This is Part II of my essay Adventures In Flatland. These essays are an attempt to summarize my work on Decline Of The Empire (DOTE) — Dave
The Human Relationship To The Natural World
If you're waiting for an ecological crisis to persuade human beings to change their troubled relationship with nature, you could be waiting a long, long time
— J.B. MacKinnon
In "Consume, Screw, Kill," a review of Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, Daniel Smith sums up the human relationship to the natural world.
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, 250 years ago, humans have dug, developed, dammed, and diverted with such transformative fervor that the effects will be detectable in the geologic record 100 million years from now. We have become indelible...
An Israeli oceanographer, Jack Silverman, summarizes the problem of the [destruction of] coral reefs for Kolbert as follows: “If you don’t have a building, where are the tenants going to go?” The question is rhetorical, but it raises an uncomfortable subject that The Sixth Extinction, for all its thoroughness, never truly addresses.
That subject can be put in the form of another rhetorical question: From the point of view of the slumlord, or the developer, or the demolition crew — or whatever role humans would be assigned in Silverman’s metaphor — what does it matter where the tenants go? Our indifference to the tenants’ welfare, after all, is why they’re in trouble in the first place. We haven’t much concerned ourselves up to this point. Why should we start now?
Indeed, now may be the unlikeliest time for us to grow a conscience about how our rapacity is endangering other species, since we’re now aware of how frightfully our rapacity is endangering us...
The key word describing the human attitude toward the natural world is indifference. Smith goes on to say that "we’re now aware of how frightfully our rapacity is endangering us," but who does "we" refer to?
As discussed in Part I, the existence of a very small fraction of humanity who recognize that our "rapacity" poses an existential threat to the biosphere and, eventually, to Homo sapiens itself, does not change the fact of our general indifference. If the vast majority of humans did indeed see the deterioration of the natural world as an existential threat—the threat would have to be immediate and tangible, like seeing a shark coming right at you—they would take steps to avoid disaster. We see no such reaction. Indifference rules the day.
But in what sense are humans indifferent to the natural world?
Humans are indifferent in the sense that they do not care about nature itself. They are not indifferent in so far as nature can be exploited for human benefit. Animals—let's say mammals—are also indifferent to their environment unless automatic and instinctual behaviors tell them otherwise. Their instincts might tell them "this looks good to eat!" or "now would be a good time to run away!"
Paleolithic humans (hunter-gatherers) had to be highly attuned to the natural world because their very survival depended on it. Being integrated with the natural world does not mean that Pleistocene humans lived in "harmony" with it—this is a hopeful fantasy. In the 21st century, it seems to humans that their survival is divorced from the natural world, and that is true to the extent to which their survival doesn't require direct interaction with it. One might argue that this is the source of modern human indifference, and argue further that paleolithic and neolithic humans did not behave as we do.
More fundamentally, however, humans have always been indifferent to the natural world in the same sense that rats, badgers or deer are indifferent to it. Caring about the natural world or being in "harmony" with it are not part of the instinctual equation. Human concern for nature (including other species) is a very recent development in the history of our species, and only occurs in a tiny fraction of humanity taken as a whole. Consider the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius).
This September 1 is the 100th anniversary of a landmark event in the history of biodiversity. On that day in 1914, at about one o'clock in the afternoon, Martha – the last surviving passenger pigeon – died at the Cincinnati Zoo. It is extraordinary to know with virtual certainty the day and hour when a species ceases to be a living entity. And it was a stunning development because less than half a century earlier, the passenger pigeon had been the most abundant bird in North America, if not the world.
The best evidence is that the bird was "simply" slaughtered into oblivion. The introduction and expansion of the telegraph and railroad beginning in the 1840s meant that wherever the birds were observed the information could be distributed quickly and widely. This enabled hunters from all over to converge on such locations, and the proximity of rail stations meant the pigeon corpses could be easily conveyed to the burgeoning markets of the Midwest and East...
Of course, not every one of the billions of birds were shot or netted. Think about the links in the chain of life. Some of the pigeon nesting concentrations were incredibly large: The 1871 Wisconsin nesting spread across 850 square miles and likely involved 136 million adult birds. But the shooting, burning, cutting of nesting trees, and other disruptive practicesused by hunters caused many pigeons to abandon their nests before eggs were laid or hatched, or chicks were fledged. The chicks, or squabs, were highly coveted themselves and barrels were filled with them. Consider that passenger pigeons nested once a year and laid a single egg. Thus with tremendous anthropogenic mortality and few if any young being produced, the collapse in population begins to become understandable. Those adults that eluded human pursuers eventually aged and met the fate of all organisms.
What drove the slaughter was the abundance of the pigeons, which made them cheap. They were the least expensive terrestrial protein available. Birds could be purchased for pennies a piece. In some places, the birds were worth nothing, and they were fed to pigs or simply discarded as garbage. In the last big nesting in 1878, one eyewitness reported that the pigeons were used to fill potholes in the road.
In the 19th century, passenger pigeons—the "least expensive terrestrial protein available"—were "slaughtered into oblivion." Had the pigeon survived into the 21st century, ≥ 90% reduced with respect to its former range, population or both, the small group of those who care about other species would have tried to take steps to save it from total extinction. I suppose we could call that "progress" but such heroic efforts don't negate the broad indifference of Homo sapiens toward the biosphere.
In short, human treatment of other species, rare exceptions aside, looks very much like animal behavior, although the behavior we see looks very complex on the surface. Homo sapiens is not your average mammal, not your average primate, and not even your average hominid, so it is necessary to examine those details. Doing so reveals underlying patterns which allow us to reduce apparent, superficial complexity.
Let's start with the "natural capital" initiative (Science Daily, June 25, 2014).
New research published in the journal Nature Climate Change reveals that although some companies like Kering, a group which includes Puma and Gucci, are leading the way, more needs to be done to foster a sustainable green economy.
Researchers say that while the economic value of lost natural resource can be difficult to quantify, much more must be done to make sure that it is.
Lead author Matthew Agarwala from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences, said: "When we talk about 'natural capital', what we mean is the elements of nature that produce value to people — such as ecosystems, plant and animal species, freshwater, land minerals, the air and oceans, as well as natural processes such as climate regulation.
The natural world has value in so far as it has value to people. For humans, the natural world has no inherent value. Joe Romm of Think Progress provides a succinct summary of instinctual self-centeredness.
But don’t take my word for it, take climate PR guru David Fenton’s, in this 2014 interview headlined, “Want everyone else to buy into environmentalism? Never say ‘Earth’.”
What matters to most people is what happens to human beings — generally human beings they know. The environmental movement’s major messaging blunder in the past two decades has been failure to make clear that preserving clean air and clean water and a livable climate is about saving people, not something abstract (to most people) such as saving the environment or the planet.
If you want to get people's attention, discussions about preserving a "livable climate" must focus on "saving people." It is a blunder to talk about abstractions like "the environment or the planet." A focus on saving people requires that an economic value must be assigned to the environment. Raising the stakes, what is the economic value of a "livable" planet?
"The value of this natural capital is largely excluded from both GDP and corporate accounting. It is assumed that these natural resources are 'free' — but using them has an impact on the natural world and future living standards.
"This impact is too vast to be left off the balance sheets.
"The World Bank has estimated the value of natural capital to be at least US$40.2 trillion. That's around half of gross world product, 1.6 times the combined assets of the world's 10 biggest banks, and would have paid for the Apollo Space Programme more than 300 times.
"Companies and governments around the world need to account for their economic dependence and impact on the natural world to promote sustainability and combat climate change."
Assigning an economic value to the natural world (here, $40.2 trillion) makes the natural world visible to humans. Also note that the assessed value is approximately half of the measured value of "gross world product" (the accumulated wealth of the global economy), which amounts to putting the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse.
In so far as a "livable" planet is a necessary prerequisite for human existence, and cell phones, rice cookers, automobiles, F-35 jet fighters, luxury yachts, "smart" industrial robots, the internet, etc. are not, you would think it might occur to people to value a "livable" planet more highly than these things taken together with so many other contributors to global GDP. Alas, a "livable" planet is not nearly as valuable as the accumulated wealth created by human economic activity.
We now begin to understand the need for studies like What Is The Economic Value of Healthy Oceans? (DOTE, Science Daily, March, 2012). There are three points of interest vis-a-vis the Flatland model discussed in Part I.
At the unconscious level, humans are so self-centered that the natural world only has value within a human frame of reference. The appeal to human self-centeredness (saving the environment means "saving people") is thus a direct appeal to unconscious instincts, including those governing growth, survival and self-aggrandizement. It can not be any other way, so previous appeals to abstractions like "the environment" were not "blunders" (stupid or careless mistakes) in any sense. Those "blunders" were based on the fundamental delusion that humans are rational beings susceptible to rational arguments (see existential threat filtering, part I).
Human self-centeredness revolving around growth and self-interest is primarily expressed within an economic frame of reference. Consequently, "enlightened" people seek to make the natural world visible by placing dollar values on "ecosystems, plant and animal species, freshwater, land minerals, the air and oceans, as well as natural processes such as climate regulation." Using the language of the first essay, this strategy provides a post-hoc rationalization justifying preservation of the natural world, which would otherwise remain invisible. Post-hoc rationalizations justify, substitute for or cover up unconscious motivations and biases, as I discussed in Part I.
The "natural capital" movement is doomed to fail because there is a mismatch with instinctual motivations—exploiting so-called eco-system services (plant or animal species, freshwater, etc.) conflicts with preserving them for "sustainable" exploitation later on. Elephant conservation in Africa was effective for a few decades, but exterminating elephants for their ivory ("poaching") has now returned with a vengeance. As Asia's economies expanded dramatically in recent decades, predation of highly valued species—including elephants (ivory) and sharks (fins)—also increased dramatically.
Humans are generally oblivious to their primitive self-centerness—there is no authoritative "outside" party (God? Neanderthals? Aliens?) to tell them they are not the be all or end all of everything. Toward that end, I wrote a letter to God to let him know what's going on. If God is driving this bus, it appears He is asleep at the wheel
They are equally oblivious to the crucial central fact that economic concerns always trump environmental concerns unless the cost of attending to the environment is tolerably low. This observation applies everywhere, for example, to mitigating global warming or historical interactions between humans and other species [textbox below].
Humans were able to tackle the ozone hole only because the economic costs of doing so were almost negligible. It was also helpful that the loss of ozone presents an immediate threat to humans (e.g., skin cancers). Repairing the ozone hole can therefore be usefully contrasted with mitigating global warming, a problem which has neither of these convenient properties (National Geographic, May 5, 2010).
As climate scientists around the globe urge action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, might the ozone hole experience provide some useful parallels? Perhaps, experts say—but the situations do have some significant differences.
In the 1980s people were faced with the clear and present health dangers from ozone depletion, leading to widespread public support for CFC bans. "There was a scary side of the ozone hole, linked to skin cancers and cataracts and so on, which immediately engaged the public," the British Antarctic Survey's Jonathan Shanklin said. "The real impact of what a rapidly warming world could do is not so obviously intuitive."
Chemical manufacturers were also able to create substitutes for CFCs with little added costs, enabling governments to address the problem without great impacts on the economy or average lifestyle.
Global warming, on the other hand, has become a politically loaded and often divisive topic. And many potential fixes to the problem—such as alternative energies and reduced consumption—could cause major disruptions to economic and geopolitical norms in a way that replacing CFCs simply did not, Shanklin said.
I will discuss the costs and risks of mitigating global warming in the second part of this essay.
|Humans Treatment of Goliath Groupers|
The July, 2014 issue of National Geographic ran a story called Big Fish, subtitled "If the goliath grouper loses its legal protection, will the 800-pounder sink or swim?"
You might find this next bit entertaining (added emphasis).
Summing up, "after overfishing nearly annihilated them in the 1970s and ’80s, Atlantic goliath groupers are slowly recovering, especially juvenile populations in the mangrove forests near Ten Thousand Islands, according to a study of tagged fish."
Now that the Florida groupers are slowly rebounding, pressure to restart commercial fishing is rebounding too.
The goliath grouper catch peaked in 1989 (graph above). Legal protection for Epinephelus itajara began the next year in 1990, when there were virtually no more groupers to catch. Thus the economic cost to humans of protecting goliath groupers in 1990 was effectively zero.
But now that there are "thousands" (sic.) of groupers to catch, fishermen want to catch them. Moreover, as National Geographic points out, there is no point to catching adult-sized groupers anymore because of the large amounts of mercury their meat contains.
If you're still wondering what "Flatland" is, there it is in a nutshell.
In The Once and Future World, Canadian writer J.B. MacKinnon attempts to summarize the impact of Homo sapiens (prehistorical, historical, current) on the natural world (page 34).
Every corner of the planet has been touched by human influence—in order to understand our current state of nature, we need to look at the present through the lens of the past. To do so is obviously complicated, involving not only science and statistics, but also the way we experience the natural world—the sights, sounds and sensations of life on earth.
Yet if this blue-green globe was once a more varied and richer place, we should be able to make some rough measure of the amount of change that has occurred. Nature as we know it today is a fraction of what it was, but what might that fraction be? No single study has made the calculation, but an accumulation of research on the decline of species after species, of living system after living system, does point toward a figure.
We live in a 10% world.
The fact that we live in a "10%" world tells humans something important about themselves: the present mirrors the past, only more so because there are now over 7.2 billion humans on this planet, not a few tens of millions. On DOTE, I attempted to capture this truth with the statement Homo sapiens is a species, so what you see is what you get. The romanticizing of ancient peoples—the myth of the "noble savage"—is almost wholly mistaken, if not pure fiction. Thus there is an open question as to when the current mass extinction actually began.
Given that previous mass extinctions took on the order of 104—106 years from start to finish, and considering the anthropogenic megafaunal extinctions which occurred during the last ice age (the Pleistocene) in Europe, Australia and the Americas, we might date the beginning of the Sixth Extinction to the time when anatomically modern humans migrated out of Africa between 62 and 95 thousand years ago (genetic clock dating). Even if we use a very early date for the start of this ongoing extinction, the current die-off would still be occurring very rapidly on the geological time scale.
After the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM, from 26.5 to 19.5 kya), as the climate became more favorable, human populations grew and, consequently, human hunting intensified. In After Eden: the evolution of human dominance, writer Kirkpatrick Sale summarized the carnage paleolithic hunter-gatherers inflicted on large animal species as the Pleistocene came to close (pp. 90-91).
In the end, after some 8,000 years—by roughly 10,000 years ago—100 per cent of the animals over 2,200 pounds, the large mammals in the mammoth family (Proboscidea), were extinct in Eurasia and the Americas, as were 76 percent of the mid-sized animals weighing 220 to 2,200 pounds, and 41% per cent of the smaller ones between about 10 and 220 pounds.
[image left: extinct North American megafauna, source]
That is record of almost unbelievable enormity: a "general disaster" for the other species of the world, the historian Alfred Crosby has said, "nothing more spectacularly devastating in tens of millions of years" of the Earth's history. [Paleoanthropologist] Richard Klein adds that this phase of our species evolution marked the transformation of humanity "from a relative rare and insignificant member of the large mammal fauna to a geologic force with the power to impoverish nature." What greater condemnation of a way of life could be imagined?
One final note: as if to confirm our role in animal extinctions, the pattern of rather sudden die-off after human intervention was repeated again and again in the millennia after 10,000 years ago, in New Zealand (twenty-eight species extinct within a few centuries), the Bismark Archipelago, Tahiti, ..., the Solomon Islands, Hawaii, Cyprus, the West Indies and Madagascar. No wonder Edward Wilson, with only slight exaggeration, has called Sapiens "the serial killer of the biosphere" and its habitats "a slaughterhouse."
So much for the Noble Savage. There is no essential difference between the megafaunal extinctions of the post-LGM, pre-agriculture period and the extermination of the passenger pigeon in the 19th century. Nor is there any essential difference between Ice Age exterminations and the modern ones discussed below.
Having killed off the Earth's large mammals through overhunting, humans proceeded to clear large amounts of land for agriculture in the Holocene (after 11,700 years ago). According to William Ruddiman's "early anthropocene" hypothesis, slash & burn deforestation after 7,000 years ago pushed CO2 levels in the atmosphere (ppmv) above natural trends (Real Climate, April 15, 2011).
Ruddiman and others hypothesize "a net early anthropogenic warming contribution of between 0.7°C and 1.2°C." That was pre-industrial warming after 7,000 years ago.
From an "other species" point of view, human indifference to the natural world now expressed itself through habitat destruction instead of overhunting because, sad to say, most of the large animals were gone. When the human population exploded in in the post-industrial age starting 250 years, so did human appropriation of Earth's terrestrial ecosystems. The video below documents the creation of J.B. MacKinnon's human-dominated 10% world.
|There Goes The Neighborhood|
Over the course of many years I studied the evolutionary origins of our species Homo sapiens. During that time I saw many theories as to why the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) went extinct. Our knowledge of ancient hominins has increased greatly over the years, but as I read various theories about the Neanderthals, watching them come in and out of fashion, I could not stop laughing.
The extinction of the Neanderthals is no laughing matter! What was so funny?
To my knowledge, only one paleoanthropologist had the psychological wherewithal (and guts) to come right out and state the obvious. That scholar is Ian Tattersall, who still works at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) as an emeritus researcher. I will quote the last chapter of his 1995 book The Last Neanderthal.
And now, a new paper has been published which sheds more light on the obvious.
In short, due to much improved dating techniques, we have found out that behaviorally modern humans and Neanderthals co-existed in Europe for a much shorter time than had been previously assumed. In fact, in places where the evidence is best, as in Italy, the extinction was rapid (New Scientist, August 20, 2014).
But still the scientists talk and talk and talk, and manage to say nothing at all.
For Pat Shipman of Penn State University, this supports her theory that modern humans acted like an invasive species in Europe, beating the Neanderthals in a competition for resources. That's a "distinct possibility", Higham says.
But that does not mean we murdered our cousins. There is no evidence humans ever killed Neanderthals, and they probably didn't meet often, says Higham.
I'm sure life was tough in the southern fringes of Europe during the middle and late stages of the last Ice Age. Humans were competing with Neanderthals for scarce resources. And now we've got to ask ourselves a basic, commonsense question: what do humans typically do when they encounter other large threatening or valuable species?
You do not have to be a rocket scientist to answer that question: humans kill them off. Those poor Neanderthals must have been tough sons-of-bitches. I'm amazed they lasted as long as they did.
Why is there no "smoking gun" indicating that we killed them off? That's a red herring, a smoke screen. Forgettabout it! The probability that we would find such a fossil is effectively zero.
But there are considerable barriers to self-knowledge for humans, as I explained in Part I. Coming to grips with the fact that humans are among the most rapacious, ruthless predators the Earth has ever seen is not compatible with maintaining a positive self-image. If you are looking for a characteristic which sets humans apart from the other animals, there it is
It is thus unacceptable for humans to acknowledge that they "almost certainly" (Tattersall's phrase) killed off the Neanderthals. Humans, even scientists, must filter such commonsensical but unhappy revelations. These scientists must then invent unsubstantiated bullshit like "they [Neanderthals] were probably living in small isolated groups, so were less resilient," a clever rationalization which looks a lot like blaming the victim. And of course Homo sapiens then looks better by comparison because we were so much more resilient (and, presumably, more numerous on the ground).
Let's be clear about this: 40,000 years ago, after 90% of the Neanderthals in Europe were likely gone, there was no organization like the IUCN Red List to "assess the conservation status" of Homo Neanderthalensis
In so far as we have discovered that modern humans share some DNA with Neanderthals, we could ask a few more really embarrassing questions which paleoanthropologists will be unconsciously eager to avoid. If humans "probably didn't meet often" with Neanderthals, quoting Oxford's Tom Higham, then why do modern humans have Neanderthal DNA?
And that's why I'm still laughing.
My experience of writing about threatened animal and plant species on DOTE substantiates MacKinnon's 10% number. Unfortunately, the species population in question is often more than 90% gone, sometimes estimated to be 99% reduced, when earnest conservation efforts begin. We can sketch out the typical pattern regarding human treatment of other species.
The species in question is—
Once the endangered species is ≥ 90% reduced with respect to its former range, population or both, the good people jump in—i.e., that tiny minority of humans who believe other species have inherent value—to try to save it, using at least one of the following means—
- subject to overhunting/overfishing (economically valuable because it's tasty to eat, useful for some other purpose, for art, or "medicine", etc.)
- in our way (habitat destruction, especially for endemics in the tropics, e.g., deforestation for palm oil plantations)
- a victim of human meddling (e.g., killed off by successful invasive species introduced intentionally or unintentionally)
- captive breeding with an eye toward re-introduction into the wild
- invasive human tracking and management, using advanced technology
- legal protections (protected areas, quotas on fishing, seasonal bans on hunting)
Consider the Jack Mackerel (Trachurus murphyi), which ranges in the southern ocean from South America to New Zealand. This species is moving toward commercial extinction. Look at Jack Mackerel — Another Epic Fisheries Collapse (DOTE, January, 2012) for the details. A more recent update on their status indicates that Trachurus murphyi stocks (spawning biomass) have declined 90% since the late 1980's. This year's quota for mackerel is a maximum of 440,000 tons. Contrast this with the highest capture (production) ever recorded—4,995,186 tons in 1995 (that's millions).
With Jack Mackerel down to 10% of its former spawning biomass, humans stepped into try save the fishery. How's that going?
Although management measures were applied in the territorial waters of Peru and Chile, there were still no catch quotas for fishing outside the 200 mile zone. The introduction of the SPRFMO meant that catch quotas could also be introduced in international waters. However, with the announcement of the instruction of the SPRFMO, a number of new jack mackerel fisheries developed, including an European jack mackerel fishery. In addition to the lack of strong year classes, this development has also contributed to the decline in the jack mackerel stock.
The possibility of management in international waters (aka., "the high seas") gave rise to "a number of new jack mackeral fisheries," including new ones from Europe. In short, the possibility of restrictions (quotas) on these fish engendered an effort to catch more of them while that was still possible. This next quote is from my post on jack mackerel.
Eric Pineda, a dock agent in this old port south of Santiago, peered deep into the Achernar’s hold at a measly 10 tons of jack mackerel — the catch after four days in waters once so rich they filled the 17-meter fishing boat in a few hours.
Mr. Pineda, like everyone here, grew up with the bony, bronze-hued fish they call jurel, which roams in schools in the southern Pacific.
“It’s going fast,” he said as he looked at the 57-foot boat. “We’ve got to fish harder before it’s all gone.” Asked what he would leave his son, he shrugged: “He’ll have to find something else.”
That quote speaks for itself. It is not clear how things will turn out.
It took the SPRFMO a few years to put measures in place that enable management of the Southern Pacific Ocean. From 2013 the convention entered into force on the conservation and management of high seas fisheries in the South Pacific Ocean. A recovery plan for jack mackerel will be required to bring the stock within biologically safe limits within the foreseeable future. These biological limits have yet to be defined exactly. Preliminary calculations show that they may be around 5.5 million tonnes (measured in spawning biomass). The recovery of jack mackerel will also depend on recruitment strength. Environmental variables such as water temperature also play a role here and cannot be managed by fisheries management.
In the mackerel case, management of the fishery is proceeding. In other cases, nothing works. If humans highly prize the species in question, the price of the species goes up and up as it becomes rarer and rarer, which of course only further decreases its numbers. Consider the White Abalone (Haliotis sorenseni), a herbivorous gastropod which formerly lived in waters off southern California and Mexico. These invertebrates are considered a tasty treat. Here is the price/catch chart for Haliotis sorenseni.
Taken from Rarity Value and Species Extinction: the anthropogenic allee effect (PLOS Biology, 2006). Click to enlarge.
The white abalone is subject to a captive breeding program, but the outlook is not good. Lisa-ann Gershwin, author of Stung! — On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, writes that Haliotis sorenseni is likely doomed to extinction (pp. 117-119). Bear in mind that overfishing a gastropod invertebrate to extinction is incredibly hard to do—humans, however, have almost certainly accomplished it in this case.
The most famous example of this phenomenon (chart above) is the endangered Pacific bluefin tuna (species Thunnus orientalis). In 2013, a 489-pound Pacific bluefin sold for 1.78 million dollars. Bloomberg ran a story about the new record price (January, 2013).
The number of Pacific bluefin tuna, a fish that fetched a record 155.4 million yen ($1.78 million) in a Tokyo auction last week, dropped 96.4 percent due to decades of overfishing, the Pew Environment Group said.
The bluefin’s numbers have plummeted because of inadequate fishing regulations in the species’ western Pacific spawning area, Amanda Nickson, Pew’s director for global tuna conservation, said today in a phone interview. The stock assessment by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, a joint U.S.- Japan research group, is “shocking,” said Nickson...
“You have this incredibly valuable, sought-after fish where the first one of the year can be sold for over $1.7 million, yet it’s been allowed to become depleted to this truly frightening point,” Nickson said. “That is just not a situation that can continue.”
No, it is not a situation that can continue. It is not necessary to belabor the obvious, nor is it wise to get lost among the trees when it is the forest itself we are interested in. These examples, and a vast number of other examples which could be brought to bear, illustrate that instinctual self-centeredness, primarily driven by growth and naked self-interest, is expressed within our characteristic economic frame of reference.
As Atlantic bluefins (Thunnus thynnus) and yellowfins (Thunnus albacares) grow increasingly scarce, one might think—if you live outside Flatland—that humans would slow or halt their predation of these big, wide-ranging fish. Despite the crying need for a behavioral change, the only solution available in Flatland is a technological fix. See my post Green Venture — Tuna In A Tank (DOTE, July, 2013).
Indeed, some humans want to use advances in molecular biology and genetic manipulation to resurrect extinct animals from the dead. I called this "The De-Extinction Fantasy" (DOTE, March 2013).
De-extinction is not a fantasy because we don't have the technological wherewithal to resurrect a few extinct animals—we do. It is a fantasy because doing so is viewed as somehow redeeming humankind by making up for past "mistakes" which pushed these species into extinction. But those weren't mistakes. Those extinctions happened as a result of characteristic human behavior. De-extinction is therefore the usual fantasy in which technology saves the day.
Predictably, a team of scientists is trying to resurrect the passenger pigeon, which I discussed earlier in this section (National Geographic, August 31, 2014).
A hundred years later, the passenger pigeon remains iconic and is inspiring extravagant new technological feats. One team of scientists is even trying to bring the species back from extinction, using genetic engineering and cloning. Others are analyzing bits of passenger pigeon DNA to reconstruct its lost ways of life. (Read "Bringing Them Back to Life" in National Geographic magazine.)
A Flatland Perspective on the Climate Problem
If you set out to design a large-scale environmental problem which humans would find impossible to solve, you couldn't do much better than global warming and its evil twin ocean acidification. From a Flatland perspective, degrading marine ecosystems are probably the best example illustrating the model because, for humans, the oceans are literally out of sight and out of mind, a tragic fact which begins and ends the discussion.
But if the reality of human-caused destruction of marine ecosystems exists almost entirely outside human awareness, global warming is out there for everyone to see. Not only can we document the ongoing human failure to address the problem—here, here, here and here—but we can also look beyond the usual rhetoric to locate the real reasons for that failure.
Few humans appreciate the true depth and scope of the risks anthropogenic climate change poses. We hypothesized that humans can not assess risk correctly in Part I, so it behooves us to take a closer look at global warming risk assessment. I will simply reprint the slightly edited main text of my post A Note On Climate Change Risk, and use that text as the basis for further discussion.
Assessing Climate Change Risk
The physics (heat-trapping properties) of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere is well-established. Hence I will ignore it.
The hypothesis stating that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the Earth's land surface, acidifying and warming the oceans and melting ice is well-established. Hence I will take it for granted.
The risk from climate change can be evaluated as a function of surface temperature increase, acidification/warming of the oceans and melting ice. The more of these we get, the higher the risk.
How much surface temperature increase and ice melting we will have in the 21st century is essentially a function of three variables.
- the climate sensitivity of the Earth (graph below) with respect to a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 levels (~550 ppm)
- the amount of economic growth (global GDP measured in constant dollars) humans strive for and achieve during the 21st century
- the energy mix which supports that growth
Regarding the second point, the need and desire for more economic growth is never negotiable, as discussed in Part I of Adventures In Flatland.
Regarding the third point, the more fossil energy humans consume, the higher emissions will be. Using a thermodynamic model of human expansion, which is the only kind of model which matters in this context, there is a constant relationship between humankind's accumulated wealth and energy consumption, meaning that the more wealth you create, i.e., the more growth you achieve, the more energy you require.
Humans are generally confused about all three of the variables listed above. That is the source of all babbling on climate change risk.
There are two "stories" humans tell themselves about climate change risk.
- fossil fuel emissions are not changing the climate (i.e., the climate sensitivity = 0, or is negligible)
- economic growth is Inevitable and Good and can be achieved by swapping out fossil energy and switching to renewable and "clean" sources instead. Climate sensitivity is assumed to be in the usual range (2.0 - 4.5° centigrade).
The first confusion is called climate denialism (or some such thing). The second confusion defines the usual "we can have our cake and eat it too" view of the future. Whenever you see someone babbling about climate change risk, the person in question is assuming one of these two views, or some trivial variant of them, even when those assumptions are not made explicit. Both of these views are delusional.
Outside of deniers, who don't acknowledge any risk from emissions, climate change risk is always assessed by the "have your cake and eat it too" crowd. Since these people assume without question that economic growth is Inevitable and Good, they believe, also without question, that the risk to the global economy of replacing fossil energy with "clean" and renewable energy is negligible.
Both views suggest that humans are unable to come to grips with reality and thus assess risk correctly in big matters like the Earth's climate. Either the risk of increasing emissions = 0 (deniers) or the risk to the global economy = 0 (cake-eaters).
What we actually observe behaviorally is that humans are doing nothing substantial to mitigate climate change risk. This conspicuous lack of action is explained away (with much babbling or hand-wringing) by saying that
- the science is wrong (deniers).
- the transition to "clean" renewable energy requires lots of innovation and hard work—it's a global Manhattan Project which will go on for years—but is achievable if the right economic incentives are put into place (e.g., a carbon tax). Unfortunately, there is an evil conspiracy among the world's fossil energy providers which seeks to obstruct mitigation efforts and, apparently, the world's monied elites, including virtually all its politicians, are in on it (cake-eaters).
The first assumption is false. The second one is ludicrous.
The simple fact is that there is great risk in doing something substantial (attempting to move quickly on a global-scale to non-fossil energy sources) and there is great risk in doing nothing (emissions continue unabated). Ultimately, both risks are the same. Both risks imperil the future existence of humanity's global industrial civilization in anything like its current form.
I believe the unacknowledged risk to the global economy resulting from doing something substantial to mitigate climate change risk is the single biggest factor preventing effective action to reduce that risk. It is easy to say "do something!" It is much harder to convert our global energy supply to predominantly renewable sources without bringing down the world economy. If one examines closely what must be done to convert our global energy supply to renewable, "clean" sources in a time-frame which makes a difference, the transition seems to be impossible.
The fact that humans are "choosing" to do nothing rather than something suggests to me that striving for population or economic (consumption) growth is sacrosanct and thus can not be seriously questioned. If that assumption is correct, and there is a never-ending abundance of empirical evidence which supports it, then we already know what will happen in the future—there will much babbling and no significant action taken to mitigate climate risk.
Politicization of climate risk and policy is a smokescreen obscuring the fact that essentially no one on Earth is assessing global warming risk correctly, even those who acknowledge that science paints an accurate picture of the future threat (textbox above). The politicization of science—basic physics in the case of global warming—is interesting in the sense that it is only when science presents humans with existential risks that science itself comes under fire. Otherwise, humans are very happy with the technological gifts science has given them (e.g., internal combustion engines).
In so far as this essay is part of a book summary, and not a book, I will simply lay out the reasons why humans do not have the capacity to respond to climate change and its evil twin ocean acidification. (I will simply refer to "global warming" henceforth.) Bear in mind that these hypotheses follow from or are consistent with the Flatland model.
Poor Risk Assessment
The most important reason why humans can not respond appropriately to global warming is that they do not assess risk correctly (textbox above, Part I). This has already been discussed.
Human Self-Centeredness — the Economic Frame of Reference
It took 250 years for humans to create the current global civilization. It goes without saying that humans highly value the wealth they have created, as discussed above. The list of benefits to the human animal of having such a civilization, as opposed to not having it, would fill a good-sized encyclopedia, so there's no point in getting into the details.
One could call this status quo bias but that categorization does not even begin to explain what's going on. Humans by and large can no longer even conceive of a situation in which their global industrial civilization in something like its current form does not exist. If an appropriate response to global warming requires humans to shrink and radically alter their global civilization, thus forcing them to give up a large fraction of their accumulated wealth, there is no chance whatsoever that humans will follow that path. Quoting Part I, a host of innate (i.e., unconscious) human motivations or biases (optimism/positivity, survival, self-interest, etc.) "proscribe or inhibit the required behavioral changes."
Immutable resistance to profound social change at the scale of global civilization is exacerbated by the human instinctual desire to grow. Thus humans keep digging themselves into a deeper hole. Beyond merely hanging on to their global industrial civilization, humans always want more, if not more people, then more wealth (fertility rates decline as wealth increases). I discussed the various post-hoc economic rationalizations which obscure hypothesized growth instincts in Part I. As before, if an appropriate response to global warming requires humans to shrink their global civilization rather than expand it, such a contraction would conflict with the instinctual need to grow.
Climate is a "slow problem" in so far as the worst effects take decades or centuries to become manifest. Humans were "designed" by nature to react quickly to "fast problems" like a sudden lion attack or short-term changes in the weather. Faced with a slow problem, humans adapt. I initially wrote about this human trait in The Empire And The Boiling Frog. In this example, what applies to the U.S. economy also applies to climate and other slow boiling environmental problems.
Think about it. Does it make any sense to say the country was doing just fine right up to the moment (more or less) when it wasn't? For example, did the Wall Street banks become overly powerful and greedy in just the few years before the Housing Bubble collapsed? Did their undue influence on our venal politicians begin during those years? Of course not! Events like the financial crisis don't just come out of nowhere. To understand them, you must examine the historical antecedents. You must understand that the ground for what happened today was prepared many years before...
Why does the boiling frog story apply to people if not to actual frogs? The answer is simple. Human beings are built to adapt to new conditions. Generally speaking, they don't notice gradual change, they simply get used to it. People were designed by Nature to react quickly to sudden changes. They were not designed to notice that this year, and for many years before that, conditions got a little worse than they were the year before. Humans live in an eternal present. This observation is well-known to those who study such things. It is not original with me.
The ocean has degraded within our lifetimes, as shown in the decreasing average size of fish. And yet, as Daniel Pauly shows us onstage at Mission Blue, each time the baseline drops, we call it the new "normal." At what point do we stop readjusting downward?
Writer J.B. MacKinnon, quoted above regarding the 10% world, refers to instinctual "change blindness" and a pattern of "adapt-and-forget" applied to destruction of the biosphere (pp. 17-21).
Applying the Flatland model as elaborated above, it is clear that instinctual behaviors underlie and dominate the usual political debates about global warming. The "good guys" (activists) versus "bad guys" (vested elites) story, which itself is an instinctual response to a problem whose roots lie deep in human nature, is revealed as an insignificant factor affecting the human response. Importantly, in Flatland, intragroup conflicts (the usual political debate) constitute what is visible to humans, while the deeper factors listed above lie buried in the unconscious.
For example, it is true that there has been elite resistance to changing a status quo from which those elites benefit. However, such predictable behavior is dwarfed by human self-centeredness expressed through the characteristic human economic frame of reference. With something fundamental like the existence of human civilization itself, elite and common interests will always converge. It is in everyone's self-interest to preserve it.
The Flatland story outlined here presupposes fundamental observations about the physical world: it is not possible to power global industrial civilization with "clean, renewable" sources of energy in anything like the time frame required to significantly mitigate global warming.
Worse yet, it is not possible to power global industrial civilization with "clean, renewable" energy sources period. The instinctual drive to expand that civilization (in terms of accumulated wealth, measured by constant U.S. dollars) while rapidly decarbonizing the energy supply is an impossibility heaped upon an impossibility.
The work of Utah atmospheric physicist Tim Garrett, who has developed a thermodynamic model of global civilization, provides crucial support for these obervations (textbox below).
|Thermodynamics, Energy And Efficiency|
Even those who believe rapid decarbonization of the global energy supply is possible know that it is not possible to replace hundreds of quadrillion Btus of primary energy with power supplied by wind, solar, hydrothermal, ocean wave power, liquid biofuels and whatever else can be brought to bear. For your information, 1 quad = 1,000,000,000,000,000 Btu.
It is thus necessary to exploit energy efficiency (aka., the "low-hanging fruit") to make up the difference, as I explained in If Pigs Had Wings, They Could Fly (March, 2014). I was looking at a study which purported to show that New York state could convert all of its energy sources to renewables by 2050.
I summarized this elaborate fantasy:
The work of Tim Garrett demonstrates that this miracle could indeed occur if and only if the laws of thermodynamics were suddenly repealed to satisfy human desires. In short, Garrett shows that Jevon's Paradox holds at the global scale.
The cornerstone of Garrett's work—it is a necessary empirical prediction of his model—is that there is a mathematical constant linking human wealth accumulation over tme (the historical integral, expressed in fixed U.S. dollars) and energy consumption. Garrett did indeed find that constant in the physical world, as I described in Wealth And Energy Consumption Are Inseparable (graph and caption below, January, 2012). The text below is from the abstract of No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change (Earth System Dynamics, 3, 1–17, 2012).
Garrett is modeling the global economy taken as a whole, as defined just above. From a thermodynamics perspective, it is thus impossible for the global economy to grow while the energy required to power it shrinks.
Indeed, given continuing economic growth, the human prospect looks worse and worse. Here is the rest of the abstract of Garrett's "No Way Out" paper (with added emphasis).
Taking efficiency out of the equation at a global scale, and even with rapid decarbonization of the energy supply, Garrett's model entails that CO2 levels will rise rapidly as the humankind's accumulated wealth grows (expressed in yearly additions to gross world product, GWP, in trillions of U.S. dollars per year). On the other hand, IPCC scenarios make unrealistic assumptions about the future energy consumption required to support greater wealth accumulation in the future.
Assuming the laws of thermodynamics will not be repealed to suit human desires, the outlook is not good.
Tim Garrett and I correspond from time to time. It does not trouble me that Garrett's work has fallen on deaf ears, just as mine has. Quoting T.S. Elliot—
To fuel global economic growth, world primary energy consumption increased from 355 quadrillion Btu (quads) in 1990 to 524 quads in 2010. Despite the decreasing fossil-fuel carbon intensity (FFCI) of that growth since 1980, global emissions have gone up and up, a trend punctuated by occasional but short-lived declines following various financial or political crises. This trend is described in the Nature Climate Change letter Rapid growth in CO2 emissions after the 2008–2009 global financial crisis (December 4, 2011, graph below, full article here).
Carbon emissions (left scale) and carbon intensity (right scale). According to the authors, variations in CO2 emissions are greater than variations in global GDP, suggesting that "in times of crisis, countries maintain economic output by supporting less energy-intensive activities." Once the crisis passes, however, CO2 emissions resume their inexorable rise (5-year trend lines).
Despite the inexorable emissions rise shown above, humans insist on concocting optimistic fantasies which have no basis in physical reality. For example, much is made of efficiency gains in the United States in last 40 years.
According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, “if energy productivity had remained constant since 1970 [when about 68 quadrillion Btu (Q or quad) were consumed], the U.S. would have consumed 207.3 quadrillion Btu in 2007, when it actually only consumed 101.6 quads.”
Economists have estimated that the adoption of more efficient products and services is responsible for 60-75% of the increase in energy productivity since 1970. A recent study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) also concludes “that energy efficiency has ‘fueled’ about 106 quads, or roughly three-fourths of the new growth for energy-related services since 1970”...
On a per capita basis, U.S. energy productivity and efficiency gains have muted the growth in energy use that might be expected as Americans have become more prosperous. Despite the growth in average home size, more and bigger vehicles driven more miles, and the rapid growth in all kinds of energy-consuming devices, from air conditioners to computers to air travel, energy use per American has actually decreased over the last several decades. In 1970 Americans consumed the energy equivalent of about 2,700 gallons of gasoline per person for all uses of energy. That rate of consumption extrapolated to our current economy would have come to the equivalent of about 5,400 gallons per person. Instead, 2010 consumption was the equivalent of 2,500 gallons per person...
Even as the growth rate of U.S. energy consumption slowed, China and India's energy use increased greatly in the period 1990-2010, especially after the turn of the century. From the EIA's International Energy Outlook, 2013
It is clear that the U.S. has become much more energy efficient since 1970. Unfortunately, it is equally clear that some of America's vaunted efficiency gains derived from outsourcing industrial production to the non-OECD "developing" economies (The Guardian, January 19, 2014).
Since 2000, annual carbon dioxide emissions for China and the other rising economies have more than doubled to nearly 14 gigatonnes (billion tons) a year, according to the draft report. But about 2 gigatonnes a year of that was produced making goods for export.
The picture is similar for other rising economies producing goods for export, the report finds. "A growing share of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in developing countries is released in the production of goods and services exported, notably from upper-middle-income countries to high-income countries," the IPCC report says.
This trend is partly reflected in the EIA graph above.
Despite greater efficiency, and despite outsourcing of energy consumption (and thus emissions) to China and other places, total U.S. energy consumption increased from 84 quads in 1990 to 101.6 quads in 2007 before falling back to 97.9 quads in 2010 due to a severe economic downturn. (In 2012, EIA data put U.S. primary energy consumption at 95 quads.) As U.S. energy consumption increased, albeit at a slower rate than it might have, so did CO2 emissions up until 2007.
Everything we've seen here follows from or is consistent with Tim Garrett's physical (thermodynamic) model of global civilization (textbox above). Human civilization exists far from thermodynamic equilibrium. In Garrett's model, this highly-ordered physical state is captured by a single variable—the cumulative "wealth" of humankind since some appropriately early historical beginning.
Think about a house. That house does not exist naturally. Work (in the physical sense) was done to create the highly-ordered physical state represented by that house. It took energy to do that work. We humans then assign an economic value to the end result. Thus that house forms a very small part of humankind's accumulated wealth. This incomplete analogy could be extended to every other activity which adds to humankind's accumulated wealth (expressed as incremental world GDP).
At a purely physical level, Tim Garrett's 2011 paper demonstrated empirically that "the global economy's current rate of primary energy consumption is tied through a constant to a very general representation of its historically accumulated wealth." Garrett calls this constant "lambda" (λ) and the discovery of such a constant puts global civilization on a thermodynamic footing. See Is Global Economic Growth Persistent?, DOTE, November 25, 2012.
The simplest analogy compares our growing accumulated wealth with the growth of a child. Both the child and the global economy need more and more energy to support that growth.
The analogy here might be to a growing child, who uses the material nutrients and potential energy in food not only to produce waste but also to grow. As the child grows, it eats more food, accelerating its growth until it reaches adulthood and growth stabilizes. A healthy, energy efficient child will grow faster than one who is sick and inefficient [Jevon's paradox]. A diseased child may even die [civilizational decay or collapse].
This analogy holds because, in both the child and global civilization, growth is "automatic" in some sense. The child is a living organism which grows to maturity if circumstances permit. The Flatland model hypothesizes that the growth of global civilization, a human product, is also automatic in the sense that the urge to grow is instinctual in the human animal. Thus, taking Homo sapiens as just another animal species, global civilization behaves like a living organism.
Thus Garrett's model entails that world energy consumption must be growing if the global economy (i.e., its cumulative wealth in inflation-adjusted dollars) is growing over decadal (or longer) time scales. Theoretically, the U.S. economy could be growing even as its energy consumption and emissions were shrinking. Yet, this would not give optimists reason for hope, for in Garrett's model that missing energy consumption (and emitted CO2) would be taking place somewhere else.
And that is what global economic, energy and emissions data consistently show, despite decreasing carbon intensity in the developed economies. Indeed, because China and other non-OECD nations must burn carbon-intensive coal to support their growth, decreases in global FFCI have either slowed or been reversed in the last decade (Mother Jones, September 10, 2014, and review the Nature Climate Change letter cited above).
"The Price-Waterhouse chart above compares our current efforts to cut "carbon intensity"—measured by calculating the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per million dollars of economic activity—with what's actually needed to rein in climate change. According to the report, the global economy needs to "decarbonize" by 6.2 percent every year until the end of the century to limit warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But carbon intensity fell by only 1.2 percent in 2013."
If a growing global civilization requires more and more energy to fuel its expansion, which follows from Garrett's model and observed physical reality, decarbonizing the energy supply at a rate sufficient to mitigate global warming becomes less and less feasible (graph directly above). As the global economy grows and grows, humans handicap themselves more and more. This is not rocket science.
One would think that many scientists would be working along the lines Garrett has pioneered in order to get a clearer picture of the human predicament in the 21st century. Instead, Garrett's work has been misrepresented by antagonists conflating cumulative historical wealth (an integral) with GDP (yearly production which adds to that wealth, the derivative).
These "experts" then explain that the energy-intensity of yearly GDP growth (Energy/GDP) has been falling, so Tim Garrett is simply misinformed! The dream of "orthodox" economists is that economic growth (wealth creation) can be decoupled from energy consumption (added emphasis).
"Orthodox economists," Steve Sorrell and David Ockwell note, suggest that it's definitely possible to decouple the two: Energy appears to make only a small contribution to productivity. So it should be easy to replace energy inputs with either labor or capital (e.g., more efficient technology). There's no reason why we can't keep growing while using less and less energy per unit of GDP.
From a thermodynamics perspective, you can think of this assumed decoupling as an attempt to get something for nothing (aka., the proverbial "free lunch"). From a Flatland perspective, you can think of this alleged decoupling as a post-hoc rationalization of the instinctual desire to grow.
Garrett himself refers to it as an unphysical representation of human civilization. Straightforwardly, you can not replace "energy inputs" with "labor or capital (e.g., more efficient technology)" because labor or capital clearly require energy to do work, and greater efficiency enables additional growth at an accelerated rate (textbox above).
Energy is fundamental to keeping a highly-ordered (low entropy) system like global civilization running. Energy is not just another commodity like oranges, labor, potassium or copper. There is no substitute for primary energy. Unlike the other Flatland examples we've encountered, the hard constraints on human behavior here are external—the laws of physics—instead of residing within the unconscious.
And that is why I belabored this example: the "decoupling" argument of "orthodox" economists permits a direct view into Flatland itself. You may recall this text from Part I of Adventures In Flatland.
Still, there are some 2nd-order statements which are true (empirically verifiable).
(3) Humans always assume and act as if the mind is a "blank slate."
Observation (3) means, in effect, that humans act as though anything is possible for them. All socioeconomic and sociopolitical belief systems and behaviors are based on this assumption. Paraphrasing Ian Welsh, if only we could "change the circumstances people live in, the way they are raised, their education and technology, etc., then what people believe and how they act will change. We become what we do and what we believe: we interpret everyday activity through a lens of belief, language and ideology."
In the "blank slate" view of orthodox economists and humans generally, anything is possible for them, even when their self-constructed fantasies contradict the Laws of Thermodynamics—apparently, physical necessity has been superceded by the Laws of Economics
Moreover, the simple model of human cognition outlined in the first Flatland essay strongly predicts that humans will be antagonistic toward the kind of "bad news" Garrett's physical model conveys, assuming they are able to acknowledge its existence in the first place.
Such natural antagonism follows from rule (9) as stated in Part I.
(9) Humans typically delude themselves and each other if there is a conflict with unconscious motivations or biases. This is especially true if something important is at stake (existential threat filtering, as discussed in Part I).
It falls out of Garrett's thermodynamic model that it is not possible to expand the global economy while curtailing energy consumption and the accompanying CO2 emissions. Clearly, this is really bad news. It seems that those in the "developing" ecomomies (China, Brazil, India, etc.) will never attain Western lifestyles, or will do so only at an awful price—a livable planet.
To mitigate global warming, the only option—it is not clear this alternative is even possible—is an orderly contraction of human populations, economic activity and accumulated wealth. There is an obvious conflict with human growth instincts in this case (Marketplace, September 16, 2014, added emphasis).
Fighting climate change need not be costly, and could bring significant benefits.
That's the message of the "New Climate Economy Report" — released in the run-up to next week's U.N. Climate Summit by a group with an impressive pedigree. For example, the chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is former Mexican president Felipe Calderon.
Some outlets have interpreted the report as saying that addressing climate change could be free. However, there’s lots of fine print. The math only works on the global-economy level— balancing costs and benefits...
Here's the gist: The Commission projects that, one way or the other, the world will spend around $90 trillion on infrastructure in the next 15 years. "Our argument is that it would be smart to invest the $90 trillion in a good way," says Jeremy Oppenheim, director of the New Climate Economy Project...
Oppenheim says the real message isn’t that fighting climate change is free, but that it doesn’t get in the way of economic growth. "Those people who claim that these two goals [growth versus climate mitigation] are in conflict just don’t have the evidence on their side," he says.
All the evidence presented above—the inexorable rise in carbon emissions, the absolute and dramatic increases in global energy consumption measured in quadrillion Btu, the abysmal failure to achieve decarbonization rates anything like those required to mitigate global warming—contradicts Oppenheim's confident assertion that people who claim that these two goals [growth versus climate mitigation] are in conflict just don’t have the evidence on their side. On the contrary, all the evidence points toward the necessity of reining in growth.
Once again we observe that humans can not escape their instinctual frame of reference, which is characteristically expressed in economic terms—they live in Flatland and can not leave. This essay is my second attempt to show them the exit
Another alternative to optimistic fantasies like a "new climate economy" which is not free but "doesn't get in the way of economic growth" allows for an exception to be made in our case. Perhaps somebody (God?, the entity running this simulation?) might suspend the Laws of Thermodynamics to satisfy our animal instincts to grow without limit on a finite planet
Thus we see that humans do not accurately assess the risks posed by anthropogenic climate change, just as they do not assess risk correctly in any aspect of life perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be an existential risk (Part I). Such threat filtering, regardless of the form it takes—dissociation, avoidance, denial, compartmentalization, etc.—is always an exercise in self-delusion.
The effects on the biosphere of rapid anthropogenic climate change promise to be severe, and those effects will linger and proliferate for many thousands of years into the future (if not much longer, e.g., ocean acidification). In Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything" book trailer below, she asserts that "our economic model (capitalism) is at war with life on Earth." That observation is undoubtedly correct, and constitutes an interesting subject in its own right. But we must look beyond late-stage capitalism per se.
As I hope I've demonstrated in this essay, our deluded species Homo sapiens, hopelessly mired in its instinctual self-centeredness, an animal par excellence, has always been at war with life on Earth.
This ends Part II of Adventures In Flatland.
Decline of the Empire
September 19, 2014