CCNet 16/2003 -  14 February 2003 2003

"One panelist advocated government secrecy if a warning would come
too late and make no difference in the outcome. "If you can't do anything
about a warning, then there is no point in issuing a warning at all,"
contended Geoffrey Sommer, of the Rand Corp., Santa Monica, California.
"If an extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the
populace is bliss."
--Michael Woods, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 14 February 2003

"If we were to discover a monster rock I'd want to know. It's not up
to a bureaucrat or public policy maker to decide."
--Lee Clarke, Rutgers University

    Reuters, 14 February 2003

    UPI, 13 February 2003

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 14 February 2003

    Simon Mansfield <>


    Michael Paine <>

(7) THE COMET OF 1618
    Clark Whelton <>

    Andrew Glikson <>

    The Guardian, 14 February 2003


>From Reuters, 14 February 2003;jsessionid=LXD3JRWQTQQ52CRBAELCFEY?type=topNews&storyID=2227542

By Judith Crosson

DENVER (Reuters) - Do you want the good news or the bad news first? The good
news is that of 650 massive asteroids hurtling close enough to Earth to
cause concern (sic), not one is actually headed here, scientists say.

The bad news is that there are another 400 suspected asteroids of at least
the size of a mountain out there whose orbits scientists have not yet
figured out (sic).

"It's a technical triumph," David Morrison, a scientist at the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration, said of the Spaceguard Survey, which
costs about $3.5 million (2.16 million pounds) a year.

A decade ago scientists started raising a "red flag" about the danger of
Earth being slammed by a heavenly body.

The tricky part about studying asteroids and comets is that the likelihood
of hitting Earth is very slight, but the damage if it did would be
catastrophic. Scientists call this a "low probability-high consequence"

"We're finding almost one a day," Morrison said. "I can tell you of the 650
found so far not one poses a risk," Morrison told reporters at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

The monitoring program was undertaken by a mandate from Congress to track 90
percent of the "near-Earth" objects larger than one km or 0.6 mile in
diameter, which constitute the greatest hazard, by 2008. The monitoring area
extends outward from the Earth's orbit at a distance of 200 million
kilometres or 120 million miles

An asteroid the size of one kilometre hits Earth a few times every million
years and causes regional calamity (sic). One nearly 5-km hits once every 10
million years and would be catastrophic.


A question arises whether the public should be told if an asteroid is
detected and headed for Earth, Geoffrey Sommer, an economist at the Rand
Corp., said, citing the panic that could be spread.

But Lee Clarke, a sociologist at Rutgers University, said people do not
panic as much as might be thought, as evidenced by terminally ill patients
who accept their fate calmly.

"If we were to discover a monster rock I'd want to know. It's not up to a
bureaucrat or public policy maker to decide," Clarke said.

A 3-km asteroid would destroy civilisation, although that would not
necessarily mean the end of the human race, Clark Chapman, an astronomer
with Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said after the

"First it would destroy agriculture," he said, noting that dust arising from
the impact would dim the sun for about six months. "Maybe one billion people
would die."

NASA's Morrison said no decisions have been made about which government
agency would deal with asteroid issues.

Copyright 2003, Reuters


>From UPI, 13 February 2003

By Phil Berardelli
UPI Deputy Science and Technology Editor

DENVER, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Of about 650 large, near-Earth asteroids that have
been identified and tracked so far, none poses a direct threat to the planet
within the next century or two, astronomers reported Thursday.

However, the astronomers added, those objects represent only about 60
percent of the largest bodies estimated to have the potential to strike the
planet, and comets also comprise a threat that will remain unquantifiable
for some time to come.

"We just don't know about the (450 or so other large bodies) and we know
nothing about the small ones," said David Morrison, senior scientist at
NASA's Astrobiology Institute at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View,

However, Morrison said, the current assessment represents substantial
progress in identifying potentially dangerous near-Earth objects -- of which
a new one is found almost once a day -- over what was known a decade ago,
when the program called the Spaceguard survey was begun. He delivered his
remarks at a panel discussion on near-Earth asteroids at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting.

Spaceguard is a 25-year effort to identify and track objects, both asteroids
and what are called short-period comets, that potentially endanger Earth.
The first part of the effort requires identifying objects that have a
diameter of about 1 kilometer (about 0.62 mile) or greater. Objects of that
size could strike Earth with a force to wipe out most of civilization.

Future surveys could be designed to locate objects as small as about 50
meters (160 feet) in diameter, such as the one that struck the Tunguska area
of Siberia in 1908 and leveled a circular area nearly 40 kilometers (25
miles) in diameter. Such objects strike Earth about once every thousand

Lee Clarke, a sociologist with Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey,
said perhaps the most challenging problem in the search for dangerous
objects is how to communicate prospective events to the public -- an
application he and the other panels said has relevance to America's current
heightened state of alert. He urged government officials to discount the
possibility of mass panic because of possible acts of terror.

"Probably the single most important reason there weren't more World Trade
Center fatalities (during the attack of Sept. 11, 2001) was because people
did not panic," Clarke said. "If you give people specific and credible
warnings, they will follow the instructions," he added. "Just upping the
(alert) level to orange and telling people to buy plastic is not effective,"
he said, referring to recent instructions to citizens in certain U.S. cities
to prepare for a possible chemical or biological attack.

Clarke cited the examples of fire drills held regularly in every school
building, the hurricane evacuation plans issued in coastal areas and,
historically, the air raid alerts given to citizens of London during the
Blitz in World War II.

Just as in dealing with terror, authorities responsible for asteroid impact
warnings would face twin dilemmas, Clarke continued. They would have to
communicate the risks of a catastrophe and then, perhaps, react to its
aftermath. However, they would face an additional problem: the possibility
of a very long lead time.

"Who is going to think it through if we have (to wait) 200 years?" Clarke

Geoff Sommer, a policy analyst with the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica,
Calif., said a continuing problem associated with the search for dangerous
objects is the challenge of communicating just the right amount of warning.

"We've already had several asteroid scares," Sommer said, referring to news
reports over the past couple of years involving possible impacts, arriving
anywhere from 18 years to more than 100. "We need to counteract the social
costs of warning," he added.

Clark Chapman, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute
in Boulder, Colo., described how, given enough warning, the technology
already exists to nudge an errant asteroid out of its collision course with

The process would involve sending a spacecraft to rendezvous with the object
as long before a potential impact as possible. Then, using rocket engines or
other, non-explosive means, the craft would disrupt the asteroid's orbital
path just enough to avoid disaster. At least, Chapman said, that is the
possibility for asteroids.

"Comets are another story," he said, explaining the icy blobs originate in
the outer solar system where they are extremely difficult to detect. Instead
of years or even decades of warning, as with the asteroids that have been
detected, comets travel at a much higher velocity, and new ones would be
detected only months ahead, at best.

Copyright 2001-2003 United Press International


>From Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 14 February 2003

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

DENVER -- If the script for any future terrorist attacks play true, there
will be none of the mass panic shown in disaster films, with people
stampeding hysterically and trampling their own mothers.

More than 50 years of research on human behavior contradict "the panic
myth," according to Lee Clarke of Rutgers University, an international
authority on civil defense and community responses to disaster.

Research shows that people behave in catastrophes much like they do in
ordinary life -- helping those nearby first before they help themselves,
Clarke said. Empathy continues in the aftermath, with people cooperating to
rebuild and recover emotionally.

"We have five decades of research on all kinds of disasters -- earthquakes,
tornadoes, and airplane crashes. People rarely lose control," Clarke said,
noting that human nature tends to shine brightest in adversity.

"Policymakers have yet to accept this. People are quite capable of following
plans, even in the face of extreme calamities, but such plans must be

Clarke spoke yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for
the Advancement of Science, held this year in Denver. Founded in 1848, AAAS
is the world's biggest general scientific organization with 134,000 members
and affiliated groups representing 10 million scientists.

Thousands have gathered for the meeting, which will include hundreds of
reports on new developments in everything from astronomy to zoology.

Clarke was among a panel of scientists considering how the government should
plan for mass evacuations in case of an imminent asteroid impact.

Science advisers from the 30 member nations of the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development are considering contingency plans, as well.
Among them are evacuation of shoreline areas, since a touchdown in water
could create a huge tidal wave.

One panelist advocated government secrecy if a warning would come too late
and make no difference in the outcome. "If you can't do anything about a
warning, then there is no point in issuing a warning at all," contended
Geoffrey Sommer, of the Rand Corp., Santa Monica, California. "If an
extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the populace is

Clarke took a different tack. He said the evidence against the panic myth
includes observations of how people behaved in the Sept. 11 World Trade
Center attack, the atomic bombing of Japanese cities in World War II,
nightclub fires, and other incidents. People escaping the World Trade
Center, for instance, did not become hysterical or disregard the needs of
others. They evacuated in an orderly fashion and often helped each other.

Clarke cautioned, however, that responses to future catastrophes would
depend on individual circumstances, including how politicians, building
managers, and other officials handle the situation. In an effort to avoid
panic, for instance, officials may resort to placating language --
"everything is under control" -- hide information or issue statements that
are obviously untrue or deceptive. The public usually responds well to bad
news, so long as they regard authorities as trustworthy.

Copyright 2003, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MODERATOR'S NOTE: I am somewhat surprised about Geoff Sommer's unfamilar
thinking. Not only is his hypothetical scenario (the identification of an
'inevitable extinction-level impact') extremely unrealistic; it is also
nonsensical to assume that there could ever be a cover-up of observational
information (and calculations) that is freely available to professional and
amateur astronomers around the world. Contemplating (or advocating) such a
strategy is not only irrational but risks to undermine the trustworthiness
of the NEO community. The negative social cost of such thinking is
incomparable to that of an accidental (and in some cases even unavoidable)
asteroid scare. BJP


>From Simon Mansfield <>

Communications and External Relations Division
Public Affairs Office

CONTACT:  James Rickman, 505-665-9203,  03-017
EMBARGOED Until 8:30 a.m. Friday, Feb. 14, 2003

DENVER, Feb. 14, 2003 - A Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher is
helping to provide an extra measure of confidence in an international array
of listening posts that keep an ear out for clandestine nuclear weapons

Doug ReVelle of Los Alamos' Atmospheric, Climate and Environmental Dynamics
Group today presented calculations showing the number of false alarms in
international monitoring stations that can be attributed to meteors. ReVelle
presented his findings at the American Association for the Advancement of
Science's annual meeting in Denver.

ReVelle and his Los Alamos colleagues operate a series of stations that
listen for infrasonic signals - very low frequency sound waves that lie
below the range of normal human hearing. The stations are part of an
international monitoring system that is used to detect, among other things,
rogue atomic tests.  Such tests create infrasonic signals, and researchers
can analyze data from the stations to pinpoint the location and even the
magnitude of a clandestine blast.

But incoming meteors also create infrasonic signals. When a meteor enters
the atmosphere and continues traveling through it, it creates a pressure
wave - the infrasonic signal. The pressure wave is akin to a pressure wave
created by an explosion. Because of this, ReVelle often discusses meteor
size in terms of explosive yield:  the larger the yield, the greater the
diameter of the meteor.

Recently, ReVelle teamed up with researchers from Sandia National
Laboratories, the University of Western Ontario, ET Space Systems and U.S.
Space Command and looked at sound and light signatures from large meteors
that had entered the atmosphere during the last eight years. From these
data, the researchers were able to more precisely calculate the size and
energy of incoming meteors.

In addition, ReVelle was able to calculate the frequency of meteor
encounters with the atmosphere.  A meteor that's 100 feet in diameter - with
the energy equivalency of a one-megaton explosion - enters the atmosphere
about every 100 years. But smaller meteors enter more frequently.

ReVelle looked at the number of meteors in the one-kiloton energy range (or
meteors just under 10 feet in diameter) to determine the number of false
alarms that might be seen on international monitoring stations worldwide.
Based on his calculations, ReVelle found that individual monitoring stations
would see, on the average, about five meteor signals a year.

"This research will help give added confidence to the international
monitoring system," ReVelle said. Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated
by the University of California for the National Nuclear Security
Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy and works in
partnership with NNSA's Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories
to support NNSA in its mission. Los Alamos enhances global security by
ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile,
developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction,
and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health
and national security concerns.

For more Los Alamos news releases, visit World Wide Web site



Allard Beutel
Headquarters, Washington                      Feb. 13, 2003
(Phone: 202/358-0951) 

Kylie Moritz
Johnson Space Center, Houston
(Phone: 281/483-5111)



NASA is still seeking help from the American public to supply video and
still images of the Space Shuttle Columbia on its return flight to Earth.
There has been a great public response, but more material will help the
investigation of the Columbia accident.

Columbia glided across the western U.S. just before sunrise Saturday,
February 1. The Shuttle flew just north of San Francisco around 6:50 a.m.
PST and broke up over eastern Texas around 8:00 a.m. CST. Any imagery,
especially video, of the Shuttle's path might aid the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board in determining the cause of the accident.

Media and private citizens who have video or still images of Columbia's
entry path are encouraged to send it to investigators. Videotapes and photos
will not be returned. For more information call:

Johnson Space Center Emergency Operations Center
(Phone: 281/483-3388)

Mail videotapes to:

NASA Johnson Space Center
Mail Code JA17
2101 NASA Road 1
Houston, Texas 77058

Email digital images to:



>From Michael Paine <>

Dear Benny

Since she was mentioned in the Great Debate (recently posted on CCNet), I
contacted Luann Becker from the University of California for comment. She
kindly provided the advice below, which should be of interest to CCNet

My own view is that the debate should remind us that the Earth hides its
scars very well and that a crater count will indicate only a small
proportion (10% or less?) of the impact events that are a threat to our
civilisation. But I guess that may be covered in the next episode of The
Great Debate...

Michael Paine

[ credible evidence that the (P/T extinction) was caused by an

Becker: There have been several lines of evidence presented for a possible
impact event associated with other mass extinction events in the past 500
million years (PT, TJ, F/F). Its certainly true that the robustness of these
signatures is not as clear as the KT event which allows for such statements
like the one above, to be made.  In fact, it seems clear that without an
impact crater the evidence for impact at other older mass extinction events
will be tenuous at best.

[Chapman: ...It is unlikely that there will be as conclusive a 'smoking gun'
as the Chicxulub crater provides for the K/T extinction.]

Becker: I tend to agree with Clark the difficulty lies in finding the
definitive evidence or the smoking gun...with the K/T event... It took the
discovery of the Chicxulub crater to bring many researchers around to
accepting an impact at the K/T...without it I'm sure Ward would contend that
there is no 'credible evidence' for an impact associated with any  mass
extinctions in the record. Pinpointing ground zero will be difficult to do
for the P/T....but perhaps not impossible.

[Ward:...However no lab HAS BEEN ABLE to replicate these results, and there
is no other evidence for an impact. Furthermore, new work by Greg Retallack
in Antarctica, Roger Buick in Australia, and my own work in South Africa
using stable isotopes shows that the Permian extinction may
have had multiple causes.]

Becker: There have been NO ATTEMPTS to replicate our fullerene results for
the P/T....however there  has been at least one report on the lack of bulk
helium for the Meishan material analyzed in separate samples (Farley and
Mukahapody, Science, 2001; you have published this before on
CNET). Last year, we addressed the evidence for bulk helium in sediments
from the Meishan Permian-Triassic at a workshop at UCLA.  We showed that the
same samples analyzed by Farley had no carbon in them so that it would be
impossible to infer anything about the presence of absence of fullerenes
(Poreda and Becker, Astrobiology Journal, in press April 2003).  We have
sent out sample material for the Meishan we received from Sam Bowring at MIT
to Thure Cerling at the University of Utah and he has successfully
replicated our results for the bulk helium.  

[Peter Ward:...There is better evidence for an impact as the cause of the
Triassic event, but new evidence suggests it played a minor role in this

Becker: There is far better evidence for impact tracers at the P/T. There
simply has not been enough studies of impact tracers at the T/J to make this
claim above (Ward). Olsen's study is the only one that, to date, has
searched for possible impact tracers. Ward's Queen Charlotte
section has clearly seen the effects of diagenesis. He also sampled crudely
for his carbonate isotope work (meter intervals) so its unclear how well the
boundary is preserved at this location. This is true for several T/J
sites... most sections do not categorically preserve the boundary. This will
make it difficult to prove an impact event of global proportions accompanied
the T/J extinction event. This is not the case for the PT and if it can be
demonstrated that evidence does exist for an impact event of global
proportions some 250 million years ago... then the notion that the KT event
is unique and singular would have have certainly lost its 'credibility'.

(7) THE COMET OF 1618

>From Clark Whelton <>

Dear Benny,

My thanks to Hermann Burchard for an interesting look at the social and
scientific implications of the great comet of 1618.

Like the even larger comet of 1577, this comet must have had a devastating
impact on terrestrial observers, since many leading scholars and scientists
of the time believed comets moved inside the orbit of the moon, a belief
that persisted until after 1660, when Hevelius showed conclusively that
comets moved well outside the lunar orbit.

In her interesting book "The Comet of 1577," (Columbia University Press,
1944), C. Doris Hellman gives us a comprehensive study of medieval astronomy
from original sources.

The mid-to-late 16th century was an extremely influential period in the
development of modern astronomy.  Many large comets were seen, notably in
1566, 1577 and 1618.

The great supernovae of 1572 and 1604 were mortal blows to
Aristotelian-Ptolemaic theory,
which held the starry realm to be unchangeable. This doddering system
perished entirely in the
following decades, when parallax measurements indicated that comets traveled
in paths far beyond the 52 Earth radii that supposedly separated the Earth
from the moon. 

In his article "Starry Messengers," (The Sciences, Jan.-Feb. 1992) Frederic
Baumgartner discusses the extraordinary display of celestial activity
between 1560 and 1630. In 1583, for example, there was a great conjunction
of Jupiter and Saturn.

Baumgartner comments:

"Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn take place throughout the zodiac every
20 years in a regular pattern that repeats every 800 years, beginning at the
same location in the initial sign.  It was thought that the world was
created during the first conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Aries -- the
original great conjunction. In that scheme the phenomenon of 1583 was the
eighth since the creation of the world. Great events such as the birth of
Christ and the reign of Charlemagne had always followed great conjunctions.

"Speculation was rampant that the upcoming conjunction would augur some
great event, perhaps the Second Coming. Since it bore such a heavy load of
prognostication, astronomers meticulously tracked the paths of the two
planets. The observations showed that many of the contemporary ephemerides
-- star tables -- that give the positions of the sun, the moon, and the
planets by time of day, month and year -- were grossly in error.
Furthermore, the tables based on Ptolemy's theory were among the worst. Many
astronomers worked to create new ones. Those based on Tycho's observations
were the best available until the late 17th century. They also served as the
observational basis for key astronomical theories, particularly Kepler's, in
the succeeding century" (end quote).

It should also be noted that this period of heavy celestial activity also
saw Pope Gregory's reform of the Julian calendar (1575-82).   

Baumgartner concludes his article by noting: "The run of dramatic celestial
phenomena was unparalleled for a 70-year period: in addition to the
phenomena I listed earlier -- two of only three supernovas ever recorded in
Europe, two of the greatest comets ever seen and unusually high sunspot
activity -- there were two total eclipses of the sun, a great conjunction
and a transit of Mercury. In the eight decades since the appearance of Comet
Halley in 1910, Europe has seen virtually none of those events."

Best regards, 
Clark Whelton


>From Andrew Glikson <>

Dear Benny,
I refer to CCNet (13.2.03) preamble quoting Charles Krauthammer. I agree
with Krauthammer's view that looming human self-destruction is as central an
issue as any other facing Earth - including asteroid impacts.
Krauthammer writes: "The question before us is very large and very simple:
Can--and will--the civilized part of humanity disarm the barbarians who
would use the ultimate knowledge for the ultimate destruction? Within
months, we will have a good idea whether the answer is yes or no."
I must admit I am having some difficulty in distinguishing between the
"civilized part of humanity" and "the barbarians", on the following basis:
1.  WWI and WWII - two of the biggest massacres in human history - were
perpetrated purely by "civilized" highly cultured nations.
2.  The monstrous crimes perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin were facilitated
by modern technology developed by professionals and engineers representing
the "civilized" sectors of these societies.
3.  WMS were invented and first used by the "civilized" part of the world,
i.e. mustard gas in World War I, cyclone gas in the Auschwitz extermination
camps, Atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
4.  Since WWII WMS have been proliferated (for both strategic and commercial
reasons) from the "civilized" part of the world to (so-called) "Third World"
countries (Pakistan, India, Iraq), including nuclear technology and
chemical/biological agents.
5.  The Cross - claimed as a symbol of a large part of the "civilized" world
- was raised over the Medieval crusades, the Spanish inquisition and the
destruction of middle and south American Indian civilizations, in a similar
vein as totems were raised over repeated destruction of Chinese and Roman
civilizations by Mongolian tribes.
Perhaps reminiscent of a quotation attributed to an African cannibal chief:
"Europeans are the real barbarians - they kill more people than they can eat
I will be interested to learn whether the quotation from Charles Krauthammer
means the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction is now a legitimate subject
for CCNet.
Andrew Glikson

MODERATOR'S NOTE: I strongly object to Andrew's relativism which, in effect,
equates mass murderers with those who faught to stop the European and
Japanese genocides, atrocities and war crimes. If WWII has taught us one
lesson it is that the failure to confront totalitarian aggression and to
fight for freedom and democracy will inevitably lead to barbarity and mass
murder. BJP


>From The Guardian, 14 February 2003,3604,895217,00.html


Michael Meacher

There is a lot wrong with our world. But it is not as bad as many people
think. It is worse. Global warming is slowly but relentlessly changing the
face of the planet.

We are only in the early stages of this process, but already carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere has reached 375 parts per million, the highest level for
at least half a million years. Temperatures are projected to rise by up to
5.8 C this century, 10 times the increase of 0.6 C in the last century, and
by 40% more than this in some northern land surface areas. This means
temperatures could rise by up to 8.1 C in some parts of the world.

Does this matter? The evidence suggests that it does. In China severe floods
used to occur once every 20 years; now they occur in nine out of every 10.
The number of people affected by floods globally has risen from 7 million in
the 1960s to 150 million now. In 1998 two-thirds of Bangladesh was under
water for months, affecting 30 million people. In the UK, 5 million people
and 185,000 businesses are at risk.

Flooding is only the beginning. The number of people worldwide devastated by
hurricanes or cyclones has increased eightfold to 25 million a year over the
past 30 years. The oceans are steadily warming, and since they currently
absorb 50 times more CO2 than is contained in the atmosphere, even a tiny
reduction in CO2 absorption by the sea could cause global temperatures to
rise significantly.

Even more seriously, 10,000 billion tonnes of methane (a greenhouse gas 20
times more potent than CO2) are stored, according to the US Geological
Survey, on the shallow floor of the Arctic, in sediments below the seabed.
If the temperature surrounding the methane warms, it becomes unstable and
methane gas is released, causing temperatures to increase further. Warming
oceans also cause the waters to expand and the sea level to rise. Sea level
is predicted to rise by 3ft over the next century, leading to huge areas of
Bangladesh, Egypt and China being inundated.

We don't know the limits of nature - how much rain could fall for how long a
period, how much more powerful and frequent hurricanes could become, for how
long droughts could endure. The ultimate concern is that if runaway global
warming occurred, temperatures could spiral out of control and make our
planet uninhabitable.

Five times in the past 540 million years there have been mass extinctions,
in one case involving the destruction of 96% of species then living. But
while these were the result of asteroid strikes or intense glaciation, this
is the first time that a species has been at risk of generating its own

James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis conceives of the planet as an active
control system. It posits the existence of feedbacks at the global level
which, so far, have served to keep the earth's surface habitable within a
tolerable range, despite significant external changes, including changes in
the radiation from the sun. However, with severe human-induced activity,
that is now beginning to change.

We have almost become our own geophysical cycle. There are many examples of
this trend. On a global scale our biological carbon productivity is now only
outpaced by the krill in the oceans. Our civil engineering works shift more
soil than all the world's rivers bring to the seas. Our industrial emissions
eclipse the total emissions from all the world's volcanoes. We are bringing
about species loss on the scale of some of the natural extinctions of

We face a transformation of our world and its ecosystems at an exponential
rate, and unprecedentedly brought about, not by natural forces, but by the
activities of the dominant species. Climate change is only the most dramatic
example. At a time when scientists say the world should be reducing its CO2
emissions by 60% to stabilise and then reverse global warming, they are
projected to increase by around 75% on 1990 levels by 2020.

The dinosaurs dominated the earth for 160 million years. We are in danger of
putting our future at risk after a mere quarter of a million years. The
force of the Gaia thesis has never been more apparent. When an alien
infection invades the body, the body develops a fever in order to
concentrate all its energies to eliminate the alien organism. In most cases
it succeeds, and the body recovers. But where it does not, the body dies.

The lesson is that if we continue with activities which destroy our
environment and undermine the conditions for our own survival, we are the
virus. Making the change needed to avoid that fate is perhaps the greatest
challenge we have ever faced.

Michael Meacher is environment minister. This article is based on a
lecture he will deliver today at Newcastle University


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