“Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new naval passageways and new opportunities for trade…”
— Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State
Losing a civilization is painful. Building a new civilization takes a while — usually hundreds of years — and an enormous amount of struggle, effort and sacrifice.
That’s one of my takeaways from a recent trip my wife and I took to Ireland and the U.K. While there, we visited sites ranging from Ireland’s Neolithic Newgrange “passage tomb,” dating from 3,200 B.C., to London’s ultra-contemporary Tate Modern art museum. We walked through the remains of structures and towns built successively by the ancient Celts, the Romans, Saxons, and Normans and the Medieval, Renaissance and recent Irish, Welsh, English and Scots.
Each civilization had its flowering that sustained a unique culture and its art, architecture, writing and music. And each had its demise — usually, although not always due to the incursion of the next wave of conquerors who laid waste to the land, the people and their way of life — leading to centuries of depression and suffering. Only gradually, brick by brick, plowed furrow by plowed furrow, was the dark period of subsistence living transformed into a vibrant and prosperous civilization.
Understanding how difficult it is to replace what is lost should give us pause when we hear glib talk about the purported benefits of global climate change. But since it is becoming more and more ludicrous to deny that climate change is real and its effects are upon us, the former deniers seem to be changing their tactics and claiming that the snowballing destruction is actually beneficial. Indeed, we might want to crank out more greenhouse gases and hasten its coming.
“Two thousand years of published history says that warm periods are good for people,” argues one Dennis Avery, a pseudoscientist who confuses natural historical warming and cooling cycles — which have stayed within a certain livable range for the last 11,000 years — with the radical shift in global temperature that’s currently underway.
Many have argued that carbon dioxide is a beneficial gas because it feeds plants. True enough, but what they fail to recognize is that the role of CO2 in the biosphere is analogous to that of common table salt in the body — it’s necessary for life, but is only beneficial in the right quantity. If you don’t get enough salt, you die. If you get too much salt, you die. No CO2, no plants; too much CO2, and the planet turns into a desert.
There are those who say that when the Midwest dries up we can move our agricultural base to the thawing Canadian Shield. But much of that northern land lacks nutrients because little or nothing has grown there for thousands of years.
Then there’s the extraction-exploitation crowd that says ,“Look at all that petroleum under the Arctic sea floor and all those rare minerals buried beneath Greenland’s ice.”
So, some money might be made — but at what cost? Should we draw up a balance sheet that sets future profits from fossil fuel and mineral extraction against the loss of most of the world’s fisheries and much of its agricultural production? What about the forced abandonment of vast areas of the planet, including many of the great coastal cities? Clearly, climate-change damage will cost a great deal more than any economic benefits that might accrue.
But that’s just the money. The real loss will be to the habitability of the biosphere and to human development. It has taken thousands of years of toil to advance our global civilization as far as we have. Even if we could rebuild it, a proposition that is far from certain, its loss will be suffered for a very long time at our ecological house.