For the next installment of the anthropologies issue on climate change, we have a counterpoint essay from Lee Drummond. Drummond is a retired professor of social/cultural anthropology (McGill University). For the past twenty years he has been director of a very modestly staffed think tank, the Center for Peripheral Studies in Palm Springs, CA. As a “real” anthropologist he studied South American myth and Caribbean ethnicity. Later, reincarnated as a “reel” anthropologist he applied his work on myth to blockbuster American movies, treating them as myths of modern culture (see American Dreamtime). –R.A.
The principal “texts” for this little essay are a 2009 lecture, “Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society,” by Freeman Dyson, one of the smartest people on the planet, and an epic performance, “Saving the Planet,” by George Carlin, until his death in 2008 one of the funniest people on the planet. Dyson’s lecture may be found here.
It’s over an hour long, but watch the whole thing–it’s great. Carlin’s performance is on YouTube.
It will take only a few minutes of your day.
Before taking up a few specifics of these pieces, let me provide a background sketch of the phenomenon of global warming that has attracted so much attention over the past couple of decades.
The Big Picture: Greenhouse Earth and Icehouse Earth
Environmentalists gravely concerned with rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere and rising temperatures in the oceans not uncommonly issue the dire warning that these are runaway processes, that Earth will continue to get cloudier and hotter until it becomes another Venus, where lead can melt on its surface. The entire history of the planet suggests that this is not the case. Earth’s climate has oscillated through periods of unusually hot conditions (Greenhouse Earth) and unusually cold conditions (Icehouse Earth), each period lasting tens or hundreds of millions of years.
As it happens – though you wouldn’t know it from watching cable news – since the mid-Miocene, around 15 mya, the planet has been in its “Icehouse Earth” phase. Global temperatures have declined precipitously during that period, so that the recent climate is the coldest since the beginning of the Permian Period, around 280 mya (see graph below):
The last “Greenhouse Earth” occurred during the period 45-55 mya, marked by the Paleocene – Eocene Thermal Maximum. From that time global temperatures were on a more or less steady decline, culminating with the sharp drop from mid-Miocene to the present:
The Tropical Arctic
Another stretch of Earth history that scientists count among the planet’s warmest occurred about 55-56 million years ago. The episode is known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).
Stretching from about 66-34 million years ago, the Paleocene and Eocene were the first geologic epochs following the end of the Mesozoic Era. (The Mesozoic—the age of dinosaurs—was itself an era punctuated by “hothouse” conditions.) Geologists and paleontologists think that during much of the Paleocene and early Eocene, the poles were free of ice caps, and palm trees and crocodiles lived above the Arctic Circle. The transition between the two epochs around 56 million years ago was marked by a rapid spike in global temperature.
During the PETM, the global mean temperature appears to have risen by as much as 5-8°C (9-14°F) to an average temperature as high as 73°F. (Again, today’s global average is shy of 60°F.) At roughly the same time, paleoclimate data like fossilized phytoplankton and ocean sediments record a massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, at least doubling or possibly even quadrupling the background concentrations.
The Pleistocene Roller Coaster
The long history of decreasing global temperatures is not constant. Particularly during the Pleistocene, from around 2.5 mya to 12 kya, the Earth’s climate fluctuated dramatically (reference the graph above). Some twenty glaciations occurred during that relatively brief period, with associated changes in the planet’s biota. Why the dramatic climatic changes? It’s complicated:
The causes of the Pleistocene cycle of glacial and interglacial episodes are still being debated. It appears that continental positions, oceanic circulation, solar-energy fluctuations, and Earth’s orbital cycles combined to generate these glacial conditions, so perhaps it is inappropriate to pinpoint any single cause. Some scientists have calculated that changes in the concentration of greenhouse gases were a partial reason for large (5-7° C) global temperature swings between the ice ages and interglacial periods.
Anthropologists (and most environmentalists) are not qualified to weigh in on that debate, but we anthropologists may make two observations on the basis of the known facts. First, primate evolution in Africa during the early to mid-Miocene (15 – 25 mya) was facilitated by the warm, wet conditions there. Plenty of tropical forests, plenty of room for adaptive radiation. Since we wouldn’t be around were it not for those long-ago events, we really should acknowledge the role “Hothouse Earth” played in our appearance on the planet (this lesson will be repeated). Second, as the cooling-down process continued and accelerated into and through the Pleistocene, primate species experienced a great deal of adaptive stress. Tropical forests receded, grasslands took their place, the forests returned in different forms, disappeared again. Genetic change alone could not keep pace with these rapid alterations in the basics of existence. So, enter Homo. The early hominid species possessed something new: the (now rather maligned) faculty of culture. Their novel social arrangements and tool use provided them the leg up that was needed to cope with a world that kept changing around them.
There is a lesson here for anthropologists as they consider – as anthropologists and not as partisans – the strident debate over global warming. Environmentalists – who have crafted an ism of an aspect of the physical world (might we expect gravityists to appear on stage at some future date?) – decry the changes they see happening around them. They want to reverse those changes (more electric cars, solar power, clean coal, etc.) and thus restore the planet to an earlier state. They want to go back. The insurmountable problem, though, is that there is no “back.” The past is a record of endless change, and the future is just such a record, yet to be written. For the past century or so human activity undoubtedly has been a factor contributing to global warming, but that activity must be added to the list of other contributing factors identified above (continental positions, oceanic circulation, solar-energy fluctuations, and Earth’s orbital cycles).
Here it is useful to consider Freeman Dyson’s opening caveat regarding the science behind global warming: science is primarily about experimentation, not prediction. In an experiment, the scientist attempts to contrive a situation whose outcome is as uncertain as possible, then do the experiment and observe the results. If the result is thoroughly predictable beforehand, then it is useless or at least uninteresting to conduct the experiment. And while science does generate predictions (the motion of the planets, the schedule of lunar eclipses, the acceleration of falling bodies), its impressive ability to generate new knowledge rests on experimentation. And Dyson, as one of the foremost contributors to quantum theory (whose Standard Model is the most rigorous scientific achievement in history), is deeply skeptical of the predictive value of existing models of the future climate. Earth’s climate is a classic example of a dynamic system; a host of variables interact in ways impossible to specify exactly, with the result that the outcome of those interactions is unpredictable, always something of a surprise. It’s what is now a cliché: that butterfly flapping its wings in China produces a drought in the American Midwest. Models of climate change are almost exclusively meteorological; they ignore astronomical variables noted above, some of which may produce dramatic consequences. For example:
Some scientists say we could be headed for another “Little Ice Age,” given how eerily calm the sun has been in recent years.
. . . The sun goes through cycles that last roughly 11 years, marked by the ebb and flow of sunspots on its surface. At peak sunspot activity, the so-called solar maximum, the sun sports lots of sunspots and is steadily unleashing solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Since our current solar cycle, Number 24, kicked off in 2008, the number of sunspots observed has been half of what heliophysicists expected.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Dr. Richard Harrison, head of space physics at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England, told the BBC. “If you want to go back to see when the sun was this inactive in terms of the minimum we’ve just had and the peak that we have now, you’ve got to go back about 100 years.”
. . . But a relatively quiet sun could cause problems. Some scientists say that this period of weak solar activity may mirror what happened before the so-called Maunder Minimum of 1645 to 1715 — a period named after solar astronomers Annie and E. Walter Maunder, who studied sunspots and helped identify the sun’s strange activity in the latter part of the 17th Century. That time period saw only 30 sunspots (one one-thousandth of what would be expected) and coincided with a “Little Ice Age” in Europe, during which the Thames River and the Baltic Sea froze over.
Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics at the University of Reading in the U.K., estimated that we have up to a one-in-five chance of being in Maunder Minimum conditions 40 years from now.
We find ourselves in the midst of a planetary experiment. Rigorous science would affirm that the results are unpredictable. Just about anything could happen.
A Helping Hand from the Holocene
In keeping with his low opinion of prediction in science, Dyson does not argue that global warming will continue unabated. He does, however, suggest that a warmer Earth would be a good thing (his lecture, remember, presents five heresies, the first being the bogus nature of climate science). A warmer Earth, he suggests, would likely return the climate to that of the “Wet Sahara” or “Green Sahara” of some 6 kya, when herds of grazing animals, elephants, and even crocodiles were to be found in what is now barren desert.
Here Dyson refers to a period during the mid-Holocene, beginning around 9 kya and extending several thousand years to around 5 kya, a period known as the “Holocene Climatic Optimum” as well as several other terms. The Holocene began around 12 kya; it was a pronounced warming trend in the global climate that marked the end of Pleistocene glaciations. Anthropologists will note that the beginning of the Holocene also marked the origins of agriculture, with the first farming villages appearing in western Asia. Somewhat later, as the Climatic Optimum established itself, some of those farming villages became the nuclei of civilizations. The enterprise we know as “humanity” was transformed, and thanks (or not?) to global warming. Had the cycle of Pleistocene glaciations continued to the present, it is not unlikely that “we” would still consist of scattered bands of hunters chasing mastodons and foragers digging up roots from the half-frozen ground.
The drama of global warming as it correlates with our social origins is marked with irony in these days of shrill pronouncements of impending catastrophe. Imagine those pronouncements being made some 15 kya ago by pundits of time-warped TV networks housed in Manhattan skyscrapers. Tough to imagine, since Manhattan at the time was buried beneath a half-mile of ice which formed part of the Laurentide glaciation. Things change; nothing stays the same; Humpty Dumpty can never be put back together. The remarkable human career over the past three million years rests precisely on our ancestors responding to dramatic and inherently unpredictable changes in their environment. Today global warming, the rise of sea levels, acidification of the oceans, wholesale extinction of species and other, not yet recognized threats to our present way of life may well provide the sort of impetus to transform human life that Pleistocene glaciations and Holocene warmth did for our ancestors. Or they may not. Who knows?
Continuing Dyson’s Heresies: Keep Burning Coal!
The environmentalist narrative embraces and feeds on stark comparisons that are rarely examined closely. Dyson does just that, and, as is his wont, comes up with some striking observations. The widely touted narrative goes like this:
Industrial development in the U. S. and Europe has relied on burning coal and other fossil fuels, which greatly increased the level of CO2 in the atmosphere and caused an alarming spike in global temperatures. Now we in the Western world have seen the error of our ways and are trying to reduce carbon emissions, trying to slow the onslaught of global disaster represented by global warming. However, other nations, particularly China and India, the giants of the developing world, heedlessly continue to burn coal and pump huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They are ignorant and selfish; we are enlightened and selfless. Something must be done, in the form of economic sanctions or political pressure, to make them stop.
Dyson throws a huge (and greasy, carbon-laden) monkey wrench into this narrative. He argues that a threat to civilization far greater than global warming is unchecked population growth. Each human body represents a strain on the planet’s resources that far outweighs its contribution to global warming. And how to reign in population growth? Dyson notes that the single most successful way to accomplish that is to increase a population’s standard of living. The greater a family’s economic security, the fewer children it will produce. How is that accomplished? By transforming the population from a mass of impoverished peasants working the land with an ancient technology into an urban, industrial society. A society that burns lots of coal. While the environmentalist narrative casts China in particular as the great villain endangering the well-being of the planet, that nation’s economic policy is, Dyson maintains, “both morally and scientifically correct.” As always, things are complicated – and only become more complicated the more closely they are examined.
“Anthropocene,” is a term introduced by physical scientists to mark the period, following the Holocene, when human activity purportedly became the dominant force shaping the planetary ecosystem. Since the term is our discipline’s partial signature, a number of anthropologists seem to have adopted it, with the result that “Anthropocene” now appears in the symposium titles of academic meetings, journal articles, and books.
Following Freeman Dyson and George Carlin, I suggest that the term is terribly misleading, and that it prejudices what could be a genuinely dispassionate anthropology of the future.
There is nothing wrong with the planet. The people are fucked. Different, different. The planet is fine. Compared to the people, the planet is doing great. Been here four and a half billion years. Did you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years. We’ve been here, what? A hundred thousand? Maybe, two hundred thousand. And we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over two hundred years. Two hundred years versus four and a half billion. And we have the conceit to think that somehow we’re a threat, that somehow we’re gonna put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that’s just a floatin’ around the sun? The planet’s been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sunspots, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, worldwide tidal waves, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages, and we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are. We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. . .
But where are we going?
Here for Carlin the answer seems to be: oblivion. We’re just another species that will soon join the countless others that have gone extinct over the billions of years of the planet’s history. But Dyson, continuing with his heretical thoughts about science and society, sketches a future even more radical than Carlin’s outright extinction. He suggests that just as computer technology has completely transformed human life during the second half of the 20th century, so biotechnology will bring even more fundamental changes during the second half of the present century. Here a word of caution: If you’re someone who worries that the tomatoes in your supermarket’s produce section may be the dread GMOs – genetically modified organisms – then you’re in for a shock. Dyson sees current efforts at genome tinkering – genetic engineering – as the first tentative steps of a global process that will introduce innumerable new species to the planet. Throw out Linnaeus; the plant and animal kingdoms will never be the same. Worried about extinctions brought on by global warming? Relax – or not – there will be plenty of novel life forms to take their place. Extending this particular heresy, Dyson even suggests that computer video games, so popular today, will be cast aside by future generations of kids addicted to biotech games, eager to see who can create the coolest organism.
Imaginative (or threatening) as Dyson’s prognosis for the future may be, he stops short of posing what anthropologists would consider the crucial next question: What happens to humans in this world of genome tinkering? The only plausible answer is that genetic experimenters (or gamers) will not confine their work and play to plant and animal species, not when the most interesting test subject of all is ready to hand: humans. In a reversal of Doctor Moreau’s gruesome vivisections, intended to refashion animals in the guise of humans, our new genetic explorers may well refashion humans by incorporating a variety of animal genes in their genomes. The future world may be populated by human-human, human-animal, animal-human, and animal-animal beings, hybrids whose rich variety challenges the very concept of “species.” Who knows, some of them may even prefer a Wet Sahara.
While all this may seem bizarre, anthropologists – those self-styled students of the bizarre – should not find the scenario completely alien. A future world of variously sapient beings, living together and interbreeding, is strongly reminiscent of a past world of African savannahs and gallery forests, where a number of Homo lines somehow coalesced into a single species: us. Given our past and possibly future diversity, it seems wrong-headed to insist on a uniform “humanity” that is the yardstick and arbiter of all life forms and modes of life (some like it hot, some not). With this in mind, it is an act of tremendous arrogance to claim that we have crafted an “Anthropocene.”
After posting my essay to Ryan, I thought to send a copy to Freeman Dyson, inviting him to contribute comments to our forum. To my surprise and delight he replied the next day. I reproduce his email below:
Dear Lee Drummond,
Thank you for your essay which I enjoyed reading. I agree with almost
everything you say. I would add only one thing that we know for sure.
Carbon dioxide is good for plants of all kinds, natural or agricultural,
wild or tame. Carbon dioxide makes the planet greener. The easy way to
green the planet is to burn more coal. This has nothing to do with
climate. It is just old-fashioned biology.
I am too dumb to follow the instructions about adding a comment to
your forum. If you like to add the comment, I will be grateful.
Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson.