If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know I’ve been saying “run the numbers” for about a year now.
It occurred to me to wonder why no-one else is saying this. (This turns out not to be quite true. There is a group of futurists who do say it, but I had to go looking.) And then it occurred to me to wonder, why am I saying this?
It goes back to the 1960s, when people were talking about “Spaceship Earth.” (Remember that phrase. I’ll come back to it.) It has to do with my past 20 years, as a part-time building scientist.
The Scope of the Project
The Green New Deal, or whatever climate change response we end up with, will be among other things an engineering solution. To achieve and implement an engineering solution, we have to run the numbers: to spell out what can we do to keep the earth’s environment healthy for human civilization. We have to determine how this may be accomplished, and we have to determine what resources are needed to do it and how those resources are to be allocated; we need to know what will it cost in real physical terms and how to represent this is social terms, in money or some other measure of value. Reducing and reversing human climate impacts is the largest engineering project in human history. Before any major engineering project is undertaken, first there is a lot of calculation. Once those calculations have been done, the goals then become managerial and political. The human world is not an empire. There is no one who can decree change. Therefore, politics.
The initial planning phase of the project will not produce a finely detailed plan that needs little alteration. Continuing updates, continuing action, and continuing enforcement will be required into the indefinite future. It is not sufficient to run the numbers once. The world will have to be monitored. Planning and action; feedback and replanning will have to be undertaken for the foreseeable future. Humanity will have to create institutions and new governmental organizations that support maintaining the planetary environment.
“Spaceship Earth” is a phrase we owe to designer, philosopher, and sometimes giant crank R. Buckminster Fuller. He invented, among other things, the geodesic dome, an architectural solution to a problem no-one has quite identified. The phrase “Spaceship Earth” suggests that Earth is like a ship traveling through space and that humans are willy-nilly crew with an obligation to manage the life support systems of the spaceship. From that perspective, it’s clear that humans are blowing it big-time.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was a vogue for global simulations. With simple systems models and limited computing power, researchers like Jay Forrester (World Dynamics) and Meadows, Meadows, Randers, and Behrens (The Limits to Growth) attempted to model the future of human civilization on the Earth. Reports and books were produced. There was a great deal of concern expressed, but the building reactionary movement that began in the 1980s stopped action. We are in the future they foresaw if our path did not change. Earth has 7.8 billion human inhabitants. 90% of the biomass of mammals on Earth is humans and their commensals. Earth’s wilderness is down to 23% of the land area of the planet, and the Sixth Extinction is on-going. There are vague hopes of mining asteroids and exploiting space in other ways, which are likely, eventually. There are also hopes of colonizing Luna and Mars which seem unlikely of success. Earth is the world humans have, and humans are failing to take care of it.
There was a lot of work in this area and it cannot be summarized in a short blog post. But some results of this systems analysis of humans in their environment, I think, stand out:
- At the limit of an exponential trend, the world changes quickly. Say, for instance, that population doubles with every generation and land use follows population. Then, in your grandfather’s generation the world seems large and empty. In your father’s generation, the world is beginning to seem a bit more full. And in your generation, the world is full; what was normal and accepted for generations has become intolerable in the space of just one. This is the position of Greta Thunberg and the generation now coming of age. Many of the world’s environmental systems are reaching their limits of stress in this generation. Particularly, the ability of the atmosphere and oceans to absorb additional greenhouse gasses is at its limit.
- Dealing with a single trend is not sufficient. Can humans reduce CO2 emissions through the widespread deployment of nuclear power? Undoubtedly yes. Will reducing CO2 emissions in that way stop habitat destruction, stabilize other atmospheric cycles, cleanse the oceans? It will not. The easy availability of energy might even accelerate other destructive environmental trends.
- If human civilization is to survive, humans must adopt a systems approach to the world. This means paying attention to all global systems and trends, not just the ones of immediate concern. Human civilization has become too powerful to proceed without care for its home.
The Largest Engineering Project in Human History
The response to human impacts on the environment, including climate change, if an organized response is undertaken, will be the largest engineering project in human history, and it is one that must not fail. And so, we need to start running the numbers. Now, and for the foreseeable future.