Near Term Extinction
Are we approaching Near Term Extinction ?
The world we’ve gotten used to and thought of as normal now turns out to be an aberration — a bubble world based upon the ever-accelerating depletion of non-renewable resources. Fossil energy has fueled an industrial revolution as well as an agricultural revolution, which has doubled the population in less than a human lifetime, making the world unendurably crowded with resource- and energy-hungry humans. With peak oil, mass extinctions, ecological degradation (including the depletion of topsoil and growing scarcity of potable water), along with peak everything else–future prospects have been starting to look rather unpromising lately. But it gets worse. What started off as the greenhouse effect morphed into something called global warming, and it looked like it might get a bit warm for future generations. Then we started hearing about climate change, and with this slightly altered terminology the projections for change grew more severe and were expected to arrive a little sooner than formerly believed. As more climate science came online, the modifiers took on a more ominous tone, as in “climate chaos” and “climate emergency” — which again meant it was coming sooner and was going to be more extreme than we’d thought only yesterday.
Now, in 2013, we have scientific projections from reliable data that make near-term human extinction look like a real possibility. Guy McPherson’s website, Nature Bats Last, has become a home for some of the direst of runaway climate predictions, and here the phrase near-term-extinction has become so common as to be referred to by acronym: NTE. From the comment section of this blog, it is clear there is a group of the faithful who follow the science behind near-term extinction, and who try, in this forum, to come to terms with its implications. One such follower has written a very long piece on this subject called “The Irreconcilable Acceptance of Near-Term Extinction,” which attempts to address what it means to accept that your species is doomed to fail with finality, and very probably within your own lifetime. Read More…
Human Extinction without a Squeek?
Biologist Michael Thomas, writing at Nature Bats Last asks “If environmental problems are so serious, if we are really threatened by global ecological collapse, why is no one doing anything about it?”
Before I explain why, it is important to state that:
1) ecosystems do not react linearly to change, but abruptly switch states (Schaeffer 2001),
2) the global biosphere, or global network of ecosystems, is threatening to shift states (read: collapse) if just 7% more ecosystems shift states (collapse at 50% and we are currently at 43%) (Barnosky 2012),
3) managers, planners, and politicians are not coordinating with scientists or experts (Staudinger 2012),
4) evolution is far less likely than extinction (Schwartz 2006).
So, why is no one doing anything about the very real issues threatening long term human survival? I think it is safe to qualify the situation as an emergency, and thus we should look at research into how people react in emergencies, or why they do not. A 5-step process for helping during an emergency was first characterized by Darley and Latané in 1968.
Figure 1: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? (Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society, Jan 2013)
Near Term Extinction means the extinction of the human species (and probably many others along with it). This is not so much an option for us to choose as it is a very real and unavoidable possibility. The “Near” in “Near Term Extinction doesn’t mean centuries, but decades or even shorter. In other words, within the lifetime of our children. Dr. Guy McPherson, conservation biologist and former professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona believes that “Near” means before 2030.
Supporters of the Near Term Extinction hypothesis argue that the global climate system is huge and has a lot of inertia. The amount of carbon artificially pumped into our atmosphere (375 billion metric tons since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is the estimate from the World Meterological Organization) as well as indirectly into our oceans (causing ocean acidification) will continue to cause further temperature increases even if we stopped all pollution today. The elevated temperatures will trigger a whole host of tipping points which will cause a number of new extremely large carbon sources (currently stored in nature and kept in check by lower temperatures such as in the Arctic) to be released while also causing environmental changes that will destroy and significantly reduce existing carbon sinks such as forests (through drought and forest fires). Here are some of the tipping points, many well on their way already:
- Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010)
- Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011)
- Siberian methane vents have increased in size from less than a meter across in the summer of 2010 to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011)
- Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the United States in 2010 (Science, February 2011)
- Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011)
- Methane is being released from the Antarctic, too (Nature, August 2012)
- Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012)
- Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide (Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, October 2012)
- Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012
- Greenland ice is melting rapidly
- The Oceans are growing acidic and may soon reach their capacity to absorb CO2
- If the world’s plankton dies off due to extreme ocean acidification, the planet will lose 50% of it’s oxygen production
- The forests of the world produce the other 50% of the oxygen on the planet, global warming and elevated temperatures are reducing their oxygen production
- Atmospheric oxygen levels are dropping to levels considered dangerous for humans, especially over major cities around the planet
- Earth is taking up twice as much CO2 today as it was 50 years ago
- Mainstream global consultancy group Price Waterhouse Cooper issued the 2012 report Too late for two degrees? which suggests it is unlikely we will keep below 2 degree or even 4 degree – we are on a path to a 6 degree world
- Once we hit 4 degree, it’s game over for humanity and there is no stopping runaway climate change. It will go onto 6 degree and further
- The planet may warm up 6 deg. C in a decade. No large body mammals, including humans can survive climate with this global temperature increase
- The world is in the beginnings of a mass extinction event, losing 200 species a day
- When temperatures get too hot, tries may become net producers of CO2 rather than carbon sinks
- Due to drought, forest fires may convert forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources
- Carbon sinking forests in once cooler climates are being wiped out by pests as global warming causes northern regions to warm up
- Taking into account Nitrogen limitations in northern hemisphere soils and phosphorus limitations in the tropics means trees will absorb 23% less carbon than is projected by normal models.
A Simple Chain of Reasoning provides a Strong Argument for Near Term Extinction
If we are to look at the latest science, it can be reasonably argued that even with a stringent emissions control treaty implemented today, we have a very good chance of facing Near Term Extinction.
What supports the Near Term Extinction hypothesis? Some simple climate change math is all it takes. Most importantly, a global average temperature rise which is 2 Deg C higher than pre-industrial times will likely trigger a number of the above non-linear tipping points to commence; positive feedbacks which cannot be controlled. Above 2 Deg C, the planet essentially opens itself up to runaway global temperature increase. Human beings and other large mammals cannot survive in an environment in which the average global temperature is 4 Deg C higher than pre-industrial times. A 4 Deg C rise in average global temperature means between 15 to 20 Deg C rise in local temperature.
Assuming climatologist James Hansen is correct in the theory that ending fossil emissions will also result in raising warming by another 110% +/-30% due to the end of our fossil sulphate outputs then even with stringent emission controls implemented today, we would far exceed 2 Deg C:
- Industrialization has increased the global temperature by about 0.8 degrees.
- With 0.8 Deg C realized, plus 0.7 Deg C timelagged (by ocean thermal inertia) plus 0.6 Deg C from phase-out emissions, we’d have 2.1 Deg C
- Enough carbon dioxide is already in the atmosphere to raise future temperatures by another 0.8 degrees, even if all the pollution stopped immediately.
- Add 110% and we’d be committed to between 4 to 6 Deg C in the 2080s (due to the 30yr timelag after a 2050 Emissions Control target)
- Add to that the warming from the unpredictable nonlinear feedbacks that are likely to be triggered
Essentially, the current science tells us that within a lifetime or less, we will reach temperatures which are not conducive for human survival. Not even a more radical schedule of Emissions Control can change that outcome, as it only cuts a fraction of the temperature that we can control, the 0.6 Deg C of phase-out emissions.
Geo-Engineering Our Way Out of One Mess and Possibly into Another
We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
- Albert Einstein
Our modern civilization has prided itself on our achievements. But it is only now, when the true costs of a global carbon-based economy dawning that we have unmasked human progress to reveal its true nature. Rather than the warm fuzzy promise of a world of flying cars and robot servants that old technocratic newsreels led us to believe, human progress has turned out to be a charlatan. Instead of progress, it has revealed itself to be a progress trap; a Mata Hari that has seduced us all. Many technologies meant to improve our lives in one generation have side effects which manifest in the next generation.
Now, we are confronted with the most difficult choice this modern civilization has ever faced. It seems that we have really boxed ourselves into a corner. We are in a race against time and we know that we cannot do nothing but will anything we do make a difference? As the time window for effective action quickly closes (supporters of NTE argue that it is already too late), we will soon have no other option except to choose untried geoengineering ones that may be filled with great risk. Knowing our recent history, of how we’ve so badly botched up the environment by unintended technology side effects, we can guess that our chance of applying technology which has never before tried on a vast global scale will probably create equally if not worse problems. “Human progress” has built this progress trap, and it is of little reassurance that we use the same faulty reasoning of human progress to try to extricate ourselves from it.
From the simple calculation above, we can see that while the maximum realistic emission controls program is absolutely necessary, by itself it is still not remotely sufficient to prevent a runaway greenhouse effect. Emission control alone cannot prevent the terminal acidification of the oceans by the century-long lifetime of present airborne CO2 – only a highly risky and intentional global program of geo-engineered carbon recovery can do that. Nor can it avoid the complex positive feedbacks from running wild- only another risky, global geo-engineered program of Restoration can do that. Many of the known mega-feedbacks are already accelerating. This is a very worrying thought as a single mega-feedback such as Arctic permafrost or methane hydrates trapped under Arctic ice have the capacity to dwarf emissions.
For those not comfortable with geo-engineering, a slight shift in perspective may allow us to see that human civilization has actually been practicing geo-engineering for a number of centuries. For we are in this crisis exactly because we have inadvertently been negatively geo-engineering the planet for the past two centuries. Isn’t it proper to classify pumping 375 billion tones of carbon into the atmosphere in two centuries as a geo-engineering experiment, albeit with disasterous results?
But even if geo-engineered solutions offered a possibility, the unavoidable time delay that comes from disagreements arising within a democratic system can create paralysis that will prevent timely action. All-in-all, the odds do not look good. In fact, it will be a miracle if human civilization can engineer its way out of this mess without creating another one of equal or greater magnitude.
Reflections on Near Term Extinction
The following are excerpts from a response I wrote on Dr. McPherson’s blog Nature Bats Last. It relates the psychology of coming to terms with NTE to coming to terms with our own personal mortality, no longer running and hiding from our own mortality which then opens up an authentic life. When we have completely died while we are alive, only then can we truly begin to live the authentic life.
This certainly is one of the more lively discussion posts on the web!…and why not? When confronted with mortality, not just plain jane personal mortality but mortality of all of us all at once, well, that is certainly worth talking about!
Since I was a child, I have always seen my life as that of a lone passenger on the raft of life and heading into a distant waterfall, an abyss of certain death. That analogy has stuck with me and is there subconsciously if not consciously.
As Guy says, birth ensures your death. Nobody gets out alive. It is only when we have to seriously consider our own mortality that we begin to glimpse what living really means. It may be morbid at first, but it’s actually life. It’s the reality of our dilemma as living beings…regardless of NTE or not.
But Guy is not repeating anything new. For our mortality has been the subject of all the greatest writers, thinkers, philosophers and sages throughout time. If you think about it, our own personal death is also a NTE event (we surmise). For isn’t the picture lodged in our consciousness that when we die, all appearances that we have experienced til now will vanish and cease to be? Isn’t that an extinction event that is tantamount to the vanishing of all humanity? How would you tell the difference between 1) your own personal death and 2) your death along with everyone else’s?
The only difference would be that in a “real” NTE event, you would probably consciously externally witness an abnormal amount of pain, suffering and death. In other words, your own life would cease to be pleasant.
I believe the great sadness we will witness will not only be the obvious fear and panic accompany a NTE event but the more subtle coming to terms with a life not yet fully lived yet. For it is the norm that beings live as if they are immortal. Even though we eat other beings everyday and are therefore daily aware of death each meal, we still have a strong normalized habit of self-denial.
That self-denial plays the important role of keeping those too afraid to deal with their own mortality anesthesized. When NTE approaches, however, this self-denial mechanism will fail and people will be forced to prematurely place their mind in the state they would be in on their death bed.
Dealing with one’s mortality is, in a sense, the pyschological meaning to life. So to abstain from it all our lives acting from a position of fear is to deny ourselves the potential to discover what lies beyond our psychosis of fear of vanishing.
As human beings, we are living, breathing contradictions. We are imbued with a consciousness that allows us to be aware, in particular of our own mortality. Yet, at the very same time, we are also inbued with a survival instinct. We instinctively fight for our lives and yet, we know it is futile. Sound familiar?
So NTE, though it may appear quite extreme, is fundamentally no different than the predicament of futility we already find ourselves in as living beings. What we must focus on is the development of our compassion so that when the pain and suffering comes our way, we will be prepared to deal with it.
Life is a wonder, but unfortunately, the conditioning from the blind who have lost sight of this leaves most blind to this wonder as well. In reality, nobody knows when their time is up and our psychosis likes to keep it that way. For when we are told of terminal cancer and the short time we have left, we are forced to confront that which we have hidden away from our whole life. Most people like to not be told when their time is up. It’s part of maintaining the illusion of mortality. That’s why NTE is simliar to being told you have terminal cancer. The difference is, we are telling everyone simultaneously.
The mind likes to play tricks with itself to avoid confronting this. Ernest Becker, the famous cultural anthropologist spent many years educating us on this very deeply entrenched habit of self-denial through classics such as “The Denial of Death” and other philosophers such as David Loy have added richly to Becker’s work. We intellectually know that we will be all be gone in 100 years but the thought of knowing it will all happen at once, to everyone is just too predictive for our comfort.
It’s all a wonder. It’s all a mystery. This is the point Guy is making as well. I’m sure many of the readers here have gone through their own unique journey of self discovery, trying to get back to the source of wonder which is intrinsic both within us and the appearances our senses bring to us.
I will keep fighting and resisting because it is in human nature to do so. If you have truly come to terms with NTE, then you have also come to terms with your own life and death and that is wonderful too.
By the way, I have been working on a project for the past 2 years which is maturing and which I feel is the best way to empower people such as everyone on this blog to do something meaningful and impactful. My strategy is this:
We complain about being powerless against the corptocracy that is ruining the planet yet as many here have pointed out and as all of us know at a deep level, we are all complicit.
We are the ones who make it possible for them to go drill for oil. Our work, if not directly related to any large corporation’s “evil” work, is indirectly related. There are 6 degrees of seperation between anyone two people on the planet. So the problem is really a network problem and it is kind of pointless to make a scapegoat out of the situation. What we CAN do is recognize the networked nature and only then can we create a meaningful solution that actually achieves something.
Instead of fighting the corptocracy on their grounds, we create our own grounds and let them come to us. I am developing a second economy with a constitution that is authentic and which by definition will exclude all those organizations who are simply greenwashing and hanging onto their profits.
My colleague John Boik wrote a book called Principled Societies and is rewriting large chapters as we speak. You can go to his website and download it for free.
If we want to collapse what I call the “First Economy” the way to do it is simple – just take away their market shares. This strategy depends on recognizing and acknowedging our basic relationship with “them”. If they have no market shares, they cannot operate. Who will pay for their unsustainable products if there is nobody left to support their economy.
All we need to do is start the movement. I am doing this in South Africa. I am defining the constitution and it will de facto rule out any form of greenwashing. My intuition tells me that there is more than enough people to start the movement. As soon as it begins, millions could already migrate. As more people migrate and find sustainable goods and services that are made only in small communities and only for members of the community, then the large corporations will notice market shares eroding. The migration of citizenry back to local, decentralized, circular economies will actually hasten the greenwashers to self-correct. Driven by capitalist motivations, they will be forced to deal with their market share loss by transforming their core ethos….or risk closing shop. We will employ open-source community level manufacturing and appropriate technology to create wealth in the community in a zero waste framework.
There is great enthusiasm here in South Africa for these ideas and I suspect everywhere because this is a people’s movement of the people regaining what is rightfully theirs.
We can only try. We are all going to die anyways because that is the nature of life. We can only do our best and allow our deeply buried humanity to arise. For ironically, we each have limitless potential and wisdom but we have become conditioned to athat subjugates all living beings.
Blessings to everyone.