was really happening on this planet.
Back then, I still had "obligatory hope" but the original source of that phrase appears in the excerpt below. I stole that brilliant phrase because it resonated with me 17 years ago. I never forgot it. Quammen is a truly great writer. He knows how to get to the heart of the matter.
Here's the excerpt from Planet of Weeds, starting at the beginning, skipping the middle, and including the ending. Follow the link to read the whole thing. I hope you will.
And the ending.
Now we come to the question of human survival, a matter of some interest to many. We come to a certain fretful leap of logic that otherwise thoughtful observers seem willing, even eager, to make: that the ultimate consequence will be the extinction of us. By seizing such a huge share of Earth's landscape, by imposing so wantonly on its providence and presuming so recklessly on its forgiveness, by killing off so many species, they say, we will doom our own species to extinction. This is a commonplace argument among the environmentally exercised. In earlier years, from a somewhat less informed perspective, I've made the same argument myself. Since then, my thinking has changed. My objection to the idea now is that it seems ecologically improbable and too optimistic. But it bears examining, because it's frequently offered as the ultimate argument against proceeding as we are.
Jablonski also has his doubts. Do you see Homo sapiens as a likely survivor, I ask him, or as a casualty? "Oh, we've got to be one of the most bomb-proof species on the planet," he says. "We're geographically widespread, we have a pretty remarkable reproductive rate, we're incredibly good at co-opting and monopolizing resources. I think it would take a really serious, concerted effort to wipe out the human species." The point he's making is one that has probably already dawned on you: Homo sapiens itself is the consummate weed. Why shouldn't we survive, then, on the Planet of Weeds?
But there's a wide range of possible circumstances, Jablonski reminds me, between the extinction of our species and the continued growth of human population, consumption, and comfort. "I think we'll be one of the survivors," he says, "sort of picking through the rubble." Besides losing all the pharmaceutical and genetic resources that lay hidden within those extinguished species, and all the spiritual and aesthetic values they offered, he foresees unpredictable levels of loss in many physical and biochemical functions that ordinarily come as benefits from diverse, robust ecosystems—functions such as cleaning and recirculating air and water, mitigating droughts and floods, decomposing wastes, controlling erosion, creating new soil, pollinating crops, capturing and transporting nutrients, damping short-term temperature extremes and longer-term fluctuations of climate, restraining outbreaks of pestiferous species, and shielding Earth's surface from the full brunt of ultraviolet radiation.
Strip away the ecosystems that perform those services, Jablonski says, and you can expect grievous detriment to the reality we inhabit. "A lot of things are going to happen that will make this a crummier place to live—a more stressful place to live, a more difficult place to live, a less resilient place to live—before the human species is at any risk at all."
And maybe some of the new difficulties, he adds, will serve as incentive for major changes in the trajectory along which we pursue our aggregate self-interests. Maybe we'll pull back before our current episode matches the Triassic extinction or the K-T event. Maybe it will turn out to be no worse than the Eocene extinction, with a 35 percent loss of species.
"Are you hopeful?" I ask.
Given that hope is a duty from which paleontologists are exempt, I'm surprised when he answers, "Yes, I am."
I'M NOT. MY OWN guess about the mid-term future, excused by no exemption, is that our Planet of Weeds will indeed be a crummier place, a lonelier and uglier place, and a particularly wretched place for the 2 billion people comprising Alan Durning's absolute poor. What will increase most dramatically as time proceeds, I suspect, won't be generalized misery or futuristic modes of consumption but the gulf between two global classes experiencing those extremes. Progressive failure of ecosystem functions? Yes, but human resourcefulness of the sort Julian Simon so admired will probably find stopgap technological remedies, to be available for a price.
So the world's privileged class—that's your class and my class—will probably still manage to maintain themselves inside Homer-Dixon's stretch limo, drinking bottled water and breathing bottled air and eating reasonably healthy food that has become incredibly precious, while the potholes in the road outside grow ever deeper. Eventually the limo will look more like a lunar rover. Ragtag mobs of desperate souls will cling to its bumpers, like groupies on Elvis's final Cadillac. The absolute poor will suffer their lack of ecological privilege in the form of lowered life expectancy, bad health, absence of education, corrosive want, and anger. Maybe in time they'll find ways to gather themselves in localized revolt against the affluent class, and just set to eating them, as Wells's Morlocks ate the Eloi. Not likely, though, as long as affluence buys guns. In any case, well before that they will have burned the last stick of Bornean dipterocarp for firewood and roasted the last lemur, the last grizzly bear, the last elephant left unprotected outside a zoo.
Jablonski has a hundred things to do before leaving for Alaska, so after two hours I clear out. The heat on the sidewalk is fierce, though not nearly as fierce as this summer's heat in New Delhi or Dallas, where people are dying. Since my flight doesn't leave until early evening, I cab downtown and take refuge in a nouveau-Cajun restaurant near the river. Over a beer and jambalaya, I glance again at Jablonski's 1991 Science paper, titled "Extinctions: A Paleontological Perspective." I also play back the tape of our conversation, pressing my ear against the little recorder to hear it over the lunch-crowd noise.
Among the last questions I asked Jablonski was, What will happen after this mass extinction, assuming it proceeds to a worst-case scenario? If we destroy half or two thirds of all living species, how long will it take for evolution to fill the planet back up? "I don't know the answer to that," he said. "I'd rather not bottom out and see what happens next."
In the journal paper he had hazarded that, based on fossil evidence in rock laid down atop the K-T event and others, the time required for full recovery might be five or ten million years. From a paleontological perspective, that's fast. "Biotic recoveries after mass extinctions are geologically rapid but immensely prolonged on human time scales," he wrote. There was also the proviso, cited from another expert, that recovery might not begin until after the extinction-causing circumstances have disappeared. But in this case, of course, the circumstances won't likely disappear until we do.
Still, evolution never rests. It's happening right now, in weed patches all over the planet. I'm not presuming to alert you to the end of the world, the end of evolution, or the end of nature. What I've tried to describe here is not an absolute end but a very deep dip, a repeat point within a long, violent cycle. Species die, species arise. The relative pace of those two processes is what matters. Even rats and cockroaches are capable—given the requisite conditions; namely, habitat diversity and time—of speciation. And speciation brings new diversity. So we might reasonably imagine an Earth upon which, ten million years after the extinction (or, alternatively, the drastic transformation) of Homo sapiens, wondrous forests are again filled with wondrous beasts. That's the good news.
Yes, that's the Good News.
March 23, 2017
I saw it coming, almost, before it came. I had a few seconds of murky premonition. And then bingo: a gentle sort of mugging—just a team pickpocket play, really, with downfield blocking—which was halfway clever, and nearly worked. Fortunately, I scuffled and I squawked. Even more fortunately, these small-time thieves weren’t carrying knives or guns or attitude. This was Paris, after all, city of grace and light.
It happened in the Réaumur-Sébastopol Metro station, while I was connecting in from the airport, riding a long crowded escalator toward my next train. Standing beside me was a little guy I thought I recognized. Hmm, wasn’t this the same fellow who, five minutes earlier, had accosted me smarmily, as I gawked at a map, asking if he could help me find my way? I had brushed him off, not rudely, and now here he was again, by strange coincidence, lurking like an innocent stranger at my elbow. Too fishy. I didn’t like that. But what I didn’t notice yet was that he had a comrade just in front of me and a comrade or two right behind. They had spotted me, from that first encounter, as easily as if I wore a sign on my back: I’m an American doofus, with a roll-aboard suitcase and a shoulder bag, and I don’t know just precisely where I’m going. Hey, why not rob me? When the front man caused a congestion, with a dropped-coins gambit at the escalator dismount point, and we all got bunched, I felt my wallet rise out of my back pocket like it was levitating.
Here’s what you do in that situation. You grab instantly at your right buttock, and you holler. You spin around, addressing the perps and everybody else on that stretch of escalator, and you holler some more: Who’s got my wallet?! You start pushing and snatching at the guys you guess to be responsible, yanking at their arms, trying to see their hands, hoping to impede their escape, which is impossible. People stare. A few onlookers scowl and tisk at you like you’re a lunatic or a boor and, worse still, one shouting in American English. A few others, who’ve seen what happened, understand completely. The three thieves, or maybe it’s four—they instantly melt away. And then, if you are very lucky, someone steps aside and says: Voila, monsieur, votre portefeuille. And indeed there it is, yes, your wallet—on the ground, surfing the escalator like flotsam. You have managed, if only barely, to bust the play.
This was me. This was Tuesday. I was the chump who got angry and lucky at the Réaumur-Sébastopol station.
It was a bad start to a good week. Within an hour I was safely settled at my hotel, a nice place in the 17th arrondissement not far from the Porte de Champerret. Next morning at 8 a.m. I met the contact I’d come to see, a scientist named Thierry Heidmann, whose work on the evolutionary significance of captured retroviruses in the human genome is as fascinating—in my view, anyway—as anything currently being done in biology. We rode in his little white Volkswagen through the heart of Paris toward his lab, at the Institute Gustave Roussy on the south edge of the city. Traffic wasn’t bad, and along the way Dr. Heidmann pointed out some sights: There’s the church de la Madeleine, this is the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre on our left as we cross the Seine, Notre Dame of course just upriver, then to the Boulevard Saint Germain, passing the Sorbonne, and over there the École Normale Supérieur, where he went to school as a kid. This man, every day, makes perhaps the world’s most elegant commute. At the institute, we talked for six hours about retrovirus genes that become human genes, a rich opportunity for me, a generous gift of time and patience by him; and he bought me lunch. What’s not to like? Then I returned across the city by Metro, in this case without mishap, and was back at my hotel by five--in time for a glass of wine and a salad at a brasserie just across the way, where I sat writing further notes.
My mission was accomplished, but I had another day in town, a cushion day, for pure pleasure. Should I visit a museum, go to a famous gallery, hit one of the other iconic spots of cultural tourism? One voice in my head said yes, but another said: Naw, let's just walk. So I spent the day doing what I always most enjoy in Paris: hoofing across the city, getting lost, getting unlost, eating wherever and seeing whatever serendipity brings. I took along an umbrella and my trusty booklet of Paris maps.
From the hotel I headed east on Avenue de Villiers and followed my nose to Rue de Levis, a small cobbled street, mostly for pedestrians, lined with fruit stalls and flower dealers and little bistros. Rue de Levis has been a favorite of mine since the early 2000s, when I spent many layover days hereabouts, at cheap hotels in the 17th, while on my way to other wondrous but less comfortable places, such as Romania and the Congo. From Levis I picked up another little lane, Rue des Dames, which took me across the big artery of train tracks leading into the Gare Saint-Lazare. On another bridge I crossed above the great cemetery of Montmartre, then started hoofing up Montmartre itself. Stopped for a late lunch at a brasserie halfway up: hot chevre salad and wine. Walking fuel, not enough to slow a person down. By now it was drizzling and I deployed the umbrella. Atop the hill I admired the three domes of Sacre Coeur, again, but didn't go inside. Now I was back amid the surge and flow of tourists, and from atop the great stairway we all gazed out over the city, misty and sublime. Below was the carrousel and the crepe stands and the souvenir shops and the postcard racks at the base of the funicular lift. Not my favorite spot, but part of the whole, and I was far too aware of being a tourist myself to feel any condescension about tourism. I was here for no purpose but to watch people and admire architecture and browse the corridors of community and commerce. I kept walking and once more got quite lost, heading north instead of west, until I had marched almost to the Porte de Saint-Ouen. So much for following my nose. The street angles can be tricky. It's not a square grid, like Chicago or Minneapolis. But I had my maps.
I made a nine or ten mile loop, just enough to build an appetite for dinner. Caught my breath at the hotel, changed to a dry shirt, did some work. Later in the evening, I treated myself to a good meal, of soup and duck and Bordeaux, at a place overlooking the roundabout at Place du Marechal Juin. Now it was raining steadily--a cold, steady spring rain. Seated cozy and warm by the window, I watched runnels pour off the awning. Beyond, cars and pedestrians and lights. I suppose I hadn't "improved" myself culturally, but it was a fine day. Who needs museums. Paris is a museum.