Citizen Action Monitor

Our civilization is hell-bent on destroying itself, warns UK Global Systems prof

Dr. James Dyke proposes an escape plan from the terrifying prison humans have created over many generations, but …

No 2483 Posted by fw, June 23, 2019

Dr. James Dyke

It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop. … I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. ‘Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,’ he said. ‘Ah, yes, but heading towards,’ I countered: ‘We won’t get to 3°C, will we?’ (Because whatever you think of the 2°C threshold that separates ‘safe’ from ‘dangerous’ climate change, 3°C is well beyond what much of the world could bear.) ‘Not so,’ he replied. ‘We will end up at 3°C.’ ‘But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,’ I went on. ‘Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?’ He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: ‘They will die.’”James Dyke, The Conversation

James Dyke is a senior lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter. He works with community groups and local government authorities via Climate Conversations which he founded to help facilitate discussions on how cities can transition to low carbon and healthy places to live.

Dyke takes his readers on one hell of a terrifying ride, examining the “almighty mess” humans have made in the most recent few centuries, but, in particular, within his own lifetime, beginning in the early 1970s. Upon reviewing the evidence, Dyke reaches the conclusion that “We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. This runs completely counter to how we view our relationship with the Earth system.”

More to the point, we have become our own worst enemy: We keep avoiding the adoption of more human-centric lifestyles by building clever new technologies that just exacerbate our predicament, a technosphere consisting of individuals, societies and all our “stuff” – 30 trillion metric tons of it. “There appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth”

Dyke does offer an escape plan, but warns:

“To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.”

Below is my repost of Dyke’s powerful essay, including my added subheadings, text highlighting, and minor editing changes. And don’t miss the 9-minute, 2016 video interview with Dr. Dyke presented at the end of this post.

To read Dyke’s original piece, with all the images, click on the following linked title.

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Climate change: ‘We’ve created a civilisation hell bent on destroying itself – I’m terrified’, writes Earth scientist by James Dyke, The Conversation, May 24, 2019

Smell of bad coffee triggers Dyke’s memory of first realization humanity is facing ruin

The coffee tasted bad. Acrid and with a sweet, sickly smell. The sort of coffee that results from overfilling the filter machine and then leaving the brew to stew on the hot plate for several hours. The sort of coffee I would drink continually during the day to keep whatever gears left in my head turning.

Odours are powerfully connected to memories. And so it’s the smell of that bad coffee which has become entwined with the memory of my sudden realization that we are facing utter ruin.

It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop. The IPCC was established in 1988 as a response to increasing concern that the observed changes in the Earth’s climate are being largely caused by humans.

2011 question for IPPC scientist: How much more warming before we make required cuts to carbon emissions?

The IPCC reviews the vast amounts of science being generated around climate change and produces assessment reports every four years. Given the impact the IPPC’s findings can have on policy and industry, great care is made to carefully present and communicate its scientific findings. So I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,” he said.

“Ah, yes, but heading towards,” I countered: “We won’t get to 3°C, will we?” (Because whatever you think of the 2°C threshold that separates “safe” from “dangerous” climate change, 3°C is well beyond what much of the world could bear.)

“Not so,” he replied.

Answer: We will end up at 3°C

That wasn’t his hedge, but his best assessment of where, after all the political, economic, and social wrangling we will end up.

“But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,” I went on. “Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?”

Many millions will die

He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: “They will die.”

That episode marked a clear boundary between two stages of my academic career. At the time, I was a new lecturer in the area of complex systems and Earth system science. Previously, I had worked as a research scientist on an international astrobiology project based in Germany.

Today Dyke studies how life on planet Earth affects the atmosphere

In many ways, that had been my dream job. As a young boy, I had lain on the grass on clear summer evenings and looked up at one of the dots in the night sky and wondered if around that star a planet orbited with beings that could look up from the surface of their world and similarly wonder about the chances of life being found within the unremarkable solar system we call home in the universe. Years later, my research involves thinking about how surface life can affect the atmosphere, oceans and even rocks of the planet it lives on.

Life on Earth includes tiny marine organisms that lived more than 70 million years ago

That’s certainly the case with life on Earth. At a global scale, the air we all breathe contains oxygen largely as a result of photosynthetic life, while an important part of the UK’s national identity for some – the white cliffs of Dover – are comprised of countless numbers of tiny marine organisms that lived more than 70m years ago.

Within the most recent few centuries, we humans have made an “almighty mess”

So it wasn’t a very large step from thinking about how life has radically altered the Earth over billions of years to my new research that considers how a particular species has wrought major changes within the most recent few centuries. Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.

Change within a lifetime

Number of people on Earth has doubled since early 1970s, while wild animals have been reduced by 60%

I was born in the early 1970s. This means in my lifetime the number of people on Earth has doubled, while the size of wild animal populations has been reduced by 60%. Humanity has swung a wrecking ball through the biosphere. We have chopped down over half of the world’s rainforests and by the middle of this century there may not be much more than a quarter left. This has been accompanied by a massive loss in biodiversity, such that the biosphere may be entering one of the great mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.

Climate change has the potential to threaten extinction of one in six species

What makes this even more disturbing, is that these impacts are as yet largely unaffected by climate change. Climate change is the ghosts of impacts future. It has the potential to ratchet up whatever humans have done to even higher levels. Credible assessments conclude that one in six species are threatened with extinction if climate change continues.

To avoid worst impacts of climate change we need to rapidly reduce emissions now

The scientific community has been sounding the alarm over climate change for decades. The political and economic response has been at best sluggish. We know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.

Is wider society finally waking up to the need for urgent action? 

The sudden increase in media coverage of climate change as a result of the actions of Extinction Rebellion and school strike for climate pioneer Greta Thunberg, demonstrates that wider society is waking up to the need for urgent action. Why has it taken the occupation of Parliament Square in London or children across the world walking out of school to get this message heard?

How we are reacting is both “exhilarating and terrifying”

There is another way of looking at how we have been responding to climate change and other environmental challenges. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it offers a new perspective that could cut through inaction. Terrifying as it could, if we are not careful, lead to resignation and paralysis.

It’s not that we don’t want to change, we can’t because we are locked into a planetary-scale system – a technosphere

Because one explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere.

The technosphere

Technosphere consists of individuals, societies and all our “stuff” – 30 trillion metric tons of it

Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. From skyscrapers to CDs, fountains to fondue sets. A good deal of this is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which links humanity together.

Technosphere includes communication networks, because we’re a fundamentally social species

Along with the physical transport of humans and the goods they consume is the transfer of information between humans and their machines. First through the spoken word, then parchment and paper-based documents, then radio waves converted to sound and pictures, and subsequently digital information sent via the internet. These networks facilitate human communities. From roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small farming tribes, right up to the inhabitants of a megacity that teams with over 10 million inhabitants, Homo sapiens is a fundamentally social species.

Local social and cultural differences can be barriers to effective action on a global scale

Just as important, but much less tangible, is society and culture. The realm of ideas and beliefs, of habits and norms. Humans do a great many different things because in important ways they see the world in different ways. These differences are often held to be the root cause of our inability to take effective global action. There is no global government, for a start.

Most of humanity now enmeshed in a superorganism of industrialized complex technosphere

But as different as we all are, the vast majority of humanity is now behaving in fundamentally similar ways. Yes, there are still some nomads who roam tropical rainforests, still some roving sea gypsies. But more than half of the global population now lives in urban environments and nearly all are in some way connected to industrialized activities. Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalized, industrialized complex system – that of the technosphere.

Impact of scale and power of technosphere now referred to as The Great Acceleration

Importantly, the size, scale and power of the technosphere has dramatically grown since World War II. This tremendous increase in the number of humans, their energy and material consumption, food production and environmental impact has been dubbed the Great Acceleration.

The tyranny of growth

If capitalism is allowed to continue, any attempt to reduce emissions will fail

It seems sensible to assume that the reason products and services are made is so that they can be bought and sold and so the makers can turn a profit. So the drive for innovation – for faster, smaller phones, for example – is driven by being able to make more money by selling more phones. In line with this, the environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental calamities is capitalism and consequently any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately fail if we allow capitalism to continue.

In the context of a market-driven, capitalist economy, the primary purpose of humans is to consume to keep the economy growing

But zooming out from the toil of individual manufacturers, and even humanity, allows us to take a fundamentally different perspective, one that transcends critiques of capitalism and other forms of government. Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements. There are also the things we need to perform our different jobs and activities and to travel to and from our jobs and activities. And beyond that is more discretional consumption: TVs, games consoles, jewellery, fashion.

The more we consume, the larger the technosphere becomes

The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.

The emergence and development of capitalism obviously lead to the growth of the technosphere: the application of markets and legal systems allows increased consumption and so growth. But other political systems may serve the same purpose, with varying degrees of success. Recall the industrial output and environmental pollution of the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, all that matters is growth.

Warnings about unsustainable growth are not new

The idea that growth is ultimately behind our unsustainable civilization is not a new concept. Thomas Malthus famously argued there were limits to human population growth, while the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, Limits to Growth, presented simulation results that pointed to a collapse in global civilisation.

Today, narratives of curbing growth are gaining traction

Today, alternative narratives to the growth agenda are, perhaps, getting political traction with an All Party Parliamentary Group convening meetings and activities that seriously consider de-growth policies. And curbing growth within environmental limits is central to the idea of a Green New Deal, which is now being discussed seriously in the US, UK, and other nations.

If growth is the problem, then we just have to work at that, right? This won’t be easy, as growth is baked into every aspect of politics and economics. But we can at least imagine what a de-growth economy would look like.

Limits to freedom

Why are carbon emissions increasing despite the good news about adoption of renewables and new clean energy technologies?  

My fear, however, is that we will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control. It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act. Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely.

 

If you jump in your car to get to a particular destination, you can’t travel in a straight line “as the crow flies”. You will use roads that in some instances are older than your car, you, or even your nation. A significant fraction of human effort and endeavour is devoted to maintaining this fabric of the technosphere: fixing roads, railways, and buildings, for example.

Any change must be incremental to fit our current infrastructure

In that respect, any change must be incremental because it must use what current and previous generations have built. The channelling of people via road networks seems a trivial way to demonstrate that what happened far in the past can constrain the present, but humanity’s path to decarbonization isn’t going to be direct. It has to start from here and at least in the beginning use existing routes of development.

Renewables don’t ‘replace’ fossil fuels, they simply ‘add’ to the existing energy mix, increasing growth

This isn’t meant to excuse policymakers for their failure of ambition, or lack of bravery. But it indicates that there may be deeper reasons why carbon emissions are not decreasing even when there appears to be increasingly good news about alternatives to fossil fuels. Think about it: at the global scale, we have witnessed a phenomenal rate of deployment of solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy generation. But global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is because renewables promote growth – they simply represent another method of extracting energy, rather than replacing an existing one.

Dyke cites Tim Garrett’s research, and his equation linking economic growth and carbon emissions

The relationship between the size of the global economy and carbon emissions is so robust that US physicist Tim Garrett has proposed a very simple formula that links the two with startling accuracy. Using this method, an atmospheric scientist can predict the size of the global economy for the past 60 years with tremendous precision.

Garrett views the technosphere as a heat engine that consumes more and more energy as it grows

But correlation does not necessarily mean causation. That there has been a tight link between economic growth and carbon emissions does not mean that has to continue indefinitely. The tantalizingly simple explanation for this link is that the technosphere can be viewed like an engine: one that works to make cars, roads, clothes, and stuff – even people – using available energy.

Absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until/unless growth collapses

The technosphere still has access to abundant supplies of high energy density fossil fuels. And so the absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until they either run out or the technosphere eventually transitions to alternative energy generation. That may be well beyond the danger zone for humans.

A repugnant conclusion

Have we humans created a monster of our own self-destruction?

We have just come to appreciate that our impacts on the Earth system are so large that we have possibly ushered in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The Earth’s rocks will bear witness to humans’ impacts long after we disappear. The technosphere can be seen as the engine of the Anthropocene. But that does not mean we are driving it. We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. This runs completely counter to how we view our relationship with the Earth system.

If we exceed our nine planetary boundaries, civilization will be difficult, even impossible, to maintain

Take the planetary boundaries concept, which has generated much interest scientifically, economically, and politically. This idea frames human development as impacting on nine planetary boundaries, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. If we push past these boundaries, then the Earth system will change in ways that will make human civilisation very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The value of, say, the biosphere here is that it provides goods and services to us. This represents what we can literally get from the system.

We keep avoiding the adoption of more human-centric lifestyles by building clever new technologies

This very human-centric approach should lead to more sustainable development. It should constrain growth. But the technological world system we have built is clever at getting around such constraints. It uses the ingenuity of humans to build new technologies – such as geoengineering – to reduce surface temperatures. That would not halt ocean acidification and so would lead to the potential collapse of ocean ecosystems. No matter. The climate constraint would have been avoided and the technosphere could then get to work overcoming any side effects of biodiversity loss. Fish stocks collapse? Shift to farmed fish or intensively grown algae.

“There appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth”

As defined so far, there appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth. Just as long as goods and services are consumed, the technosphere can continue to grow.

The pessimistic and optimistic may both be wrong; energy consumption will continue, billions will  die

And so those who fear the collapse of civilisation or those who have enduring faith in human innovation being able to solve all sustainability challenges may both be wrong. After all, a much smaller and much richer population of the order of hundreds of millions could consume more than the current population of 7.6 billion or the projected population of nine billion by the middle of this century. While there would be widespread disruption, the technosphere may be able to weather climate change beyond 3°C. It does not care, cannot care, that billions of people would have died.

In the distance future, the technosphere could even function without humans

And at some point in the future, the technosphere could even function without humans. We worry about robots taking over human’s jobs. Perhaps we should be more concerned with them taking over our role as apex consumers.

Escape plan

If we lose all hope of slowing down the growth of the technosphere, why bother making the effort?

The situation, then, may all seem rather hopeless. Whether or not my argument is an accurate representation of our civilization, there is the risk it produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if we believe we can’t slow down the growth of the technosphere, then why bother?

Making small personal lifestyle changes does not constitute living “outside” the technosphere

This goes beyond the question of “what difference could I make?” to “what difference can anyone make?” While flying less, cutting down on eating meat and dairy and cycling to work are all commendable steps to take, they do not constitute living outside the technosphere. It’s not just that we give tacit consent to the technosphere by using its roads, computers, or intensively farmed food. It’s that by being a productive member of society, by earning and spending, above all by consuming, we further the technosphere’s growth.

First step of an escape plan – Accept that humans are not in control of planet Earth

Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans. For example, the mainstream economic attitude about trees, frogs, mountains, and lakes is that these things only have value if they provide something to us. This mindset sets them up as nothing more than resources to exploit and sinks for waste.

Second step – Begin thinking of our natural resources not as commodities to be consumed but as “companions” in a complex Earth system

What if we thought of them as components or even our companions in the complex Earth system? Questions about sustainable development then become questions about how growth in the technosphere can be accommodated with their concerns, interests, and welfare as well as ours. This may produce questions that seem absurd. What are the concerns or interests of a mountain? Of a flea?

Third step – Stop thinking that human welfare trumps everything else in the Earth system

But if we continue to frame the situation in terms of “us against them”, of human well-being trumping everything else in the Earth system, then we may be effectively hacking away the best form of protection against a dangerously rampant technosphere.

Fourth step – reimagine what constitutes a good life on planet Earth and forget about reworking the technosphere

And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.

Fifth step – clearly identify the bars we have created that now imprison us, then act accordingly; otherwise the deaths of billions could be on our hands

To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.

Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up

Eight years ago, I woke up to the real possibility that humanity is facing disaster. I can still smell that bad coffee, I can still recall the memory of scrabbling to make sense of the words I was hearing. Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up, of meekly returning to our cells. It means grabbing a vital new piece of the map and planning our escape.

SEE RELATED VIDEO

Dr. James Dyke on climate change, published August 20, 2016 — Dyke responds to several questions about his climate change research interests and the existential challenges we face moving forward. To date, we have no realistic way of reducing emissions on a global scale. The consequences of failing to find solutions are dire.

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