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AGU Scientist Asks, ‘Is Earth F**ked?’ Surprising Answer: Resistance is NOT Futile!

Yes, geophysicist Brad Werner actually titled his talk at the huge American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting last week, “Is Earth F**ked?” The talk’s abstract (searchable here) appeared to offer a pessimistic answer:

In sum, the dynamics of the global coupled human-environmental system within the dominant culture precludes management for stable, sustainable pathways and promotes instability.

We have met the enemy and they are us! But Werner, who works at the Complex Systems Laboratory at UC San Diego, offers hope in the subtitle, “Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism.”

Slate’s Jonathan Mingle attended the talk and reports on the source of Werner’s pessimism and optimism in his piece, “Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone’s Mind: Why Earth and atmospheric scientists are swearing up a storm and getting arrested.”

The bulk of Werner’s talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a “preliminary agent-based numerical model” of “coupled human-environmental systems.” He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes. These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist’s domain. “It’s really a geophysics problem,” he said. “It’s not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities.”

Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the “coupled human-environmental system” — that is to say, if you’re interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is f**ked — then, Werner’s model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element — environmental regulation, even science — is too embedded in the dominant economic system.

Certainly anyone who follows the scientific literature understands that if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, we are most certainly f**cked (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces”).

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More and more more climate scientists are willing to tell this most inconvenient and unpleasant of truths (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization”).

Werner thinks scientists need to do more than just speak out:

I asked Werner what he sees as scientists’ role in contributing to this kind of resistance, the kind of direct action taken by researchers like [James] Hansen and [Jason] Box. Werner views his own advocacy as separate from his scientific work. “To some extent, [science is] a job, and a job I really like, and I have the good fortune and privilege to have,” he told me. “In my other life, I am an activist, but there’s a line. Both sides inform the other. And I think that that is healthy. But when I’m doing geophysics, I’m a geophysicist. When I’m doing activism, I’m an activist.”

Here is the full abstract:

Environmental challenges are dynamically generated within the dominant global culture principally by the mismatch between short-time-scale market and political forces driving resource extraction/use and longer-time-scale accommodations of the Earth system to these changes. Increasing resource demand is leading to the development of two-way, nonlinear interactions between human societies and environmental systems that are becoming global in extent, either through globalized markets and other institutions or through coupling to global environmental systems such as climate. These trends are further intensified by dissipation-reducing technological advances in transactions, communication and transport, which suppress emergence of longer-time-scale economic and political levels of description and facilitate long-distance connections, and by predictive environmental modeling, which strengthens human connections to a short-time-scale virtual Earth, and weakens connections to the longer time scales of the actual Earth.Environmental management seeks to steer fast scale economic and political interests of a coupled human-environmental system towards longer-time-scale consideration of benefits and costs by operating within the confines of the dominant culture using a linear, engineering-type connection to the system. Perhaps as evidenced by widespread inability to meaningfully address such global environmental challenges as climate change and soil degradation, nonlinear connections reduce the ability of managers to operate outside coupled human-environmental systems, decreasing their effectiveness in steering towards sustainable interactions and resulting in managers slaved to short-to-intermediate-term interests. In sum, the dynamics of the global coupled human-environmental system within the dominant culture precludes management for stable, sustainable pathways and promotes instability.

Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups, increases dissipation within the coupled system over fast to intermediate scales and pushes for changes in the dominant culture that favor transition to a stable, sustainable attractor.

These dynamical relationships are illustrated and explored using a numerical model that simulates the short-, intermediate- and long-time-scale dynamics of the coupled human-environmental system. At fast scales, economic and political interests exploit environmental resources through a maze of environmental management and resistance, guided by virtual Earth predictions. At intermediate scales, managers become slaved to economic and political interests, which adapt to and repress resistance, and resistance is guided by patterns of environmental destruction. At slow scales, resistance interacts with the cultural context, which co-evolves with the environment. The transition from unstable dynamics to sustainability is sensitively dependent on the level of participation in and repression of resistance. Because of their differing impact inside and outside the dominant culture, virtual Earth predictions can either promote or oppose sustainability.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics Program.

Kudos to Werner for being willing to reduce the complex issue to the one simple question on everyone’s mind. Let’s hope he is right about the possibility for activism to turn the tide.

The photo is from Eli Kintisch of Science who reports:

In response to a query from Science, AGU Executive Director/CEO Christine McEntee states: “Our program committee evaluates the scientific merit of the abstracts and accepts those that meets their criteria. Our scientists are free to create the titles of their sessions.”

Great. Let’s see more blunt titles next year. This is no time for obscuring the facts.