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The Anthropocene controversy

by eurogreen Fri May 13th, 2011 at 07:37:04 AM EST

Climate science is a fascinating and rapidly evolving field. It is now clear to all, except to those who don't want to understand, that human-induced climate change is already a problem, and a rapidly worsening one, that requires political and economic action. Not to save the world (that would be rather arrogant and pretentious), but perhaps to save humanity.

Palaeoclimatology, the study of the history of the world's climate, is a vital vector for understanding where we are now and where we are going : if we can closely model past climate trajectories, we can more closely constrain the possible futures.

The major vector of human influence on the climate has been the huge pulse of gases released by the burning of fossil fuels, starting with coal in the 19th century and worsening with the current orgy of oil and gas. The many gigatonnes of carbon released in only a couple of centuries constitute a cataclysmic climate event, orders of magnitude greater than any previous human influence. So, by convention, pre-industrial human influence was more or less politely ignored. It was easily demonstrated, by running a few computer simulations, that land-use changes due to agriculture might have had a marginal effect, but human population was so small that the climate effect could only have emerged from background noise by about the 18th century, so that it was almost immediately swamped by the fossil fuel effect.

However... what does the climate record actually have to say on the subject? When does the Anthropocene commence - with the industrial age, or ten thousand years earlier?

front-paged by afew


The earth's current geological epoch, the Holocene, is the eighth interglacial period in the current Ice Age, the Quaternary glaciation,  also known as the Pleistocene glaciation. Eccentricity, wobble and tilt of the earth's orbit around the sun, plus the current configuration of the continents, combine to produce periodic expansion and contraction of the planet's icecaps.


It's been about twelve thousand years since the end of the last glacial period. With no human influence on the climate, this interglacial period would be expected to end in about another 15 000 years. This would be accompanied, in a hypothetical non-human-influenced climate, by a fall in atmospheric CO2 to 210 ppm.

The concentration of CO2 (and also of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere  has been rising for 5000 years. This is surprising in light of previous interglacial periods; it would be expected that, after the initial rise of C02 to about 260 ppm which accompanied the end of the last glacial period, the level of CO2 would decline slowly until the beginning of the next.

There are two views on this : it's a natural phenomenon, for which several mechanisms have been postulated (top graph), or it's due to anthropogenic influences, counteracting the natural trend (bottom graph).

Bill Ruddiman was the first prominent palaeoclimatologist to postulate significant human impact on the climate before the industrial age. But this was perhaps more a matter of intuition than persuasive scientific evidence; until recently, it was difficult to get the numbers to stack up.

His book Plows, plagues and petroleum (2005, revised edition 2010) postulates agriculture and pastoralism as the prime movers in climate impact, based largely on their apparent synchronicity.

The book seemed to some to mark him out as a dissenter from scientific concensus on global warming; I was rather alarmed to find a warm recommendation for the book on junkscience.com. It's true that those who are more interested in the politics of climate than in the science may find the thesis an uwelcome distraction (or a welcome distraction, for denialists) from the message about the need to master greenhouse gas emissions. For one thing, it pretty much abolishes the baseline "natural" CO2 level against which industrial-epoch emissions can be evaluated; for another, it opens the question of what an "appropriate" or "good" level of CO2 would be.

An article by Ruddiman on Realclimate.org summarizes (in a not necessarily unbiased way) the current state of the play :
RealClimate: An Emerging View on Early Land Use

An August 2011 special issue of the journal The Holocene will help to move this discussion forward. All scientists who have been part of this debate during the last decade were invited to contribute to the volume. The list of those invited was well balanced between the two views, both of which are well represented in the issue. The papers have recently begun to come online, but unfortunately behind a paywall.

The article, and especially the courteous and erudite discussion which follows on RealClimate, illustrate that Ruddiman's thesis is no longer a fringe view, but one supported by a growing body of evidence.

Increasingly, it appears that Ruddiman may have initially been right for the wrong reasons. The evidence now points towards deforestation by hunter-gatherers, largely by fire, as the biggest per-capita human contribution to greenhouse gases. This would explain the "front-loading" of CO2 increase with respect to population levels. Ruddiman's original agriculture-only thesis has been robustly debunked by Stocker et al, who demonstrate that you can't get the pre-industrual CO2 levels from agriculture alone.  Ruddiman acknowledges the imbalance in the carbon budget, and points to ongoing work on the impact of fire by hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists. Colonisation of new territories in the historical era (New Zealand, where the first humans arrived around the 12th century, is a striking example) illustrate the huge land-use impacts that can arise from relatively tiny human populations.

The history of agriculture is one of ever-increasing intensity of land use. Hunting and gathering support only very low population densities. Agriculture, from its inception, will first colonise all of the arable territory, then will inevitably intensify, as its success supports a growing population. Populations must innovate or perish; and thus, the per-capita human impact on greenhouse gases has followed a diminishing trend -- until the industrial age.

Jed Kaplan's high-resolution simulations of European land use is one paper that I wouldn't mind paying for, though it isn't yet available on line. A summary here seems to indicate that it addresses a still-controversial aspect of Ruddiman's thesis : the postulate that historical variations in climate (for example, the "little ice age" and "medieval warm period") can be tied to human land-use changes : for example, the Black Death, the Mongol invasion, and the 90% decline in Amerindian populations after European contact provoked re-forestation which would have had a strong cooling influence. However Julia Pongrantz's work suggests that global impacts from such events would be practically negligeable, with only the Mongol invasion registering, just barely.

I have no fixed view on all this, I'm just marvelling at the expansion of our understanding. It's all good, as long as it's honest science. What do you-all think?

Late addition : This article on Nature News summarizes all this rather better than I...

Display:
Thanks for this informative contribution to the debate. I can readily understand why deforestation by fire - either to promote agriculture or hunting - would lead to atmospheric CO2 intensification.  I can also unde3rstand why agriculture leads to population intensification and thus CO2 release.  But why does agriculture also lead to per capita increases in CO2 concentrations, especially in the era before industrial fertillisers?

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun May 8th, 2011 at 09:56:55 AM EST
Agriculture, from its inception, will first colonise all of the arable territory, then will inevitably intensify, as its success supports a growing population. Populations must innovate or perish; and thus, the per-capita human impact on greenhouse gases has followed a diminishing trend -- until the industrial age.
by det on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 02:33:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for a very interesting and balanced post. With all the politics surrounding this issue, it's far too easy to get caught up in the question of who's side you're on rather than looking strictly at the science.

One question:

Not to save the world (that would be rather arrogant and pretentious), but perhaps to save humanity.

Given our successful habitation of practically every land environment, I have to ask if the climate change we are experiencing/inducing really a threat to (all of) humanity?

by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 10:07:16 AM EST
Almost certainly not.

Actually, it'll probably mostly kill poor brown people, which could be why it's not considered a problem in certain quarters.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 11:04:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That depends how you define "humanity."

If you mean violent ape-like creatures with basic time-binding skills - probably not.

If you mean the vast mass of culture and scientific/technical knowledge accumulated over the last few millennia, the possibility of an off-planet swarm migration, and the end of cultural accumulation as a process - very probably.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 11:48:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"If you mean the vast mass of culture and scientific/technical knowledge accumulated over the last few millennia, the possibility of an off-planet swarm migration, and the end of cultural accumulation as a process - very probably."

How so? And I'm not trying to be cute here, I'm just trying to understand the threat especially in light of our history of adaptability.

by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 12:10:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The simple answer is that cultural accumulation depends on leisure, on division of labour and of persistence of cultural memory - not just in the sense of information being around with lack of bit-rot or paper damage, but in the sense that there exist individuals who have the time, skills, and resources to access it, use it successfully, and expand it.

Climate change has the potential to stress these factors.

Cultural accumulation isn't an inevitability. Of the million or so years of human habitation, it wasn't until a 2-4 millennia ago (depending who you ask) that it became a significant influence. And it's only in the last few centuries that it became a very significant influence.

Without it, humans default to monkey tribalisms, which seems to have been the state of things for most of recorded history, and most of the time before that too.

(See also Republicans in the US.)

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 12:39:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks. Not that I agree with it (for what that's worth), but I can see your point.
by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 01:32:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Since the majority of us are not mind-readers, would you please describe what you mean by adoption, and how we would accomplish such?

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 06:17:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's something for a future diary but think in military terms: light and mobile versus heavy and stationary.
by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 09:16:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... that went before, it may have been that the cultural accumulation of the previous two to four millennium wouldn't have had a platform to stand on.

Technological progress works primarily by the recombination of existing technologies, and so its intrinsically more of an exponential process than a linear process. People looking for a linear "rate of progress" are of course going to retrodict back to a period "when basically nothing is changing", even if technological progress is occurring at the same exponential rate, because its occurring over generations rather than years, while in addition, the further back in time we are looking, the less complete our picture of the technology and institutions in use.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 11:54:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Have you seen Stuart Kauffman's model of economic innovation in his book At Home in the Universe?

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 16th, 2011 at 04:20:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If the human footprint exceeds the ecologically sustainable footprint for a long period of time, it exhausts many natural resources and thus reduces the sustainable footprint much further.  Think a mass extinction event including many species, but also a large part of humanity.  Plus - the political instability created by much increased competition over ever diminishing resources will probably result in an Armageddon style nuclear war sooner or later, much reducing the ongoing sustainable footprint still further.  Many species are far more adaptable than humans, and humans can often only adapt to environments where they can control the parameters within which that environment can fluctuate.  We can build sea walls but thy can only contain rising sea levels up to a point... and the intensification of agriculture is heavily oil dependent.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 05:05:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But aren't these possibilities due to over-population rather than climate change? As for sea-walls, to me that's an economic problem more than anything else.
by Jace on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 09:12:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, because climate change shrinks the available ecological footprint.

And sea walls aren't a viable option for entire continents. Sea level rises create disproportionate economic stress because so much critical infrastructure - never mind so many critical cities - is already in flood-prone areas (q.v. New Orleans and Florida) or in areas where a rise of a metre or less would knock out critical distribution and transport nodes.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 09:52:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But can't any number of changes also shrink the available footprint?

Let's suppose that the people that are involved with Geoengineering aren't the dangerous knuckleheads that I think they are and instead are actually capable of developing a system to fully control the atmosphere. Great! The status quo is preserved (which, as indicated by your earlier comment seems to be most desired). Life goes on, human population can continue to increase. But now we'll need more land for all these people and more food and more resources, etc. Sooner or later, and assuming something else doesn't change on us, we'll start reaching the physical limits of the continents. Well we can build out on to the seas until we run out of room there and so on. But guess what, we will inevitably find that our growth (our population size) is not unlimited. It seems only prudent to accept this sooner rather than later before we too become too big to fail.

As you've illustrated sea walls are not a viable long term or large scale option. But why should we even consider this? The need for sea walls is predicated on the fundamental assumption that the world is static, that everything is now what it will always will be. The whole issue of climate change seems to be more about realizing that we were wrong with this assumption than anything else (unless of course things don't have to change...).

by Jace on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 07:21:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But can't any number of changes also shrink the available footprint?

Yes, anthropogenic climate change is just the most pressing example of biosphere destruction.

There are others, but currently it looks like the one that will cause the most immediate problems.

The general problem is that we have a stupid habit of destroying our habitat.

As I've said before - terraforming your own planet to make it uninhabitable doesn't count as a win.

 

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 07:39:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Why shrinks, necessarily?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 07:30:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Give us all a sensible model where it increases the available resources.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 07:43:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Longer growing seasons in nontropical latitudes?

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:03:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
See also:

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:55:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Climate change is beginning to acerbate over-population.  

What needs to be understood is "over-population" is a conclusion reached through analysis of the number of predators to the number of prey.  (Using "predators" and "prey" in an abstract sense.)  Climate change is a systematic variant (changeable) first directly lowering prey, e.g., global wheat production, which follows through to stressing and then lowering predator population.  Typically in these scenarios the predator population crashes below objective conditions for the predator population.  The typical run of events:

  1.  Prey population increases
  2.  Predator population increases
  3.  The system become unbalanced
  4.  Prey population crashes
  5.  Predator population crashes
  6.  Prey population stabilizes at a lower rate and begins to climb
  7.  Predator population stabilizes at a lower rate and begins to climb

As the canonical Canadian hare/lynx relationship illustrates:

 

Unfortunately, there is another canonical scenario where the rate of predation is above the rate of prey population renewal and the prey goes extinct.  This seems to have happened with the mastodon; humans over-predated the species to extinction; I note Climate Change was also affective in this scenario.  Something similar is happening with oil/human "predation."  

If you will.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 02:17:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Adding to the sequence (and this is especially typical of us large predators):

  • go after the easy food first (big, meaty, slow moving critters) and then work your way down the food web
  • eliminate rival predators (either directly or indirectly by taking their food and/or space)

With these two additions you can see why the Mastadon, the Dodo, the Great Auk, and many, many other large animals were hunted to extinction and also why predators like the European Brown Bear are either locally extinct or barely holding on climate change or not.

But you also have to note that we as a predator have already exhausted pretty much all of the available prey (the Grand Banks fishery was problably the last truly abundant source) and are thus no longer following that progression. We've learned that once we clean out an existing ecosystem, we then have to create our own dedicated (and grossly over-simplified) ecosystem as a replacement. We're still working the bugs out of this one.

by Jace on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 04:00:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Prey" can also be physical natural resources such as oil.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Wed May 11th, 2011 at 01:44:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Except that oil has virtually no capability to recover stocks

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 06:34:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course it does. God wouldn't let us run out of oil.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 07:09:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Over a 1000 Million year timeframe, no problem.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 10:49:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Exactly.

I find it illuminating to use, e.g., "we are predating oil to scarcity along an exponential growth curve," as an analytical heuristic.  Thinking along these lines it becomes immediately apparent if the replacement rate of the prey (oil) is below predation (extraction) rate systematic use of the prey (oil) MUST, at some point, change the "ecology," or Fitness Landscape, necessarily leading to a change in consumption patterns of the predators (Actors) to accommodate lowering availability of the prey.  This change in consumption patterns changes the predation rate, which changes the Fitness Landscape, changing the predation rate, & round and round we go.

There is more that fall out of the heuristic, I'll only mention one: emergent behaviors, and everything that EB drags along, are inherent.  This is in sharp contrast to NCE where EB, e.g., "Black Swans," are always a surprise.


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 01:27:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Only renewables. Nonrenewables follow a different model.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 16th, 2011 at 04:19:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
See this thread for a discussion of Lotka-Volterra as a model of consumption of renewable resources. Also this thread
imagine that the red line in the chart is humanity and the black line its renewable resource base.

Finally this thread on logistic consumption of nonrenewable resources.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon May 16th, 2011 at 04:16:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Jace:
But aren't these possibilities due to over-population rather than climate change?

Our total ecological footprint is less due to population and more to the way we fill up all and then some. Most of the worlds population is living on a sustainable level even at our current population, but white people are as a group way over the limit.

"Over-population" is a term that when uttered in relation to over current situation in my ears sounds like prioritizing the western lifestyle over poor people's lives. Not that I think you meant it that way.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 04:14:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very good point. I think it's interesting to consider why the western lifestyle is so voracious and also whether or not there is anything fundamentally unique about it. For the latter I tend to think not.
by Jace on Wed May 11th, 2011 at 10:06:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One can point to Chaco Canyon, Easter Island, Mayan city states to show the western lifestyle isn't unique.  

Not even unique to hominids.  The Saber-toothed cat lasted for 42 million years.  Our earliest ancestor showed up ~14 million years ago.  On the record being a Saber-toothed tiger is a MUCH better way to make a living.  

Species finds a way to make a living, population increases under the system that way creates, eventually the system goes sour, population crashes.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed May 11th, 2011 at 01:59:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... is an excellent cautionary tale of the dangers of specialization on a lifestyle that is excessively dependent where the climate is with respect to the ice age cycle.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 12:02:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Saber-toothed tigers are also an excellent example of the consequences of human over-hunting. From the current issue of Conservation magazine:

More than 25,000 years ago, one megafaunal species--we humans--began to spread rapidly around the globe and in the process helped to wipe out about half of all land mammals weighing more than 44 kilograms (97 pounds). "More than 101 genera perished," Anthony Barnosky, an ecologist at University of California, Berkeley, reported in a 2008 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Among the victims were whole groups of mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, giant ground sloths, and big beavers. Many vanished in just a 4,000-year span that ended about 11,000 years ago. By then, Australia had lost roughly 88 percent of its big mammal groups, South America 83 percent, and North America 72 percent. Africa did better during what is now called the Quaternary Megafauna Extinction (QME), losing about one-fifth of its big species, while Eurasia lost one-third.

Exactly what caused the QME has been the subject of long and fierce debate, but most explanations finger some combination of two ingredients: human hunters and rapid climate change. It doesn't take a PhD to realize that big mammals roaming across vast territories were obvious, attractive targets for hungry hunters seeking the biggest bang for their buck. It takes a little math, however, to see just how quickly unconstrained "overkill" can eliminate a species, such as the elephant, that reproduces slowly (as big mammals tend to). Sometimes, it can take just a few human generations. Toss hunting pressure into an environment already changing rapidly due to events such as human-set fires and yo-yo climate shifts, and it's no surprise that the stress "robbed global ecosystems of the biggest animals on Earth," Barnosky told a packed lecture hall a few years ago.

By his count, just 183 large-mammal species survived the catastrophe, often in dramatically reduced numbers. And their days are numbered unless we learn from the past, he argues in his provocative and eye-opening PNAS paper. The fundamental problem, he says, is that we're literally taking the lion's share of Earth's resources--and the shares needed by all other megafauna, too--for ourselves. The QME represented "a dramatic change in the way energy flowed through the global ecosystem," he writes. Before the extinction, there was easily enough "biomass"--the fundamental source of energy created when plants convert the sun's rays to edible tissue--to support some 350 big-mammal species. As hungry Homo sapiens spread, however, "energy began to flow toward a single megafauna species: humans." In addition to simply eating other big animals, we grabbed vast swaths of their habitat to grow crops and raise cows, goats, and sheep. In essence, Barnosky says, "we replaced the extinct megafauna with us and in the process lost a bunch of species that are never coming back because we now have grabbed their biomass."


This article also adds an interesting twist to the discussion of fossil fuels (and human population growth and...):
 
One puzzle, however, remains: Why have just a handful of big mammals actually gone extinct in the past few thousand years, even as human and livestock populations skyrocketed? One answer is that some, such as the American bison, are actually "dead species walking"--reduced to small, unsustainable population sizes or marginal habitat fragments and unable to survive without human help. Another answer, believes Barnosky, is that we temporarily took pressure off wild ecosystems when we discovered fossil fuels and then used that energy to supercharge our ability to feed and shelter ourselves. But that era appears to be closing, he notes, as humans press in on the few remaining habitats still dominated by nonhuman megafauna. It's no coincidence, he says, that human impacts now threaten some 90 species of large mammals, including 40 percent of those in Africa, a continent that made it through the QME largely unscathed. And with a rapidly warming climate taking hold, he says, the present is beginning to look eerily like the past: "Growing human populations and climate change? Beginning to sound familiar?"
by Jace on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 10:47:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Since Smilodon Populator went extinct in South America before humans seem to have made it down to South America, its normally put down to the start of the interglacial and the greater dependence of the saber tooth cats than other large cat species on large prey.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 09:40:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The arrival date of humans in South America is still unclear but it appears that there may very well have been some overlap between Smilodon populator (extinct circa 10,000 years BP) and humans. From Wiki:
The 14,000 BP immigration date maximum, however, has been challenged. Claims have been made for human presence in the 20,000-30,000 BP timeframe at Pennsylvania's Meadowcroft Rock Shelter and in California's Yuha Desert as well as sites in South America [re: Chile], Central America, and Mesoamerica.

Like many other sites, there are Mastodon bones present at Monte Verde. Smilodon may very well have been over-specialized and preyed only on big animials but then so do (did) we. Loss of habitat and loss of food also lead to extinction.

by Jace on Sun May 15th, 2011 at 11:44:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And in any event, whether the Smilodon lost its prey directly to climate change or to the lazy fire-hunting of big game by early man, in either event at those population densities, the American cats that were able to survive on smaller game had no trouble surviving all the way up to the present human-induced mass extinction.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon May 16th, 2011 at 07:00:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
will be put to the test in an entirely new way, if we effectively get the 3+°C global warming we seem to be on track for.

We emerged from monkeyhood in the context of repeated ice ages, which forced our ancestors to continually migrate and/or adapt to different habitats, essentially temperate. Then in the past ten thousand years of extraordinarily stable climate, we were able to become sedentary, have regular food surpluses, invent cultural accumulation.

What comes next? Nobody knows : there is no precedent (in the Pleistocene) for the CO2 level -- we're already off the scale -- and temperature ranges we're heading for.

Intensification of agriculture has gone very far, and it's premature to say we can't take it a great deal further. Exhaustion of resources is a graver and more imminent danger than climate change itself : can we make the transition to an intensive, resource-lean agriculture capable of sustaining a population of billions? The history of humanity makes me moderately optimistic, but doesn't say whether we can get there without massive die-offs.

Human intervention on the climate is a fact. There's no going back to a hypothetical natural state, not at a planetary level. The long term future of civilized humanity requires that we actually take control of the climate, rather than drowning in our own extreta.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 04:53:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Human influence on the climate is the natural state.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 06:09:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with everything but your last sentence. With our success, we have come to expect unlimited growth. But as seen repeatedly in places like the business world, there are always limits to growth. Perhaps it is time to recognize and live within these limitations instead of continually trying to maximize growth through complete environmental control.
by Jace on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 06:35:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Humanity's bull-in-a-china-shop approach to climate has to stop. Regardless of future growth, we are already in overshoot in terms of climate impact. We need to take responsibility for stabilizing the climate. Once we've done that, we will have the tools enabling us to search for an optimal climate equilibrium. That should be interesting, politically...

But before we can get to that, we need to correct the overshoot urgently. This requires optimizing resource use to produce, at minimum, the same amount of food etc. with fewer primary resources, and producing much less greenhouse gases. If we don't manage this, we are heading for die-off (which is one of Nature's wonderful ways of balancing the population/resource budgets).

Now comes the question of growth. The study of demographic transition shows us that populations stop growing once a certain level of education and well-being is achieved. World population is levelling off, or at least is no longer in exponential growth, because of this phenomenon. The urgent goal is to help the countries who aren't there yet, rather than decreeing some arbitrary limit to population (and enforcing it how?)

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:27:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I may have misunderstood your comment concerning environmental control. Control through conservation is one thing, control by manipulating or engineering the climate is quite another.

I think we're making the same point on population growth. The sense of well-being means that you've accepted what you have, you're sated, you've effectively accepted that you've reached your limit. It's how that limit is defined that's key. Defining it through wealth and acquisition doesn't seem to work too well.  

by Jace on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 09:28:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Humanity's bull-in-a-china-shop approach to climate has to stop

It will.  Either we'll use our vaunted cognitive ability to address and solve the problem or Mother Nature will solve it by crashing the global human population in her own indomitable fashion.  

I have become pessimistic we'll choose the first.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 02:19:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Humanity's adaptability will be put to the test in an entirely new way..."

Maybe. But remember that the plague in Europe killed about 1/3 of the population, and "civilization" continued onwards. (Maybe even improved as the feudal system collapsed.) And much of what we risk losing is the ultra-comfortable personal lifestyle advantages of 20th century technology.

What is likely is that the global population will be severely pruned at the low end of the socio-economic scale. And there may be massive political or economic change as a result, but basically the overall situation will look like it did under the traditional population pressures caused by disease, starvation, and war.

For example, if westerners became vegetarians, even a severely compromised food supply system could support the current population. That would require people to become vegetarians, though, and they don't want to. So they would probably have a war to resolve the question of who gets meat and who eats potatos and onions and cabbage. But that's just traditional old-style human interaction, and as you suggest, we evolved in that sort of environment.

Might be a bit uncomfortable, but not more than in the 1600s, say...

by asdf on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 03:43:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You may also be underestimating the fragility of our agricultural system. A significant failure of the global wheat (corn) crop for example would not only be a food supply problem but also a problem of political stability...
by asdf on Mon May 9th, 2011 at 07:50:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
driven more by speculation than actual shortage, was arguably the biggest driver of the Arab Spring.

Looking further out, various entities (often sovereign) are buying up and developing agricultural land in order to secure future food supplies. This raises interesting ethical questions (the former users are generally expropriated in various ways) but will undoubtedly produce more food per hectare. Quantitatively, will this have a visible impact on world food supply? Dunno.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:38:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... is a distinction without a difference for a food production system that is dependent upon futures markets are part of their supporting social infrastructure.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 12:04:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ScienceDirect - Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment : Sustainable Traditional Agriculture in the Tai Lake Region of China
Traditional agriculture in China's Tai Lake Region sustained high productivity for more than nine centuries. This article examines the ecological basis for this high long-term productivity in a historical context, with a focus on the role of nutrient limitation. From 1000 AD to the 1950s, agricultural technology remained basically unchanged, as did the yields of rice, wheat and other crops. Still, total grain production and net farm income increased over time, as a result of increased multiple cropping, expanded mulberry/silk production, and the intensified use of organic fertilizers. Without degrading soil resources, continuous intensive farm management supported the nutritional and other needs of the rural population, which grew to nearly ten people per hectare of cultivated land by the 1930s. Ecological limitations to human carrying capacity that seem apparent in the mid 1800s appear to have been overcome since the 1960s by chemical nitrogen subsidy of agroecosystems. Human populations are now nearly twice their traditional maximum, and the region remains one of the world's most productive agricultural regions thanks in part to heavy fertilizer applications that have changed nitrogen from a limiting nutrient to a potential source of pollution. Whether these high inputs and/or other agricultural technologies will continue to sustain food self-sufficiency for the region's farmers remains to be seen. The high long-term productivity of Tai Lake Region agroecosystems make them ideal for study of the ecological basis for sustainable agriculture.

So this agricultural system is running at roughly double its previous, already very high, carrying capacity, thanks to chemical fertilizer. What is the ultimate sustainable capacity of this system? Somewhere between the two, one suspects.

But most of the rest of the world's agriculture has never been as optimized as the Chinese baseline of the 1930s. If the mechanization and the petrochemical inputs diminish, overall productivity could probably be maintained or improved, in most cases, with good agronomical technique, and lots of labour (as the Cuban example would seem to illustrate). Yes, it's mostly a political problem...

I'm fairly optimistic for Europe, where smallholding is still hanging on (by a thread). Not sure how it will work in the USA.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 08:50:00 AM EST
Europe without Russia and the Ukraine cannot grow enough coarse grains.  Europe, if you people get your act together, with Russia and the Ukraine is viable.  

I think.

The optimistic scenario depends on "right-about turning" Merkel's determination to blow-up the EU in a fit of short-sighted stupidity.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 02:24:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ATinNM:
Europe without Russia and the Ukraine cannot grow enough coarse grains.

What's your source for that?

Eurostat says that for 2005 (latest year with full numbers), the EU 27 countries exported 85m tonnes of cereals to third countries, against imports from third countries of 65m tonnes.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 04:09:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Conclusion of an analysis I did a couple of years ago looking at the effects of GW and PO on agricultural production.  

I'll roust through my papers and see if I can find it.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue May 10th, 2011 at 06:53:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Can't find it.  

Either my thinking was tossed when I throw away an old computer or the print-out is buried in a box.  (God only knows where.)

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu May 12th, 2011 at 01:30:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Typical...

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 08:30:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Europe, just as the US and Japan, is living beyond its ecofootprint ~ importing fossil fuels to convert to fertilizer to boost cereal grain production is an input that needs replacing, hence the interest in solid state ammonia production technologies to produce ammonia from renewable power sources.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 12:13:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ATinNM:
Europe, if you people get your act together, with Russia and the Ukraine is viable.

Russia and the Ukraine with Europe:  OK; if they get democracy before they run out of gas.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 09:59:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... half our productivity without any serious crimping on our capability to support 500,000 or so, because of the massive amounts of food that we are feeding to cows and chickens and pigs. Eating more of that food ourselves and eating meat only once every day or two rather than three or four times a day would turn the trick.

The worry is rather if we scale down to half our productivity and then scale down to half or a quarter of our productivity again as the midwestern heartland shifts to dryland farming and the dryland farming terrain turns to desert.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 12:08:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
in the long run. It's already been well broken in. The ecological equilibria are better understood. I think it can probably absorb a fair amount of climate change, as long as smallholding persists.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Fri May 13th, 2011 at 03:30:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
eating meat only once every day or two rather than three or four times a day would turn the trick

Sounds good only how would such a trick be accomplished?

by Jace on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 11:00:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As meat becomes more expensive, it'll happen.

The best way to accelerate it is probably to publicize the fact that "cheap" meat is nowhere near so cheap when you count the cost that factory farming dumps onto third parties.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 12:10:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"cheap" meat is nowhere near so cheap when you count the cost that factory farming dumps onto third parties.

And while you are counting, and publicizing the count, might as well note the effect factory farming has had on the iconic American farm family. After all, the diary has been largely about extinctions and threats of extinction.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 09:49:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... elimination of family farms. The Meatrix is a good youtube piece to spread around the word, and they make the destruction of family farms point quite effectively:


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat May 14th, 2011 at 10:31:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I suspect that as cheap meat gets lower content of quality meat (witness the EU debate on wheter meat glue should have to be declared) and an increased connection with health problems, its status will decline to a point where many might choose a more vegetarian lifestyle to avoid looking as scrap-meat losers.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Sun May 15th, 2011 at 04:54:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
heh, as a vegan i resemble that!

not everybody is cut out to be, so i imagine most people in the future will be 90% vegetarian, with a few going the whole way.

Moroccans make vegetable tajin with a marrowbone for their couscous, chines slice small chunks of animal protein into their rice and veggie-based meals, same with much of asia.

meat eating will be at the periphery of diets, no longer the meat-and-2-veg, or 'giant slab o' porterhouse' approach, (unless you're a shepherd/cowboy with no refrigeration.)

people will be a lot healthier, (or will join the ancestors) especially with the work on the land to raise all the food now whipped out of the earth with copious petrochemicals, and its higher nutritional value.

you can also put up with a lot more political BS if you're healthier!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun May 15th, 2011 at 05:34:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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