6th Mass Extinction, Arctic Blue Ocean Event, Capitalism, Carl Sagan, Climate Change, Collapse of Civilizations, Donald Trump, Dr Charlie Veron, Ecological Overshoot, Elizabeth Kolbert, Herman Daly, Jared Diamond, Micro-Plastic Pollution, Noam Chomsky, Overpopulation, Peak Oil, Stephen Boyden, Svante Arrhenius, Techno-Fix, U.S. National Climate Assessment, Wealth Inequality, William Rees
“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” ~ Elizabeth Kolbert
Have things improved since I wrote my last essay a year ago for this blog? Have we miraculously transformed our entire energy system into one that does not poison and degrade the natural world? Have we slowed the onslaught of plastic pollution choking the planet’s rivers, lakes, and oceans? Have we done anything meaningful to halt the deterioration of the planet’s biodiversity toward mass extinction? Has this global, hi-tech civilization done anything significant to avert its own demise? Despite a constant flow of warnings from the scientific community and even a letter signed by more than 20,000 scientists, the simple answer is no. We have failed to address the complexity of our rising population and a degrading environment. Yes, we are self-conscious and thus able to recognize the fact that we are destroying the only home we have, but will the end result differ much from a population overshoot of bacteria in a Petri dish? Dependent on a continuous stream of finite resources imported from across the globe, modern megacities contain the seeds of their own destruction and that of all other life forms upon which humanity depends for its survival. The exponential growth of modern civilization ensures that one of the next doubling times will produce an absolute increase in overshoot that tips the world into unavoidable collapse. Enough damage may well have already been done; we’re just waiting for inertia to catch up to the impacts.
2017 set a global record for the most skyscrapers built in a single year and 2018 is predicted to eclipse it. The fossil fuel energy spent to construct those concrete and steel buildings translates into a melting cryosphere. Not to mention the fact that the carbon footprint of some of the world’s biggest cities is 60% bigger than previously estimated. “Renewable energy” still only comprises a tiny fraction of global energy consumption and plans for a total transition will take decades, if it’s even possible. Any growth in ‘renewable energy’ has been offset by increased consumption of fossil fuels in the developing world. 2017 marked a new record high in CO2 emissions with 2018 set to break that record. Global CO2 emissions have yet to peak, and the UN has warned that we are on course for a 3C world. It doesn’t help that the current U.S. administration plans to cut funding for alternative energy R&D, with the Energy Department expecting no drop in the U.S. carbon footprint through 2050. Having embedded itself in the U.S. government over a century ago, the fossil fuel industry has consistently worked to block climate change action and undermine environmental laws. A UK shipping executive recently admitted his industry is guilty of doing the same to protect their bottom line. The utilities companies knew the dangers as well. Like most corporations, the viability of their business model depends on perpetuating an unsustainable way of life. With warnings ignored since the late 1800s starting with the work of Svante Arrhenius, it should be obvious by now that intelligence without sapience has produced deadly results. A new study finds “the most accurate climate change models predict the most alarming consequences.” The recently released U.S. National Climate Assessment has similar findings:
While climate models incorporate important climate processes that can be well quantified, they do not include all of the processes that can contribute to feedbacks (Ch. 2), compound extreme events, and abrupt and/or irreversible changes. For this reason, future changes outside the range projected by climate models cannot be ruled out (very high confidence). Moreover, the systematic tendency of climate models to underestimate temperature change during warm paleoclimates suggests that climate models are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate the amount of long-term future change (medium confidence). (Ch. 15)
In a new ominous research finding, the evil twin of climate change(ocean acidification) is threatening the base of the marine food chain by disrupting the production of phytoplankton. This is yet another positive feedback loop increasing the rate of global warming. Climate feedback loops and ice sheet modeling are two weak areas of climate science, which means many unpleasant surprises. This is why researchers are constantly astonished. Adaptation is not a luxury most organisms have at the present rates of change. Techno-fixes are but a pipe dream.
A diet reliant on animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss, and oceanic dead zones, yet global per capita meat consumption is increasing rapidly in both developing and industrialized countries. Investments have been made to increase global plastic production by 40% over the next decade, even as all the world’s natural bodies of water become inundated with microplastics. Coca Cola alone produces 110 billion throwaway plastic bottles every year – an astounding 3,400 a second. Plastic waste from the military is another massive contributor that cannot be overstated. Half of all plastics have been made in just the last thirteen years. Over 90% of the so-called purified bottled water sold to the public has been shown to be contaminated with hundreds and even thousands of microplastic pieces. A byproduct of petroleum and the epitome of our throw-away society, plastics have truly become ubiquitous in the environment, entering the food chain at every level.
A study published last year pulls no punches by describing the mass extermination of billions of animals in recent decades as a “biological annihilation.” Extinction risks for many species are vastly underestimated. Insects, the base of the terrestrial food chain, are faring no better. With the steep loss of invertebrates, multiple studies indicate the world is “on course for an ecological Armageddon”. Trees are dying at an unprecedented rate from extreme weather events, portending profound effects to Earth’s carbon cycle. Coral bleaching events are now happening four times more frequently than a few decades ago. Dr Charlie Veron, a renowned scientist specializing in corals and reefs, said this last year:
“Half of all coral colonies on the Great Barrier Reef died over the past two years due to coral bleaching,’’ Dr Veron said.
“It’s going to be a horrible world. Young people now are going to curse the present generation for what we’ve done. We’ll have left them a planet in dire straits.’’
“Between a quarter and a third of all marine species have part of their life cycle in a coral reef. Taking away the reefs precipitates ecological collapse of the oceans. It’s happened twice in the past due to volcanoes releasing carbon dioxide and lava flows, but that was nothing like the amount of carbon dioxide being released now.’’
No one thought that ecosystems such as The Great Barrier Reef would be circling the drain this soon. How these changes are affecting flora and fauna as well as human societies is critical, but it’s like trying to predict the outcome of a high speed car crash as it’s happening. Hindsight is 20/20, but it only serves a purpose if you are still around to learn from it. Abrupt climate change is happening now and we’re not prepared for it. Fighting to protect the very life support system we all share, environmentalists are under attack worldwide and being murdered in record numbers. The problem of poaching is so bad that scientists are advising people to scrub all GPS data from their nature photos before publication to help protect endangered species from being ransacked. The voracious consumption and defilement of the planet continues unabated, despite clear signs the once-stable biosphere that enabled the establishment of human civilizations is quickly unraveling(Puerto Rico, Houston, never-ending wildfire seasons, melting Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, widespread glacial retreat, shrinking lakes, and many other signs of a destabilized climate). The following picture taken in Oregon last summer illustrates my point; seemingly oblivious to the massive wildfires raging in the background, a group of golfers continues playing a round…“We’re trading a habitable climate for a few generations of easy living.”
Climate change is just one of many factors in mankind’s planetary overshoot. We even have a day designated in recognition of our oversized ecological footprint which comes earlier every year, with nary a mention of it in official economic reports. As Herman Daly has explained, the global economic system treats the earth as a business in liquidation. The destruction of the natural world is enshrined in our positive economic indicators, i.e. rising GDP. And if need be, those numbers will be massaged to meet expectations. On a subconscious level, the growth imperative applies to all species including humans:
Humans share two behavioral traits with all other species that are critically important to (un)sustainability. Numerous experiments show that unless or until constrained by negative feedback (e.g., disease, starvation, self-pollution) the populations of all species:
• Expand to occupy all accessible habitats.
• Use all available resources.
Like mindless bacteria bent on their own success, humans are victims of their own DNA and ingenuity. Any civilization that develops energy harvesting technologies allowing for rapid population growth will generate entropy which will in turn almost certainly have strong feedback effects on the planet’s habitability. Our exponentially growing economy is on a collision course with an immovable ecosphere.
The end of the world is coming for the naked ape, not by a cabal of bankers or any sort of cockamamie conspiracy tale like chemtrails, but by us –the entire human race– and the economic system we have developed. We’ve become hostages to the complex structures and ever more intricate specialization of an economic system designed to exploit diminishing resources. Pollution and waste are of little concern for capitalism until they become a significant drain on overall profitability and new frontiers to exploit are exhausted. When profitability on a global scale is finally threatened by climate change, it will be far too late. The response will be militarized and authoritarian.
On a more insidious note, capitalism is driven by a deep instinctive drive to accumulate which was a very survival-positive compulsion during our several million years of evolving into Homo sapiens to overcome dry periods and other threats. Capitalism hits on this genetic proclivity, and when we get a clear opportunity to grab a big time accumulation, get rich and all, social good be damned. Our big and powerful cerebral cortex is hard-pressed to find a cure.
“I am rather pessimistic. The maladaptive assumptions of prevailing cultures are deeply ingrained. The notion that economic growth must take precedence over all other considerations and general ignorance of biological and ecological realities do not augur well for the future.” ~ Professor Stephen Boyden, human ecologist
In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond found that a common factor was the myopic and self-serving decision-making of elites who believed they could insulate themselves from the consequences of societal disasters. As the elites reaped the rewards, the resulting damage to everyone else built up over time until calamity struck. The grim reality is that history has proven such cycles of extreme wealth inequality have only been broken by catastrophes –plagues, revolutions, massive wars, and collapsed states. The U.S. has now reached a degree of wealth disparity unequaled in history:
Overall, the highest-ever historical Gini the researchers found was that of the ancient Old World (think Patrician Rome), which got a score of .59. While the degrees of inequality experienced by historical societies are quite high, the researchers note, they’re nowhere near as high as the Gini scores we’re seeing now…”it is safe to say that the degree of wealth inequality experienced by many households today is considerably higher than has been the norm over the last ten millennia,” the researchers write in their paper.
The crisis of civilization is planet-wide this time. We’ve turned a utopian world of plenty into a dystopian world of fascist-leaning governments, industrial disasters, collapsing ecosystems, and technological addiction. We have a Commander in Chief who tweets bizarre debunked conspiracies at 3 am, gets his intel briefings from right-wing TV shows, dismantles any remaining hindrances to unbridled capitalism, and doesn’t know the difference between weather and climate. Public discourse has been dumbed down to the level of Fox news talking points and tribal groupthink. Those who can discern actual ‘fake news’ from scientific fact are left to watch in horror as mainstream scientific projections continue to prove overly optimistic. Not only are regulations being cut left and right, they are not being enforced. Government science advisors are being purged and replaced with mouthpieces for industrial polluters. In fact, this administration is actively working to delegitimize and destroy government institutions. A sizable population of low information voters supports such actions, but it’s only to their own detriment. Although both major parties are under the sway of corporate power, Trump and company represent an exceptionally predatory class of people. The Union of Concerned Scientists is monitoring the current administration’s war on science and public health; their latest report is here:
The administration’s one-year record shows an unprecedented level of stalled and disbanded scientific advisory committees, cancelled meetings, and dismissed experts. The consequences for the health and safety of millions of Americans could be profound.
We live in an age of unparalleled technological advancement, while at the same time we turn a blind eye to the disintegrating natural world that gave birth to us, having forgotten that our destiny lies in our relationship with the earth. Like Icarus who, in his exuberance, ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun, modern man with his technology has ascended to great heights without heeding sound advice.
“We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.” ~ Carl Sagan