Just after Christmas Day, 2004, the Earth experienced one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history (a 9.0) under the waters of the Indian Ocean. We also witnessed a barrage of unusual hurricanes during the summer of 2004 off the coast of Florida and across the South Atlantic. And as I write this, a record blizzard is burying Boston under 40 - 50 inches of snow. Freak weather and natural disasters suddenly seems to be the norm.
Simultaneously, we're dealing with superbugs in our nation's hospitals that are resistant to all known antibiotics. On the other side of the globe in Vietnam, we're witnessing a frightening progression in the spread of the H1N1 bird flu virus. It has now spread to 232 communes in 23 cities.
Do the math on this one:
Jan 7: 25 communities infected
Jan 17: 112 communities infected
Jan 19: 160 communities infected
Jan 20: 179 communities infected
Jan 21: 232 communities infected
These are actual statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam.
And that's not the end of the weirdness. Twenty percent of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed. The fish in the open ocean are poisoned with mercury to such levels that some fish contain twenty times the acceptable limit of mercury, according to EPA standards.
While all this is going on, we still have infectious diseases coming out of Zaire, Africa, mutating in South East Asia and threatening humanity. Ebola, for example.
What's going on here? What's happening to our planet? The answer is that humanity has not yet learned how to live in harmony with nature. And much that we're seeing today in terms of natural disasters, outbreaks, superbugs, and the destruction of ecosystems is a direct result of mankind's inability or unwillingness to respect nature.
Some people characterize this as "Nature's Revenge." They say nature is getting back at man and is planning to wipe out humanity to return to its own natural balance. Personally I don't attribute such vengeance to nature; nature isn't vengeful. It is, however, quite blunt... it can also be interpreted as cruel. A tiger chasing down a gazelle on the plains of Africa is savage and cruel, and yet it is part of the natural balance, the ecosystem that ultimately supports the populations of both gazelles and tigers.
It's not that nature intends to punish humanity, it's just that humanity's actions create natural effects. This is a simple cause and effect chain: if we continue to destroy the environment and terrorize the ecosystems of this planet, there are going to be consequences. Those consequences will, one way or another, ultimately bring the planet back into balance. It is humanity's decision whether that balance will include the human race.
Nature is resilient, but even it cannot be continually poisoned in the way it is being poisoned today by the actions of human beings. Should we, as the human race, fail to heed the warnings we're seeing right now, I fear that the destructive effects will escalate.
Among all the potential side effects such as bizarre weather patterns, the wiping out of non-diverse genetically engineered crops, and the destruction of ecosystems on both land and water, I think the worst effect is probably going to be the emergence of deadly contagious diseases. They exist already, of course: we have SARS, AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, tuberculosis, encephalitis, meningitis, malaria, smallpox and influenza in all its various strains. When the Earth is in a healthy ecosystem balance, these diseases tend to be kept under control. But now, as we are wounding the planet, we are directly encouraging a situation in which these agents could be unleashed upon the human population by nature itself. Forget about bioterrorists -- nature is the biggest threat to human life as we know it on this planet, simply because modern human life is largely a threat to nature. Unless we learn from our lessons and find a way to honor and respect the very planet that has given us life, this planet will take it away from us.
In response to all this, you might say, "How can mankind affect weather patterns and encourage natural disasters?" It's easy: global dimming. Since the industrial revolution, we've thrown more particulate matter into the atmosphere than the largest volcanoes in history. The effect? Global dimming. Less light is reaching the surface of the planet today than at any time since the last great volcanic blowout. That, in turn, affects ocean water temperature, which alters water currents, which alters water evaporation, which alters weather patterns, which leads to unnatural variation in those weather patterns (i.e. natural disasters).
And that's just the global dimming effect. It doesn't even count how we're poisoning rivers and streams, obliterating the rainforest, destroying ocean ecosystems, and now we're even poisoning our own water supplies with traces of prescription drugs. How stupid is that? We even poison ourselves. So much for "advanced civilization."
We've done it to ourselves. And the more I learn about this subject and the long-term viability of societies, I'm increasingly convinced that we are headed down a path of certain self-destruction. Our behavior is simply not sustainable. Either we learn how to respect nature, or we'll be wiped out and nature will make the adjustments for us. Because without the impact of humanity, the planet would heal itself in a mere 5,000 years, probably. And that's the blink of an eye in the lifetime of our planet. Earth can shrug off humanity without breaking a sweat.