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THE IMMORTALS

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THE IMMORTALS

  1. 1. Human Intelligence &Fossil Fuel Divestment The once greatcivilisationof Mesopotamiaistodaynothingbutabaron wasteland.Whatwent wrong?One problemwasthe almostceaselesswarfare betweenthe citiesof Mesopotamia,which continuallydestroyed theirachievements.Theyglorifiedmilitaryconquestand,ultimately,became itsvictims.Anothercause of decline wasthattheirtechnical know-howover-rantheirunderstanding of nature.The ingeniousirrigationsystemsthatwere the basisof the Mesopotamiancivilisation had unintendedconsequences;the waterchannelledintotheirfarmlandseveryyearevaporatedandleft saltbehind.Overgenerationsthe saltaccumulatedtothe detrimentof the crops.Andthen,at roughly2200BC, disasterstruck:A droughtof trulyepicproportions,lastingfordecades.The rains stopped,cropswitheredanddied,therewasfamine andanarchy,barbariansinvaded;the streets were litteredwithdead.There couldbe onlyone explanation:theirsupreme Godwasclearlyangry aboutsomething.These people couldnotknow thatthe same droughtwascrushingthe dawning civilisationsof Egypt,Greece,India,PakistanandChina.All the Godsof the Earth musthave been reallyangryaboutsomething.Forall theirbrilliance,the peopleof those civilisationshadnoidea theywere experiencingabruptclimate change. The next300years have lefttheirhistorical mark at Tell Leilanin north-easternSyria,thenanareapart of Mesopotamia,inthe formof a thickdepositof wind-blownsand,withnoarchitecture andhardlyanytrace of humanhabitation. (Conniff,R.etal., 2012) Those centuriesalsosurviveinadesolate contemporarypoemlongthoughttobe a fictional account of the divine wraththatendedthe empire: For thefirst time since cities were built and founded, The greatagricultural tractsproduced no grain, The inundated tractsproduced no fish, The irrigated orchardsproduced neitherwinenorsyrup, The gathered cloudsdid not rain… In a 1993 article in Science, archaeologistof the site atTell Leilan,Harvey Weiss,proposed,ineffect, that the poemwasnonfiction. Thus,more recently, the gods are no more to blame forthe ancient civilisation’sdownfall thandetrimental farmingpracticescoupledwiththe inability toforesee and adapt to suchdrastic changes.Butthe ancientagricultural collapse wasreal,andthe cause wasan abrupt climate change.3000 yearslater,the climate wouldchange abruptlyagainforanother gloriouscivilisation;thisone inCentral America.Atitspeak,the Mayan civilisationperished;wiped out bya seriesof severe droughtsoverthe course of a century.We still carry withinusthe echoesof these extinctcivilisationsinourlanguagesandourmyths. Today we have a single global civilisation,expandinginsize anddemandat an alarmingrate.How longwill itflourish?Itall dependsonus. Will we carry on the same wayuntil we self-destruct?This will be the case if we remainignorant,repeatsimilarmistakestopastcivilisationsandcontinue on blindlyuntil we are starvingandchokingonthe lastbitof oxygen the atmosphere hasleftforus. Our economicsystemswere formedonthe assumptionthatthe planetanditsair,rivers,oceansand landsall seemedinfinite. Theyevolvedlongbefore we firstsaw the earthasthe tinyorganismthat it actuallyis.They’re all alike inone respect;they’re profit-driven,andtherefore,focusedonlyon short-termgain.Inotherwords,completelycareless. The prevailingeconomicsystems,nomatter whattheirideologies,have nobuilt-inmechanismsforprotectingourdescendantsof evena hundredyearsfromnow,letalone ahundredthousand years.
  2. 2. In one respect,we’re aheadof the people of ancientMesopotamia.Unlike them,we understand what’shappeningtoourworld.For example,we’repumpinggreenhousegassesintoour atmosphere ata rate not seenon Earth for a millionyears.There isascientificconsensusthatwe’re destabilisingourclimate.Yet,ourcivilisationseemstobe inthe gripof denial;akindof paralysis. There isa disconnectionbetweenwhatwe know andwhatwe do. Beingable toadapt our behaviour to challengesisasgooda definitionof ‘intelligence’asany.If our greaterintelligence isthe hallmark of ourspecies,thenwe shoulduse itasall otherbeingsuse theirdistinctiveadvantages;tohelp ensure thattheiroffspringprosperandtheirheredityispassedonandthatthe fabricof nature that sustainsusisprotected! Scientificresearch showsthatinorderto keeptointernational targetstolimitglobal warmingtoa 2C rise andthus preventcatastrophiclevelsof climatechange, betweentwo-thirdsandfour-fifthsof fossil fuelsneedtoremaininthe ground.(Clark,D.etal.,2015) But,worryingly,fossil fuel companies are currentlybankingonthese targetsnotbeingmetsoare extractingthese reservesandselling themand are activelyprospectingformore.Indoingsotheyare settingthe humanrace on a route to irreversible climate change thatwill cause risingseas,flooding,droughts,risingdisease,and increasedconflictsandrefugee crises,suchasthose currentlyhappeninginSyriaandthe greater Middle East. Human intelligence isimperfect,surely,andnewlyarisen.The ease withwhichitcanbe sweet- talked,overwhelmedorsubvertedbyotherhard-wiredtendencies,like greedandpower, sometimesthemselvesdisguisedasthe lightof reason,isworrisome.Butif ourintelligence isthe onlyedge,we mustlearntouse it better,tosharpenit,to understanditslimitationsandefficiencies; to use it as cats use stealthbefore pouncing,asbatsuse echolocationfornavigationandhunting;to make it the tool of our survival.If we can do this,we can solve almostanyproblemwe are likelyto be confrontedwithinthe nexthundredthousandyears.The nextgoldenage of humanachievement beginsnow.We musttake the visionof the pale blue dottoheartand learnhow to share thistiny worldwitheachother. The disinvestmentfromall fossil fuels isanecessarysteptowardsthe nextbigshift inhuman understandingof- andadaptationtothisperfectpatchof heavenonthe pale blue dotwe call our onlyhome. Itis a stepthat will ultimatelydefine ourintelligence asaspecies. The global movement for fossil fuel divestmentisaskinginstitutionstomove theirmoneyoutof oil,coal andgas companiesforbothmoral and financial reasons. (ThisissomethingthatStellenboschUniversity shouldbe awake andgearingup to inthe near future.) Itisthe fastest-growingdivestmentcampaign inhistoryand couldcause significantdamage tocoal,gasand oil companies,accordingtoa studyby OxfordUniversity.Previousdivestmentcampaignshave targetedthe tobaccoandgambling industriesandcompaniesfundingthe violence inDarfur.Divestmentisperhapsmostwell-knownfor itsrole in the fightagainstapartheidinSouthAfrica.(Howard,E.etal.,2015) Althoughthe impactof divestmentonshare pricesmaybe relativelysmall,the reputationaldamage canhave serious financial consequences. Justas big a step,if not bigger,isthattowards efficient,sustainableenergysources inthe place of all the fossil fuels thatare able tomeetthe demandsof our rapidlyexpandingspecies. Butthat’sa whole otherinvestment;one thatshouldtake place rightafterfossil fueldivestment,infact.

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