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Saturday, August 17, 2019
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My Zen meditation group often uses a portion of its weekly sitting period to discuss a selected passage from a book that relates to Zen practice. I’ve been attending these weekly sittings now for almost 10 years, and at first I would diligently read the assigned piece and arrive ready to discuss it. But after a while, the book chapters seemed to blur together and the discussions become more and more anodyne. Most of the time, the discussions become something of a psychotherapy group session, and I usually find myself tuning out.

However, this past Sunday morning, one of the long-time sangha members said something that caught my attention. This person confessed that he sometimes wonders whether the human race is on its way to extinction due to its failure to adequately address climate change. His comment really didn’t have anything to do with the reading; it was just a feeling that this fellow wanted to share with the group, a feeling of bewilderment and regret and disappointment. Well, that’s the kind of stuff that gets shared during therapy group sessions!

But it struck me that he was enumerating an idea that has gained popularity of late amidst the liberal educated elite. Not long ago, a think tank report from an Australian policy group called “Breakthrough Center for Climate Restoration” suggested that climate change “threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life”. “David Spratt and Ian Dunlop have laid bare the unvarnished truth about the desperate situation humans, and our planet, are in, painting a disturbing picture of the real possibility that human life on earth may be on the way to extinction, in the most horrible way”.

Not surprisingly, this report “went viral” on Facebook and regular media, because it uses 2050 as a benchmark for much of its analysis. As a result, a currently trending “meme” is that climate change will wipe out human-kind by 2050. Some politicians e.g. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have picked up on this trope, and have made public speeches suggesting that human extinction from climate change is a real possibility.

However, the report itself focuses mainly on the matter of civilizational collapse, not on human extinction. The year 2050 is cited as the “beginning of the end” for human civilization, a point of no return. As with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, it would not happen all at once; however, given the extreme global interconnection of today’s economic, social and political systems, it would certainly happen much more rapidly than the 300 year “fall of Rome”. But complete human extinction is neither rigorously analyzed nor supported in this report; the report uses the words “extinction” twice, but does not back up the notion with discussion and analysis. It also uses “uninhabitable”, but qualifies that word in terms of “a largely uninhabitable earth”.

A recent article in Vox reviews the Australian report and the social and political response that it has generated. The Vox article tells us that the scientific community responded negatively to the “extinction” aspect of the report and to the media “headlines” that resulted from it.

This article is worth reading, IMHO. It indicates that most scientists who have studied the history of human evolution and civilizational progress agree that some human beings could adapt to an extreme global climate change situation along with the civilizational collapse that would presumably follow. IN SUM, full-scale human extinction is highly unlikely even in the worst-worst-worst case scenarios.

The article indicates that most analysts are not even calling for a complete collapse of human technological civilization. However, they are certainly anticipating an “end of progress”, a lowering of the size of the human population, and a reversion of economic and social conditions to say 1980 or 1950. They seem to agree that in the longer term, say 250-500 years, a new equilibrium will be reached and human progress could possibly resume, once human resource use reaches sustainable levels and the “shock-waves” from the collapse have dissipated.

Obviously, the process by which this “new equilibrium” will be reached will be negative for a majority of the world’s population, and horrific for hundreds of millions. There will be terrorism and wars (possibly involving nuclear and other mass-destruction weapons), refugees, increased poverty, famine and epidemics. In sum, many people will die well before their natural life expectancy. The suffering will be spread unevenly, even if the “adjustment” is to 1980-like conditions. Technology advance will be slowed up or partly reversed.

In the US and developed nations, some of the luxuries we take for granted would probably no longer be available. E.g. internet access and small computer devices (smart phones) may become too expensive for a majority of people in even the developed world, and become totally off limits in the developing world. With global supply chains threatened, we won’t have all of the foods that we see in our supermarkets today. Amazon will have a lot less to sell and at higher prices and lower quality. Overnight shipping will be gone. Personal transportation will change, and we probably won’t own our individual vehicles anymore. Eating out will become an increasingly rare luxury, and our daily food choices will be much more limited, although we will still have adequate food most of the time. Clean water, let’s hope so! Medical technology will be rationed.

That will be in urban-suburban USA and other better-off places. Obviously, in the worse-off places, whatever they have gained from civilization thus far, e.g. sneakers and electricity and radios and boom boxes, will disappear. And there will be more and more disease and death.

One of the worst effects of the decline of technology in a society threatened by climate change is that technology is needed to develop and implement green energy solutions. If we have to slow down or stop implementing non-carbon technology and forego the systems that could retrieve carbon from the atmosphere, then the humans that survive will continue to put carbon and methane into the atmosphere. Technology could come to the rescue if there is enough time; but if time runs out on civilization before technology can significantly de-carbonize our economy and start reversing the damage (by carbon retrieval and geo-engineering), then a techno-collapse is inevitable. And it will only be deeper because the surviving humans will still be carbon-burners (albeit, not as bad as we are because there will be many less of them, and they will be living at a much lower standard of living).

The bottom line is that human extinction from climate changes still has a less than 1% probability even in the worst case foreseeable projections. The question is this, in a nutshell: what year in the past will humanity be re-set to when the bottom is hit, once the collapse gets underway. Will it be 1980? 1950? 1850? 1600? 800? 300 BCE? 2000 BCE? Or all the way back to 12,000 BCE, with simple agrarian and hunter-gathering clans using very rudimentary language, no more nation-states, no more cities, no more trade and traveling.

For whatever year you choose – remember, you go back to the world population level at that time. So, how many humans need to die over the next 200-500 years in order to reach a “bottoming-out” point after the collapse? 1 billion? 3 billion? 5 billion? 7 billion? How many humans will be alive when the bottom-point is reached? 5 billion? 1 billion? 250 million? Those are key questions, IMHO.

Again, the Vox article indicates that most analysts are still “relatively optimistic” as to what the “re-set year” will be (remembering that ANY re-set year involves millions and possibly billions of premature deaths and innumerable suffering over the next 100-300 years). They seem to think it will still be 1950 or greater.

Personally, I believe that there is a fairly good chance that the “slide” will be bigger than that, that humanity is heading towards pre-1900 social / economic / technology conditions and population levels over the next 100-200 years. There have been a number of thoughtful books and articles and studies written about how highly complex and interconnected our world is today, how growing technical connection, complexity and interdependence has eliminated redundancy, local diversity and sustainability, along with our systematic ability to respond to unanticipated shocks. Thus, the infrastructure of the modern world may be much more frail than we expect. The upcoming accelerating effects of climate change will certainly test these theories!

Professor Joseph Tainter is one person who has written a lot about this in recent years – Tainter’s theory has been described in a nutshell as “civilizational overshoot”. I.e. over-shooting in terms of resource usage, social order and stability requirements, and reliance upon never-ending science and technology achievements (which are ultimately random, not predictable) – i.e., we overshot the sustainable zone. How does “overshoot” relate to climate change, which has been cited in many studies as a primary source for civilizational collapse in the past? Some academics see the two as distinct phenomenon, but many are now realizing that both go hand in hand – overshoot and climate change together make the perfect storm.

A small but interesting example of modern systemic frailty and overshoot involves the banana. Bananas are an unsung triumph of modern commercial farming and international commerce. They are cheap, popular, and widely available throughout the developed world. But bananas involve a complex supply chain reaching back to farms and banana trees in the tropics. There are many different types of bananas in the natural world, but our supermarkets are stocked with one main variety, the Cavendish banana.

For over 50 years, the Cavendish has been the perfect banana as far as the produce industry is concerned. It is (or was) a hardly plant species that grew well and resisted pests, it can be picked transported with little damage, it doesn’t go rotten during transit and distribution, and is pleasing to northern consumers. Unfortunately, a fungus has finally evolved that will probably cause the Cavendish to become extinct. This fungus has ravaged Cavendish trees, first in Asia and Australia, next in Africa, and now in South America, where most commercial bananas are grown.

Unfortunately, the banana industry became completely reliant on one species, and thus there aren’t any other banana species that can take the place of the Cavendish. The unsustainable frailty and “overshoot” of an efficient mono-cultural bio-system has finally been exposed by nature.

Can commercial technology now save itself from its own mistakes, is there something that can save us from empty banana trays (or $2.99 per pound signs in the produce section for the Blue Java banana, which supposedly tastes like ice cream)? A group of biotechnology scientists from Australia have reportedly genetically engineered a Cavendish that can resist the killer fungus. Tests are now underway to see if the GMO Cavendish can do everything the old Cavendish could do. But even if it can, will American and European consumers overcome their fear of “frankenfood” and learn to live with genetic engineering?

My zendo friend said that he wasn’t going to live to see the ultimate outcome of climate change. I am about his age, and I agree with him. We probably aren’t even going to be around at the point when civilizational decline might start to accelerate, e.g. around 2050. But for the rest of our lives, we will see more and more signs in the wind. And the reaction and collective response of our society during our life-times may be very disappointing, despite increasing public awareness and foreseeability.

Human life on this planet will go on one way or another; but much of the human societal legacy, much of what was good about technology-based civilization, may be lost for many decades and centuries. Human civilization may be entering another one of those 500-1000 year cycles of decline and eventual re-birth. Hopefully, during the re-birth stage in perhaps the 24th, 25th or 26th century, humans will remember our mistakes and re-discover our green technology, make it even better, and thus build a new economy and society entirely based on non-carbon infrastructure (and non-monocultural agriculture).

Life might go on for those indigenous tribes in South America and Africa that live off the land and have relatively little dependence on modern technology. There was a fascinating article in Scientific American recently about the “uncontacted peoples” of Brazil and Columbia, with similar articles in National Geographic.

However, these tribes may need to migrate northward or southward, as their own equatorial lands may become increasingly uninhabitable. Some won’t survive, I would guess. But some will find new niches in the remaining “habitable islands” on the planet. Many people from the developing world will learn to adapt without civilization and migrate to the habitable zones. However, most of us from the urban-suburban modern world won’t make the cut – I certainly could not go “off the grid” and “live off the land”. Perhaps the second amendment people with their guns, knives and fishing poles could!

But the dreams and optimism that we American suburbanites tasted in the late 1950s and early 1960s, of un-impeded progress into the future, of humankind solving all of its major problems, of our setting off to explore and spread our legacy to the planets and even to the stars – that may get put on hold for a half-millennium or so. Do you remember the song “IGY (What A Beautiful World)” by Steely Dan?

I wish that I could say something more optimistic, or suggest things that we can all do to avoid what I describe. But really, to me climate change along with a multi-century downturn in social-economic progress is starting to look like something that can’t be avoided at this point (although mitigation might still be in play).

I apologize for the fatalism. However, the American political system is now terribly polarized and is unable to find solutions to huge but solvable problems such as finding a practical and yet moral policy towards immigration and existing immigrants. So I’m not optimistic that the American political system is going to arrive at a truly helpful and effective policy approach that could prevent or significantly mitigate climate change. Something will be done only after it becomes entirely clear to everyone that our economy and civilization is starting to decay because of climate change.

To whoever feels that political activism can make a positive difference, I encourage them to pursue it. I respect the political leaders who are addressing this situation — I just hope that they will keep the facts straight. We are talking about some really terrible things that may well happen; but NOT human extinction. I wish that they would focus on what I have described here — which is still pretty darn terrible !!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:11 pm      

  1. It seems to me there is a need for every tribe to subscribe to a doomsday scenario for which some form of atonement must be exercised on the part of the populace. The Second Coming, nuclear holocaust, Y2K, and now climate change.

    I would not doubt that unabated global warming will be a catalyst for disruption up to and including mass migration leading to wars among the nations. Changes in climate have had those impacts throughout history.

    Human extinction? That sounds like click bait to me.

    Getting back to doomsday stuff, here are some gems that CNN posted:

    The Aztecs, who lived in what is modern-day Mexico from the 14th to 16th centuries, believed that the earth would be ended by a never-ending solar eclipse.

    The teachings of the Native American Hopi tribe predict that the world will be covered with iron snakes, stone rivers, and a giant spider’s web. The seas will turn black and a huge blue star will crash into the planet.

    The end of the world, according to Norse mythology, happens in an all-destroying battle between the gods.

    Zoroastrians believe that the earth will be devoured by fire, after which sinners will be punished for three days — and then forgiven.

    The Bible says that the end of the world will be marked by a complete unraveling of society, including widespread calamity and war. The righteous will be raptured and directly lifted into heaven.

    Comment by Allan Lacki — August 18, 2019 @ 1:23 pm

  2. Hi AL!! Thanks so much for checking in!!!

    Jim G

    Comment by Jim G — August 18, 2019 @ 9:05 pm

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