Flipping the coin

I recently read Guy McPherson’s book ‘Walking Away from Empire’. While I do recommend it, Guy is one of those who highlights the stupidity of homo fatuus brutus: here I am, going around trying to turn lights off when they’re not needed so as to save energy, while there are, at the same time, folks out there who are deliberately doing the opposite, because they believe that the only chance for any life to remain on our poor beleaguered planet depends upon ‘civilisation’ being brought to its knees as soon as possible.

Scary stuff.


About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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36 Responses to Flipping the coin

  1. I used to live in the village of Harberton just three miles from Totnes in Devon. There was an old guy, born and bred a Devonian, who was often heard to mutter across his pint, to no one in particular, “All the world’s a little queer except thee and me. And I got me doubts about thee!”

    Really does say it all, doesn’t it!

    • pendantry says:

      I’m coming to the conclusion that if I am ‘fortunate’ enough to reach my dotage, I’ll be doing much the same. All I hope is that I’ll retain enough of my marbles to remember that the last line of the mumble should, by rights, be “And I got me doubts about me!”

  2. Susan says:

    Uh-oh, I”m one of those crazy folks who have come to the conclusion that our only chance is to put an end to civilization before civilization kills us all. I went to one of Guy’s talks a few months ago, definitely scary stuff. Climate change is happening faster than I thought it was, and it happening everywhere I look, I don’t think we have time to change our ways slowly.
    Thank you for writing in your blog, I am often here to read what you have to say.

    • pendantry says:

      Ah, so you’re the one who’s always turning the lights back on, then? To be honest I’m very tempted by the argument. Our ‘leaders’ are doing the proverbial fiddling in Rome, when they’re not rearranging deckchairs; it’s becoming more apparent as time flies by that when the shit really does start to hit the fan, we’ll find out that they do have a plan after all: implement martial law while they retire to their underground bunkers and continue to fight the energy wars from there.

      • Susan says:

        Well, I do try to keep the lights out as much as possible, to consume the bare minimum, because it is the right thing to do and to work on restoring the land, but not because I think conserving is going to change anything. It isn’t enough. The machine keeps on eating the earth no matter what my personal choices are.

        But sometimes these tools, such as my computer, become necessary in order to do more than just conserve, and so, yes, I do turn the lights back on at times. I’ve seen what civilization does to those who live the most simple lives, such as the indigenous peoples, it destroys them, and it will destroy us if we stand in the way. I think you are right about the underground bunkers. I think we need our own preparation, perhaps in the form of sustainable communities, but we also need a community of resistance, of any and all kinds, to work on dismantling the machine, before all the rivers and mountains and even much of life (an average of 200 extinction every day!) are gone.

        I look sadly around me, no more rivers flow here, and so many of the mountains have been turned into copper wiring for electricity. So many trees burned last summer. And there are two tar sands project starting in this part of the world. The water and air is polluted. Industry is killing us. I know many people with cancer and autoimmune disorders, most likely caused by industry. How much more death will it take before we realize that to continue on as we are doing is to destroy the land that sustains us? The environmental movement has been around for a while and yet the destruction continues to get worse. As for me, I was a Chemical Engineer, but then I saw the truth and I couldn’t do it anymore. I quit my job and am now living in poverty and fighting for the earth in whatever ways I can. I did turn out most of the lights…

        • pendantry says:

          OK, I believe you about the lights! πŸ™‚

          One note I’ve made for a work of fiction I’ve been composing (for years, I should add, with only the most recent excuse for procrastination being “what’s the bloody point if there’s going to be nobody around to read it”) says this:

          “One [Native American] tribe has associated the white man with spider medicine. Their prophecy says that when the white man (Spider) has connected all of his power (electrical) lines and forms a great web over the earth, then his world will burn and he will be destroyed.

          Another tribe speaks of the Spider Woman who weaves existence together like great strands of a web. Learning the stories of the Spider Woman can help one understand that we are all connected. By dishonoring one, we dishonor ourselves.”

          I didn’t make a note of the source (Google today suggests one possibility. There’s no date on that page and I now find that my browser doesn’t seem to want to let me inspect the source code to see if there’s a date in there… blasted technology getting in the way again /grumble).

          I’m pretty sure I made the note some time before I started investigating climate change (for my own edumacation). I remember thinking then about copper wires forming electrical spider webs, and of course the World Wide Web, striking chords.

          But it’s only now, on looking at it again, that I see the words ‘his world will burn and he will be destroyed’, which I know didn’t register with me at the time.

          I’m too sold on the idea of the need for scientific proof to be a great believer of prophecy, but it’s intriguing to acknowledge the parallels with our time.

        • pendantry says:

          PS in reference to ‘the underground bunkers’:

  3. Martin Lack says:

    Thanks for drawing this video to my attention, Pendantry. I am very shocked by the fact that the 1990 UN document warning of the dangers of just 1 Celsius global average temperature rise.

    The very recent research including positive feedbacks seems to be reflected in the parabolic curve (for sea level rise) in the 2013 National Climate Assessment (NCA) report just issued for public comment. The sad thing is that even the NCA does not warn that the parabolic curve is the most likely trajectory that we will now follow (it is just presented as the upper bound upon a range of supposedly equally-probable possibilities).

    I am also concerned by the fact that the 2009 PNAS warning that climate change is (already) irreversible seems to have been ignored too (especially since this is the conclusion I reached after reading James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren book).

    In the USA at least, it would appear that 80% of the general population has now woken up to the reality of climate change as a problem. Therefore, since our politicians generally do not read peer-reviewed scientific literature and ignore their own scientific advisors, you might an ice-free Arctic as soon as 2015 would be the kind of wake-up call they will need. However, my confidence is reduced by the spectacle of President Obama effectively admitting – in his news conference about new measures on gun control – that our politicians do not do what we the people want them to do; they do what powerful vested interests tell them to do. This does not augur well for climate change because I do not think the fossil fuel lobby will ever admit that the best thing to do is leave fossil fuels unburnt.

    So, I wish people like Schalk Cloete godspeed in their endeavours to make carbon capture and storage a reality – because our future existence may well depend on their success.

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  5. Martin Lack says:

    Earlier on today, my computer froze the video after only 10 minutes. However, it has now allowed me to watch the whole thing. Therefore, I now know what you mean when you say “scary stuff”. Some of the predictions made (by extrapolation of the consequences of all the methane-producing positive feedback mechanisms) are astonishing… However, most disconcerting of all are the predictions regarding how quickly economic and societal collapse could occur if fossil fuel supplies are interrupted. Unless we are extremely well-prepared, within days there would be no fuel heating our houses, no food to eat,and no clean water to drink. Please tell Paul I am on my way to Oregon…

    I think it is time I posted this video again.

    • pendantry says:

      We’ve always been just three meals away from anarchy — the only difference now is the price of those meals is on the rise.

      Following one of the links from the scary stuff linked above to an article discussing the risk to global oxygen levels (unbelievable as that concept sounds) I’m reminded of a book I read many years ago; The Last Gasp, by Trevor Hoyle; fiction, but based on fact.

      • Martin Lack says:

        Thanks for highlighting the (July 2012) article about oxygen depletion. I have always thought of this as a distant prospect (because there is 5 times more oxygen than CO2 in the atmosphere). However, the stuff about combustion ratios highlights that – in burning any fossil fuel – for every carbon atom added from the geosphere; 3 oxygen atoms are typically removed from the biosphere. This is indeed not good news; the ongoing depletion is confirmed by the increasing amounts of charcoal left behind in forest fires (e.g. the incredible video shot by cars driving at night through incompletely-burnt forests in Australia recently*); and is probably one of the main reasons why mass extinction may occur before 2050.

        I can’t find the video I actually saw, but the opening shots of this video are similar. However,being completely fair, it is equally possible that the incomplete combustion of the forests (i.e. lots of big tree trunks left unburnt) was due to high wind speeds…?

        • pendantry says:

          While I don’t know why you talk about ‘5 times more oxygen than CO2 in the atmosphere’*, there’s no doubt we’re on a slippery slope.

          * CO2 is ~0.0004%, O2 is ~21% which means there is ~52500 times more oxygen than carbon dioxide.

          • Martin Lack says:

            I asked you via email to correct my maths. I think the answer is ~520 (400ppm = 0.04%)

        • pendantry says:

          Sorry, Martin, I’m not very good at keeping up to date with emails (I have to do that at work, so I slack off at home!). I believe the numbers you offer here are still wrong (and I think the ones I offered you are right); but it’s good to demonstrate we’re fallible humans, now and then πŸ˜‰

          I think it’s time I headed off to Khanacademy for another refresher πŸ™‚

          • Martin Lack says:

            Although I think it makes no difference, I think my maths is correct: I think we are agreed that 400ppm = 0.0004 and, therefore, if 21% = 0.21, the answer is 525.

          • pendantry says:

            It makes no difference other than to prove I messed up too πŸ™‚ Damn those percentages, they always force me to think harder!

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  7. ccgwebmaster says:

    I feel I should point out that he’s wrong. Total economic collapse will not prevent catastrophic climate change at this point. We could switch off every single carbon dioxide emission tomorrow – and it’s almost certainly too late.

    This is due to a number of factors. One is the fact that a lot of the warming from recent carbon dioxide emissions is not yet present as it takes time for the earth system to absorb heat – so we can expect warming to continue for some decades regardless. A second is that we are actually shielding ourselves from a significant amount of warming by sulphate aerosols present in our industrial pollution – these particles drop out of the atmosphere fairly quickly if not continually renewed and therefore within a few years we would see a significant boost to warming once we cease emissions. Finally – changes are now occurring in the earth system that are self amplifying – sea ice and land snow pack albedo decline, increased methane and carbon dioxide release from biomass, etc.

    This has a number of implications. One is that it is no longer sufficient to reduce – or even eliminate carbon dioxide emissions. We must also prevent irreversible (for our purposes) changes from occurring in key portions of the planet (eg the Arctic) and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas load.

    There are also implications for the eventual (and potentially imminent) failure of global civilisation – especially the note that we can expect to see a fairly abrupt increase in warming rate due to the loss of aerosol pollution. What fun.

    • pendantry says:

      You’ve summed it up well. I assume the ‘he’ to whom you refer is Guy; if so, I don’t believe that he does claim that economic collapse would save us from ourselves at this point. Apologies if I’ve misunderstood.

      • ccgwebmaster says:

        Yep, that’s the “he”. Actually – he does make that claim in the video clip – though he also then says he thinks it is a one in a billion shot. His underlying argument and evidence carry multiple flaws in that video clip – but the general gist is accurate enough – ie we’re screwed.

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  9. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Number me among those who think the end of human life on Earth sounds like an acceptable option. There are days when, if there existed a button that could be pushed to accomplish it, you would literally (and I literally mean literally) have to kill me to keep me from pushing it. With chortling glee.

    It is, after all, possible that humanity is just some sort of accidental brief blip in the evolution of the cosmos. An accident that will ultimately self-correct. When I consider the age and size of the cosmos, it’s sometimes hard to view us as more than incredibly narcissistic. If people like Richard Dawkins are correct and we do live in a mechanistic godless universe, it’s hard to see us as other than an eyeblink, a brief stutter in the machinery. It would only be after millions of years of intelligent self-purpose that we might actually amount to something, and then only in our tiny, tiny corner of the universe. (For the record, I don’t agree with Dawkins and others of his ilk, but I must admit their view is a possible one.)

    Spleen and pessimism aside, among technicians there is a technique for dealing with a mysterious electrical problem you can’t diagnose. Keep putting in larger and larger fuses until the fuse stops blowing and whatever is actually the problem blows up. It’s sometimes called “the smoke test.” The relevance is that I think a similar process may be necessary with regard to our global issues. It will only be when the problem gets big enough that we are forced to deal with it that we will deal with it.

    So, yeah, leave the lights on. It’ll hasten the time when they go out and we’re forced to figure out what comes next. For decades I’ve been a proponent of using up the fossil fuel as quickly as possible. It will make the roads ever so much safer for bicycles and pedestrians, and it will force the return of a local economy. (I’m convinced a global economy is a mistake. The down sides seem much worse to me than the up sides.)

    (BTW: with regard to primitive nomadic tribes who “lived close to the Earth,” one of the reasons they were nomadic was a tendency to rape the land in their own way. Humans have been wasters and abusers as long as we’ve been around. The “romance” of those primitive people is a fantasy. They were, generally speaking, brutish, not noble. It was only the technology achieved by the white Europeans (clever, clever monkeys) that enabled the rape to reach global scales.)

    • pendantry says:

      I’m guessing you’re familiar with the views of Guy McPherson.

      “It will only be when the problem gets big enough that we are forced to deal with it that we will deal with it.”

      I would recast that as:
      “It will only be when the problem gets big enough that we are forced to deal with it that we will try to deal with it — and fail, because it will then be too late“.

      As for the behaviour of primitive nomadic tribes who ‘lived close to the Earth,’ you seem very certain. Without a time machine to go look I don’t see how we can ever know for sure. I do feel that, as in Apocalypto, there are good human cultures and bad ones. I suspect that the bad ones will tend to ‘succeed’ (in the same way that a playground bully does). Part of me wonders whether Neanderthal man was more inclined to peace than war, and that’s why they’re no longer with us…

      Peace, out πŸ™‚

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        No, I’d never heard of him until this post.

        Yes, I do agree it may be too late once we are forced to engage.

        And it is true I take the word of anthropologists who study primitive cultures. We do know a fair bit about them. The culture of the American Indians, for example, is well-documented. Look at it this way: if they were so smart and in tune, what happened?

        One of the key parts to the equation of developing intelligence is having the luxury to do so. When fighting for survival, there isn’t much time for developing art, mathematics and science. There is a reason that intelligence sprang from regions where food literally grew on trees and the weather didn’t try to constantly kill you.

        • pendantry says:

          My point about Guy is that I think you would agree with his prognosis for homo fatuus brutus.

          Yes, I do agree it may be too late once we are forced to engage.

          Not what I said: I believe that it will be too late, if the criterion that forces action is the “oh, shit” moment in a sufficient critical mass of folk. Which it probably will be.

          As for human nature: as I said earlier, I’m surprised you’re so certain. (I think CCGwebmaster, below, says more or less what I might be tempted to respond.)

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            re Guy: Understood, and yes I do lean that way.

            I also understood what you meant about “will” but I can only agree so far as “may.” It depends a bit on exactly what we mean by “too late.” Too late to prevent mass death and property loss? It’s already too late for that. Too late to ultimately recover and continue with human life on Earth? Actually, I’d guess not.

            As to human nature, if you have valid anthropological sources (Apocalypto was just a movie), I’d be happy to read them. Everything I’ve run into so far tends to suggest otherwise. Humans, generally speaking, are rapacious little monkeys. I do believe that the notion that primitive life was, in some fashion, “better” is rooted in something akin to nostalgia. The reality is that life was generally harsh, brutal and short. It was also an incredibly unenlightened time of superstition, ignorance, slavery and massive gender inequality. Not an attractive model in my eyes.

            But definitely don’t take my word for it! Seek out some anthropological sources. I think you’ll find the same things I’ve found.

        • ccgwebmaster says:

          I always figured the excessively aggressive and technologically better equipped white invaders had a lot to do with the downfall of the American Indians (and to be honest the downfall of a lot of other people besides, looking at the geopolitics of the world today).

          Some forces will overwhelm you no matter how smart and in tune you are. Do you really think people got a lot smarter in the last few hundred years? I think you’re conflating knowledge with intelligence, and let’s remember even Neanderthal aren’t now thought to be the brutish savages people long wanted to believe (why do people want to believe they are so much smarter or better than those who came before us?).

          With a large global population and positive feedback effect in technological process, we are not intrinsically smarter than our ancestors. This is demonstrated rather clearly by the way we are using all those new toys to destroy our environment – despite also possessing the knowledge of consequences.

    • ccgwebmaster says:

      Bear in mind that when you say you’d end human life so readily, you are telling me you would murder me without a second thought? (along with everyone else, some of whom might actually be OK in the right circumstances)

      You’re even saying you’d take pleasure in killing me?

      You’re making some flawed assumptions about primitive tribes – and using unnecessarily emotive language in my opinion. Do you say a pack of lions rapes the land as they hunt their prey? Or a herd of elephants as they eat everything in their path? Or even locusts? I think not – they all live in balance with a natural order – and the violation of that balance is something humans have started relatively recently (last ten thousand years or so) from commencing widespread agriculture and constructing settlements of ever increasing size. We lived within natural parameters for hundreds of thousands to millions of years depending how far back into our evolutionary history you want to go.

      It is only more recently (last few centuries) that our numbers have become so great and our technological abilities so far ahead of our evolved capacity to comprehend the meaning of things – that we have come into posing a serious threat to millions of species and to the continuity of even ourselves.

      it is a wrong turn of colossal magnitude and stupidity – the best hope is whoever goes forwards in the end has more wisdom and carries forwards the lesson.

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        I said that there are days when I would gladly end all human life on Earth (including mine, BTW), and I stand by it. I am an emotional person and a raging misanthrope; I make no apology for it. (To invoke Dawkins again, if he is right, we are nothing more than DNA perpetuation machines, and there is nothing sacred about human life.)

        If you read all five definitions of the word rape, particularly the 4th, “To plunder, to destroy or despoil,” you’ll see what I meant. I would probably not apply such a human term to lions and locusts, but I think the concept applies. Locusts can despoil a land, and predators can over-hunt. The balance you speak of is often more a matter of highs and lows, starvation and plenty, than of a level.

        The reverence that many seem to have for nature and primitive humans is, I think, a bit off the mark. There is no concept in nature of justice or fairness or morality. Nature just is (“red of tooth and claw” as the line goes). I would argue that the only reason animals don’t do more damage is their lack of tools. Just imagine what would happen if lions invented and could use guns.

        Nothing I’ve ever read suggests the terms “noble” or “wise” apply to early humans. They were trying to survive, and they did what was necessary to survive. If they had the tools to extended their leverage, I’m sure they would have used them. Their “wisdom” in “living with the land” was solely due to their ignorance and inability. (Keep in mind, we are those early humans, and once we invented all that technology, we did what we do. We didn’t lose wisdom; we never had it. From chipped flint onwards we have always sought an edge.)

        I definitely agree that our numbers and technology are the big difference. However, consider that both are just as natural as lions and locusts. Given that we evolved intelligence, aren’t the numbers and technology inevitable? And given those numbers, along with our dependence on technology, what’s a viable solution?

        • ccgwebmaster says:

          Well OK, you only want to be a gleeful genocidalist sometimes, not all the time. Anyway, I understand where you’re coming from and if someone gave me a button that would selectively start culling (at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid perhaps) the species in order of decreasing responsibility for the problem until it was solved – from a rational perspective I think I’d have to push it.

          With respect to the natural balance referred to – there are highs and lows but they will tend to oscillate via negative feedbacks around a mean. Dramatic fluctuation in population levels is not usually the norm, to my knowledge. Regarding “reverence for nature” – I get that it’s red in tooth and claw, and I can kill my own dinner. That is nature – but so is Gaia theory which acts to temper evolution. A superficially advantageous trait that harms the global environment will tend to fail.

          From a pedantic statistical point of view I don’t think I would agree our numbers and technology were inevitable. Certainly, from time to time there is a high probability of the occasional super predator temporarily violating sensible parameters before a big natural cull rebalances them. However if you consider that in hundreds of millions of years of paleo data we find nothing comparable to us, it seems events like us do not happen very often.

          Is there no wisdom in the way some of the tribes in North America lived? They lived there for thousands of years without destroying it – longer than the whole span of the Holocene. That really is the crime of most of our species – to destroy the future for short term benefit in the present. A simple correction to thought could solve that.

          As for viable solutions there are only two. The first is an en masse enlightenment leading to an unprecedented (and at this point almost unimaginable) correction of the problem (going to the roots of the problem – not just the symptoms). The second (far more likely) solution is that we discover we cannot continue to stretch the boundaries of the earth system we rely upon for life support and we are culled in very large numbers (extinction is possible but not inevitable – something I intend to explore as soon as I find time) by the inevitable backlash as a planet abruptly adjusts to our changes.

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            You don’t know me, so you would not be aware that I indulge in hyperbolic metaphor. A lot! The “big button” riff is meant to be so preposterous as to signal that, but comments are such a restricted form of communication, stuff like that can get lost. Stripped of metaphor and hyperbole, I’m saying that there are days when I don’t see much value in human life, but see it as a kind of infection in the biosphere.

            We are, I believe, on the same page regarding the oscillation that occurs in the biosphere. It’s possible we see it differently, though. I don’t see it as a reflection of any kind of “management” of resources, but as a natural push-pull. Exactly as you say, there is a negative feedback that occurs so long as one side doesn’t completely eliminate the other. But I think this is a sidebar to the actual discussion, which is about humans.

            I think you misunderstood my question, “Given that we evolved intelligence, aren’t the numbers and technology inevitable?” I wasn’t asking if the evolution of intelligence was inevitable. I completely agree it was a rare event. (Some now think Drake’s Equation was overly optimistic. There may well be only a few places per galaxy where intelligence evolves.)

            The longevity of primitive human groups means little to me. The dinosaurs, for example, lasted millions of years, and some ancient species are still around today. American Indians (and many other primitive human groups) lasted as long as they did (and in some cases still do) because their numbers were small and their resource footprint was small. There are 300+ million of us in this country. Living like Indians really isn’t an option.

            So what is? I agree with both your options, and I agree the first is unlikely to the point of being sheer fantasy. I’ll take the option a step further and suggest that the answer, if one exists, lies in education. That’s what leads to enlightenment. Sometimes. The idea that life would be better if we would all just “X” is a valid and correct one, but to my view it approaches zero in probability.

            Which unfortunately leaves the other option: that things are going to get very, very bad.

          • ccgwebmaster says:

            My planning is predicated upon the assumption that things will get very very bad.

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