Before you accuse me of sensationalism in the choice of today's title, let me quote from the Slate story Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone’s Mind.
Many of us have wondered at some point in almost precisely these terms: “Is Earth F**ked?” But it’s not the sort of frank query you expect an expert in geomorphology to pose to his colleagues as the title of a formal presentation at one of the world’s largest scientific gatherings.
Nestled among offerings such as “Bedrock Hillslopes to Deltas: New Insights Into Landscape Mechanics” and “Chemical Indicators of Pathways in the Water Cycle,” the question leapt off the pages of the schedule for the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.
Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the more than 20,000 Earth and atmospheric scientists who descended on downtown San Francisco this week to share their research on everything from Antarctic ice-sheet behavior to hurricane path modeling to earthquake forecasting. But he’s the only one whose presentation required the use of censorious asterisks. When the chairman of Werner’s panel announced the talk’s title on Wednesday, a titter ran through the audience at the naughtiness of it all.
Why shout out the blunt question on everyone’s mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. “Not so much depressed about all the good science that’s being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds,” he clarified, “[and] by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it.”
Let us disambiguate Werner's question. The Earth is not "fucked" intrinsically in the sense that our planet is a fucked place and always has been. This beautiful planet is a paradise in a cold, inhospitable Universe. Instead, the Earth is "fucked" in the sense that some agent of change is fucking it up. And that agent is Homo sapiens. And even if humans do succeed in fucking up the habitability of the planet, and there seems to be little doubt on this score, in a few millions of years the Earth will recover, once again playing host to a thriving biosphere full of life.
Therefore we are necessarily led to the following conclusion—
The Earth is not "fucked' in any sense. It is the humans who are fucked (in every sense).
And our inescapable conclusion leads to a revised title for Werner's talk, which might have been called
Why are humans fucking up the Earth?
with the subtitle
And what, if anything, can be done about it?
When we frame things this way, these questions become true scientific questions, amenable to hypothesis formation and empirical confirmation or falsification of those hypotheses. That's what I often try to do informally here on DOTE. If you want to know my current conclusions, read yesterday's post The Ecological Predicament of Humankind. Then follow the link to my post Is Global Economic Growth Persistent? Then read my post Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
And now, let's get back to the Slate report.
Werner’s title nodded at a question running like an anxious murmur just beneath the surface of this and other presentations at the AGU conference: What is the responsibility of scientists, many of them funded by taxpayer dollars through institutions like the National Science Foundation, to tell us just exactly how f**ked we are? Should scientists be neutral arbiters who provide information but leave the fraught decision-making and cost-benefit analysis to economists and political actors? Or should they engage directly in the political process or even become advocates for policies implied by their scientific findings?
Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet's critical systems, that may be quickly changing...
Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s foremost experts on glaciers and ancient climates, framed the dilemma in a speech he gave to a group of behavioral scientists in 2010:
Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.
That’s the sound of serious-minded scientists fretting out loud to the rest of us that the earth is indeed f**ked, unless we get our s**t together. More and more are willing to risk professional opprobrium to drive that message home.
In short, some scientists are now turning to enviromental activism. (Read the Slate article if you want the details). However, there is a constant avoidance of the only question which really matters, which in the context just above, turns out to be—
Why can't humans get their shit together?
You can see the avoidance in Brad Werner's talk.
The bulk of Werner’s talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a “preliminary agent-based numerical model” of “coupled human-environmental systems.”
He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes.
These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist’s domain. “It’s really a geophysics problem,” he said. “It’s not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities.”
This is easily the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard a "scientist" say. Werner has built a computer model describing the two-way interaction between humans and their environment, using the same techniques he employs to simulute the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers and coastal landscapes.
In short, Brad has a hammer, and everything, including typical human behavior and decision-making, looks like a nail to him.
Now, allow me to be blunt. Why can't humans get their shit together and stop fucking up the Earth? This is a problem with humans, it is about humans, and to figure out what that problem is, you have to step outside the Human Condition (to the extent possible) and take a long, hard look at what humans are, and why they do what they do.
This is not the kind of problem which can be solved with the same techniques used to simulate the dynamics of natural systems like glaciers or coastal landscapes. Do I have to say it? Apparently I do—
Investigating human behavior is not the same kind of thing as investigating the behavior of glaciers or coastal landscapes. The investigation of Human Nature takes place on an entirely new level of understanding. Necessarily, it requires self-knowledge. You must observe what humans typically do in the present, and study what they have done in the past, and draw your conclusions accordingly.
Therefore, you need a entirely new set of cognitive skills to figure out what humans are and why they do what they do. It is only by applying such "introspective" and "objective" skills that you will be able to figure out why humans are fucking up the Earth.
One might say that humans must attain a "higher" level of consciousness to solve their self-created problems.
In the past, I have referred to the tragic lack of self-knowledge of the human animal. Well, now you know what I mean by that. But Werner is completely immersed within the Human Condition. He can not step outside of it (to the extent possible) in order to draw some conclusions about human behavior. So he has come to the totally absurd conclusion that he can facilitate "better decision-making" with a computer model of human-environmental interactions. But it is that very human decision-making which is at issue! He has begged the question!
Now let's read Werner's necessarily lame conclusions.
As for the big question—is Earth f**ked?—Werner announced in his talk that he has done some preliminary runs of his model. At this point I could sense the audience lean forward collectively on their seats. First he simulated the global economy proceeding into the future without the drag of environmental management decisions. “What happens is not too surprising,” he told us evenly. “Basically the economy fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage.”
Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that “it delays the environmental damage but it doesn’t prevent it.”
That’s not too surprising either. (But it also implies we’re eventually, definitely f**ked.) Still, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out.
Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path.
Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”
Of course this activist calculus is totally silly. At this point, I can only tell you what my own conclusions are.
First, all the activism in the world is not going to change the outcome here on planet Earth. And why not? Because it has not occurred to these "scientists" that rapid de-carbonization of the global energy supply is also going to result in economic dissolution on a vast scale. And no human being, outside the few people who are rooting for the end of industrial civilization, is going to be happy with that outcome. You might take a look at my post Climate Change Idiots.
In fact, I would really like to see this rapid de-carbonization "experiment" carried out. Unfortunately, and necessarily, this experiment would be short-lived. Carrying out the experiment would quickly run afoul of the very thing which prevents us from implementing it in the first place—the human instinctual drive to grow without limit.
The great tragedy of the Human Condition is that humans can not figure out who they are and why they do what they do. In short, humans are completely immersed in their own nonsense. If they could see themselves from the "outside" as it were, there would be perhaps a very small chance that they could overcome their instincts with their intelligence, to paraphrase Craig Dilworth, who I quoted in yesterday's post.
But humans are apparently intrinsically incapable of taking the large leap toward self-knowledge which would make possible the very slim hope for a happy outcome.