Our Self Inflicted Existential Crisis
Humans have unknowingly engaged in a vast experiment to test the carrying capacity of this planet for industrialized humans and the experiment is not going well. The last time humans lived on a planet primarily powered by sunlight and wind power was prior to the year 1800 CE when the world population was one billion people.
Thomas Malthus warned us in a book published then that exponential population growth would outstrip food production potential and cause a die off in our population. Critics of Malthus have been gleefully pointing out how none of his predictions have come true while ignoring the fact that Malthus knew nothing of the coming fossil fuel revolution in human affairs.
You know the rest of the story, oil drilling in 1859, kerosene lanterns, then cars, boats, and planes. In the mean time industrialized farming has increased food production by a factor of seven. I find it ironic that the discovery of the potential for increased carbon output to warm the planet was discovered in the middle of the 19th century also. The hand writing was on the wall with the tracking of atmospheric CO2 increases by Keeling in the late 1950’s. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has risen from 315 ppm to over 400 ppm since 1957. This alarming trend has only been accelerating regardless of promises by some industrialized nation to cut back their CO2 output to lower levels.
I became interested in a book on human extinction titled “Going Dark” by Guy Mc Pherson this year when I caught a short You Tube video about him. I bought the book and read it as well as watching longer lectures by McPherson on You Tube. While I recommend the book, I felt it was poorly written. There is really only a chapter or two on run away global warming and the demise of industrial civilization in the book while the rest of the book is about his personal philosophy and musings. There are several good hour plus lectures series by Guy on You Tube which you should check into.
The long and the short of McPherson’s lectures are that we humans have created a monster in the form of global climate change. It takes 40 years for emissions of CO2 to begin to impact the climate system. Emissions from 1974 are only now starting to manifest themselves. This means that meaningful reductions in CO2 output now will take another 40 years to manifest themselves also. Once CO2 is in the atmosphere it remains there warming up the planet for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Studies of extinction in the geological record has revealed another horror show on top of all this. A little over 50 million years ago there was large extinction event caused by the massive release of Methane that was bound up in a form called Clathrates. Essentially this is Methane bound up in ice on the ocean floor and the permafrost soils around the world. While Methane is not as long lasting as CO2 it has about ten times the global warming capacity molecule per molecule.
In case you missed the news flash this year from Siberia large sink holes up to a kilometer in diameter were discovered to have opened up caused by you guessed it, Methane. Also alarmingly we are seeing Methane bubbling up out the ocean in many places on the same scale. The Clathate Gun may have been triggered in which case we are screwed. Trimming the output of CO2 in a few large industrial nations back to the year 2000 levels will have no effect even if they happen, and they do not appear to be, despite promises.
Guy McPherson says human industrial civilization is doomed and going to go extinct in another 20 to 40 years. While I agree with McPherson I question his timeline. After all no one has caused run away global warming on an Earth like planet before, it really is a untried experiment. I think we are in serious trouble, but we may make it through most of the 21st century.
I know many of you are thinking “But John”, we are a inventive species, we will just come up with some new technological magic to solve our problems, and just keep on a going”. Forty or fifty thousand years of human history might just support your thesis, but things are different this time. In the first place we have leveraged ourselves out over a technological cliff that is now supporting over seven billion humans. Malthus was right in principle; he just knew nothing about the temporary power of fossil fuels to exponentially expand human populations. If we warm this planet beyond 2 degrees C and there is every indication that we will (up to 5 or 6 degrees C by mid century) then all bets are off about how much food if any we can grow outdoors period.
The last vestiges of humanity will be living under ground in South America, or Africa and growing their food indoors by the end of this century or sooner if the climate runs away. McPherson also points out that there are over 140 nuclear power plants around the world which have a bad habit of melting down when left untended and to their own devices. Major releases from Fukushima are already showing up on the west coast of the USA from the 2011 melt down of these reactors in Japan. Imagine 140 of these things emitting radioactive isotopes into the biosphere.
I don’t think there is anything we can really do to head off a Sixth Extinction event which will include humans on this planet. Climate change really is an existential crisis of our own making; most people just do not know it yet. They are not likely to hear about it from our governments or our media either. Like crossing the event horizon a black hole it is inexorable and for the small unnoticed bump to announce the event I would tag as the Keeling Curve announcement in the 1950’s.
What the carrying capacity of the Earth for industrialized humans is, is hard to say? I would place it at less than one billion people which was the population in the year 1800 CE. I would add the caveat that these humans would still have to be operating mostly on solar and wind power. Some low level of fossil fuels could be used but only at a rate that was determined the environment could sequester in a timely fashion to keep CO2 concentrations at some base levels. This is where I part ways with Bill McKibben’s www.350.org because it leaves the impression that cut backs in emissions will lead to lowering of CO2 concentrations if only we make a few personal choices and governments take some actions. It will not.
That said, effective action worldwide is probably as much as a 70% or 80% reduction in CO2 output over the next ten years starting right now. That is 7% or 8% each year for ten years. I do not see that happening, do you? In fact the recent climate agreement by Obama and China is only a promise to trim back to the year 2000 levels by the USA in ten years and a promise by China to peak out by the year 2030. The recent talks in Lima ended in a failure yet again to agree to anything but vague non binding promises prior to the big talks in Copenhagen later this year.
We need, more wind and solar, we need more grid infrastructure work to accommodate the coming distributed generation capacity model. Electric cars are a big part of this picture as is applied aerodynamics, which Philip Knox and I have been pointing out in our articles on how aerodynamics improves vehicle energy efficiency. The only way this is going to happen worldwide is that the extractive industries need to be held to limits that mean they will go out of business and in the mean time the wealth they do have will need to redistributed to the third world to help jump start renewable economies.
I not only do not see any of this happening with the alacrity needed, and I do not see population control being taken seriously anywhere in the world. Given all these things, the mass and momentum of the problems described, is the reality that makes me a pessimist over the long term. I think a massive die off humans from starvation and disease is in our near future. This may be a good thing because this will reduce our numbers because we refuse to, or as McPherson says “Nature bats last”. “If enough human beings are left to keep a viable social society going, and we still have access to technological knowledge and processes, we may just then have a chance of reordering our social and economic norms to create a sustainable industrial civilization if there is such a thing? This is a lot of “Ifs”, a lot of big ifs.
Below is a list of some of the books which pertain to my thinking on this subject of our self inflicted existential crisis. I felt compelled to share all this with you all because friends deserve the respect of knowing even about their ultimate demise at some juncture, if they are unaware of it. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong about any or all of this. 1: Going Dark by Guy McPherson 2: The Sixth Extinctions by Elizabeth Kolbert 3: The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg 4: The Last Hours of Humanity by Thom Hartmann 5: The Long Thaw by David Archer 6: The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris
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