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Yes, believe it or not, I haven't actually forgotten about this blog or this series of posts.

In tenth grade I took a one-semester Science Fiction Literature/Composition class, from which I only remember one piece of knowledge: toward the end of a traditional fantasy quest narrative, there is always a point called the Abyss, where it appears that the villain is about to win and the hero is helpless to prevent it. This is immediately followed by some kind of unexpected reversal that allows the hero to save the day.

The standard activist narrative on the climate crisis works the same way. "Greenhouse emissions are increasing faster than ever, and we only have a few years before it will be impossible to restore the climate to a healthy state -- but if we all get together and demand drastic action from world leaders, we can still save the world!" And I've bought into this narrative for years, dismissing or forgetting about the numerous challenges to its plausibility, because the alternative was to admit that within my lifetime, civilization will almost certainly slide into a new dark age.

Paul Gilding's first thesis in The Great Disruption is that the crash is inevitable because we won't develop the will to prevent it until it's too late. But this points the way to a deeper truth: even if we had the will, we probably can't prevent the crash, no matter how hard we try. (Contrary to the title of this post, I'm not going to spend time here trying to figure out what Gilding said that forced me to acknowledge that truth.)

One of the earliest challenges to the activist narrative that I've successfully avoided thinking about was a set of three graphs in the book Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic, which was one of the readings for my Intro to Environmental Analysis class in college. In reverse order, the graphs are "The Carbon Dioxide Spike" (p. 161), "The Consumption Spike" (p. 154), and "The Extinction Spike" (p. 92). Each of these graphs shows a classic hockey-stick exponential growth curve, demonstrating clearly that these trends are accelerating beyond all hope of control. Similar graphs could be drawn for topsoil loss, falling water tables, pollution of surface water, deforestation, and ocean acidification, among others. This means that our food and water supplies can't be maintained at current levels much longer, and even the rate of global oxygen production by plants and algae is under threat.

One common reaction to all this rapid change is to say, "Look how powerful we've become! Humans can now change natural systems on a global scale! Surely we can use that power to bring those systems back to healthy norms and stabilize them there!"

But that's crazy. Imagine that half a second ago, you accidentally cut open a major vein on your arm with a knife that you made. Does the power of that knife to release massive quantities of your blood mean that, even with no real first-aid training, you'll be able to stop the bleeding and sew up the wound within the next half-second? That's how absurd it is to claim that our current technological capabilities are up to the task of saving us from the destruction we've wrought in the few decades before it overwhelms and destroys our current civilization.

If it were only greenhouse emissions that we had to worry about, we might stand a chance. Something like Gilding's "One-Degree War Plan," described in chapter 10 of The Great Disruption, might suffice to bring carbon-dioxide levels back down below 350 parts per million by century's end. And to be fair, part of that plan involves sequestering carbon in soil and biomass, which would also help rebuild topsoil and forest cover. But given the enormous complexity of Earth's systems, there's not really much chance that we could figure out how to calibrate our actions carefully enough to get close to the climate we want and then stabilize there, and there's a very high likelihood that the massive spike in construction of energy infrastructure and so-called "reversible geoengineering actions" will cause other problems to worsen even faster.

Now, I just attended my fourth Bioneers conference last weekend, and I know what the Bioneers answer would be: "Gaia has the solutions to everything. All we have to do is mimic what natural ecosystems would do to solve these problems."

But there are two fatal problems with this answer. One is that Gaia works slowly; for instance, it certainly took a whole lot more than one century for life to recover from the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs.

The other problem is that Gaia doesn't actually care about keeping the climate as stable as our current civilization needs it to be (and the same likely applies to the other factors I listed). If you look at a graph of temperature over hundreds of thousands of years, you see that the current interglacial period, the Holocene, in which temperature fluctuations stayed within a narrow range for ten thousand years, is highly unusual. The last several interglacials have been far less stable, and then of course there are the Ice Ages, which last much longer, and which Gaia has clearly done nothing to prevent. From Gaia's perspective, the "healthy norm" for climate is anything that doesn't totally freeze the oceans or turn all the land to desert.

So, as 350.org founder Bill McKibben pointed out in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (a stark challenge to the activist narrative espoused by 350.org itself), we have a clear task ahead of us: learn to be resilient to changes in Earth's systems vastly larger than any we've seen in the history of civilization. Science and technology have produced many tools that could be useful in this regard, but to keep those tools, we'll have to start by overhauling our whole manufacturing infrastructure to cope with these massive disruptions, while doing what we can to slow down all those accelerating trends to give ourselves more time. And we'll need to store our knowledge in a durable form that even crazed combatants in some future war won't be able to destroy, so that any tools we lose can be rebuilt again later.

Eventually we might assemble a set of resilient strategies powerful enough to maintain something like our present quality of life despite the endless string of crises. Perhaps then we could think about launching a second Space Age, but that won't be possible until long after I die. Thus, for the first time in my life, I've been forced to admit that we won't even make any real progress toward the future I dream of within my lifetime, and my only consolation is that I might be able to help make that world more likely to happen in some distant future.

In short, our present moment, dark as it may seem, is not the Abyss in our quest story. It's actually more like the moment just after the introduction, when the protagonists are forced from their comfortable homes and into a long, hard journey through great perils. But in our case, the perils are real and we have no narrative structures to defend us from a tragic ending.

Good luck then, to all of us. We're going to need it.

Date: 2013-11-19 07:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lion kimbro (from livejournal.com)
Daniel Quinn and David Korten emphasize a different model of change.

Activists per your article -- "If we all get together and demand drastic action from world leaders, we can still save the world!"

Activists per David Korten's "community-corporation-government alliance" -- "If activists get communities, corporations, and governments together meeting on the same page, they can affect change."

Activists per David Korten's *movement* vision, and roughly in alignment with Daniel Quinn's vision of social change -- A change in thought overtakes pretty much all of the people, and people in their respective spheres *automatically* work to perform the changes required in their local areas, independent of deliberation.

The idea of movement activism is very different than the idea of "lets get together and demand drastic action from our leaders." It is diffuse rather than centralized, and so a lot of change can happen in a very small period of time, and the change can happen globally rather than per chain of command. This does not mean that the central nervous system of the social chains of command is not utilized, but it does mean that the entire social body is capable of change.

If we aim for movement rather than for "let's pressure our leaders," it's a very different game with very different possible actions.

To answer the dispair piece: 1. Let's not assume that we know what is possible and what is not possible, just yet. We can always forcast certain doom, and very often times, it turns out to be completely unnecessary. Activists have been wrong before. 2. Mass changes have happened before, and they can happen again. David Korten used the example of the Chinese reading/literacy campaign as an example.

Date: 2013-11-23 06:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] scifiben.livejournal.com
"It is diffuse rather than centralized, and so a lot of change can happen in a very small period of time, and the change can happen globally..."

Funny, I was pretty sure it was the exact opposite -- spreading radical change in thinking across huge populations takes decades, while convincing authoritarian leaders to implement top-down policy changes, or replacing them with other leaders more sympathetic to your cause, may take months or even less. But that's not really what this post is about.

"...people in their respective spheres *automatically* work to perform the changes required in their local areas, independent of deliberation...David Korten used the example of the Chinese reading/literacy campaign..."

As I see it, the important issue is that no one knows what the "changes required" are, or whether any conceivable set of changes could possibly be enough. Starting exponential-growth curves, e.g. in literacy or even wind-farm construction, is fairly easy, but the task at hand is to figure out how to stop not one, but dozens of interlinked exponential-growth or -decline processes within a very limited timeframe, then move the values in question back to some human-friendly norm, quickly but not so quickly as to accidentally push them into another out-of-control feedback spiral. No one knows how to do this, and I strongly suspect it's flatly impossible. It's kind of like taking an in-progress explosion and trying to stuff it back into the bomb that produced it.

The only global exponential-growth curve that we might have already gotten a handle on is world population (http://reason.com/archives/2013/07/19/population-explosion-again), thanks to the so-called "demographic transition" where wealthier societies have lower birthrates. But first, that transition is threatened by a bunch of other trends that will push countries toward becoming poorer rather than wealthier; second, average per-capita consumption of resources is increasing way faster than population, which is why Paul Gilding says population growth is almost irrelevant in the next several decades; and third, the UN projections probably assumed the Chinese government wasn't about to abolish its One Child policy (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/china-end-one-child-policy_n_4301221.html), ironically in the name of enhancing its increase in wealth. There's a sudden and radical authoritarian policy shift for you.

Date: 2013-11-23 07:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] scifiben.livejournal.com
Of course nature does have one solution to this type of problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overshoot_(population)): "The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off." In other words, let the bomb blow up in our face; let the exponential curves slam into natural limits that slap them back down, hard. That's the biggest reason why we don't want to adopt Gaia's solution to this problem: her prescription involves billions of people dying of hunger, thirst, and the associated resource wars, i.e. the very thing we most want to prevent. Sure, the remaining population will inherit a world with far fewer pressing global problems, but the loss of most high technology and the survivors' incalculable grief over all their dead relatives will probably render them utterly uninterested in seeing the bright side.

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