We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.
Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.
The Ordivician extinction about 447 million years ago occurred before much life made it onto the land, and killed about 60% of all marine fauna; it may have been caused by a gamma ray burst (a sort of space beam powered by a dying star) stripping away a chunk of the ozone layer.
The Late Devonian extinction took place about 375 million years ago. By the Devonian period there were forests on the land, and insects, but it was again the creatures of the seas that were primarily affected – so about 75% of the species then present on the Earth were lost. This extinction was accompanied by widespread loss of oxygen deep in the ocean, which formed the conditions for the creation of the oil which we use today.
The Great Dying about 252 million years ago was the most destructive of these events. 96% of all marine life died. 70% of land-based vertebrates died. There are no coal deposits originating from a period of about ten million years after this event, because so many trees died in one go that it took that long for populations to recover. This was long enough ago that finding a crater for an impact would be difficult (no part of the ocean floor is more than 200 million years old – it all gets recycled by geological processes); so this might have been caused by a large impact, or by volcanic activity causing climate change, or bacteria doing the same.
About 201 million years ago, the Triassic-Jurassic extinction wiped out an entire class of life in the seas – that’s the equivalent of (say) all mammals being killed off. At least half the species living at the time were wiped out. On land, this opened up many ecological niches for dinosaurs to fill.
Probably the most well-known of these events (thanks to Jurrassic Park etc.) is the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, about 66 million years ago. This was the one cause by a big old space-rock – the one that took out the dinosaurs, and 75% of all species on Earth at the time. Of course, from this came mammals, and then… us.
And then there’s the Holocene extinction.
Wherever on Earth we humans have gone, things have died. In the Americas, in Australia – in every isolated landmass – megafauna died as we arrived. This was destructive, of course, but it was insignificant compared to what we’re capable of now. Global industrialisation – deforestation, hunting, mass fishing, pollution… all of these add up to create a rate of extinction a hundred times higher than any of the previous mass extinctions. We are more destructive than a comet-strike. It will take two million years for the coral reefs to recover from our actions. By 2100, we will have driven half the species on Earth to extinction.
‘We’ is a funny word, isn’t it? In one sense we’re all responsible; in another sense it feels distinctly shitty to lump (say) the victims of the Bhopal disaster in with the leadership of Union Carbide, or the native people of the Amazon rainforest in with the companies that are destroying their homes and burning them to death.
We live in a political and economic system that produces enough food for ten billion people and still leaves millions hungry every night. We live in a system that allows Nestlé to extract water in California to sell across the USA when that state is going through a multi-year drought. There are cocoa farmers who have never tasted the fruits of their labours (and this is presented as ‘heartwarming’!).
Capitalism is the magical idea that we can let the worst people in the world act in utterly selfish ways and end up with them working towards the public good. It doesn’t work – or rather, it doesn’t work how its proponents pretend it works. Capitalism is incapable of halting the ongoing extinction (it doesn’t even recognise the problem: massive profits are being made, you see); it is incapable of stopping its joyous run towards global warming, which will kill millions even in the best case scenario.
When you are down them are not coming With a helping hand Of course there is no us and them But them – they do not think the same
There is a better way.