Are we a plague? Well, that depends…

Are we a plague? Well, that depends…

It might not be pleasant to hear but there’s little reason to disagree with Sir David Attenborough’s pronouncement that “we are a plague on the Earth”. Of course, in terms of agreement, we need to indicate the perspective we’re defending.


Speaking during an interview, the beloved and brilliant documentarian indicated the uncomfortable truth that, “Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us”. Of course, he reminds us “the natural world is doing it for us right now." Too many people plus inefficient methods of distribution of current resources leads to consistent waste of lives and resources.

The author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg, disagrees. For example, Lomborg states: “The reality is that modern industrial production is one of the main ways of reducing our footprint.” Scientifically, there might be good reasons to agree with Lomborg that Attenborough is “too Malthusian” in his pronouncements. Of course, scientists like Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, have also made warnings concerning our species’ and future survival.

Despite this, maybe we should start considering ourselves as a plague.

Why should we continue?

Science-fiction writers love pumping out misanthropy, but it is a necessary and important component of this genre.

For example, in the TV-series, Battlestar Galactica (2004), humans are fleeing through space, after a cybernetic species destroys most of humanity. A human character asks one of the oppressive robot units why it is they want humanity extinct. The unit answers that it was a question posed when the war began: Humanity should ask itself why it deserves to live.

Indeed, this poses a major problem.

What case could be made for us, as a species, should a more intelligent, more powerful species wish to take Earth? This was the main problem for humans in The Day the Earth Stood Still (both the original and remake). Even the brilliant comedy show, South Park, played on this. Superior beings arrive, inquiring as to our worth versus our danger to the environment: both the planet itself and others.

To save the Earth doesn’t necessarily mean saving humanity: it could, in fact, mean the exact opposite. The discoverer and developer of the first successful polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, supposedly said:

“If all insects on Earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”

The writer, Alan Weisman, wrote a book about how much of the environment would “soon” recover should humanity disappear.  Paleoecologist, Paul S. Martin, explained to him that humanity’s disastrous environmental impact could be gleaned from history. “America would have three times as many species of animals over 1,000 pounds as Africa does today,” he says.

Climate change and imported disease may have killed them, but most paleontologists accept the theory Martin advocates: “When people got out of Africa and Asia and reached other parts of the world, all hell broke loose.” He is convinced that people were responsible for the mass extinctions because they commenced with human arrival everywhere: first, in Australia 60,000 years ago, then mainland America 13,000 years ago, followed by the Caribbean islands 6,000 years ago, and Madagascar 2,000 years ago.

Weisman, at the end of his essay, points out how “most excess industrial carbon dioxide would dissipate within 200 years”, if humans were no longer around. This would cool the atmosphere. The process continues in this favourable way for the planet:

With no further chlorine and bromine leaking skyward, within decades the ozone layer would replenish, and ultraviolet damage would subside. Eventually, heavy metals and toxins would flush through the system; a few intractable PCBs might take a millennium.

During that same span, every dam on Earth would silt up and spill over. Rivers would again carry nutrients seaward, where most life would be, as it was long before vertebrates crawled onto the shore. Eventually, that would happen again. The world would start over.

Naturally there is disagreement. Some scientists consider the damage we’ve done permanent or not so quickly reparable. However, considering even just our history and our current situation in terms of impact, it’s hard to deny that we are a damaging species. Some theories are surely mere alarmism, but, if we assume even some of the more damaging reports true, our species is a destructive one.

What Makes Us a Plague

If it is true that we are damaging, if we are doing little in terms of repairing that damage, or if the damage is irreparable, we surely are a plague: a relentless force of destruction tearing its way through fellow creatures and the very environment we all share.

What’s of concern, aside from the science, is indeed the unanswered, overhanging question: What could we say to the sci-fi author’s Superior Species to have them aid us? Or, indeed, not destroy us (before we do so ourselves)?

The question is similar to one I previously raised regarding reasons for having children: What’s so special about the human species it’s worth perpetuating? I have not found a satisfactory answer to this question, since people tend to conflate it with helping, ameliorating and so on. Creating a new entity is not the same as helping it: In fact, the act of creation could itself be harming the new entity, as some authors argue.

These are related questions but, I think, it’s still possible to not view humanity as a plague, but find no reason to breed. Similarly, you could want to breed but think our collective actions are mostly harmful, that we have no good justifications toward the Superior Species. I think these views would be harder to sustain in contradiction but it is possible: more than likely, if you think humanity is a plague, you probably think we should not breed.

I am uncertain of our plague status, even if I’m convinced we shouldn’t breed. I do lean more toward the view we are mostly damaging, that we’re both destructive and thereby self-destructive. In the end, I’m not convinced even our best lawyers, our best columnists and other merchants with silver tongues, could convince Superior Species to save us. But that means we have all the more reason right now to begin making efforts to make such a case (stronger) – assuming we’re worth saving at all, a conclusion I’m uncertain about.

Image Credit: The world density of Attenborough's plague during 1994 / WikiCommons (source)

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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