I just read The Ends of the World, by Peter Brannen, 2017 Harper Collins, about the amazing times that life on earth was mostly wiped out. The question remains whether we are in the middle of another episode of mass extinction caused by man. But apparently the earth is perfectly capable of going terribly wrong without humans. Every hundred million years or so, 5 times in the last 500 million years since animals bigger than single celled organisms have roamed the earth, 75 to more than 90% of everyone, plant and animal has gone extinct all at once. If humans are causing the next catastrophe it is ahead of schedule since the dinosaurs and company were killed off 66 million years ago.
Every time these things happen it involves too much carbon dioxide CO2 in the air and global warming. But that’s not enough by itself. There have been times when palm trees and crocodiles cavorted at the north pole for millions of years. To cause a mass extinction you also need a perfect storm of many other things which are not all well understood. In the most recent case of the dinosaurs there were massive volcano eruptions that put beaucoup CO2 in the atmosphere. At the same time a massive asteroid hit the earth possibly exacerbating the volcanic eruptions. But asteroids just as big hit the earth several times during the 100 million year reign of the dinosaurs of the mesozoic era and that didn’t seem to bother them.
Brannen also exposes the myth of the aboriginal human in harmony with the environment. Humans are always rapacious and environmentally destructive. As soon as ancient humans gained access to the American continents about 20,000 years ago all kinds of the big animals went extinct, presumably because humans ate them. That also happened in Europe and Asia and Australia. Africa is the exception to the rule but it’s happening now. The ancient Mayans culture collapsed and they abandoned their big cities after they deforested their environment and exhausted the soil.
A paradox of more recent history is that in war torn societies with turmoil and poor governing, the population explodes. But when humans have a stable government and live in peace and harmony with each other, they get fat and happy but the rate of population growth decreases. If we could just use our scientific ingenuity and rationally figure out how to coexist with each other we might avert the next calamity by living at the north pole, at least until we get hit by an asteroid or a gamma ray burst.
Humans haven’t been on the earth even 1 million years yet. Maybe some day we’ll be as big as a tyranosaurus rex. Brannen believes his mother who said before she died, quoting Julian of Norwich, an English medieval mystic, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” I was inclined to go along with that optimism but then we had the last election.
John DiTraglia M.D. is a Pediatrician in Portsmouth. He can be reached by e-mail- firstname.lastname@example.org or phone-354-6605.
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