Whole Earth Discipline
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Whole Earth Discipline

Stewart Brand

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eBook - ePub

Whole Earth Discipline

Stewart Brand

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About This Book

The green movement used to protect the earth from mankind; now they need to protect mankind from the earth. In Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand argues that in order to do this, they urgently need to abandon much conventional environmental wisdom, and embrace new science and engineering. Cities are actually greener than the countryside, he argues, and urbanization should be encouraged; we must invest massively in nuclear energy; and genetic engineering has the potential to stimulate a second 'Green Revolution'. Combining rigorous thinking and blazing advocacy, this is a powerful and persuasive challenge, and a wake-up call to everyone who cares about the future of our Earth.

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Information

Year
2010
ISBN
9780857892096

1

Scale, Scope, Stakes, Speed

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We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.
Whole Earth Discipline
Climate change. Urbanization. Biotechnology. Those three narratives, still taking shape, are developing a long arc likely to dominate this century. How we frame them now will affect how they play out. Illusions abound on all three subjects, but their true nature is knowable.
In the face of climate change, everybody is an environmentalist. That’s tough not just for people who have been comfortable thinking of themselves as antienvironmentalist; it’s even tougher for long-time Greens. Activist Bill McKibben recently noted: “The environmental movement has morphed steadily into the climate change movement.” That means that Greens are no longer strictly the defenders of natural systems against the incursions of civilization; now they’re the defenders of civilization as well. It’s a whiplash moment for everyone.
When roles shift, ideologies have to shift, and ideologies hate to shift. The workaround is pragmatism—“a practical way of thinking concerned with results rather than with theories and principles.” The shift is deeper than moving from one ideology to another; the shift is to discard ideology entirely.
We are still realizing how much radical rethinking we will need to comprehend the forces now loose in the world and to figure out how to deal with them. The scale of forces, this time, is planetary; the scope is centuries; the stakes are what we call civilization; and it is all taking place at the headlong speed of self-accelerating human technologies and climatic turbulence. Talk of “saving the planet” is overstated, however. Earth will be fine, no matter what; so will life. It is humans who are in trouble. But since we got ourselves into this fix, we should be able to get ourselves out of it.
• The best way to think about climate change I found in a book that seems to be about something else—Constant Battles (2003), by Harvard archaeologist Steven LeBlanc (with Katherine Register). Drawing on abundant archaeological and ethnological evidence, LeBlanc argues that humans have always waged ferocious war. In all societies from hunter-gatherers on up through agricultural tribes, then chiefdoms, to early complex civilizations, 25 percent of adult males routinely died from warfare. No one wanted to fight, but they were constantly forced to choose between starvation and robbing the neighbors. Their preferred solution was the total annihilation of the neighbors.
The book is full of harsh revelations. Close examination of human burials shows that wholesale slaughter was common, and so was cannibalism— for nutrition, not ceremony. The abundant “cooking stones” at many archaeological sites turn out to be ammunition—sling missiles (David killed Goliath with one). Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated because they make such good sentries, and that’s why all dogs bark (and wolves don’t). Most cities were walled.
Humans perpetually fight, LeBlanc says, because they always outstrip the carrying capacity of their natural environment and then have to fight over resources. Native peoples developed arcane knowledge of how to find and prepare difficult foods because they’d eliminated all the easy food sources. Peace can break out, though, when carrying capacity is pushed up suddenly, as with the invention of agriculture, or newly effective bureaucracy, or remote trade, or technological breakthroughs. Also a large-scale dieback from pestilence can make for peaceful times—Europe after its major plagues, the Americas after European diseases nearly obliterated the native populations. Such interludes are short: Population quickly rises to once more push against carrying capacity, and normal warfare resumes.
Only in the last three centuries, LeBlanc points out, have advanced states steadily lowered the overall body count to where just 3 percent of the world’s people die from warfare these days, even though a few of the remaining wars and genocides have grown to world-war scale. Instead of butchering all their enemies in the traditional way, states merely kill enough to achieve a victory; then they put the survivors back to work. States also use their bureaucracies, advanced technology, and international rules of behavior to raise carrying capacity and sometimes even develop a careful relationship to it.
But all of that civilized sophistication could collapse if carrying capacities everywhere are lowered by severe climate change. Humanity would revert to its norm of constant battles for diminishing resources. Peace lovers would be killed and eaten by war lovers.
That’s the prospect, I realized, reading LeBlanc. With climate change under way, we have to make a choice. If we do nothing or not enough, we face a carrying-capacity crisis leading to war of all against all, this time with massively lethal weapons and a dieback measured in billions. Alternatively, LeBlanc concludes,
For the first time in history, technology and science enable us to understand Earth’s ecology and our impact on it, to control population growth, and to increase the carrying capacity in ways never before imagined. The opportunity for humans to live in long-term balance with nature is within our grasp if we do it right. It is a chance to break a million-year-old cycle of conflict and crisis.
Up until 2003, I had only the usual concerns about climate change. Back in 1982, my wife and I bought an old tugboat to live on because it was impervious to the California hazards of earthquake and wildfire, and what the hell, because it was a cheap way to own a bayfront home with never a care about rising sea levels from global warming. Climate change was fun to think about, dire but distant.
I am employed half-time by a consulting company I helped found in 1987 called Global Business Network/Monitor (GBN). What happened in 2003 was that GBN got a request from the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense to build a scenario about “abrupt” climate change. My role was peripheral; I did a few of the phone interviews with climatologists and contributed one idea. We delivered the report that fall—“An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,” by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall.
Our scenario was based on an event that took place 8,200 years ago, when temperatures suddenly dropped 2.7° Celsius (5° Fahrenheit) in less than a decade. On the temperature charts, it’s a one-century blip, nothing like the Younger Dryas event that humans endured 12,700 years ago, when world temperatures abruptly plummeted 15°C (27°F) and stayed that way for a thousand years. One explanation for both events is that the Gulf Stream was slowed or stopped by an excess of fresh water in the North Atlantic caused by global warming. (Data collected since 2003 variously challenge and support that theory; nobody denies that the violent climate events occurred).
Because our current global warming is melting Arctic ice and freshening North Atlantic waters, GBN’s scenario examined what would happen if in, say, 2010 we entered an abrupt “minor” cooling like the one 8,200 years ago. The suddenly cooler, drier, windier world would experience droughts in the major agricultural areas, along with harsh winters and vicious storms and floods in unexpected places. By 2020, we said, Europe’s climate would be more like Siberia’s. Global food, water, and energy supply would be stressed. Earth’s carrying capacity for humans would suddenly drop below what the 7.5 billion population of 2020 would require to survive. GBN concluded the report with my realization from LeBlanc, that whenever societies bash against carrying-capacity limits, they revert to the million-year-old norm of fighting over resources. By the 2020s, war, disease, and famine would be reducing human population until it came back into balance with the new carrying capacity. The Pentagon was an appropriate client for the scenario.
Deliberately kept unclassified, the report went public online and was summarized in Fortune magazine. At first a few keepers of the climate literature disparaged the scenario, but soon enough it became a widely cited part of that literature. The idea of abruptness (in our paper and a number of others) changed the public conversation about climate change. For the first time, climate was understood as a clear and present danger, the responsibility of currently serving officials worldwide instead of some future generation’s problem. Public opinion on the subject began its own abrupt change.
• If GBN’s scenario worries you, don’t worry. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consulted twenty-three climate models and concluded that the widespread concern of climatologists about the Gulf Stream was misplaced. A Norwegian professor, Helge Drange, said, “The bottom line is that the atmosphere is warming up so much that a slowdown of the North Atlantic Current will never be able to cool Europe.” Or worry harder. A 2008 study of Greenland ice cores revealed that changes in the Gulf Stream appear to have triggered severe climate changes twelve thousand years ago that occurred not over decades but in one to three years.
Following climate science these days is a lot like the kid joke: Two men were flying in an airplane. Unfortunately one fell out. Fortunately there was a haystack. Unfortunately there was a pitchfork in the haystack. Fortunately he missed the pitchfork. Unfortunately he missed the haystack.
Fortunately, the IPCC climate models enabled thousands of scientists to publicly declare that global warming is real, that it is largely driven by human-generated greenhouse gases (CO2 and methane mostly), and that the global consequences will become quite serious by 2040 and grow worse thereafter. Unfortunately, the IPCC models failed to predict the extremely rapid melting of Arctic ice—the ice was half gone in the summer of 2007 instead of the predicted 2050s.
In 2006 and again in 2008, Global Business Network ran a scenario workshop for the Arctic Marine Council on the future of shipping in the Arctic. I learned that sixty-five surface ships have been to the North Pole, that hundreds of cruise ships now visit the Arctic, that fish and fisheries are moving north, that the once-mythic Northwest Passage above Canada is opening for navigation, and that the Russians are pouring concrete for a series of ports along the Northern Sea Route, which will offer a shipping shortcut above all of Europe and Asia. The salty group in attendance at the first workshop—twenty-four assorted skippers, Coast Guard officers, polar scientists, diplomats, and CEOs—came up with four scenarios exploring the effects of various traffic demands and potential national and international policies concerning freedom of navigation, safety, and environmental protection in the new Arctic ocean passages. All four scenarios took as a given that the ice will keep right on melting.
• The reason is positive feedback. White ice reflects sunlight, 85 percent of it. Dark ocean absorbs sunlight, reflecting only 5 percent. Less ice leads to more absorption of solar heat in the Arctic, which leads to still less ice, which leads to ever more heat absorption, melting ever more ice: That’s positive feedback. This particular phenomenon is called the ice-to-water albedo flip, albedo meaning reflectance.
Note that the word positive in the cybernetic term positive feedback does not mean “good.” It usually means trouble, because it amplifies change. In the Wikipedia definition:
Positive feedback, sometimes referred to as cumulative causation, is . . . a feedback loop system in which the system responds to perturbation in the same direction as the perturbation. In contrast, a system that responds to the perturbation in the opposite direction is called a negative feedback system. . . . The end result of a positive feedback is often amplifying and “explosive,” i.e. a small perturbation results in big changes.
Another case of positive feedback in the Arctic is the melting of tundra permafrost (no longer so perma-), which releases vast quantities of the super-greenhouse gas methane from the rotting of formerly frozen vegetation, along with the evaporation of a weirdly flammable ice in the permafrost called methane hydrate. More methane in the atmosphere leads to more melting of permafrost, and so on. Oh, and also, with Arctic warming, the tree line rapidly moves north, so dark conifer forest replaces pale tundra, absorbing yet more solar heat, and another positive feedback gets going.
One important negative feedback may be operative, but its mechanisms are mysterious. Either because of atmospheric changes or human behavior, the world’s land areas are absorbing more carbon dioxide than they’re releasing lately. “The amazing truth is that on a global scale, photosynthesis is greater than decomposition and has been for decades,” says atmospheric scientist Scott Denning. “Believe it or not, plant life is growing faster than it’s dying. This means land is a net sink for carbon dioxide, rather than a net source.” It might be simple carbon-dioxide fertilization— additional CO2 stimulates plant growth; that’s why it’s used in commercial greenhouses. It might be that longer growing seasons in boreal regions are causing greater forest growth. On the other hand, forest fire suppression by humans could be the cause; or countless abandoned farms growing back as forest; or overgrazing by cattle, leading to woody shrublands replacing grasslands; or excess nitrogren from agriculture and automobiles, fertilizing additional wild growth. Until the “mysterious sink” for carbon is figured out, our climate models will remain frustratingly vague and unpredictive.
For hundreds of millions of years a “crazily jumping climate” has been the norm on Earth, says glaciologist Richard Alley. These days, apparently, we are returning to that jumpy norm, thanks to abruptness mechanisms like positive feedback, trigger events, and threshold effects, none of which are well incorporated into the climate models yet. It may take some breakthroughs in nonlinear mathematics before that can happen. A good book on the subject is Fred Pearce’s With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change (2007).
• There have been some cataclysmic trigger events in the past. A vast freshwater lake in North America suddenly emptied into the North Atlantic 12,800 years ago, and that was the Younger Dryas instant deep freeze. Another bizarre event occurred 55 million years ago, when a trillion tons of methane burped out of the oceans from thawing methane hydrates (also called clathrates) on the sea floor. The sudden temperature rise of 8°C (14.5°F) extinguished two thirds of oceanic species and was nearly as catastrophic on land as the dinosaur-killing asteroid 10 million years earlier. According to Fred Pearce’s book, something between 1 trillion and 10 trillion tons of frozen methane clathrates lurk on the seabed now. Their potential sudden release is fondly known as the clathrate-gun hypothesis. David Archer, a climate modeler at the University of Chicago, has said, “The worst-case scenario is that global warming triggers a decade-long release of hundreds of gigatons of methane, the equivalent of ten times the current amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. We’d be talking about mass extinction.”
There’s another potential trigger at the South Pole. The vast West Antarctic Ice Sheet, fortunately, is safely perched on land, held in place by the Ross Ice Shelf. Unfortunately, the Ross Ice Shelf is melting with surprising speed. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet slides and melts into the ocean, sea levels will suddenly rise by 16 feet. (Higher, really, because the Greenland ice sheet is also melting).
Threshold effects are sneaky. Incremental change goes along and everything looks fine, and then before you know it, the system has shifted massively and irreversibly into another state. These decades the tropical rain forests are as busy as ever creating their own rain and reflective clouds, locking up lots of carbon, helping to slow global warming, apparently untroubled by it. At some point, though, a threshold is reached. Then in an unstoppable cascade the rain forests melt like Arctic ice, leaving savannah, scrub, and desert in their place. The carbon sink is gone, the reflective clouds are gone, a zillion species are gone, and we can’t get them back. What is the fatal threshold for rain forests? ...

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