PARIS — Earth Overshoot Day, i.e. the calendar date on which our collective ecological footprint in a given year is presumed to have exceeded the planet's ability to regenerate, fell this year on Monday, July 29. The footprint calculation is based on real, scientifically-based benchmarks, and follows the logic of the COP21 goal of limiting global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
However, the foundations of that logic are dated. It's the same logic at work behind the "Fridays for Future" movement — whose lead figure, 16 year-old activist Greta Thunberg spoke before the French National Assembly recently — and behind collapsologist and survivalist theories. But the foundations of logic, even when based on scientific approaches, can change: The future is not a continuation of the past. And some signals, however tenuous or paradoxical, should make us think.
For instance, what impact does climate change and melting Arctic ice have on the Gulf Stream, the ocean current that originates off the Caribbean and flows along European coasts, warming them? Will it get closer or move away from the coast and lead to a more continental climate? No one knows that. Yet scientists and their artificial intelligence-driven projections should be able to answer that!
Another example: Alaska's just had the warmest July in its history. With Anchorage hitting +32.2 °C (89 °F) for the first time on July 4, we are far from the seasonal average of 18.3°C! Permafrost (ground that is frozen on the surface over at least two years, and that can go up to 1,000m deep) melts regularly in Alaska. It covers 85% of the territory, about three times the surface area of France. It is also melting in Canada, and at a rate that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expected some 70 years later, by 2090!
The foundations of logic have weaknesses. In the northern hemisphere, permafrost covers between 20 and 25% of the land — about 20 million square kilometers! This accelerated melting has a first immediate consequence: the acceleration of global warming. The second consequence is the intensification of rainfall in rather dry areas (Yakutia, Siberia, where there is usually 40 mm of rainfall per year, has recently received 80 mm in just one day), which leads to lakes overflowing, soil turning into swamps, and forest trees leaning dangerously. In Yakutia, they call it the "drunk forest". The third consequence today is the rise of urban legends alleging the thawing of centuries- or millenia-old microbes and bacteria that could bring forth a "Siberian plague" and that people have started treating with ... antibiotics.
In the northern hemisphere, permafrost covers between 20 and 25% of the land.
We can see this thaw negatively. We can also see it positively, and distance ourselves from a logic of fear: by adopting a logic of change, by preparing for the future rather than trying to repair the past. If this thaw comes 70 years earlier than the IPCC expected, we can also imagine that it will keep on accelerating — and lead to consequences far different from those mentioned before: regulated rainfall may bring about appropriate vegetation on now permafrost-free soil. Anything is possible. Rapid thaw and warming may free up to 20 million km of land. That's twice the size of China or the U.S. And this is land that is almost untouched by human presence (3.5 inhab/km in Siberia, 0.4 in Alaska). It is a whole new world that opens up to mankind, the first time since the great explorations of 1492 would that we would discover so much — virtually — virgin swathes of land.
A pack of dogs in northwest Greenland where the ice sheet surface has been melting — Photo: Steffen Olsen/ZUMA Wire
Why look for a new planet when our good old Earth may be able to accommodate a new way of life? On that newly found virgin land, mankind could develop a new, reasonable kind of agriculture that would not only feed the people, but also ensure biodiversity and guarantee soil preservation. This would be a unique opportunity to put a large part of this land on the World Heritage List and protect it from reckless exploitation.
Man could develop the forests that suit him, that would not disappear for lack of water as in the French Vosges or for fires like in California, forests that will produce building materials, provide shelter for wildlife and green spaces for humans to enjoy a high quality of life. Humanity would also rethink its approach to technology, as rare earth elements would abound. We could reinvent the way we think about transportation, cities, food... about what being human means.
It is not a return to the Holocene — the time when nature dominated Man — which, by all health and knowledge standards, was not a glorious time for humanity. It is a new anthropocene that we would create for ourselves, not driven by machines and their power, but with the balance between mankind and nature in mind.
A new world is possible. The end of humanity on Earth is not a certainty! Fear is a bad advisor. Man, by nature, benefits from his creative entropy. This is not about creating a universal, unique model, but rather about fostering the desire to build a coherent model, especially if we imagine that this new vision of life on Earth makes it possible to correct existing errors — that is, provided that we acknowledge these errors, and more importantly, maybe, that we agree on what constitutes an error ...
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