The Myth of Human Progress

5 06 2016

After reading this excellent article, you will know why I admire Chris Hedges so much……

Posted on Jan 13, 2013 on the Truthdig website

 

 

 

 

By Chris Hedges

chrishedgesClive Hamilton in his “Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change” describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward, as the draft report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee illustrates.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in ‘A Short History of Progress’ the ‘progress trap.’ We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

“If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later,” he said. “If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for. We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”

Wright, who in his dystopian novel “A Scientific Romance” paints a picture of a future world devastated by human stupidity, cites “entrenched political and economic interests” and a failure of the human imagination as the two biggest impediments to radical change. And all of us who use fossil fuels, who sustain ourselves through the formal economy, he says, are at fault.

Modern capitalist societies, Wright argues in his book “What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order,” derive from European invaders’ plundering of the indigenous cultures in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries, coupled with the use of African slaves as a workforce to replace the natives. The numbers of those natives fell by more than 90 percent because of smallpox and other plagues they hadn’t had before. The Spaniards did not conquer any of the major societies until smallpox had crippled them; in fact the Aztecs beat them the first time around. If Europe had not been able to seize the gold of the Aztec and Inca civilizations, if it had not been able to occupy the land and adopt highly productive New World crops for use on European farms, the growth of industrial society in Europe would have been much slower. Karl Marx and Adam Smith both pointed to the influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and the start of modern capitalism. It was the rape of the Americas, Wright points out, that triggered the orgy of European expansion. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the Europeans with technologically advanced weapons systems, making further subjugation, plundering and expansion possible.

“The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever,” Wright said. “It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”

And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we like past societies in distress will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us.

“Societies in collapse often fall prey to the belief that if certain rituals are performed all the bad stuff will go away,” Wright said. “There are many examples of that throughout history. In the past these crisis cults took hold among people who had been colonized, attacked and slaughtered by outsiders, who had lost control of their lives. They see in these rituals the ability to bring back the past world, which they look at as a kind of paradise. They seek to return to the way things were. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the 19th century, when the buffalo and the Indians were being slaughtered by repeating rifles and finally machine guns. People came to believe, as happened in the Ghost Dance, that if they did the right things the modern world that was intolerable—the barbed wire, the railways, the white man, the machine gun—would disappear.”

“We all have the same, basic psychological hard wiring,” Wright said. “It makes us quite bad at long-range planning and leads us to cling to irrational delusions when faced with a serious threat. Look at the extreme right’s belief that if government got out of the way, the lost paradise of the 1950s would return. Look at the way we are letting oil and gas exploration rip when we know that expanding the carbon economy is suicidal for our children and grandchildren. The results can already be felt. When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.”

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea,” Wright said.

 

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Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind

27 07 2015

Chris Harries, a follower of this blog, has found an amazing pdf file on XRayMike’s blog that is so amazing, and explains civilisation’s predicaments so well, I just had to write it up for you all to share around.  I think that the concept of the Earth as a chemical battery is simply stunning…….. the importance of this paper, I think, is epic.

The paper, written by John R. Schramskia, David K. Gattiea , and James H. Brown begins with clarity…

Earth is a chemical battery where, over evolutionary time with a trickle-charge of photosynthesis using solar energy, billions of tons of living biomass were stored in forests and other ecosystems and in vast reserves of fossil fuels. In just the last few hundred years, humans extracted exploitable energy from these living and fossilized biomass fuels to build the modern industrial-technological-informational economy, to grow our population to more than 7 billion, and to transform the biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity of the earth. This rapid discharge of the earth’s store of organic energy fuels the human domination of the biosphere, including conversion of natural habitats to agricultural fields and the resulting loss of native species, emission of carbon dioxide and the resulting climate and sea level change, and use of supplemental nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar energy sources. The laws of thermodynamics governing the trickle-charge and rapid discharge of the earth’s battery are universal and absolute; the earth is only temporarily poised a quantifiable distance from the thermodynamic equilibrium of outer space. Although this distance from equilibrium is comprised of all energy types, most critical for humans is the store of living biomass. With the rapid depletion of this chemical energy, the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space with fundamental ramifications for the biosphere and humanity. Because there is no substitute or replacement energy for living biomass, the remaining distance from equilibrium that will be required to support human life is unknown.

To illustrate this stunning concept of the Earth as a battery, this clever illustration is used:

Fig1

That just makes so much sense, and makes such mockery of those who believe ‘innovation’ can replace this extraordinary system.

It took hundreds of millions of years for photosynthetic plants to trickle-charge the battery, gradually converting diffuse low-quality solar energy to high-quality chemical energy stored temporarily in the form of living biomass and more lastingly in the form of fossil fuels: oil, gas, and coal. In just the last few centuries—an evolutionary blink of an eye—human energy use to fuel the rise of civilization and the modern industrial-technological-informational society has discharged the earth-space battery

So then, how long have we got before the battery’s flat?

The laws of thermodynamics dictate that the difference in rate and timescale between the slow trickle-charge and rapid depletion is unsustainable. The current massive discharge is rapidly driving the earth from a biosphere teeming with life and supporting a highly developed human civilization toward a barren moonscape.

The truly surprising thing is how much I’ve been feeling this was the case, and for how long…..  the ever lowering ERoEI of the energy sources we insist on using are merely signal of entropy, and it doesn’t matter how clever we are, or how innovative, entropy rules.  People with green dreams of renewables powered EVs and houses and businesses simply do not understand entropy.

Energy in Physics and Biology

The laws of thermodynamics are incontrovertible; they have inescapable ramifications for the future of the biosphere and humankind. We begin by explaining the thermodynamic concepts necessary to understand the energetics of the biosphere and humans within the earth-space system. The laws of thermodynamics and the many forms of energy can be difficult for non-experts. However, the earth’s flows and stores of energy can be explained in straightforward terms to understand why the biosphere and human civilization are in energy imbalance. These physical laws are universal and absolute, they apply to all human activities, and they are the universal key to sustainability

The Paradigm of the Earth-Space Battery

By definition, the quantity of chemical energy concentrated in the carbon stores of planet Earth (positive cathode) represents the distance from the harsh thermodynamic equilibrium of nearby outer space (negative anode). This energy gradient sustains the biosphere and human life. It can be modeled as a once-charged battery. This earth-space chemical battery (Fig. 1) trickle charged very slowly over 4.5 billion years of solar influx and accumulation of living biomass and fossil fuels. It is now discharging rapidly due to human activities. As we burn organic chemical energy, we generate work to grow our population and economy. In the process, the high-quality chemical energy is transformed into heat and lost from the planet by radiation into outer space. The flow of energy from cathode to anode is moving the planet rapidly and irrevocably closer to the sterile chemical equilibrium of space

Fig2

Fig. 2 depicts the earth’s primary higher-quality chemical and nuclear energy storages as their respective distances from the equilibrium of outer space. We follow the energy industry in focusing on the higher-quality pools and using “recoverable energy” as our point of reference, because many deposits of fossil fuels and nuclear ores are dispersed or inaccessible and cannot be currently harvested to yield net energy gain and economic profit (4). The very large lower-quality pools of organic energy including carbon compounds in soils and oceanic sediments (5, 6) are not shown, but these are not currently economically extractable and usable, so they are typically not included in either recoverable or nonrecoverable categories. Although the energy gradients attributed to geothermal cooling, ocean thermal gradients, greenhouse air temperatures, etc., contribute to Earth’s thermodynamic distance from the equilibrium of space, they are also not included as they are not chemical energies and presumably would still exist in some form on a planet devoid of living things, including humans. Fig. 2 shows that humans are currently discharging all of the recoverable stores of organic chemical energy to the anode of the earth-space battery as heat.

Most people who argue about the viability of their [insert favorite technology] only see that viability in terms of money.  Energy, to most people is such a nebulous concept that they do not see the failures of their techno Utopian solutions…….

Fig3

Living Biomass Is Depleting Rapidly

At the time of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christ, the earth contained ∼1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass (10), equivalent to 35 ZJ of chemical energy, mostly in the form of trees in forests. In just the last 2,000 y, humans have reduced this by about 45% to ∼550 billion tons of carbon in biomass, equivalent to 19.2 ZJ. The loss has accelerated over time, with 11% depleted just since 1900 (Fig. 3) (11, 12). Over recent years, on average, we are harvesting—and releasing as heat and carbon dioxide—the remaining 550 billion tons of carbon in living biomass at a net rate of ∼1.5 billion tons carbon per year (13, 14). The cause and measurement of biomass depletion are complicated issues, and the numbers are almost constantly being reevaluated (14). The depletion is due primarily to changes in land use, including deforestation, desertification, and conversion of vegetated landscapes into barren surfaces, but also secondarily to other causes such as pollution and unsustainable forestry and fisheries. Although the above quantitative estimates have considerable uncertainty, the overall trend and magnitude are inescapable facts with dire thermodynamic consequences.

The Dominant Role of Humans Homo sapiens Is a Unique Species.

The history of humankind—starting with huntergatherers, who learned to obtain useful heat energy by burning wood and dung, and continuing to contemporary humans, who apply the latest technologies, such as fracking, solar panels, and wind turbines—is one of innovating to use all economically exploitable energy sources at an ever increasing rate (12, 15). Together, the biological imperative of the Malthusian-Darwinian dynamic to use all available resources and the social imperative to innovate and improve human welfare have resulted in at least 10,000 years of virtually uninterrupted population and economic growth: from a few million hunter-gatherers to more than 7 billion modern humans and from a subsistence economy based on sustainable use of plants and animals (i.e., in equilibrium with photosynthetic energy production) to the modern industrial-technological-informational economy (i.e., out of equilibrium due to the unsustainable unidirectional discharge of the biomass battery).

Fig. 4 depicts the multiplier effect of two large numbers that determine the rapid discharge rate of the earth‐space battery. Energy use per person multiplied by population gives total global energy consumption by humans. According to British Petroleum’s numbers (16), which most experts accept, in 2013, average per capita energy use was 74.6 × 109 J/person per year (equivalent to ∼2,370 W if plotted in green in Fig. 4). Multiplying this by the world population of 7.1 billion in 2013 gives a total consumption of ∼0.53 ZJ/y (equivalent to 16.8 TW if plotted in red in Fig. 4), which is greater than 1% of the total recoverable fossil fuel energy stored in the planet (i.e., 0.53 ZJ/40 ZJ = 1.3%). As time progresses, the population increases, and the economy grows, the outcome of multiplying these two very large numbers is that the total rate of global energy consumption is growing at a near-exponential rate.

fig4

ANY follower of this blog should recognise the peak in the green line as a sure sign of Limits to Growth…. while everything else – population and energy consumption – is skyrocketing exponentially, fooling the techno Utopians into a feeling of security that’s equivalent to what one might feel in their nice new modern car on its way to a fatal accident with no survivors……. everything is going just fine, until it isn’t.

Ironically, powerful political and market forces, rather than acting to conserve the remaining charge in the battery, actually push in the opposite direction, because the pervasive efforts to increase economic growth will require increased energy consumption (4, 8). Much of the above information has been presented elsewhere, but in different forms (e.g., in the references cited). Our synthesis differs from most of these treatments in two respects: (i) it introduces the paradigm of the earth‐space battery to provide a new perspective, and (ii) it emphasizes the critical importance of living biomass for global sustainability of both the biosphere and human civilization.

Humans and Phytomass

We can be more quantitative and put this into context by introducing a new sustainability metric Ω Ω = P BN [1] which purposefully combines perhaps the two critical variables affecting the energy status of the planet: total phytomass and human population. Eq. 1 accomplishes this combination by dividing the stored phytomass chemical energy P (in joules) by the energy needed to feed the global population for 1 y (joules per year; Fig. 5). The denominator represents the basic (metabolic) energy need of the human population; it is obtained by multiplying the global population N by their per capita metabolic needs for 1 y (B = 3.06 × 109 joules/person·per year as calculated from an 8.4 ×106 joules/person·day diet). The simple expression for Ω gives the number of years at current rates of consumption that the global phytomass storage could feed the human race. By making the conservative but totally unrealistic assumption that all phytomass could be harvested to feed humans (i.e., all of it is edible), we get an absolute maximum estimate of the number of years of food remaining for humankind. Fig. 5 shows that over the years 0–2000, Ω has decreased predictably and dramatically from 67,000 to 1,029 y (for example, in the year 2000, P = 19.3 × 1021 joules, B = 3.06 × 109 joules/person·per year, and N = 6.13 × 109 persons; thus, Ω =1,029 y). In just 2,000 y, our single species has reduced Ω by 98.5%. The above is a drastic underestimate for four reasons. First, we obviously cannot consume all phytomass stores for food; the preponderance of phytomass runs the biosphere. Second, basing our estimate on human biological metabolism does not include that high rate of extrametabolic energy expenditure currently being used to feed the population and fuel the economy. Third, the above estimate does not account that both the global human population and the per-capita rate of energy use are not constant, but increasing at near-exponential rates. We do not attempt to extrapolate to predict the future trajectories, which must ultimately turn downward as essential energy stocks are depleted. Finally, we emphasize that not only has the global store of phytomass energy decreased rapidly, but more importantly human dominance over the remaining portion has also increased rapidly. Long before the hypothetical deadline when the global phytomass store is completely exhausted, the energetics of the biosphere and all its inhabitant species will have been drastically altered, with profound changes in biogeochemical function and remaining biodiversity. The very conservative Ω index shows how rapidly land use changes, NPP appropriation, pollution, and other activities are depleting phytomass stores to fuel the current near-exponential trajectories of population and economic growth. Because the Ω index is conservative, it also emphasizes how very little time is left to make changes and achieve a sustainable future for the biosphere and humanity. We are already firmly within the zone of scientific uncertainty where some perturbation could trigger a catastrophic state shift in the biosphere and in the human population and economy (31). As we rapidly approach the chemical equilibrium of outer space, the laws of thermodynamics offer little room for negotiation.

THIS, is the really scary bit………..  collapse, anyone?

fig5

Discussion

The trajectory of Ω shown in Fig. 5 has at least three implications for the future of humankind. First, there is no reason to expect a different trajectory in the near future. Something like the present level of biomass energy destruction will be required to sustain the present global population with its fossil fuel‐subsidized food production and economy. Second, as the earth‐space battery is being discharged ever faster (Fig. 3) to support an ever larger population, the capacity to buffer changes will diminish and the remaining energy gradients will experience increasing perturbations. As more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations, such as droughts, disease epidemics, social unrest, and warfare. Third, there is considerable uncertainty in how the biosphere will function as Ω decreases from the present Ω = ∼1,029 y into an uncharted thermodynamic operating region. The global biosphere, human population, and economy will obviously crash long before Ω = 1 y. If H. sapiens does not go extinct, the human population will decline drastically as we will be forced to return to making a living as hunter‐ gatherers or simple horticulturalists.

The laws of thermodynamics take no prisoners. Equilibrium is inhospitable, sterile, and final.  I just wish we could get through to the people running the planet.  To say this paper blew me away is the understatement of the year, and parsing the ‘good bits’ for this post doesn’t really do it justice.  It needs to be read at least twice in fact, and if you can handle the weight, I’d urge you to read the entire thing at its source https://collapseofindustrialcivilization.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/pnas-2015-schramski-1508353112.pdf

How many of us will “return to making a living as hunter‐ gatherers or simple horticulturalists” I wonder……. We are fast running out of time.





The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us

15 05 2014

heinbergA guest post from my friend Richard Heinberg, originally published as MuseLetter #264 in May 2014.  This is a long but important essay. I recommend a large cup of your favourite poison, and a biscuit or two….  Enjoy!

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 126 KB)

 

Time to celebrate! Woo-hoo! It’s official: we humans have started a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. Who’d have thought that just one species among millions might be capable of such an amazing accomplishment?

Let’s wait to stock up on party favours, though. After all, the Anthropocene could be rather bleak. The reason our epoch has acquired a new name is that future geologists will be able to spot a fundamental discontinuity in the rock strata that document our little slice of time in Earth’s multi-billion year pageant. This discontinuity will be traceable to the results of human presence. Think climate change, ocean acidification, and mass extinction.

Welcome to the Anthropocene: a world that may feature little in the way of multi-cellular ocean life other than jellyfish, and one whose continents might be dominated by a few generalist species able to quickly occupy new and temporary niches as habitats degrade (rats, crows, and cockroaches come to mind). We humans have started the Anthropocene, and we’ve proudly named it for ourselves, yet ironically we may not be around to enjoy much of it. The chain of impacts we have initiated could potentially last millions of years, but it’s a tossup whether there will be surviving human geologists to track and comment on it.

To be sure, there are celebrants of the Anthropocene who believe we’re just getting started, and that humans can and will shape this new epoch deliberately, intelligently, and durably. Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, contends the Anthropocene will require us to think and act differently, but that population, consumption, and the economy can continue to grow despite changes to the Earth system. Stewart Brand says we may no longer have a choice as to whether to utterly re-make the natural world; in his words, “We only have a choice of terraforming well. That’s the green project for this century.” In their book Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute say we can create a world where 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living allowing them to pursue their dreams, though this will only be possible if we embrace growth, modernization, and technological innovation. Similarly, Emma Marris (who admits to having spent almost no time in wilderness), argues in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World that wilderness is gone forever, that we should all get used to the idea of the environment as human-constructed, and that this is potentially a good thing.

Is the Anthropocene the culmination of human folly or the commencement of human godhood? Will the emerging epoch be depleted and post-apocalyptic, or tastefully appointed by generations of tech-savvy ecosystem engineers? Environmental philosophers are currently engaged in what amounts to a heated debate about the limits of human agency. That discussion is especially engrossing because . . . it’s all about us!

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The viability of the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” version of the Anthropocene—let’s call it the Techno-Anthropocene—probably hinges on prospects for nuclear power. A concentrated, reliable energy source will be required for the maintenance and growth of industrial civilization, and just about everybody agrees that—whether or not we’re at the point of “peak oil”—fossil fuels won’t continue energizing civilization for centuries and millennia to come. Solar and wind are more environmentally benign sources, but they are diffuse and intermittent. Of society’s current non-fossil energy sources, only nuclear is concentrated, available on demand, and (arguably) capable of significant expansion. Thus it’s no accident that Techno-Anthropocene boosters such as Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger are also big nuclear proponents.

But the prospects for current nuclear technology are not rosy. The devastating Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 scared off citizens and governments around the globe. Japan will be dealing with the radiation and health impacts for decades if not centuries, and the West Coast of the US is gearing up for an influx of radioactive ocean water and debris. There is still no good solution for storing the radioactive waste produced even when reactors are operating as planned. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and typically suffer from hefty cost over-runs. The world supply of uranium is limited, and shortages are likely by mid-century even with no major expansion of power plants. And, atomic power plants are tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.

In 2012, The Economist magazine devoted a special issue to a report on nuclear energy; tellingly, the report was titled, “Nuclear Power: The Dream that Failed.” Its conclusion: the nuclear industry may be on the verge of expansion in just a few nations, principally China; elsewhere, it’s on life support.

None of this daunts Techno-Anthropocene proponents, who say new nuclear technology has the potential to fulfill the promises originally made for the current fleet of atomic power plants. The centerpiece of this new technology is the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).

Unlike light water reactors (which comprise the vast majority of nuclear power plants in service today), IFRs would use sodium as a coolant. The IFR nuclear reaction features fast neutrons, and it more thoroughly consumes radioactive fuel, leaving less waste. Indeed, IFRs could use current radioactive waste as fuel. Also, they are alleged to offer greater operational safety and less risk of weapons proliferation.

These arguments are forcefully made in the 2013 documentary, “Pandora’s Promise,” produced and directed by Robert Stone. The film asserts that IFRs are our best tool to mitigate anthropogenic global warming, and it goes on to claim there has been a deliberate attempt by misguided bureaucrats to sabotage the development of IFR reactors.

However, critics of the film say these claims are overblown and that fast-reactor technology is highly problematic. Earlier versions of the fast breeder reactor (of which IFR is a version) were commercial failures and safety disasters. Proponents of the Integral Fast Reactor, say the critics, overlook its exorbitant development and deployment costs and continued proliferation risks. IFR theoretically “transmutes,” rather than eliminates, radioactive waste. Yet the technology is decades away from widespread implementation, and its use of liquid sodium as a coolant can lead to fires and explosions.

David Biello, writing in Scientific American, concludes that, “To date, fast neutron reactors have consumed six decades and $100 billion of global effort but remain ‘wishful thinking.’”

Even if advocates of IFR reactors are correct, there is one giant practical reason they may not power the Anthropocene: we likely won’t see the benefit from them soon enough to make much of a difference. The challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion require action now, not decades hence.

Assuming enough investment capital, and assuming a future in which we have decades in which to improve existing technologies, IFR reactors might indeed show significant advantages over current light water reactors (only many years of experience can tell for sure). But we don’t have the luxury of limitless investment capital, and we don’t have decades in which to work out the bugs and build out this complex, unproven technology.

The Economist’s verdict stands: “[N]uclear power will continue to be a creature of politics not economics, with any growth a function of political will or a side-effect of protecting electrical utilities from open competition. . . . Nuclear power will not go away, but its role may never be more than marginal.”

*          *          *

Defying risk of redundancy, I will hammer home the point: cheap, abundant energy is the prerequisite for the Techno-Anthropocene. We can only deal with the challenges of resource depletion and overpopulation by employing more energy. Running out of fresh water? Just build desalination plants (that use lots of energy). Degrading topsoil in order to produce enough grain to feed ten billion people? Just build millions of hydroponic greenhouses (that need lots of energy for their construction and operation). As we mine deeper deposits of metals and minerals and refine lower-grade ores, we’ll require more energy. Energy efficiency gains may help us do more with each increment of power, but a growing population and rising per-capita consumption rates will more than overcome those gains (as they have consistently done in recent decades). Any way you look at it, if we are to maintain industrial society’s current growth trajectory we will need more energy, we will need it soon, and our energy sources will have to meet certain criteria—for example, they will need to emit no carbon while at the same time being economically viable.

These essential criteria can be boiled down to four words: quantity, quality, price, and timing. Nuclear fusion could theoretically provide energy in large amounts, but not soon. The same is true of cold fusion (even if—and it’s a big if—the process can be confirmed to actually work and can be scaled up). Biofuels offer a very low energy return on the energy invested in producing them (a deal-breaking quality issue). Ocean thermal and wave power may serve coastal cities, but again the technology needs to be proven and scaled up. Coal with carbon capture and storage is economically uncompetitive with other sources of electricity. Solar and wind are getting cheaper, but they’re intermittent and tend to undermine commercial utility companies’ business models. While our list of potential energy sources is long, none of these sources is ready to be plugged quickly into our existing system to provide energy in the quantity, and at the price, that the economy needs in order to continue growing.

This means that humanity’s near future will almost certainly be energy-constrained. And that, in turn, will ensure—rather than engineering nature on an ever-greater scale—we will still be depending on ecosystems that are largely beyond our control.

As a species, we’ve gained an impressive degree of influence over our environment by deliberately simplifying ecosystems so they will support more humans, but fewer other species. Our principal strategy in this project has been agriculture—primarily a form of agriculture that focuses on a few annual grain crops. We’ve commandeered up to 50 percent of the primary biological productivity of our planet, mostly through farming and forestry. Doing this has had overwhelmingly negative impacts on non-domesticated plants and animals. The subsequent loss of biodiversity is increasingly compromising humanity’s prospects, because we depend upon countless ecosystem services (such as pollination and oxygen regeneration)—services we do not organize or control, and for which we do not pay.

The essence of our problem is this: the side effects of our growth binge are compounding rapidly and threaten a crisis in which the artificial support systems we’ve built over past decades (food, transport, and financial systems, among others)—as well as nature’s wild systems, on which we still also depend—could all crash more or less simultaneously.

If we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and potential crisis with regard to our current strategy of constant population/consumption growth and ecosystem takeover, then it would seem that a change of direction is necessary and inevitable. If we were smart, rather than attempting to dream up ways of further re-engineering natural systems in untested (and probably unaffordable) ways, we would be limiting and ameliorating the environmental impacts of our global industrial system while reducing our population and overall consumption levels.

If we don’t proactively limit population and consumption, nature will eventually do it for us, and likely by very unpleasant means (famine, plague, and perhaps war). Similarly, we can rein in consumption simply by continuing to deplete resources until they become unaffordable.

Governments are probably incapable of leading a strategic retreat in our war on nature, as they are systemically hooked on economic growth. But there may be another path forward. Perhaps citizens and communities can initiate a change of direction. Back in the 1970s, as the first energy shocks hit home and the environmental movement flourished, ecological thinkers began tackling the question: what are the most biologically regenerative, least harmful ways of meeting basic human needs? Two of these thinkers, Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, came up with a system they called Permaculture. According to Mollison, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”  Today there are thousands of Permaculture practitioners throughout the world, and Permaculture Design courses are frequently on offer in almost every country.

Permaculture principles

Other ecologists didn’t aim to create an overarching system, but merely engaged in piecemeal research on practices that might lead to a more sustainable mode of food production—practices that include intercropping, mulching, and composting. One ambitious agricultural scientist, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina Kansas, has spent the past four decades breeding perennial grain crops (he points out that our current annual grains are responsible for the vast bulk of soil erosion, to the tune of 25 billion tons per year).

Meanwhile, community resilience efforts have sprung up in thousands of towns and cities around the world—including the Transition Initiatives, which are propelled by a compelling, flexible, grassroots organizing model and a vision of a future in which life is better without fossil fuels.

Population Media Center is working to ensure we don’t get to ten billion humans by enlisting creative artists in countries with high population growth rates (which are usually also among the world’s poorest nations) to produce radio and television soap operas featuring strong female characters who successfully confront issues related to family planning. This strategy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and humane means of reducing high birth rates in these nations.

What else can be done? Substitute labour for fuel. Localize food systems. Capture atmospheric carbon in soil and biomass. Replant forests and restore ecosytems. Recycle and re-use. Manufacture more durable goods. Rethink economics to deliver human satisfaction without endless growth. There are organizations throughout the world working to further each of these goals, usually with little or no government support. Taken together, they could lead us to an entirely different Anthropocene.

Call it the Lean-Green Anthropocene.

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The Techno-Anthropocene has an Achilles heel: energy (more specifically, the failings of nuclear power). The Lean-Green Anthropocene has one as well: human nature.

It’s hard to convince people to voluntarily reduce consumption and curb reproduction. That’s not because humans are unusually pushy, greedy creatures; all living organisms tend to maximize their population size and rate of collective energy use. Inject a colony of bacteria into a suitable growth medium in a petri dish and watch what happens. Hummingbirds, mice, leopards, oarfish, redwood trees, or giraffes: in each instance the principle remains inviolate—every species maximizes population and energy consumption within nature’s limits. Systems ecologist Howard T. Odum called this rule the Maximum Power Principle: throughout nature, “system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

In addition to our innate propensity to maximize population and consumption, we humans also have difficulty making sacrifices in the present in order to reduce future costs. We’re genetically hardwired to respond to immediate threats with fight-or-flight responses, while distant hazards matter much less to us. It’s not that we don’t think about the future at all; rather, we unconsciously apply a discount rate based on the amount of time likely to elapse before a menace has to be faced.

True, there is some variation in future-anticipating behavior among individual humans. A small percentage of the population may change behavior now to reduce risks to forthcoming generations, while the great majority is less likely to do so. If that small percentage could oversee our collective future planning, we might have much less to worry about. But that’s tough to arrange in democracies, where people, politicians, corporations, and even nonprofit organizations get ahead by promising immediate rewards, usually in the form of more economic growth. If none of these can organize a proactive response to long-range threats like climate change, the actions of a few individuals and communities may not be so effective at mitigating the hazard.

This pessimistic expectation is borne out by experience. The general outlines of the 21st century ecological crisis have been apparent since the 1970s. Yet not much has actually been accomplished through efforts to avert that crisis. It is possible to point to hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of imaginative, courageous programs to reduce, recycle, and reuse—yet the overall trajectory of industrial civilization remains relatively unchanged.

*          *          *

Human nature may not permit the Lean-Greens’ message to altogether avert ecological crisis, but that doesn’t mean the message is pointless. To understand how it could have longer-term usefulness despite our tendency toward short-term thinking, it’s helpful to step back and look at how societies’ relationship with the environment tends to evolve.

The emblematic ecological crises of the Anthropocene (runaway climate change and ocean acidification, among others) are recent, but humans have been altering our environment one way or another for a long time. Indeed, there is controversy among geologists over when the Anthropocene began: some say it started with the industrial revolution, others tag it at the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, while still others tie it to the emergence of modern humans thousands of years earlier.

Humans have become world-changers as a result of two primary advantages: we have dexterous hands that enable us to make and use tools, and we have language, which helps us coordinate our actions over time and space. As soon as both were in place, we started using them to take over ecosystems. Paleoanthropologists can date the arrival of humans to Europe, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas by noting the timing of extinctions of large prey species. The list of animals probably eradicated by early humans is long, and includes (in Europe) several species of elephants and rhinos; (in Australia) giant wombats, kangaroos, and lizards; and (in the Americas) horses, mammoths, and giant deer.

People have also been deliberately re-engineering ecosystems for tens of thousands of years, principally by using fire to alter landscapes so they will produce more food for humans. Agriculture was a huge boost to our ability to produce more food on less land, and therefore to grow our population. Farming yielded storable food surpluses, which led to cities—the basis of civilization. It was in these urban social cauldrons that writing, money, and mathematics emerged.

If agriculture nudged the human project forward, fossil-fueled industrialism turbocharged it. In just the past two centuries, population and energy consumption have increased by over 800 percent. Our impact on the biosphere has more than kept pace.

The industrialization of agriculture reduced the need for farm labour. This enabled—or forced—billions to move to cities. As more people came to live in urban centres, they found themselves increasingly cut off from wild nature and ever more completely engaged with words, images, symbols, and tools.

There’s a term for the human tendency to look at the biosphere, maybe even the universe, as though it’s all about us: anthropocentrism. Up to a point, this is an understandable and even inevitable propensity. Every person, after all, is the centre of her own universe, the star of his own movie; why should our species as a whole be less egocentric? Other animals are similarly obsessed with their own kind: regardless of who furnishes the kibbles, dogs are obsessively interested in other dogs. But there are healthy and unhealthy degrees of individual and species self-centeredness. When individual human self-absorption becomes blatantly destructive we call it narcissism. Can a whole species be overly self-absorbed? Hunter-gatherers were certainly interested in their own survival, but many indigenous forager peoples thought of themselves as part of a larger community of life, with a responsibility to maintain the web of existence. Today we think more “pragmatically” (as an economist might put it), as we bulldoze, deforest, overfish, and deplete our way to world domination.

However, history does not portray a steady ramp-up of human hubris and alienation from nature. Periodically humans were slapped down. Famine, resource conflicts, and disease decimated populations that were previously growing. Civilizations rose, then fell. Financial manias led to crashes. Boomtowns became ghost towns.

Ecological slap-downs probably occurred with relatively great frequency in pre-agricultural times, when humans depended more directly on nature’s variable productivity of wild foods. The Aboriginals of Australia and the Native Americans—who are often regarded as exemplar intuitive ecologists due to their traditions and rituals restraining population growth, protecting prey species, and affirming humanity’s place within the larger ecosystem—were probably just applying lessons from bitter experience. It’s only when we humans get slapped down hard a few times that we start to appreciate other species’ importance, restrain our greed, and learn to live in relative harmony with our surroundings.

Which prompts the question: Are the Lean-Green Anthropocene prophets our species’ early warning system whose function is to avert catastrophe—or are they merely ahead of their time, pre-adapting to an ecological slap-down that is foreseeable but not yet fully upon us?

*          *          *

Throughout history, humans appear to have lived under two distinct regimes: boom times and dark ages. Boom times occurred in prehistory whenever people arrived in a new habitat to discover an abundance of large prey animals. Booms were also associated with the exploitation of new energy resources (especially coal and oil) and the expansions of great cities—from Uruk, Mohenjo-daro, Rome, Chang’an, Angkor Wat, Tenochtitlan, Venice, and London, all the way to Miami and Dubai. Boom-time behaviour is risk-seeking, confident to the point of arrogance, expansive, and experimental.

Historians use the term dark ages to refer to times when urban centres lose most of their population. Think Europe in the fifth through the fifteenth centuries, the Near East after the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 BCE, Cambodia between 1450 and 1863 CE, or Central America after the Mayan collapse of 900 CE. Dark-age behaviour is conservative and risk-averse. It has echoes in the attitudes of indigenous peoples who have lived in one place long enough to have confronted environmental limits again and again. Dark-age people haven’t skirted the Maximum Power Principle; they’ve just learned (from necessity) to pursue it with more modest strategies.

Needless to say, dark ages have their (ahem) dark side. In the early phases of such periods large numbers of people typically die from famine, also from war or other forms of violence. Dark ages are times of forgetting, when technologies and cultural achievements are often lost. Writing, money, mathematics, and astronomy can all disappear.

Still, these times are not uniformly gloomy. During the European Dark Ages, slavery nearly disappeared as new farming methods and better breeds of horses and oxen made forced human labour less economic. People who previously would have been bound in slavery became either free workers or, at worst, serfs. The latter couldn’t pick up and move without their lord’s permission, but generally enjoyed far more latitude than slaves. At the same time, the rise of Christianity brought new organized charitable activities and institutions, including hospices, hospitals, and shelters for the poor.

Today nearly everyone in the industrialized world has adopted boom-time behaviour. We are encouraged to do so by ceaseless advertising messages and by governmental cheerleaders of the growth economy. After all, we have just lived through the biggest boom in all human history—why not expect more of the same? The only significant slap-downs in recent cultural memory were the Great Depression and a couple of World Wars; in comparison with ecological bottlenecks in ancient eras these were minor affairs; further, they were relatively brief and played out three or more generations ago. For most of us now, dark-age behaviour seems quaint, pointless, and pessimistic.

It would be perverse to wish for a Great Slap-Down. Only a sociopath would welcome massive, widespread human suffering. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore these twin facts: our species’ population-consumption fiesta is killing the planet, and we’re not likely to end the party voluntarily.

Will we avert or face a Great Slap-Down? We’re already seeing initial signs of trouble ahead in extreme weather events, high oil and food prices, and increasing geopolitical tensions. Sadly, it seems that every effort will be made to keep the party going as long as possible. Even amid unmistakable signs of economic contraction, most people will still require time to adapt behaviourally. Moreover, a slap-down likely won’t be sudden and complete, but may unfold in stages. After each mini-slap we’ll hear claims from boom-time diehards that a techno-utopian takeoff has merely been delayed, and that economic expansion will resume if only we will follow this or that leader or political program.

But if urban centres feel the crunch, and if widespread Techno-utopian expectations are dashed, we can expect to see evidence of profound psychological disruption. Gradually, more and more people will conclude—again, as a result of hard experience—that nature isn’t here just for us. Whether this realization emerges from extreme weather, plagues, or resource scarcity, it will lead an ever-expanding share of the populace grudgingly to pay more attention to forces beyond human control.

Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity. Amid rapid environmental and social change, the message of the Lean-Greens will gain more obvious relevance. That message may not save the polar bears (though ecosystem protection programs deserve every kind of support), but it might make the inevitable transition to a new species-wide behavioral mode a lot easier. It may lead to a dark age that’s less dark than it would otherwise be, one in which more of our cultural and scientific achievements are preserved. A great deal may depend on the intensity and success of the efforts of the small proportion of the population who are currently open to Lean-Green thinking—success in acquiring skills, in developing institutions, and in communicating a compelling vision of a desirable and sustainable post-boom society.

In the end, the deepest insight of the Anthropocene will probably be a very simple one: we live in a world of millions of interdependent species with which we have co-evolved. We sunder this web of life at our peril. The Earth’s story is fascinating, rich in detail, and continually self-revealing. And it’s not all about us.





The pale Blue Dot

22 12 2013

converted PNM file

This should be compulsory viewing for everyone………..  featuring Carl Sagan’s distinctive voice