I find this world amazingly fascinating on an intellectual level, and would imagine that it would fire the imagination of any aspiring fiction writer. Entire nations underwater and entire national populations on the move. Europe inundated with climate refugees from Africa and Asia. Major financial centers like New York, London and Shanghai underwater. Washington DC sinking by 6 inches and returning to swamp. Florida vanished. The southwest turning into an abandoned desert, the Upper Midwest into a frozen wasteland. Drilling in the Arctic. Oceans full of plastic. The Thermohaline effect shutting down and the jet stream wobbling. Major species wiped out, from elephants to lions. New diseases emerging. In short, a world totally different from our own and yet familiar. How would humans react? It almost sounds like one of those Reddit writing Prompts.
Cli-Fi—That’s Climate Fiction—Is the New Sci-Fi (Wired)
Cli-fi novelist Margaret Atwood turns her abilities to a non-fiction essay about climate change over at Medium: It's Not Just Climate Change, It's Everything Change. In it, she outlines two scenarios that should be familiar to long-time followers of the Peak Oil community:
“We’ve gone back to small-scale hydropower, using fish-friendly dams. We’re eating locally, and even growing organic vegetables on our erstwhile front lawns, watering them with greywater and rainwater, and with the water saved from using low-flush toilets, showers instead of baths, water-saving washing machines, and other appliances already on the market. We’re using low-draw lightbulbs — incandescents have been banned — and energy-efficient heating systems, including pellet stoves, radiant panels, and long underwear. Heat yourself, not the room is no longer a slogan for nutty eccentrics: it’s the way we all live now.”Or maybe it’s more like:
“Other authorities would take over. These would at first be known as thugs and street gangs, then as warlords. They’d attack the barricaded houses, raping, pillaging and murdering. But soon even they would run out of stolen food. It wouldn’t take long — given starvation, festering garbage, multiplying rats, and putrefying corpses — for pandemic disease to break out. It will quickly become apparent that the present world population of six and a half billion people is not only dependent on oil, but was created by it: humanity has expanded to fill the space made possible to it by oil, and without that oil it would shrink with astounding rapidity. As for the costs to “the economy,” there won’t be any “economy.” Money will vanish: the only items of exchange will be food, water, and most likely — before everyone topples over — sex.”Atwood and her fellow fiction writers aren’t the only ones attempting to spin scenarios for the future – so are people doing it professionally for governments and corporations. For example, Shell has its two scenarios – "Blueprints," and "Scramble."
Last week, when the Obama administration gave tentative approval to Shell Oil’s plan to return to the Arctic after its disastrous attempt to find oil there in 2012, I found myself thinking of a conversation I had several years ago with a man named Jeremy Bentham. … Bentham leads Shell’s legendary team of futurists, whose methods have been adopted by the Walt Disney Company and the Pentagon, among others. The scenario planners, as they call themselves, are paid to think unconventional thoughts. They read fiction. They run models. They talk to hippies. They talk to scientists. They consult anyone who can imagine surprising, abrupt change. The competing versions of the future — the scenarios — that result from this process are packaged as stories and given evocative titles: “Belle Époque,” “Devolution,” “Prism.” Then the oil company readies itself, as best it can, for all of them.Shell Oil's Cold Calculations for a Warming World (NYTimes)
Over the course of almost half a century, Bentham’s predecessors in the scenario-planning group helped Shell foresee and prepare for events like the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Islamic extremism and the birth of the anti-globalization movement. More recently — before California’s historic drought — the team focused on water scarcity. And long before most other oil companies, Shell’s scenario planners helped the company understand that climate change was a strategic and scientific reality.
In early 2008, weeks before Shell bid a record-breaking $2.1 billion on oil leases in the melting Arctic Ocean — the basis for the newly approved drilling plan — the company’s futurists released a new pair of scenarios describing the next 40 years on Earth. They were based on what Bentham called “three hard truths”: That energy demand, thanks in part to booming China and India, would only rise; that supply would struggle to keep up; and that climate change was dangerously real. Shell’s internal research showed that alternative energy systems — wind, solar, carbon capture — would take decades to make just a 1-percent dent in our massive global energy system, even if they grew at 25 percent a year. “It takes them 30 years to just begin to start becoming material,” Bentham explained to me.
One scenario, called “Blueprints,” painted a moderately hopeful vision of green energy and concerted action within the constraints of technological change, of a swiftly rising price on carbon emissions as the world comes together to remake its energy systems. In this vision of the future, there is active carbon trading. There is a strong global climate treaty. There is still far more warming than society can easily bear — approaching 7 degrees Fahrenheit — but the world still averts the very worst of climate change.
The second scenario, called “Scramble,” envisioned a future in which countries fail to do much of anything to reduce emissions, and instead race to secure oil and coal deposits. Only when climatic chaos breaks out does society take it seriously, and by then great damage has already been done. Drilling in the Arctic, thought to hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas, has a role in both scenarios — but under “Scramble,” it is irresistible.
In 2008, Shell surprised observers by announcing that it had a preferred scenario. The company would prepare for both outcomes, but for the good of the world and the good of Shell itself, it hoped for the carbon-constrained future of “Blueprints.” The oil giant awaited government action: a market signal in the form of a carbon price. But when I interviewed him four years later, Bentham admitted to me that the future, so far, was looking a lot more like the chaos of “Scramble.” We had no working international climate agreement and no real price on carbon. Instead, we had a global race for gas, coal and the last drops of conventional oil.
Permaculture’s David Holmgren published a book outlying a matrix of four future scenarios based on how much technology we will be able to retain and whether solutions tended to be from top-down or from bottom up and what the nature of those responses would be: Green Tech, Brown Tech, Lifeboats and Earth Steward. And of course there are the various scenarios of Limits to Growth model published by the Club of Rome in 1973 and updated since.
Right now we’re facing some version of Standard Run + Scramble + Brown Tech. In other words, the worse-case scenario of all three. Despite this, for most of us our daily lives seem remarkably unaffected. The only scenario that hasn’t played out is the “zombie apocalypse” scenario, even though it even embraced by right-wingers who don’t believe in human impacted climate change or oil scarcity (who instead attribute to, variously, moral turpitude, runaway debt, one-world government or the Rapture). Neither has the “near-term human extinction” scenario of Guy MacPherson, although if it does get that bad none of us might be around to say "I told you so."
“Unfortunately, like every other species on the planet, we’re conservative: we don’t change our ways unless necessity forces us. The early lungfish didn’t develop lungs because it wanted to be a land animal, but because it wanted to remain a fish even as the dry season drew down the water around it. We’re also self-interested: unless there are laws mandating conservation of energy, most won’t do it, because why make sacrifices if others don’t? The absence of fair and enforceable energy-use rules penalizes the conscientious while enriching the amoral. In business, the laws of competition mean that most corporations will extract maximum riches from available resources with not much thought to the consequences. Why expect any human being or institution to behave otherwise unless they can see clear benefits?”Atwood takes a detour into a couple or writers who draw the connection between art and culture and the energy sources of a society. For most of human history, ideas of growth and progress were foreign – the golden age was in the past, not the future, and our desires would be satisfied in the next life, not by transforming this material world to conform to our desires.
“Planet Earth — the Goldilocks planet we’ve taken for granted, neither too hot or too cold, neither too wet or too dry, with fertile soils that accumulated for millennia before we started to farm them –- that planet is altering. The shift towards the warmer end of the thermometer that was once predicted to happen much later, when the generations now alive had had lots of fun and made lots of money and gobbled up lots of resources and burned lots of fossil fuels and then died, are happening much sooner than anticipated back then. In fact, they’re happening now.”
Briefly, [Barry] Lord’s thesis is that the kind of art a society makes and values is joined at the hip with the kind of energy that society depends on to keep itself going…Those living within an energy system, says Lord, may disapprove of certain features, but they can’t question the system itself. Within the culture of slavery, which lasted at least 5,000 years, nobody wanted to be a slave, but nobody said slavery should be abolished, because what else could keep things going? Coal, says Lord, produced a culture of production: ...Oil and gas, ...fostered a culture of consumption. Lord cites “the widespread belief of the 1950s and early ’60s in the possibility of continuing indefinitely with unlimited abundance and economic growth, contrasted with the widespread agreement today that both that assumption and the world it predicts are unsustainable.” We’re in a transition phase, he says: the next culture will be a culture of “stewardship” the energy driving it will be renewables...The coal-based society produces mass production, and the oil-based society mass consumption. That ties in with the previous post, where mass consumption had to be created to deal with mass production. With oil you get the automobile, and hence the suburbs, which is critical to mass consumption (as is the media). The most important oil side-product you get is probably plastic - mass consumption would be impossible without it. Go into nay big-box store, and literally everything you see in there will be made of plastic or have plastic as a major component.
The second book I’ll mention is by anthropologist, classical scholar, and social thinker Ian Morris, whose book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, has just appeared from Princeton University Press....Roughly, his argument runs that each form of energy capture favors values that maximize the chance of survival for those using both that energy system and that package of moral values. Hunter-gatherers show more social egalitarianism, wealth-sharing, and more gender equality than do farmer societies, which subordinate women — men are favored, as they must do the upper-body-strength heavy lifting — tend to practice some form of slavery, and support social hierarchies, with peasants at the low end and kings, religious leaders, and army commanders at the high end. Fossil fuel societies start leveling out gender inequalities — you don’t need upper body strength to operate keyboards or push machine buttons — and also social distinctions, though they retain differences in wealth. The second part of his argument is more pertinent to our subject, for he postulates that each form of energy capture must hit a “hard ceiling,” past which expansion is impossible; people must either die out or convert to a new system and a new set of values, often after a “great collapse” that has involved the same five factors: uncontrolled migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease, and “always in the mix, though contributing in unpredictable ways–- climate change.”
Of course the values of the Middle Ages were humanism, stability, and social harmony, all regulated via religion by the institution of the Catholic Church. The central emphasis of society was the glorification of God, and this was the society that produced the great churches from the Basilicas to Gothic Cathedrals to Bernini to Christopher Wren, and artworks from altarpieces to Michelangelo. Art and architecture were dedicated to glorifying God. After the Enlightenment, the emphasis was Reason, which began elevating science, and the rise of the idea of the citizen and the nation-state which produced national armies, the civil service, colonialism and scientific inquiry. That society builds civic buildings and the City Beautiful movement. Our modern fossil-fuel derived vales are individual wealth accumulation, materialist consumerism, meliorism, managerialisim, Taylorism, self-aggrandizement, individualism, technological invention, novelty, risk-taking and productivism, all of which combine to form the Idea of Progress, a sort of secular religion. This society builds banks and skyscrapers and freeways and Wal-Marts. Even religion transmogrifies - Christianity once preached a stable social order, a Great Chain of Being and alms for the poor. Then along comes Calvinism and you get work as a form of salvation, wealth as a sign of God's favor, and contempt for the poor. Today's most vocal Christians embrace a philosophy almost the mirror opposite of the one they once did - one of incessant social striving, ladder-climbing, wealth accumulation as righteous and helping the poor as immoral. Christians in the U.S threw in their lot with the Republican Party and reacted with horror at the Pope’s recent criticisms of capitalism and acknowledgment of climate change.
As for the limits of scenarios, here are some thoughts from Ran Prieur:
So given severe climate change and human survival, how will we be living? This is an impossible question, because a few people at comfortable desks in 2015 cannot imagine the options and the creativity of millions of people with their backs to the wall in 2025. On the subreddit a reader mentioned the 1972 Limits To Growth model. It's been pretty accurate so far, and I think it has proven that we can't go on living exactly the way we've been living. But other ways of living are outside the scope of the model. I can't find the link, but someone took Limits To Growth and applied it to the year 1400, and it also predicted near-term collapse.I’ll interject here and say that model would have been a very shitty model given how little of the world’s resources had been tapped into in 1400. The only way I can see is if the model did not include untapped resources of the Americas, Africa and Australia. Now if the model was run without the knowledge of those things (which Europeans did not know about in 1400), then I could see it. The massive reduction of the population of the Americas was also a variable that you wouldn’t see even if you did have knowledge of the whole earth in 1400. In fact, if you just considered Europe alone as a closed system – a collapse is exactly what happened from 1000-1350, concluding with the Great Famine and the Black Death. You would get the same result from around 1650-1750 without the New World. In fact, you can argue that that’s what did happen in Asia, which did not have the Americas to exploit – look at China and it seems this explains the history of China from 1780-1930 and it looks like a long collapse due to overpopulation and resource overexploitation. A similar thing happened to Japan and they built one of the few steady-state societies during the Edo Period as a response.
“There are two ways of thinking about future social adaptations -- or two extremes on a spectrum. At one extreme, any society that we haven't seen cannot exist, and our options are limited to what we have already tried. So if late 20th century industrial civilization can't keep going, then we have to go back to the 19th century, or the 13th, or the negative 100th. At the other extreme, what we have already tried is nothing, and there are unlimited options that we have not even imagined. Of course we're still constrained by physics, which rules out sustained exponential growth.”What I worry about is this scenario: The people who control and manage the money tokens that society uses to ration its limited resources genetically engineer themselves to be “superior”, and use that as a moral justification for the elimination of everyone else aside from their immediate offspring. You’re already seeing this with the merging of two movements – Libertarianism and Human Biodiversity, which is the modern version of Social Darwinism. It postulates that one’s value as a human being is entirely what one can command in the Market, and that these superior traits (typically framed as I.Q., “self-control” and “time preference”) are passed down through a predictable process from the superior rich to their offspring, with the rest of us as useless eaters and barriers to progress. Furthermore it posits that the free market is teleological and inherently superior because only by its ministrations are we freed from the Malthusian trap. This thinking is very prevalent nowadays among elites and is behind a lot of things like eliminating the social safety net, automating all jobs, privatizing the world’s resources, and kneecapping democratically elected governments. Under this scenario, the changing planet will introduce a “survival of the fittest” regime and turn the world into a Hobbesian war of all against all where the naturally superior will rise to the top and engender the next phase of human evolution– immortal cyborgs who travel the stars! Don’t laugh – there a lot of powerful people who adhere to this ideology even though they don’t acknowledge it, even to themselves.
“This whole subject keeps reminding me of Anne's comment that every model serves a purpose. When you build the worst scenario you can imagine, the purpose is to mentally prepare yourself so that whatever actually happens will not crush your spirit.”