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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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Al Gore's group and others have definitely been heeding the lesson of that essay, “The Death of Environmentalism.” Rather than incessantly giving the “I have a nightmare” speech, they've been relentlessly upbeat lately about the potential for a new green economy that will make life better, rather than requiring any real sacrifice. All we have to do is use energy more efficiently, take the bus or bike when we can, buy local and organic (which, okay, does cost somewhat more), and oh yeah, demand that our leaders “save us from this climate crisis.” I'm hoping what they really meant there was “provide the necessary incentives to motivate industry and job seekers, so we can save ourselves.”

But then along comes someone like Sharon Astyk to upset the applecart. Sharon is the sort of environmentalist I used to think conservatives just made up as a straw man argument; she actually thinks we need to shrink the economy, raise unemployment (to reduce the number of commuters on the roads), and become a nation of “poorer but happier greenies,” an ideal that's deeply unattractive to the vast majority of Americans. And her argument against Gore's rosy scenario is concise and disturbingly obvious: Building all that new renewable infrastructure, most of it in rural areas that don't currently have the necessary population of workers, will itself be responsible for huge amounts of CO2 production, perhaps enough to push the world over a tipping point and precipitate the very catastrophe it's trying to prevent.

The obvious alternative is to focus on conservation and efficency and develop renewables at a slower, more realistic pace. To be honest, few if any highly-placed people are paying attention to Gore's ten-year timeline anyway; Obama's plan calls for a mere 25% transition in our electricity supply by seven years after Gore's deadline. But how far do we need to go here? Astyk actually claims that some efficiency measures, like building retrofits that add insulation to the walls to lower heating and cooling costs, are also worrisomely carbon-intensive themselves.

In the abstract, I have to admit that there is no a priori reason why we should be able to solve the climate crisis without reducing our quality of life. To claim otherwise is to work from the cornucopian assumption that there will always be a quick, cheap technical fix. But then, we do have a number of hopeful signs that the sacrifice Obama will need to ask us to make won't necessarily involve making the recession worse.
  • The massive power of the Internet: America's CO2 emissions have increased by about 20% since 1990. The SMART 2020 study seems to show that Obama's goal* of getting us back to 1990 levels by 2020 could be mostly accomplished just by using information technology to make our electric grid, transportation networks, and buildings “smarter” and enable more “virtual commuters.”
  • Biomimicry: Nature makes complex structures using nontoxic, room-temperature chemistry, in stark contrast to our current industrial practices, and those structures themselves are exquisitely adapted to make the most of whatever energy is available. Already, companies are looking into ways to make products that accomplish their goals the same way organisms do. One thing we've learned already, particularly from biomineralizing corals and other shelled critters, is that the right way of sequestering carbon is to solidify it rather than burying it still in gaseous form.
  • Pointless energy use: I'm not even talking about Las Vegas casinos here. In his book, Van Jones quotes Anuradha Mittal as saying that for example, “20 percent of California table grapes go to China, while China is the world's largest producer of table grapes. Half of all California's processed tomatoes go to Canada, and the U.S. imports $36 million worth of Canadian processed tomatoes yearly. . . . We are exporting what we are also importing because it is profitable for the companies doing it, not because it is good for the nation or the environment.” This kind of pointless trade-for-the-sake-of-trade is exactly the sort of thing Obama's carbon cap should stop in its tracks.
  • New coal power plants placed on hold: Thank you, EPA, for finally listening to the what the Supreme Court told you over a year and a half ago! The CO2 savings from avoiding both these huge construction projects and the subsequent plant operation are probably enough to build quite a number of wind turbines, while simultaneously providing an intense motivator for conservation. Local governments' long-term energy plans were probably founded on the assumption of those new coal-based supplies coming online. Now they'll be forced to look for simple things that just needed more political will (the ultimate renewable resource, eh, Al?), like programs to get people (especially apartment landlords!) to trade in all their old, inefficient appliances for Energy Star-compliant ones.
I'm sure Sharon Astyk would come up with some objection to each of these. My hope is that she'll come out with some actual numbers on the high carbon cost of making carbon-reducing tech, so she and Gore's people can have a real argument based on facts rather than conjecture.

*Note: it is somewhat worrisome that Obama doesn't mention energy efficiency at all in this speech.

March 2015

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