Over 10,000 years ago, Earth went through a monumental, global climate shift. Entire species were wiped out, continent borders were redrawn, and the world changed forever. Prehistoric human civilisations were split, stranded on different sides of oceans that hadn’t existed before. It was the most recent Ice Age. Today, it seems our planet is facing a similar, seemingly unstoppable, climate disaster.
There is a very famous archaeological site in Yorkshire called Star Carr. With remnants of stone tools and jewellery as well as deer skulls with holes drilled through, its finds date back to 9000 BCE— just centuries after the Ice Age. Before, the UK had been connected to what is now France, Belgium, and the Netherlands by Doggerland, a region now submerged under the North Sea. While it was peat that preserved the findings on land, there was no saving the thousands of artefacts presumably lost to Earth’s changing landscapes.
Such archaeological and anthropological history is always fascinating to people in the modern day. It’s powerful and emotive to envision our ancestors, who feel so far away for their perceived barbarism and yet so close for their genetic ties, forming civilisations, performing rituals, and escaping the terrible might of the global climate. There is so little left of humans from those times, on an Earth with which we feel so intimately tied that nonetheless persists stalwart and unmoved, that their existence is the stuff of awe and wonder.
It’s with the same kind of awe, only instead coupled with shock, that people around the globe have been reacting to satellite footage (like above) of the UK during its current summer heatwave. Quite the opposite of an Ice Age, record highs of 40.4 °C (104 °F) were set in the country last month, with similar temperatures reached consistently in the weeks to follow. It’s a cruel, cyclical coincidence that these temperatures were also found in Yorkshire.
Unfortunately, it’s a bit too late to say that this coincidence represents Earth trying to tell us something about humanity’s impending demise at her climate; she’s been telling us for decades. Indeed, while the image above depicts blackness in the South East as the UK experienced heat-induced wildfires and announced a drought, California’s burnt every year for a long time — and how many people have forgotten the outpouring of support for the Australian bushfires before COVID?
Such weather is a real shock for people in the UK. A point of pride for Brits is its temperate climate, etched into our culture with the last line of William Blake’s poem Jerusalem, now appropriated as an anthem for nationalistic pride. People cope with the temperature by thanking their lucky stars for the chance to have holiday-level heat in summer, forgetting the ominous and life-threatening causes of it. ‘Satanic Mills’ never seemed more fitting.
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
Blake, William. “Jerusalem [“And did those feet in ancient time”]”. Preface to Milton a Poem. (1810)
Indeed, we have the legacy of the Industrial Revolution to thank for the staggering impact Earth’s climate is having on ecology and society. Those dark mills paved the way for modern-day drills, whose drilling brought us oil, whose burning for fuel has changed the course of human history forever. If the UK can go from wheat fields to dead grass in two years as the below graphic shows, it’s terrifying how soon it feels that the South East will become a desert.
Yet, as a desert, the South East will persist. Deep into Earth’s future, irrespective of climate change and tectonic shifts, when the UK may no longer even exist, this region of land will remain. In fact, the whole world will still be there. Humans may be long gone, with all signs of civilisation burnt or buried. But what we must learn from the Ice Age about Earth is that she will persist, no matter what is laid to waste in her path.
There will be no floating rock in space with a candle-like flame flickering from solar winds in the Milky Way. Earth will not burn; or, at least, not burn up. Her climate will react, devastate, and refresh to equilibrium.
It is humanity that will burn. Humankind will burn in heatwaves, drown in tsunamis, crumble in earthquakes, and bring down all other plant and animal life with it before the planet dies. Only the fall of humans will enable the planet to survive.