I recently asked a scientist on Facebook how he copes with the knowledge that we are destroying the planet within the geologic blink of an eye. Here is his answer:
Pot helps! 🙂 But psychologically, I reread Catton’s Overshoot recently, where he talks about how once humans started burning fossil fuels, we evolved (devolved?) into detritivores, species that depend on dead organic matter for our sustenance. This led me to think about Human Exceptionalism. The classic view is that humans’ assumed superiority has caused us to not consider the welfare of other species and blinded us in our ignorance to how our lifestyles were jeopardizing life support systems worldwide (including for us); I agree with this view. But I’ve also come to challenge another view of Human Exceptionalism; namely, that we have the intelligence and capacity for compassion to override what is every species’ imperative (humans and all other species): that is, to continuously consume available resources with no concern for future sustainability, with its concomitant and inevitable population boom and bust. Thus, I try to cope by accepting, with sad resignation, that we’re not any more special than other species – we’ve just lacked apex predators to keep our population in check and have used hundreds of millions of years of stored solar energy (i.e. fossil fuels) to temporarily shield ourselves from our population crash. This final kicking us off our superiority pedestal has helped me “let go” and inspired me to aspire to be more in tune with natural processes (such as organic gardening, which also helps on a very small scale to restore the soil biodiversity we’re regularly destroying with the Haber-Bosch process). How do you cope? 🙂
I replied later that day…
To cope, you first must know the truth. Our modern global civilization is a heat engine, subject to the second law of thermodynamics just as every civilization that came before. Our massive burning of fossil fuels has not only blanketed the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and acidified the oceans, it has given humans the unfortunate ability to disrupt all the major biochemical processes of the planet, thus making the current civilizational collapse one of global proportions. There is no putting that genie back in the bottle and the environmental disorder it has unleashed. Thus we are firmly in the grips of entropy and no amount of techo-fixes, such as walls to hold back the rising sea or geoengineering schemes to blot out that fiery orb in the sky, will change this stark fact. As Jospeph Tainter argued, further complexity only brings more unforeseen problems that must be solved. Higher efficiency only leads to increased consumption (i.e. Jevons paradox). As you say, humans are no different than any other organism in that they will expand to consume all available resources until reined in by environmental limits. Our superior problem-solving capabilities have allowed us to dramatically overshoot the planet’s natural regenerative systems. And so it seems that Ernst Mayr was correct when he said human intelligence is a fatal mutation in the evolutionary process. According to Mayr, intelligence is a double-edged sword, serving as a tool for our survival or rapidly carrying out our own annihilation. How do I cope with all that? Other than adopting a stoic attitude towards our predicament, there is no coping. It is what it is. Find simple joys in nature while nature is still around. I love hummingbirds and watch them at the feeder when I am home. Live in the moment when you can. Enjoy mankind’s ability to create beautiful art. Be kind to your fellow human and nonhuman. We’re all just temporary passengers on Spaceship Earth.
Now that America’s wannabe dictator has vacated the White House, maybe we can get back to pretending we’re doing anything of significance about climate change and the ghastly future bearing down on us. I’m sure we’ll get right on that existential crisis as soon as we tamp down the current global pandemic, sort out Trump’s QAnon and white nationalist seditionists, and bring together a country where half the population believes their cult leader’s endless lies and the evangelical Right idolize Trump as a vessel anointed by God. So much for heeding warnings against idolizing false prophets. Despite all those minor details, we’ll all be on the same page, right? Well won’t we???
Where is the “Misanthropocene” right now in relation to past extinction events? The chart below tells the tale. Notice that our current rise in GHG’s is essentially instantaneous in relation to past warmings which took place over thousands of years. As far as scientists can tell, the current warming from industrial civilization is the most rapid in geologic time. Ice core and marine sediment data in the paleoclimatology archive have revealed brief periods of rapid warming and there is no reason to believe modern man is immune to such catastrophic and abrupt climate events. In fact, we know that the Arctic is already warming twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Earth sensitivity to climate change is now thought to be possibly double that of previous estimates. An entirely different planet can result from just a slight change in temperature:
We’re about halfway towards the same CO2 levels as the Paleocene Thermal Extinction, but our speed of trajectory surpasses even that of the Permian Extinction:
In 2005, Lee R. Kump and fellow scientists published a paper describing what would become known as the Kump hypothesis, implicating hydrogen sulfide (H2S) as the primary culprit in past mass extinctions. According to OSHA, “a level of H2S gas at or above 100 ppm is immediately dangerous to life and health.” Prior to Kump’s study, the working theory had been that some sort of singular, cataclysmic event such as an asteroid strike was to blame for all mass die-offs, but Kump and colleagues proposed that a global warming-induced asphyxiation via hydrogen sulfide gas(H2S) was to blame for snuffing out life under the sea, on the land, and in the air. In past mass extinctions, volcanic eruptions and thawing methane hydrates created greenhouse-gas warmings that culminated in the release of poisonous gas from oxygen-depleted oceans. Humans with their fossil fuel-eating machines are unwittingly producing the same conditions today. The Kump hypothesis (elevated CO2 with lowering O2 levels) is now regarded as the most plausible explanation for the majority of mass extinctions in earth’s history:
In the short term as both poles completely melt away and the Equator-to-Pole temperature gradient declines, the hydrologic cycle and storms will intensify, jet streams will be altered, global air circulation and ocean currents will be rearranged (especially in northern latitudes), and sea levels will rise. While some local winds will slow down, other areas may actually increase due to local temperature gradients becoming more influential than global ones. New research has indicated early warning signs of a collapse in ocean circulation. When that happens, the oceans ultimately turn into stagnant, anoxic pools belching deadly hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere.
As others have noted, our energy, transport and building infrastructure was not constructed to withstand a mutated planet blindly molded by over seven billion humans. For example, think of all those massive wind farms rendered useless by alterations in local wind patterns, hydro-power shut down due to devastating droughts, solar farms destroyed by large hail storms, etc.
The monstrous capitalism we see today is the result of capitalism’s inherent growth dynamics. To give one modern-day example, the solar energy industry/movement began with the conception of local, i.e. decentralized, and roof-top solar electricity generation for local consumption. Today we see projects like Desertec (huge solar power plants in the Sahara that would supply 15% of Europe’s total electricity needs) and competition between European and Chinese solar panel producers for larger chunks of the world market. – Link
The destructive trend has been inexorably cumulative:
…the central trend is verifiable: mass die-offs are on the rise, increasing by one event per year for the last 70 years.
“While this might not seem like much, one additional mass mortality event per year over 70 years translates into a considerable increase in the number of these events being reported each year,” explained co-author Adam Siepielski, a biologist at the University of San Diego. “Going from one event to 70 each year is a substantial increase, especially given the increased magnitudes of mass mortality events for some of these organisms.” – Link
If we shed our anthropocentric blinders, the harsh reality is that nothing of substance is being done to prevent our own extinction, and after looking back at humanity’s track record for slowing down this beast of globalized industrial civilization even one iota, any sane and rational person would have to conclude that there are forces at work well beyond the control of any one group of people, any state, or even any one country. Humans have the dubious honor of being the earth’s first sentient beings to have thoroughly documented their own demise while arguing with each other over whose fault it is. And the longer the Keeling Curve stretches skyward, the greater the odds that we will pull the trigger on a geoengineering scheme to slow down the inevitable:
Do these experts—the top scholars and scientists researching the subject in the world—think we will see geoengineering in our lifetime?
“Let’s see it for ten years,” the emcee said. A few scientists cautiously raised their hands. Twenty and 30 years saw some more converts. When he called out “fifty years,” more than half the room had their hands up.
That, according to the experts, is a 50-50 shot that someone is going to try, this century, to engineer the Earth’s climate. To hack the planet. – Link
Techno-capitalist carbon man’s fetish with high-tech gadgetry has already gotten the best of him. Just look at us glued to our iphones, tv’s, internet, and sundry other social media tools. We’re addicted to and dependent on our technology, and the idea of pulling the power plug on this way of life is unthinkable, not to mention fatal, for those raised within its confines.
“In Earth’s history we see climate changes over time, and we know that some of these climate changes were associated with enormous biological destruction. How could we believe that the same sort of experience moving into the modern-day wouldn’t do the same thing?” ~ Dr. Peter D. Ward
“…the Second Law also demands that nothing can do anything without consuming concentrated energy, or fuel, and then dissipating it as unusable waste heat. For example, the Earth “consumes” concentrated sunlight to power weather and the water cycle, and then radiates unusable thermal energy to the cold of space. Like the weather in our atmosphere, all economic actions and motions, even our thoughts, must also be propelled by a progression from concentrated fuel to useless waste heat. The economy would grind to a halt absent continued energetic input. Buildings crumble; people die; technology becomes obsolete; we forget. Civilization must constantly consume in order to sustain itself against this constant loss of energy and matter…” ~ Tim Garrett
On average the human brain experiences 70,000 thoughts daily and requires roughly 24 watts or roughly 500 Calories during that time to function. To keep modern civilization running, 17 trillion Watts of power are consumed, 4% of which goes to keeping humanity’s 7 billion bodies alive while the rest powers our buildings, machines, and agriculture. The laws of thermodynamics require that all systems, whether natural or inorganic, evolve and grow through the conversion of environmental potential energy into a dissipated form known commonly as waste heat. Most of the energy we need to run industrial civilization still comes from fossil fuels with coal being the primary source, and projections are that this will remain so far into the future. Since fossil fuels give off nasty greenhouse gasses that heat up the planet and destabilize the biosphere, the obvious question is whether our economic engine can be decoupled from CO2 emissions.
Conclusions of the paper entitled ‘Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?’:
Improving energy efficiency accelerates CO2 emissions growth.
Absent collapsing the economy (In other words turning the inflation adjusted GDP to zero), emissions can be stabilized only by building the equivalent of one nuke plant per day globally (or some other non CO2-emitting power supply)
Emissions growth has inertia (due to the high probability of points one and two)
The present state and growth of civilization are determined by the past, and the past fundamentally cannot be changed. Thus we are set on a trajectory that can lead to simplified predictions of the future.
Where does the value of money come from?
An economist would say that its value is fundamentally belief-based. I believe it has value and you believe it has value; therefore, it has value.
From a physics perspective, this explanation is a bit unsatisfactory because it doesn’t really explain where that belief comes from. Why is that belief so resilient? Presumably that belief has some physical representation because civilization certainly is part of the physical universe. It’s not separate from it. We are all pat of the physical world.
Civilization is an organism that can be defined by how it consumes/transforms energy. Physics can be used to describe civilization. There are basic laws of thermodynamics and, fundamentally, physics is about the transformation of energy from one state to another or really the flow of energy downhill, or more strictly, the flow of material downhill from a high potential state to a low potential state. You can think of a ball rolling from a high gravitational potential to a low gravitational potential.
Money is a representation of some energetic flow [economic activity] from high potential to low potential. Economic wealth represents the rate of consumption of energy in civilization. An example of this in nature would be a beaver dam which represents civilization.
The energy reservoir for the beaver dam (civilization) is the water behind the dam. The flow of water across the dam from a high gravitational potential to a low gravitational potential represents the size of the beaver’s ‘civilization’. Something similar applies to human civilization which represents a gradient between available energy supplies (coal, oil, uranium) and a point of low potential (outer space).
We consume energy, things happen in civilization due to the flow across that potential gradient (high to low) releasing waste heat which radiates to outer space at a cold temperature of about 255 Kelvin (-18ºC).
We can treat civilization as a single organism that interacts on a global scale with available energy reservoirs and through the transformation of that energy (stuff is done, economic activity occurs). Money is a representation of that capacity to do stuff physically (or how fast it can consume that energy).
This is a testable hypothesis and it can be expressed mathematically which means we can look at this quantitatively.
Wealth is the value of something that has accumulated over time. Based on what we currently have, we are able to produce more which gives us more power to produce even more in the future. It’s through this spontaneous feedback process that civilization (or a beaver dam) is able to grow.
The question is, “How do you calculate this accumulated wealth?”
Economists use GDP as a wealth indicator. All the economic production added up from the beginning of history up to the present is the total accumulated wealth for civilization.
GDP has units of currency per time, so it’s a production per year. Inflation-adjusted production is producing something new to be added to what we currently have and that added over time creates our wealth. The hypothesis says that this process is related to our rate of energy consumption through a constant value λ (9.7, plus or minus 0.3, milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar].
This can be tested with various historical GDP statistics along with records of world total energy production and CO2 emissions.
This hypothesis is supported by the data to an extremely high degree of confidence.
What turns that piece of paper (currency) into a potential to do something is the milliwatts per dollar, as calculated in the chart below:
The graph below shows statistics from the year 1700 onward for inflation-adjusted world GDP(P) Green line. The time integral of GDP, or wealth of civilization(C), is represented by the blue line which has increased by a factor of 6 or 7($300 trillion to $1700 trillion) since 1700. Bursts of growth are seen around 1880 and 1950 in the purple line(η) which is the annual percentage growth rate of world GDP, calculated by dividing the GDP(P) by the wealth of civilization(C). Today the world GDP is about 100 times larger than it was in 1970.
The growth of red line(a), primary energy consumption rate, is essentially moving in tandem with the wealth of civilization (blue line). This suggests that, fundamentally, money is power.
The black line represents the constant coefficient of the power of money λ (9.7, plus or minus 0.3, milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar).
How is emissions related to wealth?
It is the relation of energy consumption and the resultant emissions. Emission rates are fundamentally linked to the wealth of civilization:
You cannot reduce emission rates without reducing the “wealth” of civilization. Wealth is energy consumption; energy consumption is carbon dioxide emissions. The two are inseparable.
In order to just stabilize CO2 levels, you would have to decarbonize as fast as the current growth rate in energy consumption which would work out to about one nuclear power plant per day (or some other comparable non CO2-emitting energy supply).
If you look at atmospheric CO2 concentrations in parts per million by volume (from various sources including ice cores) and compare that to the world GDP going back to 2 A.D., the values increase pretty much in tandem through history:
“If we want to reduce CO2, something has to collapse.”
In more recent years, the world GDP plotted against atmospheric CO2 shows an even more tight relationship between the two:
“You could just go to the top of Mauna Loa with a CO2 monitor and measure the size of the global economy to a high degree of accuracy.”
The positive feedback of building wealth in civilization
Wealth is a representation of energy consumption rates. Real GDP is a representation of the growth rate in energy consumption rates. This cycle is fundamentally linked to physics through the parameter lambda λ (9.7 milliwatts per inflation-adjusted dollar).
GDP is really just an abstract representation of an ability to increase our capacity to consume more energy in the future. That’s what the production really represents.
Civilization is always trying to expand its energy consumption to accumulate more wealth, or reduce the cost of maintenance by improving energy efficiency. More available energy translates into more accumulated wealth which in turn requires more energy for maintenance, creating a vicious circle of unending growth. Energy conservation essentially does not help. The fear of contraction permeates every corner of the economy.
In nature a tree takes available energy in sunlight through photosynthesis to incorporate nutrients from the soil and air in order to grow, and as it grows, it is able to do more of that process in the future. For a healthy tree, increased efficiency speeds up this process. If the tree is diseased, then the efficiency would be compromised until it dies, creating exponential decay.
We could apply this to civilization. If we increase efficiency, it leads to accelerated growth and more energy consumption. This phenomenon is known as Jevon’s paradox, first noted in 1865.
Increased energy efficiency increases the positive feedback of building wealth in civilization which can lead to super exponential growth, and that leads to an ever accelerated increase of CO2 emissions. This feedback loop (rate of return) for building wealth in civilization has increased from about 0.1% per year in 1700 to 2.2% per year, the highest it’s ever been in history.
As mentioned before, there are a couple of inflection points in history for this rate of return, one in 1880 and another in 1950 which likely correspond to new energy reservoirs coming online. This means the problem is fundamentally a geologic problem. 1950-1970 was a boom time for the wealth rate of return. This rate of return has been stagnant in recent years for the first time since the 1930’s, probably related to the current economic crisis. The sheer size of modern civilization has vastly overshot the Earth’s regenerative abilities. Biophysical limits on resource extraction are likely a major contributor to this stagnant rate of return. The extraction of low-grade, dirty fossil fuels is a sign of civilization’s energy desperation.
We aren’t really decarbonizing. Perhaps we’re trying to, but not really.
The model shows that reducing carbon requires a rapid reduction in the size of maintained wealth, as well as rapid abandonment of carbon-burning energy sources at the global rate of 300 GW of new non carbon-emitting power capacity—approximately one new nuclear power plant per day.
“Extending the model to the future, the model suggests that the well-known IPCC SRES scenarios substantially underestimate how much CO2 levels will rise for a given level of future economic prosperity. For one, global CO2 emission rates cannot be decoupled from wealth through efficiency gains. For another, like a long-term natural disaster, future greenhouse warming can be expected to act as an inflationary drag on the real growth of global wealth. For atmospheric CO2 concentrations to remain below a “dangerous” level of 450 ppmv, model forecasts suggest that there will have to be some combination of an unrealistically rapid rate of energy decarbonization and nearly immediate reductions in global civilization wealth. Effectively, it appears that civilization may be in a double-bind. If civilization does not collapse quickly this century, then CO2 levels will likely end up exceeding 1000 ppmv; but, if CO2 levels rise by this much, then the risk is that civilization will gradually tend towards collapse.” ~ Tim Garrett
With business-as-usual, by 2100 the world GDP would be 10 times higher than today and the atmospheric CO2 would be around 1200 ppm.
The developed countries like the U.S., Britain, and Europe have simply offshored their manufacturing base to China and elsewhere for the most part:
Garrett’s latest paper “Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis” explains key components determining whether civilization can “innovate” itself toward faster economic growth through new energy reserve discovery, improvements to human and infrastructure longevity, and more energy efficient resource extraction technology. Growth slows due to a combination of prior growth, energy reserve depletion, and a “fraying” of civilization networks due to natural disasters… While growth must initially be positive for civilization to emerge, positive growth cannot be sustained forever. Civilization networks are always falling apart, and presumably in a world with finite resources, we will eventually lose the capacity to keep fixing them.” Future loss of useable Land and Water is already in the pipeline from all prior carbon emissions, and CO2 emissions continue to rise unabated. “Whether collapse comes sooner or later depends on the quantity of energy reserves available to support continued growth and the accumulated magnitude of externally imposed decay… Theoretical and numerical arguments suggest that when growth rates approach zero, civilization becomes fragile to such externalities as natural disasters, and the risk is for an accelerating collapse.”
Rip rip woodchip Turn it into paper Throw it in the bin No news today Nightmare dreaming Can’t you hear the screaming Chainsaw I saw more decay