Monday, August 25, 2014

Facing annihilation: a powerful koan

There has been no new post on this blog for the past two years, and today I would like to explain why. Let me first issue a disclaimer:
  • this post will not be about programming, even though it is still about something you will most probably not learn at school,
  • ignorance is bliss.
For these two reasons, you may prefer avoiding to read the information that follows. 

If you are still with me, let us stride forward: two years ago, I stumbled across an enlightening and yet depressing conference by Guy McPherson. (There are now more up to date presentations of his, see the link section at the end of this post). With the risk of misrepresenting the quality of this 30 minutes talk, densely packed with data, let me try to summarize its main message:
  • global average world temperature increased by 0.85 degree Celsius against pre-industrial level. 
A 0.85 degree Celsius increase
  • In consequence, tremendous impacts are already being felt across the globe, in particular in the northern region: the arctic.
  • So much so, that once frozen organic matter on land (permafrost) is coming back to life, releasing methane in the the process; simultaneously, methane molecules which were once trapped into ice cages (methane hydrates) at the bottom of the ocean are now escaping, moving up and entering the atmosphere.
  • Methane, although shorter lived than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, thirty times as much.
Methane hydrate or burning ice!
  • We hence find ourselves in the presence of a vicious cycle: global warming triggers methane releases, a strong driver for more warming and so on.
  • Such cycles are called self-reinforcing (or positive) feedback loops in system dynamics. At the time of the video, Guy cites 4 feedback loops, in more recent talks he presents more than 20 of them (admittedly not all of the same importance).
  • Widely accepted, conventional models of global warming (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, United Nations Environment Programme, Hadley Center for Meteorological Research, Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies...) predict a range of temperature increase going from 1 to 10 degrees Celsius by 2100. 
Slowly melting permafrost
  • As dire as some of these projections may seem, none of them take any of the feedback loops into account. Unfortunately, feedback loops are no small matter: Malcolm Light of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, declares, probably a bit hyperbolically, in a 2010 paper that methane releases going exponential would lead to the demise of all life on earth by mid-century. He even pinpoints year 2031 for the northern hemisphere.


Global average temperature increases are, for most of us, completely abstract notions. It may thus seem inconceivable that a difference of a couple (4 to 6) degrees could trigger the full scale extinction of our species. Well, 6 more degrees on top of a scorching summer could certainly translate into even more mega-fires (as in Russia), droughts (as in Australia), crop failures (as in California), nuclear reactor shutdowns (as in France), and cattle death, than with today's mere 0.85°C increase... It could also mean winter mild enough for human pathogens to strive (for instance malaria or parasites).

More importantly, these figures are global average which misrepresent local heterogeneity. As indicated in the image from the climate reanalyzer, March 20 of this year, global world temperature was 0.65 degrees above the 1979-2000 period (which is roughly equivalent to 0.85 degrees Celsius against pre-industrial level, only the baseline differs). Yet on that same day a large part of Russia was witness to a full 20 degrees increase. So the average hides really large swings for some places of the globe.

Even more crucially, we really rather need to consider the impacts at the ecosystem level. With the non-linearity that such complex systems often display, nobody can accurately predict what living conditions a 6 degrees increase will produce for anyone of us.
Guy asserts that it leads to the end of the human experience. To support that claim, he offers several explanation which all boil down to the destruction of our natural habitat:
  • insufficient food supplies: crop protein denaturation could be a consequence of severe heat shocks,
  • impossible thermoregulation: higher temperatures will strain thermoregulation abilities to the limit for mammals as large as humans,
  • no oxygen: if deserts replace forests on lands, and phytoplankton in the ocean is completely wiped out, then our two only sources of oxygen vanish, (for the record, phytoplankton is already 40% depleted in comparison to 1950 levels)
  • global nuclear meltdown: a scenario where several meltdowns triggered by, unplanned for, extreme weather events would raise radiations to unlivable levels for terrestrial organisms.

Dire planetary status

Frankly speaking, I don't know how things will really play out. Again nobody can accurately predict the future, but we can easily observe the trends. So before denial kicks in, I would like to review a few facts (not predictions) which illustrate the gravity of our current predicament:
  • at 400ppm, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are now reaching a level unseen in the last 15 million years. (To put that statement in perspective consider that civilization emerged only 10,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens are only 200,000 years old, while Homo Habilis evolved around 2.3 million years ago.)
  • In fact, since the industrial revolution, we drastically changed the composition of the atmosphere, dumping methane (now topping 1700ppb), nitrous oxide, ozone and even synthetic gases such as chorofluorocarbons (CFC), hydrochlorofuorocarbons (HCFC) halons...
  • Unfortunately, this is an ongoing and worsening trend: carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels set a record in 2013.
Dumping always more carbon in the atmosphere.
The arctic Death spiral.
  • Forests too are declining. Worst of all, primary forests are cut down. The hunger for fresh agricultural land is unsatiable. Don't you think carbon neutral schemes smell dubious? In any case, climate models most probably over-estimate the extent of future forests and thus their real ability to sequester carbon. Even more devastating: atmospheric pollution, especially ozone, seems to be killing trees worldwide.
  • We are now living a mass extinction of life on earth as reported in this documentary. The population numbers speak for themselves: land animals are down 28% since 1970, marine birds are down 30% since 1995, big ocean fish are down 90% since 1950, freshwater fish are down 50% since 1987, marine animals are down 28% since 1970 and songbirds are down 50% since 1950. In the same vein, Paul MacCready, in this excellent TED presentation shows the evolution of the mass of all land based vertebrates. The share of wild animals went from being 99.9% to a tiny 3% in the 10 thousand years since the start of civilization.

Homo Sapiens (?) is winning the war...

This is all without talking about the miserable state of the ocean, soil erosion, natural resources depletion, garbage (such as plastic, radioactivity...) accumulation. And the list just goes on, endlessly... Blinded by desire, we produce what destroys us in far greater quantity than the rest of the creation can instantaneously balance.

Retreating glaciers

Reversing global trends?

There really is no room for optimism. Before that, most of the current global trends fueled by human behavior should first be reversed (in no particular order):
  • Burning of coal and other fossil fuels should be stopped.
  • Our numbers should be decreasing (ideally via access to education, contraception, financial incentives, and equitable one child policy). Population is the multiplier of everything else.
  • Forest cover should be increasing: trees should be planted, forest let to grow.
  • Human population should retreat from cities to be given the opportunity to learn living hard but more sustainable and decent agricultural, pastoral or forager lives.
  • In short, our current economy should come to a halt, thus reducing the count of all our energy-consuming machines: cars, planes, phones, computers...

In addition to these policies directly related to climate change, the following would also most probably be wise to implement:
  • The production of several synthetic substances should be totally banned. In particular products that can not be naturally decomposed in realistic time-frames should never see the light: plastic, composites, nuclear wastes... Similarly, substances that potentially pose irreversible risks to the biosphere, ecosystems, animal or human health should not be put in circulation. Think: CFC, pesticides, most genetically modified organisms, nanoparticles. The burden of proof should be carried by the producers rather than the consumers and any new product considered toxic before being demonstrated as safe.
  • Nuclear power-plants should be shut down before the next radical accident.

Note that there is a 40 years time-lag between carbon emissions and their full impact on the climate. So even if some drastic adjustments were made today, we would have to wait several years before feeling the first improvements.


Now is the time for a fun but totally useless game: predictions. Predictions let us exercise and showcase our brain power. They are fun.
But they are really useless too; just another diversion. All the data we have in our hands about the current state of our habitat should be more than enough to convince us of the urgency to change course. Predictions are simply another skillful way of maintaining the status-quo. Build an abstraction, and start endless discussions. Blind ourselves to the present by looking far into a potential future (this works with the past too).

Let me first warn you: my predictions are most probably wrong. Other (Thomas Robert Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, Richard Duncan...), have been somewhat off before. Wrong, but still as valid as any of the so called projections issued by respectable institutes: a world population of 9.6 billion by 2050 according to the United Nations 2013 report? Continued growth in world liquid fuels production up to 2040 according to the US Energy Information Administration? Continued GDP growth for both China, the US and India up to 2030 according to the IMF? I don't think so!

Here is what I rather believe today:
  • Real economic growth has already or will stop before 2020. Resources availability will decline dramatically.
  • Major industrial systems (nuclear reactors, skyscrapers, roads, sewers, water supply systems, electrical grids, computer networks, cities) will fail because of lack of maintenance, nature impacts, or human induced chaos. Large non-tangible systems (health care, government, retirement plans) will break down too. All these symbols of our hubris have continued growth as a first requirement.
  • Human population trends will then quickly reverse. Death rates will increase. Maybe through large scale epidemic or starvation. Great migrations will be unstoppable.
  • Geoengineering will be tried and fail. Technical Progress Raises More and Greater Problems than It Solves. With hindsight, doesn't this axiom stated by Jacques Ellul in his Technological Bluff sound painfully true?
  • By 2040, I expect our numbers to be no more than 1 billion. War for the last habitable places (the poles? underground?) will have started.
  • By the end of this century our species will have gone extinct.
  • In the longer run, will planet Earth then go Venus or still be habitable (by complex life-forms)? I don't know. Does it really matter?

Simple models

These predictions are not based on fancy, complicated mathematical models, rather on simple observations.

First, let us admit our species has a dynamic of its own. Our collective course certainly seems not to be controlled by rational decisions at the individual level. On one hand, various religious beliefs, propaganda, advertisement (should I say automatisms put in place as control mechanisms?) most often trump objective analysis. On the other hand, the most powerful members of our species either have no real control, are extremely cynical, or simply plain dumb. Who knows?
Human behavior displays a lot of inertia. Do smokers stop as soon as they are told the consequences? Why was it necessary for the world fisheries to go into decline before any fishing quota to be put in place? Garret Hardin introduced a simple model called tragedy of the commons to explain this group dynamic. For Nate Hagens, ancient brain characteristics drive our current consumptive behavior. Jay Hanson makes a similar claim. Our fate derives from our very nature.
It thus seems reasonable to assume the human species will try to keep its current dynamic as long as possible: trying to monopolize always more!

Total catch of southern bluefin tune. A quota system was introduced only in 1980.

Our global dynamic collides violently with the limits we are now reaching on every front. We most probably are at our last doubling time.

At this point, forced decline is the only direction. Could the St Matthew reindeer's experiment be a precedent of the speed at which things will unravel for us? Indeed, Ugo Bardi developed a simple model, the Seneca cliff, which shows that staggering maintenance costs and pollution make descent faster than ascension. 

Arx tarpeia Capitoli proxima!
In any case the future will not mirror the last 100 years. Linear extrapolation does not make sense anymore. We are in uncharted exponential, fractured territory. The only elements of comparisons should be other mass extinction events.

What now?

When confronted to this information, people react in a variety of ways. Mostly denial. Changes of this magnitude in such a short time-frame seem unbelievable. Recently, recurrent global catastrophes have started to slowly instill doubt in the dominant narrative which roughly states that in this best of all possible worlds the baron's castle was the most magnificent of all castles. However, extinction is not part of most people's plan yet. It is too hard to accept. It takes time to mentally shift gear. It is hard to reverse lifelong indoctrinations.
I believe denial and hope will progressively shift into despair, shame and anger. The primary reason I am writing today is to go past these feelings. I wanted to state the inescapable facts as clearly as I understand them and then use them as a new inner foundation for the time ahead. Now I am simply left with a challenging koan:
Living with the certainty of near annihilation.


Some hand-plucked links, organized by topics.

Climate change

A slowed down, meandering jet stream has been causing all sorts of bizarre weather patterns in the recent years all over the northern hemisphere. A bit of theory here.

War against the Environment: scale of the Human impact

Understanding the models, predicting the future

Numerous others have made equally dire predictions:
  • For Stephen Hawking, we need to leave the planet before 200 years.
  • James Lovelock expects 80% of humans to perish by 2100.
  • Paleontologist Peter Ward believes global warming will drive us extinct, similarly to previous mass extinction episodes.
  • James Hansen warned against the burning of coal.
  • Some models of IPCC predict a 10 degree rise by 2100, thus making the planet unlivable.

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