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The early days of our extinction

(Graphic by Autumn Mariano)
(Graphic by Autumn Mariano)

The Wasatch Valley — if it hasn’t been made abundantly clear (forgive the pun) by the obscure atmosphere — is undergoing its annual, winter “airpocalypse.”

Nearly 5,000 mildly asphyxiated protestors gathered at Salt Lake City’s Capitol Hill to champion the movement to cleanse the atmosphere of toxic particulates. These poor, naïve souls, however, are forgetting a very important variable in the equation.

Utah now fosters nearly 3 million residents, which means that only 0.1 percent of the population bothered to attend; the rest drove their smog-spewing, single-occupancy vehicles to work and then proceeded to grouse about the noxious air. Day and night, the expanses of highways and networks of streets course with endless processions of vehicles, collectively retching out the villain from FernGully into the atmosphere.

A solution that local legislators proposed to deal with this issue was to police a restriction on the use of residential fireplaces. I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. With fossil fuels being vomited into the air at unprecedented rates, local powers have prohibited any home from being heated by the most natural, traditional means.

From now on, during the winter months, every home must be warmed by either electricity, derived from the burning of coal and oil, or natural gas, obtained through the devastating process of hydrofracking. The reason is simple — no one profits a single penny from a fireplace. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are lucrative beyond measure.

But the major-league, VIP player is oil.

There is no greater force driving the world economy than oil, and with the consumer population growing exponentially, those who control it tighten their political grasp with every barrel sold, so the prospect of alternative fuel will require enough resolve to challenge the wealthiest humans in existence. But the problem is much more grave than the deepening coffers of world’s wealthiest elite.

Since the late 19th century, humanity has been dredging up its own extinction from Earth’s bowels, burning the carrion of all the creatures that perished the last time the skies were so eclipsed with lethal filth.

It’s imperative to remember that the vast majority of life on Earth has been eradicated not just once before, but no less than five times. Well over 99 percent of all living things that ever crawled, slithered, swam, flew or pulsed through our planet’s biosphere have been snuffed out of existence. Life is fleeting in terms of eons.

The last time this occurred is known by scientists today as “The Great Dying,” which — with the help of a titanic  volcano the size Western Europe that blasted enough dust into the atmosphere to obstruct sunlight from reaching the surface and enough carbon dioxide to catalyze a dramatic heating of the climate — turned Earth into an uninhabitable, toxic wasteland for ages. The mass extinction presently underway, however, will culminate much more slowly, tormentingly, and the impending kill mechanism will have been triggered by humanity.

There is, according to some circles in geology, a sixth mass extinction lurking on the horizon — the Anthropocene epoch — which commenced when industry began exponentiating human populations, overexploiting resources and irreparably disrupting bionetworks — even irradiating layers of the planet’s rock.

But the greatest catalyst of this imminent catastrophe is wild, industrial exploitation of fossil fuel.

This period’s end will be marked (rather irrelevantly to us) when humanity, and nearly every other organism, may be found dead, fossilized and encased in our own ecological ineptitude — our ancient, organic remains, perhaps, replenishing the once vast, subterranean oceans of oil. The planet itself, however, will continue to whirl through the eons, all the better without us.

Until this pitiful finale of our species, our cosmological paradise will become more hostile with every passing day that industrial emissions darken the horizon, a shameful tragedy that might already be too late to reverse. Just what kind of drastic measures must be taken to spare our species this grim future? Just how long are we willing to wait until we act?

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