via the Oil Drum
Maybe it’s just part of my personal PCSD (Post Copenhagen Stress Disorder), but it seems like one of the most interesting topics emerging in frontiers of the earth system governance agenda, is that of building global institutions able to deal with not only incremental environmental change (e.g. biodiversity loss, land use change, climate change), but also crises.
Crises events (i.e. unexpected, high uncertainty, cascading dynamics, limited time to act) pose from an institutional point of view, quite different challenges than those normally addressed by the global environmental governance research community. These are related to the need for early warnings, multilevel networked responses, and improvisation. In addition, crises forces us to reconsider the way we look at communication technologies in global environmental governance [e.g. “Pandemic 2.0” in Environment here].
Oran Young’s brief talk from 2008 on adaptiveness and environmental crises, is not about environmental regimes in the conventional sense, but rather about the importance of role plays, simulations, and deliberations around unlikely, but high impact, scenarios:
The Center on International Cooperation (New York University) in addition, just recently launched a report entitled “Confronting the Long-term Crisis – Risk, Resilience and International Order”, that pretty much reiterates the point that debates around global governance are moving towards an agenda that focus not only single global environmental stresses, but also on multiple, interacting social-ecological ones.
* I owe the catchy title to my colleague Fredrik Moberg at Albaeco.
A number of resilience researchers, and many others, have proposed the concept of planetary boundaries in a new paper A safe operating space for humanity in Nature (doi:10.1038/461472a).
Johan Rockstrom and others propose nine planetary boundaries, beyond which the functioning of the earth system will fundamentally change. They argue that we have crossed the climate, nitrogen and extinction boundaries, and need to change the course of our civilization to move back into conditions which provide a safety for human civilization.
Nature has a special feature on Planetary Boundaries. It has also published seven independent essays by experts who reflect upon each of the defined boundary (two of the nine were not defined due to a lack of information), and their blog Climate Feedback is also hosting a discussion of the article.
People have more than doubled the global flows of phosphorus, but unlike nitrogen, the other main fertilizer, phosphorus is mined. David A. Vaccari, an engineering professor from Stevens Institute of Technology writes in Scientific American about Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply:
Altogether, phosphorus flows now add up to an estimated 37 million metric tons per year. Of that, about 22 million metric tons come from phosphate mining. The earth holds plenty of phosphorus-rich minerals—those considered economically recoverable—but most are not readily available. The International Geological Correlation Program (IGCP) reckoned in 1987 that there might be some 163,000 million metric tons of phosphate rock worldwide, corresponding to more than 13,000 million metric tons of phosphorus, seemingly enough to last nearly a millennium. These estimates, however, include types of rocks, such as high-carbonate minerals, that are impractical as sources because no economical technology exists to extract the phosphorus from them. The tallies also include deposits that are inaccessible because of their depth or location offshore; moreover, they may exist in underdeveloped or environmentally sensitive land or in the presence of high levels of toxic or radioactive contaminants such as cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead and uranium.
Estimates of deposits that are economically recoverable with current technology—known as reserves—are at 15,000 million metric tons. That is still enough to last about 90 years at current use rates. Consumption, however, is likely to grow as the population increases and as people in developing countries demand a higher standard of living. Increased meat consumption, in particular, is likely to put more pressure on the land, because animals eat more food than the food they become.
Phosphorus reserves are also concentrated geographically. Just four countries—the U.S., China, South Africa and Morocco, together with its Western Sahara Territory—hold 83 percent of the world’s reserves and account for two thirds of annual production. Most U.S. phosphate comes from mines in Florida’s Bone Valley, a fossil deposit that formed in the Atlantic Ocean 12 million years ago. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation’s reserves amount to 1,200 million metric tons. The U.S. produces about 30 million metric tons of phosphate rock a year, which should last 40 years, assuming today’s rate of production.
Already U.S. mines no longer supply enough phosphorus to satisfy the country’s production of fertilizer, much of which is exported. As a result, the U.S. now imports phosphate rock. China has high-quality reserves, but it does not export; most U.S. imports come from Morocco. Even more than with oil, the U.S. and much of the globe may come to depend on a single country for a critical resource.
Some geologists are skeptical about the existence of a phosphorus crisis and reckon that estimates of resources and their duration are moving targets. The very definition of reserves is dynamic because, when prices increase, deposits that were previously considered too expensive to access reclassify as reserves. Shortages or price swings can stimulate conservation efforts or the development of extraction technologies.
And mining companies have the incentive to do exploration only once a resource’s lifetime falls below a certain number of decades. But the depletion of old mines spurs more exploration, which expands the known resources. For instance, 20 years ago geologist R. P. Sheldon pointed out that the rate of new resource discovery had been consistent over the 20th century. Sheldon also suggested that tropical regions with deep soils had been inadequately explored: these regions occupy 22 percent of the earth’s land surface but contain only 2 percent of the known phosphorus reserves.
Yet most of the phosphorus discovery has occurred in just two places: Morocco/Western Sahara and North Carolina. And much of North Carolina’s resources are restricted because they underlie environmentally sensitive areas. Thus, the findings to date are not enough to allay concerns about future supply. Society should therefore face the reality of an impending phosphorus crisis and begin to make a serious effort at conservation.
Today, April 30, is the last day of the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP). It is a transdisciplinary meeting where scientists from all over the world come together to discuss solutions to the pressing social and environmental issues facing our societies in the 21st century. Over the course of 3 days, a multitude of scientific session have been held in parallel and 1200 registered scientists and practitioners have mingled and exchanged ideas.
As an individual, the sheer volume of work presented has been quite overwhelming. Still, some common challenges that we still have not managed to address adequately in today’s scientific community emerge.
These challenges crystallized during the public round table discussion of the opening day. In it a panel of prominent people, scientists from a variety of scientific disciplines as well as practitioners, were gathered to discuss the social challenges of global change and the role of science in the 21st century. A sense of urgency prevailed during the panel debate.
One leading social scientists, Roger Kasperson, feared we may have no more than twenty years to come up with viable solutions to deal with many of the looming problems like climate change, poverty and environmental degradation. So then, what is it that’s missing in our scientific endevours and how can we hope to come up with something useful before the time is out?
Carlo Jaeger, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate research in Germany, believed the way forward lies in pursuing research that treats social and ecological systems as completely integrated and interdependent. Resilience research, focusing on Social-Ecological Systems (SES) have a big and important role to play here and has the potential of leading the field as more and more people become interested in this approach.
But changing our mental models from separate to integrated social and ecological system components may not be enough. As representatives from both the social sciences and humanities pointed out we may also need to question the fundamental value systems upon which much of our science is based. As Kate Brown, from the University of East Anglia in the UK pointed out, values shape people’s perception of what is important and guide moral and ethical choices, To deal with issues such as chronic poverty, and often linked environmental degradation, we have to address value systems.
So transdisciplinary science emerged as the key to success. And the role of young scholars in taking on this challenge was emphasized. But can we wait for an entire new generations of scientists to emerge? If we take Roger Kasperson’s remarks to heart, and aim for solutions in the next twenty years we need to address these issues now. But there are still obstacles that need to be overcome. One major obstacle is the scientific community itself and the structures it has built to ensure quality and integrity. As researchers attempt to cross boundaries, between disciplines and across the boundaries to policy, the traditional methods of quality control and scientific reward systems appear increasingly outdated. This is particularly true for many younger scientists attempting transdisciplinary work but being hampered by the old structures of academic quality control.
James Buizer of Arizona State University pointed to this problem. To speed up transdisciplinary research while simultaneously make sure it maintains a high scientific standard new methods and measures are urgently needed. So as a scientific community we face two major challenges: to produce knowledge that can help society change governance systems for a more sustainable planetary future, while simultaneously transforming our own governance systems to be able to deal with this task!
No small task. But the community of resilience scientists can play an important role in both respects.
In The Vanishing Face Of Gaia, Lovelock argues that model projections of the climate a century ahead are of little use. The models of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) extrapolate from a smooth trend of warming, yet the real climate system, complex and fully coupled to the biology of land and ocean, is unlikely to change in this simple way. It is more likely to flip from one state to another, with non-linear tipping points that the IPCC models are too simplistic to capture. Lovelock fears that the climate will shift to a new and considerably hotter regime, and that once underway, this shift will be irreversible.
This view is not officially sanctioned ‘IPCC-speak’, but he is fully within the envelope of scientific consensus when he warns of the possibility of rapid and irreversible change. Other climate scientists — notably Wally Broecker (see Nature 328, 123–126; 1987) — have said much the same for a long time, although Lovelock uses more graphic language and his popular voice will carry further. Palaeoclimate records show that rapid flips have happened before, so this must be a strong possibility for the future if we continue to force up the levels of greenhouse gases at the current rate.
What is controversial is Lovelock’s vision for humanity: rapid climate change will lead to the deaths of most people on the planet, and to mass migrations to those places that are still habitable. He does not spell out exactly how this might happen, but is convinced a hotter Earth will be able to sustain only a few per cent of the current human population. The implication is that Gaia and human society are close to a cliff-edge, and could unravel rapidly and catastrophically.
The controversy lies less in the climatology and more in the sociology. How will societies behave in the face of such change? Will we pull together with a wartime spirit, or will we fragment, fight and kill one another over Gaia’s carcass? Lovelock is on softer ground here. His only special qualification for discussing human behaviour is his longevity — having lived through the Second World War, he knows what people sometimes do to one another during evil times.
Lovelock’s vision of sudden and imminent collapse is apocalyptic, but for our long-term future and that of the planet it might be preferable to some of the alternatives. Suppose, for instance, that our profligate ways and expanding population are sustained for the rest of this century, but at a huge cost — the complete loss of all the natural ecosystems of the world. Most of us, living in cities and insulated from the natural environment, would barely notice until it was too late to do anything about it. This is what many politicians, economists and industrialists seem to want — their mantra of unceasing economic growth implies that we should take for ourselves all Gaia’s resources and squeeze from them the maximum short-term gain, leaving nothing for the future.
Following this vision, we will need to transform the entire planet into a factory farm to feed our 10 billion or 15 billion mouths. There will be no room on this giant spherical feedlot for anything but ourselves and our half-dozen species of domestic plants and animals. Gaia, the natural Earth system, will have disappeared. As for the underpinning biogeochemical cycles, the best we can hope is that we can manage them ourselves, taking over the heavy responsibility for keeping Earth habitable, which Gaia once did for us automatically.
The more likely outcome is that we would barely manage them at all. In that case, we would face a sequence of global environmental crises and a steady degradation of the planetary environment that would eventually kill just as many of us as a sudden collapse. Given that, perhaps we had better hope that Lovelock is right, and Gaia does for us — or most of us — before we do for her.
Futurist Jamais Cascio presents a scenario set twenty years in the future where the world post-capitalism is based on resilience economics. He writes from the point of view of someone living in that future on his blog Open the Future:
The trigger was a phrase we’d all become sick of: “Too Big to Fail.” The phrase had moved quickly from sarcasm to cliché, but ended up as the pole star for what to avoid. Any economy that enabled the creation of institutions that were too big to fail — that is, whose failure would threaten to collapse the system — could never be thought of as resilient. And, as the early 21st century rolled along, resilience is what mattered, in our environment, in our societies, and increasingly in our economics.
Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.
Resilience economics continues to uphold the elements of previous economic models that offer continued value: freedom and openness from capitalism at its best; equality and a safety net from socialism’s intent. But it’s not just another form of “mixed economy” or “social democracy.” The focus is on something entirely new: decentralized diversity as a way of managing the unexpected.
Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the “polyculture” model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty — backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.
It generates less wealth than traditional capitalism would, at least when it was working well, but is far less prone to wild swings, and has an inherent safety net (what designers call “graceful failure”) to cushion downturns.
Completely transactional transparency also helps, giving us a better chance to avoid surprises and to spot problems before they get too big. The open-source folks called this the “many eyes” effect, and they were definitely on to something. It’s much harder to game the system when everyone can see what you’re doing.
Flexibility and collaboration have long been recognized as fundamental to resilient systems, and that’s certainly true here. One headline on a news site referred to it as the “LEGO economy,” and that was pretty spot-on. Lots of little pieces able to combine and recombine; not everything fits together perfectly, but surprising combinations often have the most creative result.
Lastly, the resilience economy has adopted a much more active approach to looking ahead. Not predicting, not even planning — no “five year plans” here. It’s usually referred to as “scanning,” and the focus is less on visions of the future than on early identification of emerging uncertainties. Resilience economists are today’s foresight specialists.
What does this all look like for everyday people? For most of us, it’s actually not far off from how we lived a generation ago. We still shop for goods, although the brands are more numerous and there are far fewer “big players” — and those that emerge tend not to last long. People still go to work, although more and more of us engage in micro-production of goods and intellectual content. And people still lose their jobs and suffer personal economic problems… but, again, there’s far less risk of economic catastrophe, and some societies are even starting to experiment with a “guaranteed basic income” system.
Is it perfect? By no means. We’re still finding ways in which resilience economics isn’t working out as well as past approaches, and situations where a polyculture model doesn’t provide the kinds of results that the old oligarchic/monopoly capitalist model could. But those of us who remember the dark days of the econopalypse know where non-resilient models can lead, and would rather fix what we’ve made than go back to the past.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t as complete a picture as we’d like, but the core idea — that resilience becomes the driver of new economics — strikes me as very plausible. It’s a pretty technologically conservative scenario; no AI-managed “just-in-time socialism” here, nor any nano-cornucopian visions. But it’s very much the kind of model we could create in the aftermath of a disastrous economic crisis, in a world where the importance of resilience is becoming increasingly evident.
Holling embodies something truly rare: the kind of wisdom that comes when an enormously creative, perceptive, and courageous mind spends a half-century studying a phenomenon and distilling its essential patterns. In a conversation with him not long ago, I encouraged him to expand on many aspects of panarchy theory, filling gaps in my understanding and giving me nuance and perspective that only he could provide. As we came to the end of our conversation, I asked him a question that had been on my mind since our first meeting a year before, when he’d been adamant that humanity is at grave risk.
“Why do you feel the world is verging on some kind of systemic crisis?”
“There are three reasons,” he answered. “First, over the years my understanding of the adaptive cycle has improved, and I’ve also come to better understand how multiple adaptive cycles can be nested together-from small to large-to create a panarchy. I now believe that this theory tells us something quite general about the way complex systems, not just ecological systems, change over time. And collapse is usually part of the story.
“Second, I think rapidly rising connectivity within global systems-both economic and technological-increases the risk of deep collapse. That’s a collapse that cascades across adaptive cycles-a kind of pancaking implosion of the entire system as higher-level adaptive cycles collapse, which causes progressive collapse at lower levels.”
“A bit like the implosion of the World Trade Center towers,” I offered, “where the weight of the upper floors smashed through the lower floors like a pile driver.”
“Yes, but in a highly connected panarchy, the collapse doesn’t have to start at the top. It can be triggered at the microlevel or the macrolevel or somewhere in between. It’s the tight interlinking of the adaptive cycles across the whole system-from the individual right up to the level of the global economy and even Earth’s biosphere-that’s particularly dangerous because it increases the likelihood that many of the cycles will become synchronized and peak together. And if this happens, they’ll reinforce each other’s collapse.”
“The third reason,” he continued, “is the rise of mega-terrorism-the increasing risk of attacks that will kill huge numbers of people and produce major disruptions in world systems. I’m not sure why megaterrorism has become more likely now. I suppose it’s partly a result of technological changes and the rise of particularly virulent kinds of fundamentalism. But I do know that in a tightly connected world where vulnerabilities are aligned, such attacks could trigger deep collapse-and that’s particularly worrisome.
“This is a moment of great volatility and instability in the world system. We need urgently to do what we can to avoid deep collapse. We also need to figure out how to exploit the opportunity provided by crisis and collapse when they occur, because some kind of systemic breakdown is now almost certain.”
We can see the danger of the tectonic stresses in a new light if we think of humankind-including all our interactions with each other and with nature and all the flows of materials, energy, and information through our societies and technologies-as one immense social-ecological system. As this grand system we’ve created and live within moves up the growth phase of its adaptive cycle, it’s accumulating potential in the form of people’s skills and economic wealth. It’s also becoming more connected, regulated, and efficient-and ultimately less resilient. And finally, it’s becoming steadily more complex, which means it’s moving further and further from thermodynamic equilibrium. We need ever-larger inputs of high-quality energy to maintain this complexity. In the meantime, internal tectonic stresses-including worsening scarcity of our best source of high-quality energy, conventional oil-are building slowly but steadily.
So we’re overextending the growth phase of our global adaptive cycle. We’ll reach the top of this cycle when we’re no longer able to regulate or control the stresses building deep inside the global system. Then we’ll get earthquakelike events that will cause the system’s breakdown and simplification as it moves closer to thermodynamic equilibrium.
Panarchy theory also helps us better understand another critically important phenomenon: the denial that prevents us from seeing the dangers we face. Our explanations of the world around us-whether of Earth’s place in the cosmos or of the workings of our economy-move through their own adaptive cycles. When a favorite explanation encounters contradictory evidence, we make an ad hoc adjustment to it to account for this evidence-just like Ptolemy added epicycles to his explanation of the planets’ movements. In the process, our explanation moves through something akin to a growth phase: it becomes progressively more complex, cumbersome, and rigid; it loses resilience; and it’s ripe for collapse should another, better, theory come along.
The growth phase we’re in may seem like a natural and permanent state of affairs-and our world’s rising complexity, connectedness, efficiency, and regulation may seem relentless and unstoppable-but ultimately it isn’t sustainable. Still, we find it impossible to get off this upward escalator because our chronic state of denial about the seriousness of our situation-aided and abetted by powerful special interests that benefit from the status quo-keeps us from really seeing what’s happening or really considering other paths our world might follow. Radically different futures are beyond imagining. So we stay trapped on a path that takes us toward major breakdown.
The longer a system is “locked in” to its growth phase, says Buzz Holling, “the greater its vulnerability and the bigger and more dramatic its collapse will be.” If the growth phase goes on for too long, “deep collapse”-something like synchronous failure-eventually occurs. Collapse in this case is so catastrophic and cascades across so many physical and social boundaries that the system’s ability to regenerate itself is lost. [A] forest-fire shows how this happens: if too much tinder-dry debris has accumulated, the fire becomes too hot, which destroys the seeds that could be the source of the forest’s rebirth.
Holling thinks the world is reaching “a stage of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major ‘pulse’ of social transformation.” Humankind has experienced only three or four such pulses during its entire evolution, including the transition from hunter-gatherer communities to agricultural settlement, the industrial revolution, and the recent global communications revolution. Today another pulse is about to begin. “The immense destruction that a new pulse signals is both frightening and creative,” he writes. “The only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living.”
Via Oonsie Biggs
James Lovelock appears to be marginally more positive about our civilization’s capacity to avoid collapse, because of terra preta in a New Scientist interview One last chance to save mankind. He says:
There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.
Would it make enough of a difference?
Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.
Do you think we will survive?
I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It’s happening again.
I don’t think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what’s coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing’s been done except endless talk and meetings.
Dennis Meadows has been awarded the Japan Prize for his work on Limits to Growth. The Prize Committee writes:
[he] served as Research Director for the project on “The Limits to Growth,” for the Club of Rome in 1972. Employing a system simulation model called “World3,” his report demonstrated that if certain limiting factors of the earth’s physical capacity – such as resources, the environment, and land – are not recognized, mankind will soon find itself in a dangerous situation. The conflict between the limited capacity of the earth and the expansion of the population accompanied by economic growth could lead to general societal collapse. The report said that to avert this outcome, it is necessary that the goals of zero population growth and zero expansion in use of materials be attained as soon as possible. The report had an enormous impact on a world that had continued to grow both economically and in population since World War II.
The report sparked a great debate worldwide about the value of the zero growth theory that it proposed. The report was extremely significant in that it sounded a loud alarm about global society’s urgent need for sustainable development, and it engendered broad interest throughout the world. Since its initial publication, Dr. Meadows has continued to study the causes and consequences of physical growth on a finite planet. He co-founded the Balaton Group, a famous environmental research network. He has published many educational games and books about sustainable development that are used around the world.
Together with his wife, the late Dr. Donella Meadows and Dr. J. Randers, he has twice co-authored updates to “ The Limits to Growth”, in 1992 and 2004. In these updates, an improved world model was used to point out that the limiting features of the earth’s physical capacity, about which “ The Limits to Growth” had sounded a warning, have continued to deteriorate, and that the time left for solving the problem is growing short; the authors also urged that mankind not delay in taking the measures necessary to address the situation.
This series of reports, especially the first “The Limits to Growth,” presented the conflict between the earth’s physical limitations and the growth of mankind in clear, logical terms, and marked the beginning of mankind’s efforts to achieve a sustainable society. …
Based on the foundations established in “The Limits to Growth” over the past 30 years Dr. Meadows has consistently proposed, through model analyses, efforts aimed at forming a sustainable society. He has continued to exert a large influence on the entire world. This, it is believed, is highly praiseworthy and deserving of the 2009 Japan Prize, which is intended to honor contributions in the area of “Transformation towards a sustainable society in harmony with nature.”
The Prize has posted an interview video on YouTube.
…Contrary to popular belief, The Limits to Growth scenarios by the team of analysts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did not predict world collapse by the end of the 20th century. This paper focuses on a comparison of recently collated historical data for 1970–2000 with scenarios presented in the Limits to Growth. The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compare favorably with key features of a business-as-usual scenario called the “standard run” scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st century. The data do not compare well with other scenarios involving comprehensive use of technology or stabilizing behaviour and policies. The results indicate the particular importance of understanding and controlling global pollution.