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Climate Change, humanity and a tomato

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Three months ago, I was short-listed in the New Philosopher magazine for my article about luck. I didn't win but it was still an enjoyable compliment. The new issue is out of the magazine but unfortunately I didn't make the short-list this time with my offering on the subject of 'Nature'. Rather than let the article disappear into the ether, here it is for your delight and delectation:

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The word ‘nature’ has multiple meanings. For example, it can mean as the entire natural world, earth’s ecosystem. Alternatively, it can refer to a person’s fundamental way of behaving, their nature. As a result, when someone thinks of ‘nature’, they could be thinking of our planet’s environment or human behaviour in general. What’s more, they might even be thinking of something quite mundane, something that possesses the magical property of life, like a humble tomato, a physical manifestation of the wondrous process known as ‘nature’.

Accordingly, this essay will be about all three of those things in that order; our planet’s ecosystem, fundamental human behaviour and a small, red fruit that masquerades as a vegetable. Before I continue, a note of warning; this article will be depressing early on but, by its end, will become very positive and hopeful, a bit like a Disney movie.

First up is Nature, as in the natural world. The future of our Earth’s environment is looking awful. According to the scientific evidence, the human race is in for a serious battering in the next century as our planet’s climate turns apocalyptic. Global warming is accelerating, powered by an enormous annual CO2 output from a fossil-fuel-obsessed world, combined with multiple, natural feedback mechanisms such as ice loss, methane releases and runaway forest fires. This ongoing, seismic change in our climate will stress a global population still ballooning in size. In addition, the huge shift in ice and water on our continental landmasses created by climate change is very likely to trigger at least one major earthquake / volcanic eruption. The devastation inflicted by these events will tip a global, stressed situation into an all-out violent fight for resources and useful land. Yup, it sounds horrible. But strangely enough, such an outcome may not be an entirely bad thing. The answer to why a future climate catastrophe could have a positive effect on our species leads us into the second meaning of the word ‘nature’; our human race’s basic attitudes and behaviour.

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For a very long time in our history as a species, we have lived as hunter-gatherers, a life that consisted of gathering what the natural world around us produced, naturally. There was no need to ‘work’, as such; we simply used our accumulated knowledge to find and take food and materials beneficial to us. We did not impact on the natural world, we just existed as another recipient of its bounty. Such an existence was balanced and could have effectively lasted forever.

But more recently, our species switched to a mode of existence known as civilisation. In this mode of operating, we’ve been exploiting the natural world for our own gain. All aspects of civilisation; agriculture, nuclear power, fossil fuels, disposable goods, plastics, landfills, pollution, all are negative to the natural world. They are also part of a psychological separation from the natural world, a mentality in which the natural world is both an obstacle to progress and a danger. Such a way of thinking has given us the heady delights of technology and material excess but, not surprisingly, it is an approach that is entirely unsustainable; it can only result, eventually, in an environmental collapse which will take nearly all of us down with it. The Maya chose a civilisation-exploitation system and suffered the inevitable outcome; a massive collapse followed by a prolonged period of bare subsistence. The Western World will soon do the same.

Perceptive readers will have noticed that this article is still doing a darned good impression of being very depressing, but bear with me. When the climate change disaster does finally knock us for six, we’ll enter a new age. In this future age, we will be much reduced in our numbers but we will still have enough numbers to continue as a species, since any species can be genetically healthy with only ten thousand members. We will be living on a planet that is no longer a hospitable, bounteous place. Instead, it will be a harsh, violent planet that will kill any group who weakens, whose members fight amongst themselves or who drift into self-harming addictions. There won’t be any time for alcohol, drugs, standing armies, banks, money or other facets of civilisation, as those elements are only possible when a civilisation is feeding off the accumulated resources present in its environment (rich soils, fossil fuels etc). It’ll be all hands to the pumps all the time.

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To give an idea of what such a future Earth will be like to live in, we can draw upon the experiences of people who have been testing what it would be like to colonise Mars. For example, in a recent issue of New Scientist magazine (7th Jan 2017), the doctor Sheyna Gifford was interviewed about her year-long stint in a NASA simulated Mars colony on a dormant volcano in Hawaii. Her report is filled with thought-provoking experiences. Here is one particularly interesting answer from her in the interview:

Q: Based on your experiences, what sort of outlook would the first Mars colonists develop?

A: If you took someone and born and raised on Mars and dropped them in Times Square, they would freak out at the amount of electricity being used for no good reason. Probably all the electricity we produced in a day would be burned in seconds. Earthly trash cans are full of things we Martians would never throw away. We’d either reuse it or melt it down and 3D-print it into something else. We don’t value stuff on Mars except in terms of its utility. Money is useless and the only thing that matters is how smart, sane and capable you are.

Sheyna’s reply is illuminating because it describes a very different but more meaningful existence to the lives led by many of us at the moment. From her experiences in Hawaii, it looks as if a future life of existence in a protected dome, surrounded by a dangerous, lethal environment will be harsh but it will focus the minds of the people concerned. Those dome-dwellers will not be addled by recreational drugs, living as couch potatoes, fearful of the latest television news, doing jobs that seem pointless to them, having their spare income sucked from them to pay for weapons. They won’t be spending their lives hypnotised by advertising, addicted to consumerism; all that will be gone. Instead, the minds of those dome-dwellers will be sharp as humans have ever been because they will be thinking very hard of how to live another day. In the same way that past science experiments have shown that a person short on food has a far more focussed and alert mind, those future dome-dwellers will be acutely aware and focussed on items we barely glance at now. To illustrate this point, here is Sheyna’s report on the team eating their first dome-grown tomatoes:

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“Our first Martian holiday was in honour of our first tomato harvest. Our astrobiologist spent months raising those tomatoes. They grew out of bottles, hydroponically, because we had very little soil, just like on Mars. We each got one. We set out plates, sprinkled over dried parsley, lit candles and showed up nicely dressed for our one tomato. That was the first tomato we’d had in at least four months. I took my tomato and smelled it like a maniac for ten minutes - it smelled like a whole hothouse of tomatoes.”

For Sheyna, at that moment, Nature was an intensely meaningful object in her hands. She treasured it, knowing what had been required for that tomato to come into existence. Her nature as a person had become one fundamentally different to that of a twentieth-century, suburban professional. For her, Nature was fundamentally different and viscerally more important; in the few months she’d been in the dome, her attitude to Nature had been completely transformed.

This is why I think our future, though seemingly bleak, may become the greatest of godsends. By being forced to exist in protected domes on our inhospitable planet for centuries or millennia, we as a species will learn a traumatic yet valuable lesson. The old adage that ‘everyone learns the hard way’ will become deeply true for us as a sentient race. We will become a species who no longer take Nature for granted but earnestly strive to help it exist at all. Our technological ability will no longer be used for natural destruction but instead, for natural renewal. In this way we, as a species, will move through all the meanings of ‘nature’ in the next centuries. Nature will collapse, causing a forced change in our nature that will make us treasure Nature in its every manifestation. Our new and better nature will enable us, in time, to rescue Nature itself. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:

"Nature always wears the colours of the spirit."


Fingers crossed, it will.