Locked-Up Inside the Complexity Trap

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ApocalypseBy Xray Mike

(Graphic Xray Mike)

[F]rom the acidified and plasticized oceans to the greenhouse gas-polluted atmosphere to the radioactive and heavy metal-contaminated soils, the Anthropocene Epoch will leave behind a planet radically altered in its atmospheric and biospheric chemistry. This disruption, unprecedented in geologic time for its rapidity and wide-scale destruction, is already too severe for the complex web of life that had evolved under earth’s previous life-sustaining homeostatic system. As Brian Moss (et al.) wrote in Climate Change Impacts on Freshwater Ecosystems, “The chemistry of the biosphere is the ultimate sine qua non of our existence.”:

It is expected that we will have lost over half the world’s land ecosystems to agriculture or development by 2050. The urbanites may not be noticing this but the consequences will nonetheless be huge, for it is these natural ecosystems that regulate the nature of the biosphere. We have absolutely no idea how much of them can be damaged without serious consequences for human survival. All we know is that such systems, honed by the utterly ruthless mechanisms of natural selection to be as near fit for purpose as possible, are just as crucial to us, indeed much more fundamentally so, than the local grocer, filling station or hospital. The chemistry of the biosphere is the ultimate sine qua non of our existence. …in contemplating the hitherto effects of climate change, we fail to realize that the loss of ecosystems and the changing climate are linked. Indeed we blithely cost the damage of climate change (Stern 2006) as we cost the goods and services we are losing through the application of the same approach of classical economics. We have failed to see the interaction of climate, ecology, and equability. Our attempts to mitigate climate change, in a desperate bid to avoid disruption of our societies, may inevitably be doomed to failure unless we begin to see the whole picture and not just the components we find most convenient to our cash economy. Link

Man-made climate change is the number one driver of the 6th mass extinction currently unfolding. Without bees, the grocery shelves look rather bare. Without coral reefs, the oceans are devoid of most life. Perhaps the greatest blind spot of humans is their inability to imagine that earth does not need them. The myopic, anthropocentric worldview that humans “own the earth” is emblematic of our economic system and its principles, and this belief that everything can be valued in dollars and cents will prove to be our undoing.

Modern man evolved in an environment composed of carbon dioxide(CO2) levels averaging 240ppm and methane(CH4) levels averaging 700ppb. Today’s atmosphere is now filled with nearly double the amount of CO2 and triple the CH4. A third greenhouse gas worth noting is nitrous oxide(N2O) which has 296 times the ‘Global Warming Potential’ (GWP) of CO2 and a lifespan of 150 years. N2O’s pre-industrial levels were around 270ppb, but are now at around 330ppb and climbing 0.3% per year. When all greenhouse gases are combined, the world is at a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of 479 ppm. And we’re locked into much more warming due to the carbon-based civilization we have built. Global dimming and the lag time of climate change have hidden the full effects yet to come, but the changes we are already seeing at only 0.85°C are catastrophic. If you are unaware of the runaway feedback loops causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the exponential ice melt happening in both of the Earth’s poles, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention. David Spratt elucidates some of the tipping points we have already breached:

…tipping points that have been passed thus far, at less than 1°C of warming:

  • The loss of the Amundsen Sea West Antarctic glaciers, and 1–4 metres of sea level rise (Rignot, Mouginot et al., 2014; Joughin, Smith et al., 2014). Dr Malte Meinshausen, advisor to the German government and one of the architects of the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathways, calls the evidence published this year of “unstoppable” (Rignot, 2014) deglaciation in West Antarctica “a game changer”, and a “tipping point that none of us thought would pass so quickly”, noting now we are “committed already to a change in coastlines that is unprecedented for us humans” (Breakthrough, 2014).
  • The loss of Arctic sea-ice in summer (Duarte, Lenton et al., 2012; Maslowski, Kinney et al., 2012), which will hasten regional warming, the mobilization of frozen carbon stores, and the deglaciation of Greenland.
  • Numerous ecosystems, which are already severely degraded or in the process of being lost, including the Arctic (Wolf, 2010). In the Arctic, the rate of climate change is now faster than ecosystems can adapt to naturally, and the fate of many Arctic marine ecosystems is clearly connected to that of the sea ice (Duarte, Lenton et al., 2012). In May 2008, Dr Neil Hamilton, who was then director of Arctic programmes for WWF, told a stunned audience (of which I was a member) at the Academy of Science in Canberra that WWF was not trying to preserve the Arctic ecosystem because “it was no longer possible to do so.”

Such environmental changes are imperceptible to the real-time cognitive processing of humans, but in geological ‘deep time’ these events are cataclysmic and portend a dire future for humans. As Jared Diamond described in his writings, climate change is the ultimate under-the-radar threat able to undermine human reasoning and response:

Psychological concepts of how we view the world around us, including ‘creeping normalcy’ or ‘landscape amnesia’, block day-to-day comprehension of what accelerating human activities represent—whether it is human population, the number of dammed rivers, forest destruction, or the impact of motor car emissions in a timespan that is geologically brief. Creeping normalcy refers to slow trends concealed in noisy fluctuations that people get used to without comment, while landscape amnesia describes forgetting how different the landscape looked 20–50 years ago (Diamond 2005: 425).

In his study of how societies fail, biogeographer Jared Diamond calls global warming a pre-eminent example of a ‘slow trend concealed by wide up and down fluctuations’ (2005: 425). He likens the denial of climate change impacts by leading politicians, including former US president George W. Bush (and his contemporary John Howard in Australia), in the late 1990s and early 2000s to the elite of ‘the medieval Greenlanders [who] had similar difficulties recognizing that their climate was gradually becoming colder, and the Maya and Anasazi (in Central and North America) [who] had trouble discerning that theirs was becoming drier’ (2005: 425). Link


Nate Hagens recently made a comment online which is key to understanding much of the frustration, obstinacy, and mass delusion that modern society exhibits when trying to understand one piece of the global crisis rather than taking a holistic approach:

“I think 95%+ of environmentalists don’t integrate systems, energy or human behavior into their analysis of our climate predicament and think we can just plug and play BTUs (British Thermal Units) and have low carbon economic growth – PCI (Post Carbon Institute) has spent most of the last 5 years trying to educate [the public] on this front, to little avail.”

Most energy experts know that “renewable energy” will never be able to replace energy-dense fossil fuels at the global scale (Just for oil, it’s 90 million barrels consumed every day and forecast to hit 96 million BPD by 2019), but they don’t take into full consideration the collapse of earth’s stable Holocene climate which has allowed industrial civilization to flourish. On the other side of the coin, most climate scientists and activists I have encountered do not understand the sever limitations of “renewable energy”, yet many are well aware of the looming disaster posed by anthropogenic climate disruption. Trying to fully comprehend the multiple interconnected global crisis bearing down on industrial civilization is like the allegory of the six blind men and an elephant. Unable to see the bigger picture, each man argues and maintains that their limited view of reality is the only correct one.

As global coal consumption continues its upwards march, the real outcome of the Lima climate conference is that humans are more than willing to hide behind contractual jargon and kick the can down the road rather than come to terms with the unsustainable nature of industrial civilization:

The shift of a single word—from a “shall” to a “may”—means the world will very likely continue to burn lots of coal. Instead of being required to provide “quantifiable information” about their greenhouse-gas emissions, countries may choose whether or not to include those statistics in their pledges instead, known in the jargon as “intended nationally determined contributions.Link

After more than two decades of climate talks, are we to believe that industrial civilization will ever reform itself for the sake of a living planet? As pervasive as self-deception is in modern society, the reinsurance industry is one sector of industrial civilization unable to turn a blind eye to the rising costs of increasingly extreme and chaotic weather events. The U.S. military is another entity impelled to acknowledge anthropogenic climate disruption, whether it be responding to the wreckage from monster typhoons in the Philippines or the destabilizing effects of droughts in the Middle East. After a few centuries of burning fossil fuels and the accumulation of vast amounts of climate science data, techno-capitalist carbon man is also being forced to react to the fact that the earth’s atmosphere is not an infinite pollution sink for his endless consumption of energy. The problem is that several planetary tipping points have already been irreversibly transgressed, threatening the very habitability of earth. Our predictable collective response is to try to techno-fix the problem rather than entertain any fundamental rethink of the pillars of the capitalist economic system and the scientific reductionism that have led us to this impasse. As evidenced by the number of articles published in mainstream periodicals these days about geoengineering the atmosphere, awareness appears to be growing amongst the business elite that things are starting to spiral out of control:

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Geoengineering is another problem-solving strategy that our complex society will employ in order to try and solve the ever-complicated problems arising from ecological overshoot. In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter described this process of developing progressively more sophisticated technologies to solve problems. Geoengineering is wrought with dangers and even frightens many of those scientists who are working on such schemes, but it may be our last hope of saving ourselves from abrupt climate change and a hothouse Earth similar to past rapid warmings. Recent research has shown that the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a time in earth’s history when global temperatures rose upwards of 5°C in the space of about 13 years, serves as a better case study for modern climate change than previously thought:

About 55.5 million years ago, a burst of carbon dioxide raised Earth’s temperature 5°C to 8°C, which had major impacts on numerous species of plants and wildlife. Scientists analyzing ancient soil samples now say a previous burst of the greenhouse gas preceded this event, known as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), and probably triggered it. Moreover, they believe humans are pumping similar levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere right now, raising concerns that our own emissions may also destabilize Earth’s climate, triggering the planet to emit devastating bursts of carbon in the future.

The paper implies that even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide right now, our descendants might still face huge temperature rises, says paleoclimatologist Gabriel Bowen of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the lead author of the new research. “It is a possibility,” he says, “and it’s a scary one.”…

…The researchers used climate models to investigate how the initial, smaller heating could have triggered the later surge in temperature. They estimate that the first thermal pulse is likely to have warmed Earth’s atmosphere by 2°C to 3°C, but that the atmospheric temperature would have gradually returned to normal as the heat was absorbed into the deep ocean. However, when that heat finally reached the ocean floor, it might have melted methane ices called clathrates, releasing the methane into the ocean and allowing it to make its way into the atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide [up to several hundred times the Global Warming Potential of CO2 for the first two decades before decaying into CO2], so a sudden spike in methane emissions could lead to huge climate change.Link

If we are only going to use geoengineering techniques to try and keep business-as-usual afloat, then such efforts will be nothing more than the last gasps of a dying civilization, but if these technologies are coupled with an expedited wartime transformation of our society, culture, economy, and political institutions into a very low or zero carbon society, then perhaps such efforts would be worthwhile and could save our species from extinction. However, I see no signs of any such transition towards a decentralized, simplified society, and more noteworthy, neither does Tainter. We are firmly locked within the complexity trap:

…‘the study of social complexity does not yield optimistic results’ (Tainter, 2006: 99). In fact, there is something deeply tragic in Tainter’s view, because it suggests that civilisation, by its very nature, gets locked into a process of mandatory growth in complexity that eventually becomes unsupportable. Furthermore, history provides a disturbingly consistent empirical basis for this tragic view (Tainter, 1988), leading Tainter (2006: 100) to conclude that ‘all solutions to the problem of complexity are temporary.’ This seemingly innocuous statement is actually extremely dark, for it implies that ultimately and inevitably social complexity will outgrow its available energy supply. Link

As things stand right now, not only must we stop the rise of CO2, but we must also halt the loss of Arctic ice albedo and implement methods for pulling greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere because a 2°C warming limit is a thing of the past. Sound advice would be to stop digging when in catastrophic overshoot, but it does not appear we can stop because the system is in control, not us.


“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live. … You are captives—and you have made a captive of the world itself. That’s what’s at stake, isn’t it?—your captivity and the captivity of the world.”
― Daniel Quinn, Ishmael


Originally published at Collapse of Civilization.

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