The physics of energy and resulting effects on economics

10 07 2018

Hat tip to one of the many commenters on DTM for pointing me to this excellent video…. I have featured Jean-Marc Jancovici’s work here before, but this one’s shorter, and even though it’s in French, English subtitles are available from the settings section on the toutube screen. Speaking of screens, one of the outstanding statements made in this video is that all electronics in the world that use screens in one way or another consume one third of the world’s electricity…….. Remember how the growth in renewables could not even keep up with the Internet’s growth?

If this doesn’t convince viewers that we have to change the way we do EVERYTHING, then nothing will….. and seeing as he’s presenting to politicians, let’s hope at least some of them will come out of this better informed……

Jean-Marc Jancovici, a French engineer schools politicians with a sobering lecture on the physics of energy and the effects on economics and climate change





Three Things We Don’t Understand About Climate Change

3 09 2017

ANOTHER great article from Ahmed Nafeez’ new Medium website…….  Please support his magnificent efforts.

This is the most honest item on Climate Change I hace seen in quite a while. It almost goes as far as saying what I’ve now concluded, we must de-industrialise. Almost.

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Thinking about climate change is not something that comes natural to humans — or ‘consumers’ as we have been called for decades. It is not only emotionally unpleasant, but analytically extremely challenging.

I argue that most of us do not grasp how immediate this situation has become, how fast it is progressing and what the scale of change needed is to reach the stabilisation targets of the Paris Agreement.

I also argue that after individuals, nations and corporations understand the urgency and the rate, they should be honest about the scale of action needed in order to avoid collapse of the biosphere and thus civilisation.

North America on 29th of August 2017. Tundra and forest fires in the Arctic + British Columbia and Hurricane Harvey off the coast of South Texas (Terra / MODIS @ Nasa WorldView).

Human society is deeply and permanently coupled to the Earth System. In the geological epoch we have entered called the Anthropocene, that system is undergoing immediate, massive disruption. The previous epoch of Holocene gave us agriculture and settled living arrangements.

Since the onset of industrial production at an accelerating rate and scale, human society has had deep and far ranging influence on natural processes which it depends on. Climate change is only one of the manifestations — there are multiple large-scale indicators of our presence on this planet from erosion to nitrogen runoff, species extinction to uncontrolled population growth.

1. Urgency

The first misunderstanding about climate change is related to how we perceive its impacts in the temporal space. It is not (only) a future issue, not a polar bear issue and certainly not an issue which only affects a few remote parts of the world.

Situation has become dangerous during the last three years of 2014, 2015, 2016 and now continuing into 2017. Certain parts of the world see less immediate danger but systematic changes affect us all.

NASA GISS dataset on land and ocean temperature anomalies (2017).

How is it possible that the Earth System has taken up our presence on the surface so lightly even when we have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and the ocean with our carbon pollution?

Ocean heat uptake has doubled since 1997 (Gleckler et al, 2016).

Most of the energy (heat) human carbon pollution creates ends up warming the world ocean, some 93% of our pyromania ends up there. Every passing year we pump 41 gigatons (that is a very big number) of carbon dioxide into the Earth System, where roughly half of it is absorbed by natural sink capabilities of the ocean and the land biosphere. Rest of it ends up in the atmosphere with all the other gases we put up, including aerosols and certain novel entities that have never occured in the natural state of the Earth System.

The fact that increasing greenhouse gas loading from human sources in the carbon cycle is cumulative makes this an extremely vicious political, economic and social problem. The increment which ends up in the atmosphere can only be drawn down by the natural climate system on time scales extending to tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

The Global Carbon Budget from GCP, 2017.

One component of urgency is that when surface temperatures increase after being buffered by the ocean — without the world ocean we would already be 36°C hotter on the surface of continents from the increased atmospheric forcing — they can do so in a non-linear fashion.

This creates immediate impacts. Single exceptional extreme weather events are not caused by climate change but happen in a distinctively new climate. Hotter atmosphere holds more moisture which increases precipitation. Extreme heatwaves become more common. Ice in all its forms melts.

Right now there are multiple imminent disasters occuring in various parts of the planet. Global fire situation has been exceptional in Siberia, Greenland, Canada and in other parts of North America. Tundra burns, forests burn, people suffer. Europe has been under severe heat waves and there have been mass casualties from forest fires in Portugal.

There is extreme flooding in South Asia, impacting multiple cities and the country of Bangladesh of which one third is currently under water. Hurricane Harvey just hit South Texas at Category 4 strength and produced record precipitation totals for many locations, including but not limited to the City of Houston. Tens of millions suffer from these impacts — right now.

Arctic climate change is proceeding at fast pace (AMAP SWIPA, 2017 http://www.amap.no/swipa2017).

2. Rate and Scale of Change

The Arctic, area located on the top of the planet from 66°N north, is a prime example of systematic exponential change. It is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet. There is less inertia in the Arctic than there is in the general climate system.

But even the general climate system is being pushed in ways which have no previous analogue in natural climate changes going back tens of millions of years. It is about the rate of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases added. There have been periods in the deep geological past of Earth when greenhouse gas concentrations have been much, much higher than they are today but increases have never occured this rapidly.

Proxy measurements of carbon dioxide from ice cores (NOAA @ NASA Climate Change https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/).

Earth is a fluid, non-linear system capable of abrupt and total change. Earth System has been in a hothouse state and for a while was mostly covered by ice. At current pathways we are literally going to lose very large portions of both continental polar ice sheets, possibly in their entirety. This will take centuries but when we commit, the result will be permanent. Permafrost is thawing, threathening both the carbon cycle and our settled living arrangements in the Arctic.

When climate scientists project future climate change up to and beyond 2050 and 2100 they refer to scenarios. They are used in policy making to set stabilisation targets.

Tipping elements in the climate system (Schellnhuber et al, 2015).

What is worrying is that humanity is currently putting in place an atmospheric forcing comparable to something between the RCP4.5 and 8.5 (watts per square meter) end results. The choice between the Paris Agreement ‘well below 2°C’ framing and higher, 3–4°C level of warming is the choice of having a civilisation with global governance capability or losing it.

At any pathway we choose to follow, in order for the climate to stabilise at a higher level of change, emissions need to be zero. If new carbon pollution enters the climate system, temperatures will go up. This also applies to 2.5°C emissions budgets as well as 3°C budgets.

3. Stabilisation

What is to be done? Multiple actions are under way. Our energy system is changing with global energy demand growth continuing to rise due to industrialisation of developing nations, but new added electricity capacity in the form of solar and wind power only appear to offset some of the added growth. Electricity is only a portion of our energy use profile.

The massive use of fossil fuels is the prime driver of human-caused climate change. The fraction of low-carbon energy is the same now that it was a few decades ago. Fossil fuels absolutely dominate our energy system at >80% share in total final energy consumption. Deforestation and other land-use change also contribute significantly, but our profligate use of fossil energy commits us to possibly catastrophic breakdowns of the climate system.

For a reasonable chance of keeping warming under 2℃ we can emit a further 865 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). The climate commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 2030 are a first step, but recent analyses show they are not enough (Canadell and Smith, 2017 http://bit.ly/2jRNjIK).

The trouble with negative emissions (Peters and Anderson, 2016 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/354/6309/182).

The carbon budget framing might seem like a radical socio-political construct but it is in fact the best depiction of the physical reality of climate change. Cumulative emissions dictate the mitigation outcome — there is absolutely no doubt about this as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown.

The relationship between temperature change and cumulative CO2 emissions (in GtCO2) from 1870 to the year 2100. (IPCC 2014 Synthesis Report).

It is indeed the fact that many applications of fossil energy are growing exponentially that is the problem for climate stabilisationAir travel, road freight, shipping. Exponential global growth. Based on sound understanding of the physical reality, their fossil carbon use should be declining exponentially.

Three years to safeguard our climate (Figueres at al, 2017 http://go.nature.com/2t1gwUD).

All of this is sadly true and supremely distressing. Emissions from fossil fuels and land use change are 60% higher than they were in 1990 when scientists established most of what has been shown above with high certainty. Only the resolution of understanding has increased along with worsening climate impacts.

F/ Honesty

Finding out the reality of this situation is a profound experience. It is a state shift in human cognition, comparable to expansion of internet and global connectivity.

What I argue as citizen is to stop lying to ourselves. We have to obey the ancient laws of nature. No amount of economic growth, green shift, denial or activism can negotiate with physical constraints of the Earth System.

Our energy system will never be able to transform fast enough to meet the Paris Agreement stabilisation target without mad assumptions of building a carbon draw down device on this planet three times the size of the current oil industry, capable of sequestering greenhouse gases from ambient air on the order of what the natural sinks like the world ocean and the land biosphere are currently doing.

Roughly 10% of us generate almost as much greenhouse gas emissions from our lifestyle as the rest of the people on this planet. Finnish household consumption added to territorial emissions at >15 tons CO2 equivalent per capita will breach the global carbon budget for lower stabilisation targets within a decade. This is a pragmatic, but also a moral issue. Nobody can escape it, no matter how much one tries.

Finnish emissions reductions and negative emissions to meet Paris Agreement framing (Climate Analytics, 2016.)

We have to transform our diets, mobility systems, energy production and conspicuous consumption within a decade to limit risks of profound magnitude. The first decade should cut all of our carbon pollution in half. The next one should halve the portion left and so on. We have to put in policies which enchance natural sinks and research artificial new sinks.

This is not an obligation just to protect future generations, poor people or animals anymore. It is a threat to huge amounts of people living in the present moment on this finite planet in our vast universe.

We have to push through this mentally, keeping focus on what there is to be done with resolute purpose against nearly impossible odds. We have to be honest to ourselves, respectful of others and lead by example in everything we do.

Everybody can enter this space with relatively little sacrifice. It might be very painful in the beginning but truth is, after all, one of the most precious things this world has to offer.

Do what comes naturally, but always remember three things: how immediate this is, what kind of rates it is progressing at and what the scale of change needed must be in order to limit risk.





No really, how sustainable are we?

28 02 2016

 

This is a most interesting piece I found on the interweb, written by Paul Chefurka almost three years ago.  Paul is happy for this article to be reproduced in full, no questions asked, and as I feel it needs to be widely read, the more internet presence it has the better, and now you DTM readers can share it too…

Paul, who is Canadian, has an interesting website chockablock full of insightful stuff you may also want to read.

Enjoy…….

 

Ever since the writing of Thomas Malthus in the early 1800s, and especially since Paul Ehrlich’s publication of “The Population Bomb”  in 1968, there has been a lot of learned skull-scratching over what the sustainable human population of Planet Earth might “really” be over the long haul.


This question is intrinsically tied to the issue of ecological overshoot so ably described by William R. Catton Jr. in his 1980 book “Overshoot:The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change”.  How much have we already pushed our population and consumption levels above the long-term carrying capacity of the planet?

This article outlines my current thoughts on carrying capacity and overshoot, and presents six estimates for the size of a sustainable human population.

Carrying Capacity

Carrying capacity” is a well-known ecological term that has an obvious and fairly intuitive meaning: “The maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.” 

Unfortunately that definition becomes more nebulous and controversial the closer you look at it, especially when we are talking about the planetary carrying capacity for human beings. Ecologists will claim that our numbers have already well surpassed the planet’s carrying capacity, while others (notably economists and politicians…) claim we are nowhere near it yet!

This confusion may arise because we tend to confuse two very different understandings of the phrase “carrying capacity”.  For this discussion I will call these the “subjective” view and the “objective” views of carrying capacity.

The subjective view is carrying capacity as seen by a member of the species in question. Rather than coming from a rational, analytical assessment of the overall situation, it is an experiential judgment.  As such it tends to be limited to the population of one’s own species, as well as having a short time horizon – the current situation counts a lot more than some future possibility.  The main thing that matters in this view is how many of one’s own species will be able to survive to reproduce. As long as that number continues to rise, we assume all is well – that we have not yet reached the carrying capacity of our environment.

From this subjective point of view humanity has not even reached, let alone surpassed the Earth’s overall carrying capacity – after all, our population is still growing.  It’s tempting to ascribe this view mainly to neoclassical economists and politicians, but truthfully most of us tend to see things this way.  In fact, all species, including humans, have this orientation, whether it is conscious or not.

Species tend to keep growing until outside factors such as disease, predators, food or other resource scarcity – or climate change – intervene.  These factors define the “objective” carrying capacity of the environment.  This objective view of carrying capacity is the view of an observer who adopts a position outside the species in question.It’s the typical viewpoint of an ecologist looking at the reindeer on St. Matthew Island, or at the impact of humanity on other species and its own resource base.

This is the view that is usually assumed by ecologists when they use the naked phrase “carrying capacity”, and it is an assessment that can only be arrived at through analysis and deductive reasoning.  It’s the view I hold, and its implications for our future are anything but comforting.

When a species bumps up against the limits posed by the environment’s objective carrying capacity, its population begins to decline. Humanity is now at the uncomfortable point when objective observers have detected our overshoot condition, but the population as a whole has not recognized it yet. As we push harder against the limits of the planet’s objective carrying capacity, things are beginning to go wrong.  More and more ordinary people are recognizing the problem as its symptoms become more obvious to casual onlookers.The problem is, of course, that we’ve already been above the planet’s carrying capacity for quite a while.

One typical rejoinder to this line of argument is that humans have “expanded our carrying capacity” through technological innovation.  “Look at the Green Revolution!  Malthus was just plain wrong.  There are no limits to human ingenuity!”  When we say things like this, we are of course speaking from a subjective viewpoint. From this experiential, human-centric point of view, we have indeed made it possible for our environment to support ever more of us. This is the only view that matters at the biological, evolutionary level, so it is hardly surprising that most of our fellow species-members are content with it.


The problem with that view is that every objective indicator of overshoot is flashing red.  From the climate change and ocean acidification that flows from our smokestacks and tailpipes, through the deforestation and desertification that accompany our expansion of human agriculture and living space, to the extinctions of non-human species happening in the natural world, the planet is urgently signaling an overload condition.

Humans have an underlying urge towards growth, an immense intellectual capacity for innovation, and a biological inability to step outside our chauvinistic, anthropocentric perspective.  This combination has made it inevitable that we would land ourselves and the rest of the biosphere in the current insoluble global ecological predicament.

 

Overshoot

When a population surpasses its carrying capacity it enters a condition known as overshoot.  Because the carrying capacity is defined as the maximum population that an environment can maintain indefinitely, overshoot must by definition be temporary.  Populations always decline to (or below) the carrying capacity.  How long they stay in overshoot depends on how many stored resources there are to support their inflated numbers.  Resources may be food, but they may also be any resource that helps maintain their numbers.  For humans one of the primary resources is energy, whether it is tapped as flows (sunlight, wind, biomass) or stocks (coal, oil, gas, uranium etc.).  A species usually enters overshoot when it taps a particularly rich but exhaustible stock of a resource.  Like fossil fuels, for instance…

Population growth in the animal kingdom tends to follow a logistic curve.  This is an S-shaped curve that starts off low when the species is first introduced to an ecosystem, at some later point rises very fast as the population becomes established, and then finally levels off as the population saturates its niche.

Humans have been pushing the envelope of our logistic curve for much of our history. Our population rose very slowly over the last couple of hundred thousand years, as we gradually developed the skills we needed in order to deal with our varied and changeable environment,particularly language, writing and arithmetic. As we developed and disseminated those skills our ability to modify our environment grew, and so did our growth rate.

If we had not discovered the stored energy stocks of fossil fuels, our logistic growth curve would probably have flattened out some time ago, and we would be well on our way to achieving a balance with the energy flows in the world around us, much like all other species do.  Our numbers would have settled down to oscillate around a much lower level than today, similar to what they probably did with hunter-gatherer populations tens of thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, our discovery of the energy potential of coal created what mathematicians and systems theorists call a “bifurcation point” or what is better known in some cases as a tipping point. This is a point at which a system diverges from one path onto another because of some influence on events.  The unfortunate fact of the matter is that bifurcation points are generally irreversible.  Once past such a point, the system can’t go back to a point before it.

Given the impact that fossil fuels had on the development of world civilization, their discovery was clearly such a fork in the road.  Rather than flattening out politely as other species’ growth curves tend to do, ours kept on rising.  And rising, and rising. 

What is a sustainable population level?

Now we come to the heart of the matter.  Okay, we all accept that the human race is in overshoot.  But how deep into overshoot are we?  What is the carrying capacity of our planet?  The answers to these questions,after all, define a sustainable population.

Not surprisingly, the answers are quite hard to tease out.  Various numbers have been put forward, each with its set of stated and unstated assumptions –not the least of which is the assumed standard of living (or consumption profile) of the average person.  For those familiar with Ehrlich and Holdren’s I=PAT equation, if “I” represents the environmental impact of a sustainable population, then for any population value “P” there is a corresponding value for “AT”, the level of Activity and Technology that can be sustained for that population level.  In other words, the higher our standard of living climbs, the lower our population level must fall in order to be sustainable. This is discussed further in an earlier article on Thermodynamic Footprints.

To get some feel for the enormous range of uncertainty in sustainability estimates we’ll look at six assessments, each of which leads to a very different outcome.  We’ll start with the most optimistic one, and work our way down the scale.

The Ecological Footprint Assessment

The concept of the Ecological Footprint was developed in 1992 by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems. It is a standardized measure of demand for natural capital that may be contrasted with the planet’s ecological capacity to regenerate. It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to assimilate associated waste. As it is usually published, the value is an estimate of how many planet Earths it would take to support humanity with everyone following their current lifestyle.

It has a number of fairly glaring flaws that cause it to be hyper-optimistic. The “ecological footprint” is basically for renewable resources only. It includes a theoretical but underestimated factor for non-renewable resources.  It does not take into account the unfolding effects of climate change, ocean acidification or biodiversity loss (i.e. species extinctions).  It is intuitively clear that no number of “extra planets” would compensate for such degradation.

Still, the estimate as of the end of 2012 is that our overall ecological footprint is about “1.7 planets”.  In other words, there is at least 1.7 times too much human activity for the long-term health of this single, lonely planet.  To put it yet another way, we are 70% into overshoot.

It would probably be fair to say that by this accounting method the sustainable population would be (7 / 1.7) or about four billion people at our current average level of affluence.  As you will see, other assessments make this estimate seem like a happy fantasy.

The Fossil Fuel Assessment

The main accelerator of human activity over the last 150 to 200 years has been our exploitation of the planet’s stocks of fossil fuel.  Before 1800 there was very little fossil fuel in general use, with most energy being derived from the flows represented by wood, wind, water, animal and human power. The following graph demonstrates the precipitous rise in fossil fuel use since then, and especially since 1950.


Graphic by Gail Tverberg

This information was the basis for my earlier Thermodynamic Footprint analysis.  That article investigated the influence of technological energy (87% of which comes from fossil fuel stocks) on human planetary impact, in terms of how much it multiplies the effect of each “naked ape”. The following graph illustrates the multiplier at different points in history:


Fossil fuels have powered the increase in all aspects of civilization, including population growth.  The “Green Revolution” in agriculture that was kicked off by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug in the late 1940s was largely a fossil fuel phenomenon, relying on mechanization, powered irrigation and synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. This enormous increase in food production supported a swift rise in population numbers, in a classic ecological feedback loop: more food (supply) => more people (demand) => more food => more people etc…

Over the core decades of the Green Revolution from 1950 to 1980 the world population almost doubled, from fewer than 2.5 billion to over 4.5 billion.  The average population growth over those three decades was 2% per year.  Compare that to 0.5% from 1800 to 1900; 1.00% from 1900 to 1950; and 1.5% from 1980 until now:

This analysis makes it tempting to conclude that a sustainable population might look similar to the situation in 1800, before the Green Revolution, and before the global adoption of fossil fuels: about 1 billion people living on about 5% of today’s global average energy consumption, all of it derived from renewable energy flows.

It’s tempting (largely because it seems vaguely achievable), but unfortunately that number may still be too high.  Even in 1800 the signs of human overshoot were clear, if not well recognized:  there was already widespread deforestation through Europe and the Middle East; and desertification had set into the previously lush agricultural zones of North Africa and the Middle East.

Not to mention that if we did start over with “just” one billion people, an annual growth rate of a mere 0.5% would put the population back over seven billion in just 400 years.  Unless the growth rate can be kept down very close to zero, such a situation is decidedly unsustainable.

 

The Population Density Assessment

There is another way to approach the question.  If we assume that the human species was sustainable at some point in the past, what point might we choose and what conditions contributed to our apparent sustainability at that time?

I use a very strict definition of sustainability.  It reads something like this: “Sustainability is the ability of a species to survive in perpetuity without damaging the planetary ecosystem in the process.”  This principle applies only to a species’ own actions, rather than uncontrollable external forces like Milankovitch cycles, asteroid impacts, plate tectonics, etc.

In order to find a population that I was fairly confident met my definition of sustainability, I had to look well back in history – in fact back into Paleolithic times.  The sustainability conditions I chose were: a very low population density and very low energy use, with both maintained over multiple thousands of years. I also assumed the populace would each use about as much energy as a typical hunter-gatherer: about twice the daily amount of energy a person obtains from the food they eat.

There are about 150 million square kilometers, or 60 million square miles of land on Planet Earth.  However, two thirds of that area is covered by snow, mountains or deserts, or has little or no topsoil.  This leaves about 50 million square kilometers (20 million square miles) that is habitable by humans without high levels of technology.


A typical population density for a non-energy-assisted society of hunter-forager-gardeners is between 1 person per square mile and 1 person per square kilometer. Because humans living this way had settled the entire planet by the time agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, this number pegs a reasonable upper boundary for a sustainable world population in the range of 20 to 50 million people.

I settled on the average of these two numbers, 35 million people.  That was because it matches known hunter-forager population densities, and because those densities were maintained with virtually zero population growth (less than 0.01% per year)during the 67,000 years from the time of the Toba super-volcano eruption in 75,000 BC until 8,000 BC (Agriculture Day on Planet Earth).

If we were to spread our current population of 7 billion evenly over 50 million square kilometers, we would have an average density of 150 per square kilometer.  Based just on that number, and without even considering our modern energy-driven activities, our current population is at least 250 times too big to be sustainable. To put it another way, we are now 25,000% into overshoot based on our raw population numbers alone.

As I said above, we also need to take the population’s standard of living into account. Our use of technological energy gives each of us the average planetary impact of about 20 hunter-foragers.  What would the sustainable population be if each person kept their current lifestyle, which is given as an average current Thermodynamic Footprint (TF) of 20?

We can find the sustainable world population number for any level of human activity by using the I = PAT equation mentioned above.

  • We decided above that the maximum hunter-forager population we could accept as sustainable would be 35 million people, each with a Thermodynamic Footprint of 1.
  • First, we set I (the allowable total impact for our sustainable population) to 35, representing those 35 million hunter-foragers.
  • Next, we set AT to be the TF representing the desired average lifestyle for our population.  In this case that number is 20.
  • We can now solve the equation for P.  Using simple algebra, we know that I = P x AT is equivalent to P = I / AT.  Using that form of the equation we substitute in our values, and we find that P = 35 / 20.  In this case P = 1.75.

This number tells us that if we want to keep the average level of per-capita consumption we enjoy in today’s world, we would enter an overshoot situation above a global population of about 1.75 million people. By this measure our current population of 7 billion is about 4,000 times too big and active for long-term sustainability. In other words, by this measure we are we are now 400,000% into overshoot.

Using the same technique we can calculate that achieving a sustainable population with an American lifestyle (TF = 78) would permit a world population of only 650,000 people – clearly not enough to sustain a modern global civilization.

For the sake of comparison, it is estimated that the historical world population just after the dawn of agriculture in 8,000 BC was about five million, and in Year 1 was about 200 million.  We crossed the upper threshold of planetary sustainability in about 2000 BC, and have been in deepening overshoot for the last 4,000 years.

The Ecological Assessments

As a species, human beings share much in common with other large mammals.  We breathe, eat, move around to find food and mates, socialize, reproduce and die like all other mammalian species.  Our intellect and culture, those qualities that make us uniquely human, are recent additions to our essential primate nature, at least in evolutionary terms.

Consequently it makes sense to compare our species’ performance to that of other, similar species – species that we know for sure are sustainable.  I was fortunate to find the work of American marine biologist Dr. Charles W. Fowler, who has a deep interest in sustainability and the ecological conundrum posed by human beings.  The following three assessments are drawn from Dr. Fowler’s work.

 

First assessment

In 2003, Dr. Fowler and Larry Hobbs co-wrote a paper titled, Is humanity sustainable?”  that was published by the Royal Society.  In it, they compared a variety of ecological measures across 31 species including humans. The measures included biomass consumption, energy consumption, CO2 production, geographical range size, and population size.

It should come as no great surprise that in most of the comparisons humans had far greater impact than other species, even to a 99% confidence level.  When it came to population size, Fowler and Hobbs found that there are over two orders of magnitude more humans than one would expect based on a comparison to other species – 190 times more, in fact.  Similarly, our CO2 emissions outdid other species by a factor of 215.

Based on this research, Dr. Fowler concluded that there are about 200 times too many humans on the planet.  This brings up an estimate for a sustainable population of 35 million people.

This is the same as the upper bound established above by examining hunter-gatherer population densities.  The similarity of the results is not too surprising, since the hunter-gatherers of 50,000 years ago were about as close to “naked apes” as humans have been in recent history.

 

Second assessment

In 2008, five years after the publication cited above, Dr. Fowler wrote another paper entitled Maximizing biodiversity, information and sustainability.”  In this paper he examined the sustainability question from the point of view of maximizing biodiversity.  In other words, what is the largest human population that would not reduce planetary biodiversity?

This is, of course, a very stringent test, and one that we probably failed early in our history by extirpating mega-fauna in the wake of our migrations across a number of continents.

In this paper, Dr. Fowler compared 96 different species, and again analyzed them in terms of population, CO2 emissions and consumption patterns.

This time, when the strict test of biodiversity retention was applied, the results were truly shocking, even to me.  According to this measure, humans have overpopulated the Earth by almost 700 times.  In order to preserve maximum biodiversity on Earth, the human population may be no more than 10 million people – each with the consumption of a Paleolithic hunter-forager.

Addendum: Third assessment

After this article was initially written, Dr. Fowler forwarded me a copy of an appendix to his 2009 book, “Systemic Management: Sustainable Human Interactions with Ecosystems and the Biosphere”, published by Oxford University Press.  In it he describes yet one more technique for comparing humans with other mammalian species, this time in terms of observed population densities, total population sizes and ranges.

After carefully comparing us to various species of both herbivores and carnivores of similar body size, he draws this devastating conclusion: the human population is about 1000 times larger than expected. This is in line with the second assessment above, though about 50% more pessimistic.  It puts a sustainable human population at about 7 million.

Urk!

 

Conclusions

As you can see, the estimates for a sustainable human population vary widely – by a factor of 500 from the highest to the lowest.

The Ecological Footprint doesn’t really seem intended as a measure of sustainability.  Its main value is to give people with no exposure to ecology some sense that we are indeed over-exploiting our planet.  (It also has the psychological advantage of feeling achievable with just a little work.)  As a measure of sustainability, it is not helpful.

As I said above, the number suggested by the Thermodynamic Footprint or Fossil Fuel analysis isn’t very helpful either – even a population of one billion people without fossil fuels had already gone into overshoot.

That leaves us with four estimates: two at 35 million, one of 10 million, and one of 7 million.

The central number of 35 million people is confirmed by two analyses using different data and assumptions.  My conclusion is that this is probably the absolutely largest human population that could be considered sustainable.  The realistic but similarly unachievable number is probably more in line with the bottom two estimates, somewhere below 10 million.

I think the lowest two estimates (Fowler 2008, and Fowler 2009) are as unrealistically high as all the others in this case, primarily because human intelligence and problem-solving ability makes our destructive impact on biodiversity a foregone conclusion. After all, we drove other species to extinction 40,000 years ago, when our total population was estimated to be under 1 million.

 

So, what can we do with this information?  It’s obvious that we will not (and probably cannot) voluntarily reduce our population by 99.5% to 99.9%.  Even an involuntary reduction of this magnitude would involve enormous suffering and a very uncertain outcome.  It’s close enough to zero that if Mother Nature blinked, we’d be gone.

In fact, the analysis suggests that Homo sapiens is an inherently unsustainable species.  This outcome seems virtually guaranteed by our neocortex, by the very intelligence that has enabled our rise to unprecedented dominance over our planet’s biosphere.  Is intelligence an evolutionary blind alley?  From the singular perspective of our own species, it quite probably is. If we are to find some greater meaning or deeper future for intelligence in the universe, we may be forced to look beyond ourselves and adopt a cosmic, rather than a human, perspective.

 

Discussion

 

How do we get out of this jam?


How might we get from where we are today to a sustainable world population of 35 million or so?  We should probably discard the notion of “managing” such a population decline.  If we can’t even get our population to simply stop growing, an outright reduction of over 99% is simply not in the cards.  People seem virtually incapable of taking these kinds of decisions in large social groups.  We can decide to stop reproducing, but only as individuals or (perhaps) small groups. Without the essential broad social support, such personal choices will make precious little difference to the final outcome.  Politicians will by and large not even propose an idea like “managed population decline”  – not if they want to gain or remain in power, at any rate.  China’s brave experiment with one-child families notwithstanding, any global population decline will be purely involuntary.

Crash?


A world population decline would (will) be triggered and fed by our civilization’s encounter with limits.  These limits may show up in any area: accelerating climate change, weather extremes,shrinking food supplies, fresh water depletion, shrinking energy supplies,pandemic diseases, breakdowns in the social fabric due to excessive complexity,supply chain breakdowns, electrical grid failures, a breakdown of the international financial system, international hostilities – the list of candidates is endless, and their interactions are far too complex to predict.

In 2007, shortly after I grasped the concept and implications of Peak Oil, I wrote my first web article on population decline: Population: The Elephant in the Room.  In it I sketched out the picture of a monolithic population collapse: a straight-line decline from today’s seven billion people to just one billion by the end of this century.


As time has passed I’ve become less confident in this particular dystopian vision.  It now seems to me that human beings may be just a bit tougher than that.  We would fight like demons to stop the slide, though we would potentially do a lot more damage to the environment in the process.  We would try with all our might to cling to civilization and rebuild our former glory.  Different physical, environmental and social situations around the world would result in a great diversity in regional outcomes.  To put it plainly, a simple “slide to oblivion” is not in the cards for any species that could recover from the giant Toba volcanic eruption in just 75,000 years.

Or Tumble?

Still, there are those physical limits I mentioned above.  They are looming ever closer, and it seems a foregone conclusion that we will begin to encounter them for real within the next decade or two. In order to draw a slightly more realistic picture of what might happen at that point, I created the following thought experiment on involuntary population decline. It’s based on the idea that our population will not simply crash, but will oscillate (tumble) down a series of stair-steps: first dropping as we puncture the limits to growth; then falling below them; then partially recovering; only to fall again; partially recover; fall; recover…

I started the scenario with a world population of 8 billion people in 2030. I assumed each full cycle of decline and partial recovery would take six generations, or 200 years.  It would take three generations (100 years) to complete each decline and then three more in recovery, for a total cycle time of 200 years. I assumed each decline would take out 60% of the existing population over its hundred years, while each subsequent rise would add back only half of the lost population.

In ten full cycles – 2,000 years – we would be back to a sustainable population of about 40-50 million. The biggest drop would be in the first 100 years, from 2030 to 2130 when we would lose a net 53 million people per year. Even that is only a loss of 0.9% pa, compared to our net growth today of 1.1%, that’s easily within the realm of the conceivable,and not necessarily catastrophic – at least to begin with.

As a scenario it seems a lot more likely than a single monolithic crash from here to under a billion people.  Here’s what it looks like:


It’s important to remember that this scenario is not a prediction. It’s an attempt to portray a potential path down the population hill that seems a bit more probable than a simple, “Crash! Everybody dies.”

It’s also important to remember that the decline will probably not happen anything like this, either. With climate change getting ready to push humanity down the stairs, and the strong possibility that the overall global temperature will rise by 5 or 6 degrees Celsius even before the end of that first decline cycle, our prospects do not look even this “good” from where I stand.

Rest assured, I’m not trying to present 35 million people as some kind of “population target”. It’s just part of my attempt to frame what we’re doing to the planet, in terms of what some of us see as the planetary ecosphere’s level of tolerance for our abuse.

The other potential implicit in this analysis is that if we did drop from 8 to under 1 billion, we could then enter a population free-fall. As a result, we might keep falling until we hit the bottom of Olduvai Gorge again. My numbers are an attempt to define how many people might stagger away from such a crash landing.  Some people seem to believe that such an event could be manageable.  I don’t share that belief for a moment. These calculations are my way of getting that message out.

I figure if I’m going to draw a line in the sand, I’m going to do it on behalf of all life, not just our way of life.

 

What can we do? 


To be absolutely clear, after ten years of investigating what I affectionately call “The Global Clusterfuck”, I do not think it can be prevented, mitigated or managed in any way.  If and when it happens, it will follow its own dynamic, and the force of events could easily make the Japanese and Andaman tsunamis seem like pleasant days at the beach.

The most effective preparations that we can make will all be done by individuals and small groups.  It will be up to each of us to decide what our skills, resources and motivations call us to do.  It will be different for each of us – even for people in the same neighborhood, let alone people on opposite sides of the world.

I’ve been saying for a couple of years that each of us will do whatever we think is appropriate for the circumstances, in whatever part of the world we can influence. The outcome of our actions is ultimately unforeseeable, because it depends on how the efforts of all 7 billion of us converge, co-operate and compete.  The end result will be quite different from place to place – climate change impacts will vary, resources vary, social structures vary, values and belief systems are different all over the world.The best we can do is to do our best.

Here is my advice: 

  • Stay awake to what’s happening around us.
  • Don’t get hung up by other people’s “shoulds and shouldn’ts”.
  • Occasionally re-examine our personal values.  If they aren’t in alignment with what we think the world needs, change them.
  • Stop blaming people. Others are as much victims of the times as we are – even the CEOs and politicians.
  • Blame, anger and outrage is pointless.  It wastes precious energy that we will need for more useful work.
  • Laugh a lot, at everything – including ourselves.
  • Hold all the world’s various beliefs and “isms” lightly, including our own.
  • Forgive others. Forgive ourselves. For everything.
  • Love everything just as deeply as you can.

That’s what I think might be helpful. If we get all that personal stuff right, then doing the physical stuff about food, water, housing,transportation, energy, politics and the rest of it will come easy – or at least a bit easier. And we will have a lot more fun doing it.

I wish you all the best of luck!
Bodhi Paul Chefurka
May 16, 2013

 





HOME

23 02 2015

Be prepared to be regaled by truly stunning photography, even when it’s ugly…..  A must watch film.  Anyone who enjoys their cushy lifestyle needs to know at what cost.  Share widely.

We are living in exceptional times. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth’s climate.

The stakes are high for us and our children. Everyone should take part in the effort, and HOME has been conceived to take a message of mobilization out to every human being.

For this purpose, HOME needs to be free. A patron, the PPR Group, made this possible. EuropaCorp, the distributor, also pledged not to make any profit because Home is a non-profit film.

HOME has been made for you : share it! And act for the planet.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand

HOME official website
http://www.home-2009.com

PPR is proud to support HOME
http://www.ppr.com

HOME is a carbon offset movie
http://www.actioncarbone.org

More information about the Planet
http://www.goodplanet.info





Climate – What do we know?

5 05 2014

Another guest post from our friend Mark Cochrane……

If you have not yet watched the Ted Talk by Gavin Schmidt below, I highly recommend that you do so.

It is often authoritatively stated that:

adaptation costs are likely to be both less than mitigation costs and manageable.

which is a wholly unsubstantiated opinion that is refuted by hundreds, if not thousands, of scientific studies as recently reported in the Working Group II – adaptation (link), and Working Group III – mitigation (link) IPCC reports that have come out this year.

However, you do not need reams of technical materials to have basic sense. The logic and wisdom of the matter was succinctly provided by Benjamin Franklin and climate change is no exception.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

We know that we should substantially reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, actively seek alternative energy sources, and dramatically improve the efficiency with which we utilize energy. This statement would be true even if climate change issues were not at stake. Unless you fail to believe M. King Hubbert (1956 – Peak Oil), Meadows et al (1972-present Limits to Growth), and some guy named Chris Martenson (Crash Course – review here), you cannot help but know in your gut if not your head that our economic and societal over-reliance on rapidly depleting fossil fuel resources is a recipe for disaster, regardless of the climate consequences.

But since this topic is a climate one, what about the climate issues?  Christopher Monckton’s long debunked point about earlier periods of rapid warming is worth mentioning here. The 1920-1950 period actually would be relatively low warming, the correct period at issue is 1910-1940 when there was substantial warming that was only minimally related to human activities. Even so, that period did not warm as fast as we are currently experiencing.

However, this does provide a powerful indication of why we know that human-related emissions of greenhouse gases are of critical importance in ongoing climate changes. As Gavin Schmidt shows, the models are quite skillful in simulating many of the various climate processes at work throughout the world. The contrast between the the 1910-1940 and the 1970-present periods is very illustrative because we can compare modelled results to the actual observations of what has occurred in the global climate. When we look at how the models correspond to the climate record when forced only with ‘natural forcings’ (i.e. no additional greenhouse gases), we can see that the 1910-1940 period of warming is fairly well explained, while the rapid warming that we are currently experiencing is almost completely unexplained. (See Skeptical Science for a more detailed description of pre-1940 Warming Causes and Logic).

Conversely, if we remove the ‘natural forcings’ and only include greenhouse gas increases caused by human activities (primarily fossil fuel use), we see that although humans did not have much of a hand in the 1910-1940 warming, we are certainly in the driver’s seat of change now.

Actual climate change is from the combination of natural forcing and our accumulated greenhouse gas emissions. We know that we have to kick the fossil fuel habit. While Limits to Growth, the Crash Course and other sources clearly indicate that there is going to be a serious hangover for humanity coming when, as Heinberg says, the Party’s Over, as fossil fuels become less and less available, the climate change effects are going to be handed to future generations as the unpaid bar tab of our ongoing fossil fuel binge.

Mark

“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”
F. Sherwood Rowland





Breaking the taboo

29 12 2013

In the film clip below, Sir David Attenborough makes a fine speech about the impact of population growth on the natural world and human food supply.  Like Suzuki, Sir David is awe inspiring.  In the last David Suzuki clip I posted here, he mentions we are in our “last doubling”.  I gave this a bit of thought actually.  Experts tell us our population will peak at about 9 billion, so the last doubling started when the population was 4.5 billion.  This occurred in 1980, or 33 years ago.  Do we have another 33 years to go?  Dr Graham Turner thinks not, he puts the beginning of population collapse at about 2030 or just 16 years away…….  either way, growth will simply stop.

peanuts





Money as Energy

21 12 2013

It suddenly hit me the other day that it was the first oil shocks of the 80’s when oil skyrocketed due to the Arab oil embargo, that started Western Civilisation on its merry way to conversion from an oil powered economy to a money powered one.  The looming climate/energy/economic crisis is stirring up the old Left/Right divide in global industrial politics…. This rift derives from the two core dogmas of what constitutes wealth: does wealth come from human ingenuity and innovation, or is it found in nature?  Is human capacity the source, or a by-product of real power?

I think the two alternative paradigms implied by these questions, have shaped the history of the ‘civilised’ world luckycountryfar more so than the now redundant Left-Right political ideologies.  These increasingly conflicted paradigms can be described as faith in wealth and power from “human brilliance” (by which I mean “blind faith in ingenuity and technology to overcome physical limitations”) versus the belief that power and wealth come from control of “holes in the ground”

In the new world order of energy descent and climate change, both these dogmas are failing, and worse, we increasingly see the believers of both paradigms at war in a futile battle for global domination……

If one doesn’t understand the nature of this ideological battle, as critical for environmentalists and social activists, then it is unlikely that the reader will also understand the science behind Climate Change and Peak Oil.

This important ideological divide has not been recognised by historians or the blogosphere (let alone politicians!), and so it is very easy to come to the conclusion that one or the other of these paradigms is either benign or lethal, without truly understanding the nature and implications of these ideologies.

Climate activists in particular tend to focus on the fossil energy industries as the “enemies” (both for the Carbon emissions and/or funding climate change denial), but naturally see any parties accepting the new climate change agenda as allies. I believe that many of the global players promoting the climate agenda are as dangerous as those denying that agenda. How can this be so?

Ecology and Human Ingenuity

peak-ff-oilI am sure that the current peak in global oil production is an effective (net) energy peak for humanity.  This is as good as it gets, and we are entering an era of ongoing and permanent “energy descent.” The scale of this change is unprecedented in human history.  Every past era of humanity has gone from one low yield energy source (firewood) to a higher yield one (charcoal, then coal, then oil, then nuclear).  Transitioning to a world of less energy requires energy literacy (sadly lacking everywhere I look) so that we can learn how to make do with less, and avoid costly mistakes when we can least afford them.  The era of exponential energy growth, abundance, and affordability has left the populace and the politicians of the industrial world blinded, and without the intuitive understanding of energy needed to deal with the conundrum we now face……

Everything, from ecosystems to human economies, can be viewed through the lens of energy flows.  Since energy energyflowsbehaves according to universal laws (not least entropy…), much can be learned from studying these flows….  This first occurred to me twenty years ago when I had an epiphany and realised that everything is powered by the sun.  And that the energy we consume everyday are flows from this primary source of energy, everything…

When any system, whether economic, biological or ecological, it is always fed by an increasing amount of energy. The result is an increase in the complexity of that system.  For example, during the current era of the growth of extraction of fossil fuels, human economies, communications, education systems, laws, technologies etc have all developed to unbelievable levels of complexity.  The availability of the concentrated solar energy that is fossil energy sets exact limits on what any system can achieve in terms of both scale and complexity.  This occurs in all ecological systems; and man made systems are not immune!  A loss in either energy concentration, or rate of flow results in the lowering of civilisational complexity.  This energy descent is either slow, or, occurs in potentially catastrophic events.

I am absolutely convinced that the unrestrained faith in human ingenuity and innovation to overcome physical limitations, is just as ridiculous as the equally doomed faith in digging holes in the earth for wealth, since the latter utterly relies on  significant quantities of non renewable, cheap, and abundant energy resources…… especially oil, the master resource….

Blind faith in human ingenuity

Faith in human brilliance to overcome physical limitations is widespread and pervasive in society.  It’s almost ageofenlightenmentbecome a religion.  No… it has become a religion. Since the Age of Enlightenment, the marvel of cultural and technological complexity has created hubris about our achievements that is, to some degree understandable, so dazzling it has become; nature, has replaced the humility of ancient spirituality that comes with the wizardry and mystery of nature itself…..

Social justice advocates and environmentalists, bureaucrats, politicians, and diplomats believe the imposition of regulations, rules, and laws, arrived at through negotiation and/or compromise are all that is needed to achieve collective wealth, and its wise control.

Technologists, educators, and journalists also tend towards the belief that thinking, discussion, debate, and consensus are the way to solve problems.  Economists and business entrepreneurs share this faith in human ingenuity, without question.  They, particular, have been much more zealous participants in focusing the tools of science to create wealth though increased production and market forces.  There is no merit and truth in these perspectives, because they are incomplete as they ignore the energy base which made these ideals possible in the first instance….

The apex of this great human project, to free humanity from the forces of nature, is held by bankers in particular, the all seeing masters of the lubricant that makes the whole system of industrial modernity function: money.

wallstreetbankerThe bankers, and their army of drones in the growing financial services, insurance and real estate economies not only believe the continuous growth in financial value and debts controlled by the magic of the market is the pinnacle of human evolution, but also religiously think that the energy/environment problem will be solved by the market forces they have put in place……  thus bringing to existence technological and organisational innovation that will bypass the limits of nature’s capacity to deliver the essential resources we now take for granted, and absorb our waste…

Recently, a Senate enquiry into Australia’s future fuel security (in 2007) saw the head of ABARE, (who have been notoriously wrong for years) challenged about relying on market forces to deal with future energy crises. Famously, he replied, “if the price of eggs goes high enough, roosters will lay eggs”.  I don’t think he believed this to be literally true, but I could not have come up with a more breathtaking rhetorical expression of fanatical faith in markets to save us if I’d tried!  I’m certain it was a very sobering moment for the energetically literate followers of the Senate enquiry……!

Money as Energy

The old saying that “it is the love of money, rather than money itself, which is the source of evil in the world”, is Jesus-Money-Lendersworth repeating here.  This ancient wisdom, the love of money (greed), was once upon a time acknowledged as the force behind the innovation of interest generation, which must be repaid by growth in our extraction of wealth from nature. It is more than ironic that ignoring this taboo against interest-bearing money in the Judeo-Christian tradition was one of the drivers that supercharged Western civilisation into the global industrial culture it is today….

Beyond the creation of debt-based interest-bearing money, the creation of fiat currency, inconvertible paper money made legal tender by a government decree, is an extreme expression of the love of money.  In nearly all societies throughout history, the abstraction of money was backed by a commodity of recognised and lasting value like silver and gold.  Fiat currency gets its value by order of a powerful sovereign and the collective faith of the populace.  As long as we agree that it’s worth something….  it is.  But should confidence ever fail……

1922-Gold-Certificate-Gold-Coin-Note-xf-31606Independence from available stocks of precious metals has many advantages in complex economies…. However, fiat currencies are more vulnerable to systemic greed and corruption by simply printing money, along with all the massively complex variants of this process that have kept the US dollar as the global currency since the abandonment of the gold standard.  It has now been calculated that the true worth of gold today, if it were to represent the worth of the global economy, would be over $200,000 an ounce.  It’s no wonder the value of gold is being manipulated down… because if it wasn’t, you could never afford all those gold contacts in your computers and smart phones!

The complex financial devices and the collective faith which have been the basis of decades of economic growth, also make the global economy vulnerable to collapse.  Analysis of the global energy situation points to a gradual loss of technological and cultural complexity as inevitable.  However, a sudden collapse of human civilisation certainly does not.  The out of control power of money and markets is leading us as rapidly towards the collapse of human civilisation as the shortcomings or impacts of technology, including/especially the burning of fossil fuels.

The frantic activity in the material economy that is damaging our life support systems is above all driven by a dysfunctional debt-based money system that must grow by its own design, just to survive.  Our monetary system requires constant growth to fend off deflation. The money system currently in place has no neutral gear, and no “steady-state” option.  And a growing money supply requires a corresponding increase in resource extraction, otherwise runaway inflation would be the result.  The “love of money” building on the more fundamental and widespread belief in “human brilliance” has become, not only a source of moral corruption but also the supercharger of environmental collapse.

It is utterly ironic, that our systems of financial accounting have become so disconnected from the real world.  While we may have come to expect such lack of understanding from bean counters, awareness of environmental crises does not necessarily imply an energetic literacy, and many environmentalists have failed to grasp the importance of energetic limits to the wider human project in the quest for politically acceptable solutions to the climate catastrophe.

Ecological history and ecological economics have provided a growing array of evidence to strengthen the belief that real wealth is a gift from nature.  Systems of ecological accounting that provide more concrete and numeric measures of real wealth have been a powerful influence on my understanding of how the world really operates.

Unfortunately such academic fields of inquiry remain unfunded and ignored in a world dominated by the magic of money and the latest techno fix that helps accelerate the extraction of more real wealth from nature.  We have become dazzled by our own brilliance, and are blind to what the future brings…….

earthporn-smokey-mountains-just-before-sunrise-5615x1920-oc