Is our future our past?

7 07 2016

Chock
At ten months, Chock the ox is already earning his keep around the farm. Photo: Steven French Family.

If there’s one thing most post peak oil commentators have given too little consideration to it’s how goods will be moved and how farms will function in our scary and fast approaching future.

Sure there’s the fraternity that talk about bicycles and walking and they’re on the right track, particularly if you’re lucky or wise enough to reside in a city or village.

However a means of energy or transport that doesn’t involve some form of technical reliance such as electric cars, high speed rail, nuclear power, wind turbines, solar panels or waver power, seems to be strangely missing from the dialogue. Certainly low-tech conveyances such as barges and sailing ships occasionally get a mention, and rightly so. But when the blindingly obvious is mentioned eyes often glaze over.

Horsepower

The one thing that’s almost always overlooked is using animals for transport and farm work.

Pretty much until the early 1900s it was animal power that kept civilization going. Yet today, a little over a half century since many rural people still used animal power, using animals to produce actual horsepower seems unimaginable.

Yet, a snapshot of 1900 could be a view of our future.

Back to the future

I’m lucky enough to live on the island of Tasmania, one of the seven states of Australia.

Much of Tasmania is highly fertile and we have a great climate. Although Tasmania may seem remote, our farmers have always been as keen to modernize in ways akin to our farming cousins in the US. The widespread adoption of tractors for farming happened here around the time of World War II.

But the time that I really want to focus on is the 1930s, when my parents were growing up and most farmers still relied on horses. The maternal side of my family farmed only a couple of miles away. Both families’ lifestyles and farming methods were similar and would have been typical of almost everyone who worked the land in those days. They had:

  • No electricity
  • No telephone
  • No internal combustion engine on the property

My dad’s parents did have a car but my mother’s family never drove. Nan and Grandpa never had a driver’s license even though they farmed another property a fifteen minute bike ride away.

A good living

The point is that they enjoyed a good standard of living, certainly by the standards of the 1930s but also, I suspect, by today’s standards. There was a vibrant social life centered around the little township of Whitemore, with several sporting teams and social functions usually held two or three nights a week. These people were not country yokels by any means. They were articulate and well traveled. Their farms were highly productive. And they used virtually no petroleum.

Yes, they had a little kerosene for their lanterns, and maybe grease and oil were used to lubricate moving parts on the horse-drawn equipment. But their use of petroleum was pretty much nonexistent compared with today.

There was a train-line not too far away and the children rode their bikes to the station to catch a steam-train to high school, a 45 minute trip. Nowadays the local children catch a bus for a one hour trip to their nearest high school. Much of the farm produce was delivered to the railway station by wagon where it was transported to markets.

Their water supply was pumped from the well thanks to a windmill and a hand pump.

Man and beast alone

Paddocks were plowed, worked and sown with horses. At harvest time horses pulled binders which tied the crops into sheaves. The sheaves were later forked onto horse drawn wagons and made into huge stacks not too far from the farmyard. During early winter a wood-fired traction engine (steam-engine) pulled a drum from farm to farm. A drum is a huge threshing machine which took 15 men to operate. It was belt-driven from the traction engine’s flywheel and it threshed the grain from the straw. These drums were still working around Tasmanian into the 1950s. They can still be seen in operation at some of our historic farming field days.

The point that I’m belaboring and repeating is that these farms used almost no petroleum, were highly productive, and farming families and laborers enjoyed a good standard of living.

Could we return to this style of living and farming? The answer is yes, but with some not-insurmountable difficulties.

Ramping up to face the effects of peak oil

First the number of heavy horses required would take decades to breed up. Also there are very few people around with the ability to work heavy horses. It’s a skill that I suspect not everyone has the ability to acquire. An ill trained or poorly driven horse is dangerous and it can take years to learn the skill necessary to work a horse properly.

The answer is oxen (we call them bullocks here in Australia). There’s no shortage of cattle and they are much more placid and easier to train than horses. Also their harness requirements are minimal and they are easy to feed and maintain. The only downside is that oxen are slower than the horse but hey, that’s not so bad, is it?

Up until the mid 1800s all animal power on farms was supplied pretty much by oxen, although the farmer may have had a light horse for riding or to pull a cart. In most American Western movies and TV shows horses are pulling the covered wagons that made up the wagon trains. In actuality, these covered wagons were mainly drawn by oxen. Possibly a slower but certainly a more sensible option, ox could pretty much live off the land they were passing through and didn’t suffer from many off the health issues of the horse.

Could oxen save the day? Quite possibly. Cuban President Raul Castro recently called for ox to be used as beasts of burden as a way for the economically strapped communist country to ramp up food production while conserving energy.

Ramping up food production – conserving energy – a cash strapped economy – falling oil supply? Sounds familiar? How long before a leader of the western world pleads for a solution to the same problems? Or have they already but are looking in the wrong direction?

–Steven French for Transition Voice





Climate, Energy, Economy: Pick Two

7 07 2016

Another darn good read from Raul Ilargi of Automatic Earth…..

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

We used to have this saying that if someone asks you to do a job good, fast and cheap, you’d say: pick two. You can have it good and cheap, but then it won’t be fast, etc. As our New Zealand correspondent Dr. Nelson Lebo III explains below, when it comes to our societies we face a similar issue with our climate, energy and the economy.

Not the exact same, but similar, just a bit more complicated. You can’t have your climate nice and ‘moderate’, your energy cheap and clean, and your economy humming along just fine all at the same time. You need to make choices. That’s easy to understand.

Where it gets harder is here: if you pick energy and economy as your focus, the climate suffers (for climate you can equally read ‘the planet’, or ‘the ecosystem’). Focus on climate and energy, and the economy plunges. So far so ‘good’.

But when you emphasize climate and economy, you get stuck. There is no way the two can be ‘saved’ with our present use of fossil fuels, and our highly complex economic systems cannot run on renewables (for one thing, the EROEI is not nearly good enough).

It therefore looks like focusing on climate and economy is a dead end. It’s either/or. Something will have to give, and moreover, many things already have. Better be ahead of the game if you don’t want to be surprised by these things. Be resilient.

But this is Nelson’s piece, not mine. The core of his argument is worth remembering:

Everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable…

…and approach worthlessness. On the other hand,…

Investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable…

Here’s Nelson:

 

 

Nelson Lebo: There appear to be increasing levels of anxiety among environmental activists around the world and in my own community in New Zealand. After all, temperature records are being set at a pace equal only to that of Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the NBA Finals. A recent Google news headline said it all: “May is the 8th consecutive month to break global temperature records.”

In other words, October of last year set a record for the highest recorded global monthly temperature, and then it was bettered by November, which was bettered by December, January, and on through May. The hot streak is like that of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France dominance, but we all know how that turned out in the end.

Making history – like the Irish rugby side in South Africa recently – is usually a time to celebrate. Setting a world record would normally mean jubilation – not so when it comes to climate.

Responses to temperature records range from sorrow, despair, anger, and even fury. Anyone with children or grandchildren (and even the childless) who believes in peer review and an overwhelming scientific consensus has every right to feel these emotions. So why do I feel only resignation?

We are so far down the track at this point that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Remember the warnings 30 years ago that we needed 30 years to make the transition to a low carbon economy or else there would be dire consequences? Well, in case you weren’t paying attention, it didn’t happen.

While these warnings were being issued by scientists much of the world doubled down – Trump-like – on Ford Rangers, Toyota Tacomas, and other sport utility vehicles. The same appears to be happening now, with the added element that we are experiencing the dire consequences as scientists issue even more warnings and drivers buy even more ‘light trucks’. Forget Paris, the writing was on the wall at Copenhagen.

 

The bottom line is that most people will (and currently do) experience climate change as a quality of life issue, and quality of life is related to a certain extent to disposable income. Acting or not acting proactively or reactively on climate change is expensive and gets more expensive every day.

If the international community ever takes collective action on climate change it will make individuals poorer because the cost of energy will rise significantly. If the international community fails to act, individuals will be made poorer because of the devastating effects of extreme weather events – like last year’s historic floods where I live as well as in northern England, etc – shown to be on the increase over the last 40 years in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers with verifiable data.

And here is the worst part: most economies around the world rely on some combination of moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels. For example, our local economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism, making it exceptionally vulnerable to both acting AND not acting on climate change.

Drought hurts rural economies and extreme winds and rainfall can cost millions in crop damage as well as repairs to fencing, tracks and roads. As a result, both farmers and ratepayers have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family trip. This is alongside living in a degraded environment post-disaster. The net result is a negative impact on quality of life: damned if we don’t.

On the other hand, tourism relies on inexpensive jet fuel and petrol to get the sightseers and thrill seekers to and around the world with enough dollars left over to slosh around local economies. Think about all of the service sector jobs that rely on tourism that in turn depend entirely on a continuous supply of cheap fuel. (This is not to mention peak oil and the lack of finance available to fund any long and expensive transition to an alternative energy world.) I’m told 70% of US jobs are in the service sector, most of which rely on inexpensive commuting and/or a highly mobile customer base.

Any significant approach to curbing carbon emissions in the short term will result in drastic increases to energy prices. The higher the cost of a trip from A to Z the less likely it is to be made. As a result, business owners and ratepayers at Z will have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family vacation of their own. The net result is a negative impact on their quality of life: damned if we do.

 

I suppose it deserves repeating: most OECD economies and the quality of life they bring rely on both moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels, but these are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, regardless of emissions decisions made by the international community, we are already on track for decades of temperature records and extreme weather events that will cost billions if not trillions of dollars.

The response in many parts of the world has been to protest. That’s cool, but you can’t protest a drought – the drought does not care. You can’t protest a flood – the flood does not care. And even if the protests are successful at influencing government policies – which I hope long-term they are – we are still on track for decades of climatic volatility and the massive price tags for clean up and repair.

Go ahead and protest, people, but you better get your house in order at the same time, and that means build resilience in every way, shape and form.

Resilience is the name of the game, and I was impressed with Kyrie Irving’s post NBA game seven remarks that the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated great resilience as a team.

As I wrote here at TAE over a year ago, Resilience Is The New Black. If you don’t get it you’re not paying attention.

This article received a wide range of responses from those with incomplete understandings of the situation as well as those in denial – both positions dangerous for their owners as well as friends and neighbours.

The double bind we find ourselves in by failing to address the issue three decades ago is a challenge to put it mildly. Smart communities recognize challenges and respond accordingly. The best response is to develop resilience in the following areas: ecological, equity, energy and economic.

The first two of these I call the “Pope Index” because Francis has identified climate change and wealth inequality as the greatest challenges facing humanity. Applying the Pope Index to decision making is easy – simply ask yourself if decisions made in your community aggravate climate change and wealth inequality or alleviate them.

For the next two – energy and economics – I take more of a Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (credit, Thom Hartmann) perspective that I think is embraced by many practicing permaculturists. Ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) is on its way out and if we do not use some to build resilient infrastructure on our properties and in our communities it will all be burned by NASCAR, which in my opinion would be a shame.

As time passes, everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable and approach worthlessness.

On the other hand, investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable as the years pass.

Additionally, the knowledge, skills and experience gained while developing resilience are the ultimate in ‘job security’ for an increasingly volatile future.

If you know it and can do it and can teach it you’ll be sweet. If not, get onto it before it’s too late.





Choosing between our economy and our future

12 02 2015

Christiane Kliemann

A guest post from Christiane Kliemann who writes on postgrowth, alternative economy and societal change. She is a member of the Degrowth 2014 team

The new year has just begun and we’re already inundated with horrible news: two new reports have collected further evidence that human economic activity puts life on Earth at risk, and another shocked us with the fact that the 85 richest people on the planet are as wealthy as the poorest 50% – and that the gap between them is still widening. Not to mention the brutal attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, the ongoing wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine and the devastating situation of refugees.

At the same time, a lot of effort is being spent to reassure us that economic growth and a capitalist economy are essential for solving what some call the “crisis of civilization”.

Growth is the perennial buzzword of the World Economic Forum – and this year is no exception. Delegates keep assuring us that their own profitability is vital for safeguarding humanity, while we ordinary people go about our day-to-day lives: we happily drive our cars, book flights to our next holiday destination and raise our children as we’ve always done.

It seems that we are in collective denial about the threatening implications of reality. We still trust in the old narratives that growth and competition are good, that technology and experts will fix it and that capitalism is history’s ultimate victor.

Not only ecological limits and growing social inequality, but also the increasing violence of fundamentalists of all sorts indicates that it is high time for a new economic and social narrative. An economy that is essentially based on competition will always perpetuate violence and hatred.

Wanted: new economic narratives

Before a new narrative – degrowth, for example – can gain ground, we have to accept that there are only radical options left. We have to choose between our economy and our future.

Even now, degrowth is already appealing to a growing number of people, as last year’s Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Leipzig proved.

It embraces many aspects that are common to a rising number of social and ecological grassroots-initiatives around the globe:

  • Integrating social and ecological issues instead of playing them off against each other
  • Replacing economic growth with a holistic idea of wellbeing
  • Turning away from resource-intensive production and industrial agriculture
  • Claiming more democratic participation and co-creation
  • Preferring small and decentralized solutions with short feedback-loops, re-localization of economic cycles and decentralization
  • Prioritizing sufficiency and resilience
  • Creating resilient livelihoods instead of unstable jobs in fragile globalized supply chains

In circles closer to the mainstream, I have personally observed that criticizing the dependence on economic growth and calling for a social-ecological transformation of the economy is welcomed by many.

Doubts and reluctance stem from the widespread perception that transforming the system is unrealistic, given the powerful interests of the elites.

Ordinary people feel subject to, rather than masters of, their circumstances.

In order for the vision of a degrowth society to become broadly accepted as a realistic option, we need to agree on the following points:

  • Growth and climate stability are incompatible
  • Continuous growth does not increase prosperity
  • Growth will soon come to an end anyway
  • After a certain point, the ecological and social price paid for keeping up growth becomes unacceptable
  • Growth and Western consumption patterns are increasingly resented in the Southern Hemisphere
  • The “trickle down” effect has been proven wrong
  • There is no such thing as “green growth
  • Degrowth does not only mean less, but differently, i.e. meeting everyone’s needs more sustainably and equitably with fewer resources
  • Degrowth is not against innovative technologies, but requires them to be administered democratically and “convivially” based on the precautionary principle

It is high time to shape a broad social movement

Despite what corporate interest groups say, we can all understand that a good life does not require ever more traffic, bigger houses, and greater quantities of waste. We cannot square the benefits of “more stuff” when it threatens our ecosystem and coincides with extreme poverty in some parts of the planet.

A good life requires long-term security in meeting everyone’s basic needs: food, shelter, affection, leisure, protection, understanding, health, participation, creation and freedom. All of these requirements are dependent on a healthy planet.

If we take our oft-cited Western values seriously, there is no doubt that we have to change our ways and ensure that our values come before any corporate or private profit.

It is high time to shape a broad social movement that pressures governments and businesses to help adjust consumption and production habits to allow the good life for everyone. We want cooperation instead of competition, common instead of corporate interest, solidarity instead of greed, strong social relationships instead of meaningless consumption, mindful resource stewardship instead of extractivism and compassion instead of indifference. We demand less traffic, fewer mega-projects and more community-based policy.

It is high time to take our future in our own hands and to realize that our current economy is part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution.

Originally published in the Guardian.





The future belongs to the adaptable

14 08 2014

Nicole Foss

Nicole Foss

Nicole Foss was back recently, on a speaking tour with, this time David Holmgren.  You may remember that the two disagree on how to handle the future, with David asking for ‘Crash on Demand’, while Nicole believes the crash will occur soon enough without any of our assistance…..

I seriously considered going to listen to her again, because I have rarely found a better speaker anywhere, but in the end felt I knew her message well enough, and so decided not to.  Nicole is a Master Communicator, and explains things in a manner that anyone, even me, can understand!  I reported on this, but relying on my memory to tell you what she said isn’t a good idea……  what memory?

This time, we are all lucky.  Her talk was taped and broadcast on Radio National for all to listen to, and in my case digest many times over as I downloaded it, and saved it to a SD card I can play on my car stereo when I drive!  I may bag technology all the time, but sometimes it sure comes in handy..

Several things Nicole mentioned are worth emphasising here, so I have taken the time to itemise the more salient points as I see them.

  1. The Trust Horizon.  I’ve heard no one else use this concept, and it’s more than interesting, because I believe that these days, trust is a fast disappearing commodity as people become more and more disjoined.  More to the point, if you’re going to start a revolution, something I say all the time, you need to know you can trust those you are revolting with, and they need to know they can trust you.  Which more than likely explains the lack of a revolution so far…….
    And yet, we – well, some of us! – trust financial and government institutions to do the right thing by us…
  2. The great collateral grab by the filthy rich is already underway; this involves the disappearance of a lot of virtual value, happening in Greece right now where ports, railways, islands, and beaches, and even the Parthenon are being sold off….  the Greeks will soon own very little of their country and will end up being renters.
  3. We’re going to see falling prices; unfortunately, it doesn’t mean things will become more affordable.  If the amount of money in your pocket disappears faster than prices come down, you’re going to find things difficult.
  4. Places that had bubbles burst significantly, like Iceland, Ireland, Spain, looked very much like Australia before their bubbles burst…..
  5. Local government may end up being the only level at which governance will still work because of the trust horizon.  Nicole even suggest a coup of sorts by standing in local elections to change the rules to allow more people to become self sufficient, something I have had personal experience with here as you would not believe the stupid rules that are in place to stop you from disconnecting from the Matrix……
  6. Australia’s business plan is utterly reliant on what’s happening in China, and that makes us very vulnerable.  China has already overbuilt infrastructure, and it has also stockpiled huge amounts of everything and could stop buying our resources at very short notice……  China’s economy is the biggest ponzi scheme on the face of the planet.
    USPOchart2USPOchart3
  7. If Energy Profit Ratio falls by a factor of ten (as it is doing…) then gross production needs to rise by a factor of ten just to keep you in the same place.  Gross production is however flat to falling.  When BOTH energy profit ratio AND production fall simultaneously, that means a serious energy crunch.  This will lower our levels of complexity substantially, and our lives will have to simplify…
  8. Dependency equals vulnerability, replace brittleness with resilience.  We have to decentralise everything…….  from money supply, to control over the essentials of your very existence, the future belongs to the adaptable.  Local grassroots initiatives will not give us Business as Usual which is a phenomenon caused by cheap energy and credit which are both going to disappear……

If you’ve never heard Nicole speak, you will relish this presentation.  Enjoy.





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!

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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.





Climate change explained to my students

12 03 2014

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi

The little frog that could

You know the story of the boiled frog: it says that if you heat up the water slowly, the frog will not jump out of the pot because it can’t perceive the gradual increase of the temperature of the water.

We humans need to jump out of our planetary pot before it is too late. We can still do that, but we must be able to communicate the urgency of the situation. In this attempt, we discovered that just telling the truth is not enough. We must develop effective strategies of communication.

This is a written version of something I said a few days ago to my students of a class for of the “Economic Development  and International Cooperation” school (SECI) of the University of Florence.

The question: Professor, but did I hear correctly what you said? You say that climate change will bring problems for us in decades? Now, I knew that scientists were talking about centuries or even longer times. How can that be possible?

My answer.  You got it right: I said “decades”, not centuries and I might as well have said “years” – although perhaps decades is a more correct time scale for the troubles awaiting us – and you in particular, since you are so young. Now, I also understand why you were under the impression that climate change is a question of centuries; something to be dealt with by future generations. This is an unfortunate result of the way some data are presented; in particular by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, the IPCC. They are very cautious, they try to avoid giving the impression of being “catastrophists” and the result is that climate change, according to the way they discuss it, looks very smooth and gradual that goes on for centuries. That’s not necessarily the case.

The time scale of climate change depends on what we are considering. Some effects are very slow: if we think, for instance, to the Antarctica ice cap melting and disappearing, well, that will take centuries or even millennia. But if you consider the Arctic ice cap, you see that it is melting down fast and it is melting now! And the consequence is a major change in the weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere – it is something we are all seeing in terms of droughts, hurricanes, snowstorms and the like.

But it is also true that we won’t die because of bad weather and your probability of being drowned by a major hurricane is rather small, especially if you live in Italy. Your question is more specific and I understand it very well: what will be the importance of climate change for people like you, who are now in their 20s?

Let me rephrase the question to make it clearer. I could say that from my personal viewpoint – I am now 61 – I could organize my life on the bet that climate change won’t affect me too much for the time I still have to walk on this planet. It is probably a reasonable bet for me (but it IS a bet!). The question is, then, is it reasonable for you to bet in the same way? I think not at all and let me explain to you why.

Let’s see…. the life expectancy at birth in Italy is of about 80 years, so you have more than half a century to go, in principle. But let’s say that you don’t care about getting stricken by the Alzheimer disease. You just want to get, say, to 70 in good health. Then you still have more than 40 years to go; that the time range you should care about, supposing, of course, that you don’t care at all about your children and grandchildren – which seems to be the standard way of thinking around us: after all, what did my descendants do for me? Given these assumptions, how is climate change relevant for you?

If you look at the nice and tame IPCC scenarios, you’ll see that in 40 years from now we are talking of about 1-2 degrees C of temperature increase. So stated, it looks like a very minor effect. What difference does a degree and half make? Just a minor nuisance. In Summer we’ll turn on our air conditioners and in Winter we’ll save a lot of money on heating. The same is true for sea level rise: the IPCC is talking of about 20 cm for mid 21st century and what are 20 cm? We can build a 20 cm wall to keep the water out in no time. So, nothing to worry about too much? I am afraid that things are not so simple.

The real problem has to do with the resilience of our society. You may have heard the term “resilience” in various contexts – basically it means the capability of a system to resist changes, in particular rapid or even violent changes. The opposite of resilient is, “fragile”. For instance, a glass is hard, but not very resilient, of course; it is fragile. The trick when discussing resilience is that it is often the result of a compromise with performance. If you want to have high performance – say –  for a sport car; then your car will be more prone to breakdowns: think of using a Ferrari F1 for going to the supermarket to buy your groceries.

This kind of problem exists also for much bigger things: the way our world works; say, industry, commerce, transportation, and agriculture. And now that I said that, think of how fragile is modern agriculture. You have probably heard of the “Green Revolution”, the new way of producing food that’s feeding more than seven billion people on this planet. It is true; there has been such a revolution in the second half of the 20th century. It has been based on hybridizing plants in such a way to obtain higher and higher performance. The grain which is cultivated today has a yield at least ten times higher than the grain which was cultivated one or two centuries ago. It is truly the Ferrari of crops.

Unfortunately, the fact that the new generation of grain is such a wonder doesn’t mean it is also resilient. Actually, it is not. As all engineered varieties of crops, it is made to grow in very specific conditions. It needs water, it needs fertilizers, and it needs mechanization. Which is fine; so far we have been able to supply agriculture with all that and in this way we are able to feed seven billion people. Well, not really seven billion. Despite the wonder crops we have, a lot of people are going hungry every day, I read that the number is around 850 million, which means that more than one person in ten, today, doesn’t have enough to eat. In a sense, it is a success because years ago the situation was worse but during the past few years this number has not been going down – the success of the Green Revolution seems to have tapered out. Nevertheless, the problem today is more a question of distribution than of production. In principle, our agriculture would be perfectly able to feed seven billion people – probably even more than that, although we seem to be getting close to the physical limits of what can be produced on a certain area of land.

So, what’s the problem? It is that high performance normally comes with low resilience and this is true also for agriculture. The wonder crops of our age are high performance but low resilience. They have been developed for a situation in which climate was relatively stable, now that it has become unstable, it is another matter. Periodic droughts and floods are obviously very bad for agriculture and even a wonder crop is useless without water; it is like a Ferrari without good tires. And think of how floods wash away the fertile soil needed by plants, to say nothing about the damage done by fires.

Don’t take me for an agronomist; I am not one. Food production is a complex matter and lots of things may happen that improve (or worsen) the situation. I am just noting that climate change may strongly impact the – almost literally – soft belly of humankind: agriculture. But that’s not the only case. Think of infectious diseases, often transmitted by insects such as mosquitoes whose distribution depends on small temperature changes. Think of the mass migrations created by desertification of large swats of land. Then, couple climate change with the other great problem we have, resource depletion, and you’ll see that the two problems reinforce each other. We said that a couple of degrees C is nothing if you have air conditioning; fine, but in order to have air conditioning you need energy and that energy – today – comes from fossil fuels. But fossil fuels are fast depleting: will you have enough energy for air conditioning in 30-40 years from now? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on that.

So, let’s go back to the initial question. I was telling you that you have much to be worried about because of climate change during your life expectancy of about 40-50 years. It doesn’t mean that you won’t arrive to my age; but that it is not obvious that you will. I said before that there are about 850 million malnourished people on this planet and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to become a larger fraction of the total population in the near future. Your problem, in this case, is whether or not you’ll be part of that fraction.

As I said, acting in view of the future is like betting on something. If I were you, I wouldn’t bet on the fact that the future will be like the past (it never is, actually). So, I think it would be a bad idea for you to plan to pass on the next generation the troubles that will come because of climate change; just like my generation has been doing with you. At some moment, someone has to be left out in the cold (actually, in the heat) and I am afraid that there are good chances that it will be your generation.

That brings the question of what to do to avoid becoming a malnutrition statistics (if possible, avoiding that anyone becomes such a statistics) but this is a long story that we’ll discuss in another occasion. For the time being, let me just say that this discussion reminded me of something that Marcus Aurelius said. Citing from memory, it was something like “Everyone lives only in the fleeting moment and you could live many thousand years and that would make no difference to this fact  (*)” So, don’t worry too much about how many years of life you have left. You can’t know. But you know that you have a lot of work to do if you want to do something useful for you and for everyone else. So, you’d better start doing it now.

(*) Remember that even if you were to live for three thousand years, or thirty thousand, you could not lose any other life than the one you have, and there will be no other life after it. So the longest and the shortest lives are the same. The present moment is shared by all living creatures, but the time that is past is gone forever. No one can lose the past or the future, for if they don’t belong to you, how can they be taken from you? Marcus Aurelius (121-180)





“There is no time”

12 12 2013

The Fire This Time

 

A guest post by Dave Pollard

 

3Es-Table

A few days ago I watched the documentary Chasing Ice, as part of our local Transition initiative’s film series. What really struck me in the film was the narrator’s four word comment about 1/3 through the film when he was discussing what we can/should do about arctic melting and runaway climate change:

“There is no time.”

Just that. He meant that there is no time for us to continue to do what we have been doing — the politicking, stalling, denial, endless debate and research. But what these four words mean to me, and I think at a visceral and perhaps subconscious level what they now mean to many people who are informed about what is happening in our world, is that there is no time for us to pull back from collapse, no time to avoid or even mitigate runaway climate change and the emergence, later this century, of a climate on Earth as different (7-8oC) from today’s (though in the opposite direction) as the climate during the most recent glacial maxima (colloquially, “Ice Ages”) 20 and 140 and 260 and 340 and 440 thousand years ago.

During these “Ice Ages” much of the planet’s land mass was covered in ice an average of 2 km thick, and the regions adjacent to the ice-covered areas suffered constant windstorms that transformed them into scrub and desert, and beyond that desert, what are now semi-tropical areas were covered in boreal forest. Equatorial areas then, in addition to being much cooler than today, see-sawed between prolonged periods of monsoon-like rains and periods of extended drought.

What will our planet be like with 7-8 degrees of warming in the next few decades? Weather will likely be more extreme (more flooding, desertification and fires, and, later, much higher sea levels) and much more turbulent, but instead of only the equatorial areas being habitable by significant human numbers, as happened during the “Ice Ages”, only the polar areas, with whatever vegetation will have emerged there in that short time, will likely be habitable in the coming “Fire Age”.

The Fire This Time.

There is no time for us to avert this. But there is time to imagine potential future scenarios and how we might react to them, to increase our resilience to the large-scale changes to our way of living it will bring, and to prepare ourselves for them (intellectually, emotionally, and capacity-wise that is — for the coming Long Emergency, hoarding assets and building bunkers is not a viable strategy).

What complicates the future scenario for our planet is that we are also nearing End Games in our global economic and energy/resource systems, as I diagrammed in my post last month. Neither system is sustainable for more than a few more years, a few decades at most, and both systems affect the rate of atmospheric pollution and hence the extent and timing of runaway climate change.

I’m writing a series of articles that explains all this in more detail for the fledgling Sustainability Showcase magazine, but the chart above summarizes the interrelationship of our economic, resource/energy, and climate/ecological systems, and how ‘collapse’ (i.e. dramatic and uncontrolled unbalancing and change, with largely unpredictable consequences) of any of these systems would likely affect the other two. Here’s the prognosis in a nutshell:

 Best case (Eisenstein) scenario: Shift to Sharing Economy precipitates near-term, gradual collapse of the industrial growth economy, which will leave some of Earth’s energy and resources in the ground and delay and slightly lessen runaway climate change. [Or similarly, major early unexpected impacts of climate change (e.g. pandemic) precipitate near-term, gradual economic collapse, with the same results.]

Worst case (Ehrenfeld) scenario: Politicians ratchet up the economy to extend industrial growth a little longer, exhaust energy and other resources faster and more completely, then use nukes to try to mitigate energy exhaustion, all leading to faster and more severe runaway climate change and total economic collapse and energy/resource exhaustion.

All scenarios end with runaway climate change. This is kind of hard to comprehend, but once you realize how delicate the balance is that has kept our planet in a brief paradisiacal near-stasis climate for several millennia, and how often runaway climate change has happened in our planet’s past (for many reasons, mostly unknown), it’s not too hard to accept. We’ve just unwittingly accelerated the process this time.

There will be large scale species extinction — it’s already begun and it’s also not a new phenomenon on this planet. Life will go on. Some like it hot. There will be a steady exodus toward the poles by many species, with varying degrees of success. What will evolve in the planet’s new super-hot, super-stormy zones is anyone’s guess.

From that perspective, the timing of the collapse of this civilization’s unstable, global, oil-and-growth dependent industrial economy, and whether we plunder the last of the easily-accessible energy, soil, water, minerals, forests and other resources (a billion years’ worth of accumulated riches) before the climate destabilizes, may seem a bit moot. But it will be very important for our immediate descendants, and for many living today.

As the table above shows, we have little say in (or control over) how all this unfolds. But we have a little. The sooner we bring down our rapacious and wasteful economy, the less severe and longer delayed ecological collapse will be — and the more resources will be left for post-collapse life.

We can (and some say should) help precipitate that economic take-down, through direct action against its most grievous activities — tar sands, nukes, deepwater, shale, mountaintop removal, rainforest razing, ‘blood’ mining, factory farming, forced/slave labour etc. And we can precipitate it by walking away from that teetering economy and shifting our activities to that of the sharing economy — by using, gifting and conserving local, organic, low-energy, durable goods and services in community with each other, without the use of fiat currencies.

Beyond that, there’s not much we can do to prepare for The Fire This Time, except learn some useful new skills, learn how to build (and live in) community (anywhere), get and stay healthy, and cultivate what we might call a resilient, adaptable attitude. Some of the qualities I think might be part of such an ‘attitude’ — a way of being in the world — are (in no particular order) being:

  • generous
  • self-aware and self-knowledgeable
  • attentive (“present”)
  • curious and imaginative (they’re not the same thing)
  • able to let go (open, forgiving, patient, even ‘stoic’)
  • challenging (able to think critically)
  • self-expressive and articulate
  • appreciative and grateful
  • playful, joyful, and able to see beauty everywhere
  • able to relish simple pleasures
  • contemplative, gentle, and at peace

We can’t be these things if we’re not, of course, and the stresses of our modern lives make it hard to be them. But, joyful pessimist that I am, I believe most of these qualities are in most of our natures, if we can find space for them, and let them come out. Adversity tends to bring out the best in us, and we’re now in the headwinds of a maelstrom.

It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine. One day, everything will be free.