Part 12 – Why water shortages are now a global reality

CHAPTER FIVE CONTD…

Water Stress

Water permeates every aspect of our lives, every minute of every day, from our wake-up cup of coffee first thing in the morning until we brush our teeth last thing at night. It is such an integral part of life that to be without it can cause enormous psychological stress for the individual person.

Picture 055From a wider perspective civilisation as we know it is built on the premise that access to water is a given: a given with which to keep body and soul together, ensure cleanliness, enjoy leisure time, irrigate crops, water livestock, lubricate industry, assist technology, transport goods and mix with cement to build and build and build.

The growth and development of the Economic Era would not have been possible without an abundance of water and our housewives, farmers, captains of industry, scientists, engineers and builders used it abundantly and often carelessly. With the result that humanity now utilises over one-half of all total accessible freshwater. This premise of water abundance has not followed us into the new century. As water shortages increasingly become a reality associated with global warming and population density in many parts of the world, water economy has replaced water extravagance as a new philosophy. This paradigm shift is not a moment too soon if we are to avoid facing a thirsty future.

DSC_0953Ours is a blue planet with nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface covered by water held in deep ocean basins. But being salty, this water is unusable for our direct needs and so we have to rely on the tiny fraction of freshwater found in rivers, streams, lakes, dams and underground aquifers for our immediate consumption. This available water is less than one-half of one per cent of all the water on Earth.

The amount of water accessible for human use is estimated to be in the region of 12 600 cubic kilometres in total, renewable only by rainfall at an average annual rate of 800 millimetres per annum. But like the distribution of arable land around the globe, its availability is uneven, with some countries enjoying water surplus whilst others suffer water scarcity. Latin America, the United States and Canada are among the most water rich regions of the world whilst the Middle East, Africa and South Asia are the regions most water-strapped.

dscn7435Considering the importance of fresh water to the sustainability of life for billions of people around the planet, it would be logical for us to safeguard this essential resource with all the care that we are capable of. This is sadly not so in the real world where we have polluted essential water supplies with the negligence of people with a death wish. Certainly there can be no life on Earth without water, and yet reckless disregard is rendering much of the little that we have unusable for essential applications. Raw sewage, eroded soil, industrial poisons, acid emissions, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, fertilisers, nitrates, solvents; the list of pollutants goes on and on, rendering water reserves unsafe and even lethal for Man, beast, fish and fowl in many parts of the globe.

Major river systems around the world are being contaminated at an alarming rate. The Ganges River in India, for instance, has over a million litres of raw sewage dumped into it every minute of every day, and the Yangtze River is being polluted with millions of litres of industrial and raw sewage per day. However Homo sapiens sapiens is not the only species to pay the price for widespread water pollution. In the United States, chemical wastes are being dumped into thousands of surface pits, ponds and lagoons with many species of freshwater fish, crayfish, amphibians and freshwater mussels becoming extinct or verging on extinction. In northern Sweden and Norway thousands of lakes can no longer support fish and Lake Victoria, which straddles Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, has lost hundreds of species of fish within past decades.

For the more than 1000 million people around the world who have no access to a safe water supply for drinking or basic sanitation, water represents a painful paradox. It is the liquid of life, without which they would certainly die, and yet to drink or bathe in contaminated water could also be a death sentence. It is a lose-lose situation in which millions of people have already lost their lives. For multitudes of people around the world, unclean water is a major cause of disease and death with diarrhoea, amoebic dysentery, cholera, infectious hepatitis, typhoid, malaria, yellow fever and bilharzia causing untold misery. Waterborne parasitic diseases are also spread by irrigation farming and even the practices of water management make it a substance to be avoided unless absolutely necessary in many parts of the globe.

DSCN2897Apart from being environmentally destructive, hydroelectric dams, which have proliferated in 50 years from 5000 worldwide in 1950 to over 38 000 today, alter the ecology of the local environment. This increases the incidence of disease in surrounding areas; as has been shown by studies carried out on the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, the Sennar Dam in Sudan and the Akosombo Dam in Ghana. Debilitating diseases such as Rift Valley Fever, malaria and sleeping sickness have been associated with hydroelectric power projects in some parts of the globe and so it seems that yet again, modern technology is a double-edged sword, especially for the people who live in the vicinity of these massive water schemes.

With the world’s population increasing at a rapid rate, demand for water is escalating steeply every year with global needs doubling every 21 years. Already one billion people are living with the problems attendant to water scarcity. It is a finite resource that is running dry. By 2025 it is believed that two-thirds of the global population will be severely affected by water shortages causing immense water stress.

DSC_0294Already as water tables are falling, underground aquifers are being pumped dry, lakes and dams are dwindling, and wetlands are drying up around the world, many countries do not have sufficient renewable water supplies. And many of the most water-scarce regions of the planet also have the highest population growths. As the social, political and economic impacts of water scarcity become a destabilising factor in many parts of the globe, the 21st Century could well be a period marked by water wars; deadly conflicts fought over one of our most precious natural resources.

No living creature on Earth, least of all human beings, can live without fresh water. Therefore it is essential that we re-evaluate our relationship with the little that we have, now, before it is too late and this precious gift from God dries up in some parts of the world or becomes so polluted in other parts that it is unusable to every species. The results of such a catastrophic scenario would have a global impact on all of humanity, as well as every other creature that shares the planet with us. Stewardship of this vital resource is in our hands. How we safeguard it is up to us. Let’s hope that we are equal to the magnitude of this responsibility…

Part 11 – When will we have to leave planet Earth?

CHAPTER FIVE – GIFTS FROM GOD

“The overall pace of environmental change has unquestionably been accelerated by the recent expansion of the human population … The future of our planet is in the balance.” Joint statement by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London

The changes that people are forcing on the global environment are not, unfortunately, limited to altering the atmosphere and weather patterns. At grave risk also is the fragile layer of soil on which our very lives depend.

DSC_1236Since the Neolithic Revolution began between 10 000 and 12 000 years ago, when people first began to adopt farming as a way of life necessary to feed growing populations, the quality of soil and the amount of water that was available for irrigation were crucial to the success of harvests and the survival of communities. This equation has never changed. But contrary to what might be believed, farming was not an easy alternative to a hunter-gatherer way of life, as wresting crops from sometimes unwilling soil was uncertain and both time and labour-intensive.

Early farmers suffered from a number of afflictions that were unknown to their hunter-gatherer predecessors. Among their tribulations were conditions such as malnutrition caused by failed crops and a limited number of foodstuffs in their diet. Hard manual labour in fields and long hours spent bent over the grindstone led to arthritis in both men and women. Changed living conditions and a high-starch diet resulted in disease, tooth decay and excessive tooth wear. The body growth of early farmers and their families was stunted and their life expectancy was reduced, and yet because of the pressure of growing populations on natural resources, agriculture and animal domestication eventually supplanted hunting and gathering all over the world.

DSC_0091Since then humankind has been inordinately reliant on the thin layer of soil that plants grow in. It is the beginning of the food chain for us and every other living creature on the continents of the Earth. Yet since 1945, “11 per cent of the earth’s vegetated surface has been degraded – an area larger than India and China combined – and per capita food production in many parts of the world is decreasing” as warned by the Union of Concerned Scientists in their Warning to Humanity. In terms of actual topsoil, it is estimated that well over 20 per cent of the world’s topsoil has been lost from agricultural lands since 1950.

Earth Changing

Soil is formed by the extremely slow and complicated process of weathering rock together with the interrelationship of water, air and living organisms. It is effectively the product of decay but it is also the humus of life. For generation upon generation a handful of rich, dark soil has had momentous significance: with a plot of ground a family had the means of warding off starvation. Modern people, however, have become removed from the land and overly reliant on farmers and farming communities to supply their food. In the process many of us have forgotten the immense importance of this fragile layer and we have allowed destructive practices to harm the soil that has produced the food that has ensured our own and other species’ survival.

Many 20th Century farmers around the world treated their land with careless disrespect. At fault were outdated methods of farming and grazing as well as improper irrigation methods, which increased the salt level of the soil. Having once recycled farmyard manure and other organic nutrients to enrich their soil, farmers turned away from this age-old practice. In order to maintain or better their production quotas, synthetic chemical fertilisers were used, and in much of the Third World the Earth’s topsoil was rendered exhausted through constant overuse: unable to produce much except weak, nutrient-deficient plants.

digger loader2Through the cutting down of forests and the clearing of land, precious soil was exposed to the elements. The Sun then baked this life giving earth into dust or the hardness of brick. Unprotected by cool, shading foliage and unanchored by delicate root systems, this precious humus was carried away by wind and rain, eventually bleeding into the sea. Through the effects of blasting, quarrying, mining, burying of waste and the extraction of resources such as minerals, coal and oil, vast tracts of ground were rendered useless for years to come; scars on the Earth’s crust that could take millennia to heal. Earth changing on a similarly destructive scale has occurred through the activities of nuclear testing.

In the decades of the second half of the 20th Century, ocean atolls were literally vapourised off the face of the Earth by the utter destructiveness of nuclear blasts. Nuclear testing on land caused webs of radioactive tunnels and craters to form around test sites. It is feared that these deadly catacombs could collapse one day in massive subsidence, releasing buried radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Underground testing has caused the surrounding rock to melt, transforming it into a molten state before resolidifying it into a glass-like form which has entombed the radioactive products of the blasts. It has also caused a web of cracks to form in the rock, which has made the rock vulnerable to leakage. In addition to these earth-changing effects, underground nuclear testing has altered the location of strain fields in Nevada in the United States, as tectonic plate formations have been moved away from pre-test positions. This has triggered hundreds of earthquakes in the region.

DSCN2896Other agents of earth changing on a destructive scale have been hydroelectric schemes. These massive artificial bodies of water pressing down on the tectonic plates of continents are believed to have influenced seismic patterns, also provoking earthquakes. The Konya Dam in India, the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the United States and the Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe are just such examples. Excavation and the pumping of oil and water from the earth have additionally affected geological and soil structures. In these ways neutral stresses have been reduced, altering the structural strength of rock, sand and clay, causing subsidence and landslides.

The earth that we haven’t minced and gouged and ripped, polluted and deformed, fried and bled away; we have smothered with concrete in a spread of cities and a network of highways. Eventually it is believed that the mega cities of the world could expand into an ecumenopolis: a gigantic city that covers the Earth’s land surface in a continuous urban sprawl stretching from horizon to horizon.

DSC_0056Picture this possible world of the future in your mind’s eye. No more cool, leafy glades for forest creatures to hide in. No more wide, open grasslands rippling golden on a hot summer’s day. No more wetlands sparkling diamond-bright between green reeds. No more wild places to provide solace for soul-weary city dwellers. Just a gargantuan grey sprawl of buildings, factories, roads, highways, malls and parking lots stretching from north to south, east to west, further than the eye can see. What a tragedy for the Earth and all life on it, should this one-day come to pass.

Perhaps when the time comes that the damage we have inflicted on our planet catches up with us to the point of making Earth uninhabitable as a home, we will look beyond the boundaries of this planet to colonise other worlds. However we shouldn’t count on escape from our planet being possible in the near future. Because, before we are able to achieve the technical capability to terraform other asteroids and planets, in other words create an artificial environment in which to survive, we will first have to overcome the physical limitations and psychological implications of being Earthlings. For we were never meant to live in space. It is a dark, forbidding and alien environment for a species such as our own that has evolved with oxygen, sunlight, earth, water, foliage, sky, other living creatures and above all, gravity, as significant forms of reference.

Grounded as we are by Earth’s gravitational pull, long-duration space flights have been found to create changes in the muscles and bones of space workers: changes that research scientists are presently working hard to overcome. And until the transition from Earthlings to people able to live in outer space has been achieved, if indeed it ever will be, some of the expected physiological effects of living in a zero gravity environment for a prolonged period of time are a shrinkage of heart muscle mass, as well as a reduction in the mass of the large weight-bearing muscles of the legs. Zero gravity also causes bone density in the pelvis and legs to decrease in gravity-adapted humans.

Living and working above Earth’s protective magnetic field and atmosphere exposes space travellers to the tissue and gene bombarding effects of solar and galactic radiation, as well as the debilitating symptoms of radiation sickness. Other effects of prolonged space travel are immune system weakening and anaemia caused by a decrease in red blood cell production. Without the grounding effects of gravity there are no “up or down” cues to orientate from and this causes visual images to become distorted and the inner ear to send altered and confusing signals to the brain, resulting in sensory disorientation and nausea.

DSC_0514Sleep patterns become disturbed and space-travellers can suffer from depression and interpersonal conflicts in the confined living and working areas of a relatively small spacecraft. All in all these, as well as other problems, are a daunting list of physiological and psychological challenges to overcome before Earthbound humans are able to venture in significant numbers, for long periods of time, beyond the confines of our own benign, gravity-grounded planet…

Part 10 – How climate change is affecting food production

CHAPTER FOUR CONTD…

DSC_1189For the first time in the history of the planet there is now “a discernible human influence on global climate” as documented in the World Scientists’ Call for Action, and the ramifications of this rapid climatic warm-up are extremely serious, especially if seen in the context of the time frame within which previous warm-ups have occurred.

Up to the present time it seems that the majority of natural climatic shifts have occurred relatively slowly. Since the last Ice Age ended approximately 10 000 years ago, the planet has warmed by a global mean average of about five degrees centigrade to present-day temperatures. However, by about 2030, if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, which would double present concentrations, the global climate could have warmed up by an additional four to five degrees centigrade or an equivalent of up to one degree centigrade or more per decade.

Such a significant change, occurring in tens of years and not thousands of years as has predominantly happened before, could send the world’s climate into a state of dramatic disequilibrium and with it shock waves throughout every living system on the planet.

Climatic Variability and Food Production

DSC_0872Every species of animal and plant on Earth lives within a characteristic niche habitat and a range of climatic conditions that determines its ability to survive. Unlike our own species, which is able to adjust to almost every environmental and climatic variation through cultural and technological adaptation, for many other animal and plant species this range is quite narrow and big changes occurring rapidly, spell disaster.

With changes in air and ocean currents, many anomalies have already occurred and are continuing to occur all over the world: anomalies such as altered habitats, persistent drought, an increase in severity of cold winters and hot summers, floods, forest fires, blizzards and hurricanes, all products of a weather machine being pushed beyond stability. Globally, this could result in the beginning of die-outs on a massive scale.

From a human perspective, as climatic zones shifted in response to changing weather patterns, bringing more rain to some areas of the globe and less rain to others, farm belts would change location, with agriculture thriving in some parts of the world whilst declining in others.

DSC_1248Some important food producing regions would be lost whilst others would be gained. This would mean that global food supplies would be even more unevenly distributed than at present, which could have serious social, economic and political implications as the balance of world power shifted in relation to food surpluses and shortages.

An increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with a resultant increase in global temperature would also mean that some crops passed through their stages of growth more quickly than normal. Tests have shown that under these conditions, yields of some strains were smaller, as were individual grain sizes. And another response to an increased carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration would be the growth of larger leaves in some plant species. This would mean far fewer plants per acreage with smaller crop yield. Higher temperatures with poor chill accumulation would also result in crop losses of certain important crops such as commercial deciduous fruit cultivars which have a medium to high chilling requirement.

Yet another factor that would affect global food production is the resistance of insect and microbe populations to pesticides as global warming contributed to their increased prevalence and virulence. With a decrease in plant diversity, the competition and predation among insects also declines. This could result in valuable food-producing croplands being overrun by destructive insect pests. Pesticides used as a panacea to solve the problem would only have a short-term benefit, as in the longer term, useful insect species would be killed off whilst “insect baddies” became resistant to the pesticide chemicals.

DSC_0210With the equation of a decline in plant diversity equalling an increase in the prevalence of destructive insects, a vicious cycle would set in on the croplands of the globe. This would force farmers and farm workers to use an ever-wider assortment of pesticides and insecticides in their armamentarium in the war against cropland pests. These are serious problems as the resultant effect of all these critical factors could manifest in widespread hunger, cross-border infiltration, migrations of increased numbers of people and bitter conflict as people tried to expropriate food supplies by force.

Conscious or unconscious tampering with the global weather machine is an extremely dangerous business, as we have yet to learn the parameters that demarcate the limits for human existence. In the meantime we have been playing Russian roulette with our food supply, which is a potentially disastrous scenario for all of humankind. For a species that has intelligence as a defining characteristic, this is an almost unbelievable state of affairs. Has the situation crept up on us unawares like a thief in the night, potentially robbing us of a secure future? It appears not. The signs have been there all along, heeded by some but ignored by many. If we are to reverse this negative trend there is much work to be done by us all…

Part 9 – How close are we to an Ice Age?

CHAPTER FOUR – MARGINS OF SURVIVAL

“Ignorance is the worst of evils.” Goethe

The Earth’s natural systems interrelate in intricate and complex ways to provide the conditions suitable for life. They did so before life began and they will probably do so if and when life eventually disappears from this planet. The magnetosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and biosphere exist not in isolation of one another, but in a synchronicity of processes that impact one on the other.

DSC_0597A cause in one of Earth’s living systems produces an effect in another. For instance when there are few clouds covering the Earth, more sunlight is received and the world gets hotter. Then biological activity on land and in the ocean speeds up which produces more cloud cover. This in turn reflects sunlight away, cooling the globe. When there is thick cloud cover, biological activity is reduced which diminishes cloud cover, and the Earth again warms up. In these and other ways, feedback cycles have maintained an equilibrium that has kept the Earth habitable for billions of years. But the margins that govern the Earth’s habitability are smaller than we might think.

The difference between a warm temperate interglacial such as we are living in right now and an Ice Age is only about three degrees centigrade. And an average of just nine degrees centigrade separates the mean temperature of today from the very coldest points of both the last Ice Age and the penultimate Ice Age. These are small margins between a world, which, although troubled, is still subject to the laws of civilisation as we know them, and a frozen world in which civilisation could disappear under a blanket of ice and snow. Contrary to what we might believe, an Ice Age, far from building up over a protracted period of time, could develop within the space of just a few short, bitterly cold winters.

If the right conditions occurred on Earth, this could be a reality within our lifetime. For example if massive volcanic activity on a scale greater than the eruption which blew Krakatoa Island to bits and spewed an ash plume kilometres high into the sky, were to occur on Earth at this time, the resultant atmospheric shield of volcanic dust would block out the Sun’s energy for the duration it took for the dust to clear out of the atmosphere. Alternatively, if there was a rapid fluctuation in the Sun’s radiation, either decreasing solar energy output by the sudden cessation of sunspot activity or increasing the amount of solar energy received from the Sun, thereby causing a thick reflective layer of cloud cover to form around the Earth, temperatures would plummet, bringing on freezing conditions.

Antarctic7A nuclear winter would have a similarly devastating effect. In this frozen scenario, cities would become paralysed. Traffic, railway and air transport systems would fail, stranding people in their homes. Communication systems would also fail. Food and fuel supplies would quickly diminish and then run out completely. Hydroelectric power stations would become non-functioning as water supplies froze, and in a desperate attempt to warm their homes, people would resort to chopping down any wooden structures, telephone poles or trees that they could find. Law and order would break down and anarchy would rule as people fought each other for the last few remaining resources needed to survive. On a global scale this could result in the breakdown of civilisation, as we know it.

Hot As Hell

On the opposite side of the temperature spectrum a cumulative increase of three degrees centigrade would have just as dramatic an effect on the Earth’s systems. But this scenario, far from being a theoretical hypothesis as in the example above, could well become a global reality in our lifetime as temperatures are already on the increase. Evidence of this is seen in many places around the globe.

Glaciers as far north as Alaska are melting. According to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, glaciers all over the world are shrinking faster than they are growing, with huge losses of mountain glacier mass being predicted in the future. Arctic sea ice has significantly thinned and shrunk. Mount Fuji, Japan’s iconic mountain, is losing its distinctive snow-cap progressively each year as winter snows fail to appear. And tests conducted over an extensive region of Northern Alaska have shown that the permafrost is being affected by a distinct warming trend.

In the Southern Hemisphere there has been a temperature increase of two-and-a-half degrees centigrade over the past 50 years, which is a rate five times faster than the rest of the Earth. This is believed to have led to fluctuations in the populations of Southern Ocean birds such as the rock hopper penguin of Campbell Island, which has declined by about 94 per cent.

Antarctic8The Antarctic icecap, oldest, coldest and largest icecap on the planet has also shown signs of shrinking in response to warmer temperatures – records kept by whaling vessels that operated in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica over the 20 years between the mid 1950s and 1970s indicate that the sea ice that surrounds the frozen continent may have declined by as much as 25 per cent during that time.

Dramatic events like the collapse of the huge Larsen A and B ice sheets in 1996 and 2002 respectively, foretell of a warming region; as does the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report’s documentation of an average ice rate loss from the Antarctic Ice Sheet of 147 Gigatonnes per year over the period 2002 to 2011, which is a considerable increase from the average of 30 Gigatonnes of ice lost per year during the preceding decade.

There is evidence that glaciers along the Antarctic Peninsula and the floating West Antarctic ice sheet are retreating. This ice sheet, which is the size of India, is considered to be unstable and there is a possibility that it could break-up and melt if global warming becomes more pronounced. Should this occur, a sea level rise of almost 10 metres could be expected. This would effectively submerge many low-lying areas with resulting loss of arable land, homes, buildings and harbours.

Because a vast amount of energy is needed to thaw ice, glaciers and icecaps act as an energy barrier against the planet overheating. They also act as vast mirrors reflecting a significant proportion, as much as 70 per cent of the Sun’s heat back into space. To lose this essential safety valve could be disastrous in terms of global warming.

Of equal concern, global climatic changes have had a serious impact on the continent of Africa where more than 20 countries have experienced crippling droughts. Satellite images from outer space show a broad band of the northern part of the continent to be a brown desert belt. In these areas, people, livestock and wildlife have suffered terribly from a lack of rain, which has parched and denuded northern African landscapes into bleak, dusty sand bowls, leaving the dead as bleached skeletons on the cracked soil and the living as hungry phantoms.

DSC_1008In southern Africa the picture is only marginally better, with areas such as the Western Cape in South Africa, an important stone fruit growing area which produces apricots, plums, nectarines and peaches, having become warmer and dryer over past years. This has impacted negatively on fruit production in the area with abnormal flower bud development, delayed foliation, fruit drop and poor fruit set affecting the canning, drying and fresh fruit consumption industries. It has also caused economic losses to the fruit producers.

If this warming trend continues, and it is estimated that during this century the annual rainfall in the Western Cape will decrease by 15 to 25 per cent and the temperature will increase by two to six degrees centigrade, it could mean financial hardship for both commercial farmers and emerging small-scale farmers alike, as well as less sustainability of the deciduous fruit growing industry and related agri-business of the region. This would in turn create loss of jobs with attendant socio-economic problems. It would also affect foreign exchange earnings.

Until the new millennium, the decade of the 1990s was the warmest decade on record. However, within the first years of this century, the global mean temperature has risen markedly, taking temperatures to a level that could make this the warmest period of the past 100 000 years, or since the most recent Ice Age began…

Part 8 – What it means to “borrow off the Earth”

CHAPTER THREE – OUR FUTURE THROUGH A LOOKING GLASS CONTD…

From 1950 to 1990 the Western world was in the grip of a fever. It was a fever to grow, develop, advance, prosper and consume as never before. It was a period which has been called the Economic Era, and during this period of frenzied activity international trade increased by 12 times and global economic output quintupled.

DSC_0899In 1990 two-and-a-half month’s global production equalled the production output of the entire year of 1950. In the decade from 1950 to 1960 water consumption increased threefold, and six times more oil was used than in previous decades. Between 1950 and 1984 world grain production increased more than two-and-a-half times, and between 1950 and 1989 world fish catches increased by more than three-and-a-half times. From 1950 world meat production increased five times. And in terms of global traffic, in the 1950s there were 50 million vehicles on the roads of the world with one car for every 46 people, but by the 1990s this gap had narrowed to one car for every 12 people, with over 400 million vehicles on the highways and byways of the planet.

The Economic Era was a period when progress was defined by the production and consumption of a greater and more diverse range of goods than the world had ever seen before. Products like disposable nappies quickly became a labour-saving alternative to the old labour-intensive solution of washing and drying toweling nappies, and so indispensable was this invention to hard-pressed mothers that each year enough of them were used to stretch to the Moon and back seven times in a long, continuous line. In terms of resources this translated into one billion trees being cut down each year to provide the fluffy white liners that kept our babies dry.

Disposable, throwaway, time-reducing and labour-saving became powerful marketing bywords across a wide array of products. And a Western value system that was devoted to material acquisition rated these conveniences as having greater importance than the raw materials required to produce them. Deforestation, soil erosion and aquifer depletion had yet to become the global spectres they are now.

The Economic Era had ushered in an age of conspicuous consumption which had rapidly become a way of life in the developed world. It had also become a spiritual panacea and the means to personal fulfillment for millions of people in the Western world, and we entered into the spirit of excess with unthinking abandon. Planned obsolescence had arrived in a big, big way and it was a time of making more, buying more, using more and discarding more in an ever-widening circle.

Life for many of us became all about having: having the most fashionable labels and changing clothing, footwear and head wear the minute they were no longer in fashion. Having the right sporting or fitness gear. Having the most up-to-date computers and the sleekest cars. Having the highest state-of-the-art utilities and designer furniture in our homes. In short having anything and everything that our hearts desired and our money could buy. And in response to this forced consumption ethic we used more water, timber, energy, oil, metals, minerals and other non-renewable raw materials than had ever been used before in the same time span; all for a shopping list of throwaway items of questionable long-term value.

Picking up plasticsWhat we couldn’t use or no longer wanted we dumped, until our garbage had choked the air, soil, rivers, lakes, ocean, cities and countryside everywhere. Nowhere on Earth was sacrosanct. On the highest peak of the planet, Mount Everest, known to the Tibetan people as “Chomolungma”, “Goddess Mother of the World”, and believed by them to be the closest place on Earth to heaven, the rubbish had piled up. Even in Antarctica, the icy, pristine snowfields had been befouled by human waste. And wherever men and women tramped the land or sailed the sea, garbage was sure to follow.

Peace through Strength

But an over-zealous consumption ethic had not been the only culprit in the global garbage debacle. Also to blame was an over-heated nationalism in the West and East that had led to 40 years of cold war and weapons overkill. In a bid to deter attack, each side had thrown massive amounts of resources such as steel, aluminium, brass, bronze, copper, lead and other valuable raw materials into the making of combat aircraft, warships, submarines, battle tanks, shells and bullets; stockpiling them against the day when they might be needed in a deadly confrontation.

digger loaderWhen the tide of the cold war, with its prospect of thermonuclear annihilation, had turned, some of this arsenal was disposed of by dumping in the ocean. It was also buried on land, detonated or burnt in open-air pits – all crude, unimaginative disposal methods that discounted safety and environmental considerations. In the process this careless disposal of combat hardware poisoned the continents, sea and sky and the creatures that lived within these precious habitats.

During the forties, fifties and decades beyond, nuclear weapons, which were considered the ultimate deterrents, were extensively tested by military powers as yet not fully cognizant of the effects produced by fallout. Many nuclear devices were exploded around the world on land and under water. After a spate of such tests on the island of Enewetak, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of tons of radioactive soil and debris scraped from testing sites were taken to a small deserted island called Runit Island. There, the hot soil and debris was entombed in a huge bomb crater covered over with a thick concrete dome.

Today this unsightly grey dome, which has the unlikely name of Cactus Crater, looks like the top of an alien spaceship landed on the island and sunken into the ground. It is artificial and out of place amidst the riotous green undergrowth of the island, and its smooth convex form, unnatural yet seemingly innocent, gives no hint of the malignant nature of the radioactive garbage that lies buried beneath it. Human intelligence had been able to conceive of the hydrogen bomb, but it was unable to find a way of disposing of its deadly by-products, except by the most primitive method of burying in virgin soil. Once again our intelligence had outstripped our foresight and it was the Earth that paid the price.

DSC_0909Since World War Two, various governments around the world have amassed a collection of weapons of greater sophistication than has ever been produced before. This collective arsenal of conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry has the lethality to kill every living creature on the face of the planet. However, unless pockets of regional conflict and terrorist activity escalate into full-scale global warfare, which would obviously be a disastrous scenario, in terms of military progress, modern weapons today could end up as garbage tomorrow: garbage that could well choke us out of existence.

There is a Swahili proverb that says: “Do not borrow off the earth, for the earth will require its own back with interest.” How long will it be before the interest due on the impact of human engineering on the Earth’s natural systems becomes due? Perhaps in many ways it already has…

Part 7 – Why this is considered an epochal time

CHAPTER THREE – OUR FUTURE THROUGH A LOOKING GLASS

“Once upon a time humans, animals, plants, wind, sun and stars were able to talk together. God changed this, but we are still a part of a wider community. We have the right to live, as do the plants, animals, wind, sun and stars, but we have no right to jeopardize their existence.” Beliefs of the San Bushman of Southern Africa

To state that we are living in an epochal time, unlike any other in the history of the planet, is not being overly dramatic it is stating a fact. Each generation has its defining predicaments – emergencies so great that it takes wave upon wave of people working together to resolve them. The 20th Century was marked by many such emergencies: the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 which left millions of people dead; World War One and World War Two; the Korean War; the Cold War; the Vietnam War; the Gulf Wars; the wars in Afghanistan and Bosnia; the wars in Africa; the Aids pandemic. All these occurrences and more defined a turbulent century and the people who lived within it.

BF2-A002It was a century marked by cultural conflict and political intolerance, pandemics of disease and anxiety, extreme stress and strife. Yet it was also a century distinguished by amazing achievements such as trailblazing space and polar travel, computer technology, medical advancements, scientific discoveries and political reform. In many ways it was a pioneering century. However all this took place against a backdrop of general global sufficiency.

There was enough food, water, fuel and raw materials with which to build nations, protect nationalism and advance economically, sociologically, scientifically and technologically. And although there were pockets of famine in the developing world and times of austerity in the developed world, for the most part as men and women guarded national interests, waged war against each other and achieved the previously unimaginable, they were unconcerned about the most basic tenets of life.

If they lived in the Western world, they may have worried at times that there would not be a large enough roast for Sunday lunch or that sugar was getting low. They might have fretted that they would not have enough gasoline to drive to the shops or to power their tanks as they trundled over desert landscapes. They may have been concerned about an empty water bottle or radiator. But these were short-term concerns, fixable at the next shopping mall, ration queue or refuelling depot.

However, in the 21st Century the basic needs of life could have an entirely different connotation. With more people now living and expected to be born on Earth than at any time in the history of the human race, we are facing a unique predicament. As the Earth’s resource base sinks lower and lower in response to the needs of vast numbers of people, and 20th Century consumerism continues to drive unsustainable consumption into the 21st Century, ahead of us could well be a time marked by global insufficiency.

CSC_0478Unless we can find ways of addressing this predicament, there could well be insufficient food, water, fuel and basic raw materials with which to take care of the needs of the billions of people on the planet. Already, throughout the world living standards are falling, with one person in five being malnourished. The spectre of insufficiency is unmistakably drawing closer, and if we prove unable to meet this challenge our children and their children after them may suffer the insecurity of not having enough of the basic needs of life.

As I see it this is the defining challenge of our time: to develop a safe and sustainable future, during which the needs of growing populations everywhere are met without destabilising the natural resource base on which they depend. And it is perhaps the greatest predicament that the human race has ever faced.

Food Anxiety

If game rangers in a southern African game park decided to import a herd of elephants into the park one of their first tasks would be to determine the optimum number of elephants that the park could support. At this maximum sustainable population level, known as carrying capacity, the elephants could live comfortably without compromising their habitat. But if during a period of good years their population grew, eventually a stage would be reached beyond which the park could no longer support their greater numbers. As the increased population of elephants browsed and destroyed more and more trees in their quest for food, the vegetal resources on which they depended would begin to decline, and eventually the number of elephants would diminish as many of them died from starvation.

In the 17th Century, there were half-a-billion people on the planet. By the beginning of the 19th Century this figure had doubled to one billion. By 1940, three billion souls peopled the Earth and within 60 years this number had jumped to six billion, with 78 per cent of people living in developing countries. By the next half-century, within just two generations, there could be 10 billion people in the world. The carrying capacity of the Earth has already been reached and one species, our own Homo sapiens sapiens, is appropriating nearly half of the entire food resources available in plants to sustain itself, and for every extra percentage of plant foods that our growing numbers utilise, there is a corresponding proportion of plant energy that becomes unavailable for all of the Earth’s other species.

Sugar cane harvestIn terms of future food security this means that the more people there are on the planet, the less space there will be for plants, the food producers, to grow. Over time, if populations continue to expand at the present rate without a dramatic decrease in numbers through war, disease, or other means, the human race could eventually take over 60 or even 80 per cent of the total terrestrial food supply, until there is almost nothing left for the rest of nature. In this very possible scenario, a Malthusian famine of global proportions could well be the inevitable outcome. And unless ways can be found to correct this dangerous imbalance this could become a reality within our lifetime.

Carelessness and Extinctions

Another unthinkable outcome of an unsustainable global population growth would be the pushing of thousands of species into extinction as more and more natural habitats become expropriated for human development, and many more hunters make incursions into forests either to kill or capture the wild creatures that live there. It is believed that within 30 years, a little more than one generation, half of the world’s species could become extinct. This percentage constitutes a global mass extinction, the sixth biggest one of which has blighted the Earth since life began.

This means that on land, in the sea, and in the air, myriad species of iridescent butterflies, shy nocturnal cats, chattering monkeys, silver fish, mysterious sea mammals and brilliantly feathered birds could be lost forever, and the chief agent in their disappearance from the planet would be the human race. However, extinctions of animal species as caused by Homo sapiens sapiens are not a recent phenomenon characterised by our time alone. As early men, women and children made their way around the globe, their colonisation was marked by waves of regional extinctions.

During the last Ice Age, in present-day Eurasia for instance, mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, giant deer and cave bears became extinct. On the continent of what is now known as Australia, huge snakes and lizards, giant kangaroos and wombats, giant capybaras, marsupial lions and a rhinoceros-like marsupial called diprotodon were, among many other species, made extinct within just a few thousand years of the arrival of human beings.

In the present-day Americas many species of large mammals such as mammoths, glyptodonts, large, lumbering ant-eaterlike creatures, horses, camels, mastodons, ground sloths, giant armadillos, lions, giant bears and sabre-tooth tigers, disappeared after Ice Age people crossed the land bridge of the Bering Strait from present-day Asia into Alaska. And in Polynesia many species of birds, most flightless like the giant moas of New Zealand, vanished forever from the face of the Earth after humans settled there.

1  thandi rhino poaching conservation Oct 2013 kariega game reserve eastern cape (2)Although changes in climate and habitat and disease may have played a part in these mass extinctions, it is believed that the use of fire as a hunting weapon, together with the overkilling of many species by early humans, contributed to effectively wiping them off the face of the planet. For early humans were wasteful hunters, often stampeding an entire herd of bison or other game over the edges of cliffs when only a few beasts were needed to provide food, clothing and shelter.

Modern people have been no less improvident, often taking carelessly, wastefully, irreverently and brutally from the life around them to fulfill needs of greed, superstition, political expediency or even sheer callous sport. But the mindset that decrees that all that is in Nature is intrinsically for the use and sport of human beings, does not limit expropriation only to other living organisms…

Part 6 – What we can learn from nature and other lessons

CHAPTER TWO – AN ENDURING AND SACRED ALLIANCE CONTD…

DSC_0940Human beings did not evolve to live alone on this Earth, and yet unless we are part of a culture bound to animals in a sacred pact of survival such as a Bedouin caravan with its camel train trudging across burning desert sands, or a Tibetan tribe negotiating the treacherous foothills of the Himalayas with its herd of shaggy, obdurate yaks, we give little credence to our connection to the other travellers on this planet. In our Western, anthropocentric way we see the creatures of the land, ocean and air; creatures that the Bible refers to as “living souls”, as physical entities only, unable to interact with our superior intelligence.

Certainly, we give our fellow travellers little credit for any type of heightened consciousness, and yet if you have ever, as I have, watched a mother giraffe staying close to the body of her baby which was killed by a pride of lions for days after the baby giraffe’s death, you cannot help but wonder at the mother’s vigil. Animals as mighty as the African elephant and birds as small as the common weaver, which inhabits many South African gardens, seem to have an awareness of death.

I have seen elephants probing the bleached scull of a fallen comrade with their trunks in a seeming display of reverence and recognition. And I have watched a male weaver bird staying close to the body of its dead mate as the lifeless female lay, feet-curled and body-upturned, after flying into a windowpane. The male weaver waited next to the body of its dead mate for several hours before flying off and it was tempting to project the anthropomorphic quality of grief onto the little surviving bird.

Who can really know for sure where human and animal consciousness touch and blend? Is it possible that the threads of connection binding us together in a precious bond of earthly alliance are shorter, yet stronger than we can ever imagine?

Adrift on the Atlantic

The story of yachtsman, Steven Callahan, who was cast adrift on the Atlantic Ocean, is an incredible epic of human survival. However, what takes this story into another fascinating dimension, well beyond the realms of the normal, is that Steven believes it was his connection to a school of Dorado that enabled him to survive his ordeal – not only in the accepted sense that he ate the fish, which he did, but also in the strange and mystical sense that he believed that the fish offered themselves to him so that he could survive. A man trained to think logically and rationally through the earning of degrees in both psychology and philosophy, he has no other explanation for their unusual behaviour.

The story of Steven Callahan’s epic adventure began when he was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in his yacht the “Napoleon Solo”. Out of the blue, literally, a whale hit his yacht, causing it to fill with water. Within a minute the yacht started to list badly. Through a fog of panic and fear, Steven luckily had the presence of mind to throw his inflatable raft overboard. Then grabbing a sleeping bag and a makeshift survival bag with a spear gun tucked into it, Steven jumped into the rubber raft that was to be his home for the next 76 days. These items, as well as two plastic water stills, saved his life.

Trapped in the raft which he dubbed his rubber ducky, and wearing only a T-shirt, Steven drifted across the Atlantic Ocean at the mercy of the elements. As he floated on the surface of the sea, suffering agonies of heat, cold and thirst, a school of Dorado followed him. At first the exquisitely coloured Dorado tormented him, sharply butting at his heels and elbows as they protruded into the floor of the dinghy.

DSC_0739Sharks also streaked past under the little round raft, brushing their abrasive skins against the thin rubber sheeting. Their sleek grey shapes terrified him. However it was the constant harassment of the Dorado that started to weigh heaviest on his spirit.

Over the interminably long days of his confinement in the rubber ducky, Steven began to weaken from the combined effects of the battering of the waves and his intense hunger and thirst. As his body weight dropped by a third, his hold on life dwindled and it was in this dire physical and psychological state that Steven’s relationship with the Dorado began to change. Instead of swimming out of reach of his spear gun as they had done before, the fish began swimming closer in to the dinghy.

Unable in his weakened condition to lean over the side of the dinghy for hours in the hope of spearing a Dorado, the fish seemed to sense his weakness and they seemed to begin making it easier for Steven to catch them. Until in the end it seemed as if they offered themselves to him, lying on their sides right under the point of the spear gun, which by this time had broken down until it was just a butter knife tied to a rod, which was tied to the stock.

No part of the speared Dorado went to waste. Steven ate every part of the fish he caught, even their eyes and the partially digested contents of their stomachs. On the 51st day of his ordeal, he almost died and he knew that he needed a miracle in order to survive. He believes that the school of Dorado that followed him for more than 1800 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean provided him with that miracle. As the fish came in closer to the little rubber raft, he began to recognise them individually and to count on their presence. Their flesh sustained his body and their constant attendance sustained his spirit, protecting it from the terrible loneliness of his predicament.

Steven Callahan was eventually rescued by fishermen and taken ashore on the island of Marie Gallante, a small Caribbean island near Guadeloupe. The remaining Dorado stayed with him right up to the moment he was helped into his rescuers’ boat.

Father Lion

Another mystical and inexplicable example of the deep connection between man and beast involves the esteemed conservationist George Adamson. Known affectionately far and wide as Bwana Simba or Father Lion, George Adamson was a man ahead of his time in his beliefs in the importance of conservation. He was also a man who had spent much of his life living this ethos, eventually dying as he had lived, protecting those unable to protect themselves. After a full and active life, in his 83rd year George Adamson was murdered by bandits in Kora National Reserve, a remote game park in Kenya that he had spent much of his life building.

On the fateful day of his murder, a visiting German woman and one of George’s helpers had been on their way to pick up other visitors from Kora’s airstrip, not far from George’s camp, when a bandit group had accosted the woman and her companion, shooting at them. At the time that this incident was taking place George was typing a letter when his cook and close companion of many years, Hamisi, came running to tell him that he had heard gun shots nearby. Grabbing the rifle that was never far from his side, George and two other helpers jumped into his Land Rover and sped off to investigate the cause of the shots. As the rescue party came upon the German woman’s vehicle lying abandoned at the side of the road, its tires punctured, three bandits opened fire on them.

The automatic weapon fire killed George Adamson instantly, and so it seemed that the legend of the white-haired Father of the Lions was to die alongside his bullet-ridden body on that dusty forsaken African road. This, however, was not to be, as there was still a final chapter to be written into the story of this remarkable man’s life and death. On the night that George Adamson was killed, a strange and inexplicable incident occurred at Kampi ya Simba, George’s bushveld camp. A large pride of lions entered the camp, remaining within its confines for a long period of time. They had also visited the camp the night before George was killed, seeming with hindsight, to display a form of premonition and wishing to show their allegiance to George Adamson with their presence.

A simple and holy man

Travelling further back in time to the Middle Ages, to the date of 4th October 1226 to be exact, a similarly mystical occurrence took place in the steep medieval city of Assisi. On that particular day as the golden ball of the Sun was sliding from the early evening sky, in a humble dwelling befitting a man who had embraced Lady Poverty as the cornerstone of his existence, Saint Francis of Assisi lay dying. After blessing the brothers of his Franciscan Order who were in attendance around his sickbed, with his last flicker of strength Saint Francis whispered a song. It was the 142nd psalm and it took him quietly from agonised life into welcoming death.

With twilight darkening the autumn sky, at the point of his passing from this world to the next, a great flock of birds appeared above the roof of the little house in which Father Francis’ body lay. They flew round and round, flying “joyfully for a long time together, giving clear and joyous testimony to the glory of the saint who had been wont to invite them to sing the praises of God”.

During his lifetime Brother Francis had lovingly embraced every aspect of the natural world. A man of great humility, he had shunned the luxury of splendid papal palaces and rich merchants’ villas, which as head of a religious Order, some believed he should reside in; preferring instead to be out and about in nature with the hard earth for a bed, a rock for a pillow and the wide, open sky as a roof over his head.

Parrotbeaked TortoiseAs he travelled along rough missionary roads on bruised and bloodied feet, bringing his gifts of faith, compassion and healing to the sick and poor of the thirteenth century world in which he ministered, Brother Francis made friends with the creatures of the fields and skies that crossed his path. So it was entirely befitting that in this spirit of friendship between a simple and holy man and the creatures of God’s Kingdom, it was the joyous birdsong of a great multitude of birds that trumpeted the passing of this most beloved of saints from an earthly existence into a heavenly eternity.

Childhood lessons

There are countless such real-life examples, documented and undocumented, of animal prescience and the connection between the consciousness of human beings and the consciousness of animals, fish and birds. Down through the centuries, stories and legends have illustrated the close bond between men and women, girls and boys and the creatures of the land, sea and sky. From the legends of the female wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus to Tarzan and his Apemen, such stories have reinforced this connection. Indeed they have become a treasured part of our universal folklore, teaching valuable lessons for living in a sometimes-frightening world.

Generations of children have learnt to distinguish evil intent through Little Red Riding Hood’s encounter with the Big Bad Wolf. Identity lost and found has been personified by the sad little Ugly Duckling who eventually grows into a magnificent swan. And the value of industriousness has been emphasised by the tale of the Three Little Pigs who learnt that only the hard work of building a brick house could stop the pesky wolf from blowing their house down.

WLT0091 pic3To page through a picture book of children’s stories is to recognise freedom in the form of Cinderella’s mice horses and happiness in the form of the beautiful Blue Bird. These stories have nourished the minds of children everywhere and they are filled with silvery fish, big brown bears, round green toads, fleet-footed steeds, and fluffy white rabbits. Our world would be a lonely place indeed without these and other living creatures, for on our lonely planet in our enormous galaxy they are a source not only of wonder, but also of a helpful and healing companionship that is vital to the health of our human psyche.

Our links with the landmasses, sea and sky, as well as the other inhabitants of our planet, are sacred associations that have formed and sustained our species since the beginning of our time. They have shaped what we look like, how we move, how we feel and how we think. Our most primitive instincts for survival and our loftiest intellectual and spiritual pursuits have developed out of our long relationship with the natural world around us. We are truly the children of Mother Earth and yet at the beginning of this 21st Century it is all too easy to forget this fundamental fact.

If our species is not to commit matricide in the time ahead then we urgently need to rethink our roots. We need to take a long hard look at where we have come from and where we are going to in this new millennium. The way forward is not guaranteed, for it seems we have reached a universal crossroads and this juncture is the place at which we need to stop and rest and reconsider.

We urgently need to reconsider our contract with Mother Earth, undeniably our most important and enduring contract, and one, which of late, we have not been honouring. We need to examine the impact of our activities upon the integrity of the Earth’s natural systems and the other life forms with which we share this planet and we especially need to analyse the thinking and belief patterns as well as the value systems that have formed the underlying basis for these activities. For it is only through understanding what we have done wrong, that we can then do what needs to be done, to put those wrongs to right…

Part 5 – Why we are still children of nature

CHAPTER TWO – AN ENDURING AND SACRED ALLIANCE

“What happens to beasts will happen to man. All things are connected. If the great beasts are gone, man would surely die of a great loneliness of spirit.” North American Chief Joseph Nez Pierce

As we have seen, it is only in the last instant of geological time that our species Homo sapiens (thinking Man) has lived upon the Earth and, from earliest times, the natural world has shaped the conditions that have shaped our species. Contemporary palaeontology puts the very beginning of our story during the Miocene epoch millions of years ago, when a warm climate and extensive tropical forests provided an ideal habitat for hominoid apes.

ForestsOver time global cooling and a resulting drier climate began to cause the lush forests that these fruit-eating, tree-dwelling apes lived in to dwindle, giving way to open grasslands and savannas. Facing extinction, the hominoid apes were forced out of the trees to forage for food on the ground. Successfully making the transition from tree-dwellers to ground foragers, over aeons of time it is believed that this distant evolutionary line evolved into the hominid species, our most distant forefathers.

As an adaptation to roaming the vast grasslands looking for food, the knuckle-walking hominids evolved the ability to walk upright on two legs. This unique bipedal gait gave these earliest proto-humans the advantage of energy-efficient locomotion, as well as enabling them to raise their eyes to a level that could sweep above the golden grasses of the savannas. Although the mechanics of bipedalism had the disadvantage of slowing the hominids down when they were running away from the wild beasts of that epoch, it enabled them to range further and wider, becoming efficient foragers. Another advantage of the upright bodies of the hominids was the reduced likelihood of overheating on the hot, open grasslands. This allowed them to forage at a time of day when competing species rested in the cool shade of sheltering trees or overhanging rocks.

Bipedalism also freed the flexible hands of the hominids for gathering the tough seeds, roots and nuts that were their dietary mainstay. This adaptation later enabled them to carry things, throw objects and make stone tools: important evolutionary milestones. Binocular, stereoscopic, colour vision helped the hominids to judge distances, shapes and colours in their grassland environments. Over time, their arms became shorter and their brains became larger, eventually enabling the hominids to develop technical and social skills such as fire-making and co-operative hunting. In short, environmental pressures produced by a changing climate, brought natural selection to bear in a way that uniquely equipped our earliest ancestors for a life of foraging on the plains.1

Children of Nature

Apart from the obvious physical aspects of our evolutionary path, there are other deeper and more profound human characteristics that have developed in response to wild places and the companionship of other species, great and small. Our collective human psyche is intimately connected to all forms of nature, for it is within the context of the natural world of the hunter-gatherer way of life that it evolved.

Whether one is an advocate of the evolutionary theory or creationist viewpoint, it is an indisputable fact that from the time that our earliest ancestors wandered the grassy savannas of Africa, our species has evolved consciousness, intelligence, artistic expression and spirituality in response to the world of nature. For example, the ancients expressed an awareness of death, a key component of human consciousness, by covering their dead in powered red ochre. This was perhaps a belief that the colour red, being the colour of blood, had mystical life-imitating properties. They also buried their dead with stone, flint, bone and horn tools, weapons and adornments that they had made. This signified the development of ritual and a belief in an after-life.

With the wearing of ornaments such as necklaces made from mammoth ivory, ancestral people expressed self-awareness and an aesthetic sensibility. Early humans also wore cowry shells, snake bones, toucan beaks, and bats’ teeth, amongst other components taken from the world around them, as possible personal talismans against the vagaries of an uncertain existence.

Rhino2The animals of the plains on which they were dependent for food and clothing became mirrored in the images that they painted onto cave walls and fashioned out of clay, bone and reindeer antler. These were beautifully executed images of bison, horse, boar and deer; symbolically and realistically depicted, which became the first creations of human art.

Out of their world of rivers, rocks and deep shaded ravines grew a need for the ancients to understand their place in that far-off world. Magic and mythology subsequently developed in response to this deep-seated human need, which was possibly played out in initiation ceremonies, the casting of spells and the sacrificing of animals for the coming seasons.

Since time immemorial, the natural world has been our species’ shaper and teacher. Our ancestors learned about the concept of time from observing the passage of the Moon through the night sky. They learned to understand the effects of the passing seasons on migrations of game. By observing nature with an innate shrewdness, the ancients also learnt the laws of leverage and gravity, and based the principles of their early traps on these laws. In this way, a branch springing back to its original position after being disturbed by a browsing animal, the weight of a heavy log thundering down a steep hillside or a hazardous branch-covered hole in the ground became the basis for the first tools of intelligence.

Over the millennia hundreds of different animal traps were invented: gravity traps, snare traps, springing-pole traps and torsion traps, all cunningly adapted to the special conditions of the surroundings and the characteristics, habits and behaviour of the prey animals. And the ingenuity expressed in the making of these traps was the first indication of a species that had gone beyond instinct into a cognitive capability that was unique on the planet. Also unique in the evolutionary history of the Earth’s creatures was the development of conceptual thought and symbolic language; capabilities that allowed for reflective discussion, the sharing of detailed information, social interaction and co-operative effort. These were elements that eventually led to the development of culture, our defining human characteristic.

DSC_0093The African savannas where our first ancestors appeared thousands of centuries ago have been the cradle of our species. Over the ages, the natural world has literally shaped our bodies, minds and souls and this ancient influence has stayed with us.

Warming sunlight, the smell of bushveld, a profusion of spring flowers and the sigh of the ocean as it leaves the shore; these are the healing agencies of nature that soothe our modern city senses. We are as inextricably linked to the wind whispering in treetops, to clouds scudding across a darkened sky or to the deep rumble of distant thunder as a leopard prowling a rocky mountain ledge.

Our connection to the natural world is our most profound and enduring connection and it is a mistake to think that, because our modern lives are lived predominantly glassed in away from nature and the elements, they no longer have any jurisdiction over us. In reality the opposite is true. Sensed but unseen, felt but not comprehended, elements of the natural world still exert an enormous influence over our everyday lives. And it seems that when our backs are against the wall, it is the influence of nature that we seek to calm our troubled spirits.

Winds and Rhythms

Environmental conditioning down through the ages has made us creatures of infinite subtlety and receptivity. For instance, our skins register the slightest changes in temperature, having been made sensitive to weather fluctuations by hundreds of thousands of years of adapting to the slightest shifts in cold or heat. But the temperature of our environment is not the only element of nature to affect us. Wind, that unseen ethereal shaper of continents and seas, creates a sometimes-unbearable tension in us.

A teacher I know dreads windy days for when the wind blows outside her classroom she finds that her pupils tend to be more agitated and restless than on windless days. And a golfer friend of mine told me that he has often been upset mid-swing by the unsettling effect of the wind. Windy days have also been known to affect susceptible people in ways that are more serious. Health problems such as heart attacks, ulcer perforation, embolism, thrombosis, haemorrhage and migraine have been documented to increase in populations when certain ill winds blow.

Both within our indoor, climate-controlled environments and out of doors, we have a high awareness of and a low tolerance for wind as an agent of nature. Perhaps it is due to our inherited conditioning from distant times when wind destroyed our forefathers’ flimsy shelters, leaving them vulnerable and exposed to the elements. Or perhaps it awakens deep ancient fears from aeons ago when hugely fanged predators were able to creep up to our ancestors’ caves undetected; their scents and sounds blown away by a howling wind.
Human cycles are closely reflected in the rhythms of nature.

The waxing and waning of the silver Moon corresponds to the average female menstrual cycle and human pregnancy almost perfectly reflects the elapse of nine planetary months. Our daily body rhythms are synchronised according to the rising and setting of the Sun and the desynchronisation of this internal biological clock can affect us greatly, both physically and psychologically.

BF2-A002Scientists living and working in the freezing Antarctic wastes over the dark months of winter have been known to suffer from a condition called Antarctic syndrome. As the days and months pass during which they are holed up in their bases, sometimes unable to venture outside for days at a time because of shrieking blizzards, those affected by Antarctic syndrome become paranoid, antisocial, and sometimes even violent. Some people have even been known to exhibit a type of uncharacteristic madness. One base commander in the Antarctic was suspected of setting fire to and destroying his own base, a potentially disastrous act in an environment as frigidly unforgiving as the frozen south. This same base commander had also less seriously, but just as illogically, stolen his crew’s toothpaste at every opportunity.

Buried Alive

An experiment to record the natural rhythms of human life was conducted on French volunteer Michel Siffre at Midnight Cave in Texas, United States. At the start of the experiment Michel was lowered alone into this vast underground cavern where he was to live disconnected from the sun for a period of six months. His home within the cave was a tent perched on a wooden platform and through a system of switching on and switching off of lights, he was able to create his own day and night out of the unchanging blackness of the cave. Geologist Michel Siffre found that his normal 24-hour day of sleep and wakefulness stretched into cycles lasting as long as 51¾ hours.

After a period of time in the deep darkness and unremitting silence of the underground cave, profound physical and psychological changes began to affect Michel. On his 86th day, he considered committing suicide and some time afterwards he noted that his manual dexterity and mental faculties had deteriorated badly. His hands became so slow and clumsy that he found it difficult to perform simple tasks such as stringing beads. He also found that his memory deserted him almost as quickly as thoughts formed in his mind and months after his isolation in Midnight Cave, Michel still suffered from the effects of his incarceration. His eyesight had weakened considerably and he had developed a chronic squint. He was also plagued by severe memory lapses and he later suffered from psychological problems.

Human beings did not evolve to live in dark, silent places away from the influence of natural light and sound. Eighteenth century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote, “Complete silence induces melancholy, it is an image of death.” Perhaps in that dark underground cavern, shut away from sunlight and the sound of birds twittering cheerfully in the treetops or the boom of distant thunder, Michel Siffre’s spirit died a little. Certainly his incarceration in Midnight Cave profoundly changed him and he came out of the cave a different man from the one who had first gone into it. Silence and darkness had seemed to wound his spirit. So had the loneliness of his brief existence without the companionship of other living creatures…

Part 4 – How we have become Masters of Change

CHAPTER ONE – THE STORY OF LIFE ON EARTH CONTD…..

Beyond recorded history climatic shifts have been even more dramatic, exerting extreme pressures on all living things. Earth’s history reveals that ice ages have occurred in vast cycles of geological time: long periods of frigid cold known as glacials, when extensive ice sheets covered northern portions of the Earth, alternating with shorter spells of warmer weather known as interglacials. Believed to be influenced by changes in the Earth’s axial tilt and its orbit around the Sun, these climatic shifts caused habitats to shrink or expand, forcing animal species to adapt or migrate. When climatic changes occurred too quickly or extensively for species to adapt, or if geographical barriers such as mountain ranges prevented their migration, extinction was the inevitable result.

Our ancestors evolved and flourished when the world was in the grip of the last great Ice Age. It was a period of extreme and unstable weather. In the Northern Hemisphere freezing temperatures caused vast ice-sheets and glaciers to form, covering large parts of continents and the sea. Then over time warm interglacials melted the ice, forming great lakes.

DSC_0958Retreating glaciers scoured the earth carving out deep fjords and lochs, and the sea level rose and fell in accordance with the presence or absence of ice. It was predominantly a frigid world populated by huge, hairy mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, sabre-toothed cats, cave lions, giant deer, and beavers as large as black bears. In the Southern Hemisphere the climate was not as cold or extreme as in the Northern Hemisphere. There was little or no snow but periods of dry cooler weather alternated with mild humid conditions. This caused the habitat to swing from grassland plains to lush forest, continuously changing the environment for many plant and animal species.

Globally the great Ice Ages presented a vastly challenging environment in which to exist. The repeated swinging from cold to warm and dry to wet placed enormous pressures on all living things of the time, forcing adaptation in the face of sometimes-savage natural selection pressures. Migrating before the onslaught of ice, volcanic ash, sea or mud; adapting to fluctuations in a changing environment or risking extinction, the story of life on Earth is a story of quiet starts and sudden violent stops; of evolutionary dead ends and highways of evolutionary progress. All told within the context of the vast epochal cycles of Heaven and Earth. It is not a quiet, gentle planet that has cradled evolution but a restless world seething with instability. In the face of such enormous odds, life has flourished into a multitude of magnificent forms, the most bounteous of which is our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, a species which started on an evolutionary side street but which has ended up building the highway!

Ice Age People

Unlike the Neanderthals, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, which was a possible sub-species of Homo sapiens that existed alongside our ancestors in what is now Western Europe for a time, our forefathers were not physically adapted to the intense cold of the Pleistocene epoch. Instead of the short, stocky, muscular bodies of the Neanderthals, which were an important cold-adapted physical characteristic for conserving heat, and the large noses that warmed the air they breathed, our ancestors relied on behavioural flexibility in order to survive. As they spread around the world on foot and much later on rafts or in dugout canoes, they colonised every type of habitat on Earth, ingeniously adjusting their mode of living to the demands of their environment.

On the fiercely cold, empty, wind-blasted steppes of present-day Eastern Europe for example, Ice Age people adapted their way of life around the mammoth, provider of food, clothing, shelter and fuel. They built sturdy huts of mammoth bones covered with hides. The thick hairy pelts gave waterproof shelter and kept out the biting wind. Fat-rich mammoth bones were burnt in shallow pits to provide warmth in arctic temperatures and huge hunks of meat were roasted over mammoth-bone spits to provide food for these hardy hunter people.

During the long frigid months of winter, several families shared the warmth and companionship of the comfortable mammoth-bone huts together. With icy gusts of wind sweeping the bare plains and sub-zero temperatures freezing the ground around their huts into permafrost, the men spent their time swapping tales of the hunt and carving an assortment of tools and ornaments out of ivory. The women tended their children and sewed furs and hides together using bone needles and sinew to make boots, hooded garments and trousers for their families; richly decorating this warm clothing with small beads of mammoth ivory, shells and animal teeth.

Ice Age society was based on the principles of community and sharing, with especially food being shared out between the members of a band. The reasons for this were practical and in no way simply altruistic. Because a large body retains heat better than a smaller one, the bitter cold favoured survival of the biggest. Ice Age animals were therefore huge-bodied and a number of hunters were required to kill a beast and then carry its carcass back to the shelter.

This meant that a kill of reindeer or cave bear, woolly rhinoceros or bison, provided a considerable amount of meat, enough for all the hunters’ families. And although surplus meat was at times stored in pits dug into the permafrost, sharing food in times of plenty ensured that a family’s needs would be provided for when meat was scarce. Collective hunting and communal living were important evolutionary steps forward: co-operation of the band ensuring the survival of the individual. It was this cultural development more than any other factor that enabled Ice Age men, women and children to survive in a hostile environment.

It is staggering to think that ancestral families lived, loved, birthed, talked, laughed, worked, hunted, fought, slept, ate and died in a world so cold that at times more than one third of the land surface and a half of the surface area of the ocean were covered with ice kilometres thick. In that frigidly hostile environment at the height of the last great Ice Age, it is astounding that they were able to fashion a highly complex existence for themselves that included the warmth and companionship of other families, familial affection, artistic expression, self adornment, discussion and negotiation, behavioural rules, initiations, rituals and rights of passage, co-operative hunting and technological innovation.

And although life for Ice Age people was physically demanding, with men on average living for about 40 years and women averaging a lifespan of about 25 years, they evidently were able to achieve a life that included relative comfort and leisure, for their archaeological record shows that after their needs for food, shelter, clothing and tools were taken care of, there was time left over for art and music, dance and ceremony, learning and play.

Therefore, with no innate resources other than their own intelligence and the accumulated knowledge and experience passed down from generations of hunter-gatherers before them, there can be no doubt that our ancestors achieved the extraordinary. In the face of climatic extremes, and perhaps even because of it, they developed a highly complex social organisation. And by walking on land and sailing in primitive vessels on the open seas, they migrated to all four corners of the Earth except Antarctica, colonising every habitat that they found in their wanderings, and adjusting their way of life to accommodate the conditions of the environments in which they settled.

Stresses and Strengths

This thirst to explore, to know what lies beyond the horizon, and the courage to risk all in order to find out, is one of the defining characteristics of our species. It was the impetus for peopling the Earth and much later for travelling to the Moon. Over the millennia this has not changed. We are still a race of wanderers. Migrations have always shaped the conditions of humankind. They have also been a means of solving problems. Ice Age people marched before the encroachment of glaciers and bitter cold. Today more people flee from the onslaught of war, persecution, famine and environmental devastation than at any other time in the history of the human race.

DSC_0418In those far off times there was space and natural places in which to wander. However, now at the beginning of the 21st Century, there is little space and even fewer natural places in which to roam. People are packed tightly into towns and cities, which are spreading like a virulent fungus over the face of the Earth. Governments, nationalism and borders have reduced the latitude for movement in modern-day societies and so an ancient survival mechanism has been cut off at the source. Running away has become less and less of an option in our congested world and, instead of fleeing in the face of pressures as our ancestors had always done, we have no option in this millennium but to learn to stay and solve our problems. In our favour are adaptability and behavioural flexibility: ancestral strengths that have been honed and tempered by time and the pressures of a great Ice Age.

Masters of Change

Because the last Ice Age imposed such harsh environmental pressures and because of the need to endure and even overcome these conditions, ancient humans became masters of change. As we have seen in our evolutionary past, our ancestors mastered massive swings from glacial advances to glacial retreats. They enjoyed times of plenty when huge-bodied animals such as the woolly rhinoceros, musk ox, giant elk and woolly mammoth lumbered over icy terrains in numbers that allowed their own populations to grow. And they suffered scarcity when migrations of game failed to appear or when habitats changed so rapidly that game species, unable to adapt to climatic fluctuations, dwindled. In learning to survive, they adapted their food sources and they modified their needs for implements, fire, clothing and shelter according to the dictates of their erratic environments. By living in small bands and heeding the signs of nature, they were able to exist in a world that required constant adaptation.

DSC_0525In a way our modern lives are no exception to this ancient code. We too are required to be masters of change. The difference is that the rate of change that we are experiencing is unprecedented in the history of our species. Like an old-fashioned movie that is fast-forwarded until the frames whiz by in a blur of impressions, our modern world has speeded up until many of us are left gasping by the effort to keep up. No other generation has been as time-conscious, date-aware and daily-pressured as our own. Our lives are lived predominantly on a treadmill of activity and sensation. We careen from home to work or school to home again in a whirlwind of action. But even as our own small personal lives have speeded up, so have many of the great tides and cycles that govern our lives: waves of population growth, technological innovation and cultural developments that have changed the horizon of Earth forevermore.

And so we have seen that it has taken thousands of millions of years of evolution for the story of life on Earth to reach this point. Our own story is a little more than two million years old – a brief sigh in the overall context of vast geological time. And yet our species, more than any other that has walked this planet, has developed in ways that are unique to the history of life. Unfortunately this development is now threatening the very life support systems that have always sustained it. At great risk are not only our own species but also every other species on the face of the planet.

In a sense we have done too well. Our efficiency has so far outpaced our collective wisdom that we have yet to see whether enlightenment will be able to stretch to 21st Century realities. North American Chief Dan George wrote, “We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive”. Our responsibility is vast not only to ourselves and other as yet unborn generations, but also to the other travellers that inhabit the earth, sea and sky. If we are to keep the Earth healthy and its wondrous diversity of living creatures intact, the future will have to be negotiated with a new vision, a new understanding and new solutions…

Part 3 – How weather has impacted life on Earth

CHAPTER ONE – THE STORY OF LIFE ON EARTH

“Everything is precariously balanced, just right, so that we can exist.” Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey

Since the dawn of time, the heavens have shaped the conditions for life on Earth. Ours is not a calm world, closed and sealed off from the universe. It is a restless, seething, open planet; encircled and protected only by a delicate bubble of gases. Exposed and assailable, Earth speeds through the deep blackness of outer space on its inexorable path around the Sun. It is believed to be unique in the solar system, for it alone seems to be habitable to life.

Earth’s size, the tilt of its axis, its position in the solar system, the speed at which it travels and the parameters of its orbit in relation to the Sun, are the exact conditions that make life on its surface possible. Like freezing Mars with its violent storms of red dust or hellish Venus with its massive greenhouse scorching; Earth would be an inhospitable planet devoid of oceans, oxygen or life without these essential preconditions. It is Earth’s relationship to the Sun, which has enabled life on its surface to flourish.

Beaming energy across the cosmic expanse of our solar system the Sun warms and lights our planet. The ancients deified this galactic giver of light and warmth, instinctively knowing that it had the power of life and death over them. They understood that the Sun, harbinger of each new day, was the pivot around which their world revolved. For as long as there is life upon this planet this equation will not change. For the Sun, provider of weather, seasons and daylight, has always enabled and guided life here on Earth.

DSCF0090It was Earth’s distance from the Sun that first allowed liquid water, an essential prerequisite of life, to form. Not near enough for solar heat to sear away cloud formation, or too far away for clouds not to form at all, the Earth, third planet from the Sun, was positioned ideally on its path around the Sun for a surface temperature that allowed water vapour to condense and clouds to grow, falling as rain onto the hot, primitive land surfaces of the young Earth. Much of this primeval rain vaporised on contact with the hot crust, but eventually the land surfaces cooled sufficiently for streams and then seas to form. Earth’s gravitational force, a result of its size, allowed it to retain this liquid water.

Beginnings of Life

Life was slow to appear on the young Earth until about 3500 million years ago, when primitive prokaryote bacteria, simple cells without nuclei and organelles, appeared as the Earth’s first living organisms. After aeons of slow-moving time, Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, appeared which formed huge bacterial colonies in the shallow seas, producing oxygen that percolated into the poisonous anaerobic atmosphere, accumulating free oxygen. The increase of relatively abundant free oxygen in the atmosphere, however, created a crisis for the existing anaerobic prokaryotes that led to the evolution of complex eukaryotic cells; cells that have nuclear envelopes, complex chromosomes and membrane-bound organelles.

With the earthly stage set, this development in evolutionary history provided a starting point for the process of evolution as we understand it. And from that slow burgeoning beginning, primordial life developed in a world made habitable by a sunlit surface, warm seas, an oxygen-rich atmosphere and an ozone layer that afforded protection from destructive levels of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.

DSC_0747Over thousands of millennia the first plants and trees evolved on land, adding through photosynthesis more oxygen into the atmosphere. In the seas a rich diversity of plant life developed. A multitude of varied vertebrate and invertebrate animal forms also developed, until eventually the seas abounded with marine life. These diverse life forms included seaweeds, sponges, sea snails, trilobites, jellyfish, worms, starfish and many different varieties of jawed fish forms, including giant sharks. The period known as the Age of Fishes had arrived. Over yet more slow-moving time, small soft-bodied creatures left the seas and land-locked freshwater pools and adapted themselves to life on the land, living in swampland at the edge of water. The Age of Fishes had become the Age of Amphibians.

Then insects and reptiles appeared on the Earth, as did dinosaurs, mammals and birds. For 140 million years dinosaurs dominated the forested and swampy land surfaces and then about 65 million years ago a giant asteroid collided with the Earth, setting off fires all over the planet. A stratospheric dust cloud darkened the sky. Worldwide temperatures plummeted and the ozone layer became depleted.

These catastrophes had the effect of extinguishing the dinosaurs, and most other species living at the time of the Cretaceous-Tertiary collision, from the face of the Earth. However, in response to the marvellous cyclicity of life, the disappearance of the dinosaurs opened up ecological niches for early mammals of that far-off time: small rat-sized creatures that fed on earthworms, insects, fruit and seeds.

DSC_0349Over approximately 10 million years, these first small warm-blooded mammals opened the way for other mammals to eventually take over the environmental niches that the dinosaurs had filled. The Age of Reptiles was over. At the end of the Cretaceous period, with the disappearance of dinosaurs from the Earth, the Age of Mammals had begun and it was the turn of mammals to dominate the planet with a variety of animal forms as weird and wonderful as that of the dinosaurs. All in all it has taken an unimaginable stretch of geological time, more than half of the Earth’s age, to produce the rich abundance of magnificently varied life forms on Earth today.

Evolution on Terra Firma

However, the story of living things is not a gentle one marked by straightforward advances in evolutionary themes. Life is poised too precariously on the Earth’s surface for that. Instead it is an epic of ascendancy and decline spaced in erratic waves like the rollers of a chaotic sea. Over the countless millennia of the history of life species have appeared, progressed, and become extinct, until only a tiny fraction of all the species that have ever existed on the planet remain. Earth’s geological history records five catastrophic mass extinctions when more than half of the planet’s species on land and in the sea disappeared in a relative blink of geological time.

Debate continues in scientific circles as to the causes of these biotic catastrophes as no one knows exactly what caused these episodes of extinction. Chief among the hypotheses is impact of the Earth by asteroids or comets from outer space, massive volcano eruptions around the planet and/or unstable climates resulting in global cooling and warming. Perhaps these mass extinctions were due to a combination of all of these and other as yet unknown factors. But whatever the causes of the mass extinctions, they redirected evolution of the Earth’s creatures time and again into radiations of different forms, each reaching a plateau of maximum evolutionary success and then declining, making room for other species to follow.

DSC_0250The lithosphere or Earth’s terrestrial mantle is not uniformly a favourable environment in which to live. It is variously a hot dry desert without shade from a pitiless Sun, scorching in the heat of the day and freezing at night. It is fields of black volcanic rock and icy, crevassed glaciers. It is cold, permafrosted steppes, treeless and barren, and it is teeming, steaming swamps. However, it is also golden grasslands and tropical rain forests, lush and green with growth; mountain meadows of fynbos; dusty, brown bushveld and warm, rocky outcrops; white, sandy beaches dotted with coconut palms, and alpine slopes spangled with flowers.

The Earth’s surface is clothed in myriad costumes, each with a different mood. And like a sequined magician’s cloak being blown about on a windy day, it is restless with temperament. Earthquakes, volcanoes, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes, avalanches, impacts, drought, fire, flood, and upheaval, subsidence, folding, faulting, and crumbling: the Earth’s mantle is constantly changing and being rent by massive geological rips and tucks. Gargantuan forces that push up mountain ranges and transform continents; these earth-changing forces impose harsh evolutionary challenges but also accelerate evolution, providing opportunities for new species to appear and adapt.

Penguin Parenting

The history of life on Earth is resplendent with the opportunism of living creatures. Over thousands of millions of years of tenure, life on our planet has been impressively tenacious. Extinctions have been followed by bursts of relatively explosive evolution, with new species exploiting diverse ecological niches across a wide array of landscapes. Antarctica is one of the most hostile environments on the planet; a frozen and distant continent weighted under an ice sheet kilometres thick. It is a place of swirling whiteouts, howling blizzards and ferocious cold: an environment so extreme that the famous early 20th Century polar explorer, Sir Robert Falcon Scott, wrote of it, “Great God! This is an awful place.” Yet this forbidding world of snow, ice and rock is home to an array of magnificent creatures that have evolved the means for surviving there.

Antarctic6The Emperor penguin is one such creature. With no more than its own bodily configuration and an instinct honed by millions of years of evolution, the Emperor penguin has been able to do what human beings with the advantage of an advanced intelligence, have not. It has been able to evolve a way of living and breeding on this most inhospitable of continents, exposed to freezing weather conditions all year round, with only its own bodily resources as a means for survival. Largest of the penguins at almost a metre tall, the Emperor penguin has a spectacular face and neck colouring of black, white, yellow and reddish-gold.

They breed during the dark, savagely cold months of winter. The male of the breeding pair incubates the single egg for two months during the harshest part of the Antarctic weather, tucking the precious egg between its feet and a warm fold of abdominal skin. Hatching at the end of winter, the grey, downy chick faces bitter weather conditions. However, the doting Emperor penguin parents take turns to shelter the little chick on their feet, snug and sheltered in their brood pouches.

As it gets older the chick develops the ability to regulate its own body temperature whilst huddling with other chicks in nurseries on the ice. Exposed to shrieking winds and swirling snows, it waits in these communal crèches for its parents to bring it food. Fattening up on a rich gruel of regurgitated krill, squid and fish, the chick grows during the short spring and summer months, laying down a thick insulating layer of fat and later moulting into an adult coat of sleek, waterproof feathers that will ensure its survival in a hostile environment.

Impacts of Weather

The history of life on Earth is governed by extreme variations in the world’s climate. Driving global weather is the amount of heat that the Earth receives from the Sun. Solar energy output is not fixed at a constant. It fluctuates in cycles. When sunspot activity, areas seen as dark spots on the Sun, is at a maximum there is about 20 times more solar radiation than at other times and an absence of sunspots can signal a shift to climatic cooling. Human beings, as well as many other diverse species of the planet, have either profited or suffered from the effects of the resultant climatic changes.

During the 11th to 14th Centuries for instance, a period of unusually warm weather coincided with the Medieval Maximum in sunspot activity. Taking advantage of the fortuitous weather conditions, a Viking settlement was established in Greenland and over time it was able to prosper. Growing to a population of more than 3000 people, the colony consisted of farms scattered along the west coast of Greenland. These hardy Icelandic settlers traded sealskins, walrus ivory and Greenland falcon for iron, timber and luxury goods from Europe. They built a cathedral and established churches as well as an Augustinian monastery and a Benedictine nunnery. They also appointed a Bishop to oversee the community’s spiritual needs, whilst a national assembly supervised their secular affairs.

For a long time life was good for the settlers. Then weather patterns began to change. Sudden cooling, which began around 1325, caused harvests to fail and the population began to decline. As the cold weather increased its grip on the land, people died from malnutrition and other related causes and were buried in shallow ground as permafrost hardened the soil, making deeper burial impossible. With the onset of the cold weather the colony perished, never to be heard of again. This dramatic climatic shift occurred all over the world and is known as the Little Ice Age. Its effects were dramatic, long lasting and far-reaching.

The Little Ice Age continued for several centuries and coincided with two bleak periods known as the Spörer Minimum and the Maunder Minimum, when almost no sunspots were recorded on the surface of the Sun. In the 14th Century European summer droughts brought about famines, which caused whole populations to become so weakened from lack of food that many people became victims of the bubonic plague or “Black Death” of 1348. In the winter of 1422 and 1423 the Baltic Sea froze over. In England during the same period, blizzards howled and the Thames River in London regularly froze over, allowing Ice Fairs to be held on its solid icy surface in calmer weather. Then in the 1660s severe drought in England helped create the conditions that led to the spreading of the great plague and the Fire of London…