the life support systems of planet earth are failing 2

The Life Support Systems of Planet Earth Are Failing

By Max Wilbert

In medicine, shock refers to an extremely serious condition of inadequate blood perfusion. Shock is most often caused by heart problems, severe infections, allergic reaction, massive blood loss, overdose, or spinal cord injury.

Of the 1.2 million people who show up to U.S. emergency rooms with signs and symptoms of shock each year, between 20% and 50% of them die.

Shock can be understood to progress through two broad phases: compensatory (phase 1) and de-compensatory (phase 2). In compensatory shock, the body can “compensate” for the emergency by adjusting blood pressure, diverting resources from the extremities, and using other internal mechanisms.

Victims in compensatory shock may seem, at first glance, to be doing relatively well. They may be lucid and able to talk clearly. But medical professionals know that this is an illusion. Without treatment, they are likely to worsen quickly. Careful assessment of vital signs and mechanism of injury/history of present illness (MOI/HPI) will show that this person is in an extremely perilous situation.

If left untreated or if their injury is series, they will soon enter the second phase of shock: de-compensatory. In this stage, the body can no longer compensate for the underlying issue. As blood and oxygen circulation collapses, cellular metabolism begins to fail. Our bodies begin to die, cell by cell. Vital organs fail one after another. The damage becomes irreversible. Death is nearly certain.

Planetary Ecology and Shock

Like our own lives, life on this planet depends on a precarious balance: the stability of climate, oceanic pH, nitrogen cycles, soil erosion and formation, and populations of beings at the basis of the tropic cascade such as bacteria, plankton and other photosynthesizers, and insects provides the foundation on which the entire biosphere rests.

These major life-support systems of the biosphere function similarly to human organs, each fulfilling a different need for life to continue as we know it. Due to the predations of industrial civilization, these “planetary organs” are in a dire state.

Insect populations are collapsing. Plankton populations are collapsing. Bird populations are collapsing. Coral reefs are collapsing. Fish populations are collapsing. Most native forests have been destroyed and those who remain are at risk of dying due to drought and heat stress over the next 50 years.

Soil erosion due to agriculture and overgrazing has decimated carbon storage across large portions of the earth’s surface and released this to the atmosphere. The cryosphere (the portion of our planet’s water frozen in ice) is rapidly melting. Thawing permafrost in the far north is releasing methane emissions to the atmosphere. The assaults go on and on.

When a human being goes into shock, the body compensates by shunting blood from the extremities towards the more vital internal organs. The same process is playing out across this planet. Like a human being, the natural world attempts to maintain its own stability. As carbon pollution chokes the atmosphere, for example, plants increase their growth rate, which should capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soils and trees trunks, maintaining homeostasis. This is the delicate balance of geological and biological feedbacks that has made Earth an Eden for millions of species over millions of years.

That balance has been shattered by the explosion in agriculture, logging, and fossil fuel burning. Plants can no longer compensate, and “global greening” has been overwhelmed. Instead, we are entering a period of “global browning” as vast areas of vegetation begin to die from sustained drought and climatic changes.

The ecology of this planet is entering a state of de-compensatory shock.

Abundant Cheap Energy Allows Us To Ignore Reality

People living in wealthy nations are largely insulated from ecological collapse because of the availability of cheap energy.

They can ignore the collapse of fish populations since corporations send vast trawlers to remote oceans to vacuum up the last remaining reserves of wild fish. They can ignore the collapse of forests because energy-intensive industrial logging brings wood products from Oregon and Alaska and Indonesia to the world market. They can ignore water shortages because vast amounts of energy are used to pump entire rivers dry to feed growing cities.

Our ability to lie to ourselves, and to each other, is one of our society’s defining features. The urge to deny that anything is wrong is overwhelming. The scale of the immanent catastrophe, which has truly already arrived, is unthinkable. As with a patient in compensatory shock, so with the planet. Ignorance is bliss.

This won’t last. Ignorance is no protection against a burning planet, only against psychological wounds, and only in the short term. We are children of this living world. Our lungs are the oysters of this atmosphere, filtering out pollutants and capturing them inside our delicate tissues. We are permeable creatures, absorbing each chemical toxin industry produces. Like mites living on the surface of our skin, when the supraorganism begins to die, those who are dependent upon it are not long for this world.

What will a person do when they are confronted with the imminent death of themselves, of a loved one, of their civilization, of their biosphere? Deny that it is happening? Reject the science and the evidence of their own eyes? Lash out angrily against those who speak the truth? Try to bargain with reality? Retreat into depression?

These responses are all familiar to both the E.R. doctor and the Earth defender, and increasingly describe global politics. Denial and anger are the defining characteristics of the rising authoritarian tide. Modi, Putin, Trump, Erdoğan, and Bolsonaro are the figureheads of this death cult; there are hundreds of millions behind them.

Bargaining is the primary strategy of the liberals. As the biosphere bleeds from a million clearcuts and chokes on a toxic mixture of industrial chemicals and greenhouse gases, they promote so-called “solutions” that are no different from the status quo. Their fantasies of green energy, sustainable capitalism, and electric vehicles allow them to justify a lie that will kill the world: that they can have “normality”—modern, high-energy way of life—and a living planet at the same time.

Their plans are not even the equivalent of bandaging a bleeding planet. They are harmful in their own right—the equivalent of stabbing the victim elsewhere and claiming that since the wounds aren’t quite as deep, they are actually helping. This is the good-cop, bad-cop routine of modern politics.

That most people are simply depressed and apathetic, then, is no surprise. The normal functioning of industrial civilization is rapidly murdering life on this planet and destroying the capacity to support future life, and in the process immiserating billions of human beings. Anyone who is carefully watching the vital signs of this planet knows that the prognosis is not good.

Righteous anger is fitting response to this situation, but denial has no place now. Bargaining is worse than useless. And depression is understandable, but when paired with inaction it is not excusable. Only by accepting the reality of the situation can we begin to discuss meaningful action.

The reality is that the life support systems of our home, Earth, are failing. Without intervention, the organs of this planet will falter and die. Industrial civilization has shown itself to be incompatible with life. So the path forward is clear. Like open veins, the world’s pipelines must be closed off. The mining industry, opening great sores on the Earth’s surface, must be stopped and the land allowed to scab over. The abrasion that is industrial agriculture must be halted, and the soil bandaged with ecology’s first responders—those plants derisively called “weeds”—and eventually, replaced with forests and grasslands once again. The cancerous factories and toxic industry belching and circulating poisons around the planet must yield to the scalpel. The destruction must be halted, and the land must be allowed to heal.

And humans must find a way to live within the ecological limits of this planet, rather than constantly finding new ways to transgress them. If all you have ever known is how to live in a culture that is destroying the planet, this will take humility, and sacrifice, and a willingness to learn.

The process of ecological collapse has been accelerating for many years. It will not be reversed easily. Many wonders of the natural world are already gone—the billions of passenger pigeons, and the teeming flocks of Great auks. But there are many who remain: blue whales, redwood forests, loggerhead turtles, coral reefs.

Our task as a generation is to manage the coming collapse by accelerating the dismantling and destruction of the systems that must end (capitalism, industrial civilization, the fossil fuel and mining economy, industrial agriculture, etc.). At the same time, we most slow, halt, and reversing the collapse of forests, grasslands, soils, the carbon cycle, and the rest of the living world. And in the midst of all this, we must do our best to build human communities based in sustainability and human rights. Any of these elements in isolation leads to a bleak future. Only in combination do they represent some hope.

When we accept what is happening, the path forward becomes clear. Now we must gather our will and our community and get to work.


Max Wilbert is a third-generation dissident who came of age in post-WTO Seattle. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies, will be released in early 2021.

7 thoughts on “The Life Support Systems of Planet Earth Are Failing”

  1. I agree, generally, but no solution is actually presented. You have to get the attention of a large majority of the earth’s population in order to start to turn things around, and you must have their cooperation in order to proceed with the decreasing food supply and the slow depopulation of humankind.

  2. Any of us who read the news could add depressing facts to Max’s essay.

    Mine for the day is this: A U.N. report last week said that our electronic waste alone (discarded phones, computers, TVs, etc.) rose to 53.6 million metric tons last year, and is headed toward 74 million tons by 2030. That’s the equivalent of 350 Queen Mary 2 cruise ships today, or 483 of them in 10 years. Only 16% of the precious metals in this mess (gold, platinum, copper, etc.) are recyled. The rest — worth $57 billion a year — are dumped.

    When your civilization deliberately throws away $57 billion a year in rare and diminishing recyclables, you know that survival isn’t even a goal. The apparent long-term plan of modern civilization is just to die with money in the bank.

    The good news (relatively speaking) is this: With consumption, population, and waste all growing at 15%-40% per decade, the train is going to crash fairly soon. We face a 40% global water shortage by 2030, an electricity shortage by 2040, a food crisis by 2050, and the death of 2-3 billion people by 2070, as their home countries become unlivable. And when population or production stops growing, all growth stops, and capitalism collapses.

    This could happen within a decade, is probable in 30 years, and a certainty within 50. Even if we fail to accelerate the collapse, it will happen on its own. And when it does, the deep green-minded minority must be ready to lead us into a survivable and sustainable future.

    I’m not optimistic. Too many things could happen that are not survivable (polar methane eruptions, a resource war that turns nuclear, a deforeststion tipping point, etc.). And we know that if all species had the vote, humans would be extinct already.

    But just in case we survive, we have a moral duty to make the best of a catastrophic situation. Humans made this mess, and we have a responsibility to minimize the damage.

    “Planet of the Humans” made a huge contribution toward exposing the myth of industrial “progress.” Our job is to make the knowledgeable minority larger, and the possibility of a livable future more achievable.

  3. Max, the scenario you build is compelling because the evidence of Earth system’s collapse is now overwhelming. I also agree with Clem that without an even more compelling vision of a future, which is the opposite of the obscenities of the Anthropocene, there will be nothing but more solastalgia, paralysis and global dread. I have created the concept of the Symbiocene as the mirror image of the Anthropocene. It offers a tougher set of standards than ‘sustainability’ (e.g., I see the current set of renewable energy technologies as transitions to genuinely pollution- and exploitation-free energy). A vision of the future that is life-affirming (all life) is what humans need to emotionally engage with before positive change will occur. I have published more detail on these issues in book and article forms.

  4. The solution that Clem seeks is major mental and spiritual evolution of the human race, and it had better happen very soon. If people continue to want to prioritize themselves and their conveniences over the Earth and all other life on it, then the destruction by human overconsumption & overpopulation will continue apace until the system crashes, and whatever the result of that is occurs.

    The positive side of this is that by focusing on expanding our consciousness instead of unnaturally and very harmfully manipulating the physical/natural world, humans could be the shining light on this planet and could possibly evolve beyond corporeal life (a very long-term goal that would take millions of years if it’s even possible). (Instead, humans fit the medical definition of being a cancerous tumor on the planet as it stands now.) So it’s humans’ choice, though either everyone or a substantial majority has to make the right choice if it’s going to happen. Right now, the “right choice” means working toward feeling oneness with all life, shedding your material desires, and acting on these thoughts & feelings by doing things like living less harmfully (no more than one child per family, giving up things like cars and cell phones, for example). We clearly need large societal and systemic changes, but the foundation of those changes needs to be individual changes or the large ones won’t happen.

  5. While I very much appreciate and applaud the efforts of those involved in the “sustainable” movement, what I see lacking is the greater macro philosophy of who and what WE are in relation to the soil, plants, animals and even unto ourselves.
    Humans are tropical primates, and their territory, even as migratory creatures, would extend no greater than roughly 45 degrees north and south. Just as all other creatures, humans have a body that is perfectly formed for their species specific diet. Anatomy, physiology and biology alone leave no doubt that we are frugivores. If you ignore this element of our place in the ecosystem you are missing the foundational base.
    Even “eco-friendly” agriculture requires precipitous use of metals, plastics, chemicals, animal feces and petroleum fuel. There is nothing regenerative about these things which only furthers the destruction of the planetary life systems, and yet I can still appreciate the techniques of accelerated soil generation. There are far less destructive means of producing the same results though. Google food forest or ecovillage to see this in action.
    The final piece of the puzzle is what time we live in, meaning how much time is left for society (notice I didn’t say humans). We are already past overshoot, which by the way is highly recommended reading…
    Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
    Book by William R. Catton Jr.
    A deeper look into overshoot (or the post-doom era) is available on Youtube as a fairly well thought out series of interviews. That series is called post-doom, and although the name sounds apocalyptic it actually refers to the positive changes that will soon occur. By the way, to give you a shortcut on their conclusions, society WILL collapse within 10-20 years. It’s just math.
    Sadly though, even this series of highly intelligent guests never comes to the WHO we are as described earlier. Few also understand that reciprocity alone will never be enough to actually become regenerative as a species again. Imagine this scenario described by Charles Eisenstein: When raising your son, do you think to yourself “I better take care of my son or he won’t take care of me when I’m old.”? Of course not. You take care of your son because you love him! Only from a place of love for where we live can we be accepted back into the natural order of coexistence.
    Currently we are living in a world of highly interdependent and intensely specialized disciplines, but there is little cross-sharing of notes. I went on the path of the synthesizers. That is, those who study a broad course of disciplines and synthesize a coherent and cohesive picture of how the proverbial puzzle pieces come together in a unified ecocentrism. I’m not a botanist, medical doctor, politician, scientist, historian, archaeologist, economist, mathematician or any other specialized cog in the wheel of society, but I’ve been blessed to absorb the works of these and many other disciplines. To society, which loves the Appeal to Authority logical fallacy, I am nothing. To my growing tribe though, I am a brother. May peace and understanding grow in all of us.

  6. @David P Mayton
    In response to your query about who humans are: Humans’ only legitimate purpose on this planet is to expand their consciousness, as I mentioned in my previous post. Humans are grossly physically inferior to other similar-sized mammals, and are not necessary in any ecosystem. The best way for humans to relate to the physical/natural world is to “look but don’t touch.” All human actions beyond acquiring basic necessities (basically food & water) are very harmful to the natural environment and all that lives there.

    As to being tropical animals, I agree. But the tropics only extend to 23 and 1/2 degrees latitude, not 45. People do harm just by existing outside the tropics, because they need clothing and some form of heat to do so. But that said, humans had reached a decent ecological balance even at higher latitudes once they stopped killing every animal they saw after moving out of Africa 60-90,000 years ago, until they started using agriculture 10-12,000 years ago. It’s agriculture itself that’s the problem; the industrial aspects of it that you mentioned just make it worse.

    BTW, “sustainable” is a BS propaganda term intended to make people think that harmful activities are not so. The goal is living in proper ecological balance with the Earth, your ecosystem, and your habitat, not whether you calculate your lifestyle and activities to be “sustainable.”

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