The Overview Effect, Beyond The Mayan Ending
The below Nasa video opens, “If you are watching this video, it means one thing, the world didn’t end yesterday.”
Congratulations. December 21, 2012 came and went. The misinterpreted Mayan calendar end date did not coincide with the end of the world. We are still here!
Leading up to the big day, I was struck with the absurdity of the prediction on the one hand and the utter smugness of the dismissal on the other. Absurd in that we basically had a one day going out of business sale on filling in the blank on how the world would end inside of one day. On December 21, 2012, the world will *fill in blank*. On December 21, 2012, the world will Crash into Planet X, reverse its magnetic pole, and/or be consumed in a solar flare … Smug in that all too many have a casually dismissive attitude when present day mankind confronts many of the same challenges present at the time of the Mayan civilization collapse. From my standpoint, the absurd at least can be forgiven their foreboding sense that things need to change. The smug need to get grounded.
On December 7, 2012, Mary Miller, Sterling Professor of History of Art at Yale University and Dean of Yale College, wrote a worthy op ed entitled “The Maya collapsed – could we?”. Miller’s op ed grounds the absurd and pierces the smugness. Asking and answering the question “Did They See It Coming?” Miller writes:
No one could change — the paintings seem to tell us. The Maya ignored the crisis in front of them, instead dancing with great panaches of precious quetzal feathers on pyramids, as if the present would forever hold.
Now in the 21st century, perhaps we have also reached a precipice. Global warming is not just fearful thinking — it’s real. Weeks after Superstorm Sandy, scientists are now predicting the near-term and long-term effects of global warming as more dire that previously thought.
Some, perhaps like our Maya predecessors, would rather not see the writing on the walls of our flooded cities. The crises pile up in front of us, one after another, and we ignore them at our peril. Acknowledging and doing something about the problems in front of us seems hard. Give us more feathers. Build more walls. Stockpile canned goods and buy a generator.
In the lead up to the alleged Mayan ending, I could not help but think about two recent Scientific American (@SciAm) Science Talk podcasts that discuss pandemic disease and climate change perils we cannot ignore.
On the pandemic front, Steve Mirsky (@SteveMirsky) interviews science writer David Quammen (@DavidQuammen) on the SciAm Science Talk podcast on November 18, 2012. Quammen is on to talk about his new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. I have not read Spillover yet but Quammen shares some powerful observations in the Science Talk podcast.
Quammen explains how high bio diversity not only manages pathogens but also protects carriers. As one example, Quammen recounts studies around mice populations and the spread of lime disease. Quammen says “Biological diversity is good for minimizing the risk of lime disease”. A healthy ecosystem acts to manage the tick population from mice to squirrels to hawks to snakes to deer etc. When unbalanced, the larger human host unwittingly fills the void.
“There are 7 billion of us heading to 9 billion in the next 50 or 80 years,” says Quammen. “There has never been a single species of large body vertebrate animals on this planet as abundant as we are now.” Quamann continues saying, “In ecological terms, it is an outbreak population. We humans are an outbreak population because we have so exploded in terms of our numbers, out total mass, in terms of the amount of resources that we irrigate…” Quammen continues saying that humans are “offering ourselves as alternative hosts” as a result of the rapid decline and increasing rate of extinction of “resevoir species” of viruses. “Viruses don’t have intentions,” says Quammen, “they don’t make choices but given the opportunity they will spill over into new hosts and when they spill over into humans they have won the jackpot.” Quammen’s punchline is “You shake a tree and things fall out.”
A lot of trees have been shaken, cut, burned and not replanted since the Maya. Recent studies have shown that climate change was the primary reason for the collapse of the Maya. The online advance issue of Science Magazine published a report on November 9th, 2012 entitled “Development and Disintegration of Maya Political Systems in Response to Climate Change.” The report abstract states:
The role of climate change in the development and demise of Classic Maya civilization (300 to 1000 C.E.) remains controversial because of the absence of well-dated climate and archaeological sequences. We present a precisely dated subannual climate record for the past 2000 years from Yok Balum Cave, Belize. From comparison of this record with historical events compiled from well-dated stone monuments, we propose that anomalously high rainfall favored unprecedented population expansion and the proliferation of political centers between 440 and 660 C.E. This was followed by a drying trend between 660 and 1000 C.E. that triggered the balkanization of polities, increased warfare, and the asynchronous disintegration of polities, followed by population collapse in the context of an extended drought between 1020 and 1100 C.E.
Putting aside the causes of the 440 to 1100 climate change, the point here is that climate change is a force to reckon with because human and natural systems adjust, one way or the other, when the climate changes.
On September 28th, 2012, Mirsky replays part of a September 20th Union of Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA). On the panel was James J. McCarthy from Harvard and Brian Walsh (@bryanrwalsh) from Time Magazine. The panel discussed analysis conducted by the UCS on incorrect media coverage of climate issues.
Mirsky describes McCarthy as the “President of the board of the Union, also past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and he is the Alexander Agassi Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard and he holds faculty appointments in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Earth and Planetary sciences.” Mirsky quips, “He knows things.”
McCarthy opens up the panel answering a question from the moderator “What can we say with the highest confidence is true about climate change?” McCarthy describes his observations of climate science as it has developed over the past 25 years. McCarthy describes the understanding of climate science, “and by understanding I mean broadly agreed to facts and positions”, by looking at the level of understanding as of different release dates of major studies in 1990, 1995, 2000 and mid 2000s.
Circa 1990, many scientists did not believe climate change observations “were sufficiently robust” because there was not a long enough record of land and ocean temperatures to say that something unusual was happening to the climate. In 1990 there also was no indication of regular occurrences of extreme weather events or sea level rise.
By 2000, however, it was clear that the trend of warming was continuing and could only be explained by human activity. For the first time, the data was sufficient to show that there were some unusual trends in extreme events. “Warm events and wet events and dry events were occurring in ways that we hadn’t seen in the past,” says McCarthy. Organisms “on all continents” are also being observed changing their patterns of migration, distribution, nest building etc indicating response to climate change.
Circa 2012, McCarthy answers the question saying: “Today you won’t find science published in scientific journals that would refute either the statement that the earth is warming in an unusual way, that it is warming mostly, and you can debate how much mostly is, due to human activities and that the implications of that are now widespread for natural and human systems.”
McCarthy goes on to describe work that the Union of Concerned Scientists are doing with evangelical community. “The notion of stewardship is strong and deep in that community,” says McCarthy. McCarthy also describes work that the UCS is doing with national security leaders. McCathy is on a committee with half a dozen admirals and generals and “every single one of them are concerned about the national security implications of climate change.”
The moderator then shifts to Walsh to discuss the challenges of covering climate change. Walsh explains one of the big challenges is ‘false balance’. Walsh describes false balance as “Needing another side to the story that doesn’t always have another side.”
In the last decade, we have had what would have been considered century scale events on every continent. Looking at 2012 year end summaries of climate stories, arctic sea ice at record low levels, antarctica warming at accelerated rates, and so on, it is hard to deny that something is going on. Yet there are false balancing reports out there that friends still send me to show the other side of the story.
The first step, as they say, is admitting we have a problem. At the very least, we need to acknowledge that the climate is changing and that man is a meaningful part of the cause. I am most encourage by the increasing attention of the evangelical community and national security circles which can change the balance of the climate change debate. I have long said to my conservative friends that climate change is not only a liberal issues, it is also by definition a conservative one. Literally a conservative one. CON-SER-VA-Tives should be CON-SER-VA-Tion-ists. We need them to be because the “only Nixon can go to China’ maxim applies to passing meaningful climate change legislation. We can then get on with debating and applying our formidable collective talents, energies and intellects to address climate change for current AND future generations.
The consequences are too dire for continued denial. Despite all the planets science continues to find, there is only one earth. Science and religion can today come full circle to ask the same question – Should We Expect Other Earth-like Planets At All? For me the answer is no. There is only one earth and the precious few whom have seen it from space come back changed. A 1987 book by Frank White called The Overview Effect describes the life altering effect upon astronauts who see the earth from space. In the spirit of the overview effect, below is a new short film by Planetary Effect (@WeArePlanetary) called “Overview” released on the 40th anniversary of the final Apollo launch. May it inspire an Overview Effect on all in 2013 and beyond!