It’s fascinating to see resistance to an idea well beyond the stage when evidence for it is overwhelming. Especially with hindsight when other explanations now seem so outlandish. It’s also interesting to note the factions clinging to these weird hypotheses – the establishment, those who benefit from the status quo, those whose own standing depends on old ideas.
Thus it was with the new-fangled theory that glaciers had covered northern Europe. The preferred story was that massive floods (from the Bible, y’know) and wandering icebergs had deposited moraines and erratic boulders over the landscape. Or even that the sea had covered the land or the continents had been considerably lower – by 2,000 feet in some places! Anything but an ice age with its implication of climate change.
Ah, the first global-warming argument. Until the mid-19th century the consensus held that the Earth had been slowly cooling from its fiery birth. The notion of an abrupt and dramatic chill, followed by an equally swift warming, was… well, too catastrophist (as though widespread floods weren’t catastrophes).
Jamie Woodward’s wee book tells of science’s gradual acceptance of the Pleistocene. I wasn’t expecting the history of it but am glad for this insight into the struggle the idea had. It reveals so much about our current climate-change predicament. Why do so many resist what’s so obvious? As I’ve noted above: some benefit in the same way from its denial but we have another breed to contend with too.
Our modern free-market apologists make their profits from externalising costs. They can’t allow that global warming, or any environmental problem, is one of these costs. So they argue against them and on the side of money – one of the 20th century gods, the other being “progress” of course.
Woodward keeps talking of the Quaternary glaciation as though the Ice Age heralded a new period. Taking the long view – say, another 50 million years – if sentient beings are constructing their own timeline, my bet is that our influence will dwarf that of a few cold snaps. The sixth mass extinction and the termination of the Pleistocene will be far more visible. The latter is already on the cards by the length of this interglacial and the 1,000 or so years it’ll take to cycle our excess carbon out of the atmosphere. In fact we’re in danger of ushering in the Postzoic era and the Quaternary will disappear.
The final words of the book though reinforce my notion that the course of the future will be more easily revealed by a study of past phenomena. Read ‘em and weep.