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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 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 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.

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I went to the Bioneers satellite conference on Whidbey Island last weekend, and as usual, there were many amazing speakers working on massive projects that are actually changing the world for the better. It was inspiring and a bit overwhelming to take it all in--especially since I was also distracted by a philosophical dilemma, perhaps best epitomized by the speakers just before and just after dinner on Friday. Before dinner we watched Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, over the satellite link from the main conference in San Rafael, as he described his organic yogurt company's impressive annual profits and 20% compound growth rate (along with the many good things the company does for farmers, cows, and the planet, of course). Then after dinner, our local keynote speaker David Korten took the stage, and explained how everything about our current financial system is evil and needs to be replaced with an almost completely opposite system, one that (among many other things) abandons economic growth and financial measures of value, in favor of stability and measures that describe quality of life. (Korten claims to be a follower of Adam Smith; it's possible that the last article on this page describes what he means.)

I might have called this the tension between third and fourth wave environmentalism, before I realized that the "fourth wave" ideal of a localized, human-scale economy that can cope with "energy descent" really dates back to the 1970s, when The Limits to Growth was published and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance founded. So I'll just call it the tension of "Transcend and Include" vs. "Remove and Replace" environmental economics, epitomized by Natural Capitalism and the Transition movement, respectively (though the Transition people frame it as coping with the current system's inevitable collapse, rather than deliberately tearing it down).

But what if they're both right, on different timescales? I got this idea from eco-psychologist Kathy A. McMahon, who gave a poorly-attended presentation at Microsoft the Monday before Bioneers. She enumerated many ways you can jump to fundamentally unsound conclusions about climate and particularly peak oil, and "we'll have to go back to a mode of existence barely more advanced than the Middle Ages and stay there forever" was one of them. Yes, we will probably need to scale back energy use for awhile as oil gets more expensive, and devote a lot of our remaining resources to disaster response as the climate crisis worsens. But then, after a gap while clean energy technologies scale up at a realistic pace, we can get back to a level of affluence similar to today, and the human endeavor can continue. And if we can gain some societal wisdom and get rid of the worst aspects of modern capitalism during this two-part transition, so much the better.

Of course, a lot of bad things could happen during the "gap," like massive wars over dwindling resources, or so much coal-burning that we cook the planet beyond all hope. Even if not, we might find that abandoning globalization makes it very hard to bring green technologies to scale. Dr. McMahon also points out that "just because it sucks doesn't mean it can't happen." But for those of us with big dreams that don't fit into a world of nothing but small towns with no ambition but to survive, seeing any possible light at the end of that tunnel is enough to keep us going.
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Overview of first, second, and third wave environmentalism in America )
The phenomenon I've decided to call fourth wave environmentalism didn't begin with Bill McKibben, but his new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet nicely sums up its goals and their justification. It's strange to discover that he was already working on this book during the run-up to the International Day of Climate Action, for which he was the lead organizer. 350 Day's premise was based on Dr. James Hansen's assertion that "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, . . . CO2 will need to be reduced . . . to at most 350 ppm." But McKibben's book assembles an impressive array of statistics to show that the planet Hansen is talking about no longer exists, that the ten-thousand-year-long climatic "sweet spot" we've inhabited is already gone and probably never coming back. On page 184, McKibben writes that getting down to 350 "is what we must do to stabilize the planet even at its current state of disruption"--that is, the world of smaller icecaps, acidified oceans, more and bigger droughts, floods, and wildfires, etc, etc.

The first three waves of environmentalism never came close to this kind of statement. They generally assumed not only that the world as we know it was still around, but that we should focus so squarely on preserving it that failure should be unthinkable. After all, to plan for how to survive and thrive after such a failure would seem to take away some of the urgency of our discourse. Most previous pictures of a world where environmentalism fails have been simplistic apocalypse scenarios where civilization collapses into chaos and almost everyone dies, painted solely for the purpose of emphasizing that "failure is not an option."

But that doesn't mean no one has been planning for at least a partial failure. The Transition movement is all about adapting to both global warming and the end of economic growth powered by cheap energy. Many of the Permaculture principles they're based on can also be seen in the new localism and voluntary simplicity movements, which include Slow Food, Slow Money, Slow Cities, etc. All of these groups and movements fall under my definition of fourth wave environmentalism.

The fourth wave is opposed to the third wave's economic mainstreaming, asserting that due to peak oil and the immense cost of coping with a newly chaotic world, economic growth will end soon regardless of how "green" the economy gets. On page 52 of Eaarth, McKibben tries to maintain some ties to third-wave idealism: "I support a green Manhattan Project, an ecological New Deal, a clean-tech Apollo mission. If I had money, I'd give it to Al Gore to invest in start-ups." But, he is forced to conclude, "it's not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don't think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion . . . We no longer possess the margin we'd require for another huge leap forward, certainly not enough to preserve the planet we used to live on."

Instead, the fourth wave proposes a new system of small, stable economies with some degree of local self-sufficiency, although "it will be a while before there's a village computer maker or a local locomotive manufacturer" in most places (p. 141), and big governments will still help in "spreading risk across a continent: New Orleans couldn't have repaired itself" after Hurricane Katrina, the kind of disaster that will soon be commonplace (p. 144). Communities will feed themselves with local organic farms that replace oil-based inputs with compost and manpower, while growing many different plants in every field for resilience to extreme weather. Power grids will be regional, not national, and most communities will have small local generators (wind, solar, hydro, biomass, etc) for resilience to grid power outages.

Of course, there are a chorus of standard objections to the idea of eliminating growth and reversing globalization. The resulting society would be "stagnant and hierarchical and no fun to live in," as [ profile] bdunbar summarized in a reply to this entry. McKibben's answer to this is simply to keep the Internet running. He argues that this would a) help maintain an open society that resists local tendencies to stratify, eliminate women's rights, etc, b) provide lots of virtual fun to offset the boredom of small-town life, and c) serve other useful purposes like helping people learn farming skills. (This suggests an interesting sci-fi scenario: what if both the Permaculture people and their arch-nemeses, the Singularitarians, turn out to be right? A superhuman AI emerging in the Internet on a world locked in permanent climate crisis would have an interesting time of it.)

I'm not sure how I feel about all this myself. McKibben leaves no room for space travel in his new world, dismissing the idea that it will remain a national project in future America: "Theoretically we've committed to sending a man to Mars, but I know very few people who either believe we will or care" (p. 120). But what if he's wrong about how bad things will get? Most crucially, what if he's not pessimistic enough? Space colonization is worthwhile partly because it provides a means of persistence for both societies and ecosystems even if Earth plunges into a true apocalypse scenario. Even in the face of so many other demands on our perhaps-soon-to-be-shrinking economy, that plan for survival should not be lightly abandoned.
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This will hopefully be the first in a fairly long series of posts on what a future of “heroic survival” on a hot and hostile world might look like, in the event that our best efforts are not enough to stave off severe and permanent global warming. I'll start with a list of possible coping strategies, in roughly descending order of cost, to the most sensational predicted effect: the drowning of the world's coastlines and some entire low-lying island nations.

1. Denial. Yes, if you're lucky, it will turn out that the current long-term trends are meaningless and the ice caps will stop melting within a few years. But if you're wrong, the cost of doing nothing is quite simply the loss of the land where 2.75 billion people will live by 2025. The economic impact of such a calamity is scarcely imaginable, even presuming there is actually a global economy still standing afterward to reckon the damage.

2. Prevention. Obviously the best overall solution, considering all the other issues that preventing catastrophic climate change would solve. But while the long-term impact to the economy may turn out to be strongly beneficial, no one can argue that we won't have to spend vast sums in the process of replacing most of the world's energy production systems (though the cost of the large-scale reforestation that will also play a key role in this solution is minuscule, at least by comparison).

3. Geo-engineering. The proposal sounds absurd, but I've now heard a couple versions of the idea of pumping the excess water from the oceans inland to form new saltwater seas (one was in Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Sixty Days and Counting, but I'm pretty sure the other was intended seriously). Quite apart from the possible side effects of such vast modifications to Earth's surface, I can't imagine where they imagine we'd get the energy to pump that much water. Back-of-the-envelope calculations say we'd have to move between three and four hundred trillion tons of water to counteract a one-meter sea-level rise, and if either Greenland or the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, the projected rise is six meters.

4. Planned migration. As previously noted, a huge and growing fraction of the human population lives in coastal cities and towns. If we're lucky and the seas rise gradually rather than in sudden jumps, these settlements could move inland like amoebas, building new structures on their landward side to replace those abandoned to the inexorable tide. But with their construction industries swamped by the equally inexorable flood of migration from rural to urban areas, how will cities find enough excess construction capacity to execute such a plan? It won't be cheap, and neither will the cost of replacing the produce of the absorbed farmland. (Green roofs are awesome, but they can only do so much.)

5. Holding back the tide. This is another concept from Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy, where he describes a fictional island ringed by a huge earthen wall, inside which the land is all below sea level. But Lois McMaster Bujold describes a more globally typical case in her far-future novel Brothers in Arms, part of which takes place inside a huge barrier across the mouth of the river Thames.  Most coastal cities and towns are like London in that, if you simply built a wall along the coastline, water from one or more rivers would build up against it until it overflowed.  Bujold's solution is a system of giant pumps that bring incoming river water up to the new sea level.  A more practical, if ironic, solution might be to deliberately overexploit your water resource, piping as much of it away to farms and other cities as possible, so that the nearby rivers simply never reach the sea.

6. Raising the land. If we can build artificial islands and peninsulas, why not truck in even more immense quantities of dirt and rock to raise the street levels of low-lying coastal cities by several meters? (In the case of places like Tuvalu, where there is no higher ground to dig into, the dirt would have to be shipped in.) Earth-moving costs might be reduced somewhat if the lower above-ground stories of taller buildings are turned into basements rather than simply crammed full of dirt. Some of the many one- and two-story buildings could perhaps be raised to the new ground level rather than merely buried, while others might be reinforced and provided with light pipes to make underground living moderately bearable.

7. Welcoming the sea. Imagine a typical coastal city with street levels about a meter above the existing high tide-line. Now imagine that, as Greenland melts away, the lower two stories (roughly six meters) of every tall building are wrapped with thick new outer walls made of reinforced eco-friendly concrete, manufactured using a technique that mimics the growth of coral. As with the previous solution, you get two new basement levels for each building; meanwhile, the tops of the walls become the new sidewalks. Throw in some railings and a bunch of pedestrian bridges, populate the newly flooded streets with electric and paddle- and pedal-driven boats of every description, and voila: a new Venice, for a fraction the cost of rebuilding the whole place on higher ground. Short structures would again be a challenge; some could be raised on stilts or equipped with pontoons, but extensive programs to cram more residents into skyscrapers would probably be necessary. Meanwhile, a few rich eccentrics might water-harden their roofs and walls so they could live in inverted aquariums, perhaps with intentionally convoluted nooks and crannies in the outer walls to provide habitat for the many fish who will have been rendered homeless by the death of nearly every bit of real coral on the planet.

March 2015

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