Monday, November 20, 2006

Even Kurt Cobb Fools Himself

Kurt Cobb's recent Attitude adjustment: Facing our ecological predicament piece is irrational denial of his own. Here is a classic example of this irrational insistence that humans are somehow magically special and exempt from the consequences of things like our own population growth.

That curve cannot be refuted and for anyone to expect the results of that curve to be anything other than what has happened with every other group of mammals to overshoot in the same way is simply irrational. Thus the logical conclusion is that global civilization as we currently know it is doomed. However, once you get past that tidbit, you are still left with a realization that civilization itself, at least on more local terms, does not have to be doomed. In most places the probability is death on a wide scale but some locations might actually manage to implement a working "ELP" renaissance that can act as the lynchpin for local civilization to continue in some form.

Quite honestly, mainly due to lower population density than many other continents, North America would seem to have a good shot at pulling this off on a large scale. Australia is constrained by too many environmental factors. South America is going to be hit hard both by current poverty, which will slow any chance at mitigating such problems and by population density. Europe is stuck in the midst of a cultural tsunami that will largely wash away Western civilization as we know it while at the same time raising birth rates to levels that will make the already tired continent even less sustainable. Plus Europe is directly physically connected to Asia, which also means physically connected to Africa. Asia is far too densely populated and will suffer accordingly from that. And Africa is already dying. We are already seeing people trying to flee Africa for Europe. If a dieoff really begins there will be a migration of homo sapiens as never before envisioned.

So if I had to rank continents as a whole with the best chances of sustaining some form of civilization after a crash, it would be North America first and probably South America second. Europe would be a distant third largely because of the presence of land routes to Asia and Africa. Now I do not mean to suggest that North America has a good chance of pulling this off. Quite the contrary. I think North America's chances are extremely poor, just that the other continents are in even worse condition.

Cobb's problem is that he does not accept the above overshoot population curve. In his mind some combination of actions still must exist that can save all those still living, if we all just agree to a somewhat (undefined) lower standard of living.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

We Fool Ourselves

Many people today still believe we can mitigate the impact of the biological overshoot event going on around us. I do not. Africa is already a dead continent. Bangladesh is already a dead nation. Not driving your SUV now won't change that. What not driving the SUV now might do is save North America from ending up a dead continent.

In 1500 the world's population was 600-700 million, total. 430 years later, in 1930, the world's population was 2.0 billion. Now, a mere 76 years later, world population is closing on 7 billion, more than a 350% increase in the span of one human life. You are living inside the context of a massive biological overshoot event. That's why this doesn't seem odd to you naturally. This is all you have ever known. Likewise, homo sapiens evolved inside the context of an extinction event that began about 3 million years ago with the rise of the Central American isthmus due to volcanic activity. Biologists have commented that we, today, would be overwhelmed by the density and diversity of biological activity before the Central American isthmus rose from the sea floor. Likewise, we, today, would be overwhelmed at how utterly "wild" the world would have seemed a mere 500 years ago, even in Europe or China which were both at fairly high populations for that time. For us, the current situation is "normal" but is it really "normal" for our species? Is growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1975-1995 period normal? No, yet children grew to adulthood there taking with the severely skewed views into their adult mindset. Likewise, because we have all been born and grown up inside the context of an overshoot event, we can't see it unless we deliberately step back and assess it in the light of cold, hard factual data.

Look really hard at the graph to the right. That's a case of classic biological exponential growth way past the limits of the surrounding environment, way into overshoot. People who argue that maybe we can support 5 billion or 2 billion people don't "get it" at all. Our biosphere was degrading when population was a mere half billion.

So we're into overshoot by a country mile. All of the rest of the resource issues are side effects from this root cause that no one wants to discuss seriously. No one wants to even discuss the side effects seriously, such as oil depletion, freshwater aquifer depletion, topsoil erosion, fishery collapse, etc. If we can't even approach the side effects seriously, how can we be expected to address the core issue?

And the answer to that is obvious but painfully traumatic - we cannot and will not address any of this in a manner that helps until it is too late. This is why major figures in various sciences related to the biosphere have looked around and simply given up. They've retired from public debate because they realize they cannot save the bulk of homo sapiens.

I say the above in light of absurd pronouncements like Cambridge Energy Research Associates latest release: Why the "Peak Oil" Theory Falls Down — Myths, Legends and the Future of Oil Resources by Peter M. Jackson. In this piece of pseudo scientific hogwash they posit a future of nearly limitless oil supplies running to nearly the end of this century. They do this with degrees in, for example, English, while serious geologists and physicists who disagree with this nonsense are dismissed as cultists.

I am not personally wealthy enough to drive such a project but somewhere I do hope that someone is building a "lifeboat" that will carry some fragment of what is good about our current civilization through to the future. I hope that scientific information can be transcribed to a form that will withstand the passage of thousands of years and a variable environment. And hopefully someone will be left alive to read those transcriptions to perhaps build a better and saner society than we've done. What makes this truly sad is that this outcome is probably the best that we can hope for given human nature and our obsession with the extremely short term perspective.