How Climate Collapse Is A Biological Process

Rubens’ (1577–1640) The Fall of Icarus (1636)

When lifeforms discovered solar energy, they went crazy. Photosynthetic algae bloomed all over the ocean. They spread and spread until their emissions turned the Earth into a giant snowball. In that sense, what’s happening to life on Earth is nothing new. In fact, the climate collapse today is an almost perfect parallel. In fact, it’s the same energy source. We both flew too close to the sun.

What we call fossil fuels are not dinosaurs. Oil is squashed phytoplankton, ie those same photosynthetic creatures that fucked up the thermostat last time. Natural gas is zooplankton, the slightly bigger creatures that ate them. Coal is compressed wood. Photosynthesis again. It’s all energy from the sun, buried under the Earth in a tentative balance which we have now disturbed. Today’s global warming is really the angry ghosts of those dead lifeforms, whose tombs we have disturbed.

On a smaller scale, this biological process happens all the time. If you put bacteria on a petri dish with some sugar it will eat and reproduce until it either runs out of food or chokes itself with waste products. Or both. Cute deer or rabbits completely trash their ecosystems without natural predators, as we see when invasive species are introduced in someplace that isn’t adapted to them.

When we talk about climate collapse we talk about ‘bad decisions’ or ‘bad politics’ or ‘bad leadership’, which is all true, but those are just symptoms. We really overestimate the ‘wise’ part of homo sapiens and completely ignore the fact that we’re just animals. Animals will eat and fuck and kill until they can’t do it anymore. The only thing truly ‘higher’ about us as a species is our appetite which, like god-like bacteria’s solar frenzy did once, is changing the entire climate.

We have to understand that this isn’t the first climate collapse in history. If you view us as descended from bacteria (which we are), this isn’t even the first climate crisis that we caused. Ever since life figured out how to get power from the sun this has been incredibly powerful. Like on some Dark Crystal, Ring Of Great Power level. If you view our situation as some fantasy movie, it’s like the ancient gods learned that this force was too powerful, and buried it deep underground. Then foolish gravediggers dug it up, lit it on fire, and used it with wild abandon. And then the same thing happened again, just in reverse. The climate the old gods had spent millions of years trying to balance was suddenly swung violently in reverse.

The great hubris of humans is not just that our intelligence did this (and can undo it). It’s the idea that these are our emissions at all. Technically non-photosynthetic life created photosynthesis, but no one remembers them at all. Anaerobic life lives only in the crevices of the oceans, or inside our guts. In the same way, we created a world of machines that run on fossil fuels, and the emissions really belong to them. Not us. Climate change doesn’t mark the geological rise of humans, we’re just animals, and this is our fall. Climate change marks the rise of the machines. This is, in fact, how biology usually goes about it.

Any time the climate changes this dramatically, it favors a new species who is much more adaptable. And our machines give a fuck about these emissions. They already populate the solar system and will function even if the Earth gets completely covered in smog. In long geological time, climate change is just the birth of this new species, choking out the old with its emissions.

We call them artificial and act like they’re our servants, but this is just human hubris again. The distinction between artificial and natural life is biologically immaterial. We can say we ‘make’ machines but then cells driven by bacterial mitochondria (with its own DNA) is every day ‘making’ us. Biologically there is no distinction like this. Life is always emerging out of other life, in forms that were impossible before.

This is why I say biology is a more explanatory way of understanding what’s going on than the petty politics of today. Politics is the delusion that A) we control our politics and B) that our politics control the planet. We can no more escape our drive to fill this petri dish than bacteria, and we actually have significantly less intelligence than them overall. After the Oxygen Holocaust, microbial life formed a cybernetic, effectively immortal system that controlled the weather. They had the powers we ascribed to ancient gods. They are the climate, and it is their sacred tombs that we defiled and disturbed. And so here we are.

At another biological tipping point. The second time life broke the planet. If you look at this through the narrow lens of human politics this all seems incomprehensible, but if you zoom out to deep history and biology, it’s almost inevitable. Such is the eternal law. Fuck around and find out. Don’t fly too close to the sun. Just ask the anaerobic life that had to retreat to our guts and butts after shiny new aerobic life came out. Any species’ time on top is just a fart in the wind. Biology has no favorites. With and then without you, life goes on.