It’ll all turn out in the end. Or will it?

December 12, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Today’s post in our 21 Days to Prepare Series comes to us from Ellen LaConte, the author of Life Rules, Nature’s Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse.

Ellen suggests that although the end of the world should not worry us too much, the end of the world as we know it should. Enjoy.

“I was much under the influence, in those days, of Grandma Catlett and Dick Watson’s wife, Aunt Sarah Jane, to whom about equally the end of the world was a scheduled event, though nobody knew the schedule. The end of the world was not as exactly predictable but was just as expectable as Christmas or the Fourth of July.”

Those words are drawn from a story in Wendell Berry’s newest collection, A Place In Time (Counterpoint, 2012) [ ]. Grandma Catlett and Aunt Sarah Jane, for whom the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is a recurring nightmare, have their heirs in the disciples of the Mayan long count calendar. Many of those disciples, unlike the humbler Catletts, are pretty sure they know when the end of the world will happen. They expect it on December 21st . You’d think they’d have learned circumspection from preacher Harold Camping’s pathetic prophetic failures, his May 21st and October 21st dates having been left behind, unRaptured, last year. (What is it about 21sts?)

But at the end of Berry’s story – it’s about the hardship for farmers of persistent drought – the rains come, putting the lie, at least temporarily, to their end-of-the-world fears. And similarly, in the nick of time, the Mayan doom date has been given the lie, though its disciples won’t want to hear it. A midsummer Discovery article [ ] reported that scholars of Mesoamerican history have unearthed new talking stones that round out the long-count calendar story. The hieroglyph from which doomers have drawn their prediction was not a prophesy after all but a response to unfounded oral reports of the defeat in battle of a 7th century Guatemalan ruler. It was the written-in-stone equivalent of a journalistic correction: “I’m still here, I’m still strong and you can count on me to be around and running things until the next 13 K’atul cycle ends on 12. 21. 2012” – which in 696 must have seemed like forever.

While the actual end of the world probably shouldn’t worry us overmuch just yet, the end of the world as we know it probably should. There are precedents for that: five major disruptions in the flow of Life into still more life, and a bunch of lesser regional ones. The most famous, the one that did in the dinosaurs and eradicated 75% of all species, was a sudden-onset event, the result probably of an asteroid or comet that plummeted deep into the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, setting the atmosphere on fire and blowing a hole out the other side of the world. But it’s the probable cause of the earlier four that should give us pause.

Though they unfolded slowly over hundreds of thousands or millions of years, those earlier extinctions (going back to around 450 million years ago) seem to have shared a common etiology: a slow but finally fatal buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere; consequent acidification and de-oxygenation of the world’s oceans; and withal, the demise of species that form the base of the marine food chains and of marine systems that perform vital Life-support and climate management services. E voila: trickle-up extinction. Precedent suggests that the faster the CO2 builds up in the atmosphere, the faster and more fiercely the extinction process sets in. [See, for example, marine scientist John Veron’s article on the connection between CO2 and extinctions. ]

You can guess where this is going.

In November the World Meteorological Organization reported that atmospheric greenhouse gases reached yet another record high in 2011, amounting to a 30 percent increase in radiative forcing – warming effect – since just 1990. That’s fast. CO2 has breached 390 parts per million, which is higher than at any time in the last 15 million years, and is heading, according to an MIT projection, to 866 ppm by century’s end. Atmospheric methane reached a new high of over 1800 parts per billion, up from 700 ppb in the pre-industrial period. And nitrous oxide, the third in a disastrous trio of greenhouse gases, exceeded 324 ppb, 120 percent of the pre-industrial level. Throw in soot, which accounts for as much as 20 percent of global warming. Though doesn’t signal the end of the world yet, it may well signal the beginning of the end of the world we know. A slew of unpleasant alterations to weather, ecosystems, and species’ viability will fall out of this noxious cloud.

Unhappily, since these atmospheric additives have long half lives, and since we are adding to them at a great rate, and since growing the global economy that produces them is an almost universal aim, we haven’t yet experienced anything like the full range or severity of consequences we still could. The Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change reveals, for example, that “About 50% of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.” [ ] The long and short of it is that we are already committed to what may often feel like the end of the world for a long time.

The obvious and important difference between this potential Sixth Great Extinction and all the others is that they had natural, unavoidable causes. There are fewer and fewer deniers now that our fossil-fueled grow-consume-lay waste-deplete global economy is the cause of this one. The next paragraph in Wendell Berry’s story begins “Grandpa, I think, did not give much thought to the end of the world. It was the continuance of the world that worried him. . .” I’m with Grandpa. But it’s not the continuance of the world that worries me, it’s the continuance of the way we do business in the world that does. Overshooting as it is Earth’s means of supporting it and us, the global economy has gotten too big not to fail. But all is not lost. Since it is our economy that’s the problem, we can choose to change it or quit it, preferably before it quits on us. Worst case scenarios and extinction are still avoidable if leaders and governments get with the program. Given that they seem disinclined, it’s up to us to do what we can to adapt and prepare.

So how do we avoid the worst? Subsequent NSP blogs from now until December 21st will offer some suggestions. And pretty nearly every book in New Society’s extensive current and back lists offers an answer to that critical question. And if I may indulge in a moment of shameless self-promotion, I recommend you begin with the lead title in their fall catalog, Life Rules: Nature’s Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse. For if we were to take its advice and create lifeways that mimic Life’s ways we could live both well and well within Earth’s means – for a long time to come. World without end? Well, maybe not that long.


 Link to first post in series: It’s the End of the World as we Know it…or is it?

Ellen LaConte

Ellen LaConte is a memoirist, former homesteader and editor of Farmstead and ForeFacts magazines, and publisher of Starting Point newsletter. Her widely endorsed new book, Life Rules: Nature’s Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse was released by New Society Publishers in October 2012. LaConte’s very smallholding in the piedmont bioregion of North Carolina has recently been designated a certified wildlife habitat where, increasingly, Life does rule.

Tags: end of the world, Life Rules, personal and community resilience, sixth great extinction