By Ross McCluney
In an amazing one-two punch of scientific understanding, the University of Georgia and Arizona State University have, independently, brought new insights into the root causes of accelerated climatic disruption, unprecedented species extinctions, resource depletions—all at the hands of humanity—plus a dramatic spurt of population growth in the last couple of centuries and the resulting threat of human self-extinction.
“You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged very slowly over billions of years. The sun’s energy is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy much faster than it can be replenished.”
In just the last few hundred years, humans extracted exploitable energy from these living and fossilized biomass fuels to build the modern industrial-technological-informational economy, to grow our population to more than 7 billion, and to transform the biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity of the earth.
This rapid discharge of the earth’s store of organic energy is what fuels the human domination of the biosphere, including conversion of natural habitats to agricultural fields and the resulting loss of native species, emission of carbon dioxide and the resulting climate and sea level change, and use of supplemental nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar energy sources.
The laws of thermodynamics, part of physics, govern the trickle-charge and rapid discharge of the earth’s battery and are therefore universal and absolute. In the long span of universe history, Earth is only temporarily poised on its outpost, some distance away from the thermodynamic equilibrium of outer space.
With the rapid depletion of the chemical energy stored in planetary biomass, however, the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space—with fundamental ramifications for the biosphere and humanity. Because there is no substitute or replacement energy for living biomass, the remaining distance from equilibrium that will be required to support human life is unknown.