Professor Lloyd Peck of the British Antarctic Survey is worried about – stop me if you've heard this one before – global warming. For this year's Royal Institution Christmas lecture, he'll be warning that the merest smidgeonette of an increase in temperature in the south polar seabed will lead to the loss of a zillion species. As the oceans warm, the ice shelves that extend from the polar depths into the sub-Antarctic light will shrink, and the thick mats of algae on their underside will vanish, and the billions of tiny krill that feed on them will perish, and pretty soon, up at the scenic end of the food chain, all those cute seals and penguins and whales will be gone.
And all this will happen if the temperature goes up two degrees, from butt-numbingly freezing to marginally less butt-numbingly freezing. "It is going to be really unpleasant," Prof Peck tells the Guardian. "We are going to lose things – we just don't know how much."
Each to his own. I like whales. I spend a lot of time on the north shore of the St Lawrence and around the Saguenay fjord in Quebec, and it would certainly be a duller place without the whales gaily plashing hither and yon. But what I find curious about this sort of thing is that Prof Peck is supposed to be a scientist and the newspaper reporting his views is famously rational. A month ago, for example, it was mocking the kind of folks who'd re-elected George W Bush – men of faith, not science, many of them from jurisdictions where the school boards are packed with creationists who look askance at Darwin, evolution and the like.
Evolution posits that species will come and go: some die out, some survive and evolve. I don't regard myself as anything terribly special but in a typical year I'm exposed to temperatures from around 98 degrees to 45 below freezing, in the lower part of which range I evolve into my long underwear.
Maybe if the Antarctic food chain is incapable of evolving to cope with a two-degree increase in temperature across many decades, it isn't meant to survive. Science tells us that extinction is a fact of life, and that nature is never still: long before the Industrial Revolution, long before the first lardbuttus Americanus got into his primitive four-miles-per-gallon SUV to head to the mall for the world's first cheeseburger, there were dramatic fluctuations in climate wiping out a ton of stuff. Yet scientists and their cheerleaders, the hyper-rationalists at the progressive newspapers, have signed on to the idea that evolution should cease and the world should be frozen – literally, in the case of Prof Peck and his beloved algae – in some unchanging Edenic state.
Well, good luck to him. If I see a chap with a "Save the algae" collecting box, I'm happy to chip in a fiver. But, at the same time as the Royal Institute and the Guardian and all other bien pensants are in a mass panic at the thought of the krill having to adjust his way of life, they're positively insouciant about massive changes to our own habitat. You like fox-hunting? You're not entirely cool with gay marriage? You prefer English common law to this new Euro-pudding legal code? Tough, shrugs the Guardian.
Stuff happens, things change, adapt or die. Perhaps he'll give us some hard numbers in his lecture but, insofar as I can tell, Prof Peck's doomsday scenario depends on a lot of "ifs". In the course of several decades, the temperature might indeed increase sufficiently, and that might reduce the algae, and that might diminish by several billion the number of krill, and that might impact the lifestyle of the Antarctic penguin by, oh, 2050, 2060.
But, on the other hand, somebody might have invented a thing the size of the Palm Pilot you staple to the seabed that automatically lowers the temperature by two degrees and we'll have wall-to-wall algae. Who can say?
What we do know for certain is that the krill's chances of survival are a lot greater than, say, those of the Italians, or the Germans, or the Japanese, Russians, Greeks and Spaniards, all of whom will be in steep population decline long before the Antarctic krill. By 2025, one in every three Japanese will be over 65, and that statistic depends on the two out of three who aren't over 65 sticking around to pay the tax bills required to support the biggest geriatric population in history.
Does the impending extinction of the Japanese and Russians not distress anyone? How about the Italians? They gave us the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, Gina Lollobrigida, linguine, tagliatelle, fusilli. If you're in your scuba suit down on the ice shelf dining with the krill and you say you'd like your algae al dente in a carbonara sauce, they'll give you a blank look. Billions of years on Earth and all they've got is the same set menu they started out with. But try and rouse the progressive mind to a "Save the Italians" campaign and you'll get nowhere. Luigi isn't as important as algae, even though he, too, is a victim of profound environmental changes: globally warmed by Euro-welfare, he no longer feels the need to breed.
And, if he doesn't care if he survives, why should the penguins and the krill feel any differently? Given the choice between the krill's hypothetically impending extinction and their own impending extinction already under way, Europeans would apparently rather fret about the denizens of the deep. Even Chesterton, who observed that once man has ceased to believe in God he'll believe in anything, might have marvelled at how swift the decay from post-Christian to post-evolutionary. Like the old song says: What's it all about – algae?
~from The Daily Telegraph, December 14th 2004
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