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The Hotspur memorandum and growing threats to humanity

Part 3 of 3

Far from plummeting, human population has steadily risen. At the outset of the Industrial Era, world population stood at 1.2 billion; it now stands at 7.6 billion, with a projected rise to 9.7 billion by 2050. Another startling statistic was provided in the latest NASA Global Climate Change Report: “During ice ages, CO2 levels were around 200 parts per million (ppm), and during the warmer interglacial periods, they hovered around 280 ppm. In 2013, CO2 levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history. This recent relentless rise in CO2 shows a remarkably constant relationship with fossil-fuel burning.” 

And then there’s the global spread of plastic, as epitomized by the vast islands of plastic garbage that rove the Pacific Ocean, weighing more than 250,000 tons, micro bits of which are found in every aquatic animal, and in birds and humans that consume them. Our plastic waste has become part of our diet.

It is the ubiquity of plastic that compelled members of the International Geographical Congress, held in Cape Town in August 2016, to consider plastic pollution as one among several developments that serve as evidence of the dawn of the Anthropocene. The worldwide spread of radioactive isotopes released by atom bombs was a serious contender. 

Prof. Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester who took part in the Cape Town conference, has advocated adopting the new term ever since Paul Crutzen proposed its adaptation in 2000. He was one of the 21 co-authors of “Are we now living in the Anthropocene?,” which appeared in the February 2008 issue of GSA Today, the publication of the Geological Society of America; the authors concluded that the answer to the question posed in the title was yes. 

Zalasiewicz has become increasingly outspoken about the threat plastic poses to the planet and its inhabitants. As he explained in a 2016 interview with Next Nature Network, a Dutch digital platform: “We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years… Once buried, plastics have a good chance to be fossilized — and leave a signal of the ultimate convenience material for many million years into the future.” The adaptable rat, he proposes, will have the run of the rubble.

In the seminal 2007 article by Crutzen and colleagues the authors observed: “About 60 percent of ecosystem services are already degraded and will continued to degrade unless significant societal changes in values and management occur.” Changes in societal values, shaped by advertising, the entertainment and airline industries (with 100,000 airplane flights per day) and the need of corporations to answer to their stockholders rather than to society at large, would seem to make it inevitable that what the authors might call The Great Degradation will accelerate until, as Shakespeare imagined, time as measured by humans will have a stop.

Conceivably, our children or grandchildren will be able to slow, or perhaps reverse, our species’ descent into oblivion by compelling legislatures and courts to reverse the prodigal misuse of our natural resources, as in cases like Juliana v United States. The suit was filed in August 2015 by 21 young plaintiffs — Juliana is the family name of one of them — suing the U.S. government for failing to protect them from climate change by supporting an energy system reliant on fossil fuels regardless of its effect on the environment. With the guidance of a nonprofit called Our Children’s Trust, the case has proceeded from the district-court level to the appellate and is now scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in October.

While the young bring invaluable energy to the fight to halt the mindless destruction of our natural resources, we, their elders, must join in the struggle to prevent planet Earth from being ceded to King Rat.

Jon Swan is a poet, journalist and former senior editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Several years ago, after living in the Berkshires for 40 years, he and his wife moved to Yarmouth, Maine. His poems and several articles may be found at www.jonswanpoems.com.