Friday, November 19, 2010

Lemming Tracks: Ice Age, Global Warming, Climate Change, and Living Scared

The Lemming was born during the Truman administration. That's what it says on my birth certificate, and that's the story I'm sticking with.

I remember when civilization was going to be scraped off the face of the earth by the coming ice age. That was before most of us were going to die in the food riots and ecological disasters popularized by a butterfly expert. (April 20, 2010)

More recently, it's been acid rain and global warming that's gonna kill us all.

An informal spot-check in America's media suggests that global warming's on the way out as the Big Bad. What we're all supposed to be scared silly about now is "climate change."

Oddly enough, I think the doomsayers are right. Sort of.

The Lemming Predicts: Change

This prediction is about as close to a 100 percent sure thing as it gets: A hundred years from now, things will be different. The Lemming will go even further out on this limb: A thousand years from now, things will be different.

How can the Lemming be so confident?

For the last several billion years, change has happened. There's no reason to think that the situation has - well, changed.

Like the fellow said:

"Nothing endures but change."
(Heraclitus, 540 BC - 480 BC) (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (October 29, 2009))

Falcons of the Ohio Mountains

People make things. Paleontologists recently unearthed a kitchen that someone used 1,600,000 years or so back. Homo sapiens sapiens wouldn't show up for quite a while - and the kitchen didn't have a refrigerator, but it was an area set up for food preparation.

Like the Lemming said, people make things - and have for quite a long time.

More recently, we've been making buildings. Quite a lot of them. That's - change. Buildings and clusters of buildings have been popping up across the North American continent. As a sort of side-effect, peregrine falcons are now building their nests on the sides of cliff faces - in places that didn't have cliff faces a century or so back. ("Ohio's Falcon Nesting Sites," Ohio Department of Natural Resources)

So far, the Lemming hasn't run into any anguished articles about the dreadful spread of peregrine falcons. Partly, I suspect, because quite a few people like birds.

Change, Dinosaurs, and Somebody's Fault

The Lemming's mentioned this before: America's dominant culture is convinced that vast, impersonal, mindless forces have wrought great changes on the face of the earth for billions and billions of years.

Mountains rose and fell; species appeared, changed, and went extinct; steamy jungles made way for continental glaciers which in their turn melted to form new landscapes.

Change happened: lots and lots of change. And it was part of the fascinating panoply of natural phenomena which Science revealed.

Then, starting maybe a couple centuries ago, change still happened - but it was somebody's fault.

Quite often, change was the fault of the authoritarian, male-dominated, white European culture that was to blame for just about everything else. Officially. And that's another topic. Almost.

The History Channel (which covers a lot more than what's "history," strictly speaking) had a fascinating show on this morning: First Apocalypse. It's about "how we can learn from the dinosaur's fall from grace and how much our own fate may be intertwined with theirs. Are we doomed to follow in the dinosaurs footsteps or can we face down extinction?

"Perhaps this fear is why we are so fascinated by the demise of a species that lived millions of years ago. If something so large that ruled the earth for so long can be wiped out in a matter of centuries, what does that say about our ultimate survival?

"The world we live in may already be in the throws of its own mass extinction... a new apocalypse."

Sounds like the same yadda-yadda about how we're all gonna die of [insert current intellectual fashion]. Some of it is. One can't be taken seriously, these days, unless one says that we're doomed - DOOOOOMED, I TELL YOU!!!!!!

Reminds me of the 'end times' chaps and their perennial apocalypse predictions - that that's almost another topic, too.

Back to First Apocalypse. What was running on History Channel this morning (which may be the same as the video they're selling) included the usual 'big rock killed the dinosaurs' thing. But it did a pretty good job of discussing the reasons for looking beyond that Yucatan impact for explanations.

The documentary suggests that between the Deccan traps, miscellaneous other impacts, changing landscapes, climate change, disease and parasites: the dinosaurs were on their way out when that big rock came down.

There was a particularly interesting bit about a nematode somebody found in a cockroach - which had been frozen in amber. The Lemming is getting off-topic again.

Cockroaches, Climate Change, and Humanity

Remember the Black Death? About a third of Europe died.

More to the point: in that global, species-threatening mega-disaster - two thirds of Europe didn't die.

The Lemming isn't trying to minimize the scope of that tragedy. But folks who weren't killed by the Black Death picked up the pieces of their culture, developed new social structures - and eventually discovered the usefulness of penicillin.

And microbes that aren't killed by penicillin. Which is another topic.

The point? It's like the one fellow in that documentary implied: Humans are about as hard to get rid of as cockroaches.

Finally, another one of the chaps interviewed (Physics of the Impossible's author, Michio Kaku) discussed the next ice age - which he said was coming in about 10,000 years.

He could be right about that - if we're in an interglacial period, that's when the next episode of continental glaciation is due. Give or take a few millennia.

But the last I checked, the jury's still out on whether or not we're at the end of the most recent set of ice ages - or in one of the more-or-less temporary thaws.

The Lemming's guess is that we'll know for sure - in about 10,000 years. And that folks will be around to argue about it then. And that cockroaches will still be nibbling their way through time.

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