07 March 2019
Don’t worry, be happy.
By J R Thomas
Is life in the UK getting you down? It should. Never mind Brexit. There are lots of other things you should be worrying about. The weather is bizarre; hotter and colder and wetter and drier. Wild salmon are vanishing fast, though maybe not as fast as bird life, with many species down to a tiny percentage of the numbers of fifty years ago. The levels of pollution in major cities regularly exceed safe levels (we know that’s really because the stated safe levels have been lowered by government, but even so, we don’t want to be breathing bad stuff in). Desertification is growing, the beaches are awash with plastic, the same plastic which is turning up in turtles and the sea fish we eat. Scientists say that the ice melting is lessening the load on the northern tectonic plates of the planet, almost certainly leading to a major volcanic eruption in Europe within the next forty years. The last one – thirteen thousand years ago, in Western Germany – led to a new ice age and wiped out much of the animal and human population.
Thirteen thousand years ago, you may sneer, that’s pre-history. That’s not going to happen again. Look at how our western governments are busy saving us from ourselves. Only last week the British government announced plans to support the construction of hundreds of extra wind turbines in the seas around our coast. All our trains will be powered by non-carbon fuels by 2040, and road vehicles soon after. Environmentalist Michael Gove has already said that he would like to ban open fires and wood burning stoves in the next couple of years. His co-tree hugger Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has increased the Congestion Charge on those pesky diesels and is trying to impose it on Uber drivers (too many of them, apparently). The government has even legislated to make your Mars Bar smaller, ostensibly to save your teeth and shrink your tummy, but also no doubt to cut back on pointless manufacturing energy usage.
So it’s all going to be alright in the end, isn’t it? Well, no, it isn’t. There is not much we can do about volcanic eruptions in Europe (some would no doubt positively welcome one under Brussels anyway), and there seems to be nothing we can do about vanishing salmon and bird life. We have to feed, clothe, house, transport, provide energy and information services, to say nothing of medical attention and long haul holidays, to a global population that is now over seven billion and within fifty years is likely to be over nine billion. And, given what nearly all of us regard as satisfactory living standards (not even one yacht each, never mind three), we can’t do it without dramatically increasing our consumption of energy and of shrinking planetary resources. Our time on this earth is running out and we are not going to be able to make the great leap to other planets in time. (Except maybe for a few of those yacht owners, and who will wait upon them in outer space?)
Never mind, says a new book just out. The planet has been here many millions of years and its occupation by homo sapiens is but a pinprick in its existence. We evolved, we flourished, and we are reaching the end of our natural time, so we will decay and evolve into something else, or just become extinct. We are like the dinosaurs, extinct 60 million years ago after having been around for maybe 150 million years. Or mammoths, extinct, in that time frame, almost within living memory, as little as four thousand years ago. In the last twenty thousand years our planet has had two periods of intense cold – ice ages – and several of global warming. During the ice ages, when the earth was in large parts uninhabitable for humans, the sea levels fell dramatically, then rose again to make the planet suitable for living by us and the creatures with which we are familiar. In the context of that (which makes global warming seem a thoroughly good thing) we are reaching the end of the ice retreat and warming phrase, and soon things will start to get colder. Humans will not affect that cycle very much, not nearly so much as that massive volcanic explosion in the Brussels area. (Actually, alas, it is more likely in the Bay of Naples where there is much tectonic movement already, so go to Ischia whilst you have chance.)
But it does not matter, says this new splendidly robust volume. If you love your planet, contemplate the cycle of life which rises and falls upon her, and stop worrying. We are just passing tenants, any damage we do to the paintwork or décor is so minor that it matters not. Mother Earth is much more powerful than the humanoids messing about on the surface and will long survive them.
The book is Time Song and it is by the great writer and biographer Julia Blackburn. “Searching for Doggerland” is the sub-title and the roots from which all this contemplation grew. Ms Blackburn has lived most of her adult life either side of the North Sea, and has had a long fascination with those strange shallow waters known to most of us as Dogger Bank. In recent years trawling over Dogger Bank and research by archaeologists has proven that Dogger Bank was a substantial land mass, inhabited by humans and many forms of animal life, and clothed with vegetation that would be very familiar to most of us. Doggerland, in other words; like the other low-lying bosky boggy marshlands still extant around the North Sea. There were probably communities living there from soon after the ice retreated to when the inevitable rising of the waters drowned the land and forced them east or west – for maybe a thousand years or more, maybe two.
That does rather put our concerns in context. The whole planet ebbs and flows and changes, the oceans rise and fall, the crust occasionally explodes. Nothing is stable; it is just by human standards happening very slowly – though not by dinosaur standards, who are likely to far exceed our period of existence here. Of course, what is troubling us is not really the way the atmosphere and ground conditions of this fast-moving piece of rock are changing, but the short term effects of those changes on our ability to live the lives we think we are entitled to lead. It is human selfishness – that “sapiens” bit of homo sapiens as we have entitled ourselves with (as Ms Blackburn points out) an extraordinary arrogance that we are the only creatures on the planet who are sentient beings and have a unique right to have things the way we want them. Some sapiens, eh? Can’t even manage to evolve enough to survive pretty minor changes. Indeed it is true, we are not nearly so flexible in our survival strategies as those dinosaurs.
So there is nothing we can do about it, other than make very minor, pinprick adjustments, that may save some insignificant element of temperature change or slowing of our use of finite resources. And all that will do is allow more and more homo sapiens to overcrowd the earth and reinforce the problem. Until the planet shrugs, and we all fall off.
“Time Song” is published by Jonathan Cape, 2019, RRP £25. Quite apart from being a thought provoking read, it is a beautifully produced book, on high quality paper well bound, a pleasure to add to a library.