Our last gasp be­fore we burn

The few who sur­vive the dis­as­ters of our own mak­ing will not escape the day of reck­on­ing

Mail & Guardian - - News - Sipho Kings

The Fall. That’s how we talk about it these days; the first catastrophe. From the way our sto­ry­tellers weave it, it didn’t seem like the hu­man­ity-defin­ing mo­ment that it was when things started to crum­ble. There had been gi­gan­tic wars and chaos around the world, cost­ing mil­lions of lives, and nu­clear dis­as­ters. Killing our­selves seemed like the worst thing that could hap­pen. We were in charge. We could build and de­stroy, seem­ingly re­plac­ing God. How wrong we were.

As so of­ten hap­pens, it started with drought and bread. By the mid-21st cen­tury, our at­ten­tion was on the livestream from the Mars colony (a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship be­tween Nasa and Amer­i­can com­pa­nies).

A Chi­nese colony on the Moon was build­ing our first proper colony ship, us­ing the Moon’s low grav­ity and min­ing pass­ing as­ter­oids to make a ves­sel that would take us into the dark­ness be­yond our so­lar sys­tem.

Our imagination cap­tured, we ig­nored what was hap­pen­ing on the only place known to have oxy­gen — Earth.

A quick suc­ces­sion of El Niños and La Niñas meant floods and drought de­stroyed crops in both hemi­spheres. All this had been pre­dicted decades be­fore by in­sti­tu­tions such as the United Na­tions. Plans should have been in place to lessen the dam­age. They weren’t and food prices ex­ploded; govern­ments rushed to sub­sidise bread and maize.

It didn’t work.

Af­ter decades of hol­low­ing-out, coun­tries didn’t have the re­sources to im­port scarce food for more than a few weeks. Despots won even more elec­tions, promis­ing a quick fix. For­eign­ers and mi­nori­ties were blamed. Walls and fences tried to main­tain the sta­tus quo in wealth­ier coun­tries.

When the quick fixes didn’t work, the mil­i­tary took over. More hu­man rights were given up in the hope that a con­trol­ling elite would fix the food sys­tem.

But a bro­ken en­vi­ron­ment and an ever-warm­ing world ren­dered the in­creas­ingly ex­treme fixes fu­tile. And each year meant more in­tense floods and earth-crack­ing droughts.

By the 22nd cen­tury, famine and vi­o­lence had re­versed all the progress we had made in health­care and in cre­at­ing fairer so­ci­eties. An­tibi­otic re­sis­tance, cli­mate ma­nip­u­la­tion and mil­i­tarised nan­otech­nol­ogy meant that noth­ing we used to rely on, from pre­dictable sea­sons to a mild flu each win­ter, held true. Mil­lions of deaths be­came bil­lions.

The rich, through cor­po­ra­tions, tried to use the Mars and Moon colonies as a tech­no­log­i­cal base to leave Earth. But anger at in­equal­ity fi­nally spilled over from a pop­u­la­tion that no longer had any­thing to lose. Un­able to af­ford bread, peo­ple in Paris sharp­ened their guil­lotines and started a global move­ment.

Ev­ery­one would be stuck here. Then the Earth’s long-term, nat­u­ral changes started to kick in. Be­cause we had stopped trust­ing sci­ence, we had lost yot­tabytes of re­search and didn’t pick up on the clues. By the start of the 21st cen­tury, we knew about all the dif­fer­ent catas­tro­phes that lay in wait. Re­search had looked far back into the past and learned about all the global pat­terns that would be re­peated, threat­en­ing our fu­ture.

But we had for­got­ten their lessons. So we didn’t un­der­stand when our com­passes started to shift and north stopped be­ing some­where above Canada and Rus­sia, or when en­tire parts of the planet be­came even hot­ter than else­where, for no ap­par­ent rea­son.

It was only when some­one found an aban­doned archive that we re­alised that this was the longde­layed “flip­ping of the poles”, a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non that turns north into south ev­ery 200 000 years. The mag­netic poles had pre­vi­ously helped to cre­ate a sta­ble shield around the Earth, de­flect­ing a lot of so­lar ra­di­a­tion. As the poles shifted and wob­bled, in­tense heat started to build up in ar­eas where global warm­ing had al­ready made life un­ten­able.

It was that lit­tle bit of ex­tra pres­sure on an al­ready frac­tured Earth that did it for us. The Fall. Ecosys­tems fell apart and so did our world. The bil­lion peo­ple left re­treated into small pock­ets, and we lost en­tire com­mu­ni­ties along the equa­tor, thanks to an as­teroid crash­ing into Rwanda.

This threw so much dust into the at­mos­phere that plants started to pho­to­syn­the­sise poorly and our crops gave us less food.

What big an­i­mals were left couldn’t take even more rapid change in the en­vi­ron­ment. In­stead we got a whole new world of bugs and bac­te­ria. These ate our crops.

A few hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple sur­vived. Just.

The Fall wiped out most of hu­man­ity and ended the project of civil­i­sa­tion. It won’t take much more of a cat­a­clysm to turn the lights off on this pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence. It will prob­a­bly be the Sun. Whatever we do, that’s the one we can­not con­trol and build around.

Our sto­ry­tellers say that it will die and, as it does, it will start to burn brighter and grow big­ger. They know this be­cause, back when we used to look deep into space, we saw it hap­pen to other suns and the plan­ets around them.

More ra­di­a­tion will drive min­eral re­ac­tions that de­crease car­bon in the at­mos­phere, to the point where the last plants can­not pho­to­syn­the­sise. As the sun ex­pands, the Earth will be­come too hot and the oceans will evap­o­rate, be­fore the ground starts to melt.

At this point, global warm­ing will

be­come un­con­trol­lable. Just be­fore life on Earth dies out, the Sun will swal­low Earth.

If only we had kept this planet healthy for long enough for us to be­come a space species.

O Re­search pub­lished last year — New Ar­chaeo­mag­netic Di­rec­tional Records from Iron Age South­ern Africa and Im­pli­ca­tions for the South At­lantic Anom­aly — found that the Earth’s mag­netic field is weak­en­ing, or “un­der­go­ing a rapid de­cay”.

This usu­ally hap­pens ev­ery 200 000 years, but it hasn’t hap­pened in 800 000 years.

The re­search on the South At­lantic Anom­aly — a lump of melted rock nearly 3 000km below Africa’s con­ti­nen­tal sur­face — shows that the mag­netic field cre­ated by the mag­netic rock has been weak­en­ing for about 160 years.

The re­search also con­cluded that this weak­en­ing plays a role in trig­ger­ing a shift­ing of the poles.

Dan­ger ahead: Earth’s nat­u­ral cy­cles could be cat­a­strophic if we keep break­ing ecosys­tems. Photo: Delil Souleiman/afp

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