(Or: Can you eat your planet and have it too?…)
Here’s a delicious planet, perfectly formed and heaving with life. We’ve had three billion years of pretty good weather, give or take an ice age and the odd mass extinction. But big changes have been happening in the last 10 000 years. The graph of wild animal numbers has gone into free fall. There’s been a huge change in land use to grow food for humans, and the Earth’s settings have been adjusted to new and experimental levels due to extra carbon dioxide in the atmospheric mix. Carbon dioxide is a Good Thing – we’d be too cold for life without it. But a little too much has a big effect on climate. The Earth is a huge old system and the more you find out about past climates the more you wonder what long wild ride is being unleashed right now.
We know we have to do something about this. But the Something we have to do has to be quite a big thing, to really make an impact. Maybe it means treating CO2 as if it is an amazingly expensive and rare resource, to be used very sparingly, as if we’re completely running out of the stuff. And maybe it involves setting some limits: setting aside some sea to be no fishing zones, setting aside our forest to stay forest, and realising that as a species we are the only one that can try to regulate our population to a level that our planet can accommodate. But all these things are givey-uppy things: someone has to not fish, someone has to find another living, someone has to decide to have less children than they might like. Nature is really messy and inconvenient and eats our crops and probably us too if we let it. We might decide to make carbon really expensive so we use it more carefully – but then someone has to find life is more expensive. Like you. And me.
Does a struggle have to happen – can Now-Us take a hit for Future-Us?
So that’s the Global Marshmallow Test facing us; do we have the power to imagine how extremely grateful future beings will be to us if we leave the wondrous carboniferous fossil fuels buried for now. (They might even need them in a few hundred years time if there’s an unexpected ice age.) And how grateful they might be to us for having put up with the inconvenience of animals and their habitats so they could inherit some of the bizarre treasure of the extraordinary beings that evolution has produced that share the world with us.
PS: Here’s the proper fabulous picture of the Plumb-Pudding in Danger by Gillray in case you were missing it:PPS: How? Here’s James Hansen on the idea of a Carbon Fee and Dividend (payable to all taxpayers) (on page 5)
PPPS: Here’s a brilliant lecture by Dr Scott Wing about how the climate of 55 million years ago can tell us a lot about now.