Global Warming,

Considering our Addiction to Growth in a Finite World

by Dan Robinson, danrob@efn.org

I'm told environmentalists need to take a more positive view on global warming (GW) to get people to accept changes, go with the "I have a dream" mode. The trouble is, we've had a dream of ever-continuing growth, and now it's on it's way to destroying the world as we know it. I'm sorry, but it's hard to find the pleasant side of this, except that we may eventually have more meaningful lives. Check out, "The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion" at http://solutions.synearth.net/2005/01/13.

So let's examine the negative view. The Bible was right. The apocalypse is coming. Maybe I missed the part that said we were going to create it. But there ain't no heaven, and we don't have to go to hell. It'll come to us. We're all sinners, at least in the sense that we didn't do enough to prevent it when we could. The more major sins include our urge to be happy and optimistic now, rather than sensible about the future. But sinning doesn't really matter a lot, because even most non-human life will likely die with us.

I see GW as a natural evolutionary development. Nature isn't necessarily on the path we desire, such as, ever continuing biological evolution. Sometimes we have to work around it. Our animal instinct to procreate is much older and stronger than our concern for the future. Populations often overshoot their sustainable limits. This emphasizes survival of the fittest, and from that, greed. In modern human culture, greed takes the form of consumerism, fascism, and capitalism (quite different from free enterprise), which is dependent on economic growth, therefore on population growth. In a finite world, these naturally lead to some kind of collapse. The only difference today is that this time the collapse will be global, and there's almost no limit to how bad it could get for all life on earth if we continue trying to ignore it.

It seems like a pretty obvious fact that we're reaching, or have reached, global peak oil production, and increasing oil shortages are on the way, due to growing "needs" in a finite world. (See "The Party's Over" by Richard Heinberg.) But we should be looking further ahead at how these shortages could either save us from the bigger developing catastrophe, or by default, amplify it, if we try to continue in the business as usual mode. I'm hoping some of this may shock you into seeing how serious this situation is. In the next few years, our descendants will see many of our present issues as rather silly in the context of GW.

There are many signs around us that GW is well on its way, and very few of us are looking at it seriously. (See "Themageddon" by Robert Hunter, "Feeling the Heat", edited by Jim Motavalli of E/The Environmental Magazine, or others.) The situation will at least get much worse than we hear about in the mass media. There's plenty of scientific research showing that human activity is a major factor in GW. For those scientists who say different, I suggest you "follow the money", check where they're employed, or how they personally profit from the status quo. The main imminent danger is unpredictable "non-linear effects", such as small temperature changes causing sudden relatively large climate and other changes. We now have significantly more carbon dioxide (the main cause of GW) in the atmosphere than at any time in the last 420,000 years, and it's increasing faster than perhaps ever before, so we're moving into unpredictable climate evolution. It's very unlikely that the new conditions will stay as friendly to humans as they have been. Human technology has a very complex infrastructure, based on the assumption that everything will go on pretty much as usual. Nearly all parts of it have to work properly for any of it to work, so any unexpected change disrupts, maybe stops, the whole machine.

Nothing guarantees the next year or decade will be much like the last, though it may have seemed that way throughout our lifetimes. "Catastrophe theory" says that events often play out with only small changes for a long time, until a "bifurcation" creates a sudden big "nonlinear change". It's like walking up a ramp blindfolded, and stepping off a sudden drop, or into another set of paradigms, slowly changing the complexity and/or energy states until they collapse. Slowly increasing finger pressure on a light switch suddenly switches it to a different mode. The cost of one more gadget on your credit card debt puts you into bankruptcy, "the straw that breaks the camel's back".

In the sense that we create our own reality, denying developing changes means things seem to stay the same, and denying only dangers means unexpected changes tend to be bad.

A major related economic problem is concern for the money economy over the energy economy, and the lack of factors relating the two. I'm especially concerned when people say we may not have enough labor force to make the needed transitions. More people and more jobs mean more energy consumption, therefore an even bigger problem. To the degree that employment is a major purpose of an industry, we're talking about make-work welfare, a very inefficient kind of welfare. As individuals, the parts that we need about jobs are sustenance and a sense of accomplishment and worth. Few conventional jobs provide both well. If the economy is getting worse and meaningful jobs are in short supply, maybe it's because available energy per person is decreasing. As a global society, what we need is a redirected and more efficient labor force, with less energy wasted on non-essential or even self-destructive "needs", more real accomplishments per calorie expended. We also need a meaningful global welfare system (except not covering additional kids) to replace the need for more jobs as an excuse for continued economic growth. But capitalism (going by the GDP for instance) also lives on wastefulness and that's the direction it's taken us. I don't see how we're likely to get rid of it without considerable trauma, or likely to avoid it in the next era.

We often hear of changes we need to make which basically require re-allocating wealth and power, for instance from corporations back to governments. Whether by governments or political protests by activist groups, this has proven over many years to be unrealistic (though I propose some such changes myself). Also we can't expect other countries to be very enthusiastic about action when the main offending country is run by short-sighted people and those apparently consciously working toward apocalypse. The situation of multiple governments somewhat in conflict with multiple global corporations results in a very slow process at best. I think we'll need either much more aggressive protests by large numbers of people, or a major global catastrophe on the order of the recent tsunami, but caused by GW, to unite us to integrated global action. Maybe even more hurricanes and tornadoes next year would help, maybe in Crawford, Texas. Some say we need to go to a "war economy". I have some question about whether it should be seen as a war with GW, or with the people who mostly cause it, and try to conceal it.

Here's a quick summary of how GW happens:
(Contrary to some perceptions, GW has very little to do with the ozone layer or hole. Chemicals called CFCs destroy ozone, and are also "greenhouse (GH) gases", but that danger was greatly reduced when we banned use of them.)

Over two thirds of human-caused GW is from burning fossil fuels (FF). Carbon dioxide gas (CO2) is produced by burning any carbon-based fuel, which means virtually all available fuels. Much more CO2 is given off by volcanoes and natural oxidation of organic matter, but over billions of years, Earth has developed a balance of constantly recycling CO2 by rock weathering and photosynthesis in plants, converting it to oxygen and plant growth. Human activities, producing CO2, methane (CH4), and other "greenhouse gases" has upset the balance that the earth has established over billions of years, between output and intake of these gases. The name "greenhouse gases" is because they let visible sunlight through the atmosphere to the earth, while absorbing much of the heat (infrared) radiation which is given off by the warmed earth, as with the glass of a greenhouse. Much of the heat trapped in the atmosphere is then returned to the earth's surface by re-radiation and convection.

Our contribution to GW began back when we started clearing forests (reducing photosynthesis) and developing agriculture and cities, accounting for the other third of our present GW effect. Buildings, concrete, asphalt and bare or ploughed soil, or even grasses and most food plants, aren't nearly as good as forests at absorbing excess CO2. Also, rice paddies, cows and other sources produce methane (CH4), potentially much more dangerous than CO2, though presently in low concentration.

Modern farming, such as the "Green Revolution" in the 1960s and 70s, which you might think reduces the problem, uses a lot of petroleum for equipment manufacture, fuel, fertilizers and pesticides. As we depend on oil-based fertilizers to produce more food, we deplete the topsoil to where we can't grow things without fertilizers. (See "The Oil We Eat" by Richard Manning, Harper's Magazine, at http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2004/02/280191.shtml).

GW will have self-amplifying, "runaway" effects. Higher temperatures result in: melting glacial and polar ice therefore less reflection of visible light from the earth; more and hotter forest fires, producing more CO2; warmer ocean water holds less dissolved CO2; more CH4 is emitted by swamps, peat bogs and melting permafrost; the warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor (also a greenhouse gas) evaporated from the oceans. All these cause still higher temperatures.

Also there's a less predictable potential source of methane, with greater feedback effects, an unstable material on the ocean floors in polar regions and deep ocean trenches, called "methane hydrate", which is being considered as a possible energy source. It breaks down to CH4 and water when surrounding water warms beyond a critical level. It's not clear when that might happen, how suddenly, or how much GW effect it might have. Estimates of its volume range from about three to 72,000 cubic miles. This suggests CH4 could temporarily, but quickly, increase to become the worst greenhouse gas, greatly accelerating GW. (The percent of CH4 in the atmosphere is rather limited in the long term in an oxygen atmosphere. Though it would seldom be concentrated enough to maintain its own flame, it burns in the presence of any other flame, such as forest fires, but adding to the heat of the fire, and producing additional CO2 in the process.)

Rather than just adding to GW, it's more like these factors all multiply with each other. There's also a lag time after we stop producing excess CO2 and before the earth stops heating up.

GW/climate change is the big problem facing us at least for this century. When I see predictions of temperature increase, which seem to top out at a 10 degree rise, I often wonder what option of future energy consumption they go by. I doubt that it's the default option of continuing business as usual. The simple assumption is that they're talking about the level of warming that we can no longer avoid even if we go back to hunter-gatherer level. It seems reasonable to assume a crisis of oil depletion, climate change and/or corrupt politics will soon disrupt our infrastructures and greatly reduce population and fossil fuel consumption. Then only the lag time effect needs to be considered. Other, more complex scenarios, plus unknowns, lead to much less certain futures.

If we consider lag time, non-linear and positive feedback effects of GW, plus our addiction to energy consumption and other factors, we don't really know if it might already be too late to prevent extermination of most species left on Earth, including us. It may at least be too late to plan on phasing in changes. We should be considering immediate drastic measures on all fronts to turn the trend around. Something like the "precautionary principle" may seem to apply, but fails in that the scientist recognises we can never really be sure of anything.

!!!We talk of fossil fuels being the main human cause of GW today. But if six billion people burned wood for their present energy needs, the problem would be much worse, especially since cutting down trees reduces photosynthesis, as well as releasing the carbon the trees have stored. Until CO2 in the atmosphere has reduced to what photosynthesis can keep up with, every bit of carbon we cause to be burned adds to GW and it's potential runaway affects. For the near future, we should stop thinking about fuels in general as sources of energy.

!!!The danger of using wood suggests a much greater danger. In the business-as-usual mode, we try to maintain our addiction to maximum energy consumption while the oil age winds down. We increasingly use energy to protect ourselves from a worsening environment, and fight over control of remaining oil. We use ever less efficient fuels such as coal and "oil shale", putting ever more fossil fuel energy into getting the rest out of the ground, and dealing with the pollution it causes, thereby producing ever more CO2 for each calorie gained. More and more of the world will turn to burning wood, finding ways to harvest it ever faster, as we've done with oil. Then we turn to burning straw, furniture, maybe books etc. Also, without oil based fertilizers, there will be less of even "domestic" photosynthesis. Suppose GW almost reaches a peak, and THEN the "wild card", the methane hydrate on the ocean floors, breaks down! If GW for some reason isn't a fairly immediate threat, it certainly would be later. Eventually, there would be no hope of avoiding total collapse of the earth's present metabolic system! With trying to continue business as usual, what other likely scenarios do you see?

There are also completely natural global catastrophes we can expect, that we're not preparing for, such as meteor collisions and Earth's magnetic field reversal. Suppose that we're in the middle of our own human-caused crisis when we should be working to avoid or adapt to these natural ones .

When we finally give up using fossil fuels for power, and while facing increasing climate disruption, a population of even one billion of the over six billion people now on the planet will probably be well beyond sustainability. Improving fossil fuel based efficiency (including biodiesel) by itself won't do much to reduce ultimate effects of GW. It will just slow it down, for better or worse, so we take longer to use up fossil fuels and turn to other souces. Alternative energy sources, including a different approach to "the hydrogen economy" could still be the answer. But capitalism has never encouraged putting much concern into supposedly "future" problems, and things that don't show an immediate profit. Such energy sources would take time, and energy, to develop; they often aren't as viable as we think; and they're coming much too late.

Excess population is the key physical factor in our environment today. I feel quick and drastic reduction of human population, by whatever means, is the most important part of the long-term answer. Otherwise, most of the earth could end up looking like the deserts and battlefields of the Middle East and North Africa, where humans first began destroying the environment.

I'm all for greater economic justice, but increasing wealth only reduces some factors in population growth. It leaves us with our natural urge to procreate, which most of us pursue as long as other conditions allow. Meanwhile, one aspect of being richer is being able to use more energy, in today's world, mostly fossil fuel energy. The fantasy is that we can deal with the present crisis, and go on to add a few billion more people. But this will at least lead to other unforeseen crises, such as more plagues enhanced by population densities. These, plus our resistance to examining unpleasant possible futures, could still wipe us out.

Can you imagine us bringing about this needed population collapse intentionally and rationally, or should we wait and hope for it to happen by short-sighted politics, nuclear war, disease, and/or an ice age?

Yes, scientists say GW could trigger an ice age, at least for North Atlantic areas, especially England and western Europe, even while average global temperature continues to increase. Fresh water from melting polar ice reduces the salinity of ocean water, which disrupts the flow of the Gulf Stream, sometimes called the "thermohaline conveyor belt", which gives western Europe 1/3 to 1/2 as much warmth as the sun. Scientists have found recently that the Gulf Stream is already slowing down. Stopping its flow would aggravate any hostilities the E.U. has with the U.S., especially since the U.S. isn't taking much interest in GW, a concern in the Pentagon, as revealed in a recent leaked report. (But personally I suspect scientific understanding of how the Gulf Stream works is far from accurate.)

China is just getting going with their industrial revolution. They won't be happy to be told developed countries created GW, and now they can't do their share. If the American economy collapses, it may take many other developed countries with it. But will it take China, or will they start a new era of expansion?

(These days a lot of people are talking of "climate change" rather than GW. This further distances it from the real cause, and puts it more in the category of whether we'll have a hot summer this year.)

Recent news: Scientist measuring the increasing atmospheric CO2 have seen an "unexpectedly" high increase in CO2 in the last three years, suggesting that we may be going into a runaway phase, due to the above mentioned effects. One runaway effect can trigger others.

More recent news, probably also bad:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/science/nature/4171591.stm
Update of a previous story, saying the "solar radiation" reaching the earth surface has reduced by 22% since 1950. This is thought to be due to particulate air pollution, coming mainly from the same sources that produce CO2. This stimulates increasing cloud cover and reflectance of sunlight, thereby hiding some of the true greenhouse effect. This may mean that a simple reduction of fossil fuel use, reducing the greenhouse effect, would also increase the amount of visible sunlight reaching the earth. The particles will settle out much quicker than the CO2 will be sequestered.

But it could also mean much of the visible light is not reflected, but absorbed by dark particles of soot and such, converting it to heat and adding to warming, (though my information didn't mention that). It's also possible, if industry acted sensibly, that we could control solar reflectance artificially as we reduce the greenhouse effect. But this would also reduce photosynthesis.

I'm not nearly enough of an expert to make the mistake of predicting when any of this will happen. But I'm betting GW will be making life much more difficult, though perhaps more meaningful, well within my lifetime.

Possible SOLUTIONS, if done very soon:
(Suppose for a moment that GW isn't going to be bad, or isn't significantly human-caused. Why is there so much concern about it, especially among scientists, and formerly concern about a developing ice age, Y2K, and generally about potential catastrophes? Maybe because intelligent people are very dissatisfied with present political "systems" and want something to destabilize them. Whichever way you might feel, most of the following still applies.)

In lieu of world government, let's at least try to make the U.S. the leader in needed changes, instead of the straggler and worst offender. Encourage businesses in other countries to cut back on trade with the U.S. until we come to our senses.

Encourage birth/population control in all forms, including abortion and same-sex relationships. Replace tax deductions for kids with Birth Tax, increasing annually for the foreseeable future, wealth-indexed, and increasing with the square of the number of births per woman. Change attitudes about the "real" purpose of sex being procreation, so it isn't part of the "romance" of making love. (I consider my "descendants" to be all those who inherit my "memes" rather than my genes, those who pay attention to what I say. In that sense, many of us are each other's children.)

Suicide and activities that risk only one's own life should be seen as perhaps contributions rather than crimes, if one is not making other contributions sufficient to balance one's inherent pollution.

Wind power, developed as fast as possible, the present most sustainable and under-used energy source. One study suggests wind in Nebraska alone could provide all the energy the U.S. wants at present, and certainly more than it needs. But I don't want to see it developed so quickly and fully that we can just continue economic growth with a new source of energy, without learning some lessons first. Even wind farms, if carried too far, would cause climate change.

Buy or grow local products to reduce energy costs of transportation, and "organic" to reduce fertilizer and pesticide use. Concentrate on buying more for needs rather than wants.

An area of priority for both now and later should be reforestation and better forest management. Here are a couple of ideas that have probably been around a while, which may not be too popular with some environmentalists. The easiest way to sequester carbon is in wood. A lot of CO2 comes from rotting organic matter. Assuming we'll probably continue to need lumber, we should move toward selectively cutting only the oldest trees that are maybe starting to rot and about to die.

"Waste" organic matter of many sorts, including logging debris, can be cooked in a heating stove/ still, converting much of it into organic chemicals from which we can make plastics. We can use some of these to impregnate the lumber to keep it from rotting, thereby storing the carbon for a longer time. Some carbon would be left over, to keep as charcoal for excellent wall insulation. This also gets the energy of some of the hydrogen from the wood, partly to cook the next batch, while sequestering some of the carbon. (The simple space heater is the least efficient kind of stove, because it only serves one purpose.) Probably many of the minerals in the waste could still be redistributed as fertilizer, as they would have been naturally. Of course we don't want to carry either of these ideas too far, to eliminating food and habitat of species that depend on dead and rotting organic matter.

In general, use more insulation - in walls, warm clothes, bed covers, drapes, double-pain windows - instead of burning fuels. There are well-insulated factory buildings that are heated only by the people and machines inside. Have more people per house, more family units per external wall area, to conserve and share heat energy.

Instead of chemical fertilizers, use composting, including toilets (urine simply diluted five times with water) and perhaps natural burial (except during the infrastructure disruption and energy/population crisis, where we may need human corpses for food).

"Reduce, reuse, [repair, redefine, and last] recycle." Recycling is basically a matter of shortening the loop between one reuse and the next.

(Some principles, like "passive solar" would apply mainly to new houses. Since we'd hopefully be reducing the population for quite a while, we'd have to decide if the energy cost gained is worth the energy and materials cost of new buildings.)

Wealth Tax, on the ways the rich get richer, such as high interest loans, banking in general, advertising, insurance. Wealth is presently far out of proportion to social contributions. It's basically gained by manipulating money systems instead of things of "real" value. Until this is corrected, all other taxes, and prices, are unjustly apportioned, and therefore are more likely to be resisted by the masses. Most taxes should be apportioned according to the square, or higher, of one's wealth and income, to make up for their inherent growth advantages, and to reduce excessive consumption by a few. Suspicions about another person's means of gaining wealth are, and should be, automatically proportional to the gap between their wealth and "mine".

A money system based on energy equivalents instead of gold or arbitrary values. A unit of money would always be proportional to a calorie, B.T.U., kilowatt-hour, erg etc. Then we could know the approximate energy cost of an item or service once we know the money cost. Energy costs would be "handed down" as money costs are today. The cost of a product would include the total energy cost of producing and distributing it, but little more. For instance, we could more easily analyze energy efficiency of photovoltaic arrays, including manufacture and dealing with pollution caused, and energy produced in their lifetime of use.

Possibly reduce the need for the Wealth Tax during conversion to a new money system. Exchange the above energy-equivalent units in proportion to the number of digits in one's present bank account. Then a person presently 1000 times richer than you ends up with four times as much.

Institute a Carbon Tax, increasing annually, on the sale of any carbon-containing fuel. This will also mean we'll move more toward local community economics as transportation costs rise.

A meaningful welfare system (but not covering additional children) to replace the very wasteful worker and corporate welfare represented by most jobs.

Perhaps a highly contagious, quick-spreading plague, that wouldn't effect the most healthy ten percent of people? But a wholly natural one would be best, so it could be blamed on population densities.

Dream on, right? Denial of dangers or possible solutions results from short-term thinking, and the herd effect. Not preparing means the catastrophe will be worse when it actually happens. I could become a hunter-gatherer, or even let myself starve, so as not to take any part in the waste, but it still wouldn't make a significant difference. How little harm you do is not the whole picture, but rather your ratio of good to harm. In politics, your one vote counts for much less than campaigning, for instance influencing 100 people's votes, and whether they vote. The same principle applies elsewhere. Look mostly at how you can change attitudes. But of course setting an example is a good way to start.

Start more aggressive ad campaigns, for example:

"Which statement do you choose?
A. 'Ever-continuing economic growth is human nature, desirable and unavoidable.' or
B. 'Ever-continuing economic growth is capitalist nature, impossible and suicidal.' "
Then sell or give out buttons saying "A." and "B.".

And, "G.W.B. = GW Bush"

A preface to the following two paragraphs, A New Golden Rule, and, Pledge of Allegiance:
"I will see myself not as just an individual, but as part of all the partnerships and communities to which I belong, especially humanity, with their gains and losses as my gains and losses. I will practice compassion, trust, respect and openness toward all." Hopefully many others will follow this ethic.

The ethic of "Help the needy" may only be viable in an affluent society. We should look to the future and realize that the present opulence of the few (somewhat including us who write and read this), brought about by the oil age/industrial revolution, is in real values a temporary illusion, based largely on hope. Hope is based largely on needing positive views to convince others. In times of shortages and crisis, we need to consider the ethic, "Help most where it will lead to widespread cooperation toward joint goals; help those who will in turn help others with similar values".

You, or some of your children or grand-children who survive, may one day feel lucky to be eating human corpses, bugs, worms, maybe pond scum (after cooking them well), and being eaten later to feed the community. There will also be a time when they'll wish they had a gun. There was a science fiction story of a planet where a person wasn't considered a murderer until he'd killed five people, and then he could be killed by anyone, "for free". Maybe we're approaching such a time when life is cheap. We can at least reduce and put off these conditions for a while by looking and thinking ahead.

Maybe something like the industrial aspect of today's civilization could continue after the fossil fuel age by condensing to small self-sufficient communities around dams, wind farms and other ways to convert sun power to electric power. I feel civilization requires good communication, which requires concentrations of people, especially if we're short on telephone and radio technicians, wire and components. By "self-sufficient", in this case I include the ability to make such components as needed, as well as produce food, not to mention weapons for defense, at least for shortly after the transition. Ideally, each person would learn and practice several trades, and people who really contribute the most to the community will be most likely to "live long and prosper". (On the other hand, basing communities on concentrated energy sources is dangerous, because it would tend to concentrate political power also, perhaps getting us into another era of "eternal" growth.)

For a while we would probably need to do what we can with conventional agriculture (but cautiously) just because that's what we're used to. But later, we might convert to an ecology based on larger perennial plants producing fruits, nuts etc., as did the early Hawaiians and Polynesians. It may take hundreds to thousands of years for the topsoil and other environmental factors to regenerate enough for the earth to support more than a minimum viable human population. Maintaining our species of course assumes that there's still a climate, perhaps only in polar regions, where presently tropical plants can grow and adapt, and that we or nature can help them to migrate away from the tropics fast enough for them to survive. Let's also try to avoid an excessive feedback-reinforced global cooling force as increasing polar ice increases solar reflectance etc.

If/when we reach a stable, sustainable world population level, with humans still present, we'll have a chance for a new beginning with the knowledge that we'll have to build a global village with a sustainable population level. Maybe we can get a better start toward universal love. Inter-marriage between tribes and divisions of all sizes reduces the motivation for war and increases genetic and cultural diversity (though moderation is good here also). Maybe we should even discourage having two children from the same two parents. But all kinds of expressions of love at every opportunity, including "free" sexuality, should be encouraged. "Make love, not war", or too many babies. "If it feels good [and all later results can be expected to feel good] do it."

The transition of course could be made a lot easier if we were to plan and cooperate in advance on a global scale, but this presently seems very unlikely. Please, convince me I'm wrong about this. Some people wonder why we haven't been contacted by more advanced races from other planets. Maybe we're getting a glimpse of the answer.

Capitalism is the ultimate pyramid scheme,
dependent on an ever-growing economy,
therefore on ever-growing population,
therefore on ever-growing resources and pollution.
All such schemes collapse in time.
(Maybe Bush's extremes will help it along.)

"Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth.
Capitalism may collapse because it doesn't allow prices to tell the ecological truth."
-- Oystan Dahle, former Vice President of Exxon in Norway

Have a nice day, while you can.


Send me your thoughts.
Dan Robinson, danrob@efn.org, Eugene, Oregon
My home page: http://www.efn.org/~danrob/