Apocalypse, Retreat or Revolution?

I’ve been enjoying this book:

• Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson, Revolutions That Made the Earth, Oxford U. Press, Oxford, 2011.

It’s mainly about the history of life on Earth, and how life has affected the climate and atmosphere. For example: when photosynthesis first started pumping a deadly toxic gas into the atmosphere—oxygen—how did life evolve to avoid disaster?

Or: why did most of the Earth freeze, about 650 million years ago, and what did life do then?

Or: what made 96% of all marine species and 70% of vertebrates on land die out, around 250 million years ago?

This is the book’s strength: a detailed but readable version of the greatest story we know, complete with mysteries yet to be solved. But at the end they briefly ponder the future. They consider various scenarios, lumped into three categories: apocalypse, retreat or revolution.


They begin by reviewing the familiar story: how soaring population and fossil fuel usage is making our climate ever hotter, making our oceans ever more acidic, and sucking phosphorus and other nutrients out of ground and into the sea.

They consider different ways these trends could push the Earth into a new, inhospitable state. They use the term ‘apocalypse’. I think ‘disaster’ is better, but anyway, they write:

Even the normally cheerful and creative Jim Lovelock argues that we are already doomed, and nothing we can do now will stop the Earth system being carried by its own internal dynamics into a different and inhospitable state for us. If so, all we can do is try to adapt. We disagree—in our view the game is not yet up. As far as we can see no one has yet made a convincing scientific case that we are close to a global tipping point for ‘runaway’ climate change.


Yet even without truly ‘runaway’ change, the combination of unmitigated fossil fuel burning and positive feedbacks from within the Earth system could still produce an apocalyptic climate for humanity. We could raise global temperature by up to 6 °C this century, with more to come next century. On the way there, many parts of the Earth system could pas their own thresholds and undergo profound changes in state. These are what Tim [Lenton] and colleagues have called ‘tipping elements’ in the climate system.

They warrant a book by themselves, so we will just touch on them briefly here. The tipping elements include the great ice sheets covering Greenland and West Antarctica that are already losing mass and adding to sea level rise. In the tropics, there are already changes in atmospheric circulation, and in the pattern of El Niño events. The Amazon rainforest suffered severe drought in 2005 and might in the future face a climate drying-triggered dieback, destroying biodiversity and adding carbon to the atmosphere. Over India, an atmospheric brown cloud of pollution is already disrupting the summer monsoon, threatening food security. The monsoon in West Africa could be seriously disrupted as the neighboring ocean warms up. The boreal forests that cloak the northern high latitudes are threatened by warming, forest fires and insect infestation. The list goes on. The key point is that the Earth’s climate, being a complex feedback system, is unlikely to respond in an entirely smooth and proportional way to significant changes in energy balance caused by human activities.

Here is a map of some tipping elements. Click for more details:


They write:

A popular answer to apocalyptic visions of the future is retreat, into a lower energy, lower material consumption, and ultimately lower population world. In this future world the objective is to minimize human effects on the Earth system and allow Gaia to reassert herself, with more room for natural ecosystems and minimal intervention in global cycles. The noble aim is long-term sustainability for for people as well as the planet.

There are some good and useful things we can take from such visions of the future, especially in helping to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, achieve greater energy efficiency, promote recycling and redefine what we mean by quality of life. However, we think that visions of retreat are hopelessly at odds with current trends, and with the very nature of what drives revolutionary changes of the Earth. They lack pragmatism and ultimately they lack ambition. Moreover, a retreat sufficient to forestall the problems outlined above might be just as bad as the problems it sought to avoid.


They write:

Our alternative vision of the future is of revolution, into a high energy, high recycling world that can support billions of people as part of a thriving and sustainable biosphere. The key to reaching this vision of the future is to learn from past revolutions: future civilizations must be fuelled from sustainable energy sources, and they must undertake a greatly enhanced recycling of resources.

And here is where the lessons of previous ‘revolutions’ are especially useful. As I said last time, they list four:

1. The origin of life, before 3.8 billion years ago.

2. The Great Oxidation, when photosynthesis put oxygen into the atmosphere between 3.4 and 2.5 billion years ago.

3. The rise of complex life (eukaryotes), roughly 2 billion years ago.

4. The rise of humanity, roughly 0 billion years ago.

Their book argues that all three of the earlier revolutions disrupted the Earth’s climate, pushing it out of stability. It only restabilized after reaching a fundamentally new state. This new stable state could only be born after some new feedback mechanisms had developed.

For example, in every revolution, it has been important to find ways to recycle ‘wastes’ and make them into useful ‘resources’. This was true with oxygen during the Great Oxidation… and it must be true with our waste products now!

In any sort of approximate equilibrium state, there can’t be much ‘waste’: almost everything needs to be recycled. Serious amounts of ‘waste’ can only occur for fairly short periods of time, in the grand scheme of things. For example, we are now burning fossil fuels and creating a lot of waste CO2, but this can’t go on forever: it’s only a transitional phase.

Apocalypse and Revolution?

I should talk about all this in more detail someday. But not today.

For now, I would just like to suggest that ‘apocalypse’ and ‘revolution’ are not really diametrically opposed alternatives. All three previous revolutions destroyed the world as it had been!

For example, when the Great Oxidation occurred, this was an ‘apocalypse’ for anaerobic life forms, who now struggle to survive in specialized niches here and there. It only seems like a triumphant ‘revolution’ in retrospect, to the new life forms that comfortably survive in the new world.

So, I think we’re headed for a combination of apocalypse and revolution: the death of many old things, and the birth of new ones. At best we have a bit of influence in nudging things in a direction we like. I don’t think ‘retreat’ is a real option: nostalgic though I am about many old things, time always pushes us relentlessly into new and strange worlds.

11 Responses to Apocalypse, Retreat or Revolution?

  1. davidtweed says:

    There was a signature of one of the posters at The Oildrum (can’t remember who) which really struck me, particularly when people talk about no need to actually plan anything because all the issues will be tackled by market forces: “The problem will solve itself, but not in a nice way”.

    It’s connected with the observation that the really scary thing about dynamics of populations in nature isn’t the overshoot, it’s that overshoot is almost always corrected by a dramatic population overcorrection downards (undershoot).

    • Giampiero Campa says:

      I think the three scenarios are complementary and likely to happen somehow together.

      Even without apocalypse, revolution will need to be followed by some sort of retreat, unless the new “approximate equilibrium state” is such that 9 billions human or more are required to maintain it.

      In other words, if we don’t learn to control population size, we (or at least, civilization as we know it) probably won’t survive. If we do learn to control population size, then the “optimal” population size is likely to be way less than 9 billions, for different reasons.

      If on the other hand apocalypse does happen, then this automatically forces the population size down, which is, in practice, a forced retreat (assuming the new population size is greater than zero).

    • John Baez says:

      I tend to agree with you, Giampiero. Lenton and Watson, it seems, don’t. They seem to claim that the new equilibrium can occur without a population crash. For example:

      In our vision of revolution we accept that population will grow substantially. But land area and coastal seas are fnite. A fundamental challenge then is how to feed the still growing human population without wiping out yet more natural ecosystems. These ecosystems are essential to the healthy functioning of the biosphere and to the maintenance of biodiversity. So if they must be replaced with ‘agro-ecosystems’, the challenge becomes to ensure that key biosphere functions are maintained—in short, to make them Gaia devices.

      How much Earth would we need to sustain a potential doubling of poplation, a probable upper limit for 2011? Since by some analyses 40% of global photosynthesis is already ‘used, co-opted or foregone’ by humans, the intuitive answer is that we would need to clear for agriculture most of the remaining natural ecosystems. But the real answer depends strongly on how localized or globalized food production is (as well as a host of other factors, including diet).


      Remarkably, some modelling suggests that in a fully globalizied system of food production, 12 billion people (eating a 1995 diet) could be fed on as little as a third of the currently used agricultural land!

      Of course this is just one aspect of the whole problem, but it gives a flavor of their optimism. They give a reference for that modelling… let me add it here, just so we have it on the table:

      • C. Muller et al, Comparative impact of climatic and nonclimatic factors on global terrestrial carbon and water cycles, Global Biogeochemical Cycles 20 (2006) GB4015.

      As usual around here, clicking on the paper title gives you a free version of the paper; clicking on the journal title gives you the official (but usually not free!) journal version.

  2. Florifulgurator says:

    I’ve marked the “runaway” things for second reading. Looks like they don’t always mean runaway climate change a la Venus, but more a run away towards a new climatic state?

    Methinks mankind should plan for apocalypse and revolution and retreat. (And forget about binary thinking.) In my vision a substantial portion of the population would “retreat” to a simple rural farming and gardening life – a “parallel world” in exchange with city world. ((Heck, I’d prefer living at an extremely practical open fireplace in a compostable domicile made of straw, clay and good cow dung. And heck, I’d prefer working in the fields and gardens (pigs are easier customers) and keep my brain energy for the night for private research and music. That of course requires some folks to stay in city life and produce the solar panel, battery, LED light, laptop, internets and dentist tools I’d like to keep in otherwise organic surroundings. I’d pay for that with surplus harvest, carbon sequestration, math education (children only) and animal therapy for city neurotics… – Alas, that “retreat” is still a luxury dream I can’t yet afford.))

  3. John Baez says:

    Over on Google+, Robert Irwin said the terms “apocalypse” and “revolution” were “emotive terms for what is a naturally evolving process”. And there’s some truth to that, but Lenton and Watson saw fit to use these terms.

    He also said:

    A better more rational view from a human perspective might be risk management as put forward in The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See.

    While that title is also a bit “emotive”, the idea behind this video is basically the prudential principle: we should plan for the worst case, so we should stop arguing about whether whether man-made global warming is a big problem, because it could be.

    However, the speaker in this video doesn’t say anything about what to do if we decide to take climate change seriously and do something about it. This is where it gets really interesting, in my opinion. I’m not sure anyone has ideas that measure up to the scale of the issue.

    I think the engineer Saul Griffith put it pretty well in this interview on the New Yorker:

    “Right now, everyone sees climate change as a problem in the domain of scientists and engineers,” Griffith told me. “But it’s not enough to say that we need some nerds to invent a new energy source and some other nerds to figure out a carbon-sequestration technology — and you should be skeptical about either of those things actually happening. There are a lot of ideas out there, but nothing nearly as radical as the green-tech hype. We’ve been working on energy, as a society, for a few thousand years, so we’ve already turned over most of the stones.” Such considerations help explain Griffith’s focus on ways in which affluent societies can make dramatic reduction in energy use without reducing their perceived quality of life — a challenge that involves wrestling with human nature as well as physics. He once tried to determine at what point in history his ancestors would have been consuming energy at a rate that he believes would be sustainable by humanity today, and calculated that,even in 1800, Americans used energy (mostly by burning New England forests) at a rate close to double that of the average global citizen in 2010.

    Shortly after we first met, Griffith told me, “I know very few environmentalists whose heads aren’t firmly up their ass. They are bold-facedly hypocritical, and I don’t think the environmentalism movement as we’ve known it is tenable or will survive…

    Why does he say these rude things? He did some calculations in his Long Now talk which explain the size of the challenge we’re facing. Stewart Brand wrote:

    The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.That would mean the following. (Here I’m drawing on notes and extrapolations I’ve written up previously from discussion with Griffith):

    Two terawatts of photovoltaic would require installing 100 square meters of 15-percent-efficient solar cells every second, second after second, for the next 25 years. (That’s about 1,200 square miles of solar cells a year, times 25 equals 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic cells.) Two terawatts of solar thermal? If it’s 30 percent efficient all told, we’ll need 50 square meters of highly reflective mirrors every second. (Some 600 square miles a year, times 25.) Half a terawatt of biofuels? Something like one Olympic swimming pools of genetically engineered algae, installed every second. (About 15,250 square miles a year, times 25.) Two terawatts of wind? That’s a 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every 5 minutes. (Install 105,000 turbines a year in good wind locations, times 25.) Two terawatts of geothermal? Build 3 100-megawatt steam turbines every day — 1,095 a year, times 25. Three terawatts of new nuclear? That’s a 3-reactor, 3-gigawatt plant every week — 52 a year, times 25.

    The whole talk is worth listening to.

    So, I believe the experts have no clue how to cut back energy consumption, or boost renewable energy production, as much as needed to solve this problem. We could do it in theory… but if you look at those numbers Griffith is listing, you’ll see they go way beyond what anyone considers “politically feasible” at this time. Cutting back American power usage to pre-1800 levels??? Building a 3-gigawatt nuclear plant every week for the next 25 years??? I don’t hear anyone seriously talking about action at this sort of magnitude.

    This makes me think the problem will get worse until it really starts sinking in.

  4. nad says:

    Saul Griffith:

    “I know very few environmentalists whose heads aren’t firmly up their ass. They are bold-facedly hypocritical, and I don’t think the environmentalism movement as we’ve known it is tenable or will survive”

    John Baez:

    This makes me think the problem will get worse until it really starts sinking in.

    I wonder how many of the sceptics, denialists, or people from the “environmental valley of the blissful ignorants” do secretly have some clue, but don’t want to be called “hypocrites.”

    By the way there is an argumentation on Azimuth, why “clean” nuclear is an illusion in our currrent world.

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks, Nad!

      I think hypocrisy is sometimes not as bad as people think. I think it can often be better to know what’s right and advocate it, even if I don’t do it all the time, than to not know, or not advocate it. If we eliminated all hypocrisy we’d probably eliminate all morality and most of civilization as well.

      However, I think hypocrisy is more tolerable when the hypocrites admit it. For example, if someone says “Smoking is terrible, but I can’t get myself to stop”, I’m much more inclined to sympathize than if someone says “Smoking is terrible, that’s why I quit”—and then I catch them smoking. The same is true for other addictions, like our addiction to fossil fuels.

      (Perhaps it’s not “hypocrisy” if you admit it.)

      • nad says:

        John wrote:

        I think it can often be better to know what’s right and advocate it, even if I don’t do it all the time, than to not know, or not advocate it.

        It is a good question whether not to know is sometimes better, and this may actually be one point, why people may eventually repress or blurr information about climate change for themselves. That is one has the paradigm “ignorance is no excuse”, but in some sense it is often still used an excuse.

        I think the psychological mechanisms involved in the perception of climate change and its involved consequences are very important in understanding how politics is dealing with the problem.

        Like as an example I am really trying to understand the motivations of the Koch brothers, which according to a study donate money to certain causes which includes approximately

        $55m since 1997 funding climate change deniers.

        Is it really just out of pure self-interest (as many people suggest) that the Koch brothers fund opinion makers which support environmental negligence? Or is it a secret feeling of guilt which needs to be suppressed? Or are they really convinced that climate science is funded in such a way that it produces mainly climate change supporting evidence?

        Likewise the psychological circumstances of hypocrisy are important. At least here in Germany to blame someone as a hypocrite is often used as an argument that this person has nothing to say about the corresponding issue. And in some sense there is of course some truth to it. That is, it is of course ridiculous if someone demands that people should save energy, while sporting around in private jets. On the other hand not being taken seriously because one once in a while drives a car is equally problematic. So I think it is important to find a bit more differentiation for the grade of hypocrisy and maybe even find appropriate new terms for that, like nocrite, minicrite, mediumcrite and hypocrite.

  5. Giampiero Campa says:

    Not completely on topic but perhaps interesting:

  6. It’s hard to know how to respond to the overwhelming sense that the priorities and inertia of human culture are trashing the planet. But I just came across a thought-provoking review of a fascinating book, Revolutions That Made The Earth, which helps frame the choices.

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