The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Novel Essay Excerpt

My second novel should be out later this year–I have just finished final editing, so the book now moves into publication. To celebrate, I’m posting an excerpt from the essay on science at the back of the novel. The following is based largely on material I learned from Tom Wessels and Charles Curtin, either in class or in personal discussion–and yes, I thank them in the book.

Essay Excerpt 1: On Exoskeletons and Ox-carts

Ecological Memory depicts a world that includes both ox-carts and robotic exoskeletons. Some readers might ask why. Yes, this is a world without fossil fuel, but it is clearly a technologically advanced society, so why are the people stuck using ox-carts? Why not use renewable energy?

The short answer is that they can and do, but if they used enough renewable energy to replace fossil fuels fully they would just wreck the world again. Where energy comes from is generally less important than how much is used.

People are used to hearing, and telling, the story of technological progress in terms of innovation. Cars are more advanced than ox-carts because they go faster. The other—often forgotten—side of the story is energy. A car that ran on a few bales of hay could not go much faster than an ox, no matter how advanced it was. Advancing technology has allowed the use of more and more energy, and that—not innovation alone—is what gives us our unprecedented power.

Fossil fuel has made increasing energy consumption possible because it is energy dense, easily portable, and abundant (or, at least, used to be). Fossil fuel also causes climate change and ocean acidification; and it indirectly causes several other ills, such as loss of biodiversity. The mechanisms involved should be roughly familiar to most readers. The surprise is that drawing the same amount of energy from other sources would likely cause similar problems; only the mechanisms would be different. Understanding why requires exploring the science of complex systems.

Complex”, here, has a specific, technical meaning: a system is complex if it has certain properties, such as self-organization and a nested or hierarchical structure (complex systems can have other complex systems inside them). I am a complex system, and so are you. So are cells, ecosystems, and entire biospheres. Books have been written about these systems, and they are worth a read, but the important thing to know is that systems science is all about the flow of energy. Complex systems can fight entropy and win. Readers may remember that entropy is the tendency for everything in the universe to run down as energy dissipates. Complex systems do lose energy to dissipation, but they do not run down, because they actively draw in energy from outside themselves. If a system is drawing in more energy than it loses, it is anti-entropic. Think of a baby, eating and eating, turning all those calories into growth and development, or a young forest, rapidly increasing in biomass and biodiversity. Eventually, the complex system reaches a point of equilibrium where energy inputs equal losses, and growth stops: that is maturity. From the standpoint of systems science, individual human beings remain mature only briefly. Almost as soon as people reach full size, our metabolisms slow and we start losing energy. We enter what is called the entropic phase. More colloquially, it is called aging, though injury or illness can trigger an entropic phase before maturity, too. A system that stays entropic long enough will cease being complex. That is death.

All complex systems go through these phases, though not all become entropic automatically with age. Forests never die of old age, but they can become entropic. A forest on fire, for example, is losing energy (in the form of heat and light) at a fantastic rate. If the fire is not too severe, the forest will survive and become anti-entropic again as it regrows. As Andy explains in the story, size, complexity, and stability increase and decrease together. A mature forest has more biomass and is more complex than either a young, recently-sprouted forest or the pile of ash and cinder left behind by a forest fire. Similarly, adult people are not just bigger than babies; they are also smarter and more resistant to disease. There is a reason people sometimes call the latter part of the human entropic phase a second childhood: bodies shrink, becoming less capable and less healthy as they lose energy.

All this energy must come from somewhere. Complex systems draw energy from the larger systems they are nested within. My cells draw energy from me. I draw energy from my society by working for a living and buying things. My society draws energy from the biosphere. The catch is that if the smaller system draws too much energy, it can force the larger system into an entropic phase. The larger system can even collapse—cease to exist—leaving the smaller system floating loose in whatever system the larger one was nested within. Think about why cancer kills if it is not successfully treated. Think about how unsustainable logging kills forests. Think about what follows from the rapid burning of fossil fuel.

The biosphere, too, is a complex system, and it, too, has had anti-entropic phases when it was actively growing, becoming more complex and more stable. The biosphere draws its energy (mostly) from the sun, through the process of photosynthesis, which gives us all our free oxygen and most of our biomass as well. And the carbon at the heart of that biomass remains part of the biosphere as long as it is part of chemical compounds that store energy captured by plants—which means that fossil fuels still count as biomass. When Earth was young, the growth of the biosphere, including the growth of its fossil fuel deposits, drew down the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. When the biosphere entered its mature phase, the carbon dioxide level more or less stabilized. Now that we’re burning fossil fuels, we’re liberating that stored energy and the CO2 concentration is rising rapidly as carbon leaves the biosphere—this loss of both biomass and energy means that the biosphere is now entropic.

Let me repeat that: Earth’s biosphere is currently entropic because of human activity.

Loss of stability, complexity, and size always accompany loss of mass and energy as a complex system starts to die. In human beings, that means poor health, increasing disability, and the wasting away of various tissues. Erratic weather, changing climate, and loss of biodiversity are simply the same pattern applied to the biosphere as a whole.

That burning fossil fuel should trigger a global entropic phase should not be surprising, given that the whole point of fossil fuel use is to access a lot of energy, quickly. Earth receives a certain limited amount of solar energy every year, and plant and animal life, as well as the movement of wind and water, takes place within that energy budget. If the human species confined itself to the same annual budget, living on sustainable forestry, agriculture, and renewable energy sources, most of the consumption that people take for granted today would simply be out of reach. Fossil fuel makes the more we want possible, and does so by delivering energy at a higher rate than the biosphere receives. Biospheric entropy is the inevitable result.

If the human species stops using so much energy, the biosphere will re-enter an anti-entropic phase and recover—though it will take a very long time for full recovery, possibly millions of years. That’s better than not recovering at all, and the sooner we reach carbon neutrality, the more likely we are to have a livable planet during the recovery period. Hope remains, though time is getting short.

Giving up fossil fuel entirely is probably a necessary step towards sustainability. What is the alternative, some complicated global carbon rationing system? Who would administer or enforce it? And why would anyone bother? Truly sustainable fossil fuel use would—by definition—yield no more energy than renewables can.

But the end of the Age of Fossil Fuel alone will not rescue us. Should we ever find and use an alternative way to draw more energy than the biosphere has to spare, the system will be back in the same entropic muddle it’s in now. Imagine replacing a Stage Four cancerous tumor with a six-mile-long tapeworm. The patient still dies; the only difference is the mechanism.

Energy is energy. Using too much has consequences.

One way or another, human over-use of resources will end. Unsustainable processes do end, by definition. We can survive only by shifting to an energy budget similar to what existed prior to the Industrial Revolution—a change that will impose real limitations on what the species can do and how it can do it. But a return to pre-Industrial limitations need not mean a return to pre-Industrial life.

An energy budget is not a time machine. There is no mechanism by which limitation alone can erase scientific and cultural advances or prevent further advances. Where those new advances might lead, I cannot say. I have simply imagined one possibility—one that includes both exoskeletons and ox-carts.

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How Does This Read?

I have spent the last few days reworking a series of short essays intended as a kind of post-script to a novel I have just about completed. The following is one of those essays. I have covered much of the same ground in this blog before, though with a slightly different focus, but I want to try out this piece and see how it reads. Feel free to comment with any feedback.

The Post-Petroleum World

Ecological Memory depicts a world of both ox-carts and robotic exoskeletons. Some readers might ask why. Yes, this is a world without fossil fuel, but it’s clearly a technologically advanced society, so why are they stuck using ox-carts? Why not use renewable energy?

The short answer is that they can and do, but if they used enough renewable energy to fully replace fossil fuels, they’d just wreck the world again. Where energy comes from is less important than how much is used.

We’re used to telling the story of technological progress in terms of innovation; cars are more advanced than ox-carts, so they go faster. But the other side of the same story is energy. A car than ran on just a few bales of hay couldn’t go much faster than an ox, no matter how advanced it was. Greater technology has allowed us to use more and more energy and that, not innovation alone, gives us our unprecedented power.

Fossil fuel made possible our energy increases. Fossil fuel use has also caused climate change and ocean acidification, and it indirectly causes several other ills, such as biodiversity loss. The mechanisms involved should be roughly familiar to most readers. The surprise is that drawing the same amount of energy from some other source would likely cause similar problems. Only the mechanisms would be different. To understand why, we need to take a dive into complex systems science.

“Complex,” here, has a specific, technical meaning. A system is complex if it has certain properties, such as self-organization and “nestedness,” meaning a system can have smaller complex systems inside it. I am a complex system and so are you. So are cells, ecosystems, and biospheres, among other examples. Whole books have been written on these systems, and those books are worth a read, but the important thing to know is that systems science is all about the flow of energy.

Complex systems can fight entropy and win. Entropy, readers may remember, is the tendency for everything to gradually run down as energy dissipates. Complex systems also lose energy to dissipation, but they don’t run down because they can actively draw more energy in from outside. If a system is drawing in more energy than it loses, it is anti-entropic. Think of a baby, eating and eating, and turning all those calories to growth and development, or a young forest, rapidly increasing in both biomass and biodiversity. Eventually, the system reaches a point of equilibrium where energy inputs equal losses, and growth stops. That’s maturity. From the standpoint of systems science, individual humans remain mature very briefly. Almost as soon as we reach full size, our metabolisms slow and we start losing energy, what’s called the entropic phase. More colloquially, it’s called aging. If something speeds up the entropy, or causes entropy before maturity, that’s illness or injury. A system that stays entropic long enough will cease being complex. That’s death.

All complex systems go through these phases, though not all automatically become entropic at a certain age. Forests, for example, don’t get old. They can become entropic, though. A forest on fire is entropic, for example. If the fire isn’t too severe, the forest will survive and become anti-entropic again for a while as it re-grows. As Andy explains in the story, size, complexity, and stability increase and decrease together. Adults aren’t just bigger than babies, they are also smarter and more resistant to disease. And there’s a reason we sometimes call the latter part of our entropic phase the second childhood.

All this energy has to come from somewhere, and complex systems often draw energy from the larger systems they are nested within. My cells draw energy from me. I draw energy from my society (mostly by working for a living), and my society draws energy from the biosphere. The catch is that if the smaller system draws too much energy, it will force the larger system into the entropic phase.

Think about why cancer kills if it isn’t successfully treated. Think about a forest being logged at an unsustainable rate. Think about the rapid burning of fossil fuel.

The biosphere, too, is a complex system, and it, too, had an anti-entropic phase when it was actively growing and becoming more complex and more stable—we know it was growing because the carbon dioxide concentration in the air was falling. Remember that plants store solar energy in carbon compounds built out of carbon dioxide and water. Free, breathable oxygen is the byproduct. Those carbon compounds then become the biomas and energy source of the entire living world. As the biosphere grew, the supply of carbon in the atmosphere shrank. The carbon dioxide/oxygen ratio eventually stabilized as the biosphere entered maturity. In recent decades, the carbon concentration has been rising again as the Earth entered an entropic phase.

Let me repeat that; the biosphere is currently entropic because of us.

The loss of stability and complexity and size always go with the loss of mass and energy as a complex system starts to die. Erratic weather, a changing climate, and widespread biodiversity loss are simply what these familiar symptoms look like on a large scale.

That burning fossil fuel should trigger an entropic phase isn’t surprising, given that the whole point of fossil fuel use is to access a lot of energy. The biosphere provides us with an annual energy budget of less than the total solar energy we receive, solar energy that builds plant tissue, drives winds, and moves waters. Were we to stay within that energy budget, living on sustainable forestry and agriculture, plus wind, water, and solar, most of the power we take for granted today would simply be out of our reach. Fossil fuel makes it all possible, and does so by giving us energy at a higher rate than what the biosphere actually receives. Biospheric entropy is the inevitable result.

To be clear, if we stop using so much energy, the biosphere will re-enter an anti-entropic phase and recover, though it will take a very long time for full recovery, possibly millions of years. There is hope, though time is getting short.

Giving up fossil fuel entirely is probably a necessary step towards sustainability. What’s the alternative, some complicated global carbon rationing system? Who could administer such a thing? But the end of the Age of Oil alone will not protect us. Should we ever find and use an alternative energy source to again draw more energy from the biosphere than the biosphere actually has to spare, we’ll be back in the same entropic muddle we’re in now. It would be like replacing a cancerous tumor with a six-mile-long tape-worm. The patient would still die, the only difference would be the mechanism.

Energy is energy. Using too much has consequences.

We will return to an energy budget similar to what the world had prior to the Industrial Revolution. One way or another, we will have to. And that change will impose real limitations on what we can do and how we can do it.

But an energy budget is not a time machine. We will not lose the scientific and cultural advances we have made, nor will we cease advancing. We won’t return to pre-Industrial Revolution life. We will build something new. What that something might be, I can’t say. Exoskeletons and oxcarts are simply part of my guess as to one possibility.


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Thanksgiving Yet to Come

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a fairly cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to think Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Well, yes; we want to be seasonal, don’t we?

And yes, there are linkages to be made. A brief Internet search on the subject yields two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in what you have to do with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings sometimes thrown in among the other topics of discussion at the dinner time. And yet, there is one thing that being surrounded by more food than one could possibly eat is good for; it brings home a sense of bounty, the reassurance that, no matter what, there will always be enough. And that is something to be thankful for.

It’s an illusion, of course. There is no such thing as an infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even renewable resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. Ever more efficient harvesting techniques hide the extent to which our fisheries are depleted. Expensive extraction procedures, like deep-sea oil drilling and tar sands mining, are now economically competitive–the more accessible oil is mostly already gone. It’s not necessarily that humans don’t have enough food and water. As a general rule, famine is a distribution problem, not a production problem (so far). But we no longer have abundance, a planetary Thanksgiving table groaning with reassuring excess.

Want a visual of the problem? Check this out:

Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses diversity. One way to describe global warming and all its awful permutations is as a complex system being pushed into an entropic state.

The bottom line is that there is no way to sustainability that does not involve radically reducing our resource use–and the longer we put off doing so, the more stringent a budget our descendents will have to keep. We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as a Thanksgiving feast that would never end, but the feast is over now, and has been for a long time.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. We know perfectly well that the Thanksgiving table may groan, but it’s not actually infinite. It just feels reassuringly infinite, and it is that feeling that is important. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re actually remembering to be thankful for today.

The psychological power of the illusion of abundance does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished, and nobody goes into debt.

That’s what we have to do as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–and yet work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out–a paradoxical but very real form of abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than what we have.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.