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Rebirthing Planet Earth

by Zhiwa Woodbury

Planetary Hospice, part 1 of 2

This brilliant & beautifully researched paper by Zhiwa Woodbury frames our work in a way that can release fresh understandings and energy. - Joanna Macy

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There have been five great extinctions in the history of planet Earth during the 540 million years since complex life emerged. According to the National Geographic Society, “we are in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction, an event characterized by the loss of between 17,000 and 100,000 species each year” The worst of the five extinctions, often referred to as the Great Dying, resulted in the loss of 95% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial species.The severity of the Great Dying, which required ten million years to recover from, is largely attributed to mass releases of methane from the oceans and tundras triggered by (and quickly doubling) a spike in global temperatures of only about six degrees (from volcanic activity). Because of escalating releases of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the course of the industrial age, we are now starting to see a similar triggering of terrestrial and sea-bed methane, such that some scientists fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible—even in the course of just the next few decades.

From an eco-psychological viewpoint, climate change is like the tip of the iceberg visible to the human eye, while just beneath the surface of our collective consciousness a far greater crisis is playing out. In fact, it is helpful to think of the oceans themselves as symbolic of our unconscious depths. Viewed from atop the Earth’s surface, climate change has the appearance of dramatic changes in weather patterns that are wreaking ever greater havoc on concentrated human populations - especially those on islands or along coastal areas. But look just beneath the surface and one sees a watery graveyard with ominous portents of our own collective, great dying. While we are mostly being inconvenienced by extreme weather events, the oceans from which all life emerged on this planet are in far worse shape.

A Terminal Diagnosis
The Great Anthropocentric Extinction is upon us. Sober consideration of the current, cascading evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that life as we have come to know it is, quite simply, at an end. While rising terrestrial temperatures are largely associated with atmospheric (climate) impacts of carbon dioxide, the fact of the matter is that the oceans have absorbed between one-third and one-half of all CO2 released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Age (525 billion tons). The cumulative impacts of this input, together with the unconscionable destruction of ocean floor ecosystems from a century of trawling, are dramatic changes in ocean water chemistry, increasing the acidity of the waters by 26%, and severe losses in biodiversity. According to the United Nations, “more than half of global fisheries are exhausted, and a further third are depleted. Between 30 and 35 per cent of critical marine environments — such as sea grasses, mangroves and coral reefs — are estimated to have been destroyed... and pollution from land is creating areas of coastal waters that are almost devoid of oxygen”. Anecdotal evidence looks even worse. On a recent trans-Pacific voyage he had completed many times previously, sailor Ivan Macfadyen distressingly recounted his “shock and horror” at the near absence of any life compared to his prior passages: “It felt as if the ocean itself was dead.” 

Unfortunately, the news only gets worse. Once the planet heats up enough to trigger methane releases from permafrost and the oceans, it is not unlike having a gas leak in your home. While the Great Dying resulted from a rise of only 6ºC, under current emission targets we are on track for about a 4ºC rise in temperature before the end of this century, according to the World Bank. That is on the low end of the probable rise. A 2011 paper authored by Jeffrey Kiehl from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published in the journal Science, "found that carbon dioxide may have at least twice the effect on global temperatures than currently projected by computer models of global climate." Contrary to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) worst case scenario of 6ºC by 2100, which itself would result in a virtually uninhabitable planet, Kiehl et al. distressingly conclude that we may actually see an unimaginable 16ºC rise by the end of the century. And the conservative International Energy Agency released a report in November 2013 predicting a 3.5ºC increase by 2035. From a planetary perspective, this is tantamount to the “less than six months to live” diagnosis that triggers hospice care for an individual. In effect, we as a species are now on life support, teetering on the threshold of our very own Great Dying.

As an environmental attorney who studied environmental engineering and a life-long activist who has been tracking these issues closely for three decades, I can personally attest how difficult it is to accept this kind of dystopian reality as fact. While humans are actually hardwired to focus on threats, we also have always been able to minimize them and adapt to changed environments, and the idea that we might not be able to do that this time is hard to fathom. But if there is any pattern to climate revelations over the last decade (the hottest on record, with each successive year being hotter than the last), it is this: reality continues to outstrip our ability to model worst-case scenarios, and it is all happening much faster than anticipated. In fact, “according to a recent, exhaustive study commissioned by the US Department of Energy and headed by a scientific team from the U.S. navy, by the summer of 2015, the Arctic Ocean could be bereft of ice, a phenomenon that will engender devastating consequences for the Earth's environment and every living creature on the planet. 

And now methane has, in fact, begun to seep into the atmosphere from the oceans and permafrost at staggering rates, causing worldwide alarm of scientists and researchers (but not politicians or mainstream journalists). A NASA science team characterized these recent readings as “amazing and potentially troubling.”  As one close follower of climate issues recently observed, we are at a critical turning point:

"If we have triggered a self-reinforcing methane feedback - and there is growing evidence that we have - then there is little point in talking about solutions. What is needed is a strategy for maximizing the quality of life for those of our species who survive the coming catastrophe. There will be fewer of us, and we will consume far less, and the world will be a far harsher place. We will, quite literally, be inhabiting an alien environment, and our best bet is to prepare ourselves for the softest possible landing in this hostile new world".
- Atcheson, 2013

All of this is only compounded by the real ‘inconvenient truth’ - there is a 40 year lag-time between global emissions (what we do) and climate impacts (what we experience). This means that average temperatures of the last decade are a consequence of emissions from the 1960’s, and that the acceleration in climate changes we are now witnessing is locked in till at least 2050.Beyond this, there is little hope for reversing global trends without visionary leadership from America. Unfortunately, politics - especially American politics - has never been more myopic and impotent. In an alarming 2007 report from the IPCC, normally staid scientists warned that world governments had eight years to take ‘drastic actions’ in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Three years later, the climate talks in Doha torpedoed any chance of taking any effective action globally, let alone ‘drastic’ action, before 2020, locking in accelerating climate change now until at least 2060.

Our world political leaders give no indication whatsoever that they intend to reign in the giant fossil fuel corporations that fund their campaigns and are currently sowing the seeds of our collective demise. Remarkably, politicians are so detached from reality as to view the melting of arctic sea ice as an ‘opportunity’ to go after even more petrochemical reserves,while the five largest corporations in the world mercilessly exploit the Canadian tar sands - the largest industrial project in the history of civilization mining the dirtiest carbon fuels in existence. Leading climate scientist James Hansen, who has consistently been the conscience of the planet from his position with the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Agency, calls the tar sands project “game over” for the climate. Tar sands mining is proceeding apace without any objections from our political leaders, and enthusiastic support from Canada’s own avaricious government.

Because of the dysfunction of politics and the stranglehold corporations now have over world trade, the idea that growth-obsessed political leaders will suddenly decide to address today a problem that is forty years in the future, by making big sacrifices during a period of extended economic disruption, is naive. The most that can be hoped for is half measures - which are tantamount to leaping half way across a chasm - or a total and sustained global economic collapse.

In short, the Great Anthropocentric Dying is upon us.

Our situation is, regrettably, terminal.

Go to Part 2

◊ Zhiwa Woodbury is a longtime dharma practitioner, hospice provider & environmental attorney.The above is an extract from   his full referenced article, available as a PDF here. Publ. here 6.5.2014


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