Susan George is president of the board of the Trans National Institute, an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable world. She spoke at the Seminar of the International Center for the promotion of Human Rights [CIPDH] and Unesco titled “Interreligious and inter cultural dialogue: consciences and climate change” in September in Buenos Aires. Find the video here.
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights has given me the honour of closing this seminar and I’m extremely grateful to the CIPDH for including me in this important event. We could compare this seminar to one part of the long road on a kind of modern pilgrimage; one stage of a difficult but infinitely rewarding journey. We’ve shared part of this road towards what we all hope will be a stable, sustainable world, fit for human habitation.
We hope this pilgrimage will lead to the success of the COP22 in Marrakech and then continue well beyond, until we reach that far-off goal of halting, then reversing climate change.
We know that the earth and all the myriad forms of life living on its land and under its seas are unlikely to withstand an increase in temperatures beyond 2 degrees. We have already reached more than one degree above the historical average and have been dangerously slow to take this road. Now it is crucial that we continue.
It strikes me that all religions have their pilgrimages, whether to Mecca, Saint Jacques de Compostelle, the place in India of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, the holy Hindu cities of India or the sacred sites of Jerusalem. The people who set out on these pilgrimages of faith are usually seeking forgiveness or salvation, enlightenment, healing or perhaps the granting of a special wish.
Our common pilgrimage is of a different nature. We do not seek personal blessings but salvation and hope for all peoples and for our home, the earth. All are under tremendous threat. We have embarked on this journey because we recognise that humanity has never been in greater danger than at this moment.
I try not to speak of “saving the planet”. Whatever human beings may do, the planet will continue to rotate on its axis and to orbit the sun as it has done for some four and a half billion years. Planet earth, which we think of as “ours”, is not really “ours” at all. It could perfectly well continue, utterly changed, to move along its prescribed path without us. Indeed, one could easily argue, as the so-called “deep ecologists” do, that the planet would be far better off without us, since they stress that we humans are the most predatory, wasteful and destructive species ever to have lived on earth in those four and a half billion years.
I am not here to promote the deep ecology view. I am here rather to introduce and define what I see as a new phenomenon in the history of humankind. I call it Geocide. Geocide is the collective action of a single species among millions of other species which is changing planet Earth to the point that it can become unrecognisable and unfit for life. This species is committing geocide against all components of nature, whether microscopic organisms, plants, animals or against itself, homo sapiens, humankind.
Homo sapiens has only existed for roughly 200,000 years. The time we’ve spent one this planet compared to its total age is infinitesimally short, just the tiniest sliver of geological time. It amounts to a mere 0.00004 percent of earth’s existence. And although any given species of plant or animal–vertebrate or invertebrate– tends to last on average about ten million years, our species seems determined to cause its own extinction, along with the rest of creation, long before it allotted time.
The death of an entire species is, geologically speaking, a common occurrence. Some extinctions are spectacular—think of the dinosaurs—most are quiet disappearances that leave few traces. Several species will have disappeared forever between the time we arrived and the time we leave this seminar. Scientists tell us that the “background rate” of extinction is approximately a thousand times greater than average and some have begun to call our era the “sixth great extinction.” The previous one, the Permian extinction, occurred about 250 million years ago. Some 95 percent of all species then on earth were wiped out, probably because of volcanic activity and warming causing huge releases of methane from the oceans.
Species disappear massively because they cannot adapt fast enough to rapidly changing conditions. Some, humans included, can adapt to a broad set of environments and wide divergence of temperature, from Siberia or Greenland to Pakistan or the Sahel, but no species is infinitely adaptable and all have their limits.
Ours is the only species among millions that has been gifted with language, tool-making skills, and above all consciousness, the capacity for imagination, thought and spirituality. And yet, the end of our own existence seems beyond our collective comprehension: too terrible and too definitive to contemplate. Extinction can’t possibly happen to us—we humans are too technologically brilliant, we can find the solution to any problem, we are the lords of creation and we cannot fail, much less disappear.
No one except a few eccentrics now denies that humans are capable of committing genocide; we have witnessed horrible episodes of mass murder in our own lifetimes and, because we have recognised this horror, we are able to name it. All languages have been obliged to add this terrible word, genocide, to their vocabularies.
Are we even capable of imagining, much less recognising that we are also capable of committing geocide? In my mind, this term goes beyond “ecocide” which so far seems limited to specific environments or geographic locations such as the razing of a forest or the massive pollution of, say, the Gulf of Mexico. Geocide is alas more general: it is a massive assault against nature of which we are only a part, against all earthly life and against Creation as well as the complete denial of human rights; I submit that this ultimate act of destruction is underway and that we need a name for it. Without a name, we have no concept and without a concept we cannot combat it. This is why I searched for a new word.
Every month, after I finish writing this climate dispatch, I think that this is the most dire, intense, mind-bending, heartbreaking dispatch I have written to date. And every month, for the more than two years that I've been writing them, I am correct.
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Susan Lozier is having a busy year. From May to September, her oceanographic team is making five research cruises across the North Atlantic, hauling up dozens of moored instruments that track currents far beneath the surface. The data they retrieve will be the first complete set documenting how North Atlantic waters are shifting — and should help solve the mystery of whether there is a long-term slowdown in ocean circulation. “We have a lot of people very interested in the data,” says Lozier, a physical oceanographer at Duke University.
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