I have just arrived back in the city from a few days spent at a friend’s cottage in the Muskoka’s. The landscape of Cottage Country, to the North of Toronto, is stunning: clear blue lakes girdled on all sides by a rich blanket of birch and pine; part of the vast hinterland of trees and lakes that makes up Ontario’s portion of the great Canadian Shield. There is an immensity to this wilderness, a sense of the infinite. It truly is another world. It amazes me that this extraordinary biomass, this plethora of life, is suspended on a sliver of topsoil too weak to support more needy crops like wheat or corn.
You can see evidence of the shield in the outcrops and rocks that heave throughout the landscape. These are some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, 3.5 billion years old, dating from the great continent of Laurentia.
There is a chameleon like aspect to this part of Canada. On the surface, pretty tourist towns selling ice-cream and maple syrup give a picturesque feel to a carefree summer, but scratch the surface and you soon find that logging and mining still form the primary industries of the area. Everyone one knows someone who is connected to Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, either through direct working or via permit gathering.
To the north of Muskoka lies Sudbury, the Nickle capital of Canada. There a comet about 10km wide, roughly the size of the asteroid that finished off the dinosaurs, gouged a knife shaped incision into the proto-Canadian wilderness 1.89 billion years ago, long before the trees that stand there now were even a twinkle in evolution’s eye. That wound, terrifying beyond belief to consider, was filled with the Earth’s rich magma: Nickle, Iron, Copper, even some diamonds. It is a bounty we are still extracting to this day.
The Sudbury impact was not responsible for any of the great mass-extinction events of recorded Earth’s history. Life had not evolved much beyond the single cell at that point. If a particular group of single celled organisms had dominated, we lack fossil records to support their fate. Yet, just standing on those rocks, knowing their age, brings a sense of awe. The rocks that form this place, that provide the foundation for the woods where we walked, or the basins to hold the water where we swam, have witnessed the whole of history, including all five of the Earth’s mass extinction events.
Our current way of life depends on three of those events, four if you include the last one, 65 million years ago, which saw off the dinosaurs and allowed our mammalian ancestors to rise to their current prominence.
Reading Peter Brannen’s thrilling and evocative The Ends of the World, (currently a bargain in both iBooks and Kindle) suggests that the organisms that became our oil supply were brought down by the first great mass-extinction, 445 Millions Years ago: the End-Ordovician Mass Extinction (86% of species lost). The Shale gas that is currently being fracked in the US was created by the Late Devonian Mass Extinction (75% lost), 364 million years ago. Coal was formed before and by the mother of all extinctions at the end of the Permian era: The Great Dying, 251 million years ago, which saw a whopping 96% of all life on Earth snubbed out.
It is these resources, amongst others, that we are exploiting to such an extent that we would require 1.7 Earths to meet our needs in a sustainable way. 1.7 Earths, another world. I arrived back in Toronto to the news that Earth Overshoot Day this year is August 1st, next year it may well be in late July. Overshoot day marks the point in the calendar where humanities resource consumption exceeds the capacity for nature to replenish it. The point in the calendar when we collectively roll-up the concept of sustainability and throw it out of the window or set fire to it like trash in a garbage bin. We haven’t gotten close to sustainability since 1970.
It is not a day that is likely to be marked by our new Conservative Premier in Ontario. Doug Ford seems to be going out of his way to ensure that efforts to sustain our environment are being degraded or removed entirely. Like many on the right he is laying waste to the environmental protection that has been put in place to try and conserve our planet as a viable living space for humans and other species on an ongoing basis.
I don’t get it. Even if you completely ignore the science and declare climate change to be a hoax, wouldn’t you at least want to hedge our future for the sake of your children and grand-children? Wouldn’t you want to try and make money from sustainable industry? Wouldn’t we want to find ways to wean ourselves off, or at least control, our love affair with cars, oil and meat? (And, by the way, where did all the new CO2 in the atmosphere come from if we’re not burning it?) Is it simply a knee jerk reaction to the prospect of more Government regulation or more tax?
We are losing our biosphere at an alarming rate. 200 species are being driven to extinction on a daily basis. We do not know the effects of this new mass extinction. The new great dying that will mark the Anthropocene era, or as it has now been reclassified, the slightly more prosaic: Meghalayan era. (Under political pressure? You have to ask.) Interesting fact: I have written a climate thriller that is set partially in Meghalaya in India, and was constructed before this latest nomenclature surfaced, but I digress.
As a species we are too small in thought. Too myopic.
Life on planet Earth will sustain. It will continue. We have seen this pattern repeat itself five times already. The planet will recover. Then, from those ashes, another world will rise. In a few million years a new intelligence may form and, as it looks deep down into the layers beneath its feet, it may question the thin layer of organic compounds, a plasticity that could be the only lasting signature of our contribution to the story of Earth.
A plasticity of exploitation, but, alas, not of thought.