Our current path is not sustainable

I live in a time when we – and I believe that to mean the majority of the human species – are starting to awaken to the reality that we live in a physically closed system. I stress physically closed to properly differentiate from a fully closed system, which of course our Earth is not as we currently benefit from the energy provided to us by our Sun. It’s maybe most reasonable to think of the Sun as a power source that helps feed and nurture the organic systems of earth. However the rest of our day to day interactions with the sphere upon which we count on for our survival is pretty much physically bounded by our ability to design a sustainable existence within the realities presented by Mother Earth.

And of course, we’re discovering that we don’t really seem to be living a very sustainable existence – we are most certainly polluting our environment; we are dangerously drawing down our reserves of potable water, we are helping drive the elimination of numerous other species on this planet, through either our over indulgence, our negligence, or our lack of interest; and we are most probably adding to the overall heating up of the planet we must call home.

As a society, our angst is just now coalescing around this last one – global warming. We now are getting persistent and increasingly alarming reports of shrinking, melting, and breaking polar ice caps. We have to increasingly adjust our computer models to incorporate the impacts of accelerated feedback loops in our ecosystem that are compounding the impacts of rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and driving the heating cycle. Or so we think.

I am not really worried for Mother Earth – I have a healthy respect for her and believe that she will survive “global warming” and in fact almost anything else we could throw at her. I’m not sure that we even have the capacity to destroy her, if we were to actually set our mind to it. But we certainly have the capacity to destroy or significantly harm the existence of our species if we don’t pay closer attention to what we are doing and the impacts it has.

Current scientific understanding of Earth’s geological record is one of periods of ice ages – I believe the current record suggests three major ice age periods over the course of a few millions of years of geological age. The last ice age – and a fairly minor one at that – is believed to date back about 10,000 years. Our modern civilization probably dates back 4,000 years or so, so only about 40% of the time since the last ice age.

The geological record also seems to suggest that ice ages followed on from periods of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere; more to the point the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere prior to those ice ages was in all cases less than the levels we measure today in our own atmosphere. And the level of CO2 in our atmosphere is continuing to rise fairly quickly as we operate a growing global economy which is powered by burning hydrocarbons to produce plentiful and convenient energy. And the amount of CO2 we produce every year is currently rising. Additionally, there are natural sources of CO2 which are contributing also — everything from cow farts to decaying forests to forest fires to melting permafrost.

If there is a correlation between CO2 levels and rising global temperature – and that seems reasonably certain at this stage in our understanding – then it seems reasonable to speculate that measuring and controlling CO2 levels may be akin to a thermostat for the planet. Certainly driving up the CO2 levels up seems to lead to a measurable rise in global temperature. It’s purely academic to argue that a sustained reduction in CO2 levels might – over time – drive down global temperature. However,  it does seem a fairly reasonable hypothesis and one worth testing out, if we could figure out a way to proceed with the experiment.

Of course it is entirely possible that this is one way trip, and that for all practical matters, the thermostat is already broken – or maybe didn’t exist to begin with – and the planet will continue to warm, ice caps will melt which will reduce the Sun’s reflections, causing the Earth to absorb more energy, heating the planet still further.

And then I fear there are only two alternatives; either a massive “system reset” occurs – in Microsoft thinking, the Blue Screen of Death followed by a Reboot, or in geological terms, an Ice Age – or the planet effectively fries to death and becomes more or less a dead planet. Myself, I believe Earth has a reset button, and all we’re doing is speeding up the time before its triggered.

So, based on what I know today (September 2008) about our society, our environment, our culture and institutions, and our capabilities, I think that there is only one course of action that is the least bit rationale, and that is to adopt the hypothesis that atmospheric CO2 levels act as Earth’s thermostat, and marshal all of our forces and ingenuity to try to adjust downward the thermostat setting, with the hope that it will impact the Earths’ temperature in the short to medium term.

If the hypothesis is right, then we may well gain many hundreds and possibly thousands of years for the continued existence of humanity, before the next ice age is triggered or before the planet burns up and dies.

If the hypothesis proves right, but the trend is already irreversible and the planet is close to a major reset, we may well be able to start to get our thinking right about living in a more sustainable manner and we may be able to provide the rudimentary tools to help future generations who live through and beyond the next major ice age.

And if the hypothesis is just dead wrong and there is no real connection between our behavior on the planet and our consumption rates and our choice of fuels and lifestyles, then our actions to “turn things around” won’t make a damn bit of difference in the big scheme of things. In which case the pragmatic answer will have proven to be: “It’s the Titanic with no lifeboats. Its going down, no one is around to help, so we might as well just try to enjoy as best we can.”

But of course even with the Titanic, there were some lifeboats, and some help did come, and some lives were saved. And I think the human condition demands action — and indeed thrives upon the situation – when there is a focused challenge and an opportunity to excel and to prove we can operate at “our best.” So even if the hypothesis is wrong, since we don’t really know that today, our best and most rational course of action is to assume we can make a difference and get to work. In my mind, that really speaks to the way humans do things.

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