Transcript of a wide-ranging, 50-minute interview with this atmospheric physicist who says — among many other things — solar and wind enable us “to further rape the environment”.
No 2392 Posted by fw, November 8, 2018
NOTE — To access my other posts related to Dr. Garrett’s research on a global economic/civilization collapse by the end of this century, click on the Tab in the top left margin, titled Civilization/Economic Collapse ~ Links to All Posts By or About Dr. Tim Garrett’s Research
Presented below is my transcript of a wide-ranging interview with University of Utah’s atmospheric physicist Tim Garrett. The transcript appears below my embedded audio of the interview, which took place on Radio Ecoshock, October 3, 2018. Host Alex Smith interviewed Garrett.
I have organized the content of the interview transcript in three sections: A summary overview of each section is comprised of subheadings that I added to the transcript. The overview is intended to assist readers/listeners who may prefer to first review the content and then read/listen selectively.
[SECTION 1 – THE AFFECT OF ARCTIC CLOUDS ON CLIMATE] (about 18 minutes long)
Arctic clouds are more sensitive to pollution than clouds at lower latitudes. It is likely that Arctic clouds are being polluted by an increase in industrialization in the Arctic. On the other hand, the increase in rain in a warmer Arctic could be cleaning up pollution. Arctic clouds tend to be fragile, very shallow stratus clouds barely forming in a quiet atmosphere. Polluted air makes it more likely that Arctic clouds will switch from liquid to ice. When Arctic clouds form a delicate snow, the Arctic climate system is affected in very complicated ways. Other scientists argue that rapid Arctic warming is having profound impacts on climate at lower latitudes. The major finding is that pollution that is affecting Arctic clouds is human-made pollution. Local Arctic polluting sources have an “outsized impact on the Arctic.” How clouds will respond to climate change driven by CO2 emissions is our biggest unknown. ‘Forcings’ and ‘feedbacks’ play a role in driving climate change. CO2 is the climate change ‘trigger’; water vapour, the dominant greenhouse gas, is the ‘bullet’. Clouds are “ the hard thing to do” methodologically, in terms of representing their variability in climate models – Why is this? “We haven’t been very successful at constraining how much clouds will warm the climate.” A research breakthrough has simplified complex cloud field modelling. A primary takeaway from this research is this — As the planet warms, the prediction is that cloud cover will increase.
[SECTION 2 – COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION] (about 10 minutes long)
Civilization and clouds both consume lots of energy, grow explosively on energy and matter, and eventually die. Civilization is currently in an explosive growth phase, driven by global economic growth. “If we did not consume energy from our environment, all of civilization would grind to a halt.” “Right now we are discovering new energy resources at quite a rapid rate.” We will consume as much energy and raw materials in the next 30 years as we have since 1750. Civilization’s doubling is a consequence of “exponential growth.” At this rate of consumption, civilization is headed towards quadrupling its growth rate. We are increasingly swimming in waste products, including CO2 which drives climate change. If civilization does not start to collapse soon, it will be forced into decline due either to climate change, or to environmental degradation. This is probably going to happen rapidly, within decades. Think solar and wind might replace fossils? Think again. Total energy consumption continues to increase with each additional energy source. Additional energy sources just enable us to further rape the environment. Wars and inflation are consequences of civilizations that are resource constrained. Capitalist societies are predicated on economic growth – that means competition, and winners and losers.
[SECTION 3 – PICKING TIM’S BRAIN] (about 24 minutes long)
Why Tim named his blog ‘Nephologue’. Garrett sees parallels between his study of cloud growth and civilization growth – both are thermodynamically open systems. Garrett’s quest is to tie the global wealth of civilization to its rate of energy consumption. What does “scale invariance” mean and what does it have to do with understanding behaviour of large and small scale phenomena? Small scale components of civilization are connected to large scale components (or entireties) through energy transfers. Each individual on earth is connected to everybody else by perhaps six degrees of separation. What can this mean? This connection involves a transfer of energy and information back and forth between all of us. Alex Smith challenges Garrett’s rose-coloured, “physics-based formula to relate climate, energy and the economy.” Garrett concedes he sees things through the lens of physics because it lends itself to theoretically-based testable hypotheses. Einstein’s genius, unpredictable at an individual level, is an extreme manifestation of the upper limit of civilization’s normal probability distribution – as expected by the law of “scale invariance.” Eons of human evolution did not prepare our brains to plan for decades of extreme climate change – there is no collective memory of this existential threat. Planning for a cold winter did not prepare humans to plan for temperatures being a couple of degrees colder 100 years in the future. Expect wars and inflation to rear their head when global competition for resources heats up. Resource scarcities will happen in two ways – either resource depletion or infrastructure degradation caused by unrelenting economic growth. Expect more Syrias and Venezuelas in the future. The US and Canada should not expect their relative isolation to insulate them from global chaos. We are experiencing explosive systems growth, which tends to be followed by explosive collapse or decline. There are two modes of decline – gradual, fairly orderly, and an explosive, accelerated rate of decline. Think of civilization as a wave approaching a beach, collapsing and crashing when it runs out of water. Will civilization, behaving like a wave, rise again? We, as individuals, cannot change civilization’s inexorable trajectory towards collapse. Civilization is a superorganism that will grow until no further growth is possible. Everything in the universe is a consequence of an initial availability of energy and matter; and when it runs out, it dies. The cloud problem led to a breakthrough in statistical laws that have clarified regularities in many phenomena. There will always be more poor who have as much wealth collectively as the very few rich – [If that’s a statistical law, the implications are frightening]. As the world gets richer there will be the uber-rich and the poor, and there’s going to be a continued expansion of that separation for as long as the world gets wealthier. Contraction will inevitably follow expansion – And what impact might that have on political and economic systems? Watch for Garrett’s Nephologue blog post on scale invariance and economic systems
Reposted below is my link to Alex Smith’s thoughts on his interview with Tim Garrett, including a full audio of the event.
Immediately following Smith’s link is the link to the Soundcloud version of the audio of the full interview, which I have embedded in my post. And below the embedded audio, is my full transcript of the interview, with chronological markers to facilitate searching and matching the transcript with the audio. As well, I have added to the transcript subheadings, text highlights, and some additional hyperlinks.
To watch/pause the Soundcloud audio, click on the Play/Pause button.
00:13 — Alex Smith (AS) – Welcome to my third encounter with Dr. Tim Garrett, from the University of Utah. Tim is an atmospheric scientist. He’s studying one of the big unknowns of our future climate – the behaviour of clouds. Garrett also publishes papers on what I will call the physics of large scale economy. He says civilization is a heat engine – and believe me that is a rabbit hole where even confirmed preppers should shiver a bit.
Let’s explore the clouds, the climate and the Arctic with a side order of inevitable collapse. Tim Garrett, welcome back to the eclectic air space known as Radio Ecoshock.
Tim Garrett (TG) – Thanks very much for having me, Alex.
AS – I like talking with you, Tim. I found a good index to your recent work linked in tweets at a place called “At Dissipative Sys”. Is that named because we inhabit a dissipative system?
“Dissipated system” – means by which any system exists, evolves, grows, and ultimately shrinks
01:08 – TG – Very much so. I actually changed the name to Nephologue, if anyone is interested. Yes, it is based on the idea that everything that we identify in the universe, in some way or another, is a “dissipated system”. And what I mean by that is that it consumes energy from its environment – high potential energy – and has internal circulations within it, and then it converts that energy into unavailable low potential energy. That energy may be available to something else, but that is really the means by which any system exists and evolves and grows and ultimately shrinks.
[SECTION 1 – THE AFFECT OF ARCTIC CLOUDS ON CLIMATE] (about 18 minutes long)
01:52 — AS — September 10  your tweet quote: “Arctic air pollution, already high, but it’s not super-clear whether it will increase or decrease.” And you reference new science published September 3, 2018 in the AGU [American Geophysical Union] journal, Earth’s Future. Tell us why the picture there is still unclear.
Arctic clouds are more sensitive to pollution than clouds at lower latitudes
02:12 – TG – The Arctic’s quite an interesting place. I’ve been working a lot, even since I was a graduate student on how pollution from mid-latitudes might be affecting clouds in the Arctic, clouds in particular. There’s something where we might think that the Arctic really should be a pristine place because so few people live up there. But the fact is, is that air from mid-latitudes, where most people live, tends to be polluted. There’s also forest fires, and there’s aerosol pollution blows northwards and has the capacity to affect the Arctic in many ways. One is to be deposited on snow and make it darker. And another is to change cloud properties in the Arctic. And it turns out the Arctic is unusually sensitive to this pollution. We found differences as much as a factor of seven times more sensitive to the pollution than clouds at lower latitudes.
It is likely that Arctic clouds are being polluted by an increase in industrialization in the Arctic
There’s two things that could go on here. As the climate warms, we are very concerned about how the Arctic will change, since the Arctic seems to be changing about twice as rapidly, measured by temperature, as the rest of the world taken as a whole. There’s two things that might happen here. One is that the aerosol pollution could increase due to increase in industrialization in the Arctic as shipping lanes open up – so, for example, then Arctic warms and becomes more habitable. And that might change clouds in a way that both warms and cools the Arctic depending on the season.
On the other hand, the increase in rain in a warmer Arctic could be cleaning up pollution
[Two] But also as the Arctic warms up it’s going to become wetter. If it becomes wetter there will probably be more rain. And if there is more rain that could act to clean up the Arctic by scavenging the pollution from the air. We know just from experience that often if the air is polluted, along comes a rainstorm and things clean up. Well the same thing could happen in the Arctic. It could go from quite a polluted place at times to something far cleaner. So it’s a big question in that way. It’s an interesting problem.
04:30 – AS – You co-authored another paper [titled High Sensitivity of Arctic Liquid Clouds to Long‐Range Anthropogenic Aerosol Transport] with Q. Coopman about this Arctic pollution – that was in November 2017 in Geophysical Research letters. To me, that paper’s a big deal, First, we know that Arctic ecosystems at ground level are sensitive – they’re even fragile. Why do you say in the Arctic clouds are also fragile. They’re right at the edge of their existence.
Arctic clouds tend to be fragile, very shallow, stratus clouds barely forming in a quiet atmosphere
04:53 – TG – That’s a nice way of putting it – “right at the edge of their existence.” They barely form. The atmosphere in the Arctic tends to be quite quiet. They do get storms, but for the most part, the atmosphere is what we would call stable. Which means you don’t tend to see big puffy cumulus clouds forming in the Arctic; it tends to be this very shallow stratus clouds, and they can be just maybe a few tenths of a metre thick. They’re just barely there. It could be clear, it could be cloudy.
Polluted air makes it more likely that Arctic clouds will switch from liquid to ice
And it turns out if the air is polluted due to pollution emissions, say from Europe, that can change the cloud property by quite a lot. The main way it changes them is to make the droplets in the clouds smaller. One surprising thing, even though the Arctic is well below the freezing point, clouds tend to be made of liquid, nonetheless, down to quite low temperatures – minus 20°C — and they do change to ice. We just had a paper accepted in Geophysical Research Letters which showed that the pollution seems to make it much more likely that the clouds will switch from liquid to ice in the Arctic.
When Arctic clouds form a delicate snow, the Arctic climate system is affected in very complicated ways
What happens is the pollution comes along – something about the pollution is enabling those liquid droplets to switch to ice crystals, and when they turn to ice crystals they tend to precipitate. They form a delicate snow. And that can change the lifetimes of the clouds. Now how that will affect the climate is uncertain because the Arctic climate system, like any climate system, is complicated, with many feedbacks, back and forth. But this is an important ingredient to the problem, we think. The pollution from the mid-latitudes is disturbing the Arctic environment in surprising ways.
06:58 – AS – Are clouds in the Arctic important to the global climate system?
Other scientists argue that rapid Arctic warming is having profound affects on climate at lower latitudes
TG – That’s an excellent question. I don’t know. You can imagine ways that they would be. One area that I have been working hard on is trying to show how the clouds tend to cool the climate in the Arctic in the summer when they are perturbed by aerosols. This aerosol perturbation tends to warm the Arctic surface in the winter. Now how that translates to changes at mid-latitudes is not so well known, although there are scientists like Jennifer Francis who are arguing that the rapid Arctic warming is having profound affects on the temperatures in places like the United States. Now this is highly contentious. I’m not an expert on it myself, but there are many people who are arguing that the Arctic is not isolated from where most of us live. Rather, its changes can have substantial affects on the climate at latitudes.
08:22 – AS – You know we just went through a second or third summer of almost being burned down here, living in wildfire smoke. The September 2018 study that you referenced by J. Schmale found: “In the summer Boreal forest fires caused high levels of atmospheric pollution.” But if I read your work correctly you seemed to say that wildfire smoke did not contribute to the formation of Arctic clouds.
The major finding is that pollution that is affecting Arctic clouds is human-made pollution
TG – That was one of the surprising results. Yes, there is a lot of forest fire smoke in the Arctic. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I was aboard an airplane once in the Arctic for a field program. We were at the north slope of Alaska for six weeks and were flying through clouds in the atmosphere and sometimes it would look like we were in the smog of Los Angeles. I didn’t know at that time – this was back in the nineties – where that smog layer came from. But now I think there’s a realization that, at levels like say five kilometres above the surface, these smog layers are due to forest fires, and they just get up there and they hang around for a long time. These are quite common. However, what happens is that these aerosols from the forest fires tend not to be at the same levels that the clouds are at. One way of imagining it might be that, that air that is polluted was originally hot and dry. That’s why there are forest fires. The forest fires are convective; they create upward motions because they’re hot, and that takes the aerosols to places that aren’t favourable for forming clouds.
10:12 — TG — So, the major thing we found was that the pollution that is affecting clouds in the Arctic tends to be ‘anthropogenic’ pollution – human-made pollution.
10:26 – AS – Is that human-made pollution that arrives in the Arctic – and we know it is, because Jason Box showed us gray glaciers in Greenland just from the landing of all those aerosol particles. But is it dealing with – what I would say is global pollution, a sort of widely dispersed level pollution — or do local sources matter more when we’re talking about clouds?
Local Arctic polluting sources have an “outsized impact on the Arctic”
TG – When we talk about local sources, I guess there are two ways you could refer to it. Local sources in the Arctic have an outsized impact on the Arctic. They’re just there; they’re in the right place at the right time. Local sources at mid-latitudes can also have a profound affect on the Arctic because there are atmospheric air motions that naturally takes plumes of aerosol pollution from places like Europe, and, increasingly, Asia to the Arctic along transport pathways that directly take the aerosols to the Arctic without a great deal of dilution. The global aerosol level is actually, on average, fairly uniform because of this reason that precipitation is everywhere and it tends to remove pollution from the atmosphere. So there is a background aerosol level in the globe as a whole. And it does go up and down a bit depending on the global pollution levels, but that is not the major driving force for change in the Arctic. It tends to be these narrowly focused plumes that come from specific pollution sources like factories or smelters or even just general people going back and forth to work.
12:10 – AS – We want to know how Arctic clouds function in a global climate model. You and your colleagues have new science to help answer that question more simply. Please tell us about your paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in July 2018. [The paper is Thermodynamic Constraints on the Size Distributions of Tropical Clouds, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres on 23 July 2018. Find an easy to read explanation here: Researchers find an easier way to simulate cloud cover by Paul Gabrielsen, AGU Blogosphere, July 23, 2018.]
How clouds will respond to climate change driven by CO2 emissions is our biggest unknown
TG – This is the work that I’m particularly excited by right now. I think increasingly when we are thinking about forecasting future climate there’s growing recognition that the biggest unknown – and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here – in whether the degree of climate change that we will see for a given amount of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere is how clouds will respond to a change in climate.
The role of ‘forcings’ and ‘feedbacks’ driving climate change
So the issue here is that we have forcings and feedbacks. The forcings of climate change are the basic greenhouse gases. The dominate one here that’s driving the climate change is carbon dioxide, of course. But then there are feedbacks which are that, as the carbon dioxide concentrations go up, temperatures go up, and then the water vapour concentration will tend to increase, and water vapour is a very strong greenhouse gas – it’s the dominate greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
CO2 is the climate change ‘trigger’; water vapour, the dominant greenhouse gas, is the ‘bullet’
So, when we talk about climate change, it’s actually more about the water vapour than the CO2, even if CO2 is the trigger, the water vapour is the bullet. And that’s a positive feedback. And there are other feedbacks too related to how the atmospheric temperature structure will change. And also, just like the element on your stovetop, a hotter planet will emit more efficiently infrared radiation to the atmosphere. It will cool down more efficiently. So that’s negative feedback.
Why clouds are “ the hard thing to do” in representing their variability in climate models
14:06 – TG – Then there’s clouds. Clouds are the hard thing to do because they are incredibly complicated. In terms of complications, they are really the most complicated natural phenomenon on our planet, with the exception of perhaps volcanoes, which are more sporadic. Clouds are incredibly energy dense. They consume massive amounts of energy due to latent heat release from condensation. And that creates an extraordinary range of phenomena, ranging from every snowflake being different, created by a cloud, to the turbulent motions of the clouds spanning scales from millimetres to kilometres, and the clouds themselves can span hundreds of kilometres in stormtraps. And representing this variability in climate models is almost impossible, because the climate models have grid boxes that may be tens of kilometres on each side. They just don’t have the resolution to count the small scale cloud processes. People try to parameterize this, but the parameterizations are themselves very uncertain. It’s almost like a Pandora’s Box – every time we narrow down one process we reveal smaller scale processes that are themselves uncertain.
“We haven’t been very successful at constraining how much clouds will warm the climate.”
15:41 — TG – The climate models right now seem to suggest that clouds will amplify climate change by a considerable degree. So, expect water vapour to have one affect, then clouds will add to that and they will make the planet warmer. The challenge is constraining that [added warming], and we haven’t been very successful at constraining how much clouds will warm the climate. It’s really uncertain.
Research breakthrough simplifies complex cloud field modelling
So I thought, maybe there’s a totally different way to come at this problem. I tried to solve the problem of cloud sizes and distributions using basic thermodynamics. What I found, what’s described in this paper, is that we can actually describe the numbers and shapes and sizes of clouds in an incredibly complex tropical cloud field to an extremely high degree of accuracy using just a few lines of physics rather than using incredibly complicated cloud models. So there are cloud models that are very high resolution. And I found that I could reproduce the statistics for cloud sizes within a cloud model of one billion grid points run every two seconds in a massive super computer – I think it was three hundred thousand processor hours in this super computer simulation. It was possible to reproduce the representation of a cloud field in the simulation, accurately, to within 13% using just a little bit of physics. That’s important. It dramatically simplifies the problem. It shows that we can reduce the cloud problem effectively to a point. All we need to know is the stability of the atmosphere, and if we know the stability of the atmosphere – which is quite predictable – then we can unravel, statistically, an entire tropical cloud field. We can show – we don’t know which cloud where, it might look like Mickey Mouse – though we can say, statistically, we will have a certain number of big clouds, and a much larger number of small clouds. And that this obeys statistical properties that are simple to describe mathematically and are simple to predict.
18:10 — AS – Alright. I want to get back to my original question: What will happen to Arctic clouds as the planet warms 1, 2, or 4°C.?
My takeaway of all this — As planet warms, the prediction is that cloud cover will increase
TG – I think the prediction is that cloud cover will increase. So, as the sea ice melts in the Arctic, then the exposure to the ocean will increase, and the atmosphere will become more unstable because there is moisture and heat that’s coming from the ocean, and that will naturally lend itself to an increase in cloud cover. And these clouds will tend to act as a blanket, and the prediction is that these clouds will tend to, on average, warm the surface, and, in a way, lead to positive feedback that accelerates sea ice loss – because the clouds act as a blanket for the surface and war it, and lead to more clouds.
19:13 – 19:42 — PROGRAM BREAK
[SECTION 2 – COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION] (about 10 minutes long)
AS – 19:43 – Tim, let’s get our heads out of the clouds for a minute. You argue that our current civilization will collapse sooner or later. In a 4-minute video, you conclude “Something has to give.” What doesn’t add up for you?
Civilization and clouds both consume lots of energy, grow explosively on energy and matter, and eventually die
TG – It’s interesting you say “heads out of the clouds” because I think there are incredible parallels between civilization and clouds. These are [both] complex systems that consume a lot of energy that grow explosively by consuming energy and matter from their environment, and ultimately reach a point where they’ve consumed all that is available and die.
Civilization is in an explosive growth phase driven by global economic growth
For clouds, we can see this all the time. For civilization we are still in this explosive growth phase. So, the point I am trying to make is that this explosive growth phase that we are in currently, with our global economy, for civilization as a whole, is based upon consuming energy and matter from our environment. That is what keeps all the circulations going.
“If we did not consume energy from our environment, all of civilization would grind to a halt”
If we did not consume energy from our environment, all of civilization would grind to a halt. We would die out of starvation. And our concept of a global economy would die with us. That’s not what’s happening now.
“Right now we are discovering new energy resources at quite a rapid rate”
Right now we are discovering new energy resources at quite a rapid rate. And one way or another, whether it’s renewables or fossil fuels, or whatever it is, even shale oil – it’s a substantial source of energy – and that’s enabling civilization to grow extremely rapidly.
We will consume as much energy and raw materials in the next 30 years as we have since 1750
21:37 – But there is a consequence to this — Growth cannot be sustained forever. It’s simply impossible. Eventually the sources of energy will be depleted. Just to take as an example, it’s a simple calculation – We will consume as much energy and raw materials from our environment in the next 30 years as we have since 1750. That’s an incredible number.
Civilization’s doubling is a consequence of “exponential growth”
We are going to double civilization over again in the next 30 years over what we have in the past 250 [years]. And this is just a consequence of exponential growth. And in 30 years our energy and raw material demands will be twice what they are today at current rates of growth.
At this rate of consumption, civilization is headed towards quadrupling its growth rate
And then you think, well that’s just 30 years, what’s 30 years beyond that? That would be a quadrupling. Maybe we can do that. I don’t know. There’s lots of unpredictable things out there. It seems in some sense impossible our environment is already staring to groan under the burden of our consumption.
We are increasingly swimming in waste products, including CO2 which drives climate change
23:00 — Perhaps there’s a means to continue this growth, but growth necessitates an accelerating rate of production of waste products. And there’s a variety of waste products that we are increasingly swimming in. One of these is, of course, carbon dioxide, which leads to climate change. And there’s other things too like topsoil depletion and nitrification of our waterways, depletion of fish stocks in the ocean, The waste products of our consumption are going to accelerate.
If civilization does not start to collapse soon, it will be forced into decline due to climate change or to environmental degradation
So, when I say “something has to give” I think we are left in a very difficult position. If civilization does not start to collapse very soon, and the growth stalls and then not just stalls, but then civilization enters into a profound decline, if civilization does not do that, then it may be forced into that decline under either the burden of its consumption of resources or under the burden of the waste products it is producing, either due to climate change or the deteriorating environment.
This is probably going to happen rapidly, within decades
And this is probably going to happen quite rapidly because we’re not talking about centuries here, we are talking about decades.
24:22 – AS – In a tweet that you posted August 15, , you linked to a New York Times article where even climate-aware Germany still depends on coal for up to 40% of its energy, and you say, historically, new energy sources add to the mix rather than replace their older foundation, that sounds pretty bleak for the future of green energy like solar and wind. That’s not what we’re all dreaming about.
Think solar and wind might replace fossils? Think again
TG – Yeah. I mean we would like to think that solar and wind might replace coal, but if you think about it – If nothing else, historically, that has not been the case. Our consumption of various energy sources, it does go up and down over time, but, in general, we have been introducing new energy sources, and these tend to be additive. You think at one point in the distant past we consumed much less energy, and then our primary source of energy would have been wood. And then we added coal, then we added oil, and then we added natural gas, and nuclear and now we’re adding renewables.
Total energy consumption continues to increase with each additional energy source
It’s not that the total energy consumption is stabilizing or going down, it is continuing to increase with each addition. It’s like we add a new degree of freedom in the system. Civilization’s not made of energy, it’s made of matter. We use energy from the renewables to build more of civilization. And then when you build more of civilization by consuming raw materials, using energy to consume raw materials from the environment and convert it into civilization, civilization grows. As civilization grows its demands for energy of all types increases – not just for renewables but of all types.
Additional energy sources just enable us to further rape the environment
So there is no obvious link between adding new energy sources in types of energy and our reduction of old energy sources. It just simply enables us to do more. I don’t think about wind and solar as being particularly green – THEY ARE SOURCES OF ENERGY! Our civilization is not made of energy – IT IS MADE OF MATTER. We use energy to extract raw materials from our environment. If we add new energy sources, that will just enable us to rape the environment further. That’s what we use the energy for – it is to extract raw materials in one way or another.
26:53 – AS – Well, as part of your analysis I’m still burning wood. So, that hasn’t been replaced. We’re still using the old systems as you say. In several places you suggest we may revisit a system-wide depression like the 1930s, I’m not sure the 1930s is a good analysis or that we can reach any historical precedent from where we are now – I mean maybe the 1930s will seem good or mild compared to a climate-ravaged future or maybe humanity will squeeze into a brand new place. Your thoughts.
Wars and inflation are consequences of civilizations that are resource constrained
27:27 – TG – Who was it said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes? Of course, we can’t return to the 1930s. I wonder. I’m not a historian, but I think we can look back at various times in history and say when nations or regions, whole civilizations even, have been more resource constrained, and that competition for resources has increased, then the competition plays out in predictable ways. One of those ways, of course, is wars and other ways is inflation. I would not be surprised to see more of a fragmentation of civilization of the future as we have increased resource scarcity.
Capitalist societies are predicated on economic growth – that means competition, and winners and losers
Right now we’re at a point where we’re growing more rapidly than we ever have before. But that rate of growth has stagnated and that was something that happened in the 1930s. It wasn’t that the rate of growth was comparable to today, but it stagnated. I think what that means in a capitalist society that is predicated upon growth, there is competition for growth among countries, perhaps, so that if one country grows faster then that necessarily means that another country must grow more slowly. And that means winners and losers and nobody wants to be the loser.
29:04 – 29:36 — PROGRAM BREAK
[SECTION 3 – PICKING TIM’S BRAIN] (about 24 minutes long)
29:37 – AS – I did discover that you have a blog called Nephologue, as you say. Does Nephologue mean something?
Why Tim named his blog ‘Nephologue’
TG – Nephology is a 19th century word for “the study of clouds.” I find it amusing that cloud physicists like myself almost uniformly have never heard of this word. It’s slightly ironic that those who practice a profession don’t know what their profession is called. I’m trying to resurrect the word ‘nephology’ and I just called it a ‘Nephologue’.
Garrett sees parallels between his study of cloud growth and civilization growth – both are thermodynamically open systems
I think of clouds when I think of these problems related to civilization growth because I see commonalities between all thermodynamically open systems and how they behave and some sense of how clouds work and try to think about how that might relate to civilization growth and other thermodynamically open complex systems.
30:43 – AS – Well one of your blogs this summer really stimulated my brain activity because you related brain activity to the global economy. Are you suggesting that we have a previously uncatalogued sensory system in human brains that know value and know how economic transactions must work?
The quest to tie the global wealth of civilization to its rate of energy consumption
TG – This is a fascinating question. There seems to be a collected perception of how much things are worth. And one thing I have tried to establish is that the global wealth of civilization – I guess total value – is fundamentally tied to its rate of energy consumption. And that sort of poses the question of – Well, how is it that we as humans, at a very individual level, can have some sort of conception of the value of things when we really – the entirety of civilization is far too large for us to comprehend in any meaningful way.
What does “scale invariance” have to do with understanding behaviour of large and small scale phenomena?
And here I think there is again some basic physics, the same physics that I would think of with respect to clouds. There’s a concept that is called “scale invariance” or “self-similarity”, which is the idea that for a great, great many systems – you see this everywhere in nature – whatever scale you look at, things look the same. So, in the clouds, one way that this shows up is that if you look at large turbulent motions or small turbulent motions in a cloud, they’ll look exactly the same. You don’t really know what scale you are looking at unless you are told ahead of time.
Small scale components of civilization are connected to large scale (or entireties) through energy transfers
32:39 – TG — In terms of us, in the context of the global civilization, I think of our brains being energy-consuming organisms much like the entirety of civilization. I think maybe one of your former guests, Nate Hagens, called a ‘superorganism’. The consumption of energy by the entirety, or by a small component [of civilization], exhibits similar behaviours physically. And the reason they exhibit similar behaviours – and the small scales as well as the large scales – is that the small scales are connected to the large scales through energy transfers.
Each individual on earth is connected to everybody else by perhaps six degrees of separation. What can this mean?
Now I know that sounds very abstract – but here’s the basic idea: When you think about your daily life, you are connected to everybody else on this planet by a very small degree of … a number of degrees of separation. I could connect you to a distant Papua New Guinea’s tribesman probably relatively quickly in, I would guess, perhaps six degrees of separation. Perhaps you know somebody who has been to Australia, who met somebody in Australia who travelled to Port Moresby for work, who met a tribesman who was coming to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea to get some luxury goods who then went back to his tribe in the distant highlands. And it wouldn’t be too far to make that connection.
This connection involves a transfer of energy and information back and forth between all of us
34:11 – TG – And all of this involves a transfer of energy and information back and forth between all of us. So I think of us as being a vibrating whole that consumes energy, where everybody’s connected at the whole and at the local level in fundamental ways. And it is through these connections that we collectively establish some sense of the worth of any given item.
Alex Smith challenges Garrett’s “physics-based formula to relate climate, energy and the economy”
34:40 – AS – I do worry that this line of reasoning may be trapped within glasses made from physics and math, and see everything through that lens. I mean, for example, take a dream, do we care what energy the brain and the rest of the body may be burning during a dream? We can’t measure that energy in the sleeper and think we understand the dream. And I raise one second case: You’re talking about a physics-based formula to relate climate, energy and the economy, and your language suggests human civilization is almost like a cell, and we inject energy, like a sugar, and the cell grows. But there’s also things like ideas: I mean without Einstein we wouldn’t be where we are. So, there’s the role of innovation. There’s things other than energy and matter going on in this human system, is what I’m saying.
Garrett concedes he sees things through the lens of physics because it lends itself to theoretically-based testable hypotheses
35:34 – TG – Yeah, I think that’s a tempting perspective. Of course I’m seeing things through the lens of physics because I believe that physics does underlie everything in the universe, and does lend itself to testable hypotheses. And I do test these hypotheses to try to see if they can make meaningful predictions. So, I mean that’s one advantage of using physics, it’s theoretical base can lead to things that can potentially be disproved.
Einstein’s genius, unpredictable at an individual level, is an extreme manifestation of the upper limit of civilization’s normal probability distribution – as expected by the law of “scale invariance”
You mentioned Einstein and his ideas. Einstein’s ideas required energy consumption. The brain is a very energy-hungry organism. For most of us it consumes 20 or 25 Watts, about 20 to 25% of the consumption of the human as a whole. Neuronal oscillation – the frequency of neuronal firing within the brain – follows the same laws of self-similarity or scale invariance you see in income distributions in humanity, or the size of turbulent eddies in a cloud, or like the size of meteors impacting the moon – or a whole number of phenomena throughout the world. Our brains aren’t actually fundamentally – at least statistically – all that different.
And Einstein himself, he grew up in a wealthy society, which could support the development of these ideas that could feed him and provide the kinds of intellectual stimulation that would lead him to coming up with these fantastic conceptions of how the universe works. All of that would require energy. So you could think of Einstein as being, in some way, an extreme manifestation at the tail end of the spectrum of what a civilization produces. It’s all part of the global whole where individual phenomena, like Einstein, are unpredictable at the individual level, but can be expected … we can expect wonderful ideas to come up in a wealthy civilization. And in an energy constrained civilization where everybody is scrambling for their next meal, I think you would expect these to be less common.
38:00 – AS – And I love this comment that you posted August 20  in the blog: “Unlike enhancing our sense of wellbeing, and social survival by storing crops to prepare for the winter, a response embedded within us from eons of evolution, there is no obvious precedent for a similar response to climate change. So we focus on contemporary issues that are much too short to relieve us from our predicament.” And I think you just explained our mass fascination with the Donald Trump show while, our world heats up so dangerously.
Eons of human evolution did not prepare our brains to plan for decades of extreme climate change – there is no collective memory of this existential threat
TG – I think economists talk about this. We do value things in the short run more than those in the long run. I’m not an expert in human behaviour, but it is interesting that we can plan for the future, but we seem to plan most effectively for futures that we have experienced previously. So we can plan for retirement because it’s built into our society’s understanding that you need to do this because plenty of other people have planned for retirement in the past, and we model our retirement savings on what other people have experienced. We naturally plan for storing crops for the winter because if there wasn’t a history of doing so, well we wouldn’t be here today.
Climate change seems different. It’s not the same. What’s the collective memory that we have of a similar event? I don’t think we have it.
39:51 – AS – Maybe somewhere in our brains there was the arrival of the ice in the Ice Ages. And we all had to move south or change what we were eating. But that’s not the same at all, is it?
Planning for a cold winter did not prepare humans to plan for temperatures being a couple of degrees colder 100 years in the future
TG – It’s rather a long time ago. I don’t feel I have in my thinking some sort of built-in planning for a future Ice Age. Maybe the reason is that these climate changes in the past tended to happen over sufficiently long periods of time that still – I mean relative to the life span of a human – that still, the dominant thing anybody would ever think of, would it be planning for the winter — not planning for temperatures being a couple of degrees colder a hundred years from now?
40:47 – AS – Well, I’ve just been reading that our homes are totally designed for the cold, and we’re trying to keep the cold out and use insulation and so on, and not for the heat. So we’ve mis-designed our houses for the future that is developing.
TG — Yep. I just mortgaged my house to buy some land up at 8800 feet in the mountains nearby. That’s my future refrigerator.
AS – One last point on the economic front. Do you attribute what I call – or what many call – the Great Acceleration after 1950, to increase energy availability. But then I asked myself – Well, what if the economy crashes due to war or human misunderstanding or just plain greed? And there could be no direct relationship to energy availability at all.
Expect wars and inflation to rear their head when global competition for resources heats up
41:38 – TG – I don’t think history bears that out. Again, I’m not a historian. Look, if everybody’s doing well and there’s a ton of energy out there, and everybody can grow successfully, is there really that much of a need to be killing one another? I don’t see that. I see that wars tend to crop out when there is competition for resources. We’ve been in a period of extraordinary wealth since 1950 because of flourishing discoveries of things like oil and natural gas. Eventually that will come to a halt. It’s not until then that – myself, personally, I would expect that things like wars and inflation would rear their head.
Resource scarcities will happen in two ways – resource depletion or infrastructure degradation caused by growth
It will happen – these resource scarcities will happen. It can happen in two ways: One is that we run out of the raw materials or another is that they just become much more difficult to access even if they are out there, because things like climate change start to become such a burden that it destroys the infrastructure that we have and use to access those resources. Resource scarcity is a question of availability. We can deplete, make things less available by depleting it. We can also make things less available by a fraying of the fabric of civilization that is used to access those resources. And that can happen by way of environmental destruction. And it’s at that point that I would expect things like wars to become increasingly common. But we’ve seen a trend since the fifties of decreasing deaths from wars, so it doesn’t [happen].
43:43 – AS – You’re right historically. I mean Japan went to war after they were surrounded by the American navy and cut off from the energy supplies they needed for their new economy. And Germany similarly wanted to invade Russia in order to get at the Balkans’s oil because their economy needed more energy. So, I guess it does hold up, but to your point you just made, beyond science and philosophy it looks to me like billions of humans are headed into a great time of suffering — I don’t know if it’s in this decade or the next, but by, say, 2050, for a number of reasons. Would you share that [view]?
Expect more Syrias and Venezuelas in the future
TG – Yeah … I mean of course there’s suffering at all times. Many people today are suffering incredibly. Just look at a place like Syria. The question is whether Syria or Venezuela will become increasingly common in the future. I do expect that to happen.
The US and Canada should not expect their relative isolation to insulate them from global chaos
You and I, we live in extraordinarily rich countries. They may be able to insulate themselves for a time. But United States and Canada are connected to the rest of the world. We aren’t isolated. We are connected through international trade and everybody wants to live somewhere. There’s refugees looking for somewhere to live.
We are experiencing explosive systems growth, which tends to be followed by explosive collapse or decline
One thing that you see in systems growth is when something’s growing incredibly rapidly – I would use the word ‘superexponential’ growth, or ‘explosive’ growth — so it’s not just that it’s growing exponentially with a constant rate of return, but the rate of return itself is increasingly (unintelligible). And that’s the situation we’ve be in since 1950.
There are two modes of decline – gradual, fairly orderly, and an explosive, accelerated rate of decline
45:43 – TG – When you see explosive growth you tend to see that followed by explosive collapse, when the conditions that supported that explosive growth are no longer there. When we talk about the future, and there being a fraying, a decline, or whatever there is, I think of there being two modes of decline: One is a gradual decline – like civilization does subside, but it does so gradually in an arguably fairly ordered fashion; And the other is a superexponential decline, where the rate of decline itself accelerates, and that would be a collapse.
Think of civilization as a wave approaching a beach, collapsing and crashing when it runs out of water
Maybe an analog is just to think about an ocean wave. Think of an ocean wave moving up and down. Maybe us, like a cork on that wave, moving up and down. Move up gradually and come down gradually. Or you could also have a situation where a wave explodes upward as it approaches a beach, then ultimately, when it runs out of water, it collapses, it crashes on the beach.
Will civilization, like a wave, rise again?
I suspect – I hate to think of this that way – but I suspect that based on civilization’s recent past we are more like that wave approaching the beach, and like a wave that will subside and perhaps rise again out in the middle of the ocean.
47:19 – AS – Tim Garrett, if we are all part of a superorganism, following inexorable laws of physics, does it matter what any of us does? – or whether we fear the future or enjoy the present?
We, as individuals, cannot change civilization’s inexorable trajectory towards collapse
47:33 – TG – I mean – I can tell you my own feeling, because that’s what you’re asking – I have a family, I have friends. I’m concerned about the state of the world, and I truly want to believe that there is the capacity for individuals to make a difference in the ultimate trajectory of civilization. And I’ll admit that myself I struggle to reconcile that with what I see with testable hypotheses based on fundamental physics, which suggests that ultimately – and in a statistical fashion — one way or another civilization, is on a trajectory and us, as individuals, cannot change that trajectory because it is determined by things that are beyond us, such as, just simply the geology of the planet, whether or not the energy reserves that feed civilization are out there.
Civilization is a superorganism that will grow until no further growth is possible
I suspect the superorganism idea is really correct, that civilization is a superorganism that will grow until the resources that sustain it – like the cells in a petri dish – until it can’t. It will grow to the maximum extent possible until no further growth is possible. And then the collapse will start to happen.
49:09 – AS – Isn’t that what stars do?
Everything in the universe is a consequence of an initial availability of energy and matter; and when it runs out, it dies
TG – Everything does this. Yes, it is what stars do, but everything in the universe is a consequence of an initial availability of energy and matter. That’s what created it [the universe] in the first place. And that energy and matter had to come from somewhere. And when that energy and matter runs out, the thing can no longer sustain its internal circulations, and it dies.
49:43 – AS – So. [Sigh] Tim, are you thinking all the time? Help us understand you.
TG – Oh, I drink beer. That helps.
AS – Well, what I do is I garden, and I do put away food for the winter. I’ve just been doing that. I’ve been putting away squash and tomato sauces on my stove, thickening. And I picked all the apples from my apple tree. Somehow, those, I would say age-old activities, help soothe my brain from talking to scientists who upset my brain.
TG – Yeah, we all have our coping techniques.
50:22 – 50:36 — PROGRAM BREAK
50:37 – AS – Does Tim Garrett know what is next for Tim Garrett? Do you know what you’re going to be working on?
The cloud problem led to a breakthrough in statistical laws that have clarified regularities in many phenomena
50:42 – TG – I’m totally fascinated by this cloud problem. I was working on the clouds and I managed to finally break through in trying to come up with these statistical laws. And now so much seems so much more clear with so many situations. I was teaching class yesterday, and I found a paper from 2005 that was showing how this thing called “power laws”, or self-similarity, or scale invariance – you just see it absolutely everywhere – it’s so fascinating. I mean things like the frequency of words in Moby Dick perfectly follows it, the predictable power law. Or wealth of people in civilization, or clouds, or droplets, or the firing neurons in the brain. They all follow the exact same mathematical law.
There will always be more poor who have as much wealth collectively as the very few rich – [If that’s a statistical law, the implications are frightening]
And this has me fascinated. And I think I have some sort of understanding of why this is the case now – It’s basically with a finite amount of energy and matter everybody has to share. It’s like the line from the Bible – I’m probably paraphrasing: “The poor are always with us.” There will always be a few rich and many poor. And that’s because everybody has to share. There will be more poor who has as much wealth collectively as the very few rich. And there’s sort of a principle called ‘equipartition’ here: a number times the wealth is in variance with the amount of wealth a person has.
As the world gets richer there will be the uber-rich and the poor, and there’s going to be a continued expansion of that separation for as long as the world gets wealthier
One question I have in mind right now, thinking about the economy, is what will happen with income inequality in the future. We see rising income inequality right now and I suspect that’s quite predictable. As the world gets richer there will be the uber-rich and the poor are always with us. And there’s going to be a continued expansion of that separation for as long as the world gets wealthier.
Contraction will inevitably follow expansion – And what impact might that have on political and economic systems?
And then I would expect a contraction too as competition for resources increases. And then you start thinking about how would that play out in terms of political systems. Do we have things like capitalism becoming no longer a viable option in a resource-constrained environment. That’s just armchair philosophizing, of course, but it’s based upon thinking about how physical systems work and some sort of recognition that humanity itself behaves like a physical system.
53:35 – AS – As we wrap up, is there some place where we can find in one place that basic formula that you’ve just been talking about?
Watch for Garrett’s Nephologue blog post on scale invariance and economic systems
TG — I just posted a tweet yesterday about it – on income distributions. There is the paper that’s online about the clouds. For most listeners, perhaps even a lot of people might feel it’s a bit esoteric. I’ll put out a blog post. You’ve encouraged me now, as you have in the past to write about these topics. I’ll try to present a very simple explanation for this basic idea: scale invariance and economic systems. It’s not that complicated and I think it can be explained succinctly with words.
AS – We will be looking for it. That is it for this journey into clouds and a cloudy future. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Tim Garrett, Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Utah. Tim, talking with you I do feel a little bit small compared to a larger man, so thank you much for coming back.
TG – Thanks so much. Every single time it’s been a great pleasure to talk with you. You’re an excellent interviewer.
AS — You can find Tim Garrett’s Twitter feed at Nephologue. That’s worth a trip because each tweet leads to delicious and or disturbing places. I’ll post links to my previous two interviews with Tim Garrett in my blog.
56:20 — END OF INTERVIEW
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