How to Read This Blog


HOW TO READ THIS BLOG:

To get the most out of this blog, I recommend beginning with the earliest post and proceeding in chronological order. For the most part this blog, like a planning document, builds on data and rationale in a linear manner. You may find value in individual posts taken in isolation, but I suspect your experience will be richer if you follow the intended progression.

Friday, July 22, 2016

WPS 6: Projection of Future Conditions- The Limits to Growth, Climate, and Timeline

Bringing It All Together:  The Limits to Growth

The work and ideas of the many experts cited in the previous post do not stand in isolation.  Ideas are shared and build on one another, and in this analysis we will examine one more highly influential piece of work that attempts to pull all of these complex macro factors together into a single planning-level analysis and projection.  Interestingly, this is not a new study- this work has been available to the public for more than 40 years!

In 1972 an organization called the Club of Rome commissioned a study to look at world conditions and project possible outcomes.  The study authors were Donella Meadows, PhD, Dennis Meadows, PhD, Jorgen Randers, PhD, and William Behrens III, PhD.  They called their work The Limits to Growth.

This study is probably one of the better known pieces of work in the planning community, even if it isn't commonly referred to for decision making.  My own perception is that it is generally viewed as a cautionary tale, but then dismissed in favor of more fashionable and optimistic outlooks.  Basically techno-utopianism.

In the original 1972 study, a variety of factors were modeled according to system dynamics theory using a computer program called World3.  A dozen scenarios were assembled and tested, resulting in a various results from sustainability to overshoot and collapse.  While the Business as Usual (BAU) projection resulted in collapse, it appeared at that time that there were options available that would avoid this outcome.

By 1992, in the 20-year update to the study, conditions had changed considerably.  Trends had continued to follow the BAU scenario and there were many areas where overshoot was already apparent.

In 2002, the team once again updated the study (30 years later) and found more of the same.  The nature of collapse explored in that study looks like this, with actual data to the year 2000 included:





The 30-year update to Limits to Growth modeled 9 new scenarios looking forward into the 21st century, and one "imaginary" scenario where the recommendations of the first study were modeled as if they had been implemented in 1982.  Of the 9 forward-looking scenarios, all resulted in overshoot and collapse except for one.  A few were successful in delaying collapse for a few decades, to the middle of the 21st century.  The imaginary scenario showed that the 1972 recommendations would have saved the world.  If only we had listened...

The one scenario that resulted in a sustainable future imposed a number of strict conditions on the variables.  The conditions that avoided collapse were:  world commitment to a 2 child limit, limits to material production, increased resource efficiency, decreased pollution per unit of industrial output, reversal of land erosion, and deployment of technology to abate pollution and increase agricultural production.

To succeed, all of this had to begin in 2002.  Of course, it did not.

In 2012 there was not an official update to the study, but we can see that all of the trends continue to track the BAU projections through 2010.  Because the proposals put forward in 2002 were once again not implemented, the world continues its trajectory towards collapse.


The Limits to Growth shows us the variables that will define the future of humanity.  As the name implies, the limits of a finite planet will come into play in the near term, and these limits are not compatible with a civilization that requires constant growth.  However, there is one element of systemic entropy that requires further discussion because it has the potential to impact life on Earth more than any other factor.  That element is anthropogenic carbon dioxide and the resulting change in climate.


The Greatest Existential Threat:  Climate Change

Finally, in 2016, it seems that the importance of human-induced climate change has achieved general acceptance in the world at large.  Unfortunately, science seems to tell us that the COP21 commitment to keep warming to under 1.5 degrees C above baseline is a complete impossibility.  In our examination of existing conditions, we've seen how rapid increases in CO2 concentrations is driving rapid global warming, and that we've already traversed more than half the distance to the 1.5 degree target.

Even using estimates from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is by nature fairly conservative, the modeled rise in temperature for the high emissions scenario is 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 with a range of 2.4 C - 6.4 C.  Placing this on our long-term historical timeline, looking back to the stone age, we can see just how radical of an anomaly this will be.  If you think it's hot this summer, you haven't seen anything yet.





As catastrophic as the IPCC projections would be, they pale in comparison to the other possible outcomes that can result from unmodeled interactions with other factors.  Here is where we look to Guy McPherson, PhD, for extensive research and documentation on these other factors and how they will likely effect one another.  McPherson is an emeritus professor of natural resources, ecology, and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona.  With his background in biology, the perspective he brings to climate science is unique in that it considers the interplay of climate, habitat, and living things.  He has a fascinating life story that is indicative of what happens to people when they speak outside of the acceptable bounds of discussion, and I encourage the reader to explore his blog, books, and videos.  You can learn more at his website, Nature Bats Last:  http://guymcpherson.com/ .

For the purposes of projecting future conditions, McPherson maintains an absolutely massive tome of information related to climate change from across many interrelated disciplines.  He begins with the "standard models" and projections endorsed by the IPCC, but casts a much wider net to include additional feedback loops not considered by these models.  The full text of McPherson's constantly updated essay on climate change is available here: http://guymcpherson.com/climate-chaos/climate-change-summary-and-update/ .  Rather than reciting and repeating the many references to primary sources gathered by McPherson, this information is best explored directly through his essay.

McPherson's basic conclusion is that climate change is now exponential and is being accelerated by self-reinforcing feedback loops.  For example, ocean heating causes arctic ice to melt which darkens the ocean so that it absorbs more heat.  Melting tundra releases methane from the ground, which is itself a potent greenhouse gas.  Even shutting down the industrial activity that has caused all of this heating would have an adverse effect, as the global cooling caused by the release of aerosols into the air would end and result in even more warming.  

There are long lists of these feedback loops which could trigger significant rises in temperature- and even remaining within the COP21 range established in Paris does not protect us from them.  The graphic below (discussed in that radical environmental rag, the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/06/23/this-chart-perfectly-explains-whats-at-stake-in-the-quest-to-stop-climate-change/ ) shows the range at which these tipping points may be reached, as well as the potential warming impact if they are.  (WAIS stands for West Antarctic Ice Sheet)

Schellnhuber et al., Nature Climate Change.

In addition to McPherson's work, the website Arctic News at http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/  extensively explores many of these feedback loops, with a particular focus on events in the arctic involving methane release.  Projecting the impact of accelerated heating in the arctic and the triggering of feedback loops results in a picture of runaway global warming to unimaginable levels.  McPherson and Arctic News arrive at the same general conclusion: abrupt climate change has been triggered and will have a massive impact on ecosystems before 2030.




I will disclose the obvious fact that McPherson's work (as well as the information presented by Arctic News) can be a flashpoint for controversy- but not so much for the data he compiles and presents.  He receives great criticism for his conclusion that these changes will result in such great destruction to the global ecosystem that habitat will no longer exist for humans, resulting in "near term human extinction."  This triggers tangible emotional reactions in people- how can it not?  However, if his projections are even partially correct it's hard to argue with his logic.  It would seem that this outcome is certainly on the table.



Conclusions and Timeline

To draw the curtain on our projection of future conditions, we don't really need to resolve the question of whether we concur with McPherson's prediction of near term human extinction.  Stepping back for a moment and considering the nature of our planning process, what we really need to establish is the general trajectory of things.  In the planning world we often have to pull ourselves up out of the details and remember we're talking about the big picture.

Mainstream projections show an ongoing growth in all things:  population, energy, consumption, pollution, industrialization.  Everything.  What our analysis shows us is a much more likely trajectory in the opposite direction:  stagnation, collapse, regression, reduction in population, cessation of energy production.

Whether or not habitat for humans is completely decimated by 2030, or whether 6.4 billion or all 7.4 billion people perish by that time, is in the details.  The point is- the DIRECTION of things is down from here, not up.

The sequence of collapsing societies has been mapped by engineer and writer Dmitry Orlov based on his experience and research into the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Orlov maintains a blog at http://cluborlov.blogspot.com .  In his book The Five Stages of Collapse, he posits that a collapsing civilization will experience distinct phases.  He observes that the process begins with financial collapse, which appears to be underway now.  Following financial collapse comes commercial, then political, social, and finally cultural collapse.  At the point of cultural collapse things have degenerated to the point that all faith in the "goodness of humanity" is lost.

The big question remains: what is the timeline for the truly baked-in consequences?  Like the human extinction discussion, there is a lot of speculation and opinion about this as well.  Here is my best effort at describing what I perceive as the most likely scenario, give or take:

NEAR TERM

The Limits to Growth BAU forecast seems to correlate well with the more contemporary research of academicians and professionals like Ugo Bardi and Gail Tverberg.  If we use the Limits to Growth as a baseline, we can assume that we are currently in the initial stages of collapse leading to a decline in per capita industrial output between now and 2020.  During the next 5 years or so we should expect world economic and geopolitical conditions to continue to deteriorate, with large "gaps down" occurring as a result of monetary and fiscal crises.  These crises will likely be preceded by trigger events such as debt defaults, terrorist events, and political turmoil.  For example the recent "Brexit" vote (the UK referendum to leave the EU) is one potentially destabilizing event that will likely cascade into other trigger events.  Severe weather events will continue to exacerbate humanitarian crises, regional wars, and major emigration from the areas with the poorest conditions for human health.

MID TERM

By 2020-2025, all of the indicators for standard of living should reverse themselves, meaning in addition to declining industrial output per capita there will be declining services per capita and declining food per capita.  In other words, economic contraction becomes so extreme that there will be a widespread scarcity of food, services, and other goods expanding from the periphery of civilization into some of the more centrally-positioned countries.  Between 2020 and 2030 is where we encounter the Seneca Cliff slope of decline, where economies and governments collapse first at the fringes, then in more developed and industrial societies.  This is where the economic, environmental, and health stratification we reviewed earlier becomes increasingly important- those areas that are the most prone to drought, famine, poverty, and poor health outcomes will be the first to deteriorate into chaos.  Efforts to hold institutions together will result in wars, nationalization of resources, and attempts at a command economy to keep industry working.  During this time, the death rate begins to climb, achieving a final peak in human population before precipitous decline.

LONG TERM

Once conditions have deteriorated to the point that production of fossil fuel energy ceases at scale, the last remnants of industrial civilization will collapse.  By 2030-2050 the death rate will have increased dramatically and population will be in rapid decline.  The most likely causes of death will be violence, starvation, dehydration, exposure, or illness.  Cities will be uninhabitable and the living will likely be unable to manage the remains of the dead.  With the end of industrial activity and the emission of aerosols, global dimming will cease and global warming will accelerate, leading to more catastrophic environmental consequences.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that massive amounts of radiation will be released into the environment from the melting down of nuclear reactors and the burning of spent fuel.  This will make life even more difficult for the surviving humans and other species.  If humanity does not go extinct entirely, its numbers will be decreased dramatically- probably well below the 1 billion people living at the time of the industrial revolution.  Those lucky survivors will likely live a nomadic life scavenging, raiding, hunting, and gathering for as long as the ecosystem continues to provide enough habitat to eke out a living.

Next

Now you see why nobody in polite society talks about this stuff.  Could you imagine me giving a presentation on this topic at a planning conference?  Sheesh, what a downer...

Anyhow... now that we've established a baseline of future conditions, it's time for us to develop some alternative pathways that might influence how some of the details will unfold.  Some of our alternatives will look at whether we can actually influence the above timeline to any meaningful extent.  In the next post we will begin our alternatives development process.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Musical Interlude: It's Only






I heard the news today
That you're not mine to keep
Don't struggle too much now
While I kill you in your sleep
What is lust if it's not beating by yourself?
I won't be gentle to the body on the shelf
It's only water
It's only fire
It's only love
It's only slaughter
We're only liars
It's only blood
They're only thoughts that
I'm having thoughts safe within my head
You're only crying
You're only dying
You're only late
I heard the news today
That you weren't not mine to save
I hope that you're comfortable
In the quiet plastic grave
What is lust if it's not beating by yourself?
I won't be gentle to the body on the shelf
It's only water
It's only fire
It's only love
It's only slaughter
We're only liars
It's only blood
They're only thoughts that
I'm having thoughts safe within my head
You're only crying
You're only dying
You're only dead
It's only water
It's only fire
It's only love
It's only water
It's only fire
It's only love
It's only water
It's only fire
It's only love
It's only water
It's only fire
It's only love
It's only water
It's only fire
It's only love
It's only slaughter
We're only liars
It's only blood
They're only thoughts that
I'm having thoughts safe within my head
You're only crying
You're only dying
We're only dead