The worst possible end, sooner than I thought

I remember telling my students that probably about the time I die, the shit would really start hitting the fan with climate change. I specifically mentioned a feedback loop—I didn’t know to call it a feedback loop at the time—in which declining Arctic sea ice decreases the amount of sunlight reflected back in to space and thus warms the Arctic Ocean. I had heard about the methane that was trapped on the sea floor and warned that warming would lead to its release. Methane is about twenty-five times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. So it didn’t take a genius, in my view, to see how this would lead to catastrophe.

I’ve since learned about other feedback loops that are really, really scary,[1] and I’ve watched as the warnings have become increasingly dire.[2] I was uncertain as to whether scientists were considering feedback loops in their analyses, but it seemed to me that they couldn’t seriously be talking about climate change without talking about complexity theory, which includes cybernetic theory. Cybernetic theory talks about feedbacks. Then I saw this and my jaw dropped:

And keep in mind that the various major assessments of future global temperatures seldom assume the worst about possible self-reinforcing climate feedback loops like the methane one.[3]

This shortsightedness almost certainly testifies to the residual power of positivism in the natural sciences. Under positivism, we imagine only linear cause and effect, never mutual causation; we imagine that we can reduce the whole to the sum of its parts, when in fact the whole is likely to be either more or less than that sum; and we discount anything that can’t be quantified—and I’m guessing there are a few factors in climate change that cannot (yet) be reliably quantified. Scientists who do consider feedback loops—I don’t know if any are applying complexity theory in its full splendor—are alarmed. Apocalyptic, in fact.[4] What this means is that Frank Fenner’s forecast that we humans may be extinct in one hundred years may be proving wildly optimistic.[5]

The apocalyptic scientists say that while humans can tolerate higher temperatures, our sources of food cannot. That means we will starve to death, possibly within a very few years.[6] I was wrong in what I told my students. I expect to live roughly another thirty years. This catastrophe will arrive much sooner.

Complexity theory posits that linear cause and effect, that is, the notion that each and every effect has a single cause, is nowhere near adequate to explain even such mundane phenomena as the swirling of water going down a drain or an eddy current in a river, let alone how out of a presumably disorderly Big Bang we get galaxies, stellar systems, planets, and, on at least one, life. Indeed, the law of entropy would seem to say that this is impossible.[7]

Complexity theory suggests that in any dissipation, as from the Big Bang, entropy is unlikely to occur evenly, and within the irregularities, self-organizing patterns may form spontaneously. They sustain themselves through negative (stabilizing) feedbacks and change when positive (destabilizing) feedbacks outweigh the negative feedbacks. The patterns that form are emergent, which means absent previous experience with this particular change the outcome is unknowable. Indeed, one might say that emergent properties are the difference between the sum of the parts and the whole. Further, the outcome is the sum not only of its parts but of those parts’ interactions, and the way that they interact can enhance or limit characteristics of all of the above.[8]

When it comes to the environment, the authoritarian model of social organization that has been in effect for much of the population of the planet since about five to ten thousand years ago, is a positive feedback. We have changed from a species that lived in small, widely-spaced, low density, largely egalitarian groups that lived largely in harmony with nature, for millions of years, to a species whose population has grown rapidly, views the land as something to be conquered, is organized into authoritarian societies, and being unsustainable, must compete with each other for territory and the resources on it. This is a situation that has gotten dramatically worse as we have started pumping carbon into the atmosphere just as quickly as we could and cut down trees that would help to sequester that carbon. The result may well be, in addition to warmer temperatures, more extreme weather,[9] that is, the extreme weather we may just be beginning to see.[10]

In other words, we have been acting like a bunch of idiots. And authoritarianism and competition are at the heart of that idiocy. Hence, I have, in a series of papers, proposed that we should ditch the social system we have and find a way of living in high density populations with an egalitarian social order, that is egalitarian not only among ourselves but with the living world that we depend upon. I have struggled with how to devise such a social system and how to promulgate it through the world population.[11] But there are numerous obstacles and now, it seems, time is shorter than ever.[12]

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed I said that the emergent system is unpredictable. This is true. We don’t know what will happen when we reach a global tipping point, or even, really, when we will reach that tipping point. But there is little reason to expect that the result will be hospitable to humans; indeed, because humans are adapted to a particular range of ecosystems, there are a lot more ways the outcome could become inhospitable than ways it could become hospitable. As Geoffrey Parker writes,

Climate change has almost extinguished life on earth on three occasions. Some 250 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions in Siberia altered the earth’s atmosphere, wiping out 90 percent of plant and animal species. Next, 65 million years ago, an asteroid struck what is now Mexico and created an atmospheric catastrophe that eliminated 50 percent of the earth’s species (including the dinosaurs). Finally, some 73,000 years ago, the eruption of Mount Toba, in Indonesia, caused a “winter” that lasted several years, apparently killing off most of the human population.[13]

It is happening again. And this time, by our own hand.

  1. [1]Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate change (Boston: Beacon, 2007).
  2. [2]Lindsay Abrams, “Our current warming limits are way too high, scientists warn,” Salon, December 4, 2013,; Nafeez Ahmed, “Will the Royal Baby Reach 30 on an Apocalyptic Disaster Zone of a Planet?,” Alternet, July 28, 2013,; Bettina Boxall, “Earth may be near tipping point, scientists warn,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2012,; Nina Chestney, “100 million to die by 2030 if world fails to act on climate,” Reuters, September 27, 2012,; Committee on Understanding and Monitoring Abrupt Climate Change and Its Impacts, “Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises,” National Academies Press,, December, 2013,; James Hansen, “Game Over for the Climate,” New York Times, May 9, 2012,; James Hansen et al., “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLOS One, 8, no. 12 (December 3, 2013),; Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, “World Already Teetering on Tipping Points for Abrupt Climate Change,” December 4, 2013,; Michael T. Klare, “The Hunger Wars in Our Future: Heat, Drought, Rising Food Costs, and Global Unrest,” TomDispatch, August 7, 2012,; Michael Klare, “The Coming Global Explosion,” TomDispatch, April 21, 2013,; Carolyn Lochhead, “Major climate changes looming,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 27, 2013,; Tim Radford, “What Happens if We Don’t Prevent Average Global Temperatures from Rising?” Alternet, December 4, 2013,;
  3. [3]Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” TomDispatch, December 17, 2013,
  4. [4]Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” TomDispatch, December 17, 2013,
  5. [5]Cheryl Jones, “Frank Fenner sees no hope for humans,” Australian, June 16, 2010,
  6. [6]Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” TomDispatch, December 17, 2013,
  7. [7]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995); Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  8. [8]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995); Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  9. [9]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008).; Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  10. [10]Seth Borenstein, “Climate Change: U.S. Heat Waves, Wildfires And Flooding Are ‘What Global Warming Looks Like’,” Huffington Post, July 3, 2012,
  11. [11]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013,; David Benfell, “Towards Sustainability,” April 11, 2013,; David Benfell, “Change For The Improbable: Change For Human and Non-Human Survival,” December 17, 2013,; David Benfell, “Animal liberation: Not the revolution but a part of one,” November 28, 2013,; David Benfell, “Animal Liberation: A Way Forward,” November 30, 2013,
  12. [12]Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” TomDispatch, December 17, 2013,
  13. [13]Geoffrey Parker, “The Inevitable Climate Catastrophe,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 28, 2013,

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