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Living on the Ice Shelf: Humanity’s Meltdown

June 28, 2008

Mike Davis

1. Farewell to the Holocene

Our world, our old world that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper in North America or Europe has yet printed its scientific obituary.

This February, while cranes were hoisting cladding to the 141st floor of the Burj Dubai tower (which will soon be twice the height of the Empire State Building), the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London was adding the newest and highest story to the geological column.

Our world, our old world that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended…

The London Society is the world’s oldest association of Earth scientists, founded in 1807, and its Commission acts as a college of cardinals in the adjudication of the geological time-scale. Stratigraphers slice up Earth’s history as preserved in sedimentary strata into hierarchies of eons, eras, periods, and epochs marked by the “golden spikes” of mass extinctions, speciation events, and abrupt changes in atmospheric chemistry.

In geology, as in biology or history, periodization is a complex, controversial art and the most bitter feud in nineteenth-century British science — still known as the “Great Devonian Controversy” — was fought over competing interpretations of homely Welsh Graywackes and English Old Red Sandstone. More recently, geologists have feuded over how to stratigraphically demarcate ice age oscillations over the last 2.8 million years. Some have never accepted that the most recent inter-glacial warm interval — the Holocene — should be distinguished as an “epoch” in its own right just because it encompasses the history of civilization.

As a result, contemporary stratigraphers have set extraordinarily rigorous standards for the beatification of any new geological divisions. Although the idea of the “Anthropocene” — an Earth epoch defined by the emergence of urban-industrial society as a geological force — has been long debated, stratigraphers have refused to acknowledge compelling evidence for its advent.

At least for the London Society, that position has now been revised.

To the question “Are we now living in the Anthropocene?” the 21 members of the Commission unanimously answer “yes.” They adduce robust evidence that the Holocene epoch — the interglacial span of unusually stable climate that has allowed the rapid evolution of agriculture and urban civilization — has ended and that the Earth has entered “a stratigraphic interval without close parallel in the last several million years.” In addition to the buildup of greenhouse gases, the stratigraphers cite human landscape transformation which “now exceeds [annual] natural sediment production by an order of magnitude,” the ominous acidification of the oceans, and the relentless destruction of biota.

This new age, they explain, is defined both by the heating trend (whose closest analogue may be the catastrophe known as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum, 56 million years ago) and by the radical instability expected of future environments. In somber prose, they warn that “the combination of extinctions, global species migrations and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks.” Evolution itself, in other words, has been forced into a new trajectory.

2. Spontaneous Decarbonization?

The Commission’s coronation of the Anthropocene coincides with growing scientific controversy over the 4th Assessment Report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is mandated to establish scientific baselines for international efforts to mitigate global warming, but some of the most prominent researchers in the field are now challenging its reference scenarios as overly optimistic, even pie-in-the-sky thinking.

The current scenarios were adopted by the IPCC in 2000 to model future global emissions based on different “storylines” about population growth as well as technological and economic development. Some of the Panel’s major scenarios are well known to policymakers and greenhouse activists, but few outside the research community have actually read or understood the fine print, particularly the IPCC’s confidence that greater energy efficiency will be an “automatic” byproduct of future economic development. Indeed all the scenarios, even the “business as usual” variants, assume that at least 60% of future carbon reduction will occur independently of greenhouse mitigation measures.

The Panel, in effect, has bet the ranch, or rather the planet, on unplanned, market-driven progress toward a post-carbon world economy, a transition that implicitly requires wealth generated from higher energy prices ultimately finding its way to new technologies and renewable energy. (The International Energy Agency recently estimated that it would cost $45 trillion to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.) Kyoto-type accords and carbon markets are designed — almost as an analogue to Keynesian “pump-priming” — to bridge the shortfall between spontaneous decarbonization and the emissions targets required by each scenario. Serendipitously, this reduces the costs of mitigating global warming to levels that align with what seems, at least theoretically, to be politically possible, as expounded in the British Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change of 2006 and other such reports.

Coal production, especially, is undergoing a dramatic renaissance, as the nineteenth century has returned to haunt the twenty-first century.

Critics argue, however, that this represents a heroic leap of faith that radically understates the economic costs, technological hurdles, and social changes required to tame the growth of greenhouse gases. European carbon emissions, for example, are still rising (dramatically in some sectors) despite the European Union’s much praised adoption of a cap-and-trade system in 2005. Likewise there has been little evidence in recent years of the automatic progress in energy efficiency that is the sine qua non of the IPCC scenarios. Although The Economist characteristically begs to differ, most energy researchers believe that, since 2000, energy intensity has actually risen; that is, global carbon dioxide emissions have kept pace with, or even grown marginally faster than, energy use.

Coal production, especially, is undergoing a dramatic renaissance, as the nineteenth century has returned to haunt the twenty-first century. Hundreds of thousands of miners are now working under conditions that would have appalled Charles Dickens, extracting the dirty mineral that allows China to open two new coal-fueled power stations every week. Meanwhile, the total consumption of fossil fuels is predicted to increase at least 55% over the next generation, with international oil exports doubling in volume.

The United Nations Development Program, which has made its own study of sustainable energy goals, warns that it will require “a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2050 against 1990 levels” to keep humanity outside the red zone of runaway warming (usually defined as a greater than two degrees centigrade increase this century). Yet the International Energy Agency predicts that, in all likelihood, such emissions will actually increase in this period by nearly 100% — enough greenhouse gas to propel us past several critical tipping points…

READ MORE AT TOMDISPATCH.COM

Mike Davis is the author of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2008) and Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007). He is currently working on a book about cities, poverty, and global change.

Copyright 2008 Mike Davis

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