100 Million Years Hence: a thought experiment

The inner cynic whispers to me a scenario:

The story is 100 million years from now.

A future species arrives at a level of intelligence great enough to develop self-flattering mythologies, empirical research methodologies, technology, distinct cultural identities and ideologies.

They dig.

In one geological layer, they find something striking.

It’s littered with the fossilised remnants of artificial origins.

fossil-human

Enough of these fragments point to a bipedal creature previously obtaining an akin level of intelligence, however, it’s impossible to tell whether or not they too were spacefaring.

Ice cores and geological assessment talk of their industries as well as hinted at their capacity to harness the energy in ionising radiation.

“At such a level of sophistication – something much like our own,” these future thinkers ask, “how is it that they disappeared?”

Of course, the answers too, were written in stone.

Climate research points to a radical global shift within a short time span – a few centuries at best – resulting from their burning of carbon fuels.

Species richness prior to the bipedal dominance layer was utterly gone within it. Genetic research likewise points to a bottleneck and later resurgence in species diversity around 90-95 million years ago. The loss of biological resources too would have led the bipeds to global poverty.

Yet the most damning line of evidence is found in the upper limits of the bipedal layer. It showed the strongest evidence of ionising radiation.

It was likely that their last chapter was one of winless war.

Of course, the reality of this story is too horrible to contemplate. For a long time, these future thinkers are cautious in drawing too many parallels. Certainly, the divine literature tell them that the world is theirs to harvest and cannot be over-exploited… but did the bipeds believe the same? Could the sacred texts be wrong?

And then there was the industries of these future thinkers, which likewise emit carbon dioxide. Can this trace compound in such low levels really threaten future prosperity and indeed life itself?

As these future thinkers dig deeper and look ever closer at the bipedal layer of junk and tragedy, the parallels become overwhelming.

The inner cynic asks me whether these future thinkers too would follow the same road to ruin, or is the story of their distant cousins enough of a forewarning?

I can’t answer the cynic. So I pose the question to you.

Bigger ways to lose it all: the climate, natural resources and even what’s ours

“If we develop a global nuclear economy with synthesised hydrocarbon fuels, or truly effective electric batteries for motor vehicles, why the hell not buy a bigger SUV next year?”

This comment by another has since remained with me – even inspiring its own cartoon.

BAUep2low

Because, of course, bigger is better. Provided we can eradicate this pesky climate concern, we’re onto something great (please note my sarcasm).

The trouble with such a linear, dare I say blinkered, perspective is that sustainable energy is not our only concern. If the Nine Planetary Boundaries are taken as a fair indicator of the state our planet, climate change is actually in fourth place, with biosphere integrity (genetic diversity), biochemical flows and land use changes all more heavily modified and/or eroded.

With climate change included, these four represent the major threats to long term prosperity. All are the result of the “bigger is better” mentality.

Bigger cities and farms, and more produce and energy use, equal greater economic activity.

When efficiency is improved, we don’t make savings, we simply make more, exploiting resources more quickly.

Stocks up! GDP up!… up, up, up!!

Growth is the modern god, more tangible than any other before it.

The blessed, after all, are showered in fortune. Those who doubt it deserve their meager station. Oh, how wonderful is the union of neo-liberal individualism and meritocracy.

But how big can a city get before the term “city” loses all meaning? How many hectares can be converted from ecosystems to monocultures before we lose all bio-services (that underpin so much of our economic activity)?

And we openly scoff at the loss of biodiversity when the compounds found in plants, fungi and animals (especially venom) have probably saved each of our life at one point or another.

With another species lost, so too could a lifesaving compound.

But we need to be bigger to stay afloat!

When will we exhaust the resources we dig up in wild places – the metals, minerals and hydrocarbons – and be forced to turn our mining activities to sifting through yesteryear’s junk yards for the same resources?

When will we remove the white lines down our roads, merging two lanes into one to fit the colossal SUV’s just waiting for a primed market?

I’m personally uncomfortable with such naive economic philosophies we broadly celebrate. And I fail to see how we can even start to talk meaningfully about taking action on biodiversity loss, land degradation or climate change, while still holding out on “endless growth”.

Just because it is, doesn’t mean that it should be.

We need to start thinking differently about how we interact with our common natural resources.

Some years ago, Michael Tobis suggested that we encourage much more economic activity towards non-material (or renewable) sources, such as art and entertainment. Given that higher density cities can achieve greater efficiencies, that automation is reducing the need for full time work and the concerns mentioned above, this could develop into hubs of economic activity while reducing such sources of stress.

And then there’s the thinking of people, such as Epicurus who said, “To become rich, do not add to your account, but subtract from your desires.

Materialism brings loneliness and anxiety. We feel a strong want for so many things we don’t actually need and, moreover, are only momentarily fulfilling once they are obtained.

Learning to quiet the inner voice of trivial want makes us richer on a number of fronts: Of course, without spending, one has additional income to spend on more meaningful things (or to work less). And then there is the other side as well; if you desire less, you already have most of what you need and want.

This is the proper outcome of having wealth – the amount accrued to subjective and trivial, the outcome (i.e. contentment with one’s lot) more objective.

We may think we want to be a millionaire, but that is just the tool used to quench our desires. The same thing can be achieved, for a fraction of the cost, through the taming of want, while at the same reducing our anxieties, pointless efforts and vanities.

With our death, material stuff and wealth pass on to others or erode to nothing. We don’t own any of it, but borrow it for a brief speck of time.

The only thing we do own is our time. It’s ours to spend however we see fit. Unlike wealth, once it’s gone, it can never again be reclaimed.

We could waste our fleeting moments, stressing over our desk and work floors on how we can acquire a bigger SUV, house and other soon-to-be-forgotten goods (made more so by planned obsolescence). Or we could treasure the moments we save to hold our loved ones, laugh with old friends and build bonds with new friends.

Before bigger meant better, it was often defined by greed and gluttony.

Spend your time preciously and, in turn, tread a little lighter on our limited resources.

Slavery and Climate Change: the same question we were never good at answering

Carbon slaves

“…[if] the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”
Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part 4. (350 BCE)

Aristotle was correct. The day that brute human labour was no longer needed to achieve productive output, slaves would not be wanted.

I don’t believe for a second that there was a sudden uprising in human morality that led to the end of legalised ownership of people. In fact, in the quoted book above, Aristotle himself notes that, more than two thousand years ago, there were some people who thought slavery unjust.

No, our species has never felt entirely comfortable with slavery, but worked hard to justify it while they thought it necessary to reach a given standard of living.

For instance, Aristotle argued in Politics that it freed superior men from brutish toil, allowing them to become upright statesmen.

He wasn’t alone, of course. Many of the ancient thinkers and even The Bible not only condoned slavery, but provided guidance on how to most appropriately, that is, “morally”, master one’s human property.

There’s no surprised that it only went out of fashion with the Age of Enlightenment, the birth of modern science and the accompanying technological revolution. Rather quickly we had machines that methodically completed such tasks without the setbacks of slaves.

Indeed we could finally weave without guiding hands.

The end of legalised slavery was not a win for human morality, but merely a byproduct of changing technology and economic activity. Had advances in thought and technology been a century earlier or later, the results would be much the same, except with different names to the champions in our history books.

How does this relate to climate change?

It’s more than similes and parallels, but entirely the same problem.

For decades, academics have tried to argue the case, from evidence alone, as to why we should be concerned about growing carbon emissions and their impact on our fruitful (and very stable) Holocene climate.

Equally, the moral argument has grown ever louder for the rights of future people as well as the more vulnerable developing nations of today.

Yet, here we are, at 2016, with little more than token mitigation gestures to show for all the education and moral discussion.

The fundamental underlying problem is the same as with slavery: How can we maintain the standard of living we have, and expect to enjoy, without the cheap energy we currently exploit?

With human stock, the answer was only found when machines could fill the gap and business as usual could continue.

The underlying question took thousands of years to answer in the case of slavery. Why should we believe societies today to be any better with, again, answering the same problem, from a different energy source?

We must expect that the answer will be technological, not in education, or through morals or an uprising in, say, a minimalistic culture.

I know that many of us feel uncomfortable in betting on a “techno-fix” but human nature, as illustrated through our recorded history, leaves us with that as the most likely method for success.

To Supercede the Industrial Revolution…

Accepting that research and technological advancement are the only way to meaningfully mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to unavoidable climate change isn’t to handball the problem off to academics and industry so we can sit back and enjoy a cup of tea.

To act quickly requires, no, demands, public will.

Votes and the wallet don’t just speak, they shout.

Who we choose to represent us and what we choose to purchase both influence research and development. This is the democratic power we have in capitalistic countries.

Further, we know that climate change has, and will continue to have, significant impact on our global economy. To Invest in research and technology to replace the current carbon emitting systems is to invest in future prosperity.

We either let future climates make us poor or envision new markets, new niches and new ways of living for future wealth.

Thus the real champions to tackle climate change will come from the same group who led us to the problem – the entrepreneurs. Others might be remembered for great speeches and good policies, but it will be the entrepreneurs who will not only make these ideas reality, but also make them profitable, household names.

Slavery didn’t end because we worked to replace human hands with mechanics, but because of the reverse; new machines were seen to suit these tasks and were cheaper per unit of output.

Because our ancestors justified slavery, it wasn’t addressed until it was rendered unnecessary.

If we take a similar approach with climate change, we will be extremely poor before we face the question and thus be in a position unable to answer it. There’s a strong economic incentive to invest in finding the answer today.

Moreover, the so-called “debate” is rendered mute. We’re no longer pulling the moral or intellectual reins, but instead paving the path many steps ahead. That’s how progress is primarily achieved, as history teaches us.

Wars of ideology have never led us to prosperous futures. They only lead to a loss of life, wealth and intellectual freedom. The dreamer paved the way for the electrical light, radio and the aircraft.

The future is the entrepreneurs’ canvas while the ideologue does nothing but anchor us to the past. Climate change is the problem for the indefinite future.

If the car would drive and the city live without carbonised fossils to power them, the nation wouldn’t want fossil fuels nor the citizen the combustion engine.

My thoughts on potential job losses at CSIRO

In light of the recent news about the potential loss of jobs in the Oceans and Atmosphere and Land and Water divisions of CSIRO, I thought I should repost these videos I made several years ago. At that point, I was working as part of a national network called Ozflux.

It was an incredibly rewarding experience and one that I’ve regretted having to move from ever since. Many of my mentors came from this division of CSIRO and it’s them who come to mind now.

I only hope that enough people recognise the immense value CSIRO is to Australia and that whatever changes are deemed necessary do not negatively impact CSIRO’s role in improving the lives of Australians as well as our understanding of this unique and wonderful landscape.

RISING TEMPERATURES, RISING INEQUALITY AND CONDITIONS FOR REVOLUTION: THE DAWN OF THE ANTHROPOCENE

[Mike, from Watching the Deniers, has moved to a new location. I’m really enjoying his new work. With his permission, I’m planning to repost much of it. Originally posted here]

38-french-revolution-1789-granger

“The modern day external shocks are clear: energy depletion, climate change, ageing populations and migration. They are altering the dynamics of capitalism and making it unworkable in the long term…” Paul Mason, The End of Capitalism has Begun (The Guardian, 17 July 2015)

As the planet burns, wealth has been rushing up, not down

Three pieces of recent news should give all of us pause, as they tell us something about the nature of capitalism and the state of the world in it’s present form.

Firstly Oxfam’s recent report on the growing wealth divide in which it was revealed that 62 individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people.

That’s not the most shocking thing about their report though: since 2010 the wealth of the 1% has been growing at an exponential rate while the wealth of the bottom third of humanity has decreased by trillions of dollars.

As we take a moment to ponder the implications of this massive transfer of wealth from, let’s consider a piece of “science” news.

The World Meteorological Organisation has just announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record:

The global average surface temperature in 2015 broke all previous records by a strikingly wide margin, at 0.76±0.1° Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. For the first time on record, temperatures in 2015 were about 1°C above the pre-industrial era, according to a consolidated analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

The future, should we fail to act decisively now looks grim:

“We have reached for the first time the threshold of 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures. It is a sobering moment in the history of our planet, ” said Mr Taalas. ” If the commitments made during the climate change negotiations in Paris and furthermore a higher emission reduction ambition level is reached, we still have chance to stay within the maximum 2°C limit,” said Mr Taalas.

As the planet burns, wealth has been rushing up, not down.

The third piece of news? We’ve also ushered in a new geological age:

Humans have produced enough concrete to thinly pave the entire surface of the Earth, while carbon dioxide emissions are rising 100 times quicker than at any time during the past 800,000 years.

Such dramatic transformations of the planet are showing up in the world’s sediments and warrant the declaration of a new geological epoch – aptly known as Anthropocene to reflect humanity’s role – according to a new paper published in the journal Science.

The research, compiled by two dozen scientists and academics, identified planet-wide impacts ranging from nuclear fallout from weapons testing to mining that displaces 57 billion tonnes of material a year – or almost three times the amount of sediment carried by the world’s rivers.

What is one to make of these reports?

Welcome to the Anthropocene: where economics, environmental collapse and politics collide

Typically these pieces of information are presented separately, often buried among the middle pages of the remaining print newspapers in their op-ed sections.

Taken together they paint a picture of the world today: that of rising temperatures, rising inequality and burgeoning conditions for social upheaval.

Journalist Eugene Linden in his work “The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations” notes this repeating pattern throughout history. From the collapse of the Greenland Viking colonies, the climatic chaos of the Little Ice Ages or the fall of the Mayan kingdoms due to extreme drought, shifts in climate and weather often preempt and drive significant disruptions to human societies.

The concern is that we may not be adequately prepared for it:

“We have not been tested by climate change. Moreover, humans have a tendency to fit new information into familiar patterns. This may explain why so few people have noted that the climate began changing during the past two decades, and even fewer more have become alarmed…”

What is true of the climate, is also true and the growing disparity in wealth and the ecological destruction around us.

The best of times, the worst of times: conditions for social disruption? 

This wealth transfer, and the stealthy takeover of the planet by corporations, has been in progress for decades. It is a process that individually we have not noticed, nor seen how it was effected. And yet we are now living with the results of the free-market extremism of neo-libralism.

Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, recently summed up this state of affairs in a recent TED talk:

“Democracy. In the West, we make a colossal mistake taking it for granted. We see democracy not as the most fragile of flowers that it really is, but we see it as part of our society’s furniture. We tend to think of it as an intransigent given. We mistakenly believe that capitalism begets inevitably democracy. It doesn’t.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and his great imitators in Beijing have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it is perfectly possible to have a flourishing capitalism, spectacular growth, while politics remain democracy free. Indeed, democracy is receding in our neck of the woods, here in Europe.

Earlier this year, while I was representing Greece — the newly elected Greek government — in the Eurogroup as its Finance Minister, I was told in no uncertain terms that our nation’s democratic process — our elections — could not be allowed to interfere with economic policies that were being implemented in Greece. At that moment, I felt that there could be no greater vindication of Lee Kuan Yew, or the Chinese Communist Party, indeed of some recalcitrant friends of mine who kept telling me that democracy would be banned if it ever threatened to change anything…”

We live in an era of rapid technological, economic and social change. Some of these changes are empowering the individual and society, while others constrain them.

As the Anthropocene dawns we witness the conditions the proceeded the great revolutions of the past.

In this I am reminded of the French Revolution, and Dicken’s famous opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Fuel in the skies: has sequestration finally found its market?

I just came across an article stating that Audi have just done something pretty awesome.

Using water, renewable energy and atmospheric CO2, they have generated a synthetic diesel.

Read the article here.

Personally, I see it as a much bigger deal than simply a cleaner, more efficient fuel, which of course it is.

It’s actually sequestration. Moreover, it’s sequestration with potentially strong market influences. It’s also sequestration that brings a cyclic relationship to our carbon-based fuel.

Given strong global leadership on it, there is even a potential for us to modify the atmospheric CO2 concentrations to counter long term climate trends that could impact us negatively. Through controlling what we burn or store, we would be able to influence our climate for our benefit.

I recognise that I might be getting carried away with this news. However, depending on how this story unfolds, it could be a genuine game changer.

Sunday Reads #8: All things climate, environmental and politics

Firstly, I need to plug my survey again. I had a great response on Friday, but yesterday saw little movement. If the question and the answer matters to you, please try to get at least three friends or family members to spare 60 seconds to fill it in and a couple additional minutes to get three more to follow on.

Survey: Does the Aust Gov have a mandate on Chaplains in Public Schools?

Coalition’s Green Army passes the Senate

Having worked as a retail “trainee” when I was 19-20 in what was clearly a way to get around minimum wage restrictions, I am concerned by this, but not surprised at the bi-partisan support, sadly.

Carpark run-off cheaper to drink than desal water

Thinking for the 21st century!

Changing what we eat [relating to sustainability climate change]

Great to bookmark and refer to the future.

This Is What Your Grocery Store Looks Like Without Bees (PHOTOS)

Expect this message to become a bigger issue over the coming decades.

Fiji accuses global community of abandoning the Pacific on climate change, singles out ‘selfish’ Australia

Unfortunately, our leaders are not listening.

The jobs of yesterday: Abbott’s roads rear-vision

Sorry, second plug. This is my latest article on the Climate Spectator.

Power bills to drop 8pc in Tasmania if Senate approves carbon tax abolition

When the Gillard government introduced the carbon price, Abbott said people would pay thousands more a year in energy costs. He then said he would save people on average $550 a year in energy costs. Tasmanians’ are set to save $164 a year from the latest estimates.

For me, this is a clear indicator that reality is likely to be about 20% the estimate offered by our current PM.

Coal’s share of world energy demand at highest since 1970

And this is a genuine tragedy for the coal rich country down under, regardless what the short-term economics might say.