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After Copenhagen

By George Mawer - posted Wednesday, 6 January 2010

It’s disappointing that something better did not come from the Copenhagen talks but I suppose the outcome was to be expected. There were about 1,500 people at the conference but the voting representatives would have been much fewer. Even if there were only 50 actual voters it would still have been difficult to get much agreement.

So what of the future? What will happen over the next 100 years or so? Will any country do what is needed to minimise the rate of global warming? Will the natural forces driving global warming wait while humanity dithers? If we all close our eyes will it all go away and the climate magically return to what we would like? Of course not! We will go on doing what we do and the climate will go on doing what it must - it doesn’t care - and we still won’t want to change our ways.

There is evidence that Earth’s climate has been slowly warming for many hundreds of years so I don’t think there was ever anything we could have done to avoid some level of change. By continuing to live the way we do, by continuing to burn vast amounts of fossil fuels and by deforesting the planet we have created conditions that cause the climate to change at a faster rate than ever before in Earth’s history. Earth’s biosphere, the place where we live, is heating up faster than what life on the planet will be able to cope with, and that includes humanity.


Most people think of the human race as separate from other life on Earth but that’s a big mistake. We are just one species of life on Earth. We are just one component of Earth’s biosphere. Earth’s biosphere is what we are part of and it’s where all Earth life lives. It includes all of the oceans and the air up to a few miles high and a few metres depth of soil on the land surface. It seems pretty big to most but few people really appreciate just how thin the film of air, water and soil clinging to Earth’s surface is. The oceans seem deep and vast, the air seems miles high and there is soil all over the land, but the reality is that those three life supporting ingredients, land, sea and air, are a comparatively thin film covering the surface of the planet.

Let’s get the size of Earth’s biosphere into perspective. Earth is about 13,000km in diameter. The biosphere, the land, sea and air that supports life, together, averages about 13km thick. So if we scale the planet down to 1.3km diameter the biosphere would be 1.3m thick. If we scale down further to where Earth is 1.3m diameter, like a big beach ball, the biosphere would be 1.3mm thick. That’s not much thicker than a couple of coats of paint on the beach ball. All of the activities of life and the storms and weather and the seasons happen within that thin layer. Note: all the lumps and bumps come within that 1.3mm so Earth is really a very smooth ball. Reduced to the size of a billiard ball it would be almost as smooth - and very slightly damp.

Few people I talk with seem to understand there is only one life on Earth and that is “The Biosphere”. Earth’s biosphere is really one living organism and all life contributes to the health of the biosphere. And all life within the biosphere is co-dependent, which means that we all need each other. Every time any species goes extinct the biosphere is weakened. The record shows that the richness and diversity of life on Earth waxes and wanes. The health and richness of the biosphere builds up and dies down at irregular intervals.

Although Earth is about 4,500 million years old, and life originated about 3,800 million years ago, life didn’t really get going until about 400 million years ago. That’s when life moved out of the seas onto the land and into the air and quickly spread all over the planet. There have been many times in the past 400 million years when the biosphere has been very healthy with a rich diversity of life. Then there have been many times when global extinctions of species has reduced the diversity of life and impoverished the biosphere. Even though there is no obvious pattern to these irregular happenings, they do seem to be cyclic. There is evidence that there is a global extinction of species of unprecedented proportions operating as you read this, caused by humans as we exterminate and displace other species. Although we don’t feel any pain it’s almost like cutting bits off ourselves as we increasingly prune living bits off the biosphere.

There are of course many factors involved but the really big one is that there are just too many of us. From about 100,000 years ago, when we discovered that a club and a spear gave us tremendous (unnatural) superiority over all of the other animals, our numbers have steadily increased and their numbers have steadily decreased.

Then from when we started to industrialise and mechanise our food production, about 200 years ago, our numbers have exploded. During those 200 years our numbers increased from about 700 million to more than 7 billion, a tenfold increase. We have seriously overpopulated the planet and our numbers are still increasing. In some areas overpopulation has long passed the point where the numbers are sustainable and they don’t have enough to eat. In other countries excessive population numbers and excessive consumption, which is propped up with technology is depleting natural resources at an alarming rate.


My opinion

The bad news is: the planet seems to be preparing to get rid of us. I believe climate change will prove to be much faster than presently predicted and that humanity may eventually be obliterated.

The good news is: without us there is a chance that Earth’s biosphere will regenerate. A rich new diversity of life will have the opportunity to evolve and hopefully never again produce a species like us. The solar system will last a few billion years yet so there is time for Earth to produce a more intelligent species that will take its place in some future interstellar/galactic/universal community.

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About the Author

George Mawer is retired. He is a keen bushwalker and gives public speeches on the topic of cosmology.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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