Why I think all life on the planet can be threatened

I’ve been reading over some of the feedback I’ve gotten from those of you who’ve either read my book, In The Service of Gaia: The Call, or attempted and failed for whatever reason. Thanks to all of those of you who have provided comments. As anyone who knows me knows, I’ve a hide as tough as an anteater’s tongue, and I really cherish the feedback, even if harsh.

All comments are being considered, but one that’s occurred more than once seems like a good topic for a blog entry: Why in the world do I think it at all reasonable that all life is threatened by man’s excesses?

Of course, I’d thought I’d anticipated this objection when first writing the book, as that’s the main point of most of it. Although the initial stimulus of my thinking was anything but rational, I spend a great deal of time in The Call trying to show the scientific case for exactly this concern. I apparently failed to make the point convincingly for every reader, but since last edition I’ve learned something new that may push you over that precipice.

That positive feedback loops, autocatalytic phenomena, or, if you prefer, exponential growth situations tend to blow up in one’s face, going from minor problem to major catastrophe in a very short time and with dangerous or even extraordinary consequences is really not so alien to most people. But the idea that such an event could consume the very Lifeforce on this planet is often beyond one’s imagination. What people seem to need is a way of actually pinpointing a possible mechanism more explicit than some vague concept of “over population” or “global warming.” Recently I learned something on NPR I had not known that might be the key to exactly such a culprit.

Water vapor–the stuff steam and clouds are made of–is a more potent greenhouse gas than the dreaded Carbon Dioxide. Before I elaborate on the potential implications of this observation, let me state the caveat that I’ve not yet confirmed either this “fact” or whether it’s already been factored into global warming modeling techniques that are frequently the basis of the dire predictions associated with global warming. Still, even if the example turns out to be erroneous, the mechanisms of total loss of life on the planet I’m about to hypothesize are illustrative of the kind of thing that I’m trying to get at in The Call.

One of the major factors in global warming will be an increase in the amount of water vapor the oceans produce. This is a pretty straightforward consequence of how temperature and humidity interact. As H2O is a greenhouse gas, increases in water vapor imply increases in temperature, which then, in turn, increases the water vapor content of the atmosphere, etc. A classic positive feedback loop.

When I warned of the possibility that global warming might be an autocatalytic phenomenon, I was unaware of the specific mechanism that might trigger it. Now I may know. CO2 emissions from human activity raise the global temperature to a point beyond which the driving mechanism switches from CO2 to H2O vapor, and from that point onward, it makes no difference, whatsoever, what mankind does, or does not do. The amount of water vapor coming off the oceans is totally beyond our control. As the world wide atmospheric humidity rises, so does the temperature, which drives the humidity yet higher and with it the temperature. It is the scenario once called “runaway greenhouse effect” back in the 50’s and 60’s, but now more blandly “global warming,” probably because the former sounded too alarmist.

The end result, in the view of some of those earlier “alarmist” scientists, was that Earth’s atmosphere might grow to be more akin to that of Venus than to the thin blue blanket we now enjoy. In that scenario, the death of Gaia is much more likely than her survival.

Alarmist? Better to sound that alarm now than after the driving mechanism of global warming has already switched to water vapor. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men and all the king’s money and all our clever devices and computers and chemistry and, especially, our best intentions, won’t put that Genie back in the bottle again.

Buy the book, or ask me for a free copy of the manuscript. If you already have The Call, please read it even if it seems too dense or, more likely, too much of a bummer. It’s not meant to be recreation. It’s a Call.


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