Lots of Alaskans are anxious about global warning. We gather in twos and threes, speaking in worried tones.
We and the Legislature should get wrought up over the state of the environment, but not for panicked reasons. We need those of you we have sent to Juneau to take care of our business, to manage our survival. Make it your main business. Global warming is a warning. Heed it.
Sure, Earth is about 3.5 billion years old and somewhere in mid-life. The planet started out molten. The great bulk of the planet remains molten. Mountains rise until their weight pushes them down to be remelted. Earth has been struck by massive asteroids that splashed molten rock. Volcanoes come and go under the ocean and along the Pacific Rim, the Ring of Fire, where we Alaskans live. What is all the fuss about a little human-induced atmospheric warming? Why should we fret about it?
Isn’t worrying about atmospheric warming a little like worrying about so-called invasive species? After all, species always have migrated and always will migrate in response to environmental conditions. They are not invading, they are migrating.
Europeans migrated. Tunicates have migrated into Alaskan harbors. It is natural. Fighting migration is senseless preoccupation. We humans are the most invasive species of all. It is such a political headache to manage ourselves that we always pick up and leave our problems behind.
So why worry about atmospheric warming? An eloquent science writer pointed out, long ago, that Earth does not care about humans. Extinction happens. It is just one of those things. To Earth, humans are immaterial. If Earth were alive, we would scarcely make it itch.
Other scientists have coined the useful term, “carrying capacity.” A given ecosystem — a lake, a valley, a continent — has a limit to the number of organisms it can carry. In our case, only enough resources exist to support a finite number of humans. Changing conditions control carrying capacity. So we can take solace in thinking that changing conditions will simply trim the human population until only the number are carried on the planet that match available resources. Right?
The hitch is that imbalances between resources, conditions and populations tend to cascade. The tumble from high numbers to zero starts at a tipping point. Slowly, oxygen is depleted in a lake. At the tipping point, all life in the lake dies. Carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere. What is the tipping point?
Deer hunters know that harsh winters can produce a severe depletion of the herd, not just a correction. Extinction happens when the over-correction is so severe that a species cannot adjust. Keep in mind that other species are ready to take up empty space. Extinction often is followed by a burst of development by more adaptive species. What if we humans do not manage our carrying capacity, allowing conditions that could lead to the cascading effect of extinction? Remember, the microbes will always be with us. Will they ultimately replace us?
Our legislators are not very good managers. The agencies they are supposed to direct drive our food supply species below the threshold. They collaborate to extract resources without regard to environmental costs. No wonder the people talking together in Juneau or Sitka or Anchorage or in the villages have become anxious. Our representatives value profit and capital over survival. Alaska is not a state that pollutes mightily, but we export our carbon footprint. The footprint returns as the exhaust of aircraft. We have more international air freight traffic than any other state.
Alaska’s legislators and state agencies have been too concerned with promoting resource exploitation, and too little concerned with preserving living conditions. If we do not manage the resources and the conditions we survive on, in order to continue surviving, then we will not survive. Human contributions to atmospheric warming may well be the nudge to send us over the tipping point. A nudge is all it takes.
Some folks are thinking about invading space. The rest of us might quit worrying and start taking action to manage our earthly resources. We need our legislators in Juneau to manage the conditions we depend on for survival. Utilization of resources must always meet the standard of environmental survivability. It is the only way to go. What shall it profit us if we lose the Earth?
•John Welsh resides in Sitka.