In the end, we, all of us, have to ask ourselves whether we wish to have more of everything (manufactured goods, vacation homes, holidays in far away locations and so on) in the short term or do we want to stretch out our use of resources to give the Earth a break to heal and to try to help ensure that future generations can more easily survive. Do we want a little inconvenience now or the formation of a whole lot of it down the road? (Surely if our forebears on the African plains could learn to live within their daunting limits, we can manage a little personal discomfort or irritation so as to generally improve life on Earth for all.) Do we have a sufficient supply of self-control and compassion toward our unknown descendants to curb our boundless desire for ever more merchandise, petrol, electricity and offspring? Can we find some modicum of happiness within deliberately self-proscribed limits? – Emily Spence
By Emily Spence
December 28, 2007
Until fairly recently, anthropologists and geologists were greatly puzzled by an unusual finding. Their perplexity concerned the almost total disappearance of humankind many years ago.
Finally, they were able to put together the various factors related to this happening and came up with the following scenario.
Over much of the Earth, crude stone tools have been found at the geological layer roughly corresponding to 74,000 years ago. Based on the various rock types used, their rate of wear and the number of implements uncovered in each setting, the population could be estimated for many regions of the globe. In addition, migration patterns could be charted based on similarities in tool designs combined with their varying quantities in assorted locales. As the seasons changed and the animal location shifted — so did the hunter-gatherers. The related movement could be mapped for several clans.
Then suddenly, signs of all tools, abruptly and completely, vanished across nearly the entire globe. The disappearance was almost completely universal except, for the most part, in one small region of Eastern Africa. At the same time, there existed, instead of the tools elsewhere, layer upon layer of volcanic ash corresponding to a time period many years in duration.
Based upon the amount of powder found in each locality, its composition and other characteristics, the epicenter of the “event” was, eventually, determined to be the place now called Lake Toba. Lake Toba is a large, serene and pastoral body of water roughly 100 km long and 30 km wide (sixty miles by eighteen) in Sumatra, Indonesia. It wasn’t always peaceful .
Because the region lies close to the Sumatra Fracture Zone (SFZ), it is a seething hotbed of subterranean geological activity. This is because the subduction of the Indian Ocean plate under the Eurasian plate is occurring at the rate of 6.7 cm per year and is a part of the basin dubbed “The Ring of Fire” , a horseshoe shaped expanse extending across the Pacific rim, while, at the same time, being prone to numerous earthquakes and volcanic activity. For example, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami can be attributed to the instability of these shifting tectonic plates and the seismically activity situated in this, generally, unstable zone.
Furthermore, one (of several) volcanic eruption from Toba caldera was so gigantic (with a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 8, termed “mega-colossal”) that it spewed an estimated volume of 2,800 cubic kilometers ((670 cubic miles) of materials upward and outward. ( 1.609 km equals one mile.) A good basis of comparison is provided by Mount St. Helene, which emitted 1.2 cubic km of matter during its most recent flare-up.
In other words, the sheer magnitude of these two volcanic disturbances were vastly different. Moreover, this largest Toba blast (named the Toba Tuff) was of such a magnitude that at least 20,000 square kilometers were enveloped in pyroclastic flows while the original breaching material was 600 meters (1,800 feet) thick near the point of origin.
As such, ash quickly covered a territory approximately half the size of the US and it has been retrieved as far away as the bay of Bengal and India, where it exists 15 cm (6 in) thick in deposition over the entire Indian subcontinent This is around 3100 km (1,900 miles) from Lake Toba. In short, this eruption was likely the biggest one in the past twenty-five million years.
Moreover, it has been calculated that the upsurging plume column was between 50 to 80 km (30 to 50 miles) in height so as to be capable of spreading gases and debris, via upper atmospheric winds, over an ever increasing and extensive portion of terrain for quite an interval of time. In addition, 1010 (ten to the tenth power) metric tons of sulphuric acid exploded into the air while causing an extremely toxic fallout of acid rain to, likewise, blanket a large area of the globe.
With all of these factors combined in impact, massive weather change ensued. Resultant temperatures varied downward 3 to 3.5 degrees Celsius for a number of years (with evidence collected as far away as Greenland through ice core samples), sunlight sufficient for photosynthesis was blocked in many regions due to light ash dust and other atmospheric impediments trailing the eruption. Furthermore, an enormous number of plants would have died off even if sufficient light were to have been present. This is because vegetation was inundated by ash, acid rain and other noxious byproducts — a phenomenon that has been studied, via the use of duplicative conditions, in botany laboratories at several university sites.
So, in the end, there was a massive die-off engulfing the planet. Indeed, an ice age developed on account of the eruption and lasted approximately a millennium.
At the same time, there is evidence, drawn from mitochondrial DNA and the aforementioned diminishment of tools, that humankind, in all likelihood, experienced a genetic bottleneck  due to Toba Tuff. According to information collected by some genetic researchers, the human population probably shrunk to only two to ten thousand of members.
All or most of these lived within around 200 miles of the Rift Valley in Kenya. The advantages by doing so were clear…
Because of the reduced plant and animal life, there was not a large margin of error in terms of acquiring food. If a single animal, for example, were found, it had to be killed on the first try as there were not many more extant from which to select. As such, tools had to be very light, sharp, easily shaped and highly effective. Indeed, they could reflect all of these features in this location as obsidian, an ideal rock for the task (and, ironically, formed by volcanic activity), was in plentiful supply in the Rift Valley.
However, tribes gathering this material could not all live near its source as there was an insufficient food supply in the area. In addition, they had to share (at least the obsidian) and cooperate while communicating with others (strangers from other families) in that they could not expend inordinate energy and time in battle in lieu of primarily focusing on obtainment of enough food and clean water.
In other words, those tribes that chose to fight, for the most part, died off and their genetic legacy did so, too. Meanwhile, it has been speculated that the other groups — the ones that made it to the obsidian deposit without battling — traded, shared and aided each other while there, as well as (later) bartered obsidian with clans too far from the rock bed to make the trek, themselves.
As a result, our ancestors, all of them for everyone on Earth, likely came from these small bands of people and we all inherited a genetic foundation imbued with a propensity towards accommodation, sharing and cooperation!
Now, flash forwarding into the near-present, and there is another, smaller and more personal calamity being addressed. In shock, I am standing in the shell of a house on Water Island, near St Thomas. It is my mother’s home and was built to stand close to 200 miles an hour of hurricane force. It was build by my father and a work crew to withstand, approximately, twenty-five miles an hour above any maximum storm thrust.
In order to be so, it was built with a venting roof to handle changes in air pressure and wind, as well as had three 3″ thick rebars running one yard down into the earth while, also, embedded in each of the building’s 2′ X 2′ X 12′ concrete support columns. In addition, the structure contained other well thought out, protective features. All the same, I am cleaning up the mess left from Hurricane Marilyn (1995) — the second time for such a going-over on account of Hurricane Hugo (1989) having created similar, although less thorough, ruin.
Unfortunately, not much was left of the home this succeeding time. Most of the columns are lying on their sides split in pieces like a chopped stick of butter. My mother’s dresser drawers and clothes were found strew more than a mile away. Our refrigerator held its place, but our neighbor’s refrigerator flew through a foot thick concrete wall so as to leave a gaping new window the exact size and shape of its outline (due to winds clocking in at 220 mph in the near vicinity). At the same time, the inner walls held in our home, but the roof, windows and most household items lay spread out everywhere. Even some broken plumbing pipes, ripped from the interior of walls, lay scattered here and there, along with everything else.
Meanwhile, my mother’s grief over this trouble was only superceded by the torment created by the deaths of her husband, firstborn child and parents. At the same time, we wondered that the hurricanes could be so much more powerful than the US Weather Service set as the standard for maximum force.
How ever tragic such individual losses are from hurricanes, floods, wild fires and other causes indirectly related to global warming, nothing will likely approach the gargantuan magnitude of demise caused by such events as Toba Tuff. Nothing will, also, match the humongous enormity of further devastation that is likely advancing towards us due to the greenhouse effect and other kinds of environmental damage. Not even regional wars, unless they were to be full-scale nuclear in nature, can come close. Here are the reasons…
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was conducted by 1,300 researchers from ninety-five nations over a four year period. it comprises of the most comprehensive analysis of current planetary conditions ever undertaken and resulted in a detailed report compiled by World Resource Institute (WRI) and approximately thirty partners.
Their ultimate conclusion is that human actions endanger the Earth’s capacity to maintain future generations. Meanwhile our current circumstances include these factors:
As human demand for resources grows exponentially, most ecosystems across the globe have been seriously impaired due to exploitation and the natural processes that support life on Earth are falling apart. Indeed of twenty-four environments that have been assessed, fifteen are seriously damaged. Furthermore, it is only within the past fifty years that this severe destructive change has taken place in which sixty percent of worldwide ecosystem benefits (such as clean air, fish, fiber, timber, etc.) have significantly deteriorated. In addition, human water usage have doubled over the past forty years and, currently, forty to fifty percent is being used. However this will change as drought areas spread in addition to glacial runoff and snow packs disappearing due to global warming. Moreover, fish stock is depleting at an extraordinarily rapid pace, coral reefs are dying, large oceanic dead zones are spreading, whole forests are vanishing, pollution of watersheds (in large measure due to agrochemicals) has led to eutrophication of waters and species extinction rates are now 100-1,000 times above their normal speed of occurrence. In addition, further extreme problems are arising due to the devastation produced by carbon loading.
If this isn’t sufficiently gloomy by itself, the 2007 study by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers further grave information. It is that greenhouse gases, with a ninety percent certainty to be caused by our too great reliance on fossil fuels, are driving cataclysmic level of climate change. These, in turn, will introduce other grim perils of which many are already irreversible.
Some of the worst include that there will be increasingly severe water shortages in many regions, dramatic increase in virulent diseases, decreased food supply, greater extremes in weather causing habitat loss (such as the indigenous life forms and my family faced on Water Island), rising oceans, unbearable levels of heat in some spots so that some life (including many humans) will perish from it, vastly expanding desert regions and other dreadful upshots.
For example, the melting of the permafrost will release further CO2 into the atmosphere and, thereby, accelerate the melting. Along with no longer cooling the earth by a sort of refrigeration effect, the lack of much frost, white snow and ice reflecting light back up into the atmosphere will increase the heat trap on earth.
All considered, James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia model (in which the planet is viewed as an interdependent, integrated super-organism), postulates that billions of humans (far more than was killed by the Toba Tuff) will, ultimately, die off due to global warming. As such, he recommends that all communities and countries try to postpone this inevitable outcome (along with delimiting the numbers to be killed) by taking EVERY measure possible to cut back the greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, many others share his bleak outlook while, also, expanding upon it .
Despite that we do not know the Earth’s ultimate carrying capacity for people, we do know that it is definitely finite. We, likewise, know that we are running out of critical commodities (most notably fossil fuels, certain ores, some minerals, as well as the plants and animals that our species will, both directly and indirectly, cause to become extinct). In the same vein, we know that there will be massive loss of human life due to various effects of global warming, including ones related to shrinking food production.
All considered, we are faced with a looming cataclysm that perhaps begins to move towards
the scale of the Toba Tuff. While our travails are not entirely of human making, they, largely, ARE due to human behavior. This is because they are caused by our collective greed for ever more products, our reproductive patterns doubling the population nearly every thirty years, and the fact that certain resources (such as fossil fuels) have rigidly preset limits while others (such as marine life and trees) are being reduced too rapidly to sufficiently replenish themselves.
In the end, it matters not that, as a species, we are not programmed to react to danger unless it is immediate (rather than slowly evolving), dramatic and concrete (such as is a flood or fire), and in close proximity. It matters not that we deny the existence of global warming and would prefer to think about pleasant topics rather than those that cause discomfort and dismay. This is because, like it or not, the changes that humankind have created for the planet are happening, anyway, due to most people wanting ever more affluence and grander lifestyles, ever more prgeny, and ever more personal wealth largely obtained from turning other species into wares. As such, Toba Tuff and other catastrophes give us a little glimpse (and warning) about just how bad life can get when climates radically alter.
This in mind, whoever is left a hundred or so years from now will wonder about the reason that our generation amused themselves with such questions as, “Should I buy Gucci or Prada shoes?” They, certainly, won’t be trying to select between taking an overseas vacation in Madrid or Tokyo. They might not even know what a jet or cruise liner is unless they go to a museum (that is, if there is any museum left and a way to get to it).
They, also, will likely see the ironic, contradictory folly of jetting in droves to the Great Barrier Reef to study the best way to save it from destruction caused by our large carbon footprint. Likewise, they will probably wonder as to the reason that we didn’t willingly cut back on population growth rather than let “nature” handle the problem for us through tragic and painful means. Similarly, they will almost certainly be, to some degree, angry at us as our need for constant self-pampering and ever more babies led into the state of affairs that they will have inherited from us. At the same time, perhaps they will be the offspring of sets of individuals who, like the East African tribes of 74,000 years ago, were the most prone to cooperate, share and render mutual assistance rather than war over the last remaining resources in such predatory fashion as is now taking place in the Middle East.
In any case, let us hope that they will learn better methods for conservation than our feeble attempts, feel more greatly protective of the natural world, and look at the wilderness as a necessity rather than as, primarily, a site to plunder. If not, they will have to learn all over the understandings that we are just now starting to know and it certainly will NOT be easier for them given the voluminous amount of the Earth that we, right here and now, are utterly destroying so as to turn it broken over to them as our legacy.
In the end, we, all of us, have to ask ourselves whether we wish to have more of everything (manufactured goods, vacation homes, holidays in far away locations and so on) in the short term or do we want to stretch out our use of resources to give the Earth a break to heal and to try to help ensure that future generations can more easily survive. Do we want a little inconvenience now or the formation of a whole lot of it down the road? (Surely if our forebears on the African plains could learn to live within their daunting limits, we can manage a little personal discomfort or irritation so as to generally improve life on Earth for all.) Do we have a sufficient supply of self-control and compassion toward our unknown descendants to curb our boundless desire for ever more merchandise, petrol, electricity and offspring? Can we find some modicum of happiness within deliberately self-proscribed limits?
If not, it is almost inevitable that we will, eventually, wind up with far less people, inadequate energy sources and minimized per person consumption due to the mounting harm to our globe that we are now producing… Our forebears had no choice but to deal with the effects of Toba Tuff. We, though, DO have a choice and it is a clear one with high stakes. Thus, can we start changing immediately out of our growing recognition that it is absolutely essential that we do so? In the least, we owe it to the future generations to make a determined effort to cooperate together to create better methods to reduce our ecological damage! Literally, their lives depend on it!
 Excellent portrayals of the Toba Tuff can be found at: March Resources @ National Geographic Magazine (magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0503/resources_), as well as the related films listed at Supervolcano – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supervolcano) and (http://natgeochannel.co.uk/explore/earthshocks/index.aspx).
 To learn more on this topic, please refer to: Pacific Ring of Fire – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Ring_of_Fire).
 This is defined at: Population bottleneck – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_bottleneck).
 A replete and striking overview of this stance is provided by Juan Santos at: The Fourth World: Apocalypse No! part 3: The Law of Life and… (http://the-fourth-world.blogspot.com/2007/01/part-3-of-apocalypse-no-law-of-life-and.html).