Apocalypse Now

SUBHEAD: The boom in gloom is not just ranters wearing bathrobes and carrying signs on street corners. By Martin Mittelstaedt on 7 June 2009 in The Globe and Mail http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/apocalypse-now/article1172056/
Image above: Detail of poster for the 1970's Francis Ford Coppola movie Apocalypse Now!
Canadians, brace yourselves: One day soon, something unusual may be showing up on the border - climate refugees trying to stream into the country from the United States. If global warming really starts to unfold, according to well-known British scientist and author James Lovelock, it will lay such waste to the U.S. that millions of desperate people will be fleeing a country no longer suitable for human habitation in favour of the newly temperate regions of Northern Canada. It may seem far-fetched that Americans - people obsessed, as Canadians subjected to the latest passport requirements know, with the security of their own borders - might turn into illegal immigrants. But not to Mr. Lovelock, who says global warming will get so bad in the years ahead that he "can assure you" that we'll be facing an influx of unwelcome Americans in search of greener pastures.
In the 1970s, Dr. Lovelock gained worldwide renown for his Gaia hypothesis, the New Age-sounding idea that the entire Earth should be viewed as a kind of living organism, with a system of interactions that make it a Goldilocks planet - not too hot or too cold, but just right for living things. It was a scientific foundation for the idea that there really is a Mother Earth.
But these days he is fretting that Mother Earth is ready to whack us, big-time. In one of the gloomiest forecasts yet by a respected mainstream scientist or academic, he thinks nothing less than that the environmental apocalypse is at hand. And he's not alone. In the past year, amid financial panics, wild fluctuations in oil prices and reports on global warming happening faster than anyone expected, there's a spate of books making the case that something monumentally bad is about to unfold. There are books warning that climate change will soon cause wars or will so alter the environment that we are approaching another major age of extinctions. Some have dwelled on the idea that the threat may be extraterrestrial, with asteroids plowing into the planet. Still others have contended that oil shortages are going to snuff out civilization. The idea of End Times, or apocalypses, has been around as long as religion. Until recently, it has been a mainstay of Christian fundamentalism. But the notion that the world as we know it is about to end - this time with an environmental rather than a religious-inspired bang - lately has been making inroads in more mainstream and progressive-leaning circles, including activists, scientists and pundits. It isn't just intellectual lightweights crying wolf, but high-forehead types such as the octogenarian Mr. Lovelock, who has more than 200 scientific papers to his credit. Also among the throng is Gwynne Dyer, the Canadian author and military security pundit, who recently penned a book and did a CBC radio series asserting that wars will soon be caused by climate change. British science writer Fred Pearce calls his latest book The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change. And Lester Brown, who founded the Washington D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, one of the globe's first environmental think tanks, frets that crop failures could start to unravel civilization. Mr. Lovelock has penned one of the darkest outlooks with his book The Vanishing Face of Gaia, which warns that climate change might kill most of us in a catastrophe just short of biblical-flood proportions. He forecasts that humanity's numbers may drop from the current seven billion to a billion - perhaps no more than 100 million. He also predicts that climate change won't be a century-long process allowing lots of time to safely adjust. The transformation to a hothouse world will be abrupt. Temperatures will jump over the course of a couple of years to a dangerous new normal that is four or five degrees higher than today. While much of the world will be roasting (he prefers the term "global heating"), there will be a few oases to weather out the storm, he says. Island nations, such as his own Britain as well as New Zealand, Ireland and Hawaii, will do fine thanks to the moderating effects of oceans and their rainstorms. Ditto for currently cold northern areas, including parts of Canada and Siberia, which will gain a more hospitable climate. But it will be damnation for points farther south and in the interior of continents, which will turn into deserts - and Americans will join the world's huddled masses once again. DANGEROUS WORLD The most recent book from Nova Scotia-based journalist Marq de Villiers, Dangerous World, is a catalogue of the ills that could befall us, from the possibility of civilization-destroying asteroids to global-warming-induced destruction of our own making. "We live on a vulnerable and unstable little planet in a hostile cosmic neighbourhood, and we need to look after it better. I think that was the fundamental point" of writing the book, Mr. de Villiers says. To be sure, imagining the end of the world as we know it might be something of a fad. The genre has had previous rounds of popularity, for instance in the 1970s - then as now, during a deep economic slump - when the worry was that rapid human population growth would destroy the planet. Mr. de Villiers's U.S. publisher was no doubt trying to tap into the gloomy Zeitgeist with its marketing decision to change the book's title south of the border to The End - just to add a hint of Götterdämmerung. (Both versions share the same subtitle: Natural Disasters, Manmade Catastrophes, and the Future of Human Survival.) Nonetheless, the large number of dangerous and scary problems facing us, from oil depletion to climate change, makes it easy to see why people are painting the future in such a dismal hue. Trends "do seem to point increasingly towards some cataclysmic end," says Lee Cormie, a theology professor at the University of Toronto, who has studied how apocalyptic thinking has migrated from conservative Christians to the environmentalist movement. Exactly how our world and its civilization might eventually blow out is a matter of serious debate. Besides climate, a leading candidate is looming resource scarcity, as envisioned by those warning about "peak oil" - the theory that most of the cheap and readily accessible fossil fuel has been burned up and society's gas tank is about to run dangerously low. John Michael Greer, an environmentalist blogger in Oregon, is in that camp. And, like many others, he has parlayed his grim expectations into a book, in his case titled The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. Rather than going out with an apocalyptic bang, Mr. Greer thinks that we're facing a slow-motion, decades-long grind downward tied to fluctuations in energy prices. When the price of oil is low, economies will regain a bit of their lustre, only to head south again when prices spike to punishing levels. But when all the oil is gone, it's lights out, literally. "History doesn't have sudden collapses. It's a slow, long process of decline in a kind of stair step [of] crisis, partial recovery, crisis, partial recovery ... and eventually you're in a dark age," he says matter-of-factly. "We're in for a fairly rough time." One of the reasons for his bleak outlook is that he believes renewable-energy technologies such as wind and solar power will never be able to duplicate what we now get from petroleum. Mr. Greer, who doesn't own a car, predicts that as energy scarcity causes civilization to unravel to a more primitive level, inner cities will hum with the activity of the dismantling of skyscrapers. Office towers will be plundered by people desperate for their valuable scrap metal - they won't be in use, in any case, because there won't be enough electricity to run their elevators. Mr. Greer advises people to prepare now for that oil-free future by turning their backyards into urban homesteads for growing food and training for what in a disintegrating society will be more practical occupations. He suggests organic farming or small-appliance repair - "any profession that actually produces goods and services that people need, not manipulates numbers, not manipulates images, or heaven help us, manipulates electrons on a computer." WHAT ABOUT PEAK GRAIN? Meanwhile, U.S. environmental thinker Lester Brown has been considering a once-improbable question - whether food shortages could bring down our civilization. As he explored in a recent Scientific American article, in the collapses of societies throughout history, more often than not "it was food shortages that brought them down," he says. "Until recently," he adds, "I didn't think that could happen to our early-21st-century global civilization." But he became open to the idea after observing last year's sudden spike in grain prices on world markets - perhaps an early warning that the biggest danger isn't that our oil tanks will soon be empty but that, worse, our granaries will. What worries him is that previous food-price gains were temporary, such as the one that occurred in 1972 when the former Soviet Union had a poor harvest and bought up surplus U.S. grains. Subsequent healthy harvests brought a quick return to normalcy and food plenty. But after last year's peak, grain prices are still at double their historical levels. Corn used to sell for about $2 (U.S.) a bushel. Now it's well over $4. In Mr. Brown's view, these prices reflect a global decline in agriculture due to such factors as dwindling water for irrigation in the U.S., India and China, and the impact of global warming on temperature-sensitive crops, which unfortunately happen to include such staples as rice and corn. He contends that in order to avoid a looming famine, societies have to rethink using food to produce fuel (such as ethanol), stabilize population growth quickly at far less than the 70 million souls now being added to the planet annually, and launch a frontal assault on global warming. He says nothing less than an 80-per-cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 will do the trick - something almost no policy-makers are now considering. However, not everyone has joined the doom-and-gloom bandwagon. Rick Smith, head of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based advocacy group, thinks that the end of the world has been over-hyped by his fellow environmentalists. "I've been working for 20 years in the environment movement and I've always been skeptical of this apocalyptic bent," he says, noting that while impending disaster is an article of faith among many environmentalists, it doesn't exist in other social movements where it might seem to be more appropriate. Those who run relief agencies or argue for development in the Third World often have to deal with horrible natural disasters, genocides and the like, he observes, but they don't have "this funny, apocalyptic" mania. Another reason to be skeptical is that the previous round of such worries turned out to be overblown. Around 1970, two influential books fostered popular pessimism, the Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth and Paul Erhlich's The Population Bomb (which predicted millions would die by famines in the 1970s and 1980s). Neither came to pass. Mr. Smith agrees that the "global ecosystem is fraying quite dramatically," but he believes that we're smart enough to adopt solutions before we reach the brink. Mr. Lovelock, though, isn't so confident. He thinks that humans have added so much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that it's probably already too late to stop climate change. Signs that sea ice in the Arctic is melting decades ahead of when scientists thought it might disappear only buttress his view. Rather than spending money only on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, he believes that our government would be wise to develop plans to house and deal with the millions of American wetbacks who will soon wash up on our shores. "This is going to become a very habitable part of the globe and people are going to want to come here in vast numbers." For a man with a gloomy message, in person Mr. Lovelock is jovial and cheerful. That disposition extends even to his prediction of what do with an apocalypse in the offing. His new book is subtitled "A Final Warning" because his publisher liked the bleakness of the addendum. But he wanted something more practical: If the world is going to end, why waste your time being scared out of your wits? Mr. Lovelock's preferred subtitle: "Enjoy It While You Can."

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