Climate change apathy: History will teach us nothing

There's a fascinating exchange between two of England's better minds, George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth, over at the former's blog/website under the rubric of "Should we seek to save industrial civilization?"

It begins with Kingsnorth's lament over the implications of all the exponential growth curves he's come across in recent times:

Sitting on the desk in front of me are a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of each graph is identical: it represents time, from the years 1750 to 2000. The graphs show, variously, human population levels, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction and the totality of the gross domestic product of the human economy.

What grips me about these graphs (and graphs don't usually grip me) is that though they all show very different things, they have an almost identical shape. A line begins on the left of the page, rising gradually as it moves to the right. Then, in the last inch or so - around the year 1950 - it suddenly veers steeply upwards, like a pilot banking after a cliff has suddenly appeared from what he thought was an empty bank of cloud.

The rest of the exchange revolves around not the reality of the trends, but how to deal with the impending doom that they imply, and whether the coming collapse might actually be a good thing in the long run. It's worth reading if you've ever found yourself wondering about the value of a clean slate, but for me, nothing is as interesting as the challenge posed by exponential growth.

Humans aren't really programmed to respond well to non-linear change. And this discrepancy explains a lot of things, from our failure to appreciate how quickly a climate can shift from one regime to another, to the disdain that greets much of Ray Kurzweil's predictions about the future of technological and biological evolution.

Our relatively short lifespans and the brief evolutionary history as a species has made us moderately good at reacting to the kind of changes that dominate the left side of a typical exponential growth curve. Looking back, everything looks like it's changing gradually in a manner that's easy to manage. We extrapolate that trend into the future, regardless of the value of the variables in the equation that determine the location of the "elbow" in the real curve and just how rapidly the right-hand side of the curve will be upon us.

Kurzweil's insistence that we're coming up on a "singularity" of artificial intelligence and biological engineering is frequently dismissed as loopy hyper-techno-optimism. But it's hard to find flaws in his argument that just about every trend in technological development involves an exponential curve. Things get better, faster and cheaper faster and faster. That's a fact. The only question is where's the elbow? Kurzweil says we're 30-odd years away. Maybe he's miscalculated --elbows and slopes of exponential curves are sensitive things; change the value of the parameters just a tiny bit and you get enormous changes down the lines -- but we almost certainly headed for one. It just may have to wait until the latter half of this century, instead of the middle. I've come across no serious challenge to that notion. The failure of this idea to gain a foothold in society at large indicates just how stubborn our linear programming can be.

Similarly, we all know, intellectually, that we're using up all our natural resources at an accelerating rate. We know we're pumping more and more carbon in the air and oceans. We know it's not sustainable, but we haven't been able to internalize that fact, and admit that this time it really is different. Instead, we fall back on a long history of failed-to-be-realized predictions of doom. We deride climate change "alarmists" as naive, even as the science piles up that the right-hand side of the curve is either here and now or very, very close.

All of which leads to the conclusion that we need to find a way to over-write our programming, to unlearn our instinctual confidence in the way things have been. This may prove to be a mission impossible. The mathematics of exponential growth curves aren't the kind of things that people quickly absorb.

Furthermore, some of the coming changes won't exhibit even the relatively mild characteristics of exponential growth, but be more akin to the instantaneous phase change of ice into water. It could be that democracy, which relies on reasoned debate, patience and tolerance, is not a suitable environment to engage in the social, and physical, engineering this sort of change demands.

If that's the case, then things are much bleaker than either Kingsnorth or Monbiot say they are. And they're not exactly paragons of optimism.


More like this

Since I had the effrontery to critize futurism and especially Ray Kurzweil, here's a repost of something I wrote on the subject a while back…and I'll expand on it at the end. Kevin Drum picks at Kurzweil—a very good thing, I think—and expresses bafflement at this graph (another version is here,…
So I'm trying to ease back into the chaos theory posts. I thought that one good way of doing that was to take a look at one of the class chaos examples, which demonstrates just how simple a chaotic system can be. It really doesn't take much at all to push a system from being nice and smoothly…
Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a Thing about bad graphs used in the media and on blogs. When people use stupid presentation tricks to exaggerate features of data to make their argument look stronger, it bugs me. But what really irks me is when people use stupid presentation tricks…
Ray Kurzweil is a genius. One of the greatest hucksters of the age. That's the only way I can explain how his nonsense gets so much press and has such a following. Now he has the cover of Time magazine, and an article called 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal. It certainly couldn't be taken…

If you are going to claim,

'We deride climate change "alarmists" as naive, even as the science piles up that the right-hand side of the curve is either here and now or very, very close.'

can you please cite some journal articles that claim temperature is going to rise exponential in the near future? All of the IPCC models and many other show a nearly monotonic growth of temperature in response to rises in CO2 over the next hundred years. Trying to extrapolate beyond that doesn't make any sense given that we can hardly check the current models as they are.

More than that, there is a stronger argument that must be made than the one provided here. Merely saying that resource consumption curves seem to mimic each other so should climate curves do the same is not enough to make a compelling argument. What are the physical similarities between fisheries and the atmosphere? Or forests and the atmosphere? Are there similar laws that govern their global behavior? Or even their local behavior? It seems to me that there are few, if any similarities besides the author's interest in them.

Extrapolation is a great tool to use in understanding the world around us when it is used properly. Looking at some curves on a desk, however, is not using extrapolation properly.

I would imagine since the persons discussed here did not use extrapolation to its full power, they have not figured out a way to do so. Without such a proper use, it seems very hard to me to make the conclusion made here. There is simply too much you or I or anyone else does not know about the response of the atmosphere to light from the sunlight given changing internal parameters, ie CO2 concentration, etc., to form such a conclusion. If you have faith in such a conclusion, that's fine, but please frame your conclusion as a faith and not a truth. Being honest about all of this is the first step in wading our way out of this mess.

Exponential responses to positive feedback always require a linear system -- and precious few systems are linear outside of the small-value condition. The ones you mention are all subject to nonlinear limitations in the (relatively) near term.

I would argue that it's not the exponential growth part of the curve that catches most people by surprise, it's the break over to regions where other factors become significant and limit exponential growth. The history of business cycles strongly suggests that no matter how often that break-over happens nor how short the timescale, it always manages to catch people by surprise anyway.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 24 Aug 2009 #permalink

Man's abilities in order of facility:
Reacting to a stimulus
Reacting to a 'nonlinear stimulus'
Reacting to a 'linear stimulus'
Reacting to a 'hypothesized stimulus'
Reacting to a 'hypothesized [insert mathematical modulator here] stimulus'
Extrapolating data
Predicting the future

When Malthus proposed that the English Empire would shortly consume the world's resources, he didn't anticipate the fall of the British Empire and much of what is now modern history. When Fourier discovered black body radiation and the Greenhouse effect, Angstrom proposed we belch out Carbon Dioxide to prevent an impending global winter. Angstrom didn't anticipate the Industrial Revolution. When The Club of Rome proposed that we would exhaust the world's oil reserves and other resources in 1992. They didn't anticipate exponential growth in production efficiency, automation, and other technologies.

In addition to being wrong about the future, you're wrong about what to do about being wrong. Coming from a scientist who hasn't been to Church in almost a decade, science is a faith and a belief system. It's grounded with empiricism and includes disbelief, but it is a faith nonetheless (there are more 'idols' in a single research laboratory than in all the banks within 5 mi. of said laboratory). And while you may advocate that we need to whimsically cut ties with our instincts and traditions and react as forcefully as we can to the latest exponential curve, the oceans, forests, grasslands, and marshes are teeming with life that has known nothing but instinct through countless climate catastrophes. And the fossil record is filled with species that overadapted and overspecialized.

Instinctive confidence? I'd say instinctive fear has more to do with it.

The schizoid climate change debate: Nothing could be âoff topicâ
By Special K
Disassociated Press
August 24, 2009

To a syndicated reporter
Nothing constitutes more of a challenge, today,
Than trying to make a modicum of sense re: the â âmeaning(s)â of âclimate changeâ
From what folks in sundry media reports say.

If perchance he should ever manage to do so
He believes heâd earn a citation by Show Biz
Analogous to that received by erstwhile Potus, WJC,
For his commanding performance as The Wizard of âIsâ.

In the meantime (and that may be quite a while)
Heâll continue in these dispatches to speak out
(Tongue not always in cheek)
On climate-change news-items noteworthy, that also of moment and pithiness reek.

So â¦..
Read this Daily Comet piece all the way to the bottom
To learn what itâs all about--

Sportsmen can learn about global climate change
Daily Comet
Scientists say even a small rise in sea level due to global climate change could be disastrous for Terrebonne and Lafourche's sinking communities and

Then decide if itâs climate change or pocket change
For which âtheyâ want South Louisiana folk to come out.

Mirabile dictu, someone at last seems ready,
On climate change ...TO TAKE THE BULL BY THE HORNS..
Dallas Morning News
Re: "Climate change by brute force -- New techniques can alter the climate quickly and cheaply, says Graeme Wood. Why are scientists afraid to mention them? ...(emphasis added).

It really does seem a bit strange
That among scientists who could stop climate change
By using newly available techniques,
None of such availability speaks
And for their application, none the public daily harangues.

And we have the inevitable curricular plans by dedicated indoctrinatorsâ¦

The Big One: Teaching about Climate Change « Chrisy58's Weblog By chrisy58
I hoped this opening to a unit on climate change would underscore the idea that-even if students don't have the vocabulary to express it-we are all familiar with the concept of the âcommons.â In this classroom, we shared a breathing ...

If all teachers were as strongly convinced as Bill Bigelow (q.v, full story, above)
That climate change is the greatest extant challenge to humanity
Weâd have pupils everywhere very thoroughly indoctrinated
With some version of Al (le)Gore(ical) inanity.

Even those on the cutting edge of communication technology get into the act:

How High-Speed Broadband Can Fight Climate Change
In other words, the Internet will be one of the key tools to fighting climate change by REPLACING ATOMS with digital bits, reducing physical goods created, ...(emphasis added)

By replacing atoms with digital bits?
Thatâs something we might expect from a scientist (or layperson)
Who has, in the vernacular, âlost his/her witsâ.

But it seems clear that officials in Greece have not lost theirs . .
Environmentalists say Greece disregarded climate change
Environmentalists have criticised the Greek authorities for disregarding climate change, while major wildfires are ravaging the country...

But realists everywhere applaud Greek authorities
For focusing effort and attention on containing major wildfires,
Disregarding inexorable climate change
And ignoring environmentalistsâ desires.

And there are pragmatists in Africa, too, for example,
Africa seeks climate change cash
BBC News
By Matt McGrath The leaders of 10 African countries are gathering in Ethiopia to try to agree a common position on climate change. The summit comes ahead of ...

Yes, ten countries from the Continent yclept Dark
Are conspiring to corner some cash--this they admit;
Hopefully, to assist poor, female farmers,
Who âby climate change will be . . . hardest hitâ

EarthNews » Archive » Poor, female farmers most vulnerable to ... By Sarah.chappel
ClimateWire: Poor, female farmers in Africa will be the hardest hit by climate change, leading to further poverty and state dependence, according to a report recently
released by the Institute for Security Studies. ...

According to Sarah Chappel, writing for Climate Wire (CW),
Who to uncertainty in opinion is unlikely ever to admit.

Unlike her colleague, Evan Lehmann,
Who has focused on positional shift
Aggravation Mounts in Minn. Over Governor's Shift on Climate
New York Times
By EVAN LEHMANN of ClimateWire Minnesota's Republican governor used to make soaring speeches about defusing climate change. Now he's making jokes, .(emphasis added)..

Hoping (by inference) possibly to exacerbate create in ranks of skeptics a rift
And give climate change devoted Climate Wire readers a lift.

And in a rare positive slant on climate change reaction in the news
Farmers That Plant Trees (are) New Allies in Climate-Change Battle
In December, more than 180 countries will meet in Copenhagen to work on measures including slowing deforestation and land management in a climate-change ...

Unlike their agrarian colleagues worldwide, including New Zealand,
Who seek to make a living raising sheep and/or cattle.

If anything is certain in the (far ranging) âclimate changeâ debate
It is (probable) agreement that itâs ordinarily much cooler in the shade,
Or in the immediate vicinity of heavily wooded plots,
Than, for example, on N.Y. City pavement during a sunny, Labor Day parade.

It follows that deforestation will should tend to result in a locally hotter warmer environment,
And if continued to the point of removing all the globeâs trees
Could result in increasing the âaverage global (high) temperatureâ,
And diminishing the depth of the âaverage global freezeâ.

So letâs hear it for the tree-planting farmers
Who from rising temperatures will theoretically should provide some ( local) relief,
But weâre ambivalent about how we should view their fellow agriculturalists
Who raise sheep and/or cattle [(especially should one enjoy eating (cooked) either mutton or beef].

And, to conclude with an interruption of the continuing âclimate changeâ threadâ¦.
Argues Sen. Lieberman: Postpone Universal Health Care

One of the Senateâs most influential Democrats said Sunday that the U.S. canât afford to add up to 50 million uninsured
to government health care -- costing taxpayers nearly $1 trillion -- until the recession ends. Sen. Lieberman also called for scrapping radical health care plans in favor of a more âincrementalâ approach. (emphases added).
Read the Full Story -- Go Here Now

And he advances the most reasonable proposals yet made/heard/seen
For dealing with âproblemsâ in the healthcare sytem--anywhere.

If his colleagues in the Senate and the House (forget about Obama[1])
Arenât persuaded by this (and widespread negative, public outcry) to abandon BHOâs call
It seems likely that the public will persuade those who continue to heed it
To abandon office, if up for election next year come fall.

[1] BHO seems to be immune to persuasion
From a course that he himself has set
Even though the ship of state is running aground
Despite all the help from his dedicated crew he can get.

By Special K (not verified) on 24 Aug 2009 #permalink

Where Kurzweill likely goes wrong is that technological advances so far have not actually been exponential, but sigmoidal. You do get an exponential-like response to development efforts early on, but over time the low-hanging fruits get picked and you need more and more resources and time to achieve smaller and smaller improvements.

Battery technology, heat engines (steam, combustion and so on), energy transfer, materials science - they and many more are good examples of exactly this. Early results came with amazing speed, but now you're left tweaking things on the margin, with "breakthroughs" happening rarely and harldy deserving of the name compared to the past. I fully expect bioscience, AI and cognitive science, robotics and the other new fields to develop in exactly the same way. The singularity is not happening.

To clarify my post above: That is specifically about technological innovation. Economic development beyond population and productivity increase is plainly unsustainable over time, and so is population increase itself, leaving productivity increase - doing more with a given amount of resources - is the final limiting factor.

if you have UK readers they may be interested in the struggles against climate change going on in Peru

Public Talk: Massacre in the Amazon: The Garcia Government vs Peruâs Indigenous (Thursday August 27th)

Alborada presents a public talk:

Massacre in the Amazon: The Garcia Government vs Peruâs Indigenous

On June 5, World Environment Day, Amazon Indians in Peru were massacred by the government of Alan Garcia in the latest chapter of a long war to take over common lands -- a war unleashed by the signing of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Peru and the United States.

Come and hear about the latest developments in Peru and what we in Britain can do to help Peruâs indigenous people and the wider social and environmental struggles taking place in the country.

âThe Amazon struggle must continue, demanding respect for the rain forest. The Amazonian natives know that what is at stake is their own survival. We hope that the world population becomes aware that they are fighting in defence of all humankind, the Amazon jungle is the lung of the planet.â
-- Hugo Blanco (Peruvian social activist and director of âLucha Indigenaâ ('Indigenous Struggle'))

- Oscar Blanco (Son of Peruvian political figure Hugo Blanco)
- Derek Wall (Former Green Party Principal Speaker)

Thursday August 27th, 6-8pm (Talk starts at 7pm)The Exmouth Arms (Function Room), Starcross St, Euston, NW1, London (;%203/ 3 mins from Euston underground station). Free entry

::: More info: / /

By Derek Wall (not verified) on 25 Aug 2009 #permalink

Kurzweil's much-beloved exponential curves all rely on exponentially increasing resource utilization, which relies on exponentially increasing population. Neither can continue for much longer.