Appetite for destruction
In his new book, <i>The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?</i>, author Peter Ward argues Mother Nature has a mean streak.
Wed, Jun 17 2009 at 5:38 AM
Environmentalists have advanced the notion that nature is a self–regulating closed loop, as sure as salmon swim to the ocean. Portraying the planet as possessing a finely-tuned natural cycle, which if not for human meddling, everything would be hunky-dory. Such thinking is moral ballast for the environmental movement and urgent appeals for global action to curb C02 emissions.
Not so contends renowned biologist Peter Ward, a professor at the University of Washington. Over the course of his academic career he’s been a student of Earth’s great disasters and subsequent mass extinctions. And contrary to popular opinion Ward argues life itself is toxic.
The planet’s destructive habits are the subject of his provocatively titled new book, The Medea Hypotheses: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? The book is named after the ultimate bad mother, the wicked sorceress of Greek mythology who poisoned her own children.
In between classroom lectures, Ward has been testing his hypothesis before curious and somewhat skeptical crowds in Seattle, San Diego and Houston, who’ve become accustomed to a more benevolent view of nature than Ward’s dark green musings. On campus, he’s acquired the nickname “Dr. Death,” owing to the multiple scenarios in which he can methodically describe the planet’s near demise.
In doing so, Ward sets out to debunk the widely accepted ideas forwarded by deep thinking environmentalist James Lovelock as wishful thinking and ultimately irresponsible. It’s a task that he seems to relish. “Environmentalists really do hate me,” Ward candidly tells MNN.
Why? In 128 dense and tightly reasoned pages Ward challenges the belief that the earth’s biosphere runs on a positive feedback system. Having evolved from a series of complex and interlocking living organisms capable of regulating itself. It’s an idea first popularized by James Lovelock during the 1970s under the rubric of the Gaia hypotheses, which has subsequently gained legions of fans and admirers in the ensuing decades that followed.
Like any good scientist, he provides ample evidence to support his claims. Buried deep inside the fossil record are signs of a planet out of synch, which led to a series of environmental cataclysms. Ward argues that Earth, like Medea, is one messed up mother prone to destructive acts.
Ward believes the planet’s destructive ways can be attributed to a thermostat on the fritz, involving a complex set of interactions between oceans, the atmosphere, and land. Rather than a harmonious balance, he argues, the planet swings between boom- and -bust cycles with durations of relative calm arcing over extended periods of time.
Moreover, the human race isn’t the only life form capable of provoking a planet-wide collapse. Prior mass extinctions were the handy work of microbes and plants. “They were major screw-ups of blind evolutionary events,” says Ward.
At various times throughout prehistory the planet could have just as easily been called Snowball Earth, or the Mouldering Microbe Heap, all owing to a proliferation of life in relentless competition. According to Ward, planetary cycles believed to establish equilibrium actually run in reverse; more heat generates more heat and cold generates more cold leading to catastrophic consequences.
In the Medean version of the world, even plants are not to be trusted. Ward posits a riot of greenery was the mechanism behind two prehistoric events when ice caps encircled the globe 700 million and 2.3 billion years ago. Reverse incidents of global warming caused plant life to suck so much of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as to cause a steep drop in temperature.
Considering his gloomy outlook Ward does offer of glimmer of hope. He believes humans are as much a part of the solution as they are a part of Earth’s current woes. If humankind plans to stave off its own pending execution, bold action will need to be taken. There will be no quick and easy fixes to tackling the problem of global warming.
If Ward is to be admired, it’s for the number of opponents he’s assembled. Creationists, global warming skeptics, environmentalists have all taken exception to various aspects of his published work over the years. He’s willing to accept the challenge. “I’m raising up this piñata,” he says. “Everyone is not only welcome but encouraged to take a whack at it with scientific data.”
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