Expecting a minor bump; about to hit a brick wall at 200km/h

That, in a nutshell, is my take on the current state of the world when it comes to climate change and other “challenges” ahead. How to tackle it? As much as I criticized The Lean Startup book in my review a while back, I’m starting to think we need to start running the world like a million lean start-ups.

Considering the facts that;

  • Arctic sea ice is disappearing at a far more rapid pace than predicted by the models [1]

  • The sea levels are rising faster than predicted by the models [2]

  • Even IEA says time is running out to avoid catastrophic climate change [3]

  • The climate is loaded with all kinds of tipping points, and we would not very wise to empirically go try and find out what happens if we trigger (even more of) them [4]

  • Our emissions are currently exceeding the worst projections of the IPCC scenarios [5]

  • The fossil fuel developments already being developed & planned by the oil & gas industry practically guarantee an epic disaster [6], [7]

  • Crops are typically grown at or near their optimum temperatures currently, but even minor temperature changes and heat stress from heat waves lead to massive reductions in yield [8], [9], [10]

.. I find it nothing short of appalling that people are still talking about “sustainability” as if it’s something of a quaint topic, as a nice-to-have, something to strive for sometime in the future or at most – like in the Finnish government’s new “Blue Book” report [11] (in Finnish) – borrowing the concept to drive the oxymoron of “sustainable growth”.

There are a few aspects to sustainability most people miss;

  • Next to nothing that’s currently billed as sustainable really is.

  • We will have a sustainable society; it’s a simple matter of definitions (as in unsustainable being, as per definition, not sustainable).

  • We have no idea what that sustainable society looks like; to borrow John Greer;

    “Nobody alive today knows what a truly sustainable technic society would look like, much less how to build one. The only form of technic society human beings have yet experienced is the industrialism of the last 300 years, and nearly everything that made that system work will be gone once the age of cheap abundant energy ends. The time of contraction ahead of us is, among other things, an opportunity for social evolution, in which various populations will try out many different forms of technical, economic and social organizations, some of which will turn out to be more successful than others.”

  • While the crisis necessitating the change are hitting us today, the transition into a sustainable world will take place over generations.

  • That transition may involve a (more or less uncontrolled) human population crash.

  • It’s clear major and sudden shifts are required, in the financial and physical worlds as well as psychologically [12], [13].

  • None of the above is a good excuse for giving up and doing nothing.

I think it’s been shown beyond doubt that there will not be a globally united front on how to get there. And frankly there shouldn’t be – it’s time to experiment with sustainability, and to build resilience in order to face the challenges we can clearly see are ahead of us. As Greer pointed out, some experiments will turn out to be more successful than others – the best we can do is try to identify, as one would in a Lean Startup, which approaches work best as early as possible and tweak them as necessary.

Just think of systems, organizations and policies driving sustainability in one form or another rather than companies. Pick some – for example I’ve picked the Transition Movement and Permaculture – and advocate and implement them to the best of your abilities. If it looks like it’ll work, great. If not, pivot. Just try something, because status quo is not an option – the current way of doing things are what got us into this mess to begin with.

I recently had the pleasure to contribute a little to organizing the Global Sustainability Jam in Melbourne that took place last weekend; it was also a great opportunity to meet some positive people and witness positive energy in action. Such events are always good in helping restore bits of faith in humanity.

Addition: a few hours after I posted this, PricewaterhouseCoopers released a study [16] noting that the world is on track for +6C of warming by the end of the century. Leaving aside the fact that all talk of “decarbonisation” is pretty hypocritical in a world with increasing emissions, the story got a fair share of press; most articles conveniently forgot to point out that +6C doesn’t mean balmy summers and less snow in winters. It means a near-extinction event for the human race. Those (including myself) who call for increased resilience and adaptation would do well to remember that billions of human beings will not have the time or the resources to survive that rapid a change.

References:

  • [1]: Arctic Sea Ice Blog: Models are improving, but can they catch up?
  • [2]: Science Daily: Why Seas Are Rising Ahead of Predictions: Estimates of Rate of Future Sea-Level Rise May Be Too Low
  • [3]: National Geographic: IEA Outlook: Time Running Out on Climate Change
  • [4]: Fred Pearce: With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
  • [5]: Associated Press: Greenhouse emissions exceed worst case scenario
  • [6]: Rolling Stone: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math
  • [7]: Think Progress: One Chart Says It All: Why Oil’s New Supply Boom Is A Bust For The Climate
  • [8]: Earth Policy Institute: Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization: Chapter 3. Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas: The Crop Yield Effect
  • [9]: CSIRO: Effects of drought and high temperature stress on synthetic hexaploid wheat
  • [10]: Australian Society of Agronomy: Heat waves and wheat growth under a future climate
  • [11]: Finnish Government / Pekka Himanen et al: Sininen kirja: Suomen kestävän kasvun malli – Luonnos kansalliseksi tulevaisuushankkeeksi [pdf, in Finnish]
  • [12]: Psychology Today: How to Avoid Population Overshoot and Collapse
  • [13]: Tullett Prebon / Tim Morgan: End Game: The Denouement of Exponentials
  • [14]: Wikipedia: Transition movement
  • [15]: Wikipedia: Permaculture
  • [16]: PwC: Current Rates of Decarbonisation Pointing to 6oC of Warming
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5 Responses to Expecting a minor bump; about to hit a brick wall at 200km/h

  1. Obakesan says:

    its all self correcting … just many may not like the terms of the correction

  2. sim says:

    Yes, from a macro-level perspective it’s kind of like the planet performing a reset; too bad we’re the rogue programming that’ll be deleted (along with all the other collateral damage).

  3. Riku says:

    Thanks for a thought provoking writing. I am pretty sure that mankind could grow sufficient food to feed itself also in the circumstances of very significantly higher average temperatures. There are means like conversion of cattle meadows to fields of high-yield crops, expansion of agriculture in Siberia and Canada, new GM innovations to crops, passive solar greenhouses, giving up resource-wasting plants like tobacco, cocoa and coffee, etc… So even while I don’t rule out the possibility of a mass extinction -like event, I see other kinds of outcomes as more likely. Of course, those outcomes are likely also very nasty. Mass migrations, great political instability, increasing violence, and unwillingness to do hard choices, big or small. The rising food prices will give the right kind of market incentives for some things to happen, but it is possible that mankind shamefully fails to deliver food to the billions of starving people in drought-ridden regions.

    • sim says:

      That depends. If the temperatures just went up smoothly by a couple of degrees or even more, yes, agriculture would in time shift to areas then more suitable to it. Finland, for example, could turn from forest to wheat fields or even corn in some decades.

      However, the problem is that climate change makes the temperature extremes far more common and severe – and just a couple of days of extreme temperatures will bring down the crop yields dramatically. And in terms of having sufficient calories available, shifting to vegetarianism would certainly help.

      But food costs will also be a critical issue – if food prices double (perfectly feasibly in even short time frames) or quadruple, millions of people will likely starve to death. I do not, unfortunately, see the food aid suddenly quadrupling or more to the extent required – instead, we’ll see what happened a couple of years ago – increased protectionism and even higher price spikes. Global aid will not be able to respond in the scale required.

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