It Looks As If My Hopes For A Global Financial Crash Are In Vain

It’s late Monday morning on the west coast (Canada) and markets are recovering after huge, but apparently unsustainable “losses” at opening this morning. Damn, it looked as if there might actually be something positive for me in tonight’s news. I’ll just have to settle for the usual; Canada – lawmakers breaking the law and lying about it under oath, and America – views on the economy by President-In-Waiting Trump . . . another evening of Cookie Jam on Facebook I guess.

Economic Growth, as measured by GDP simply means the amount of money changing hands, normally going from the poor to the rich. Earthquakes, war, highway carnage, increasing death rates from lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity and cardio-vascular disease all cause GDP to rise. To be balanced, so does actual production. Usually I prefer to be un-balanced.

For an economy to grow, something has to shrink and, with the proliferation of free-trade capitalism, the main loser is our home planet. Earth is the only home humans have or ever will have unless you think that a one-way ticket to Mars to live out your life in small pod, recycling your bodily wastes to stay alive qualifies as an alternate home.

Forests turning to desert, water supplies drying up or turning toxic, temperatures and sea levels rising, accelerating species extinction, massive migration of humanity in search of food and water; these and other less obvious tears in the interconnected fabric of life on Earth are directly attributable to growth driven economics. If it doesn’t stop, humans would be just one more species on the list of extinctions if there were anyone left to keep score.

One more thing about the present economic system, it cannot be simply fine tuned to bring growth down to zero and then continue to be used. This has to do with how the growth occurs through the creation of debt and how the debt is eliminated through the creation of money. In actual fact, the debt will never be paid off and was never intended to be, except for that portion which is owed by the ordinary citizens of the countries involved. The system must be completely broken and a new system which cares about people and the Earth must replace it.

There are alternatives.

Zero Growth economics, Steady State economics, Resource Based economics, barter, local currency, local economies, time banking, gifting, re-establishing the Commons, co-operatives, communes, reciprocity and any activity which is conducted co-operatively instead of competitively would all help to build a sufficient, sustainable and resilient society, something that we do not currently have.

Civilization has been an enormously disruptive and destructive force and cannot continue as is. In the past and at present, human efforts have been directed towards propping up this unsustainable endeavor by dividing life into 2 catogories; humans and everything else.

So far, the Human has mustered enough ingenuity to supress all other life-forms and still continue to proliferate. Civilization has covered such a short span of time, less than 500 years of the 500,000 years of modern human life, the 15,000,000 years of the family Hominidae, and the 2,100,000,000 years of life-on-Earth that a future alien Anthropologist (oxymoron intended) would have trouble believing that one species could have caused a major die-off which included itself in such short order.

So I’m hoping we don’t manage to do it. However, it is obvious that we will not make any of the right decisions to set ourselves on a better course so we will need outside help. Maybe the irony will be that the complex systems (such as perpetual-growth economics) we have devised but are unable to control will turn on us and bring the whole quaking edifice down around us.

I was hoping that would happen today.

Some Things Never Change (but should) — Other Things Should Stabilize (but don’t)

Monday, June 29, 2015

After posting the following to Facebook earlier today, I thought it might be interesting to re-visit a blog post I did 8 1/2 years ago regarding population growth.

Here’s what looks like a pretty reasonable take on one of the looming, global collapses. Others would be water shortages, disease, financial and monetary breakdown, human displacement and war over any and all remaining resources. Another possibility is extreme runaway climate change although the timescale for that still looks to be longer with the possible exception of massive release of methane from hydrates and permafrost. Fixing anything less than all of these possibilities will only shift the odds of the order in which they occur.

First, the 2007 post, then an update below:


Friday, February 2, 2007

The 6.5 Billion Horsemen of the Apocalypse

It has taken a very long time for politicians to accept the obvious with respect to climate change. We must remember that, in our democratic system, politicians are elected by all of us to represent us and this is probably the main reason why they will never tackle any problem which requires a solution that creates even a small hardship for the majority of us. They fear, rightly so, that they will fail to be re-elected.

There are several of these unpopular issues which are pushing our world towards the point of not being able to sustain human life. These are ‘Growth’ factors, most of which are paradoxically looked at as increasing our quality and enjoyment of life. Population, economy, consumerism, jobs, wealth, all these have been looked at as being able to grow continuously and without end. Believing this is obviously even more ridiculous than denying the effects of climate change.

During my lifetime, world population has tripled from just over 2 billion to 6.5 billion. During that time, the earth has not become any bigger and, in fact, the basic resources which sustain life, arable land, drinkable water, oxygen producing plants, have all been decreasing. It seems obvious that we have already passed the point of sustainability and that only 2 strategies will help: population reduction, preferably by reducing the birth rate to below the death rate for the foreseeable future, or, reducing the world standard of living to subsistence level while holding the population steady and apportioning the existing resources evenly amongst all people.

Although this may sound like a ‘socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing countries’ [Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper’s description of the Kyoto Protocol], I see it as a last ditch effort to produce a soft landing to the end of the capitalist dominated world order. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the ‘wealth-producing countries’ will probably feel the results of non-action even more that those who are currently at an economic disadvantage.

One of the most likely mechanisms for uncontrolled population reduction would be a massive pandemic and pandemics would be felt much more quickly by the travelers from the developed world than by nomads or villagers. In any case, such massive and uncontrolled depopulation would cause a complete breakdown of order and infrastructure throughout the world so no one would escape the chaos, anarchy and destruction.

Perhaps we should be looking for politicians who are touting ‘population shrinkage’, ‘economic decline’ or ‘wealth redistribution’. Get out on the street now and campaign before governments start to rebuild the mental health institutions they closed to save your money. While they have now found that there is no where to put so many of the homeless and addicted who have mental health problems, there is also no where for them to put you, so you just might be able to get your message out without disappearing. Lots of luck


So, what has changed in 8 1/2 years?

First, the population of Earth is no longer 6.5 billion, it has grown to 7.3 billion, an increase of 800,000,000 which by itself would make a new country ranking 3rd in world population – 2.5 times the size of the USA.

Financial inequality has also grown throughout the world as Free Market Capitalism continues its role of transfering wealth from the poor to the rich, particularly in industrialized nations.

The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide in February 2007 was 381 ppm, it is now 404 ppm. Methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour (due to the warmer atmosphere) have also increased.

Summer Arctic sea ice is set to disappear completely in the near future, land-based ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting at rates unprecedented in human history as are mountain glaciers. A little bit of research will show anyone who is interested what these things mean for the future of our “Blue Dot” home.

The world’s oceans are warming, acidifying, rising, containing larger and larger “dead zones” and less and less fish. Corals, phytoplankton, zooplankton, sea grasses, river estuaries and mangroves are under threat everywhere and these are the food sources and protection of most of the ocean’s juvenile fishes. Consequently, oceanic fish populations are being reduced at rates equivalent to or greater than during the previous five great extinction events.

And, what hasn’t changed?

Greed, economic growth, the way we measure success, our outrageous lifestyles, a lack of leadership – these are the things that never seem to change. Add to this a refusal by the richest nations to accept the damage they have caused and continue to cause and an astonishing abandonment by individuals and society of responsibility towards other species as well as future generations of our own.

Suzuki’s Bus Driver

One evening some time ago, I watched an interview of Dr. David Suzuki by George Stroumboulopoulos on CBC television. George started with a very simple, lead-in question (it doesn’t take too much to prime David Suzuki’s pump!) and Suzuki jumped up into the “Big Red Chair”, assumed a position close enough to the classic “Lotus” for me to wince, and started — I can’t claim to a perfect memory of the following but it think it is very close:

People say I always look like I’m pissed off, well I AM pissed off. It’s as if we are all on a bus travelling at a million miles an hour, straight at a precipice. Nobody’s saying “Hit the brakes”, nobody’s saying “Turn the wheels”, we’re all just milling around, trying to find the best seat.

So, who hired the bus driver — we did. That’s what our vaunted democratic process has been twisted into, an instrument to find and appoint a bus driver who will drive us all over a cliff. Even though we are travelling a million miles an hour it seems it is still too far from the edge for us to understand what is being done to us. In any case, we think that before we get there we will have expired, been thrown off the bus and replaced with younger generations. Maybe not, it is looking like the timing is much shorter than we had estimated from computer models .

American novelist James Howard Kunstler called the constellation of crises surrounding global climate change “The Long Emergency” and our human brains have not had enough evolutionary time to react to slow-moving disasters instead of to fast-moving predators suddenly appearing in our field of vision. Consequently, we may be able to see the logic but we are overwhelmed by the complexity we need to deal with to find solutions. We are like a herd of deer-in-the-headlights, trying to determine which way to run when the only bad decision is to stand still and do nothing.

The Long Emergency will play out over generations, but the end result will be the same unless the world’s leaders start taking massive action NOW! By “leaders” I do not mean those we have elected, I mean real leaders who can see what needs to be done and do it.

These will be people whose consciousness functions at a level far above that of Suzuki’s Bus Driver and more like that of the man himself.

Are Humans Capable of Acting as if the Earth Really Mattered?

This post is about a small excerpt from an interview with author Susan Meeker-Lowry (Economics As If The Earth Really Mattered: A Catalyst Guide to Socially Conscious Investing – New Society Publishers, 1988) conducted during the late 1980’s. This interview appears in “Turtle Talk: Voices For A Sustainable Future”, a collection of interviews done by Christopher Plant and Judith Plant for The New Catalyst magazine.


Susan Meeker Lowry: . . . We have to look at longer term strategies with more spiritual, natural and community kinds of rewards.

TNC: In today’s world that seems a difficult prospect. What do you think the chances are of people choosing a lifestyle change and the future of the planet over the immediate prospect of jobs and money?

Susan Meeker Lowry: I think that the chances are getting better every day because the Earth is speaking very loudly. I believe that more and more people are aware that if we don’t start changing things today we will not have that option in 5 or 6 years—it will be too late. People don’t want to hear this, they want to run away. But if we can be there at every turn, saying, “there is no escape,” forcing people to face reality, and then work with them in the community to give them hope… We have to do it—we’ve all got kids. We have to believe it’s possible to change.


First, notice the two instances of “believe”. This is a good illustration of the reason I try not to use that word for anything that has not been scientifically proven beyond doubt, resonable or otherwise – I would use “hope”.

Also, remember that this interview was conducted in the late 1980’s. If science is correct in assigning a 30 year inertial lag between CO2 emissions and their effects on climate, we are experiencing the effects of emissions happening at the time of the interview and they were experiencing those made when I first started working in the late 1950’s.

A reminder – world population (billions): 1958 –  2.9, 1988 – 5.1, 2015 – 7.3

. . . and atmospheric CO2 levels (ppm): 1958 – 315, 1988 – 350, 2015 – 400

So here we are in 2015. Earth is speaking more loudly than ever, people still don’t want to hear and I rarely get as far as “there is no escape” before they have run away. I also have no idea how to “force” people who are so heavily invested in a fantasy to face reality. I do know that, if you mention “lifestyle change” in a group of people, sure enough, they run away. That may change my lifestyle for the better but it won’t do anything for my grandkids.

Field Notes From THE Catastrophe

I recently began reading “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” – Elizabeth Kolbert, 2006 and was initially happy to have found the ideal first book for those who are new to concerns about THE catastrophe(s) which will shape the future of human life on Planet Earth. To explain the oddity of the expression THE catastrophe(s), THE is capitalized to indicate the only issue that really counts in the present human condition and the appended pluralism highlights that this issue is a tightly interconnected “perfect storm” of crises.

This book is concise – 187ppg for the main body; accurate – with a couple of very minor and inconsequential errors in science (based on other sources); and should be eminently understandable by anyone with the equivalent of a Canadian high school education. Elizabeth Kolbert is a very experienced journalist (New York Times, New Yorker magazine) and obviously takes great pains and knows how do do her research. Her sources are a Who’s Who of legitimate experts on, the Arctic, climate modelling, ancient civilizations, biology, US politics and ocean levels.

The only reasons I am presently depressed by this book is that I have had to relive all the missed opportunities since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the G.W. Bush fiasco of America, the grotesque degradation of Canada by Stephen Harper – not mentioned in the book but ever-present in my thoughts – and the exposure of the depth of greed, ignorance and stupidity of the biological species of which I am a part.

However, of the fifty-some-odd books I have read over the past several years relating to these interconnected crises, I would strongly recommend this one as a place to start a serious exploration of our future under continuance of the business-as-usual model of civilization.

When my generation entered parenthood in the 1960’s, we thought we were bringing children into a world that was improving and would keep doing so as far as we could see into the future. In actuality I can now look back and see that, by the end of that decade, my own Quality of Life had begun to descend. I now look at Standard of Living as measured by GDP – the total amount of money we spend annually as a nation – and Quality of Life as quantified only be a general feeling of well-being, as being in reverse relationship – as the first goes up, the second goes down.

This feeling is corroborated by the increasing incidence of psychological illness, stress, obesity; environmentally forced or lifestyle diseases such as asthma, COPD, novel forms of cancer, diabetes; and zoonotic diseases which take advantage of over-crowding and human movement into previously unoccupied areas.

So – what to do?

First, we can stop reproducing ourselves. Obviously, that won’t happen. However, even to leave our descendants a chance of what we would consider to be a liveable life, we need to achieve large reductions in population. If we don’t, part of the un-liveableness of future human life will be nature’s way of dealing with over-population – pandemic. Perhaps we are currently seeing early, and so far controllable manifestations of this with HIV/AIDS, Ebola and related hemorrhagic fevers; avian, porcine and possibly equine Influenzas; the re-occurrence of mumps and measles and the mysterious polio-like disease affecting children in the US.

In order for the viral world to mount a horror show that would top anything Hollywood has ever produced, a single strain could evolve the following traits — it would be zoonotic (able to pass between species including human like a number of avian influenzas), pass from human to human through aerosols as easily as measles, have a long incubation period and be as deadly as ebola. Currently, virologists are saying that this is not likely to occur but, on the other hand, a bit of reading about past viral evolution seems to indicate that anyone who expresses confidence about what viruses may or may not do next is skating on thin ice. One outbreak of such a virus near a large city and 3 weeks of worldwide air traffic should lead to the normal pattern of those who look after the sick being the second wave and those who look after disposal of bodies being the third and nothing much left but to roll the credits.

Second, we can stop denying the science and the voluminous evidence all around us that massive change is already happening and start demanding that our so-called leaders do something to counter it. Reduction of lifestyle, sustainable energy, the end of economic growth, universal education (especially of girls), localization and raising individual levels of consciousness would all be good places to start. You can start this last one right now with a trip to your public library.

You might point out that the changes outlined above will never be initiated by democratically elected officials and you would be right — so maybe it’s time to take a second look at anarchy (if we do nothing we will get it anyway). Or just to realize that business-as-usual, including nation states and their political and economic systems are “just so 20th century” and get our butts into the 21st. It has already been here for 15 years for those who have been too busy shopping to notice.

The Mountain Pine Beetle as positive feedback loop

Twenty years ago in British Columbia, two facts were well understood and widely known in the scientific community:

  1. The population of the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) was being kept in check by the die-off due to the coldest winter temperatures.
  2. Winter temperatures were rising due to the increasing level of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Was there no one person who noticed that these two established facts, when taken together, spelled disaster for BC’s lodgepole pine forests? If there was, did they not speak up and try to sound a warning? If they did, why was that warning not heeded and why did it never make it into public awareness?

There would seem to be only three possibilities that would answer the above questions, criminal negligence, or unbelievable stupidity would have to have taken place in the scientific community or the governing bodies to which they answered, or one or other of these bodies would have been corrupted by bribes by an outside party or parties.MPB damage in British Columbia
Scientists are not known for being negligent or stupid and only in rare cases corruptible, same for the govenors of universities. This leaves private corporations and government departments who employ scientists as the most likely places for the supression of impending disaster to have taken place. Take your pick — increasingly in recent years, governments have been shown to be emminently corruptible and the sources of such corruption have been shown to be private corporations.

For those who still think that Global warming is a new and unproven idea, the concept first entered the scientific literature in 1824 when French physicist Joseph Fourier postulated the “greenhouse effect”. By the 1850’s, Irish physicist John Tyndall had come up with a way to actually test and measure the effect and by 1858 had effectively proven Fourier’s theory. At the end of the 19th century, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius estimated that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase Earth’s temperature by 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit, a figure within the IPCC’s estimate of 3.6 to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit for a doubling of CO2 from 19th century levels — stop protesting the truth and do some reading.

So we come to the Positive Feedback Loop aspect of the MPB wintering through, it goes like this:

  • Excess CO2 from various sources, notably the burning of fossil fuels, enters the atmosphere and increases the insulating blanket of the greenhouse effect
  • In areas where conditions are right, pine trees grow and utilize CO2 from the air for that growth. This immobilizes or sequesters the carbon in the structure of the trees and, if conditions remain stable, the system will reach eqilibrium.
  • As increasing amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted beyond the growth of the trees’ (or other ecological services) ability to sequester, the atmosphere warms up and minimum winter temperatures increase above the level required to keep the MPB population under control
  • MPB attack and kill vast swaths of pine trees across areas previously under the control of cooler temperatures
  • After a period of a few years, most of the dead pine falls and begins to break down. This breakdown (rotting or increase of entropy) of the wood releases greenhouse gases such as CO2 – carbon dioxide, and CH4 – methane to enter the atmosphere and reinforce the greenhouse effect

So the loop is that emission of greenhouse gases eventually causes the breakdown of wood structure, which causes an increase in the emission of greenhouse gases. This is known as a POSITIVE feedback look because the cause is reinforced by the effect, not because the result is necessarily positive from a human point of view.

There’s Reality and Then There’s REALITY!!

Is cable news worth the cost (or worth anything at all).

Below is an excerpt from Giles Slade’s excellent book “AMERICAN EXODUS: Climate Change and the Coming Flight for Survival” – 2013. He is describing an exchange between meteorologist Paul Douglas and a TV executive at the beginning of the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave which killed nearly 800 people:


We said, “This is going to be a major story. People are going to be dying This is something you’ld better hit very, very hard . . . I’ll never forget [the executive producer] . . . wanted to do a live shot of some place . . . hotter than Chicago. She kept wanting . . . a featury, lifestyle kind of cutesy . . . story . . . I kept pleading with her . . . “You’re missing the point. We should have people at the hospitals, we should have people at City Hall.” It degenerated into a shouting match . . . She started screaming “You don’t get it! This is television!” . . . I said, “I do get it. I understand. This is a dangerous situation for Chicago. We’re the hottest spot. People will be dying later today. That’s your story.”


You be the judge. Also, take a look here for a glimmer of hope and a glimpse of the difficulties around reporting or finding real, truthful news in a 21st century capitalist democracy.

BTW – For those of us who are Canadians, Slade’s book could be sub-titled “Guess who’s coming to dinner . . . and never going home again.”

Elephant has Left the Room (not to mention the building)

As I have read through a stack of books in the last two years about the on-rushing convergence of crises threatening Earth and all complex life forms, I kept bumping into half-remembered discussions from forty to fifty years years ago. Discussions fogged at the time by alcohol and smoke and dimmed over the years by the hectic pace of life, a plethora of perceived priorities and a subconscious wish to forget. Discussions birthed from ideas in books like Silent Spring, The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth.

Similar discussions among those a few years younger may have compelled them to settle in the West Kootenays area around Nelson, on Lasquiti Island and in resource-based villages in BC that had used up their resources. They essentially dropped out of the up-tight world of careers, corporations and country clubs to live a simple, organic, back-to-the-land lifestyle. Many young Americans, angered by their country’s growing imperialist ambitions and dysfunctional political system opted to escape by coming north and adding to the bucolic landscape of the youthful, “hippy” counter-culture movement of these areas.

Predictably, the warnings about using up Earth’s resources and the dangers of chemical contamination were vigorously fought against by the corporations who were carrying out the destruction and discounted by government and the mainstream media. Forty years later, much has changed, but not for the better. Governments in the so-called ‘developed’ world are, to all intents and certainly all purposes, now owned and controlled by corporations who can afford to buy whatever it takes to get them elected. Corporations, which exist for the sole purpose of generating profits for their shareholders, get whatever legislation they need to maximize those profits enacted by their puppet legislators. Corporations are even insisting they be treated as human beings with equal rights and protections against anything that might harm their well-being (profits).

These factors allow corporations to operate at will, defying environmental protections, funneling public money that should be providing social services into private bank accounts and demanding cutback of any regulation, or even monitoring, of their operations. Any semblance of democracy has long since been abandoned as the resulting governments gut environmental protection, cut regulatory staff, silence their own scientists and spend the citizens’ tax monies on advertising to assure us that they will create enough minimum wage jobs for each family to have the three that are necessary for survival.

All the while, the Global Climate Change Elephant, first discovered and described in the mid-ninteenth century, sat in on these discussions, corporate board meetings and legislative sessions, patiently waiting to be brought into the conversation. Now it has lost that patience and, with a parting “Thank you, thank you very much”, left the room and is making its presence felt by melting arctic sea ice, releasing methane and carbon dioxide by thawing permafrost, warming and acidifying the oceans, strengthening hurricanes and tornados, and intensifying both droughts and flooding. Still the denial and obfuscation continues by corporations, governments, pseudo-scientists and mainline news media. Still we sit idly by and watch the consumer culture show, clapping and hoping for yet another encore.

“Well folks, the show is over and Elephant has left the building . . . goodnight”.

The Least of 3 Evils

Image

Land, Sea, Air – which should we lose first?

While most people who read this post will be cognisant of the damage being done by the continued extraction of bituminous hydrocarbons from the Alberta tarsands, let’s for the moment assume it will continue and that an export route involving a pipeline to the west coast and tanker traffic to Asia will be established. Immediately, we see two distinct and ominous possibilites for catastrophe in British Columbia; the probability of a ruptured pipe spilling oil into pristine fresh water resources and fish habitat and the just as probable threat of destruction of the coast by another tanker accident. There is, of course, a third disaster to be caused by this corporate infrastructure.

exxon_valdez_0323

Let’s say that this pipeline is built of kryptonite or, being blessed amongst pipelines, enjoys heavenly immunity. Likewise for any tanker which enters Canadian waters off the coast of British Columbia to load the issue of the pipeline. This would ensure that the lands and waters of British Columbia would remain safe until the pipeline’s owner, the oil industry and the applicable foreign investors were satisfied that they had made a fair profit and it was time to safely decommission and un-install the pipe for recycling . . . right.

But what about the emissions from all the “product” that made it “safely” to “market” and was burned?

This would almost certainly be the worst result of all as it would not only hasten the end of civilization and the human species, but just might be enough to be the sole cause. So, it seems the best possible outcome would be a catastrophic rupture of the line on its first day of operation, anything else would be far more dangerous.

The Long and Short of it . . .

The title of American novelist James Howard Kunstler’s book about the approaching catastrophe of global climate change say’s it all – “The Long Emergency”. The approach is slow but inexorable like a giant cruise ship that loses power as it heads toward a rocky shore. However, anyone watching from shore would see the moving ship and, if they had a modicum of knowledge of the physics of momentum, would realized the ship was not going stop in time. Taking hours from start to finish this would be a “Short Emergency”.

Another analogy would be Hollywood’s usual approach to the impending end of humanity, that of a large object such as an asteroid or comet discovered to be on a collision course with Earth within a couple of weeks from impact. This, of course, would be another “Short Emergency” with a duration of weeks and the end coming literally in a flash. Earthlings would have a magnificent feel for what was about to happen as the object (with a bit of help from the FX crew) would grow hourly in both apparent size and brilliance as it took aim straight at the observer, almost certainly in contradiction of the laws of orbital motion.

In contrast, the “Long Emergency” of climate change will take decades, or generations, or possibly a century or two and the changes will become undeniably apparent to various people only after the passage of decades or even a lifetime. Even though a wealth of data from scientific investigation is available now to form an extremely well-informed and unambiguous decision that anthropogenic climate change is real, there are still those who refuse to think about it. If you only think about what will happen if we collectively refuse to face reality, then it is a picture which anyone could be excused for being unable to bear looking at.

The real tragedy of climate change is that it need not cause the extinction of our species if we would face the reality and resolve to begin immediately to make the changes necessary to decrease or remove the causes. We are facing the very real possibility that we will continue to play Russian Roulette until we finally find the right chamber to fire.