Beyond the Anthropocene?

Johann Rockstrom, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in 21 minutes, gave the 2017 World Economic Forum a fact-packed, vividly illustrated presentation on the state of the planet. This video of the presentation is worth careful study, as it makes the obvious point that the post-1955 exponential upturn of human impact on the planet now must be followed by a similar exponential rate of downturn, particularly in greenhouse gas emissions, if we are to remotely maintain the climatic stability of the Holocene period in which humans evolved their civilsations. Such a downturn would require halving emissions every decade. He illustrates how nine planetary boundaries have been threatened through time and celebrates the one great human sustainability success in reversing the damage to the ozone layer. Rockstrom also illustrates 14 ‘tipping points’ related to the 2C Paris agreement limit for global warming. By definition, once a tipping point is passed, the situation is irretrievable.

Trump – good news for the planet?

In this articlePaul Gilding, author of The Great Acceleration and a leading campaigner against climate disruption and global inequality, makes a surprising case that the accession of Trump and his conservative elite inner cabinet will greatly strengthen the movement for a sustainable future.

Trump’s election is not a trend. It should not be seen as evidence of a swing to the right, to nationalism and xenophobia etc. It is simply a symptom of the volatility inherent in the accelerating breakdown of our current economic approach and model.

What we are seeing is the last hurrah of a dying approach. A desperate attempt by the incumbents to rescue the now failing economic model that did deliver great progress for humanity but has come to the end of its road – and that road finishes at a cliff.

A cliff is the right analogy for a range of reasons. Perhaps most starkly it’s climate change and resource scarcity but also inequality and the failure of the old model to deliver further progress for most people in Western countries. There are many other issues we face, but these two – climate change (and with it food supply and geopolitical security risks) and inequality within countries – are the systemic risks. They define the cliff because neither can continue to worsen without the system responding – either transforming or breaking down. So the old approach is finished, along with the fossil fuel industry, and the walking dead taking over Washington won’t bring it back to life….

No change to the fundamental direction we are on. The rich will get richer, the middle class will stagnate, racism and conflict will worsen and we will be less secure – all while climate change destabilises civilisation.  How is this good?

Because three big things will change.

First, there will no-one left to blame. Extreme capitalism will be unleashed and it will not deliver. The fraud of trickle-down economics will be exposed.

Secondly – US climate policy will no longer matter – fossil fuels will die on the same schedule they were dying on. As I argued in my 2015 article “Fossil fuels are finished, the rest is detail”, these are fundamental trends driven by technology and markets – and no government can stop them.

Thirdly – and most importantly – is “the resistance”. We are seeing a huge mobilisation of activism and social engagement among people who have long been passive – as this humorous post describes. This is like the 60’s – without the drugs but with a political strategy! Climate change will be our Vietnam, the fossil fuel industry our military industrial complex. It could trigger, as this Atlantic article explored, a Tea Party of the left – maybe even a Green Tea Party. Chaotic, aggressive and not always rational, but very impactful. And the liberal wealthy elites will get right behind it – because they too have a lot to lose from extreme capitalism and climate chaos.

Human Impact = 170 x Nature’s Effects?

This article reports a  new study published in the journal relating to the development of human activity as the predominant geological force on the Earth that has led to the concept of the Anthropocene geological period of unprecedentedly rapid change in the natural world. The calculations suggest a rate of change in atmospheric temperatures induced by human activity 170 times faster than natural  processes. For the mathematically minded, they provide an equation that illustrates the new geological phenomenon. The advent of the Trump administration staffed by climate change deniers is seen as a major setback as this quotation suggests:

“While the rate of change of the Earth system needs to drop to zero as soon as possible, the next few years may determine the trajectory for millennia. Yet the dominant neoliberal economic systems still assume Holocene-like boundary conditions—endless resources on an infinite planet. Instead, we need ‘biosphere positive’ Anthropocene economics, where economic development stores carbon not releases it, enhances biodiversity not destroys it and purifies waters and soils not pollutes them.”

“While it would seem imprudent to ignore the huge body of evidence pointing to profound risks, it comes at a challenging time geopolitically, when both fact-based world views and even international cooperation are questioned. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the U.S. in recent weeks.”

Hans Rosling’s Solution Set-back

In this video Hans Rosling who died recently, explains using Lego bricks and counters in his inimitable way, that unequal distribution of wealth in the world has to be redressed if there is to be any hope of accommodating the next two billion increase in global population and at the same time, making serious inroads into carbon emission control.

Rosling’s brilliant techniques of making complex statistics simple to understand were combined with his ever-hopeful perspective on humanity’s potential to remedy the unintentional threats that exponential economic growth has produced. He was a great advocate for the impoverished populations of the planet, but he died just as the Trump presidency emerged in the USA to set back much of the hope that was beginning to grow for global cooperation to tackle large-scale international threats to a sustainable future.

What makes Earth so special?

This playlist of eight TED presentations offers a couple of hours of remarkable insights and images into the planet that sustains life – so far the only planet we know of that does. However, in the Milky Way galaxy alone there are an estimated 40-100 billion other planets that are likely to have the conditions that gave rise to organic life.

These presentations are a celebration of the wonder of human ability to grasp the reality of how this ‘blue marble’ of a planet in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ that allows liquid water to combine with energy from the sun and volcanic sources to give rise to organic life and the nourishment that it needs to replicate and evolve into an estimated 8.7 million species.

Limits to Growth Update

This Scientific American article from 2012 reviews the predictions of the MIT modelling, almost 50 years ago, of five forms of human impact on the planet, The trends identifed are remarkably aligned with what has happened in reality to the growth of population, pollution, resource depletion and industrial output driven by the accumulation of productive capital. The depressing conclusion is that  democratic institutions are no longer able to halt the rush past global limits on human activitities.

“Many observers protest that such apocalyptic scenarios discount human ingenuity. Technology and markets will solve problems as they show up, they argue. But for that to happen, contends economist Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge in the U.K., policymakers must guide technology with the right incentives. As long as natural resources are underpriced compared with their true environmental and social cost—as long as, for instance, automobile consumers do not pay for lives lost from extreme climatic conditions caused by warming from their vehicles’ carbon emissions—technology will continue to produce resource-intensive goods and worsen the burden on the ecosystem, Dasgupta argues. “You can’t expect markets to solve the problem,” he says. Randers goes further, asserting that the short-term focus of capitalism and of extant democratic systems makes it impossible not only for markets but also for most governments to deal effectively with long-term problems such as climate change.”

Failing States, Collapsing Systems

This review provides the central argument from a book by Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed – Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence that the effect of diminishing returns on investment of global energy sources which has been happening since 1999 will lead to several states failing. These regional failures, based on inability to meet demands for energy and food, will aggregate into geopolitical conflict and global collapse in the not so distant future. Graphs of production and consumption of oil are used to illustrate the various stages of this process happening in Syria, Yemen, Saudia Arabia, Mexico and China.

Alongside that, while 2011’s Occupy and “Arab Spring” are but a taste of things to come, there’s also the fact that while the situation in Syria has allowed for the emergence of ISIS and other jihadis, the coming state-level failures in the Middle East will only exacerbate this. Looking at intra-state conflict, civil unrest, Islamic terrorism, and far-right terrorism, Ahmed’s studies show that

the escalation of Western military interventionism has provoked an increase in Islamist militancy, which has further fueled far-right extremism, both comprising the principal sources of escalation in PV [political violence] pandamics [sic?]. Both, of course, have further elicited further militarization in response to these different forms of rising militancy and terrorism [p. 43].

The cases examined here thus point to a global process of civilizational transition. As a complex adaptive system, human civilization in the twenty-first century finds itself at the early stages of a systemic phase-shift which is already manifesting in local sub-system failures in every major region of the periphery of the global system. As these sub-system failures driven by local ESD-HSD [Earth System Disruption – Human System Disruption] amplifying feedbacks accelerate and converge in turn, they will coalesce and transmit ever more powerfully to the core of the global system. As this occurs and re-occurs, it will reach a system-wide threshold effect resulting in eventual maladaptive global system failure; or it will compel an adaptive response in the form of fundamental systemic transformation [p. 88].

Put a bit more succinctly,

The system must either adapt to these threshold effects by transforming its structure, adapting its overarching rules, norms and values, and thus transitioning to a new evolutionary state – or experiencing a protracted collapse process by failing to do so [p. 47].

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is a British author and investigative journalist. He is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, an independent think tank focused on the study of violent conflict in the context of global ecological, energy and economic crises; and a film-maker who has co-produced and written The Crisis of Civilization, and associate produced Grasp the Nettle, both directed by Dean Puckett. Ahmed’s academic work has focused on the systemic causes of mass violence. He has taught at the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex, and has lectured at Brunel University’s Politics & History Unit at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, for courses in international relations theory, contemporary history, empire and globalization. Follow his blog at: