Thursday, June 9, 2016

Book Review: Dodging Extinction (Part 2)

 abbreviations used:

CC- climate change
CO2 - carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, responsible for global warming
GW - global warming

Now to get down to brass tacks..

           Prof Barnosky is a well intentioned academic. We agree on most things I think. One major area of disagreement - aside from the utility / safety of nuclear reactors - is the question of how chaotic the future really will be (or has the potential for being). In the argument that follows I will invoke the precautionary principle which, in my reading, says something like this: don't do something with a high risk unless there is a good reason. Legitimately, you might administer a potentially dangerous drug to a child with a dangerous cancer if no other therapy offered itself. Conversely, you should not play Russian roulette for $100: under normal circumstances one's life should be worth more than $100..

           In my reading, there is a significantly high risk of large scale social breakdown occuring within the next 100 years (and probably less than half that). This suggests the need to build "Cultural Refugia" to preserve the best that world civilization has built, discovered or acquired over the last 5000 years. (note 1) 


                              Brass tacks... 

             Of course, such a position makes me a Doomer (in Christian fundamentalist terms: a believer in the End Days). I wasn't always one. In fact such a position is actually contrary to my native "glandular optimism". As a kid and young teenager growing up in the the USA during the 1960s, I believed that some "Nordic Protestant" societies - the English speaking world and the Scandinavian countries in particular - would provide "working models" of development for the decolonizing third world. 

           Then, alas, came the Viet Nam war, the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations and the world went to the dogs (or rather to the reactionaries). Meanwhile, I was becoming initiated into American Right wing politics. The town I grew up in, "Bircherville", was run by the extremist John Birch Society and other extremist organizations. Two of the three top students who gave speeches at my high school graduation ceremony were members of the even more fanatical Minutemen: 

               Then, in university, I read the "Club of Rome" report, The Limits to Growth (1972), not long after its publication. I found the mathematical modeling well done (conservative assumptions, consistently applied). It convinced me - if more convincing were needed! - that the world was collectively in trouble: 

- overpopulation (at least in some regions)
- non-renewable resource depletion, 
- pollution, 
- habitat destruction / species extinction, 
- the threat of nuclear war (driven by political fanaticism, fueled by poverty and inequitable access to the world's resources).

              In those days, the 1970s, few spoke of "pollution's" real dangers: climate change (CC) and the attendant negative impacts on global food production on an already overpopulated planet. Nor of the attendant geopolitical stability implications on a world possessing nuclear weapons and nuclear electric plants (which can produce, as waste, elements capable of producing various types of radioactive bombs).

An interesting time sequence: changes in Florida's coastline from the the last ice age (when massive amounts of water were locked up in continental glaciers)  to a globally warmed future with sea levels 5 meters higher than today. See note 2


                 In the long run, the "kicker", as they say, was the failure of my generation, the Baby Boomers (1946 - 1963), to address these problems which, worse, tend to mutually re-inforce each other. (The positive side is that, because they are so intertwined, dealing with one of them tends to make it easier to deal with the others. Addressing CC - through reducing CO2 emissions - helps reduce future coastal city flooding and the risk of food shortages with their potential for spawning terrorism and regional political instability.)

                 Boomers did not take the dire warning of Limits to Growth seriously. We did not switch to renewable energy. The wealthy nations did not peg development aid to progress in birth reduction (and to the support of social programs which would make it realistic for people in the third world to consider having less children: pensions for old people, female education, access to contraception..) For many years I denied that my generation could be so stupid, so deluded, so narcissistic as to continue down a social - economic -ecological trajectory which was patently suicidal..

               I can no longer deny reality! We have waited too long to make a smooth conversion to a post peak fossil energy economy. There will be hell to pay.

               I am not a hardcore Doomer. I am not one of those humanity haters who believe that humanity's death will be a good thing: "the human race is a cancer on the earth!". I find it improbable that all life on earth will go extinct as earth turns into a greenhouse hellhole like the planet Venus. As a "glandular optimist", I believe that recovery / rebound after collapse is possible. As I used to be fond of saying: history is littered with the wreckage of dead civilizations. 

               Similarly, the Cretaceous - Paleogene mass extinction, 65 million years ago, brought the rule of the dinosaurs and flying reptiles to an end, but ushered in the rule of the formerly downtrodden mammals and birds: the meek shall inherit the earth. As I see things, when the poo hits the fan, there are winners and losers.. This makes me a "squishy soft Doomer", I guess.. 

              Over the weekend, when I was contemplating this article, I began musing on the parallels between globalized technocratic industrial society and the late Roman empire which I have noticed or encountered in reading and speech over the years. The list is actually quite impressive, longer than I imagined (and probably not exhaustive..): 

- the proliferation of pornography,

- "decadant opulence": one's personal sense of worth is primarily derived from looking down on someone else, not on one's personal merit or accomplishments,

- vernacular (popular, vulagar or obscence) language takes over in literature (and its modern equivalents: film, tv..)

- declining literacy: our oft-bemoaned "reduced attention spans" and the bizarre epidemic of "learning and attention disorders" of various types,

- cultural degeneration: "dumbing down", trivilization, the cult of spectator sport and spectacle, the reduction of art / culture to mind-dimming (but overstimulating) "entertainment" (think of the Roman gladitorial games..) 

- growing gap between rich and poor (and it's negative impacts on social cohesion)

- counter-productive (Pyrrhic) foreign wars (from Kennedy's Vietnam war through Reagan's final war on Communism - we put Putin in power! - to Bushwackos war in Iraq..), the West's support of tyrants everywhere..

- liberalization of morals: freer sexual codes, high rate of divorce, expanded civil rights, expansion of voting rights.. (Not all changes are bad! I'm simply making a comparative list for two historical eras.)

- confusion of genders: the later Romans had some of the sexual "polymorphism" and ambiguity we show today. (Again, I'm not evaluating changes, just noting.)

- economic stagnation: the dominant Economic System (see Appendix: Plundernomics) has exhausted its options and enters into a terminal Death Spiral. Yet we, Novi Romani, like the Old Romans, seem incapable of really thinking outside the box when it comes to needed economic and technological innovation.

- ecological bankruptcy: we destroy the earth which feeds us. We are just more technological "advanced" than the Romans (and our world population about 30 times larger!) Therefore we do vastly more ecological damage than they ever could..

- ruling elites becoming increasingly disconnected from reality: "(functionally) insane", "depraved" (the Sixth Extinction of life on earth, human caused, is occurring on our watch..), "deluded", "anti-life" (Nietzsche, Erich Fromm)

- bankruptcy of democratic processes and law: multinationals have their hands up the backsides of all national governments who function as their puppet-servitors.

- climate of cynicism, despair, doom and the attendant, often unacknowledged, desire for transcendance, liberation, transformation, revolution. "End Days", end of the world cults of various forms proliferate along with other abortive attempts to escape or rebel: drugs, promiscuity, entertainment, extreme sports, fanatical political movements..

         I was surprised how long the list is (but then, I've had a lifetime to work on it).

         What the parallels between ancient Rome and Nova Roma mean, I think, is that we, like them, are at the end of our reign. We are living an era of transition. These are "Times of Troubles", of "anxiety" (the existentialists) when the "old road maps of reality" no longer function. Yet we have no new maps to deal with the unknown (and unknowable) new world that is emerging. (And unless humanity actually does manage to make itself go extinct, there will be a new world arising from the present impasse, collapse and transformation..) Since humans crave, above all else, a world that is ordered (as opposed to chaotic or "absurd"), to live in such an era is, as the French say, "anxiogène" - anxiety generating.   
           To be continued in Dodging Extinction: Part 3 - what can be done?

Appendix: Plundernomics  

The Imperial State, Patriarchy and Plundernomics. To a large degree I follow the schema of social evolution proposed by French sociologist and philosopher of Self-Organization, Edgar Morin.

           Early proto-human and human communities - which cover the quasi-totality of human history! - were small agglomerations (or "packs") of several dozen to (maybe) a thousand indviduals. These were traditional hunter-gatherer (possibly scavenger) societies. They had relatively little social hierarchy (it still existed though!) Democratic decision making was, if not the absolute rule, at least a common norm for these early societies. Men and women, according to travellers, ancient and modern, were more equal in respect, dignity and influence among hunter-gatherers than in "civlilized" societies.

            Around 8,000 years ago (my estimate), a new form of society appeared. Agriculture (grain culture in the Middle East) brought with it sedentarization and the possibility of accumulating surpluses and "infrastructure": controlled territory, fortifications, livestock, and accumulated "surplus labor" in the form of hard currency like trade tobacco, wampum belts, conch shells and soft metals like lead, silver, gold. Military expansion by dominant, militarized clans and tribes permitted even greater accumulation. One grew by stealing from and / or enslaving the neighbors.

             Intensified warfare, of course, bred technological development. Copper weapons conquered weapons of wood and bone. Bronze weilding warriors conquered copper age armies. Then iron conquered bronze.. Centralized power meant steeper and more elaborate social hierarchies; slavery was invented. Trade networks flourished, large towns and cities appeared as well as increasingly specialized forms of labor (professions and artisan crafts). The invention of writing further accelerated the rise of technological mastery by facilitating the acquisition, elaboration and transmission of technical knowledge. 

             In modern times, the acceleration of warfare eventually led to the emergence of science. The great wars of the 20th century carried this process to its ultimate conclusion, producing mutually reinforcing symbiotic linkages between science and technology. Science suggested new weapons (atom bomb), the development of which led to new technologies (the computer, needed to solve the equations necessary to purify bomb grade uranium). Technology, in turn, exapands the reach of science: computers permit astronomers to detect exo-planets orbiting distant stars. This tight, mutually re-inforcing symbiosis between Science and Technology has produced an incredible explosion of knowledge in the last century: nuclear arms and energy, rockets, computers, jet aircraft, space flight, satellite communications, cybernetics, the computer.. 

           Edgar Morin, the philosopher of Self-Organization, refers to the dominant societies in this stage of civilization, now ending, as "Imperial States" or "historical societies" (possessing a written history). I use these terms interchangeably with "Patriarchy" (or "patriarchal cultures"). I have dubbed the dominant economic model of these societies "Plundernomics": economics based on plunder, military expansion and colonization, exploitation in all its forms (woman by man, slave by master, conquered by conquerer, nature by humanity..)

            The latest, most intense phase of plundernomics occurred during the past millennium of world domination by "Christian" Europe. I have found the following chronological schema a useful guide to thinking.

The Emergence, "Fulmination" and Fall of Europe Bourgeois (or "Late Christian") civilization  

Emergence: circa 1150 - 1500 CE. Early rise of modern European bourgeoisie (middle class). Growth of cities, towns and trade. Rising status, influence and power of the mercantile classes. 

Fulmination ("a violent explosion or a flash like lightning"): 1500 - 1850 CE. Discovery / plunder / colonization of the New World, Africa, Asia, etc by European "Imperial States". Absolute domination of the middle class: the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century were, above all, bourgeois revolutions. The profit of multinational corporations has become our de facto god and the ironclad "laws of the free market" his will / his law. This phase ended with the "commercial circumnavigation" of the globe, circa 1850. Recall: "the sun never sets on the British Empire" (because it was globe-girdling). Post-1850, there were no new lands left to conquer / plunder / colonize, no new resources to squander for the short term profit of the bourgeois elite and their Frankenstinean creation, the multinational. Bourgeois civilization had reached its "Limits to Growth" - the end was now in sight!

Decadance and Fall1850 - 2200 (??) CE. With an obselete economic model - plundernomics, Bourgeois civilization must either 1- die or 2- mutate into something different than it is now. Either way, the poo is in the fan: a Time of Troubles when the old roadmaps of reality no longer work.

          The most recent avatar of plundernomics has given us the (hyper-)"consumer society". In this pathological, overstimulated economy, the reckless consumption of goods and services substitutes for

- addressing the real, urgent problems facing society and
- developing meaningful relations with self, others, society and the natural world.

           The ruse is actually quite clever when you start deconstructing it! Consumer "society" substitutes externally programmed "secondary drives" (pathological consumption of unnecessary stuff) for real significance embodying activities and relations (primary human drives or needs). This swindle creates a (theoretically) endless demand for industrial junk no one really needs (!!) What a scam! Can't beat that one (only religion at its worse can come close). Because, you see, since primary needs (self-expression through work, shared endeavor, love, a sense of meaning or purpose in life, capacity for wonder..) are not being met by consumerism, frustration remains in the core of the person. This frustration is then manipulated by commercial promotion to stimulate still more (over-)consumption of junk one does not need. It's the typical addictive cycle of the junkie or hypoglycemic sugar addict. The "fix" wears off fast and one needs another "boost" soon enough (which, of course, keeps the wheels of industry rolling and over-inflated bottom lines and CEO perks roiling..) 

              "Ostentatious rank-assigning consumption" feeds off the human need (like other mammals) to define a social status for oneself. Ostentation consumption substitutes for personal worth and merit in determining one's social rank. "I consume more than you therefore I am better than you!". Social rank assignment becomes a totally negative exercise. One is not honored for ones accomplishments but by the negative (demeaning, degrading) compasison with another, less fortunate or entitled, than oneself. The modern West has deviated very far indeed from the ideals expressed in the French and American Revolutions: freedom, equality, fraternity!


1- refugia (plural. Singular form: refugium, from Latin)
"an area where special environmental circumstances have enabled a species or a community of species to survive after extinction in surrounding areas" (from These would be ecological refugia. I am borrowing the term to apply to creating refugia for human cultural acquisitions.

2 - sea level changes: These are due to various factors. In the present context of GW, two factors dominate. One is the thermal expansion of water which occupies more volume when warmed. The actual increase in volume of seawater is tiny, of course, but the increased volume expands over the very shallow sloped continental shelves. This means that a tiny (relative) increase in the volume of the (huge) ocean will flood a lot of continental shelf as the following graphic shows.

            Another major factor in current sea level rise is the melting of continental glaciers and ice sheets: the Greenland ice sheet, mountain glacier systems.. Lack of knowledge of the stability of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets makes it difficult to predict how much oceans actually will rise. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts, roughly, a 1.5 to 5 foot (50 cm to 1.5 meter) rise by 2100. These estimates are generally seen as conservative and do not seem to take fully into account the accelerating ice dynamics of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. How much sea level will rise is a big unknown but we can say with certainty that IPCC estimates to date are underestimating the full future impacts.

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