Northern Space To Grow: A Possible Upside To Global Warming?

Global warming, melting ice, depletion of resources... the Earth seems doomed. Yet this futurist says the current thaw could offer new perspectives — by freeing up 20 million kilometers of virgin land.

A tourist takes photos of melting ice of the Heilongjiang River in northeast China in May 2019
Phillippe Cahen

PARISEarth 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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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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