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Failure to solve the climate crisis probably means plunging civilization into a new dark age -- but humanity has survived dark ages before. According to Bill McKibben, the Holocene era of stable climate is already over -- but before the dawn of civilization, humanity lived through several drastic changes in climate. There's no reason why anyone would want to return to either of those conditions, but what if the alternative is even worse? It's very difficult to tell whether that might be the case, because the alternative is plunging deep into the unknown.

What I'm talking about here is the accelerating rate of technological progress, which gives us our only real hope of averting global climate catastrophe. The problem, as I've mentioned, is that we're trying to slow and stabilize other accelerating processes, which is such a mammoth task that it essentially requires setting up new exponential-growth curves (such as the rate of renewable-energy installation) that might well carry their own ill-considered risks. To paraphrase the NRA, “the only thing that can stop a bad exponential curve is a good exponential curve” -- but is there really any such thing?

Paul Krafel certainly believes there is. His movie The Upward Spiral is actually named for the concept of a good exponential curve, one that creates ever-growing amounts of life and possibility. But Paul's upward spirals are very distributed and grassroots, starting by sharing small local solutions with as many people as possible and hoping they will eventually add up. Apart from tree-planting movements, though, the bulk of the progress we've made toward climate solutions so far has come thanks to megacorporations like GE and Vestas, which can act much faster to deploy solutions at a global scale, and can be motivated by equally centralized policy shifts like the renewable energy production tax credit. In an era of increasing and fully justified alarm about the limited time remaining to avert a collapse, the latter approach seems likely to continue to dominate our response. (Even the accelerating trend toward solar rooftops, which challenges the business model of centralized electric utilities, is driven by the relatively few companies that actually manufacture the solar panels. If those companies hadn't succeeded (with the help of a few big government research institutes) in making photovoltaics so cheap, they would still be a tiny niche market.)

And it's not only the unknown consequences of these panicked high-speed deployments of green technology that worries me. Even on an alternate Earth where the Industrial Revolution was based on non-polluting technology from the start, we would still face another terrifying unknown: what happens when technological progress accelerates to the point where mere human brains can no longer keep up?

It used to be typical to refer to this problem as “future shock,” based on the famous book by Alvin Toffler. These days it's gotten attached to the Technological Singularity concept, and hence to the various sci-fi scenarios where superhuman AIs take over the world. But I'd like to point out that we needn't postulate the development of strong AI to make accelerating progress scary. Consider this quote from the webcomic The Spiders by Patrick Farley:

“Unfortunately the biotechnology which created this virus is only getting more user-friendly. In 10 years it'll be possible for a small community of assholes with fast modems and a shared grudge to wipe out the entire human race.

“And this won't be a problem for the next 10 years, but the next ten thousand. Grok this fact, and then we can discuss ethics, Lieutenant.”

Considering the growing power of various potentially destructive technologies, and the depths of fanatical extremism that humans are capable of, and the difficulty of policing a world of billions to ensure that world-destroying plots are never brought to fruition, you have to wonder whether it would actually be less harmful in the long run to let civilization crash.

Then again, you also have to wonder whether it’s reasonable to base present-day policy decisions on a theoretical future in which some technology that can wipe out the human race could be secretly developed and deployed by a tiny terrorist group. “Comic-book politics” is the term that comes to mind here. That’s why I ultimately decided not to classify this entry as part of my “personal psychology of despair” series. Am I anxious about the dangers of overly rapid change? Yes. Does that alone constitute a reason for despair? No. If it did, I don’t think I could get up in the morning and go to work in the software industry, which changes faster than anything in human history.

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I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long.  Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.

“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”

- Robert Wright, author/journalist (this and all other quotes are taken from this transcript)

“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”

- Michael Hudson, economist

The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”

“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”

- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based

Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.

This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.

If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future.  In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.

“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”

- Robert Wright

“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”

- Jane Goodall, primatologist

One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.

While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.

“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”

- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group

So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.

For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.

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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 350.org 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 [livejournal.com 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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"We know now what we could never have known before--that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment."

- R. Buckminster Fuller

With this quote, and his book also titled Utopia or Oblivion, Mr. Fuller may have marked himself as an early proponent of what I've decided to call abusive environmentalism.  Its chief characteristic is the belief that we're all doomed unless the world stops being stupid and rushes to get behind some specific plan that, when brought to scale, will somehow lead to a wonderfully harmonious new society.  Now, Bucky was widely acknowledged to be something of a genius, so he perhaps had more of a right to this kind of thinking than most.  I don't think I can say the same for two modern abusive environmentalists, Glen Barry of Ecological Internet and Michael Braungart, co-author of Cradle to Cradle.

Barry and Braungart both have a tendency to attack other environmentalists as well as the usual suspects (polluting industries, corrupt governments, etc).  Both of them have something against Al Gore--Dr. Barry lumps him in with other celebrity environmentalists who refuse to limit their own lifestyles, while Dr. Braungart just doesn't like the way he frames environmental problems.  This is odd, because Gore's current big initiative, Repower America, is almost abusive in its demand for a ten-year timeline for replacement of all fossil-fuel-based power generation, including over 100 gigawatts from massive solar-thermal arrays out in the desert somewhere.*  I'm only exempting it from this category on the grounds that it assumes we're on the right track, rather than telling us that even our current best efforts to build a sustainable civilization are horribly misguided.

I'm not going to go in depth about Glen Barry's call for "sufficient measures" to prevent climate catastrophe, though I will note that one of his favorite targets is the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies supposedly sustainable sources of wood.  In a recent blog post, he gives a backhanded compliment to Oregon, the environmentally hyper-aware state where I grew up, saying that it finally got something right after "a long history of forest patronage and destroying terrestrial ecosystems for short term economic gain."  You can get an idea for his level of extremism by reading pretty much anything he's written.

As for Dr. Braungart, I find myself more compelled to try to get past his tendency to call everyone stupid, because his vision of a future where humans have "positive ecological footprints" is quite compelling.  But if he hopes to make any headway with his ideas, I think he needs to stop focusing so much attention on what his competitors in the field of ecological design are doing wrong.  Describing in a recent interview how recycled paper and soy-based ink are actually doing more harm than good, Braungart goes so far as to say that "sustainability [in general] will only slow down the collapse of the planet."  I mean, that doesn't make any sense--maybe we're doing it wrong now, but if we can achieve sustainability, then by definition we will have a civilization that is no longer destroying the basis of its own existence!

Braungart claims that incrementalism is impossible.  "When people now try to be a little less bad, they make it even worse, because they basically stabilize the wrong systems and make them perfectly wrong."  But the way I see it, the problems with supposed fixes to environmental problems are usually the result of moving too fast, not too slow.  Soy-based inks were the solution that could be brought to scale most quickly, while wiser choices will take longer to develop and bring to market.  In general, rushing to sign onto any major new project, even (or especially) one that purports to be "100% good" for people and the planet, will almost always result in failing to recognize major downsides until it's too late.  I guess what I'm trying to say here is that when it comes to tackling global crises, we can't afford to panic.

* To be fair, though, the biggest single chunk of the Repower America plan is a reduction of total national energy use by 28% below the DOE's projection for 2020.  Take that, Sharon Astyk!
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"[Curitiba, Brazil's] municipal government is dedicated to solutions that are simple, fast, fun, and cheap, to what [Bill] McKibben calls 'constructive pragmatism.' [Former mayor Jaime] Lerner, convinced that hope is sustained by visible change for the better, inculcated a culture of speed: 'Credit cards give us goods quickly, the fax machine gives us the message quickly -- the only thing left in our Stone Age is the central governments.' City Hall's credibility in Curitiba comes from its creating a big park in only twenty days, or launching a vast recycling program within months of its conception. . . .

"Conceptual tests of new ideas lead quickly to their application. Risks are taken in the expectation that mistakes will be made, quickly detected and diagnosed, and corrected. When budgets can't support an entire new program, it's launched anyway so that learning can begin while more resources or economies are sought. Failures are frequent, hard lessons constant, struggles to improve unrelenting. . . . Curitiba experiments and improves as assiduously as any startup company."

- Chapter 14 of Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, which holds up Curitiba as a model of holistic, sustainable design and governance.

Last Thursday, Al Gore called for a similar "culture of speed" by challenging America to switch to 100% clean, carbon-neutral energy sources within ten years. Now, one can certainly quibble that Gore may have exaggerated some details in his case for action, or that a ten-year timeframe is somewhat overoptimistic, but the overall case is strong: We need to act, we will benefit immensely from the resulting new jobs and greater energy security as well as reduced pollution, and what we most need right now is the inspiration to tackle this great challenge in the spirit of the Apollo program, or any of the other massive projects America has embarked on and completed throughout our history.

This is not to say we should throw caution to the winds. With our current global-scale technologies, we're already conducting a vast uncontrolled experiment with unknown results; we must be careful that the new experiments we set in motion are better planned and understood before we bring them to full-scale production. We don't want to face a "hard lesson" in the form of one massive disaster brought on by an overly rushed and incautious attempt to prevent another such disaster.

But be that as it may, we are probably past the time when "take it slow" can be our primary philosophy in working toward solutions to the climate crisis.
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"He had that sense, or inward prophecy -- which a yong man had better never have been born, than not to have, and a mature man had better die at once, than utterly to relinquish -- that we are not doomed to creep on forever in the old, bad way, but that, this very now, there are the harbingers abroad of a golden era, to be accomplished in his own lifetime. It seemed to Holgrave -- as doubtless it has seemed to the hopeful of every century, since the epoch of Adam's grandchildren -- that in this age, more than ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.

"As to the main point -- may we never live to doubt it! -- as to the better centuries that are coming, the artist was surely right. His error lay, in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view, whether he himself should contend for or against it. Yet it was well for him to think so. This enthusiasm, infusing itself through the calmness of his character . . . would serve to keep his youth pure, and make his aspirations high."

- The House of the Seven Gables (first published in 1851), pp. 158-9

Ah, you say, but our era really will be different. For one thing, we have six kinds of political and ecological catastrophe coming up, which, based on the J-curve principle*, will hopefully motivate us to make major improvements to our society. Plus, sooner or later we'll have superhuman AIs running loose on the Internet, and then who knows what will happen?

Oddly enough, Hawthorne sort of predicted that too:

"'Then there is electricity -- the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!' exclaimed Clifford. 'Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact -- or have I dreamt it -- that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!"

- The House of the Seven Gables p. 230

* In its general form: "Sometimes, things have to get worse before they get better."
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Here are some intriguing closing remarks from President Phil Chase, a character whom I first quoted in this post, from the end of Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy of near-future environmental catastrophe: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. (These books are far better than their hokey titles suggest.)

Economics-related )

On sustainability:
    "By permaculture I mean a culture that can be sustained permanently. Not unchanging, that's impossible, we have to stay dynamic, because conditions will change, and we will have to adapt to those new conditions, and continue to try to make things even better—so that I like to think the word permaculture implies also permutation. . . .
    "Taking care of the Earth and its miraculous biological splendor will then become the long-term work of our species. . . . People worry about living life without purpose or meaning, and rightfully so, but really there is no need for concern: inventing a sustainable culture is the meaning, right there always before us . . . [and] will never come to an end while people still exist. . . .
    "We have to become the stewards of the Earth. And we have to start doing this in ignorance of how to do it. We have to learn how to do it in the attempt itself."

This from a president who has supported dumping mass quantities of salt into the north Atlantic to restart the Gulf Stream, as well as pumping massive amounts of water from the rising seas inland to form new salt lakes.  The full impacts of actions on this scale are unknown, and some of Robinson's characters do worry about this, but they rationalize that things have already gotten so bad over the course of the trilogy that there's no time left to look before we leap.  Hence the title of this post, which recurs several times throughout the trilogy.

One might conclude that we have a ways to go yet before that attitude becomes unavoidable.  On the other hand, consider how far we've already leapt in the wrong direction:

    "Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently estimated the ocean has absorbed 118 billion metric tons of CO2 since the onset of the Industrial Revolution—about half of the total we’ve released into the atmosphere . . . [which] is good for our atmosphere but bad for our ocean, since it changes the pH. Studies indicate that the shells and skeletons possessed by everything from reef-building corals to mollusks to plankton begin to dissolve within 48 hours of exposure to the acidity expected in the ocean by 2050. . . .
    "Collectively, marine phytoplankton have influenced life on earth more than any other organism, since they are significant alleviators of greenhouse gases, major manufacturers of oxygen, and the primary producers of the marine food web. Yet because many phytoplankton produce minute aragonite shells, these pastures of the sea may not survive changing pH levels."

Major manufacturers of oxygen, eh?  That would be an understatement: "phytoplankton draw nearly as much CO2 out of the atmosphere and oceans through photosynthesis as do trees, grasses and all other land plants combined" (p. 57), converting it all to oxygen.  We're talking about a large fraction of the world's oxygen supply, slowly dissolving before our eyes.  In this light, crazy proposals like those described above, or like using iron dust to promote phytoplankton growth as described in the linked SciAm article, start to seem worthy of strong consideration.
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Last night, I was happy to discover that my typical shower has dropped to about ten minutes in length. This is an example of efficiency at its best: a short shower conserves water and the natural gas that heats it, and it leaves me more time to do other things. The only loss is the luxury of taking it slow, which is a lost cause for most Americans these days anyway--particularly those with as many different interests as I have.

But efficiency can be a problem. As a geometry lover, I've always enjoyed finding the shortest path to take from Point A to Point B, taking as many diagonals as possible so I can reach my destination half a minute earlier than I otherwise would. But recently, I've learned to avoid biking northwest on one diagonal street here in Redlands, because another major road merges in from the east and there is no stop sign.

This points up a general principle with wide application: the shortest path to a goal is often the most dangerous one. On a global scale, economic efficiency means promoting the rapid development of innovative new technologies and minimizing the time spent on testing for harmful side effects or considering the potential for weaponization. Of course, we can cynically observe that for any technology, "if we don't build it, someone else will." On the other hand, we can also work to form global compacts of governments, corporations, and universities to help guide humanity's technological development with an eye toward a simple truism: efficiency must take a back seat to survival.
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Environmentalists almost always value the natural over the artificial. They say that humanity is on an inherently perilous path, with accelerating technological "progress" motivated by short-term economic interests rather than real human welfare or long-term sustainability; and that by contrast, the global biosphere, a system that has balanced itself over the course of countless millions of years, is fundamentally much safer. This is more or less true; however, it doesn't mean that technology is fundamentally evil. Fatalism to the contrary, it is possible to slow down and to think harder about the consequences of our actions. It's also true that however dismal their success rate, most human societies do have an explicit mission to reduce suffering and increase happiness and prosperity. Very few natural systems even behave as if they had such a goal.

To put it more poetically:

The works of Nature are great and beautiful,
and also terrible.
The works of Humanity are great and terrible,
and also wonderful.
There is great beauty and great suffering on both sides,
and in all the lands between.

Look up at a great tree,
and feel wonder and awe at the power of natural forces.
Look up at a great skyscraper,
and feel wonder and pride at the power of human hands and minds,
as well as sadness that our power is so ill-guided,
creating mighty weeds that grow out of control.

Realize that we know what harmony is,
and that we can learn to pursue it.
We are like any new species finding a new niche,
gobbling up all the possibilities we find without stopping to think.
But we are unlike any other species,
because we can stop to think
about the global impact of our species
and decide to change our ways.
We can drive the world deep into chaos and death
in an eyeblink of ecological time.
In that same eyeblink, we can learn from our mistakes,
and find ways to live in harmony with each other
and with our world.
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"I don't think it's going to happen fast."

-a student named Amanda (Crowley?) writing about the end of the world, in the Claremont Colleges' literary magazine, Passwords

Earth's climate and biosphere are immensely complex systems, the biosphere especially so.  They have been known to act in a fashion known as "punctuated equilibrium," in which drastic changes can occur suddenly and unexpectedly, sometimes within a period of a few years.  This could be what the immediate future holds, considering the possible consequences of the breakup of ice sheets or the collapse of ecosystems.

On the other hand, the climate could continue to slowly warm and our stock of biodiversity could continue to slowly deplete, with the net result that natural disasters (hurricanes, crop failures) would gradually grow in intensity, overwhelming our disaster preparations one by one.  In this scenario, naysayers could continue to claim that everything is within the natural range of variation and the course of civilization need not be shifted in any real way.  The typical analogy for this scenario is the frog sitting in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil; by the time the water is hot enough for the frog to become alarmed, it's too late to escape.

On the other hand, we might yet turn the "slow boil" scenario to our advantage.  After all, as I noted in my first Church of Gaia/Earthseed post, any kind of overly rapid change, including political change, is dangerous.  If we can put alternative-energy riders on the bills funding the reconstruction of New Orleans, for instance, it will be a (gradual) step in the right direction.

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Life is sacred. Thou shalt not worship anything else.

Change is eternal. Thou shalt not try to set up a changeless order. Doing so will only lead to unnecessary Chaos.

Chaos is inevitable, but can be managed by Life.

Life keeps Chaos at bay by building complex structures, on every scale from the microscopic (bacteria) to the planetary (Gaia).

Life Changes slowly through evolution, becoming ever more complex and shaping itself to fit its Changing environment.

Overly rapid Change leads to unnecessary Chaos, and unnecessary death.

Humanity must slow the pace of the Change we have unleashed, so that we can direct and shape it well enough to avoid creating too much Chaos. Only then can humanity fulfill its Destiny, which is to become Earthseed.

The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root on other worlds, there to grow new biospheres, Gaia's children.

March 2015

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