Living on Mars is a misguided fantasy

Philip Ball writes:

Who said this? “I’ve been having to say everywhere I go that there is no planet B, there is no escape hatch, there is no second Earth; this is the only planet we have.” If you’re a science fiction fan the answer might surprise you: it was the writer Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars trilogy is an ultimately utopian series of tales that describe the terraforming of Mars – planetary engineering to give it an Earth-like environment – over the course of several centuries after the Earth perishes from overpopulation and ecosystem collapse.

Robinson’s pessimism about planetary settlement seems out of step with the spirit of the times. Unveiling his Blue Moon project two weeks ago – a robotic lunar lander to deliver the infrastructure for a crewed moon base – Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, portrayed it as the bold first step towards human colonisation of the solar system.

That vision is endorsed by physicist and science populariser Brian Cox in his forthcoming BBC series The Planets, in which he advocates the human settlement of Mars. “There will be Martians if we are to have a future,” he says. “At some point we will be the Martians, that’s clear to me, because we can’t stay here for ever.”

Cox is in good company. “The Earth is becoming too small for us,” wrote the late Stephen Hawking. “In the long run the human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.” If we’re to survive, Hawking said, “I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth”.

Why this insistence? For Hawking and Cox, the horribly real threat of environmental breakdown looms large. But there the timescales aren’t on our side. [Continue reading…]

Misreading the story of climate change and the Maya

File 20190517 69199 mflwcf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche, Mexico, Early Classic period, c. 250-600 AD.
Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

By Kenneth Seligson, California State University, Dominguez Hills

Carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere have reached 415 parts per million – a level that last occurred more than three million years ago, long before the evolution of humans. This news adds to growing concern that climate change will likely wreak serious damage on our planet in the coming decades.

While Earth has not been this warm in human history, we can learn about coping with climate change by looking to the Classic Maya civilization that thrived between A.D. 250-950 in Eastern Mesoamerica, the region that is now Guatemala, Belize, Eastern Mexico, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

Many people believe that the ancient Maya civilization ended when it mysteriously “collapsed.” And it is true that the Maya faced many climate change challenges, including extreme droughts that ultimately contributed to the breakdown of their large Classic Period city-states.

However, the Maya did not disappear: Over 6 million Maya people live mainly in Eastern Mesoamerica today. What’s more, based on my own research in the Northern Yucatan Peninsula and work by my colleagues throughout the broader Maya region, I believe Maya communities’ ability to adapt their resource conservation practices played a crucial role in allowing them to survive for as long as they did. Instead of focusing on the final stages of Classic Maya civilization, society can learn from the practices that enabled it to survive for nearly 700 years as we consider the effects of climate change today.

[Read more…]

Civilisational collapse has a bright past — but a dark future

By Luke Kemp

Is the collapse of a civilisation necessarily calamitous? The failure of the Egyptian Old Kingdom towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE was accompanied by riots, tomb-raids and even cannibalism. ‘The whole of Upper Egypt died of hunger and each individual had reached such a state of hunger that he ate his own children,’ runs an account from 2120 BCE about the life of Ankhtifi, a southern provincial governor of Ancient Egypt. 

Many of us are familiar with this historical narrative of how cultures can rapidly – and violently – decline and fall. Recent history appears to bear it out, too. Post-invasion Iraq witnessed 100,000 deaths in the first year and a half, followed by the emergence of ISIS. And the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011 produced a power vacuum, leading to the re-emergence of the slave trade.

However, there’s a more complicated reality behind this view of collapse. In fact, the end of civilisations rarely involved a sudden cataclysm or apocalypse. Often the process is protracted, mild, and leaves people and culture continuing for many years.

[Read more…]

Brittany’s seafaring hunter-gatherers were the first to build Europe’s ancient megaliths

Big Think reports:

The origin of the roughly 35,000 ancient monuments that dot Europe and the British Isles has long been a haunting mystery. From the Ring of Bodnar in the Scottish Orkney Islands to Stonehenge in the English countryside, to the Carnac stones in France, these ancient monuments have fascinated people for as long as they’ve been known.

Remarkably, there’s never been a serious effort made to date all of these structures in order to establish a single credible prehistoric timeline. Now, however, Bettina Schulz Paulsson has done exactly that using radiocarbon dating, lining up the sequence in which 2,410 of these sites were constructed. Her research has just been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on February 11.

As it turns out that it all started with single hunter-gatherer culture in an area now known as Brittany, France some 7,000 years ago. [Continue reading…]

Collapse of civilisation is on the horizon, says David Attenborough

The Guardian reports:

The collapse of civilisation and the natural world is on the horizon, Sir David Attenborough has told the UN climate change summit in Poland.

The naturalist was chosen to represent the world’s people in addressing delegates of almost 200 nations who are in Katowice to negotiate how to turn pledges made in the 2015 Paris climate deal into reality.

As part of the UN’s people’s seat initiative, messages were gathered from all over the world to inform Attenborough’s address on Monday. “Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change,” he said. “If we don’t take action the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

“Do you not see what is going on around you?” asks one young man, in a video message played as part of a montage to the delegates. “We are already seeing increased impacts of climate change in China,” says a young woman. Another woman, stood outside a building burned down by a wildfire, says: “This used to be my home.”

Attenborough said: “The world’s people have spoken – time is running out. They want you, the decision makers, to act now. Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands.” [Continue reading…]

Let’s cultivate our material intelligence

Glenn Adamson writes:

Are you sitting comfortably? If so, how much do you know about the chair that’s holding you off the ground – what it’s made from, and what its production process looked like? Where it was made, and by whom? Or go deeper: how were the materials used to make the chair extracted from the planet? Most people will find it difficult to answer these basic questions. The object cradling your body remains, in many ways, mysterious to you.

Quite probably, you are surrounded by many things of which you know next to nothing – among them, the device on which you are reading these words. Most of us live in a state of general ignorance about our physical surroundings. It’s not our fault; centuries of technological sophistication and global commerce have distanced most of us from making physical things, and even from seeing or knowing how they are made. But the slow and pervasive separation of people from knowledge of the material world brings with it a serious problem.

Until about a century ago, most people knew a great deal about their immediate material world. Fewer and fewer do today, as commodities circulate with ever greater speed over greater distances. Because of the sheer complexity of contemporary production, even the people who do have professional responsibility for making things – the engineers and factory workers and chemists among us – tend to be specialists. Deepened knowledge usually also means narrowed knowledge. This tends to obscure awareness of the extended production chains through which materials, tools, components and packaging are sourced. Nobody – not an assembly-line worker, not a CEO – has a comprehensive vantage point. It is partly a problem of scale: the wider the view comes, the harder it is to see clearly what’s close at hand.

In effect, we are living in a state of perpetual remote control. As Carl Miller argues in his book The Death of the Gods (2018), algorithms have taken over many day-to-day procedures. These algorithms are themselves driven by algorithms, in a cascade of interconnected calculation. Such automated decisionmaking is extremely efficient, but it has contributed to a crisis of accountability. If no one understands what is really happening, how can anyone be held responsible? This lack of transparency gives rise to a range of ethical dilemmas, chief among them our inability to address climate change, due in part to prevalent psychological separation from the processes of extraction, manufacture and disposal. [Continue reading…]

A history of true civilisation is not one of monuments

By David Wengrow

Civilisation is back. But it is no longer the preserve of ‘Renaissance man’ or of ‘the West’, or even of literate societies. Civilisation is a way of talking about human history on the largest scale. From the cave paintings of Lascaux to the latest MoMA exhibition, it binds human history together.

But in at least one essential aspect, the concept of civilisation remains fundamentally exclusionary. It is still the stuff of galleries, museums and UNESCO World Heritage sites; of prized images, objects and structures, rather than of living humanity. The prehistoric stone structures of Göbekli Tepe – where a heritage park has now opened, near the border between Turkey and Syria – are being mooted as everything from the Garden of Eden to the cradle of civilisation and the world’s first temple. We still want a civilisation raised up high above the everyday realities of its human makers and keepers. In troubled regions, such as the Syrian-Turkish border, monuments like these quickly become altars of sacrifice for real human lives.

Importantly, there have always been other ways of understanding ‘civilisation’. The 20th-century French anthropologist Marcel Mauss thought that civilisation should not be reduced to a list of technical or aesthetic achievements. Nor should it represent a particular stage of cultural development (‘civilisation’ versus ‘barbarism’, and so on). Civilisation could be found in material things, but above all it referred to a potential in human societies. In Mauss’s view, civilisation is what happens when discrete societies share morally and materially across boundaries, forming durable relationships that transcend differences. It might seem an abstract debate, but it’s not. Let me try to explain. 

[Read more…]

Did Harappan civilization avoid war for 2,000 years?

Annalee Newitz writes:

The Harappan civilization dominated the Indus River valley beginning about five thousand years ago, many of its massive cities sprawling at the edges of rivers that still flow through Pakistan and India today. But its culture remains a mystery. Why did it leave behind no representations of great leaders, nor of warfare?

Archaeologists have long wondered whether the Harappan civilization could actually have thrived for roughly 2,000 years without any major wars or leadership cults. Obviously people had conflicts, sometimes with deadly results — graves reveal ample skull injuries caused by blows to the head. But there is no evidence that any Harappan city was ever burned, besieged by an army, or taken over by force from within. Sifting through the archaeological layers of these cities, scientists find no layers of ash that would suggest the city had been burned down, and no signs of mass destruction. There are no enormous caches of weapons, and not even any art representing warfare.

That would make the Harappan civilization an historical outlier in any era. But it’s especially noteworthy at a time when neighboring civilizations in Mesopotamia were erecting massive war monuments, and using cuneiform writing on clay tablets to chronicle how their leaders slaughtered and enslaved thousands.

What exactly were the Harappans doing instead of focusing their energies on military conquest?

The Indus River flows out of the Himalayas, bringing fresh water to the warm, dry valley where the ancient city of Harappa first began to grow. The Harappan civilization is the namesake of this city, located between two rivers, whose arts, written language, and science spread to several other large, riverside cities in the area. Mohenjo-Daro was the largest of these cities with a population of roughly 80,000 people. Archaeologists have recently analyzed the teeth of people buried in Mohenjo-Daro’s graveyards, searching for telltale chemical traces that reveal where these people drank water as children. They discovered that many had grown up drinking water from elsewhere in the region, meaning that a lot of the city’s inhabitants were migrants who had come to the city as adults. [Continue reading…]

Did dairying climates pave the way for the evolution of modern democracy?

PsyPost reports:

An analysis of 108 Old World countries found that cold/wet climates suitable for dairy farming were associated with lactose tolerance in the year 1500, which was in turn associated with higher child survival rates, greater per capita income, and fewer children per family in the year 1800. This enhanced production power was in turn associated with political freedom and civil liberties in the year 2000.

The researchers believe that lactose tolerance led to longer life expectancy and postponed parenthood, which shifted life strategies toward long-term goals and provided people with more time to undertake activities of their choice.

“Who we are and what we think and do has deeper historical roots and routes than we are ready to admit. However, this does not mean that we are unfree. On the contrary, our ancestors have continuously, intelligently, and ingeniously adapted their habits to their habitats, a process that is still going on today,” Van de Vliert told PsyPost. [Continue reading…]

Land degradation by human activities pushing Earth into sixth mass extinction and undermining well-being of 3.2 billion people

 

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): Worsening land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity, driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change. It is also a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict, according to the world’s first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration.

The dangers of land degradation, which cost the equivalent of about 10% of the world’s annual gross product in 2010 through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, are detailed for policymakers, together with a catalogue of corrective options, in the three-year assessment report by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries, launched today.

Produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the report was approved at the 6th session of the IPBES Plenary in Medellín, Colombia. IPBES has 129 State Members.

Providing the best-available evidence for policymakers to make better-informed decisions, the report draws on more than 3,000 scientific, Government, indigenous and local knowledge sources. Extensively peer-reviewed, it was improved by more than 7,300 comments, received from over 200 external reviewers.

Serious Danger to Human Well-being

Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. This has reached ‘critical’ levels in many parts of the world, the report says.

“With negative impacts on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, the degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction,” said Prof. Robert Scholes (South Africa), co-chair of the assessment with Dr. Luca Montanarella (Italy). “Avoiding, reducing and reversing this problem, and restoring degraded land, is an urgent priority to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services vital to all life on Earth and to ensure human well-being.”

“Wetlands have been particularly hard hit,” said Dr. Montanarella. “We have seen losses of 87% in wetland areas since the start of the modern era – with 54% lost since 1900.”

According to the authors, land degradation manifests in many ways: land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, rangelands and fresh water, as well as deforestation.

Underlying drivers of land degradation, says the report, are the high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies. High and rising per capita consumption, amplified by continued population growth in many parts of the world, can drive unsustainable levels of agricultural expansion, natural resource and mineral extraction, and urbanization – typically leading to greater levels of land degradation.

By 2014, more than 1.5 billion hectares of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands. Less than 25% of the Earth’s land surface has escaped substantial impacts of human activity – and by 2050, the IPBES experts estimate this will have fallen to less than 10%.

Crop and grazing lands now cover more than one third of the Earth´s land surface, with recent clearance of native habitats, including forests, grasslands and wetlands, being concentrated in some of the most species-rich ecosystems on the planet.

The report says increasing demand for food and biofuels will likely lead to continued increase in nutrient and chemical inputs and a shift towards industrialized livestock production systems, with pesticide and fertilizer use expected to double by 2050.

Avoidance of further agricultural expansion into native habitats can be achieved through yield increases on the existing farmlands, shifts towards less land degrading diets, such as those with more plant-based foods and less animal protein from unsustainable sources, and reductions in food loss and waste.

Strong Links to Climate Change

“Through this report, the global community of experts has delivered a frank and urgent warning, with clear options to address dire environmental damage,” said Sir Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES.

“Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together.”

The IPBES report finds that land degradation is a major contributor to climate change, with deforestation alone contributing about 10% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Another major driver of the changing climate has been the release of carbon previously stored in the soil, with land degradation between 2000 and 2009 responsible for annual global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2.

Given the importance of soil’s carbon absorption and storage functions, the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030 to keep global warming under the 2°C threshold targeted in the Paris Agreement on climate change, increase food and water security, and contribute to the avoidance of conflict and migration.

Projections to 2050

“In just over three decades from now, an estimated 4 billion people will live in drylands,” said Prof. Scholes. “By then it is likely that land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, will have forced 50-700 million people to migrate. Decreasing land productivity also makes societies more vulnerable to social instability – particularly in dryland areas, where years with extremely low rainfall have been associated with an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict.”

Dr. Montanarella added: “By 2050, the combination of land degradation and climate change is predicted to reduce global crop yields by an average of 10%, and by up to 50% in some regions. In the future, most degradation will occur in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – the areas with the most land still remaining that is suitable for agriculture.”

The report also underlines the challenges that land degradation poses, and the importance of restoration, for key international development objectives, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. “The greatest value of the assessment is the evidence that it provides to decision makers in Government, business, academia and even at the level of local communities,” said Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES. “With better information, backed by the consensus of the world’s leading experts, we can all make better choices for more effective action.”

Options for Land Restoration

The report notes that successful examples of land restoration are found in every ecosystem, and that many well-tested practices and techniques, both traditional and modern, can avoid or reverse degradation.

In croplands, for instance, some of these include reducing soil loss and improving soil health, the use of salt tolerant crops, conservation agriculture and integrated crop, livestock and forestry systems.

In rangelands with traditional grazing, maintenance of appropriate fire regimes, and the reinstatement or development of local livestock management practices and institutions have proven effective.

Successful responses in wetlands have included control over pollution sources, managing the wetlands as part of the landscape, and reflooding wetlands damaged by draining.

In urban areas, urban spatial planning, replanting with native species, the development of ‘green infrastructure’ such as parks and riverways, remediation of contaminated and sealed soils (e.g. under asphalt), wastewater treatment and river channel restoration are identified as key options for action.

Opportunities to accelerate action identified in the report include:

  • Improving monitoring, verification systems and baseline data;
  • Coordinating policy between different ministries to simultaneously encourage more sustainable production and consumption practices of land-based commodities;
  • Eliminating ‘perverse incentives’ that promote land degradation and promoting positive incentives that reward sustainable land management; and
  • Integrating the agricultural, forestry, energy, water, infrastructure and service agendas.

Making the point that existing multilateral environmental agreements provide a good platform for action to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation and promote restoration, the authors observe, however, that greater commitment and more effective cooperation is needed at the national and local levels to achieve the goals of zero net land degradation, no loss of biodiversity and improved human well-being.

Knowledge Gaps

Among the areas identified by the report as opportunities for further research are:

  • The consequences of land degradation on freshwater and coastal ecosystems, physical and mental health and spiritual well-being, and infectious disease prevalence and transmission;
  • The potential for land degradation to exacerbate climate change, and land restoration to help both mitigation and adaptation;
  • The linkages between land degradation and restoration and social, economic and political processes in far-off places; and
  • Interactions among land degradation, poverty, climate change, and the risk of conflict and of involuntary migration.

Environmental and Economic Sense

The report found that higher employment and other benefits of land restoration often exceed by far the costs involved. On average, the benefits of restoration are 10 times higher than the costs (estimated across nine different biomes), and, for regions like Asia and Africa, the cost of inaction in the face of land degradation is at least three times higher than the cost of action.

“Fully deploying the toolbox of proven ways to stop and reverse land degradation is not only vital to ensure food security, reduce climate change and protect biodiversity,” said Dr. Montanarella, “It’s also economically prudent and increasingly urgent.”

Echoing this message, Sir Robert Watson, said: “Of the many valuable messages in the report, this ranks among the most important: implementing the right actions to combat land degradation can transform the lives of millions of people across the planet, but this will become more difficult and more costly the longer we take to act.”