Review of Deep Future by Curt Stager (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) subtitled The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth 

One of my favourite Charlie Brown lines is when Linus says “Life is difficult” and Charlie says he’s got a new philosophy – “I only dread one day at a time”. That’s a bit black but it felt like an appropriate lead into this blog/review.  I wanted to talk about the future – and not the near future.  I’m talking what they call the “deep future”, i.e. up to 100,000 years out.

If you’ve read back on this site, you may recall a blog about future space exploration.  The thought of leaving the Earth and colonizing other liveable planets isn’t as far-fetched as many would think.  It won’t happen in my lifetime but given some technology developments it’s not out of the question. Try Michael Martin-Smith’s Man, Medicine and Space for some insights into what could be possible.

But that’s only one side to this story.  What’s the Earth itself really going to be like thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years from now?  Most of the futurist commentary, focus (and angst) at present is about the short-term future and the threat of climate change.  We’re in trouble this century if we don’t do something about CO2 and other gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere through our activities – or so we’re told. It’s certainly a debate and a fraught one with doom-mongers and nay-sayers battling away and somewhere in between scientists and planners trying to establish what’s really going to happen.  But it’s tended to be a commentary looking at things against a relatively short time frame – centuries at most.

Step in Curt Stager, whose book Deep Future, subtitled The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (St. Martin’s Press, 2011), doesn’t mention space at all. An ecologist and paleoclimatologist (whew!), Stager focuses on the science around what’s happening climate-wise and what the clues from the past tell us about what the world might look like in future. It’s mostly a book about what happens after global warming.

Science tomes like this can be pretty dense and hard going for non-scientists (or those of us with just a passing knowledge of these matters), but Stager’s writing is very readable – personal and accessible.  A reviewer rightly draws a comparison with Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and SteelCollapse – both great reads). And where he takes the reader is astonishing.

I won’t attempt to précis a very broad description of how the planet might change over the next 100,000 years – better to let the book speak for itself.  But there are some very interesting revelations. The one that flipped my lid was Stager’s assertion that curbing CO2 emissions was necessary and important (even if we already may be too late to get the sort of halt to global warming we need to), but that the result of having some impact on reducing global warming would almost certainly mean parts of the planet will be wiped out by the next Ice Age.  Or put another way: if we keep polluting at the rate we are, we probably stave off the next Ice Age (for a very big while at least).  And there’s no question an Ice Age is destructive.  The last one dropped a hard sheet of ice over most of North America and if there was any civilization there before that (and trees and animals) it pretty much ground everything off the face of the planet, though we’re talking a process that took (and takes) many
thousands of years of course.

That’s no excuse to stop polluting and emitting but here’s the moral dilemma about the time ranges we’re talking about.  Act now on CO2 emissions and we might reduce some of the known and expected effects such as weather change, ocean acidification (and the resultant destruction of creatures with calcium-containing bodies like shellfish), and sea level rises happening in the short term (next few hundred or thousand years).  Or don’t, and we beat off the next Ice Age (50,000 years away), open up the Arctic for trade and commercialization and get some possible plusses in other ways.   Denmark starts to slide under the sea but Greenland is actually green again (except with a huge fiord right down the centre of the world’s largest island) – interesting scenarios for Danish politics! Amazingly, then – inexorably – the whole process reverses; ice starts heading back to the poles and settlements in central Greenland for example get pushed south as their world turns white again.

Stager draws on the fossil and sediment records of many hundreds of thousands or years ago to make his case and the story of the planet past is fascinating with plenty of lessons for the future.  He even makes the startling proposition that humans in future might deliberately burn off coal reserves (the easiest source of CO2 to release) to beat back the ice ages, which happen not so much because of what’s going on on the planet but more how the planet is affected by its wobbly, eccentric journey around the Sun.

It’s also important to realise this stuff doesn’t happen quickly.  The seas won’t rise and wash your seaside villa away any time soon.

But while we ourselves and many generations ahead of us certainly won’t be around for some of the bigger changes, we have to assume humans will be – and more than likely they’ll carry our genes, so we do have a stake in the game.  But it’s definitely not a simple issue to resolve.