Can a Miracle Save Us From Ecological Doom? History Says Yes

The coronavirus proves that a dramatic event can defy expert forecasts, but unexpected occurrences have the potential not only to foment disaster but also to generate positive results

Ofri Ilany
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A demonstration led by members of Extinction Rebellion, in London this past May.  Crispin Hughes / Extinction Rebellion / via Reuters
A demonstration led by members of Extinction Rebellion, in London this past May. Crispin Hughes / Extinction Rebellion / via ReutersCredit: Crispin Hughes / Extinction Rebellion / via Reuters
Ofri Ilany

The third decade of the 21st century opened on a note of despair. There was no shortage of worrisome developments in the preceding decade, too – the rise of ISIS, the rise of nationalism and the transformation of global warming into a concrete reality. But the coronavirus pandemic that began to spread early this year, and the serious economic crisis that accompanied it, are seen widely as a dark tunnel with only barely visible light at the end of it. Within weeks, hundreds of millions of people around the world became vulnerable and frightened. And looming on the horizon are still other threats, far more dangerous, which are painting the future in gloomy hues.

The terrifying scenario evoked by Roger Hallam, an environmental activist and founder of the Extinction Rebellion movement, in last Friday’s Haaretz (in Hebrew), is one of the grimmest present-day expressions of the horrors of the future. Hallam does not address the coronavirus crisis at all, but cites a vastly greater danger toward which we are hurtling at warp speed: extinction of the human race as a result of the ecological devastation of Planet Earth.

In an interview with Netta Ahituv, he demanded that we take a good, hard look at climate scientists’ forecast: an increase of 3 degrees Celsius in the planet’s average temperature in the coming decades. In Hallam’s view, and that of other environmental activists, that development will render broad swaths of the world uninhabitable and bring about mass death and perhaps even the demise of humanity within the next generation.

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To avert the realization of this dire forecast, Extinction Rebellion calls for drastic measures, so as to bring about the elimination of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025. Many are skeptical about the feasibility of such a dramatic change. Even the current pandemic – which has led to an unprecedented decline in air traffic and brought about the collapse of the global tourism industry – has only reduced the rate of emissions by a few percentage points. Hallam himself maintains that it’s most likely too late to avert global catastrophe. Extinction Rebellion, a loosely formed movement calling for nonviolent civil disobedience to head off such a catastrophe, is in his perception, a desperate step before the end.

It’s only natural for times like these to generate messianic movements as well that promise instant deliverance. David Wallace-Wells, author of “The Uninhabitable Earth,” predicts that groups of this kind will multiply and gain credibility in the decades ahead, as the planet’s condition deteriorates. But can we still hold out rational hope for a better future?

Some say that our fate is sealed, that only a miracle can avert a global disaster unparalleled throughout human history. The coronavirus demonstrated how an unanticipated event could upend everything and cause an immense shock to civilization. The forecasts and expectations of economists, sociologists and other analysts, presented with confidence just a year ago, now needed, at least in part, to be thrown into the wastebasket. But by the same token, positive developments also sometimes alter the course of history.

In a forthcoming journal article, Arden Rowell, a law professor from the University of Illinois, tried to prove that miraculous occurrences are possible. You don’t have to adhere to a messianic faith to believe that – it’s enough just to look back at history. She maintains that scholars have a natural tendency to focus on negative extreme scenarios, namely catastrophes. But there are also positive extreme scenarios: developments that bring about a change for the better with surprising speed.

Most of the historical examples cited by the article, called “Regulating Best-Case Scenarios,” are of a technological and medical nature. One of them is vaccines. At the beginning of the 20th century, hardly any means existed to prevent infectious diseases. Even in an industrialized and developed country such as the United States, hundreds of thousands of people died from viral diseases every year, back then. As a result, the average lifespan in the United States was 47 years, whereas today it is 74, for men and women combined. The main contributing factor to this has been the broad vaccination policy that has been in place since the 1950s. Within a few decades, both life expectancy and the quality of life underwent an extreme change. Some diseases that had formerly been scourges of humanity – such as smallpox, polio and diphtheria – were totally eradicated or are close to disappearing from the world. This is one of the principal reasons that childhood death is rare in the developed world.

The International Space Station is seen passing over the Keele Earth and Space Observatory, in Britain, in May.
The International Space Station is seen passing over the Keele Earth and Space Observatory, in Britain, in May.Credit: Carl Recine / Reuters

An equally well-known example of a positive phenomenon is the Green Revolution – the introduction of new agricultural technologies in developed countries – which, beginning in the second half of the 20th century, brought about an increase of dozens of percentage points and more in the production of grains, and thus headed off mass starvation in India, Pakistan and elsewhere. This revolution, which also saw the use of hardier strains of wheat and of pesticides, refuted the prediction of the demographer and economist Thomas Malthus to the effect that population growth would inevitably bring in its wake poverty and hunger.

The advent of vaccines and the Green Revolution were not events outside the realm of the natural, and they also weren’t unexpected. Still, they confounded the experts and fomented substantial changes for the better in human history. But it bears noting that these miraculous changes, as Prof. Rowell termed them, also have a dark side. For example, effective pest killers reduced the world’s insect populations enormously – a development with potentially catastrophic consequences, in addition to the obvious benefits. Artificial fertilizers were based on fuels whose manufacture entailed the emission of pollutants on a tremendous scale, and the use of genetically engineered flora led to the disappearance of many species and of methods of cultivation that had been developed over the course of hundreds of years.

Rowell suggests future developments that could bring about a wondrous change for the better and scatter the ominous clouds hovering above humanity’s future. One such development is geoengineering: namely, technologies that would intervene in the planet’s climatic system and artificially create environmental conditions that will make the continuation of life possible. Examples of this are a change in the composition of the ocean in order to bring about carbon capture by means of seaweed, or solar mirrors that will reflect sunlight.

Waiting for aliens

Nonetheless, the current ecological crisis is a comprehensive crisis of human civilization in our time. Cooling down the Earth, or even radically decreasing greenhouse gas emissions are immense challenges, but they will not solve the problems of species extinction, the disappearance of rainforests, the depletion of a host of natural resources or the development of antibiotics-resistant lethal diseases.

If that’s the case, what sort of miracle can humanity hope for? Rowell mentions settlement on Mars and other planets, which would enable the human race to escape Earth and establish completely new societies in the depths of space. Regrettably, however, not even colonization of Mars can save the vast majority of the human species, which will remain confined within the bounds of our atmosphere. Nor will it save Earth from itself, with all its forms of life and cultures.

The most revolutionary scientific development that could occur – and change the future of humanity completely – would be an encounter with other intelligent civilizations. According to an article published last April by American astrobiologists, it is statistically likely that there are at least 36 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

There is even a branch of knowledge called eco-sociology, which deals with the necessary deployment for an encounter with aliens. Some eco-sociologists are warning of the danger entailed in such an occurrence, as there is no guarantee that the aliens would not annihilate or enslave humanity. But in a more optimistic scenario, they could impart valuable knowledge to us that would fundamentally alter the human condition and mark a new stage in human history – perhaps integration in a cosmic network of civilizations.

Perhaps in the years ahead, as Earth’s ecological plight grows more acute, mass religious movements will spring up that will try to make contact with aliens. But anyone who believes in an encounter with intelligent beings from outer space might just as well believe now in the coming of the messiah. The difference, ultimately, isn’t so great.