Letters to Readers
Where to Get It
Youth Futures: 2012 and Beyond (2016 Archive)
Starting in 2012, this space will present updates to the book Standing on Your Own Two Feet: Young Adults Surviving 2012 and Beyond, which is a free book for all young adults. Short corrections will be incorporated into the book as soon as possible, but most additions and supplements will be found only here.
... when it changes it does so quickly, and the impossible becomes the inevitable without ever having been probable.
21 December 2016: The Lindworm
The following story was recently told by mythologist Martin Shaw and written up by Paul Kingsnorth in an essay entitled "2016: Year of the Serpent." I conclude this excerpt with a comment by Mr. Kingsnorth, but exclude the political analysis that followed.
It is a tale about an unhappy kingdom. The king and queen want a child, but no child will come. An old wise woman tells the queen what she must do to conceive. She must breathe her desires into a glass and place it on the ground. From that ground, two flowers will grow: one red, one white. The queen must eat the white flower; under no circumstances must she eat the red one. Then she will bear a healthy child.
Of course, the queen is unable to resist eating the red flower too, despite all the warnings. The king and queen agree to tell no-one of the transgression, and the queen duly falls pregnant, but at the birth something terrible happens. The queen gives birth to a black serpent, which is immediately caught and flung in horror through the window and into the forest. People act as if nothing has happened, and the serpent is quickly followed by a healthy baby boy. But when the boy becomes a man, he meets his serpent brother again in the wood, and the huge black snake comes back into the kingdom to wreak terrible damage.
It's a strange and disturbing story, and if it contains a lesson, it is, suggests Martin, that what you exile will come back to bite you, three times as big and twice as angry. What you push away will eventually return, and you will have to deal with the consequences.
Study what oil is doing to us ... Eventually, oil will bring us ruin. We are drowning in the devil's excrement.
18 December 2016: Climate Change in the Justice System?
Although I believe that most efforts to piggyback justice issues onto the climate change debate will fail, there remains the question of how climate change itself will fare in our justice system. Kurt Cobb just wrote a nice summary of the situation, along with some thoughts about how it might progress in the future. The part of that essay that I believe would be most interesting to young people is reproduced here:
We now have underway the first climate trials (or various stages of them) of the 21st century. The overall question in these trials is actually straightforward: Do governments and corporations have an obligation to protect the habitability of the Earth's climate for human populations?
Let's start with government. The first trial (in the United States) was not actually that recent. In 1999 a group of environmental organizations petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases. In 2003 the EPA denied the petition. Several states then joined a legal appeal which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court decided in 2007 that, in fact, the EPA did have the authority and the obligation to consider seriously how to regulate greenhouse gases.
The agency then offered a regulation plan which was challenged in court. In 2014 the Supreme Court found the EPA plan acceptable with a few minor tweaks.
This kind of legal battle is really a plain vanilla regulatory fight about what a particular government agency can and should do under existing laws. But a more sweeping type of legal battle is now unfolding, one that invokes a much broader obligation of the government to make the climate safe for future generations.
In Washington state a group of young people between the ages of 12 and 16 sued the state to force it to implement a greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan. The state has since come up with a plan that the attorneys for the children say is inadequate. They are in court once again.
Washington isn't the only state feeling the judicial heat. A group called Our Children's Trust is pursuing legal action in several states (including the case cited above) and in federal court. The federal case is proceeding to trial after the government failed to get it dismissed. The aim of the federal plaintiffs is to seek broader protection in policies across the government, not in just one agency.
Some legal experts give the federal case little chance of succeeding even if the plaintiffs win at trial. Appellate courts and the Supreme Court are unlikely to buy the argument that there is a general obligation on the part of the government to regulate greenhouse gases that is judicially enforceable outside of specific legislation. But, there will be an airing of scientific evidence during the trial and an attempt to expand existing legal doctrines to cover the unique challenges posed by climate change. This case is the first of its kind at the federal level related to climate under the so-called public trust doctrine.
Between the poor and any appreciation for modern science stands a wall made of failed schools, defunded libraries, denied opportunities, and the systematic use of science and technology to benefit other people at their [the poor's] expense.
12 December 2016: A fairy tale about personal power
Once upon a time, there lived an old widower and his daughter. In due course he remarried an older woman who herself had a daughter from a previous marriage. This woman doted on her own daughter, praising her constantly, but she despised her new stepdaughter. She found fault with everything the girl did and made her work long and hard from dawn to dusk. One day the old woman made up her mind that it would be best to get rid of the stepdaughter finally, terminally.
She ordered her husband, "Take her somewhere far away, alone. Take her into the biting cold of the forest and leave her there."
The old man grieved and wept but he knew that he could do nothing else; as his wife always had her way. Therefore, he took the girl into the forest and left her there. He turned back quickly so that he would not have to see his child freeze.
The poor girl sat there in the snow, with her body shivering, tushie freezing and teeth chattering! Suddenly Morozko, like a blasting wind howling through the trees came upon her.
"Are you warm, my dear?" he asked.
"Welcome, my dear Morozko. Yes, I am quite warm," she said, even though she was iced to the bone.
At first, Morozko as was his nature thought to freeze the life out of her with his icy grip. However, he admired the young girl's composed stoic grit and showed mercy. He gifted her with a warm fur coat and a downy quilt before he left.
After a while, Morozko returned to check up on the girl. "Are you warm, my dear?" he asked.
"Welcome again, my dear Morozko. Yes, I am warm," she said, as indeed she was a little bit warmer. On hearing this Morozko brought her a large box to sit on.
A little later, Morozko returned once more to ask how she was faring. She was doing quite well now, and this time Morozko gave her silver and gold jewelry to wear, with enough extra jewels to fill the box on which she was sitting!
Meanwhile, back at her father's hut, the old harridan told her husband to go back into the forest and fetch the corpse of his daughter. "Bring back what's left of her," she commanded. Joy overwhelmed him when he saw his daughter was still alive, wrapped in a sable coat and adorned with silver and gold!
When he arrived home with his daughter and the box of jewels, his wife looked on in amazement.
"Harness the horse, you old Lumpkin, and take my own daughter to that same spot in the forest and leave her there," she said with greed sparking in her eyes. The old man did as he was told.
Like the other girl at first, the old woman's daughter began to shiver and shake. In a little while, Morozko came by and asked her how she was doing.
"Are you both blind and stupid?" she screeched. "Can't you see that my hands and feet are numbed blue with cold? Curse you, you miserable cretin!"
The sun had hardly risen the next day when, back at the old man's hut, the old woman woke her husband and told him to bring back her daughter, adding, "Be careful with the box of jewels." The old man obeyed and went to get the girl.
A while later, hearing the gate creaking open, the old woman went outside and saw her husband standing next to the sleigh. She rushed forward and pulled aside the sleigh's cover. To her horror, she saw the body of her daughter, frozen solid by an angry Morozko. She began to scream and curse her husband, but it was all in vain.
Later, the old man's daughter married a neighbor, had children, and lived happily ever after. Her father would visit his grandchildren every now and then, and remind them always to have respect for Old Man Winter.
This fairy tale obviously does not uphold the value of honesty. If that difference from our usual modern values causes you to miss the value that it does encourage, then you just might be missing something very important, especially in these challenging times.
So, congratulations humans, your global contribution is now on par with a gigantic meteor slamming into the Earth.
10 December 2016: The canary in our coal mine is very sick
Miners used to keep a canary in a cage in every coal mine to warm them if poisonous gasses were present. When the canary died, the miners got out.
Since the North and South Poles are warming much faster than the rest of our planet, they are our "canary." Ever since we began keeping records, the area of the sea ice around both poles has been about the same (for any given point in the year), with slight variations from year to year, and a slow trend toward less and less as time passed.
In 2012, suddenly the Arctic (around the North Pole) had a lot less ice in the summer (green line). But from 2013-2015, it went back to being "about the same" again.
In 2016, which is almost over as I write this, things just got weird. The Arctic had a cold, cloudy summer, but still it melted down to second-lowest of all time (after 2012). But ever weirder, in both the spring and fall of this year, the ice was much less than it had ever been, with the (red) line on the graph completely separate from the other lines.
The same thing is happening in the Antarctic, around the South Pole. The line on the graph, going down at this time of year as the south enters summer, is completely separate from the group of lines from the past.
And our "canary" is actually sicker than all this tells us, because the ice is now thinner than ever before. In the past, much of the Arctic ice built up over several years and became 3 - 5 meters thick (10 - 18 feet). Now, there is none of that thick multi-year ice left, except a tiny bit smashed against some islands in Canada. The Arctic ice is now 1/2 - 2 meters thick (2 - 7 feet). In other words, it's just a film that will vanish quickly with any warm weather.
There are still scientists who think that Arctic sea ice might disappear by 2050 or 2100. I suggest we watch it like a hawk in 2017 and 2018.
My fear is that an ice-free Arctic will catch enough warmth from the sun to cause Greenland to quickly melt. Floating sea ice does not raise sea levels when it melts, but land ice, like Greenland, does. Scientists believe that a Greenland melt would raise sea levels 20 - 25 feet. That much would cause chaos all over the world as people were forced to move away from the coasts. Many cities would be completely lost to the sea.
Some of West Antarctica would probably melt at the same time and add to the sea level rise.
And the chaos that would be caused by a moderate sea level rise would be nothing compared to what would happen if the warming poles release the Methane hydrates that are believed to be sitting on the bottom of the polar seas. If that happens, we would truly see run-away global heating that would quickly end our civilization.
Hold onto your hats!
The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.
17 October 2016: Fear of a Living Planet
I have been very busy, since the publication of NEBADOR Book Ten, preparing for the future, and I plan to get back to posting some important information here very soon, but I couldn't resist sharing this excellent article by Charles Eisenstein:
By refusing to recognize that the Earth is alive we implicitly endorse the worldview that enables our destruction of the planet.
Does the concept of a living planet uplift and inspire you, or is it a disturbing example of woo-woo nonsense that distracts us from practical, science-based policies?
The scientifically-oriented nuts-and-bolts environmental or social activist will roll her eyes upon hearing phrases like "The planet is a living being." From there it is a short step to sentiments like, "Love will heal the world," "What we need most is a shift in consciousness," and "Let's get in touch with our indigenous soul."
What's wrong with such ideas? The skeptics make a potent argument. Not only are these ideas delusional, they say, but to voice them is a strategic error that opens environmentalism to accusations of flakiness. By invoking unscientific concepts, by prattling on about the 'heart' or spirit or the sacred, we will be dismissed as naive, fuzzy-headed, irrational, hysterical, over-emotional hippies. What we need, they say, is more data, more logic, more numbers, better arguments, and more practical solutions framed in language acceptable to policy-makers and the public.
I think that argument is mistaken. By shying away from the idea of a living planet, we rob environmentalism of its authentic motive force, engender paralysis rather than action, and implicitly endorse the worldview that enables our destruction of the planet.
The psychology of contempt.
To see that, let's start by observing that the objection to "Earth is alive" isn't primarily a scientific objection. After all, science can easily affirm or deny Earth's aliveness depending on what definition of life is being used. No, we are dealing with an emotional perception here, one that goes beyond 'alive' to affirm that Earth is sentient, conscious, even sacred. That is what upsets the critics. Furthermore, the derisiveness of the criticism, encoded in words like 'hippie' or 'flake,' also shows that more than an intellectual difference of opinion is at stake. Usually, derision comes from insecurity or fear. "Judgment," says Marshall Rosenberg, "is the tragic expression of an unmet need."
What are they afraid of? (And I -- the voice of the derisive critic lives in me as well.) Could it be that the contempt comes in part from a fear that one is, oneself, 'naive, irrational and over-emotional?' Could the target of the derision be the projection of an insecurity lurking within? Is there a part of ourselves that we disown and project, in distorted form, onto others -- an innocent, trusting, childlike part? A feminine part? A vulnerable part?
If so, then critics of the infiltration of New Age ideas into the environmental movement may not be serving the movement at all. They may be enacting their own psychological dramas instead. If you are one of those critics, I am not asking you to join hands with me and sing Kumbaya. I ask only that you soberly and honestly consider where your discomfort comes from.
Certainly, much of the discomfort is a healthy revulsion toward the escapism, spiritual bypass, and cultural appropriation that plague so much of the New Age. Certainly, there is a danger that, intoxicated by the idea of cosmic purpose or some-such, we ignore the pain and grief that we must integrate if we are to act effectively and courageously. Certainly, dogma like "It's all good" or "We're all one" can blind us to the exigency of the planetary crisis and discourage us from making changes in our lives. Certainly, borrowed rituals and concepts of sacredness can be an insidious form of colonialism, a strip-mining of cultural treasure to compensate for and enable the continuation of our own cultural vacuity.
However, such criticisms address a mere caricature of the thoughtful work of generations of philosophers, scientists and spiritual teachers, who have framed sophisticated alternatives to conventional phenomenological, ontological and causal narratives. Phew, that was a mouthful. What I'm saying is not to hide behind facile criticisms.
The fear of being emotional, irrational, hysterical, etc. is very close to a fear of the inner feminine, and the exclusion of the fuzzy, the ill-defined, and the emotionally-perceived dimensions of our activism in favor of the linear, rational, and evidence-based, mirrors the domination over and marginalization of the feminine from our social choice-making. Part of our resistance to the notion of Earth as a living being could be the patriarchal mind feeling threatened by feminine ways of knowing and choosing. But that's still pretty theoretical, so let me share a little of my own introspection.
When I apprehend concepts such as "Earth is alive," or "All things are sacred," or "The universe and everything in it bears sentience, purpose and life," there is always an emotion involved; in no case is my rejection or acceptance the result of pure ratiocination. Either I embrace them with a feeling of eager, tender hope, or I reject them with a feeling of wariness, along the lines of "It is too good to be true," or "I'm nobody's fool." Sometimes, beyond wariness, I feel a hot flash of anger, as if I had been violated or betrayed. Why?
That wariness is deeply connected to the contempt I've described. The derision of the cynic comes from a wound of crushed idealism and betrayed hopes. We received it on a cultural level when the Age of Aquarius morphed into the Age of Ronald Reagan, and on an individual level as well when our childish perception of a living, personal universe in which we are destined to grow into magnificent creators gave way to an adulthood of deferred dreams and lowered expectations. Anything that exposes this wound will trigger our protective instincts. One such protection is cynicism, which rejects and derides as foolish, naive or irrational anything that affirms the magic and idealism of youth.
Our perceived worldview has cut us off, often quite brutally, from intimate connection with the rest of life and with the rest of matter. The child hugs a tree and thinks it feels the hug and imagines the tree is his friend, only to learn that no, I'm sorry, the tree is just a bunch of woody cells with no central nervous system and therefore cannot possibly have the qualities of beingness that humans have.
The child imagines that just as she looks out on the world, the world looks back at her, only to learn that no, I'm sorry, the world consists of a jumble of insensate stuff, a random melee of subatomic particles, and that intelligence and purpose reside in human beings alone. Science (as we have known it) renders us alone in an alien universe. At the same time, it crowns us as its lords and masters, for if sentience and purpose inhere in us alone, there is nothing stopping us from engineering the world as we see fit. There is no desire to listen for, no larger process to participate in, no consciousness to respect.
"The Earth isn't really alive" is part of that ideological cutoff. Isn't that the same cutoff that enables us to despoil the planet?
The wounded child interjects, "But what if it is true? What if the universe really is just as science describes?" What if, as the biologist Jacques Monod put it, we are alone in "an alien world. A world that is deaf to man's music, just as indifferent to his hopes as to his suffering or his crimes." Such is the wail of the separate self. It is loneliness and separation disguised as an empirical question.
While no amount of evidence can prove it false, we must acknowledge that the science that militates against an intelligent, purposeful, living universe is ideologically freighted and culturally bound. Witness the hostility of institutional science to any anomalous data or unorthodox theory that suggest purposiveness or intelligence as a property of inanimate matter.
Water memory, adaptive mutation, crop circles, morphic fields, psi phenomena, UFOs, plant communication, precognitive dreams ... and a living Earth, a living sun, a living universe, all incite scorn. Anyone who believes in these, or even takes them as a valid topic of investigation, risks the usual epithets of 'pseudo-scientist,' 'flake,' or 'woo-woo,' regardless of the merits of the theory or the strength of the evidence.
Of course, simply by making this assertion I open myself to the very same calumny. You can conveniently dismiss me as irrational, scientifically semi-literate, gullible at best and delusional at worst, perhaps knowingly dishonest, bamboozling my audience with learned allusions to impart an illusion of scientific probity to my ravings. But if you really care about this Earth, you'll want to be curious about the emotional content of this judgment. What hides behind the contempt? The reactivity?
What moves the environmentalist?
Our discomfort with New Age-sounding concepts like "The planet is alive" is not entirely rational, but comes in large part from a wound of betrayal, cloaked in the pervasive ideology of our culture. Is it true though? We might play with various definitions of life and come up with logical, evidence-based arguments pro and con, just as we could debate the veracity of anomalous data and unconventional theories, and never come to an agreement. So let us look at the matter through a strategic lens instead. What belief motivates effective action and real change? And what kind of action results from each belief?
Most people reading this probably consider themselves to be environmentalists; certainly most people think it is important to create a society that leaves a livable planet to future generations. What is it, exactly, that makes us into environmentalists? If we answer that, we might know how to turn others into environmentalists as well, and to deepen the commitment of those who already identify as such.
I don't know about you, but I didn't become an environmentalist because someone made a rational argument that convinced me that the planet was in danger. I became an environmentalist out of love and pain: love for the world and its beauty and the grief of seeing it destroyed. It was only because I was in touch with these feelings that I had the ears to listen to evidence and reason and the eyes to see what is happening to our world. I believe that this love and this grief are latent in every human being. When they awaken, that person becomes an environmentalist.
Now, I am not saying that a rational, evidence-based analysis of the situation and possible solutions is unimportant. It's just that it will be compelling only with the animating spirit of reverence for our planet, born of the felt connection to the beauty and pain around us.
Our present economic and industrial systems can only function to the extent that we insulate ourselves from our love and our pain. We insulate ourselves geographically by pushing the worst degradation onto far-away places. We insulate ourselves economically by using money to avoid the immediate consequences of that degradation, pushing it onto the world's poor. We insulate ourselves perceptually by learning not to see or recognize the stress of the land and water around us and by forgetting what healthy forests, healthy streams and healthy skies look like. And we insulate ourselves ideologically by our trust in technological fixes and justifications like, "Well, we need fracking for energy independence, and besides it's not that bad," or "After all, this forest isn't in an ecologically critical area."
The most potent form of ideological insulation though is the belief that the world isn't really in pain, that nothing worse is happening than the manipulation of matter by machines, and that therefore as long as we can engineer some substitute for 'ecosystem services,' there need be no limit to what we do to nature. Absent any inherent purpose or intelligence, the planet is here for us to use.
Just today, the borough was removing trees on our street, and I felt grief and rage as I listened to the chainsaws, even as my mind said, "But after all, those are old trees and the branches could fall onto a person or damage a house. They are unsafe. And what does it matter? They are only trees." So here, inhabiting my own mind, was the fundamental ideology of domination (the trees must be removed because they stand in the way of human interests) and separation (they are 'only trees;' they are not-self; they do not have the basic qualities of beingness that I do).
Look around this planet. See the results of that ideology writ large.
The love of life.
The idea that our planet is alive, and further, that every mountain, river, lake and forest is a living being, even a sentient, purposive, sacred being, is therefore not a soppy emotional distraction from the environmental problems at hand; to the contrary, it disposes us to feel more, to care more, and to do more. No longer can we hide from our grief and love behind the ideology that the world is just a pile of stuff to be used instrumentally for our own ends.
True, that ideology is perfectly consistent with cutting carbon emissions, and consistent as well with any environmental argument that invokes our survival as the primary basis for policymaking. A lot of environmental activism depends on appeals to survival anxiety. "We have to change our ways, or else!" Appealing to fear and selfish interest, in general, is a natural tactic for anyone coming from a belief that the planet has no intrinsic value, no value beyond its utility. What other reason to preserve it is there, when it has no intrinsic value?
It should be no surprise that this tactic has failed. When environmentalists cite the potential economic losses from climate change, they implicitly endorse economic gain and loss as a basis for environmental decision-making. Doubtless they are imagining that they must 'speak the language' of the power elite, who supposedly don't understand anything but money, but this strategy backfires when, as is the norm, financial self-interest and ecological sustainability are opposed.
Similarly, calls to preserve the rainforests because of the value of the medicines that may one day be derived from its species imply that, if only we can invent synthetic alternatives to whatever the forest might bear, we needn't preserve the rainforest after all. Even appealing to the well-being of one's grandchildren harbors a similar trap: if that is your first concern, then what about environmental issues that only affect people in far-away lands, or that don't tangibly harm any human being at all? The clubbing of baby seals, the extinction of the river dolphin, the deafening of whales with sonar ... it is hard to construct a compelling argument that any of these threaten the measurable well-being of future generations. Are we then to sacrifice these beings of little utility?
Besides, did anyone ever become a committed environmentalist because of all the money we'll save? Because of all the benefits we'll receive? I am willing to bet that even the survival of the species or the well-being of your grandchildren isn't the real motive for your environmentalism. You are not an environmentalist because you are afraid of what will happen if you don't act. You are an environmentalist because you love our planet. To call others into environmentalism, we should therefore appeal to the same love in them. It is not only ineffectual but also insulting to offer someone a venal reason to act ecologically when we ourselves are doing it for love.
Nonetheless, environmental campaigning relies heavily on scare tactics. Fear might stimulate a few gestures of activism, but it does not sustain long-term commitment. It strengthens the habits of self-protection, but what we need is to strengthen the habits of service.
Why then do so many of us name "fear that we won't have a livable planet" as the motive for their activism? I think it is to make that activism acceptable within the ideological framework I have described that takes an instrumentalist view of the planet. When we embrace what I believe is the true motive -- love for this Earth -- we veer close to the territory that the cynic derides. What is it to make 'rational' choices, after all? Is it ever really rational to choose from love? In particular, is it rational to love something that isn't even alive? But the truth is, we love the Earth for what it is, not merely for what it provides.
I suspect that even the most hardheaded environmentalist, who derides the Earth-is-alive crowd most vociferously, harbors a secret longing for the very object of his contempt. Deep down, he too believes the planet and everything on it is alive and sacred. He is afraid to touch that knowledge, even as he longs for it. Often, his intellectual reasons are but rationalizations by which he gives himself permission to act on his felt understanding of what is sacred.
This person is all of us. I am no exception: the idea of a living, sentient Earth attracts me and repels me both, mirroring the polarity of opinion I observe at conferences between the nuts-and-bolts and spiritual factions. Accusations of 'naive!,' 'softheaded!' and 'gullible' rattle around in my own brain, expressing a hurting thing within. Maybe if I join the ranks of the critics and turn the criticism outward, accuse others of ignoring science and indulging in fuzzy thinking, I can find some temporary relief. But there is no real healing in that. I want to be whole. I want to feel more and not less. I want to heal these alienated parts of myself, so that I don't act from them unconsciously and sabotage the beautiful vision that asks my contribution.
Each of us (in an industrial society) wades against the tide of an old ideology as we dare to act from the felt understanding of our intimate connection to life, our interdependency, our interbeing. Critiques of the idea of a living planet make that struggle all the harder. In the interests of honesty as well as effective strategy, we need to look at the fear and pain that that critique comes from. Then we can get people in touch with their perception of a living sacred planet, so they can feel the grief and love that perception opens, and act upon it.
We're under some gross misconception that we're a good species, going somewhere important, and that at the last minute we'll correct our errors and God will smile on us.
7 August 2016: A Little Prediction
Looking at the Arctic Sea Ice Extent graph, I notice that between 6 August and the minimum extent in mid-September, about 35% melted in 2012 (the record low year), and 26% in 2015.
Looking at the historical Sea Ice Thickness maps, I notice that easily 1/3 of the ice on 6 August 2012 was 1 meter or less, and the same with easily 1/4 of the ice on 6 August 2015.
Looking at current (6 August 2016) thickness maps, it appears that somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of all Arctic sea ice is now 1 meter or less in thickness. This region extends close to, and might even include, the North Pole.
The latest weather forecast I have found for the Arctic is for high pressures, and therefore clear skies and warm weather.
If, between now and mid-September, that 1-meter ice melts, we will have a new record-low year by a wide margin. So much of the Arctic Ocean (80-90%) would be ice free that the dark blue water, even on the fall equinox, would be absorbing large amount of heat from the sun. Combined with already record-high sea surface temperatures, most of the remaining ice, only 1-2 meters thick, could easily melt.
The Arctic melting season could last much longer than usual, going deep into October. The Arctic would then grow a thin film of ice during the winter that would be easily broken up by waves and wind. This film would melt early next year, and we could see an ice-free Arctic by April or May 2017.
The solar energy absorbed by the Arctic Ocean during the summer of 2017 would no longer need to melt ice, but would instead raise the temperature of the water and land. This could trigger Greenland to begin gushing on all sides, with a melting season, like the Arctic Ocean itself, that would run from April to November, instead of just June to September. It might take a few years for Greenland to melt out completely, and this would be good for about 20 feet of sea-level rise, perhaps more with thermal expansion.
Although not directly involved, West Antarctica would feel the effects and speed up its melting process before too long.
Welcome to Anthropogenic Abrupt Climate Disruption.
Thanks to Sam Carana, Neven, and Dr. McPherson for posting the information upon which my little prediction is based.
We're under some gross misconception that we're a good species, going somewhere important, and that at the last minute we'll correct our errors and God will smile on us.
1 August 2016: As Witnesses, and for Training
In my closing letter to readers at the end of the last book of the NEBADOR young-adult scifi series, I make the following statement:
A few of us might find a place in that world for a little while longer, as witnesses, and for training.
As several questions have quickly stacked up in my email inbox about that statement, I wish to offer some reflections on it, although I'm not sure I can truly answer the questions. As I reflect, I will try not to assume that you have read any of my other writings.
The context in which I made the statement is in reference to Book Nine of the series, in which near-term human extinction ("NTHE") is predicted on the planet where the story takes place, but has not yet come to pass, and some hope exists that it won't. But for any reader who compares the events of that story with our current situation here on Earth, and has read the evidence for NTHE with an open mind, it is clear that that period of "hope" is now in the past (if it ever existed).
"Extinction" is a very heavy word, especially if you linger a bit on the middle syllable as you say or think the word. It should be heavy. In its implications, it is far, far heavier a concept than "death." We all (of sufficient maturity) know we will someday die, and that everyone we love will die, but that knowledge is tempered by knowing that "the world will go on" after us. "The world" refers, most importantly for most of us, to the human world of family, community, profession, culture, etc. With extinction, that comforting afterthought is not present. If you're the last one, or one of the last and all are in the same "boat," then your passing will be THE END.
I sometimes wonder if Lonesome George, the last Galapagos giant tortoise, knew he was the last. Most people (using the point-of-view fallacy) will assume he didn't know. I'm not so sure.
Okay, I ramble, so I should ramble over to the topic. A few of us might find a place in that world for a little while longer, as witnesses. "That world" of course is our world, one in which anthropogenic abrupt climate disruption has begun. (Sorry, the word "change" seems too weak these days.) "A little while longer" is starting to look smaller and smaller all the time, with the most doomerish of us talking about 2050 not that long ago, and the honest evidence now drawing our attention to something closer to 2025. What will there be to "witness," and for whom could we possible witness? Extinction, means, after all, that we're ALL gone.
One of our problems as humans is that we think too small. We have gained some of the powers of gods without the intelligence, perception, and wisdom of gods. It's not all about us. There may be other sapient, civilization-making species on the planet now, and there certainly could be in the future. There may be "space aliens" out there watching us, or who will come later and try to figure out what happened here. There my be gods and angels (by whatever names you prefer to call spiritual beings) who know it would not be good for us (or the planet) to intervene and "save" us, but who want a record of what happened here so the universe can remember us and learn from our mistakes.
Again, its not all about us. We certainly appreciate that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and many others wrote things down so we could learn much more about their hopes, dreams, and mistakes than we would from just buried artifacts. Likewise, someday someone will appreciate knowing what we were thinking and feeling as we destroyed our only home. They may even be able to spot the genetic information in us that caused knowing, self-induced NTHE, or they might share those genes and be forewarned.
It's not all about us.
Okay, time to ramble on. A few of us might find a place in that world for a little while longer ... for training. Here I am clearly revealing that I happen to believe we live in a spiritual universe, and that the experiences of individuals are not completely lost upon death. The details of whether that experience enlightens that same "individual" in a new body, or a different individual, or just "creation" as a whole, is not important. Many people (I already know) would like me to jump into that debate, but that's just another example of a human fallacy (thinking weakness) at work. Remember, it's not all about us.
If we "carry on" in any sense, then this experience is important. What do we do when faced with THE END, not just of ourselves, but of ALL of us? Can we learn from it, or not? Do we "freak out," in other words experience temporary insanity, or do we go for the more permanent type? Is going extinct gracefully within human ability, or not?
My guess is that we will see the entire spectrum of attitudes and behaviors as human extinction nears. On the one hand, a few wise people see the situation clearly and advocate for compassion and honorable relations up to the end (Dr. Guy McPherson, Dr. Carolyn Baker, for example). I pitch my little flag in their camp. On the other end, we have persons close to, but not always "in" power (luckily), who I'm sure know what's going on, and advocate for war with other nuclear-armed nations. Please notice that I never promised everyone would "get" the training lessons being offered to us by this situation.
I shall ramble no more at this time. I wish every sapient being who reads these words all the clear-eyed witnessing, and all the good training that comes to you during this extreme and rare experience, the experience of near-term human extinction. By the way, NEBADOR Book Nine: A Cry for Help is a free download, by order of the Muses, on my web site: www.nebador.com
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
14 May 2016: A Tiny Tragedy
I just witnessed one of the little tragedies that happen all the time in the forest. A wild mother turkey with 3 tiny chicks had one of them snatched by a large black bird who quickly flew away, far higher than a turkey can fly. She grieved with many heart-rending sounds as she located her remaining 2 and coaxed them into some tall grass next to some bushes.
As a human, I felt the usual urges to DO something: take revenge on the other bird, comfort the mother turkey, build them a house, or SOMETHING. But I managed to remind myself that those were just the human urges to manipulate the situation. I had no way to find the other bird, and I would only scare the turkey if I attempted to approach her.
But I did have something I could do, just not DO. I went out on the porch and played a sad tune on my native American (pentatonic minor scale) flute to share in her grieving. She stayed where she was hidden with her 2 chicks, able to see and hear me. I also delayed the mowing I planned to do today so she could have her time to grieve, in the place where her tragedy had occurred.
There cannot be an ecosystem without death -- lots and lots of death. I suspect the human urge to intervene and manipulate the lives of other creatures is one of the root causes of our current predicament, in which we have manipulated our environment so much it is showing signs of ceasing to be able to sustain us in the not-so-distant future.
Our networked economy cannot shrink; it tends to break instead.
8 May 2016: Why you can't argue with a "modern," and Why a "modern" can't understand the risks we face
I am posting here the full text of two excellent articles by Kurt Cobb from his Resource Insights web site. Both articles are long but fairly easy reading, and are very important to an understanding of our current predicaments. They are also important "mirrors" into which we should look to see if we might be making some of the same "modern" thinking errors.
Why you can't argue with a "modern"
The modern world is filled with things many of us regard as antiquated and old-fashioned. Modern people often say that ancient rituals are mere superstition, that science tells us what is real and what is not, and that we are now free from ideas including untestable ideas from religion that have slowed continual improvement in the lot of average humans.
That the modern outlook has all the hallmarks of a religion never occurs to a thoroughly modern person (whom I'll refer to merely as a "modern"). A modern believes that the modern outlook is above and outside all superstition and groundless belief. In effect, the modern outlook is a myth that does not believe it is a myth.
In using the word "myth," I do not mean to label the modern outlook false. In this context myth is simply a narrative that outlines a worldview. It turns out that a myth of any vintage, ancient or modern, can be a powerful tool in motivating behavior, in explaining and manipulating the world, and in assigning meaning to human existence. And any myth of any vintage can turn out simply to be mistaken in some or all of its details.
The modern myth has some unique characteristics that make it particularly powerful and particularly dangerous at the same time. The modern myth tells us the following about the world and our place in it:
1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
Let me take these claims one at a time.
First, let's see whether, in fact, humans are in one category and nature in another.
A key element of the modern narrative separates humans from nature. We humans are different for many reasons. We have speech. We use tools. We use abstractions to order the world. We plan for the future.
These presumed advantages have allowed us to become the dominant species in the biosphere. One measure of that dominance is what is called global human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP). Net primary production refers to the "net amount of biomass produced each year by plants." Humans appropriate biomass directly through their use of plants for food and fiber. They appropriate it indirectly through the consumption of domestic livestock and wild animals (mostly fish) which must, of course, feed on plants or other animals that in turn feed on plants.
Estimates of HANPP vary widely depending on who is counting and how. The most recent estimates range from 14 percent to 55 percent. But no matter how one estimates HANPP, the portion of the Earth's net primary production devoted to humans is truly remarkable for one species when we consider that there are an estimated 8.7 million species on Earth.
Still, just because one species is dominant does not mean that it is outside the natural world. And, in fact, the modern does not put the human body outside the natural world. The human body is the subject of rigorous scientific investigation through the discipline of biology and its many subdisciplines such as physiology, anatomy, and pharmacology to name just a few.
So, if our bodies are not in a category outside nature, then what part of humans separates them from nature? Well, our minds, of course. While no one can say precisely what it means to say humans have minds, we all know we have thoughts because we experience them. Extreme materialists will say that our thoughts are merely our perception of brain chemistry at work. Thoughts have no independent existence. If that's true, then the distinction between humans and nature falls apart.
Now, nature is a loaded word with a long history. We speak of "human nature," but don't mean necessarily our bodies so much as our social character. And, we usually mean it in a negative way.
Nature can be holy. It was and is to followers of nature religions. It can be something fallen and evil. It is in Christian tradition though that view has softened with the advent of the modern environmental movement. It has also changed as Christian teaching has evolved on human sexuality, long viewed as an evil part of human nature.
The adjective "natural" often signifies the property of not being man-made. It is getting harder to distinguish the two states as humans take over more and more of the biosphere. Humans raise livestock in specific ways and yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a category for "natural" products from livestock. The climate is changing almost certainly because of human activities. Is the climate no longer a natural phenomenon?
Bruno Latour, the French sociologist of science, suggests that humans and nonhuman entities are all part of a connected network which he loosely refers to as the collective. In any case, those things which we thought distinguished us from the other animals are gradually falling away.
It turns out animal calls now appear to have characteristics of what we regard as language. And, elephants communicate with sophisticated sign language. Dolphins apparently have a "sono-pictorial" language of communication. And, they appear capable of using nouns and verbs to form intelligible sentences.
We now know that many animals use tools. Primates use tools. But so do non-primates such as sea otters which use rocks to crack the shells of edible seafood.
Crows have convincingly shown their ability to think abstractly. Primates and dogs can think abstractly, too.
And, it turns out some animals can plan for the future just like humans including apes and birds.
I am not making the case that humans are exactly like other animals in every respect, only that our oft-cited defining differences aren't differences after all. We share so many abilities and characteristics with other animals that it is difficult to conclude that we belong in a separate category. As such, we have no vantage point outside of the natural world from which we can hope to observe it objectively and know it completely. We are stuck inside that world and faced with the limitations of a participant/observer.
So, if we humans don't belong in a separate category, then we may very well be subject to many of the same constraints as animals. We humans are adapted to our environment in ways that have allowed us to become the dominate species; but the fossil record suggests that our dominance is likely to be a temporary phenomenon.
Whatever we call the category that includes humans and everything else, in an age of ecological understanding we would be foolish to pretend that we are separate from what we call the natural world and not subject to its laws.
Second, while our success as a species is undeniable, we conclude from this success a notion that may turn out to be fatal to us or at least to modern technical civilization.
The faulty conclusion we draw is that scale doesn't matter. Many modern readers have been dazzled by the analysis of writers such as Charles Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, who argue that the presumption of a pristine landscape described by Europeans landing for the first time in the Americas is overdrawn. By that time indigenous peoples had altered the landscape in thoroughgoing and profound ways. From this Mann and others conclude that humans can continue this alteration without fear of taxing the physical environment in ways that might lead to civilizational collapse.
What Mann and others seem not to grasp is the problem of scale. Native populations in the Americas might well have been higher than previously estimated (about 25 million instead of 1 million) and their alteration of the landscape might have been greater than previously believed. But that does not mean that the more than 7 billion people now on Earth with their highly intensive extractive ways can continue live as we do indefinitely without risking systemic collapse. As a group we humans today put pressures on the environment that are orders of magnitude greater than those of the much smaller and less resource-intensive world population of the pre-Columbian era.
The scale of human exploitation of the biosphere already has altered the climate in ways which are believed to be potentially catastrophic to human civilization. In addition, fisheries are being depleted. Soil is being eroded as never before. Forests are being felled at unprecedented rates. And, all this is being done without a comprehensive understanding of the systemic effects on the environment and by extension on the viability of human civilization as it is currently constituted.
The old saw that "we will figure something out" is merely a statement of faith. And, any statement of absolute certainty about the future is religious by its very nature since in the realm of practical and scientific knowledge we cannot be absolutely certain of anything about the future.
Which brings us to supposition three of the modern: History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past. Here I am less concerned with recorded history than I am with archeology. Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, shows us that highly advanced societies of the past make mistakes that lead to collapse.
His thesis is that while the proximate cause of some collapses has to do with climate change and/or resource depletion, the ultimate cause is the inability of complex societies to respond effectively to such challenges. Complexity, which initially is highly adaptive and successful, ultimately becomes a cause of collapse as societal systems become so complex that they are no longer capable of processing the information they receive from the environment effectively in order to take the necessary actions to avoid collapse.
The modern doesn't know this history or dismisses it as irrelevant since "we know better now." He or she asserts this even as complexity is piled upon complexity without solving our most urgent and perilous problem, climate change.
In the realm of political affairs, we had a passing fancy that history was ending when Francis Fukuyama told us in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, that liberal democracy would be the final form of governance for all humankind. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism made some people believe that the end of ideology had arrived, that politics was no longer politics, but now a kind of science with one method, the liberal democratic method as currently defined.
And this brings us to the fourth claim of the modern that science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world. Of course, science is no such thing. It is a loose set of disciplines employing widely varying techniques for various ends. It is true that the so-called scientific method has proven to be a powerful tool for harnessing the forces of nature for our purposes.
But the range of what we call science shows it to be a highly differentiated set of disciplines--sciences rather than science--with inconsistent and in some cases irreconcilable theories and practices. Field biology is science, but is it the same kind of science as the study of quantum mechanics? And quantum mechanics, a subdiscipline of physics dealing with the very small, continues to be at odds with general relativity, another subdiscipline of physics that describes gravity and thus the world of the very large. As it turns out, no one has been able to find a theory that would unify the two. They seem to work in very different ways.
Science by its very nature is open-ended. It draws conclusions from observations and from experiment. But it does not claim that any theories developed by scientists are the end of all theories. Quite the contrary, science in practice is about continual testing of hypotheses and theories. And, it is about altering our theories to match new observations.
As the tools of scientists reach farther into space, deeper into the oceans, and more minutely into the life of the cell and into the very basis of human life, the soil, scientists are realizing how little they know about the universe around us. The fact that we are finding so much more to study tells us that we only know the tiniest fraction of all there is.
The extent to which we have altered the biosphere without realizing it by using the technology that has flowed from our scientific understanding tells us how little we understand the complex systems around us.
The modern cannot find humility in the face of our ignorance and therefore cannot understand that in large part the scale of our human enterprises explains our current predicament.
The modern always has a "solution" to every big problem. It can be technological or it can be merely an appeal to faith in what he or she calls "progress." Somehow, modern humans are Houdinis who can collectively extract themselves from every fix before time runs out. Even if we have no answers to our major problems today, those answers will show up soon. Just wait!
This begs the question: If humans are so clever and if they've known about our major environmental problems for decades, then why do the indices by which we measure these problems keep getting worse? Why haven't humans solved these problems already with their cleverness?
Of course, there were those who four and even five decades ago called for rapid deployment of renewable energy, control of and even decline in human population, a move toward more sustainable agricultural and forestry methods, and an end to our consumerist culture. But their voices were drowned out by the moderns and their allies who could not accept the idea that there might be limits on what humans could take from the biosphere and dump into it.
And, to say that human welfare has improved over this period only speaks to our ability to extract ever more resources from the biosphere for our own use (HANPP mentioned above) and dump whatever we choose back into it. The question is not our ability to do this, but the sustainability of exponential growth in this extraction and dumping and the stability of the biosphere which supports us under the pressure of these trends.
It is a mere mathematical fact that exponential growth in the use of resources cannot go on indefinitely on a finite planet. But this mathematical truism is one that a well-propagandized modern either knows nothing about or responds to with that ever present article of faith: "We'll figure something out."
And, now at last we arrive at why you cannot argue with a modern. It is because you are not ultimately arguing about data, facts or observations, but about faith. The modern has a religion-like faith that all human endeavors from here on out will not fail to avert the downfall of civilization and the extinction of humankind. It is my experience that it is very, very difficult to argue anyone out of their religion,* and that's what such a belief amounts to.
To ask someone to reject their own religion is asking them to leave behind beliefs that anchor their lives in the world, that are the very framework for their daily conduct. To abandon one's religion means abandoning an entire way of living and painstakingly building up a new way.
My point is that moderns cannot be convinced of the narrowness of their vision and the folly of their uncritical optimism even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Rather than arguing with those with whom argument is futile, it is better to remember what every political candidate knows about voters: There are those who will always vote for you and those who will never vote for you, and those who are persuadable.
It is for the persuadable that we need to learn the weaknesses of the modern outlook. The persuadable are open to understanding the world in new ways because something in their experience has shown them that mere belief is not enough to assure that things will turn out all right. It takes action.
And, it is personal action, especially action designed to change the current dangerous trajectory of humankind, which the modern seeks to avert. Far from being a change agent, the modern is now the most reactionary of all thinkers, believing that stability and progress are compatible and inevitable and that therefore individual action seeking to alter our current trajectory is not merely misguided but dangerously misguided. With the rise of environmentalism the modern now parades as a clever contrarian while actually being the quintessential representative of the status quo.
The modern's outlook is actually quite restful. It demands nothing of us except acquiescence to the current power structure and its prescribed trajectory for the human endeavor. The modern's message soothes our worries and calms our fears about our future and that of our descendants...until the day comes when it doesn't.
* I am not anti-religion. As it turns out, religion plays an important part in my life and can be a force for social, political and environmental action for many. But I do not believe that religion alone can lead to sound public policy. In the case of the modern whose religious beliefs are hidden from him or her, such beliefs can lead to disastrous policy.
Why a "modern" can't understand the risks we face
In my previous piece, I discussed why it is useless to argue with a person clinging to what I called the "religion" of modernism. I summarized four main tenets of the modern outlook as follows:
1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
These assumptions make modern humans particularly susceptible to becoming captives of the bell curve. Our understanding of risk is mediated by a misleading picture of regularity in the physical world and in human society. Moderns believe that nearly all risks--and certainly the nontrivial ones relating to our survival as species--can be easily calculated and managed.
The truth about risk is actually much more disturbing. The generator of events in the universe is hidden from us humans. We see the results and make up theories about the causes and the processes. Some theories work well such as those relating to the prediction of the orbits of planets, for example. But, others have a challenged track record. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith remarking on his own profession once said: "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."
The idea that the study of human psychology, sociology and economics would yield theories as powerful as those we have for predicting the orbits of planets has long since been abandoned (except by economists, it seems). Humans remain quite unpredictable. And, the trends in the societies in which we live are all the more difficult to perceive and forecast since there are so many people interacting with each other using our worldwide communications and logistics system, each pursuing their individual aims.
Now let's return to the bell curve, a famous statistical construct. Many phenomena in nature when tallied on a graph result in a bell curve. Such a curve can be quite useful for understanding distributions of physical characteristics that are constrained by the laws of physics and biology. For example, we can reasonably predict that a distribution of human height will fall along something resembling a bell curve. The constraints of biology and gravity imply a range for the stature of humans. We might expect to see very few adult humans who are either 3 feet tall or 7 feet tall, but many in between. We would, however, expect to see none who are 100 feet tall. And, we could easily arrive at an average that would not be far from any individual, say, 5 feet.
Social phenomena, such as wealth distribution, are not governed by the laws of physics in the usual sense. While one might find quite a few people at a social gathering who are near 5 feet in height, there would be no one who is 5,000 feet tall. On the other hand, it is quite possible for one person in a room to have a net worth of $50,000 and another to have 1,000 times that or $50 million. There is no physical constraint on the creation of money other than the energy required by a clerk to type instructions into a computer at a central bank.
While social phenomena such as wealth distribution do not follow the same pattern as physical phenomena, they can still be quantified and illustrated.
So far, we've been talking about things which we can readily measure, and we have said nothing about the future. This is where things get sticky. Risk is all about judging the likelihood of something happening in the future--and we can know nothing about the future for certain. (Even the orbit of a planet might be altered by its collision with a comet or a rogue planet. This is unlikely in a short time frame, but grows ever more likely with time--admittedly long spans of time.)
Now, it is one thing to say that in the future adult humans are very likely to remain mostly between 3 feet and 7 feet tall with a few outliers, but none 100 or 1,000 feet tall (unless the laws of biology and physics change). It is quite another to predict the stock market, predict world oil supplies 40 years from now, predict the date of the next world war (which we'd have to define since there are wars going on all the time) or predict human population 1,000 years from now.
There are so many variables which affect predictions such as these that all we might do is hazard a guess. If we end up being right, it will be more a matter of luck than method.
But a "modern" might make generalized, but confident predictions about some of these. The stock market will go up in the long run, say, over the next 50 years, because economic growth will continue apace during that time--growth resulting from the deployment of many new technologies and new abundant, cheap energy sources.
A modern might predict that oil supplies will be irrelevant 40 years from now or predict that they will continue upward during the next 40 years because of--you guessed it--new technologies.
A modern might predict that human population will be larger in 1,000 years as the human ability to provide for greater populations with much higher efficiency continues to develop.
Part of what is lacking in these pronouncements is an understanding or even acknowledgement of the risks inherent in the technology that will allow these felicitous (depending on your point of view) outcomes.
Since we cannot view the generator of events in the world, we can only theorize about causes and effects, never know. While the interactions among unpredictable humans make social forecasting very difficult, adding that unpredictability to human interactions with the physical environment makes long-term forecasting in human affairs as a practical matter impossible.
And here we must acknowledge that our understanding of the physical world is very limited, however much we may think it is comprehensive. Scientists in all disciplines continue to discover relationships and processes which challenge long held views. If such revelations happen over just one lifetime, and we are basing our projections on our current understanding, then we simply cannot fathom how perceptions of the world around us will change over long periods--or whether those new perceptions will tell us that we are getting ever closer to a complete picture of the universe or that we will never arrive at one.
The modern seems unaware of what I've called the chief intellectual challenge of our age, namely, that we live in complex systems, but we don't understand complexity. I alluded to complexity as a double-edged sword in my previous piece, both a tool for adaptation and barrier to it.
The failure to understand how little we know about the world we live in and the inability to see that the world cannot be reduced to an engineering problem have led us to deploy inventions the consequences of which we cannot know--and more important, which threaten systemic ruin for human civilization.
A friend of mine calls this the Midgley Effect after the noted mechanical engineer and chemist, Thomas Midgley Jr. Midgley was responsible for two major inventions which are no longer in use because they were so injurious.
One, lead in gasoline, has had myriad well-documented public health effects. Yet, at the time of its invention, lead was heralded as an innocuous additive to gasoline to improve engine performance. Almost no thought was given to where the lead would go once it exited the tailpipes of the world's gasoline-powered transportation fleet.
This theme carried over into Midgley's other now infamous invention, chlorofluorocarbons, known by the trade name Freon. The world needed a liquid that would be highly volatile and chemically inert to aid the spread of refrigeration. Early refrigerators used toxic, flammable and corrosive liquids to transfer heat from the inside to the outside of the refrigerator. Chlorofluorocarbons as a nontoxic and nonflammable refrigerant seemed an ideal solution.
The problem, of course, was that no one thought about the systemic risks of releasing chlorofluorocarbons into the environment, substances which were designed to persist over decades.
If it were not for the efforts of one curious scientist, F. Rowland Sherwood, in the early 1970s, we might not have learned about the emerging catastrophic interaction between chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone layer. Rowland asked a simple question: Where do chlorofluorocarbons go after they are released into the environment?
The answer was shocking. They were reaching the ozone layer and destroying it thereby threatening all life on Earth, life which had evolved under the ozone layer's protection from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. This was really a case of potential catastrophic ruin that might have gone undetected until the damage was far more advanced.
Sherwood's research led to the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a worldwide agreement to phase out the use of ozone-destroying chemicals.
But the inventor of chlorofluorocarbons was widely lauded during his lifetime, winning several top awards for his achievements in chemistry and even serving as president of the American Chemical Society.
Since then, we have had many examples of worldwide systemic releases of dangerous chemicals which were thought to be innocuous or at least "safe" by the standards of the day.
Ignoring all this the modern pretends that we've learned our lessons and now couldn't possibly do things which could bring down civilization, that is, pose the risk of systemic ruin.
Everyone feared the destruction which a nuclear war might bring. But it wasn't until computer modelers suggested that total nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union could bring on dramatic summer cooling of 20 to 35 degrees C that the full systemic consequences of a such a war were understood. The shroud, known as nuclear winter, that would envelope the sky would initially block out 99 percent of the natural radiation. It would mean a wipeout for the world's food supply and the end of civilization and possibly many species, including perhaps humans.
Such a nuclear exchange seems unlikely today. But it is still possible.
We humans continue to flirt with systemic ruin by touting the benefits of those things which could cause it. Genetically engineered crops (often called genetically modified organisms or GMOs) have been introduced worldwide with virtually no testing on how such novel genes might interact with the natural environment. As author on risk Nassim Nicholas Taleb has explained, where there is repeated use of a technology with a nonzero risk of systemic ruin, that ruin over time becomes almost certain.
If you do something which has a 1 in 10,000 chance of killing you and you do it only one time, you will probably survive. But if you do it 10,000 times, you will almost surely end up in your grave. That is the problem with GMOs, and we have no way of even calculating the risk. We face the possibility of a wipeout of the food system for reasons which we cannot anticipate--that come from the hidden risks accompanying the spread of novel interspecies gene transfer without any understanding of the dynamics of such transfers once released. If we stopped now, perhaps we would avoid such a wipeout. But if we continue, we are only playing a more elaborate version of Russian roulette with gene-splicing technology.
Others have noted the systemic dangers of creating self-replicating nanobots, possibly leading to the so-called gray goo problem in which nanobots consume significant portions of the biosphere in order to feed and replicate.
Some systemic risks are more passive. We've created a worldwide electrical system which we now know is vulnerable to solar storms. It is only a matter of time before one capable of shutting down much of the world's electric power generation hits. So critical is electricity to the daily functioning of our global communications and logistics systems and to everyday systems such as water purification and wastewater treatment, that a denial of electricity to much of the world for more than a few weeks might very well lead to mass death and the end of modern technical civilization. Yet, we as a species have done little to prepare for this event.
What the modern believes is that such scenarios are so unlikely that we should ignore them. He or she believes that the bell curve (normal distribution) of outcomes applies to such risks, when, in fact, we cannot calculate their probability since we cannot quantify what might cause them in the first place.
The point about systemic risk is not that any one of these scenarios is likely. It is that any one of a thousand unlikely systemic risks could seriously endanger all of society. We don't need all of them to take place to experience catastrophe. We just need one. Climate change comes to mind.
And so, as we pile risk of systemic ruin upon risk, we are doing nothing more than whistling past the graveyard, lost in modernist denial--obliviously believing that we know far more about and have far more control over our environment than we do.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual being having a human experience.
24 March 2016: How the greatest technology ever developed backfired on us
I recommend to all of you this excellent article by Ugo Bardi. The "greatest technology" the title refers to is human language, which has been one of our greatest strengths, and is rapidly becoming one of our greatest weaknesses.
I have experienced this personally. I know people who will talk for hours, never say much, and never really listen to anything I've said (the few words I can get in). What causes me to trust someone is to spend hours hiking through the woods with them, dealing with obstacles, sore muscles, wild animals, shared food, and all the other things that happen in the wilds. Although we may talk part of the time, the trust-building happens with few words, and sometimes none at all.
You might think a species which creates so much of its own suffering would be eager to figure out why that is so, and try to fix that, but, tragically, such is not the case.
28 February 2016: "The Future" as a sales pitch
Kurt Cobb, who writes weekly essays about Resource Insights, just gave us some very important information about how we see the future, and how we participate in ideas about the future. His conclusion is so well-stated that I just have to share it with everyone:
"To deal with the enormous environmental, social and economic problems we face, I'm inclined to suggest that we come back and live in the present. In the present we can appreciate our traditions without being slaves to them, and we can evaluate possible futures without deciding ahead of time to live in a mere enactment of a possible future that locks us into a predetermined destination -- one that may not turn out to be the destination we really want, nor one that will necessarily solve the problems we face."
Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.
16 February 2016: Lessons From The Holocaust For Our Times
A recent article by Dianne Monroe contained some good lessons that were clearly stated. I have included them here, and I want to point out that the first one is the most important because of the many psychological and social reasons we have for NOT doing it.
First: Have the courage to consider the worst possible outcome, even though it is not certain that things will turn out this way.
Second: Even though it may not be possible to alter the mega-picture of the storm gathering on the horizon, make your best guess about what might happen, what is most necessary to survive, and how much can be saved. Then find your part and get to work!
If what is already being done does not seem to be enough (in one sense, as with the Holocaust, nothing would be enough) then what else can be done that is not yet being done? Be relentless in looking at what seems most valuable to do. If one thing seems ineffective to you, it doesn't mean everything is ineffective. Join in with something that is already being done that feels meaningful for you -- or create something new.
Third: Recognize that the depth and meaning of your life, your own soul purpose and spark of brilliance is intertwined with the challenges and turmoil of our times.
The article includes a good quote:
"The inner seeded story of the individual soul is secretly tied to the great drama of our world."
Reasoning becomes rationalizing in the face of existential threats.
11 February 2016: One Cheer for the Commons
Although this article by Chris Smaje is not as easy to read as most of the articles I like to recommend to young adults, it's better than most adult articles in its use of language, and explores an important idea.
It's very easy for people, who see problems with the current social/economic system, to grab some new (or old) idea and push it as a cure-all. The idea of "commons," spaces where prople share the resources in a fairly equal manner, have had an important part to play in the past, and probably will again in the future. However, I agree with Chris Smaje that it will not be a cure-all.
Actually, as some of you probably know, I believe that justice, equality, and other nice ideas will probably play very little part in our near future as we deal with climate change and ecological threats of extinction. Those nice ideas are trying to "piggyback" onto the main concern (climate change) so that their agendas can be pushed through as civilization goes through major changes. Although I like most of those nice ideas, I don't believe they will be as much a part of our future as many people hope.
But the macro-economy is not the Whole. It too is a Part, a part of the larger natural economy, the ecosphere, and its growth does inflict opportunity costs on the finite Whole that must be counted.
14 January 2016: Climate Holism vs. Climate Reductionism
Richard Heinberg at the Post Carbon Institute has just written an excellent article that explores two deeply-engrained tendencies in human nature, how they played out in recent history, and how they will affect our response to climate change. Highly recommended!
The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know.
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