Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Afternoon musings, on constructing an optimistic scenario for the human future

Earth, viewed from Apollo 8 spacecraft in orbit of the moon, December 24, 1968

When thinking about the collective future of the human race, you have to envision the planet Earth as one big computer simulation. In your mind's eye, picture a giant blue sphere populated by seven trillion bustling little actors called "humans." Each one of them sucks energy and raw materials from the huge material infrastructure smothering the blue sphere. That infrastructure, in turn, extracts extra-mondo-stupendously-gigantic flows of energy and raw materials from the sphere. The bustling bee-hive of humanity strives desperately to maintain the planet-smothering engine of production. They know they can't live as they now do without it, so they maintain it, even though it poisons and destroys ecosystems with its waste, super-heats the climate with more waste, and strips the spherical planetary subsurface of finite minerals and metals.

All of this normally happens beyond our everyday perception, but if you picture it all as one big game, you understand how it works. It's one planet-sized machine consuming what it needs to keep going. As long as it does keep going, we continue to live the way we do now.

Simulation of planetary human infrastructure, seen from Earth orbit at night

But it can't keep running. It simply can't. When you run the simulation forward in time, to the year 2100 and even further out, far into the new millennium we've just entered on the Christian calendar, you come up with only a single outcome.


While details of the scenario may vary from one play of the game to the next, the result is always the same: infinitely growing consumption outstrips a finite stock of resources. The humans run out of stuff they need to keep the planetary infrastructure running properly. Without it, the greater part of the human population dies, circa 2050-2200. Population stabilizes at a much lower level by the twenty third century or so, with much lower technology and living standards. Medieval, by today's standards.

That's what we face if human consumption of materials, emission of wastes, and damage to the climate continues unabated. The resource base and climate will be too heavily damaged to keep the human infrastructure going and human population expanding. There won't be enough food, water, and energy, and so increasingly more humans will die each year than are born. Population crashes, machine stops. Maybe this die off can be delayed a few decades. But it doesn't really matter. On our current path, based on existing social institutions, cultural norms, and economic systems, the die-off can't be stopped.

 The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day: planetary infrastructure failure

Mainstream policy-making and planning, of course, doesn't accept this. Or even think in terms that come remotely close to acknowledging that such an outcome is possible. The people who control the infrastructure today simply assume the planet-sized machinery will keep running. They don't know how to think about the machinery as a finite thing dependent on finite inputs. So they practice what amounts to magical thinking, about specific problems in isolation from each other. Based on the unacknowledged assumption that the inflow of energy and materials necessary for problem-solving will continue, indefinitely.

I have friends and associates who work in mainstream policy settings. Mostly in health care or academia. They write about health care reform or U.S. policy in Afghanistan as if climate change, peak oil, or resource depletion aren't relevant or don't exist. My sense is that my policy wonk buddies are about as anxious to discuss resource limits in a serious way as I am to bother with 9/11 conspiracy theories. Probably for the same reason: because such a viewpoint seems so amazingly weird (and likely to be expressed in an off-putting way), that taking time and energy to deal with it simply isn't worth the trouble.

Still, I need to find ways to make a hairline fracture in the armor of denial. I'm about to enter a three year professional degree program in environmental law. Which means I'm deliberately injecting myself into a mainstream setting where "out there" views face extremely tough going, to put it mildly. My goal in the next three years, and beyond, will be to express what I really think about the global situation in a way that won't automatically result in eye-rolling dismissal.

I want to communicate the reality of ecological overshoot as something that is (A) inevitable and (B) survivable. We can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we should all just blow our brains out. It means all of our policy paradigms are obsolete, but we can construct new ones. The future we imagined isn't physically possible, but planning is still necessary, hope is not pointless, and the human story is worth following through to whatever awaits. We need a different vision of the world to come after us. One that accepts both ecological reality and the human yearning to make gentle the life of this world.

I think, on better days, that I'm on my way to fashioning a futurescape that works for me. I've been thinking about this stuff for 23 years -- since watching James Hansen testify on climate change to Al Gore's old committee in the United States Senate, on a burning summer day during the drought of 1988. On that day I had intimations of an apocalypse other than the nuclear inferno that haunted my imagination growing up. The world, it seemed, would still end in fire, just not the one delivered by ICBMs. There are many possible ends to the world, but we always imagine only one.

From many endings, one: hypothetical asteroid impact

In any case, the apocalypse is here, not to be denied. Sometimes life is like that. The biopsy comes back and the results are not what you wanted. But there they are. What now?

Here are some of the still disconnected, mostly abstract fragments that float in my head when I try to imagine what will one day emerge from the apocalypse we have made, that will define the remainder of our time in this life.

1) Steady state economics. For the last five hundred years, human institutions dominated by the conquering societies of the West have assumed endless economic growth is not only possible but is the only conceivable basis for a free, humane way of life. We know now, or soon will, that such growth actually isn't possible. A few notable thinkers, like political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon and economist Herman Daly, have dared to voice the unthinkable. Once their realization becomes the dominant mode of thought in social power centers, humans will face the task of building totally new economies. We will have to use energy and materials only at the rate nature replenishes them. We'll have to limit our production of machines and gadgets, restricted by the amount of accessible raw materials left in the ground, by our ability to keep existing devices repaired, and by the salvaging of parts from the former industrial societies. No more endlessly increasing production, from ever more numerous factories, fed by expanding transportation nets and by mining operations devouring ever greater mountains of ore from the Earth. If you're lucky enough to have an electric stove in your dwelling in the twenty second century, you'll have to keep it running for decades, because there won't be a new one rolling off the assembly line. Ever.

2) Post-capitalist political economy. The breaking of supernaturally-based authoritarianism as the dominant organizing principle of human societies in the centuries after 1500 was one of the most important developments in the 200,000 year history of our species. Among our intellectual achievements, this monumental break with the past ranks alongside the development of literacy, music, and mathematics. But we flatter ourselves that the replacement of theocratic monarchy with capitalist parliamentary systems represents the end of social evolution. It doesn't. Capitalist parliamentary systems centralize control of resources -- and therefore politics -- in a tiny, elite few. This few lives in luxury, while everybody else lives in shit. One guy in a corporate headquarters can destroy an entire town by deciding to move a factory overseas; the town turns into a poverty-ridden hell hole while the peasants overseas turn into industrialized slaves. The town and the overseas slaves never got to vote on their own destruction. So much for "democracy." But the destruction of capitalism's ecological foundation will at least give our species the chance to develop a new, more humane way of distributing resources and making economic decisions. In a society that accepts resources as finite, ethics will require what's available to be distributed equitably, much as democratic political theory demands the equitable distribution of political power. There is a word for democratic decision-making applied to achieve equitable distribution of both resources and political power. That word is "socialism."

3) Spiritual pluralism. Societies based on equitable distribution of limited resources will need to be buttressed by compatible belief systems about the ultimate nature of reality -- i.e., by religion. Over the last two thousand years, the most expansionist human societies have been dominated by two monotheistic religions: Christianity and Islam. Both of these religions, in their dominant forms, claim that all other visions of ultimate reality are false. It is possible, however unlikely, that the ecological devastation of expansionist societies will discourage imperialistic religions. That result could transform Christianity and Islam, but also nurture the less missionary traditions of other cultures, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, animism and more. Or, maybe we'll see a diverse patchwork of new and old faiths, more attuned to the reality of limits, to economies and societies centered on preservation rather than expansion.

4) Large-scale non-carbon electricity. Civilization as we know it depends on electricity. Not oil or coal or natural gas but the primal stuff that zapped Ben Franklin's kite. If we can find a way to generate decent amounts of it, we can still have a future not made purely of stone knives and bear skins. We may not have endless energy for infinite economic growth, but we could still fashion a decent, finite flow of electricity for a few essential purposes. The key is to generate electricity from a renewable source with abundant energy yield, reasonable maintenance costs, zero carbon emissions and manageable waste streams. Wind, hydro, and solar sources get the most attention, but we will need others. One promising candidate, according to Thomas Homer Dixon, is deep geothermal electric power. This technology involves drilling miles into the Earth's surface and injecting water into the depths, where the natural heat of the Earth's crust generates enormous amounts of steam for turning electrical turbines on the surface. The technology is enormously expensive and fragile today, but it exists, and might be further developed, in the right circumstances. We will need to investigate such possibilities, and deploy them consistent with available resources, in the years ahead.

5) Organic, locally distributed farming. Civilization is based also on agriculture -- artificially cultivated food supplies able to sustain a population living primarily in cities. Whatever the grandiose claims of certain ecological radicals, human populations will not willingly return to hunter-gather lifestyles. So we will need farms to feed our populations. Today's farms depend on fossil fuels to run the mechanized equipment, fertilize the fields, and control pests. Since fossil fuels are finite in quantity and super-heating the atmosphere, that's the end of that. New agriculture will be needed, quickly and cheaply. Organic farming, based on simple, low-tech methods, is the easiest alternative that can be introduced on a planetary scale. It will be more labor intensive, meaning that future societies -- even with continued widespread use of renewable electricity -- will incorporate food cultivation into everyday life far more pervasively than most people imagine today. Cuba offers a glimpse of this future. When Soviet oil shipments ended in 1989, the country faced starvation. It rapidly converted to organic, low-tech agriculture, on fields not only in the countryside but on city rooftops and vacant lots. I'm willing to grant that genetic engineering and other high tech methods might be in the mix of agricultural techniques, if they don't overtax limited supplies of energy and materials. But in the future, the best solutions will be those that are cheap, easy, local, and renewable. On that basis, organic will trump gen-engineered, every time.

6) The return of muscle power and low-tech simplicity. In the future I imagine, modern technologies like electrical devices  will co-exist with age-old technologies based on manual labor. This will be most obvious in agriculture, where organic, labor-intensive techniques might be supplemented by electrically pumped irrigation water. But every aspect of human life will display the same mix of modern and pre-modern. That will mean technology left over from the age of capitalist industry will exist alongside the technology and methods of muscle and sweat. We will see far greater reliance on devices like bicycles, spinning wheels, and sail boats. Over time, this will lead to a collective feature of human societies: they will have certain high technology practices, but these will be few in number and extent, conserved for the most vital uses. If a town has steady electricity from a deep geothermal power plant, the electricity will be prioritized for essential community uses. For equipment in a hospital, for example. Or operation of essential farming technology, like irrigation pumps.

Future communities will not be able to waste energy by cabling it into thousands of individual dwellings for profligate private use in non-essential devices like washing machines, plasma television sets, and home computers. Laundry will be done by hand, most likely, because that's cheaper and simpler in resource terms -- albeit a pain in the ass by the standards of my own day. Plasma television sets won't exist, not just because scarce electricity is better used for other purposes but because petroleum-based plastics, plus circuits made of rare earth metals, will be extraordinarily rare and hence hyper-expensive. Same goes for the plastics and electronics in home computers. No doubt computers and electronic communication will continue to be useful. But computers and telecommunications will be reserved for essential services -- government, medicine, infrastructure maintenance, and so on. If a private citizen wants to use a computer or communications net, odds are this will have to be done in the post-2100 equivalent of today's public libraries and internet cafes. The internet itself, if it survives, will be dramatically reduced in scale and bandwidth, probably supplemented by good old fashioned radio, telegrams, and snail mail. Television, too, will be rare. Something seen in public squares instead of the living room comfort known only to your great, great, great grand parents.

7) Adaptation to a flooded, storm-ravaged, super-heated planet. The material culture of farming and communication and the rest of everyday life will unfold on a planet completely alien to the one we know today. Earth of the future will have a dramatically higher average temperature and sea level. Thus, the ecologies, agriculture, and settlements of today will be impossible. They will have to pick up and move to areas not blasted by heat, drought, floods, deforestation, and storms. The continental interior of North America, for example, will become too hot and dry after 2050 to sustain vast numbers of human beings. So the humans will have to migrate north, into the thawing Arctic regions of Canada. That future is inevitable, because the warming of the planet is now beyond control. If all fossil fuels vanished today, the warming would continue to be driven by non-human causes: Arctic methane emissions and general carbon cycle breakdowns. That warming, in turn, will drive additional deforestation, albedo loss from ice sheet disappearance, die off of carbon-absorbing ocean life, and smothering of carbon sinks in terrestrial soil and plants. All of this will drive masses of people to migrate inland from the coasts, as cities like New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver face a sea that will rise steadily for tens of thousands of years. The eventual sea level, millennia from now, might stabilize 80 meters higher than today, after the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have melted away. We're stuck with a super-heating, flooded planetary home, so the only thing left to do is plan accordingly, and save what we can.

* * * * *

So. That's all very general and vague. But useful, for me. It hints at a very different future than the one you'll find in, for example, a World Bank forecast. But it doesn't have to be hellish. It will have room for human beings. And, unlike the sort of future envisioned at the World Bank, it's based on what we can reasonably know about the actual conditions future human beings will face.

So what does it mean for those of us alive today? That we have a lot of work to do. And not much time.

Here we go.

Earth, seen from the International Space Station, July 21, 2003


  1. Excellent post! I'm pleased that you're going into environmental law, a field that I'm quite certain is going to increase wildly in prominence in the coming decades. Your fragments are largely right in line with my thinking, as well. You're spot on about it really being electricity that drives modern technology. I often wonder how the Pacific Northwest is going to fair; we derive a LOT of our electricity from wind and solar, so if we can avoid being buried in hordes of desperate refugees Pacifica might actually wind up being one of the future's "first-world" nations (although it will probably look second-world by today's standards).
    You're also right about climate change being a done deal. We've already exceeded the worst-case emissions scenario of the IPCC 2007 report, and those were predicting increased mean annual temperatures on the order of 3 degrees C by 2050, with even greater increases in far northern latitudes. My research and that of my colleagues is now showing pretty conclusively that methane production at those latitudes is largely temperature limited, and will go through the fucking roof in the decades ahead. Nothing to do now but prepare, and maybe reserve some choice justice for those who could have turned us from this path, but out of greed and stupidity refused.

  2. Thank you, good sir, as always, for the information from the hard science side of things. I'm thinking of putting together a PowerPoint on these themes, to show to audiences here at UNM; might hit you up for some editing to make sure I get the science right... :-)

    I fervently hope to keep in touch with you and others I know who think in similar terms about what's happening to the world. Maybe at some point we can all collaborate on something that will make a contribution to illustrating a possible, better future. I have no idea what that means, but I'd like to find out. I think the finding is pretty much going to be my project in the 30 years or so (if I'm lucky) that I have left on this planet.

    A friend of mine here in Abq talks about the task ahead as one of carving out space for alternatives to flourish. For the "commonwealth of the end" that I've written about to have some room to breathe and survive for what's ahead. I think the practice of law can be a part of that. But the undertaking will have to be a multi-disciplinary endeavor. Law, science, the humanities, even the religious people. All trying to contribute a strand to the tapestry.

    Like I said, I don't know what I mean yet, really. I'm glad I'll have more of a chance to work on it than I have had in my current job, which you and others have rightly pointed out is best left behind. And now it will be. At least I did that much right.

    Say hi to J, hope all is well...

  3. I forgot "economic re-localization" as one of the fragments. Something for the next draft...