What if Humans Disappeared?

In the upcoming film Battle: Los Angeles, aliens attack, hell bent on annihilating Homo sapiens. Clever idea for a flick. It’s only been done hundreds of times. When we send space vehicles to explore the heavens, they just go window shopping. But when advanced enlightened civilizations go exploring they seem to want to destroy intelligent life (if that is, indeed, what we really are). Does it make any sense? You bet it does.

Imagine Earth free of humans. No more pollution, waste, species destruction (barring an asteroid impact), rising seas, natural resource depletion, global warming (if it’s not too late already), or any of the other nasty stuff we humans are responsible for. Maybe the invading cosmic warriors would win the interplanetary equivalent of a Noble Peace Prize, for blowing our asses off this planet.

All this year, National Geographic magazine is reporting on human effects on our tiny orb, in light of the fact that within two months or so Earth’s human population will reach seven billion. That’s about one person for each of Mark Zuckerberg’s dollars.

The latest of our planet’s five biggest extinction events occurred 445 million years ago; we think it was a Tuesday. We are now living in what scientists refer to as the Holocene epoch, which began at the end of the last ice age. But, NG asks, are we now leaving the Holocene and entering the newest extinction event, the Anthropocene?

 This would be the epoch in which humans are responsible for mass extinctions.



Human biomass – the total tonnage – is more than 100 times larger than that of any other large animal species . . . ever. If we were just primitives, like apes or Neanderthals, that would be one thing. But when you take our population and multiply it by our affluence, and multiply that by our technology (in the form of new patents), you get an idea of total human impact. As beautifully illustrated in the March National Geographic, in 1900 there were 1.8 billion people (approximately the combined populations of present-day’s U.S. and China) in the world. Since then the population has almost quadrupled. In 1900 the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated to have been $5.3 trillion. Using the same dollars of 1900, the GDP is now $55 trillion; a tenfold increase. In 1900 there were 412,000 patent applications. This last year there were 1.9 million.

We find the latter figure to be particularly vexing because it indicates just how much “stuff” we are producing. And as this stuff becomes cheaper to produce, it becomes easier to throw away. For example, who bothers to have a cell phone repaired or upgraded? We consume more stuff, the components of which are at least partially petroleum based, and toss the rapidly obsolete junk aside.  

Here’s what the equation for human impact looks like:

I      =    P        x        A       x      T

(Human Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology)

            Let’s give this concept some hard numbers. The approximate increase in human impact since 1900 looks like this:

            I = 4 x 10 x 4.6

            I = 184

             In other words, according to this formula humans have approximately 184 times the impact on this planet than they did just over a century ago. And our technology is ballooning (got your 3-D TV, iPad II, and G4 cell phone yet?). And the world’s middle class is growing.

            So who is the worst offender? India’s population is growing apace. China’s economy will soon be the world’s largest. But in spite of the fact that those two countries make up 40 percent of the world’s population, it’s the American economy that consumes a quarter of the world’s energy.

            So while we are headed down into an environmental sinkhole, here’s a little exercise for you. In one minute, name all the non-human species you can that have a negative impact on the planet’s ecology. (Clue: It ain’t the polar bear.)

            If you arrived at a number larger than zero, please let us know what you came up with.

            There are enough of us. And Americans are leading the pack into the Anthropocene epoch.

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