A Complex Predicament – Part Three: The Ecological Predicament

How Our Energy, Economic and Ecological Systems are Connected: If Runaway Climate Change is Now Inevitable, Is There Any Rational Response?

By Dave Pollard

This is the third of three articles on understanding complexity and how positive feedback loops are leading inexorably to civilization’s collapse – and what we can and can’t do about it. In Part One I looked at our global energy and resource systems, and the complex relationship between resource prices, regulation, exploration, supply and demand, and how they are pushing us towards disastrous resource exhaustion. In Part Two I looked at the complexities of our global economic systems, and explored whether, although it won’t ‘save’ civilization, the dismantling or crumbling of our current industrial growth economy, sooner rather than later, might lessen the hardship and suffering of drastic climate change that we and our descendents are likely to face.

In this third and final installment, I’ll explain how our biosphere is yet another complex system, look at some of the latest climate change scenarios, and try to paint a picture of a future world as much warmer than our planet is today as it was colder at the coldest point in the “ice ages” of Earth’s recent past – and ask, in the face of this grim certainty, what a rational, useful, human response might be.

.     .     .     .     .

In his new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, author Clive Hamilton writes:

It was only in September 2008, after reading a number of new books, reports and scientific papers, that I finally allowed myself to make the shift and admit that we simply are not going to act with anything like the urgency required… The climate crisis for the human species is now an existential one. On one level I felt relief: relief at finally admitting what my rational brain had been telling me; relief at no longer having to spend energy on false hopes; and relief at being able to let go of some anger at the politicians, business executives and climate sceptics who are largely responsible for delaying action against global warming until it became too late…

We [now] have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate [will now] enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings [will] still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.

Climate scientists are, of necessity, experts in understanding complex systems.  Over the past few years, when I’ve met with them, they’ve become increasingly pessimistic, to the point of finding it difficult to reconcile what they have come to believe in with what they are required to say publicly – even if it’s for the sake of keeping their jobs and audiences. Clive’s experience has been similar, and he says “Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming that will this century bring about a radically transformed world that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life.”

Beyond the shock of coming to grips with this realization comes the challenge of trying to imagine what this “radically transformed world” will look like, and how we humans are going to respond to, and cope with it. What makes it even harder is appreciating that this will not be a sudden, overnight crisis, but what James Kunstler calls a “Long Emergency” that will unfold over decades or even centuries, in waves of varying intensity. And it will not be a temporary crisis, one we can bounce back from with courage and effort, but rather a permanent transformation of everything we now think of as our global civilized culture – the only way we know to live, the only way most of us can imagine living.

Our non-linear predicament

What I’m going to depict in this article is a scenario I am calling the Great Migration – the displacement and movement of billions of humans in search of a more hospitable place to live as runaway climate change makes the places most of us know and love as “home” unrecognizable and unlivable, and what will happen when those billions encounter billions of others whose home places are less affected, but not able to support even their current populations, let alone a massive influx of climate refugees.

But first, I want to return to the diagram I used in the first two parts of this series, which shows the interrelationship between our economic, energy/resource, and ecological/climate systems, and how crises in one system can precipitate crises in the other two. Each of the three systems has reinforcing feedback loops that tend to accelerate disequilibrium (what we call “vicious cycles”), and other balancing feedback loops that tend to mitigate these accelerating changes and bring the system back into stasis.

complex predicament map export

As I wrote in the first two parts of this series, we are quickly running out of ways to intervene and keep these systems in balance, because our global energy/resource systems are predicated on the availability of unlimited, inexpensive resources, and our global economic systems are predicated on our capacity to generate unlimited and perpetual economic growth. Since neither system is sustainable, we are now beginning to spiral into reinforcing feedback loops that will take us to resource exhaustion and economic collapse, which will likely precipitate the end of our complex global civilization culture and a return to a much simpler, relocalized, low-tech and marginal human society (with, as Clive says, many fewer humans).

In this final part, I want to focus on the reinforcing feedback loops in our ecological systems, shown at the top of this chart. There is now little doubt that we have passed the ‘tipping point’ to runaway climate change, and that it will now radically alter the face of our planet in this century and for millennia to come, and will do so even if we were to stop all human activity tomorrow.

Here’s a closer look at the “climate feedback loops” box in the chart above, showing what climate scientists say is now happening to our atmosphere:

Because we were, until recently, looking at these changes in our atmosphere as linear phenomena, and ignoring (or ignorant of) the reinforcing feedback loops, we were extremely optimistic about our ability to forestall climate change through coordinated human action. Now we realize that some of the natural consequences of atmospheric warming (methane release from the arctic, more heat absorption as ice cover disappears, desertification, forest cover loss, other changes reducing natural “carbon capture” sinks, and other phenomena in the oceans we are just beginning to understand) actually reinforce and accelerate warming. As a result, some recent studies now predict a median surface temperature increase of 4oC or more as soon as mid-century, and 8oC or more by end-of-century, regardless of what actions humans take to mitigate the accelerating rise. This is far more than was predicted even just a year ago.

These scientists also agree that this quantum of change, which is comparable to the change that happened when the Earth last slid into an ‘ice age’ (though in the opposite temperature direction), is catastrophic – it will render most of the planet uninhabitable to humans without using prohibitively expensive prosthetic technologies.

Here’s what “runaway climate change” means, according to various scenarios described recently by climate scientists:

  • the uncontrollable burning of most of the world’s remaining tropical, subtropical and temperate forests due to latent heat
  • the prevalence of desertification, disappearance of glacial melt, coastal flooding, massive water shortages and/or endemic high rates of heat-related deaths in many of the world’s temperate zones
  • an ice-free world, with a commensurate rise, sooner or later, of 50-70m in sea levels
  • unprecedented and chronic floods, storms and monsoons
  • the death of almost all ocean life
  • large-scale collapse and abandonment of aging physical and technology infrastructure not designed for such extreme and frequent weather events
  • massive numbers of climate change refugees, migrating (mostly north) thousands of miles in search of lands that are still habitable and arable

How might humans respond in the face of such change, transforming our planet over the course of the next few decades?

The Great Migration

Here’s the scenario I envision we might see, based on my study of the collapse of past cultures, the human movements that occurred in response to ‘ice ages’, and the recent human responses to great depressions, famines and other massive cultural dislocations.

  1. Pulling together in times of crisis, and experimentation with new ways of living: I believe the response of most people to climate and other crises will, rather than panic, violence or selfishness, be more nuanced, peaceful and collaborative. The Long Emergency will give us the opportunity to try out a variety of pragmatic responses before we need to cope with the more extreme consequences of climate change.
  1. Massive dislocation: Just as during the latest ‘ice age’ a large proportion of the planet’s people would have been forced to migrate towards equatorial areas of the planet, climate change will require the people now living in tropical areas (which will be scorched out), and in many desertified and parched, or inundated coastal subtropical and temperate areas (much of the Western US and Canada, much of Australia, all of Southern Europe and the Middle East, much of Southeast Asia and most of Mexico and Central America) to migrate towards the nearer pole, north or south (and/or to higher ground inland). At least two billion people live in these areas now.
  1. A Great Migration: What we will see, I think, is a gradual swell of people, a Great Migration over a few decades fleeing famine, thirst and disease. Those who migrate may encounter friction from those in more temperate areas struggling with resource exhaustion, economic collapse and less severe climate crises, who will not welcome climate refugees adding to their population and resource pressures. Many of these xenophobes will then be forced to join the Great Migration further north, or south, as the habitable area of the planet continues to shrink.
  1. Squatters, encampments and a “baby bust”: There will be no money to build new infrastructure for these billions of refugees, so most of them, I predict, will live either as nomads, scrounging what they can from abandoned land (monoculture farms, bankrupt, deserted suburbs, etc.), or in massive settlement camps, reliant on food handouts. Birth rates among these billions will plummet as hopelessness and malnutrition become endemic, so most of the mid-century fall in human population will be the result of rapidly falling birth rates rather than rising death rates.
  1. Emptied cities, relocalized communities, and the collapse of large institutions: For those fortunate enough to live in sub-polar and boreal areas with adequate precipitation, or in cooler temperate regions where soils have not been seriously depleted and where urbanization is modest, will likely fare relatively well – they’ll be too far away for most climate refugees to reach, and not as seriously affected by the worst effects of climate change. For them, economic collapse will mean a dramatic relocalization of society – collapse of national and regional governments, large corporations, international trade and markets, leading to devolved authority and responsibility to communities, with enough time to relearn the essential skills of living in community.
  1. Most human infrastructure abandoned: David Korowicz, an economist and complexity expert with the Irish sustainability think-tank Feasta, explains that much of our social fabric is based on large-scale ubiquitous infrastructure, which will have to be abandoned due to economic collapse and the Great Migration. In his study “On the Cusp of Collapse” he writes “We are deeply dependent on the grid, IT and communications, transport, water and sewage, and banking infrastructure… amongst the most technologically complex and expensive products in our civilisation… This [ever-deteriorating] infrastructure requires continuous inputs for maintenance and repair [and] specialised components that depend upon very diverse and extensive supply-chains.” The abandonment of this infrastructure (we won’t be able to maintain it or take it with us as we move) will of necessity require a shift to a much simpler, subsistence lifestyle.
  1. Food scarcity and the need to shift to organic, sustainable permaculture: The complexity and interdependence of our systems will introduce other challenges as infrastructure essential to these systems is abandoned. David Korowicz explains: “Global food producers are already straining to meet rising demand against the stresses of soil degradation, water shortages, over-fishing and the burgeoning effects of climate change… 7-10 calories of fossil-fuel energy go into every one calorie of food energy we consume… Without nitrogen fertiliser, produced from natural gas, no more than 48% of today’s population could be fed [even] at the inadequate 1900 level. No country is self-sufficient in food production today. The fragility of the global food production system will be exposed by a decline in oil and other energy production. It is not just the more direct energy inputs, such as diesel, that will be affected, but fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, and spares for machinery and transport. The failing operational fabric may mean there is no electricity for refrigeration, for example… A major financial collapse would not just cut actual food production, but could result in food left rotting in the fields [and consequent famines].” As these massive food systems collapse, relocalized, organic, more resilient and flexible permaculture systems will replace them.

The above scenario – a Great Migration, a collapse of human numbers, economic and energy systems and infrastructure, and a relatively peaceful shift to a radically simpler and relocalized way of living — is only a guess, of course, at one of a million possible outcomes. We can’t know how system collapse will play out. But those who have been paying attention know that business, and life, “as usual” will not be possible much longer, especially for our children and descendants.

Preparing for the Long Emergency

So how, and when, do we prepare for such a future? How do we give up trying to perpetuate the unsustainable and instead begin to prepare for failure?

In his article “Tipping Point”, David Korowicz writes:

Part of the preparation is in the acknowledgement of our predicament, that we recognise it when we see it. That as systems fail, we spend our efforts on positive change and adaption, rather than finding scapegoats or letting anger and loss drive the cannibalisation of our social fabric… Those who, through fear or avarice, try and insulate themselves from the impacts by disproportionate hoarding or land grabs will imperil not only their community’s security and wellbeing, but their own. This will be a time when we really will need the cooperation and support of others.

If we look at the history of peoples who successfully made the transition from a collapsing civilization to a sustainable, subsistence post-civilization culture, we can identify four viable strategies:

  1. Relearn essential skills, knowledge and capacities that have been lost as our culture has become dependent on complexity, centralization, hierarchy, imports and unsustainable infrastructure. These include technical skills, “soft” skills (like facilitation, conflict resolution and mentoring), and knowledge – including knowledge of place and self-knowledge.
  1. Learn to create and build community: Practice the arts of working, sharing, collaborating and cooperating with those in your immediate physical neighbourhood. Collapse will force us to make things work at the community level, together.
  1. Heal ourselves and each other: Understand and appreciate the damage that the stress of our fiercely competitive, scarcity-creating, horrifically unequal and morally agnostic culture, has done to us, physically and psychologically, and work to help each other recover from that damage.
  1. Live an exemplary, joyful life: Most people will not be swayed by impassioned arguments from strangers about “what we need to do now”. But they will appreciate, and consider emulating, those who live and act, every day, in ways that seem inspiring, conscious, sensible, and admirable.

As the philosopher John Gray has written, it is human nature to be preoccupied with the needs of the moment, and to put off thinking about or acting on issues that, however important, do not seem urgent. Most of us are therefore unlikely to change our behaviour until it is too late, and as a result the transition – through a cascading series of existential crises to an unimaginably different way of life – will be challenging, unpracticed, unprepared for, and probably quite chaotic. As Buddha put it: “The problem is that we think we have time.”

As long as we continue to mistake our complex predicament for a merely complicated problem with “solutions” – believing blindly in new leadership, new technology, new consciousness, or salvation from a higher authority – we will continue to live nostalgic, unsustainable, irrationally hopeful and hopelessly idealistic lives.

As unpredictable and harrowing as it may be, some of us will have to do better, be ready for whatever is to come and show others how to adapt and live differently. We will have to do this with the knowledge that collapse is no stranger to this fragile planet, and with the awareness that we’ll inevitably make some big mistakes in the struggle to create new cultures that are viable in a strange and turbulent new world. And with the belief that beyond that struggle is a world unimaginably different from industrial civilization, a world of real peace, equality, connection, freedom and joy.

The Great Migration, and beyond it the new and smaller role of our species aboard Spaceship Earth, is our new human story. It’s not too early to start writing it, and telling it to everyone we know.



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