Sunday, March 10, 2013

Graceful Shutdown

As our global civilization self-terminates due to its unwillingness to reduce the damage it is doing to the biosphere, especially from habitat destruction and carbon pollution-induced climate change, there is the potential for a lot more damage to be done. When a complex technological system goes through something similar, engineers call it "hard shutdown," with unpredictable, and often negative, consequences for both the system and whatever is connected to it. Engineers have learned to design systems with the ability to maintain some reserve power in the event that main power is lost, and use that power to control interactions between its components before turning them off so that damage doesn't occur; this approach is called a "graceful shutdown." I've mentioned this before, in the context of avoiding disaster; I'm arguing now that we should pursue it even though disaster is now likely.

In my novel "Lights Out," I explored what a hard shutdown of civilization might involve on a small scale, and how some people could survive it. Violence and death are virtually assured, particularly if people don't know what's happening and why. The powerful sociopaths who promote misinformation about climate change and the negative effects of unrestricted capitalism are working toward this outcome. If even a quarter of the population goes along with it (an approximation of the number of unquestioning followers of authoritarian leaders), and the technology of war and violence with its huge threat-multiplying capability remains readily available, the collapse of global civilization may take down all of humanity instead of just a majority, even before climate change has its full impact.

A graceful shutdown scenario would involve a growing number of people meeting their needs without using non-renewable and ecologically damaging resources, while respecting and preserving each other's right to meet the basic needs of survival. Relationships between people would become less about property and more about valuing life for its own sake. Money, such as it exists in the future, would be used for its most fundamental purpose, accounting, rather than as a means for concentrating personal power. Critical to this scenario would be the promotion and dissemination of accurate knowledge and understanding, and the development of a value system that outright rejects as evil the promotion of self-serving distortion of reality.

In technology, hard shutdowns are typically the default, with thoughtful design being necessary to enable graceful shutdowns. Considering that our global civilization has evolved with the built-in assumption of perpetual operation and growth, hard shutdown looks like the most probable outcome. With the time we have left, more of us can work to redesign parts of it, to limit the negative consequences. The Transition movement is one example of one of the more radical redesigns in progress, while renewable energy technologies are being pursued by people who expect civilization to require mere tweaking to avoid the worst of potential futures. I hesitate to brand these attempts as futile, since they are moving in the right direction; but they must be accelerated to a pace even greater than the exploitation of the fossil fuels that now threaten us, and it remains to be seen whether this can be done in time to have a measurable impact on the nature of the shutdown that is nearly upon us.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Beyond Hope

As I discussed in The End of Hope, I believe there is now sufficient evidence to conclude that civilization as we know it is doomed, and there's virtually nothing we can do to stop it. The analysis I did back in 2011 appears to be holding true, especially the "worst case" projections of population and Gross World Product, which for planning purposes are likely to crash during the period 2030 to 2070.

Planning for what? There is still some hope that our species, albeit a much smaller number of us, will survive. For those of us who care about optimizing the future for as many people as possible, this means that we must focus on ensuring that the survivors can have the best life possible, and that future generations won't repeat our mistakes. In short, we need to try to offset part of our legacy of death.

In the book, "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," journalist Naomi Klein describes how believers in unrestricted capitalism have used (and in some cases precipitated) disasters to enable the takeover and ruination of entire countries by cutthroat corporations while their citizens were fighting to survive. As ecological disasters and resource depletion overwhelm the world, those who control the corporations will be even more tempted to acquire power beyond their dreams, even as the foundation of that power implodes around them. Because this same acquisitive drive has been a key contributor to the combination of over-consumption and pollution that is pushing us and other species to extinction, it must be vilified at every opportunity and kept from having any significant influence over whatever culture ends up surviving.

Much of the world that the survivors inherit will be indistinguishable from what we might associate with the mythical hell, and due to the persistence of greenhouse gases, those conditions will last for at least a millennium. Regions that might remain habitable will need to be mapped, and both physical and cultural tools (including knowledge) will need to be developed so they can stay that way. Where adaptation in harsher parts of the world is possible with additional technology, that technology and the means to maintain it will also need to be provided.

This effort will require a heroic level of selfless commitment by many of us who can't expect to be among the survivors. There will be a lot of resistance to be overcome, initially among those who are unaware of what's ahead or in purposeful denial about it. It is far too easy, even for us, to hide from the harsh reality of what we've created, and to ride out the remaining vestiges of the comfortable lives many of us grew up expecting to continue into a healthy old age. One way to help deal with these challenges can also inform the survivors we dedicate ourselves to helping: document what's happening around us; observe and learn about the variables affecting our local environments, manmade and natural. Get to know in person the people who will either share our plight or be among the survivors who can testify that we did our best to help them, despite what we already did to make their lives a living hell. Find others who feel the same way, because we can't do it alone.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The End of Hope

Sometime this week, my hope ran out for the survival of civilization, with little left that our eager decimation of the biosphere will not result in our own extinction. While the prospects for our recovery have been getting progressively worse for years, a combination of news stories crossed some kind of threshold in my mind which made it feel like it's all but impossible.

Two of the most recent had to do with climate feedback mechanisms that all but assure that global warming will get much worse. Arctic ice is at an historic minimum and will likely disappear soon, leading to increased warming because sunlight will no longer be reflected by the ice. There is good reason to believe that a modest amount of additional warming may result in the widespread melting of methane-laden permafrost that could spike temperatures over the edge of survivability.

The big news of the week was, of course, the "sequester," one of several attempts by radical government-haters to open the door to unrestrained pillage of nature and society; it will cut back on many of the means we currently have for limiting and adapting to environmental damage. The scale of that environmental damage includes, of course, more than climate change: recent research shows that wild bees are more critical to our food supply than honeybees, and being wiped out by the top mechanism of extinction, habitat loss.

And it just keeps getting worse. At the end of the week, the U.S. State Department issued its report on the environmental impact of the infamous Keystone XL Pipeline, giving the project a clean bill of health despite evidence that the use of tar sands oil will considerably increase climate warming carbon emissions.

I recalled something I learned a few years ago about what is perhaps the key driver of business operation, pursuit of profit. Profit must continuously increase, preferably at an exponential rate, for a business to be considered successful. There are several ways to do so: add value to what you produce, increase demand for what you're already making, and reduce costs. The first two approaches increase consumption if the business can provide supply to meet demand, which is bad enough in a resource-constrained world. The last approach, however, is the most damaging when applied exponentially, because there is always a minimum cost required – you can't get something for nothing – and if you're "successful," you are likely just good at forcing someone else to eat that cost. Many of the mechanisms directly causing unhealthy income and social inequality in this country and elsewhere may be directly tied to the application of this approach, but it has even more far-ranging effects. Because business is the most powerful human enterprise, society and the planet's other species are effectively being forced to give more than they can afford and still survive. We are all dying as a result.