Earth’s Tragic Trajectory

The earth’s tragic trajectory; what a vociferous yet abating expression. We’ve heard, read and seen so much about it, it makes one wonder whether we are slowly becoming immune to this vehement statement.

The recent David Attenborough documentary; ‘A Life On Our Planet’ has instilled within me a sense of urgency that ought to be shared. I would have liked to think that I was quite aware of the speed at which we are degrading our planet, but David Attenborough has proved me wrong.

To think that the Earth has undergone such a drastic change in the lifetime of just one human being is disquieting. And to think that living a life as venturesome and exotic as his may be bittersweet nostalgia to the next generation or perhaps even ours is both doleful and dismal. I am writing this because I dream of a life in which I will see the Mountain Gorillas in Africa, witness a plethora of amphibians in South America and listen to the melancholic calls of a blue whale somewhere in the midst of the Pacific Ocean. I want to study wildlife conservation because I believe that wildlife is meant to be conserved. But unfortunately, the rapid degradation dilapidating our planet may orchestrate an ecological collapse before I get my chance to do so.

An ecological collapse as defined by Dr. Lucie Bland of Deakin University is when an ecosystem transitions beyond a bounded threshold that is defined by at least one indicator that denotes both the identity and the natural variability of the ecosystem. Such collapses may be irreversible, as defining features of the ecosystem are forever lost and/or replaced by newfound ecosystems.

We have withstood ecological collapse both in prehistoric times such as the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, the Permian–Triassic extinction event and other several mass extinctions; as well as at present with instances such as the Aral Sea, the regime shift in the northern Benguela upwelling ecosystem and ostensibly the sixth mass extinction we are currently facing.

The Aral Sea, for instance, was an endorheic lake between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that has been gradually declining since the 1960s because it’s main water source, several rivers, were all diverted for large scale irrigation. The Aral Sea has now broken up and segregated into much smaller hypersaline lakes, with the dried areas in between now reduced to desert steppes. The Aral trout, ruffe, Turkestan barbel and all sturgeon species in the area were undoubtedly wiped out within less than half of a century. Species like the Aral trout and Syr Darya sturgeon have a very restricted range and may therefore be extinct, however this has not been confirmed.

Image of the Aral sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right).

The Aral Sea is but one example. Rainforest clearing in southeast Asia, the destruction of Europe’s wetlands and the melting of the Arctic ice cap are all paving the way for more ecosystem collapses.

These same ecosystems are the foundation of human life. They provide a range of services, better known as ecosystem services without which our societies and economies would suffer gravely, or better yet, completely collapse. Such services include the natural pollination of crops, extreme weather mitigation, nutrient cycling, food production and a multitude of other invaluable provisions.

Unfortunately, putting a monetary value on such ecosystem services is not always easy, and so in our capitalist society, they tend to be easily overlooked. It is only when our ecosystems are beyond repair and these fundamental services are no longer provided that we will know their true value.

There are several environmental lessons we can learn from the past, especially considering that many societies have collapsed when they destroyed their ecological quintessence.

Jared Diamond, a well renowned American historian and anthropologist, defines a societal collapse when there is a local drastic decrease in human population numbers and/or in political, economic or social complexity. By adhering to this definition, one can come to the conclusion that such collapses (although some may be considered rather non abrasive in comparison to others) are not uncommon.

The collapses of Zaire, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia are all relatively recent, whilst of the preceding collapses that of the Roman Empire, Classic Lowland Maya civilization, Easter Island civilization and Angkor Wat are the most widely known. Deciding whether such collapses occurred exclusively due to ecological reasons is a difficult task for obvious reasons; however there are still some clear examples of remote and/or isolated societies whose collapse is deemed to be entirely due to ecological reasons.

The collapse of the Easter Island civilisation is mainly contributed to rapid deforestation on the island

There are several ecological factors that can contribute to a societal collapse, but even if we were to focus on just one factor; soil erosion for example, we can find a multitude of collapses associated solely with it. The fall of Greece is a prime example of such, a downfall that took no more than 40 generations due to exhausted soil resources. As a consequence of population growth, soil fertility was despoiled and augmented soil erosion. When Greece was still formidable and could depend on its colonies for agricultural output, it thrived and flourished even though its soils were downgraded. However under any circumstance where Greece was divested of its colonies, Greek civilization promptly declined, implying that the expansion of societies hinges on the degree to which soil resources can be diminished from nature.

Societies have been cognizant of this fact for millenia, with Plato even manifesting his concerns of soil depletion in his dialog Critia, depicting the tree felling in the forest of Attica and the consequences of agriculture. Greece is not the only example of a fallen civilization due to soil erosion. The collapse of the Roman civilization is also ascribable to soil collapse as well as the diminution of Sumer as a resultant of salt accumulation due to irrigation, conceivably the first instance of chemical contamination in the annals of history.  There are a multitude of other examples in which soil erosion was an accompanying factor leading to a comeuppance such as the ruination of Easter Island, home to the Moai, and the Mayan civilization inhibiting the Copán valley which suffered a similar kismet.

We now know that some places are more ecologically vulnerable than others; the previously mentioned collapses of Greece and Easter Island as well as others such as Kahoolawe, the Anasazi, the Fertile Crescent and north-west Africa all occured in dry climates. Agricultural output is essentially proportionate to rainfall, indicating that areas with a dry climate are more slow to recover from habitat degradation than are wet areas. In his journal article Ecological Collapses of Past Civilizations, Jared Diamond draws attention to the fact that much of the U.S West, the Himalayas and Africa consist of such environments, yet we continue to encroach these environments with populations bigger than ever before and technology that is capable of devastating the landscape much quicker than it did in the past.

Evident deforestation in the Cascades mountain range of Oregon.

It is even more devastating to think that our societies today, unlike for example, the Easter Island society, are interrelated and interdependent due to globalisation. A societal collapse today will therefore have effects of a much larger magnitude than it did in the past. A global collapse is a more adequate term to portray our potential plight. I hope that by the end of this article you have come to realise that my concern is far greater than the loss of any mountain gorilla or amphibian species, and yours should be too. Afterall, some societies that were in considerably less jeopardy than we are in today are at present just another page in a history book.

It’s time to stop denying the severity of the situation.

Written by: Francesca Grillo


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