Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A young person's guide to peak oil and global climate chaos
Written by John Siman

John's peak oil odyssey
[Editor's note: I was surprised at the clear intensity of John's message to unfossilized minds. Let it be heard above the happy talk from hopeless technofixers. - Jan Lundberg]

I have just traveled from the city by the bay to the hills of Tennessee (America still is like a song in some respects), but wherever I go I find that it is usually a waste of time to explain the facts of life to adults (let them read the latest C.E.R.A. report as they drive their s.u.v.s off to nowhere!); my own energy is better spent writing for children and those few adults who maintain some childlike aversion to techno-crafted bullshit. And so I am here to tell, to those with ears to hear, about our Post-Carbon Future.

And just what is our Post-Carbon Future?

To answer this question we must first consider the earth’s carbon-laden past, not the past of hundreds or of thousands of years ago, but a far, far more distant past, going back almost a geological æon, almost a billion years.

We must realize that the trillions and trillions of micro-organisms which dominated the ecology of this planet three-, four-, five-, six-hundred million years ago and more are our long-lost friends. For the atmosphere, now rich in pairs of oxygen atoms unattached to any carbon atoms, was once suffocatingly replete with carbon dioxide. The work of our palaeo-ecologic micro-organic friends (viewed anthropocentrically -- and how else should we humans view things?) was to process the atmosphere’s surfeit of carbon dioxide: to release the pairs of oxygen atoms back into the atmosphere while burying the carbon below the planet’s surface, where it could do no harm to life forms yet-to-be. And the fruit of their hundreds of millions of years of labor was an atmosphere so filled with oxygen that human beings could evolve (or be created, take your pick; the theological argument is moot in this context, which is the necessity of breathing as a minimal requirement for human life).

Now our long-fossilized friends did not dispose of the ex-atmospheric carbon in so unimaginative a way as to ball it up into clumps of coal. No, being truly organic, that is, chemically based on combinations of carbon and hydrogen, they made their (hopefully permanent) deposits into the earth as an array of hydrocarbons, the most famous of which is the fossil fuel rock-oil, in Latin petroleum, in slang black gold and Texas tea, in shorthand oil.

These long-fossilized micro-organisms in effect deposited some two trillion barrels of oil into the earth. So great was the fruit of their labor.

And this miraculous fruit has, in our recent history, proved to be an irresistible temptation to humankind. For if taken from its places of rest and recombined, by means of human technology, with pairs of oxygen atoms, it allows one man to do the work of one hundred, of two hundred men; it allows, even more temptingly, millions of people to live as if they each owned dozens and dozens of slaves. Such power! Such luxury! And so by a profligate indulgence in this fruit, we, the species originally named Homo sapiens, have initiated an Age of Carbon-Fueled Hyper-consumption and transformed ourselves thereby into a new and unprecedented species, Homo colossus, whose hyper-exuberant economy has now come close to exhausting the earth’s finite ecology.

Of the two trillion barrels or so of oil which our micro-organic friends deposited, we humans have burned about half, about one trillion barrels -- and fifty percent of those trillion barrels in the years since Reagan and Gorbachev spoke about the end of the Cold War -- ninety percent of those trillion barrels in the years since Eisenhower and Krushchev brought the Cold War towards its peak: we are on course to almost completely undo several hundred million years of work in a few decades.

And so we are at a crossroads. And at this crossroads some will argue that, as we humans continue to burn some eighty-four million barrels of oil a day (and a fourth of that here in the United States), our global fuel tank is now half empty: we ought therefore to discover some new technology-based efficiencies to promote conservation. Others will retort that, no, our tank is still half full: we ought therefore to implement the latest technology-based efficiencies to promote continued exponential global economic growth and then prepare to burn ninety, a hundred, a hundred and ten million and more barrels a day.

This argument, on both sides, is potentially suicidal for the human race. For both sides argue from the premise that our salvation lies in our ever-improving technology.

But our ever-improving technology is now (however much we idolize it) our great nemesis. For it is no longer a gift to humankind. With the advent of the Age of Carbon-Fueled Hyper-consumption, it has become a hyper-technology; it has become the over-exuberant technology of Homo colossus and has allowed our economy to expand exponentially far beyond the sustainable natural limits of the earth’s ecology.

It allows us to do too much; it gives us too much power.

It puts the remote control box for Gigantor the Space Age Robot into our greedy little hands.

For, in ever-widening spirals, our ever-improving technology feeds on the carbon-fuels which we extract from the earth, and then, growing ever mightier, enables us to extract more and more carbon-fuels with which to feed it, causing it to grow even mightier, enabling us to extract more and therefore feed it (and ourselves!) more, and not just carbon-fuels, but a whole array of natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable ...

Our ever-improving technology causes us to consume the naturally finite resources of the earth ever more voraciously, ever more destructively … ever more efficiently.

To put it bluntly: With the advent of the Age of Carbon-Fueled Hyper-consumption, our ever-improving technology has become, with the possible exception of ourselves, our worst enemy.

And so we are not at a crossroads. We are at a dead-end. Right ahead of us lies uncharted territory in which the demand for oil, the natural resource most essential to the voracious appetites of Homo colossus and our ever-improving technology, permanently outstrips its supply, a territory in which, therefore, our modern theories of economics, which take no account of the effects of such ecological disorder, begin to break down.

And the technical name for this dead-end is Hubbert’s Peak, the greatest quantity of oil which humans can ever extract from the earth in a year: after we cross Hubbert’s Peak, the necessities of Nature remorselessly dictate that, every succeeding year, we will extract exponentially less and less and less, until our work becomes futile, and we stop.

And there is not just this one Hubbert’s Peak, but many, for it applies to every nonrenewable resource extracted from the earth.

And as we cross these Hubbert’s Peaks, not only do our modern theories of economics break down. Something, far, far worse happens. Crushed by the burden of ecological disorder, our modern economies themselves break down. And pandemic poverty is only the start of The Long Emergency. As Kunstler writes:

Fossil fuels are a unique endowment of geologic history that allow human beings to artificially and temporarily extend the carrying capacity of our habitat on the planet Earth. Before fossil fuels -- namely, coal, oil, and natural gas -- came into general use, fewer than one billion human beings inhabited the earth. Today, after roughly two centuries of fossil fuels, and with extraction now at an all-time high, the planet supports six and a half billion people. Subtract the fossil fuels and the human race has an obvious problem.
So pandemic poverty and population crash, die-off, as the ecologists call it. But there is a third catastrophe looming because, before we subtract the fossil fuels, we are going to burn a whole lot more of them.
This year, for example, we humans will burn about thirty-one billion (84 million barrels/day times 365 days) of the planet’s remaining one trillion barrels of oil. Next year, if we can (that is, if Hubbert’s Peak does not prevent us), we’ll burn more. Ditto the year after that… By burning these billions of barrels of oil, year after year, we will be continuing to inject carbon back into the atmosphere at absolutely profligate rates. And by injecting all this carbon back into the atmosphere -- all this carbon which seemed to have been safely buried, and as if for our benefit -- we will be continuing to turn the ecological clock back to a second Paleozoic Era, that is, one in which humans -- in which all animals in whose nostrils is the breath of life -- ultimately suffocate. Global Warming (it is more accurate to call it Global Climate Change or Global Climate Chaos, for it brings ice as well as fire) is potentially only the first phase of a much more horrible process of global ecological collapse.

Bad news.

Driving hi-tech hybrid cars is not a way out. We have to be willing to stop driving altogether. Nor is turning the thermostat down to sixty a way out. We have to be willing to abandon suburbia with all its accoutrements: the huge supermarkets and the big box stores, the malls and the office parks. And even out of suburbia, we have to be prepared to shiver in the winter and sweat in the summer. We may even have to prepare to die early to make room for other human beings. For our problem is not that we have to reduce the amount of fossil fuels which we burn by a quarter -- or by a third -- or even by half; our problem is that we have to stop burning them almost entirely.

So we can either live the exemplary lives of a Post-Carbon Future or, in the not-so-long run, have no future at all. As William Catton writes:

[W]e must then ask whether we can candidly acknowledge that general affluence simply cannot last in the face of a carrying capacity deficit. That fact is perhaps only a trifle less repugnant than the idea that the buried remains of the Carboniferous Period must not be taken as fuels.
Let me amplify this point.
Mainstream environmentalists talk, and rightly so, about the need for sustainability -- for living within the earth’s carrying capacity -- for making our human economy harmonize with the earth’s ecology. We need to be mindful of the planet we leave to our children and grandchildren, they say. Their hearts are in the right place, but the situation is far more urgent. It was the generations of our parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents who exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity, who, however unwittingly, however unintentionally (as if led by an Invisible Hand!), brought us into an unsustainable economy, and so we, not our progeny, will be the first to face The Long Emergency.

The situation is urgent, the environmentalists will agree. We have to deal with these problems soon, very soon. But to paraphrase Catton, soon came yesterday. To paraphrase Kunstler, the shitstorm is here.

And here’s how I say it: Fuck the pious talk about future generations. We’re the one who have to deal. And if we don’t, we’ll be blindsided by heretofore unimagined economic and ecological disconnectivities.

That is what I mean by our Post-Carbon Future.

* * * * *

1. "Modernity and the Fossil Fuels Dilemma," chapter 2 in James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency (2005).
2. "Turning Around," chapter 14 in William Catton's Overshoot (1980).

Monday, November 27, 2006

The day that changed the climate

by Colin Brown and Rupert Cornwell in Washington

The Independent & The Independent on Sunday

Independent.co.uk Online Edition (October 31 2006)

Climate change has been made the world's biggest priority, with the publication of a stark report showing that the planet faces catastrophe unless urgent measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Future generations may come to regard the apocalyptic report by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, as the turning point in combating global warming, or as the missed opportunity.

As well as producing a catastrophic vision of hundreds of millions fleeing flooding and drought, Sir Nicholas suggests that the cost of inaction could be a permanent loss of twenty per cent of global output.

That equates to a figure of GBP 3.68 trillion - while to act quickly would cost the equivalent of GBP 184 billion annually, one per cent of world GDP.

Across the world, environmental groups hailed the report as the beginning of a new era on climate change, but the White House maintained an ominous silence. However, the report laid down a challenge to the US, and other major emerging economies including China and India, that British ministers said cannot be ignored.

Its recommendations are based on stabilising carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere at between 450 and 550 parts per million - which would still require a cut of at least 25 per cent in global emissions, rising to sixty per cent for the wealthy nations.

It accepts that even with a very strong expansion of renewable energy sources, fossil fuels could still account for more than half of global energy supplies by 2050.

Presenting the findings in London, Tony Blair said the 700-page document was the "most important report on the future" published by his Government. Green campaigners said that at last the world had woken up to the dangers they had been warning about for years.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and likely next Prime Minister, assumed the task of leading the world in persuading the sceptics in the US, China and India to accept the need for global co-operation to avert the threat of a global catastrophe. He has enlisted Al Gore, the former presidential candidate turned green evangelist, to sell the message in the United States, with Sir Nicholas.

While the Bush administration refused to be drawn on the report, US environmental groups seized on it to demand a major change in policy. "The President needs to stop hiding behind his opposition to the Kyoto protocol and lay a new position on the table", said the National Environmental Trust, in Washington. The Washington Post said in an editorial that it was "hard to imagine" that the "intransigence" of the administration would long survive its tenure. "Will [Mr Bush] take a hand in developing America's response to this global problem", it asked, "Or will he go down as the President who fiddled while Greenland melted?"

Sir Nicholas's report contained little that was scientifically new. But British ministers are hoping his hard-headed economic analysis will be enough to persuade the doubters in the White House to curb America's profligate use of carbon energy.

In the Commons, Environment Secretary, David Miliband, confirmed that ministers were drawing up a Climate Change Bill, which would enshrine in law the Government's long-term target of reducing carbon emissions by sixty per cent by 2050. But he declined to go into any detail.

Mr Blair said the consequences for the planet of inaction were "literally disastrous".

"This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime", he said. "We can't wait the five years it took to negotiate Kyoto - we simply don't have the time. We accept we have to go further [than Kyoto]."

Sir Nicholas told BBC radio: "Unless it's international, we will not make the reductions on the scale which will be required".

Pia Hansen, of the European Commission, said the report "clearly makes a case for action".

"Climate change is not a problem Europe can afford to put into the 'too difficult' pile", she said. "It is not an option to wait and see, and we must act now".

Charlie Kronick, of Greenpeace, said the report was "the final piece in the jigsaw" in the case for action to reduce emissions. "There are no more excuses left, no more smokescreens to hide behind, now everybody has to back action to slash emissions, regardless of party or ideology", he said.

The CBI director general Richard Lambert said a global system of emissions trading was now urgently needed as a "nucleus" for effective action. "Provided we act with sufficient speed, we will not have to make a choice between averting climate change and promoting growth and investment".

Copyright (c) 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

A global catastrophe of our own making

by Steve Connor, Science Editor

The Independent & The Independent on Sunday

Independent.co.uk Online Edition (October 31 2006)

Average global temperatures have increased by less than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, but they are projected to increase by up to five degrees Celsius over the coming century if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise without restraint. With each one degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures, the Stern Review portrays progressively more serious scenarios.

The five degrees of disaster

One degree Celsius: Smaller mountain glaciers disappear in Andes, threatening water supply of fifty million people. More than 300,000 people extra die from increase in climate-related diseases in tropical regions. Permafrost melting damages roads and buildings in Canada and Russia. One in ten species threatened with extinction, eighty per cent of coral suffers regular bleaching.

Two degrees Celsius: Water scarcity increases in southern Africa and the Mediterranean. Significant decline in food production in Africa, where malaria affects up to sixty million more people. Up to ten million extra people affected by coastal flooding each year. Arctic species, such the polar bear, face extinction along with fifteen to forty per cent of world's remaining wildlife. Gulf Stream begins to weaken and Greenland ice sheet begins to melt irreversibly.

Three degrees Celsius: Serious droughts in southern Europe occur once every ten years. Between one and four billion people suffer water shortages and a similar number suffer from floods. Many millions of people at risk of malnutrition, as agricultural yields at higher latitudes reach peak output. More than 100 million people are affected by the risk of coastal flooding. Mass extinction of animals and plants accelerates.

Four degrees Celsius: Sub-Saharan Africa and the southern Mediterranean suffer between thirty and fifty per cent decrease in availability of water. Agricultural yields decline by 15-35 per cent in Africa. Crops fail in entire regions. Up to eighty million extra people are exposed to malaria. Loss of around half of the Arctic tundra. Many nature reserves collapse. Giant West Antarctic Ice Sheet begins to melt irreversibly, threatening catastrophic increases in global sea levels.

Five degrees Celsius: Possible disappearance of the large glaciers of the Himalayas, affecting the water supply of 25 per cent of population of China and hundreds of millions more in India. Ocean acidity increases with threat of total collapse in the global fisheries industry. Sea levels rise inexorably, inundating vast regions of Asia and about half of the world's major cities, including London, New York and Tokyo.

Arctic sea ice: current computer models suggest that floating summer sea ice of the northern hemisphere could disappear completely by the year 2070. Some experts believe that this summer polar ice could disappear even earlier this century with accelerating warming trends - making the polar bear extinct.

The Asian monsoon: In India the monsoon provides between 75 and 90 per cent of annual rainfall. Global warming is projected to increase the severity and possibly the unpredictability of the monsoon, increasing the risk of severe flooding or even monsoon failure at the time of year when it is needed most.

West Antarctic ice sheet: as global average temperatures rise then so does the risk of crossing a threshold beyond which the world's biggest ice sheets being to melt irreversibly. This would commit sea levels to a rise by between five metres and twelve metres over the coming centuries. Currently 270 million people live in coastal areas threatened by a five metre rise in sea levels.

Sub-Saharan Africa: this region will bear the brunt of climate change. Scientists predict a thirty per cent decline in annual water availability. Droughts will increase crop failures and malnutrition. Many tens of millions of extra people will be exposed to lethal tropical disease such as malaria.

Australia: many regions of the world will become too hot for cereal crops if average global temperatures rise to four degrees Celsius. Vast tracts of Australia's richest agricultural land will become no-go areas for arable farming.

Amazon rainforest: continued deforestation of the tropical rainforests increases the amount of carbon dioxide circulating in the atmosphere. As temperatures continue to rise, scientists fear that local droughts and soil erosion could cause the complete collapse of the remaining rainforests.

Siberian permafrost: as temperatures rise, the permanently frozen tundra of the northern hemisphere begins to melt, releasing its vast store of methane - a greenhouse gas which is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. Buildings and roads built on the permafrost collapse - but this is one area of the world that could otherwise benefit from warmer temperatures and a longer growing season.

Gulf Stream: The thermohaline circulation is like a conveyor belt in the North Atlantic Ocean bringing huge amounts of heat from the tropics to north-western Europe. As sea temperatures rise, there is a risk that the cold, salty "engine" of the circulation slows down or even stops, blocking the flow of the warm Gulf Stream that keep British winters mild.

Malnutrition: Around 800 million people (twelve per cent of the global population) are currently at risk of hunger and malnutrition. Temperature rises of between two and three degrees Celsisu could increase this number by between thirty million and 200 million. A further one degree Celsius rise would add an extra 500 million to the number of people at risk of malnutrition.

Ocean acidification: Extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in seawater causing an increase in ocean acidification. The predicted increase in acidification over the next century have not been experienced for hundreds of thousands of years. One outcome could be the death of many marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs. More than one billion people worldwide currently rely on fish as their primary source of animal protein.

Flooding: A rise in average temperatures of three or four degrees Celsius is projected to cause an increase in sea levels of between twenty and eighty centimetres. This means that between twenty million and 300 million extra people will be flooded out of their homes each year. South East Asia is particularly vulnerable because of poor coastal defences.

Mass extinction: Species living in vulnerable regions, such as alpine ecosystems and tropical mountain habitats, are likely to disappear with even quite modest increases in global temperatures. A increase of three degrees Celsius could threaten between twenty and fifty per cent of animals and plants with extinction - the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth and the only one to be caused by another species, man.

Extreme weather: A warmer world is expected to increase the frequency and severity of heatwaves, storms and hurricanes. Winds speeds of tropical storms for instance increase by between fifteen and twenty per cent for a three degrees Celsius increase in tropical sea temperatures. More violent winds and storms will significantly increase the damage to buildings and other valuable infrastructure.

Copyright (c) 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

Speaking very gently about die-off
Written by John Siman
John's ongoing peak oil odyssey

I expect that just about everyone who knows more than a little bit about Global Peak Oil is familiar in one way or another with Richard Heinberg’s book of three years ago, The Party’s Over. And agrees with it. And admires it. I am now, however, and with the greatest respect for Heinberg’s book, going to emphasize that the party’s not over, not quite yet -- that the party is in fact peaking -- that Global Peak Oil is here, and it is the high tide of the ultimate consumerist blow-out. Ultimate does, of course, mean final, and after Peak the days of reckoning do of course ensue -- après ca, le deluge, totally -- but here in the USA things are whizzing along faster than they ever have, and I’m whizzing right along with them.

So naturally enough, I began my Peak Oil Odyssey by driving around the USA, listening to white tribal music and visiting a variety of eco-villages and intentional communities (with an Earth First! Action thrown in for good measure), powered by overpriced vegan food and fossil fuels – all this in a Detroit-made Chevrolet. What better response to the imminent collapse of two and a half centuries of exponential economic growth in the First World than to go on an extended, energy-intensive vacation?

Certainly the story of the summer of 2006 was one of hiatus, of collapse postponed – of the party prolonged. Instead of rising past eighty dollars a barrel, oil almost fell under sixty. The war between Hezbollah and Israel did not spread into Syria or Iran, as many of us had feared back in July. Despite record high water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, no category five hurricanes formed.

Furthermore, and in my own defense, let me point out that, even as I vacationed, I gave my car away to a friend whom I met on The Farm in Tennessee – at the Eco-Village Training Center there -- and am right now, via Amtrak, on the Left Coast of the USA, visiting a variety of places where people seem to be working towards the sustainable and the permanent. These include the Regenerative Design Institute in Marin County, California and the Permaculture Army in Berkeley, where Bill Mollison’s textbook on the topic is read as a sort of bible. Furthermore, as I write this, somewhere in rural Oregon, at the home of the author of the Oilempire.us and Permatopia.com websites, I note that Heinberg is himself on an extended working vacation right now, touring Australia with David Holmgren, the co-founder (with Mollison) of the Permaculture movement. And that Jim Kunstler has just returned from New Zealand, where he was speaking of how to deal with the Long Emergency.

So I can say that, even though I still can whiz around in comfort, I am on message, and the first half of the message is this: as Global Peak Oil and its fraternal twin, Global Climate Change, bear down upon us, austerity – a permanent austerity -- is right around the corner. And the second half of the message therefore revolves around the fateful question of how we prepare ourselves, and it is only too easily answered with the intellect: we must live a hundred times more slowly, a hundred times more gently and simply. In the face of permanent austerity, we must find a graceful way to -- let’s use Heinberg’s word -- powerdown. For our only other option is catastrophe.

We as a society are, of course, not making any such preparations -- just the opposite. And, more to the point, even those of us who hope for the possibility of a non-catastrophic powerdown are, by and large, lethargic. For what is easy for the intellect is not so easy for the person who claims to be its owner. Good, clear logic isn’t really all that persuasive. It takes a harsh and sudden jolt of fear to set the body in motion, to ignite the bio-chemical spark plugs in our souls.

And so we come to the topic of die-off.

For when we study Global Peak Oil, we learn quickly that an unprecedented economic discontinuity – let’s call it PetroCollapse -- seems imminent as supplies of fossil fuels fall forever shorter and shorter of demand. And when we study Global Climate Change, we learn that an unprecedented environmental discontinuity -- something hideously in accord with the vengeful justice of the Gaia Hypothesis -- is now all but unavoidable as more and more ancient carbon is un-earthed, and burned, and re-deposited into the atmosphere. We study these discontinuities and learn of worst-case scenarios. We are confronted with the fact that die-off is a real possibility. We see that there is an abyss beneath our feet, an abyss of our own creation.

"Of all the generations of humans that have walked the surface of the Earth -- for 100,000 years, going back when we first left Africa -- the generation now alive is the most important," as the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku observes. "The generation now alive, the generation that you see, looking around you, for the first time in history, is the generation that controls the destiny of the planet itself."

But are we really the generation of destiny? Can we really control the planet’s future -- or anything much at all? Can our consciousness of our predicament grow and cause us to evolve? Or is our consciousness merely a tantalizing epiphenomenon? Are we, to quote a rhetorical question posed by the world-weary members of a Peak Oil group who meet in the hypertrophied suburbs of Washington, D.C., smarter than yeast?

For like yeast contained in a vat and energized by huge quantities of fermenting sugars, the human population, contained on this one planet and engorged by huge quantities of smoking fossil fuels, has grown exponentially. We have exceeded the carrying capacity of our container and have begun to suffocate ourselves as we wallow in our own waste. We are therefore, like yeast in a vat, about to undergo the very natural process of ecological die-off.

But unlike yeast in a vat, some of us can see the abyss of our own creation.

And we who can see it have the moral obligation to warn everyone we meet. Warn them that they are headed for die-off. Frighten them.

But frighten them gently. Even with a bit of humor. For too much fear can bring despair, and with it paralysis. Too much fear can turn activists into victims and idealists into defeatists. Talking about die-off is justifiable only to the extent that it motivates us to undertake the building of more permanent societies.

And so the party’s not over, but it soon will be -- forever. We can start to plan for a different sort of party though -- a party which will not be fueled by a global trade in oil, a party at which you will not be able to eat genetically-modified fast food or even long-distance certified-organic tofu, a party which you won’t be able to drive to. You’ll have to walk. Or ride your bicycle. Or your horse. Because if there’s going to be a party in the future, it will be a sustainable party.

Here’s a haiku for you to share when you go:

Dew sparkles on grass
Morning light brings magic here
Oh shit, there's die-off.

* * * * *

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Information Challenge

by Richard Dawkins

In September 1997, I allowed an Australian film crew into my house in Oxford without realising that their purpose was creationist propaganda. In the course of a suspiciously amateurish interview, they issued a truculent challenge to me to "give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome." It is the kind of question only a creationist would ask in that way, and it was at this point I tumbled to the fact that I had been duped into granting an interview to creationists - a thing I normally don't do, for good reasons. In my anger I refused to discuss the question further, and told them to stop the camera. However, I eventually withdrew my peremptory termination of the interview as a whole. This was solely because they pleaded with me that they had come all the way from Australia specifically in order to interview me. Even if this was a considerable exaggeration, it seemed, on reflection, ungenerous to tear up the legal release form and throw them out. I therefore relented.

My generosity was rewarded in a fashion that anyone familiar with fundamentalist tactics might have predicted. When I eventually saw the film a year later 1, I found that it had been edited to give the false impression that I was incapable of answering the question about information content 2. In fairness, this may not have been quite as intentionally deceitful as it sounds. You have to understand that these people really believe that their question cannot be answered! Pathetic as it sounds, their entire journey from Australia seems to have been a quest to film an evolutionist failing to answer it.

With hindsight - given that I had been suckered into admitting them into my house in the first place - it might have been wiser simply to answer the question. But I like to be understood whenever I open my mouth - I have a horror of blinding people with science - and this was not a question that could be answered in a soundbite. First you first have to explain the technical meaning of "information". Then the relevance to evolution, too, is complicated - not really difficult but it takes time. Rather than engage now in further recriminations and disputes about exactly what happened at the time of the interview (for, to be fair, I should say that the Australian producer's memory of events seems to differ from mine), I shall try to redress the matter now in constructive fashion by answering the original question, the "Information Challenge", at adequate length - the sort of length you can achieve in a proper article.

The technical definition of "information" was introduced by the American engineer Claude Shannon in 1948. An employee of the Bell Telephone Company, Shannon was concerned to measure information as an economic commodity. It is costly to send messages along a telephone line. Much of what passes in a message is not information: it is redundant. You could save money by recoding the message to remove the redundancy. Redundancy was a second technical term introduced by Shannon, as the inverse of information. Both definitions were mathematical, but we can convey Shannon's intuitive meaning in words.

Redundancy is any part of a message that is not informative, either because the recipient already knows it (is not surprised by it) or because it duplicates other parts of the message. In the sentence "Rover is a poodle dog", the word "dog" is redundant because "poodle" already tells us that Rover is a dog. An economical telegram would omit it, thereby increasing the informative proportion of the message. "Arr JFK Fri pm pls mt BA Cncrd flt" carries the same information as the much longer, but more redundant, "I'll be arriving at John F Kennedy airport on Friday evening; please meet the British Airways Concorde flight". Obviously the brief, telegraphic message is cheaper to send (although the recipient may have to work harder to decipher it - redundancy has its virtues if we forget economics). Shannon wanted to find a mathematical way to capture the idea that any message could be broken into the information (which is worth paying for), the redundancy (which can, with economic advantage, be deleted from the message because, in effect, it can be reconstructed by the recipient) and the noise (which is just random rubbish).

"It rained in Oxford every day this week" carries relatively little information, because the receiver is not surprised by it. On the other hand, "It rained in the Sahara desert every day this week" would be a message with high information content, well worth paying extra to send. Shannon wanted to capture this sense of information content as "surprise value". It is related to the other sense - "that which is not duplicated in other parts of the message" - because repetitions lose their power to surprise. Note that Shannon's definition of the quantity of information is independent of whether it is true. The measure he came up with was ingenious and intuitively satisfying. Let's estimate, he suggested, the receiver's ignorance or uncertainty before receiving the message, and then compare it with the receiver's remaining ignorance after receiving the message. The quantity of ignorance-reduction is the information content. Shannon's unit of information is the bit, short for "binary digit". One bit is defined as the amount of information needed to halve the receiver's prior uncertainty, however great that prior uncertainty was (mathematical readers will notice that the bit is, therefore, a logarithmic measure).

In practice, you first have to find a way of measuring the prior uncertainty - that which is reduced by the information when it comes. For particular kinds of simple message, this is easily done in terms of probabilities. An expectant father watches the Caesarian birth of his child through a window into the operating theatre. He can't see any details, so a nurse has agreed to hold up a pink card if it is a girl, blue for a boy. How much information is conveyed when, say, the nurse flourishes the pink card to the delighted father? The answer is one bit - the prior uncertainty is halved. The father knows that a baby of some kind has been born, so his uncertainty amounts to just two possibilities - boy and girl - and they are (for purposes of this discussion) equal. The pink card halves the father's prior uncertainty from two possibilities to one (girl). If there'd been no pink card but a doctor had walked out of the operating theatre, shook the father's hand and said "Congratulations old chap, I'm delighted to be the first to tell you that you have a daughter", the information conveyed by the 17 word message would still be only one bit.

Computer information
Computer information is held in a sequence of noughts and ones. There are only two possibilities, so each 0 or 1 can hold one bit. The memory capacity of a computer, or the storage capacity of a disc or tape, is often measured in bits, and this is the total number of 0s or 1s that it can hold. For some purposes, more convenient units of measurement are the byte (8 bits), the kilobyte (1000 bytes or 8000 bits), the megabyte (a million bytes or 8 million bits) or the gigabyte (1000 million bytes or 8000 million bits). Notice that these figures refer to the total available capacity. This is the maximum quantity of information that the device is capable of storing. The actual amount of information stored is something else. The capacity of my hard disc happens to be 4.2 gigabytes. Of this, about 1.4 gigabytes are actually being used to store data at present. But even this is not the true information content of the disc in Shannon's sense. The true information content is smaller, because the information could be more economically stored. You can get some idea of the true information content by using one of those ingenious compression programs like "Stuffit". Stuffit looks for redundancy in the sequence of 0s and 1s, and removes a hefty proportion of it by recoding - stripping out internal predictability. Maximum information content would be achieved (probably never in practice) only if every 1 or 0 surprised us equally. Before data is transmitted in bulk around the Internet, it is routinely compressed to reduce redundancy.

That's good economics. But on the other hand it is also a good idea to keep some redundancy in messages, to help correct errors. In a message that is totally free of redundancy, after there's been an error there is no means of reconstructing what was intended. Computer codes often incorporate deliberately redundant "parity bits" to aid in error detection. DNA, too, has various error-correcting procedures which depend upon redundancy. When I come on to talk of genomes, I'll return to the three-way distinction between total information capacity, information capacity actually used, and true information content.

It was Shannon's insight that information of any kind, no matter what it means, no matter whether it is true or false, and no matter by what physical medium it is carried, can be measured in bits, and is translatable into any other medium of information. The great biologist J B S Haldane used Shannon's theory to compute the number of bits of information conveyed by a worker bee to her hivemates when she "dances" the location of a food source (about 3 bits to tell about the direction of the food and another 3 bits for the distance of the food). In the same units, I recently calculated that I'd need to set aside 120 megabits of laptop computer memory to store the triumphal opening chords of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the "2001" theme) which I wanted to play in the middle of a lecture about evolution. Shannon's economics enable you to calculate how much modem time it'll cost you to e-mail the complete text of a book to a publisher in another land. Fifty years after Shannon, the idea of information as a commodity, as measurable and interconvertible as money or energy, has come into its own.

DNA information
DNA carries information in a very computer-like way, and we can measure the genome's capacity in bits too, if we wish. DNA doesn't use a binary code, but a quaternary one. Whereas the unit of information in the computer is a 1 or a 0, the unit in DNA can be T, A, C or G. If I tell you that a particular location in a DNA sequence is a T, how much information is conveyed from me to you? Begin by measuring the prior uncertainty. How many possibilities are open before the message "T" arrives? Four. How many possibilities remain after it has arrived? One. So you might think the information transferred is four bits, but actually it is two. Here's why (assuming that the four letters are equally probable, like the four suits in a pack of cards). Remember that Shannon's metric is concerned with the most economical way of conveying the message. Think of it as the number of yes/no questions that you'd have to ask in order to narrow down to certainty, from an initial uncertainty of four possibilities, assuming that you planned your questions in the most economical way. "Is the mystery letter before D in the alphabet?" No. That narrows it down to T or G, and now we need only one more question to clinch it. So, by this method of measuring, each "letter" of the DNA has an information capacity of 2 bits.

Whenever prior uncertainty of recipient can be expressed as a number of equiprobable alternatives N, the information content of a message which narrows those alternatives down to one is log2N (the power to which 2 must be raised in order to yield the number of alternatives N). If you pick a card, any card, from a normal pack, a statement of the identity of the card carries log252, or 5.7 bits of information. In other words, given a large number of guessing games, it would take 5.7 yes/no questions on average to guess the card, provided the questions are asked in the most economical way. The first two questions might establish the suit. (Is it red? Is it a diamond?) the remaining three or four questions would successively divide and conquer the suit (is it a 7 or higher? etc.), finally homing in on the chosen card. When the prior uncertainty is some mixture of alternatives that are not equiprobable, Shannon's formula becomes a slightly more elaborate weighted average, but it is essentially similar. By the way, Shannon's weighted average is the same formula as physicists have used, since the nineteenth century, for entropy. The point has interesting implications but I shall not pursue them here.

Information and evolution
That's enough background on information theory. It is a theory which has long held a fascination for me, and I have used it in several of my research papers over the years. Let's now think how we might use it to ask whether the information content of genomes increases in evolution. First, recall the three way distinction between total information capacity, the capacity that is actually used, and the true information content when stored in the most economical way possible. The total information capacity of the human genome is measured in gigabits. That of the common gut bacterium Escherichia coli is measured in megabits. We, like all other animals, are descended from an ancestor which, were it available for our study today, we'd classify as a bacterium. So perhaps, during the billions of years of evolution since that ancestor lived, the information capacity of our genome has gone up about three orders of magnitude (powers of ten) - about a thousandfold. This is satisfyingly plausible and comforting to human dignity. Should human dignity feel wounded, then, by the fact that the crested newt, Triturus cristatus, has a genome capacity estimated at 40 gigabits, an order of magnitude larger than the human genome? No, because, in any case, most of the capacity of the genome of any animal is not used to store useful information. There are many nonfunctional pseudogenes (see below) and lots of repetitive nonsense, useful for forensic detectives but not translated into protein in the living cells. The crested newt has a bigger "hard disc" than we have, but since the great bulk of both our hard discs is unused, we needn't feel insulted. Related species of newt have much smaller genomes. Why the Creator should have played fast and loose with the genome sizes of newts in such a capricious way is a problem that creationists might like to ponder. From an evolutionary point of view the explanation is simple (see The Selfish Gene pp 44-45 and p 275 in the Second Edition).

Gene duplication
Evidently the total information capacity of genomes is very variable across the living kingdoms, and it must have changed greatly in evolution, presumably in both directions. Losses of genetic material are called deletions. New genes arise through various kinds of duplication. This is well illustrated by haemoglobin, the complex protein molecule that transports oxygen in the blood.

Human adult haemoglobin is actually a composite of four protein chains called globins, knotted around each other. Their detailed sequences show that the four globin chains are closely related to each other, but they are not identical. Two of them are called alpha globins (each a chain of 141 amino acids), and two are beta globins (each a chain of 146 amino acids). The genes coding for the alpha globins are on chromosome 11; those coding for the beta globins are on chromosome 16. On each of these chromosomes, there is a cluster of globin genes in a row, interspersed with some junk DNA. The alpha cluster, on Chromosome 11, contains seven globin genes. Four of these are pseudogenes, versions of alpha disabled by faults in their sequence and not translated into proteins. Two are true alpha globins, used in the adult. The final one is called zeta and is used only in embryos. Similarly the beta cluster, on chromosome 16, has six genes, some of which are disabled, and one of which is used only in the embryo. Adult haemoglobin, as we've seen contains two alpha and two beta chains.

Never mind all this complexity. Here's the fascinating point. Careful letter-by-letter analysis shows that these different kinds of globin genes are literally cousins of each other, literally members of a family. But these distant cousins still coexist inside our own genome, and that of all vertebrates. On a the scale of whole organism, the vertebrates are our cousins too. The tree of vertebrate evolution is the family tree we are all familiar with, its branch-points representing speciation events - the splitting of species into pairs of daughter species. But there is another family tree occupying the same timescale, whose branches represent not speciation events but gene duplication events within genomes.

The dozen or so different globins inside you are descended from an ancient globin gene which, in a remote ancestor who lived about half a billion years ago, duplicated, after which both copies stayed in the genome. There were then two copies of it, in different parts of the genome of all descendant animals. One copy was destined to give rise to the alpha cluster (on what would eventually become Chromosome 11 in our genome), the other to the beta cluster (on Chromosome 16). As the aeons passed, there were further duplications (and doubtless some deletions as well). Around 400 million years ago the ancestral alpha gene duplicated again, but this time the two copies remained near neighbours of each other, in a cluster on the same chromosome. One of them was destined to become the zeta of our embryos, the other became the alpha globin genes of adult humans (other branches gave rise to the nonfunctional pseudogenes I mentioned). It was a similar story along the beta branch of the family, but with duplications at other moments in geological history.

Now here's an equally fascinating point. Given that the split between the alpha cluster and the beta cluster took place 500 million years ago, it will of course not be just our human genomes that show the split - possess alpha genes in a different part of the genome from beta genes. We should see the same within-genome split if we look at any other mammals, at birds, reptiles, amphibians and bony fish, for our common ancestor with all of them lived less than 500 million years ago. Wherever it has been investigated, this expectation has proved correct. Our greatest hope of finding a vertebrate that does not share with us the ancient alpha/beta split would be a jawless fish like a lamprey, for they are our most remote cousins among surviving vertebrates; they are the only surviving vertebrates whose common ancestor with the rest of the vertebrates is sufficiently ancient that it could have predated the alpha/beta split. Sure enough, these jawless fishes are the only known vertebrates that lack the alpha/beta divide.

Gene duplication, within the genome, has a similar historic impact to species duplication ("speciation") in phylogeny. It is responsible for gene diversity, in the same way as speciation is responsible for phyletic diversity. Beginning with a single universal ancestor, the magnificent diversity of life has come about through a series of branchings of new species, which eventually gave rise to the major branches of the living kingdoms and the hundreds of millions of separate species that have graced the earth. A similar series of branchings, but this time within genomes - gene duplications - has spawned the large and diverse population of clusters of genes that constitutes the modern genome.

The story of the globins is just one among many. Gene duplications and deletions have occurred from time to time throughout genomes. It is by these, and similar means, that genome sizes can increase in evolution. But remember the distinction between the total capacity of the whole genome, and the capacity of the portion that is actually used. Recall that not all the globin genes are actually used. Some of them, like theta in the alpha cluster of globin genes, are pseudogenes, recognizably kin to functional genes in the same genomes, but never actually translated into the action language of protein. What is true of globins is true of most other genes. Genomes are littered with nonfunctional pseudogenes, faulty duplicates of functional genes that do nothing, while their functional cousins (the word doesn't even need scare quotes) get on with their business in a different part of the same genome. And there's lots more DNA that doesn't even deserve the name pseudogene. It, too, is derived by duplication, but not duplication of functional genes. It consists of multiple copies of junk, "tandem repeats", and other nonsense which may be useful for forensic detectives but which doesn't seem to be used in the body itself.

Once again, creationists might spend some earnest time speculating on why the Creator should bother to litter genomes with untranslated pseudogenes and junk tandem repeat DNA.

Information in the genome
Can we measure the information capacity of that portion of the genome which is actually used? We can at least estimate it. In the case of the human genome it is about 2% - considerably less than the proportion of my hard disc that I have ever used since I bought it. Presumably the equivalent figure for the crested newt is even smaller, but I don't know if it has been measured. In any case, we mustn't run away with a chaunvinistic idea that the human genome somehow ought to have the largest DNA database because we are so wonderful. The great evolutionary biologist George C Williams has pointed out that animals with complicated life cycles need to code for the development of all stages in the life cycle, but they only have one genome with which to do so. A butterfly's genome has to hold the complete information needed for building a caterpillar as well as a butterfly. A sheep liver fluke has six distinct stages in its life cycle, each specialised for a different way of life. We shouldn't feel too insulted if liver flukes turned out to have bigger genomes than we have (actually they don't).

Remember, too, that even the total capacity of genome that is actually used is still not the same thing as the true information content in Shannon's sense. The true information content is what's left when the redundancy has been compressed out of the message, by the theoretical equivalent of Stuffit. There are even some viruses which seem to use a kind of Stuffit-like compression. They make use of the fact that the RNA (not DNA in these viruses, as it happens, but the principle is the same) code is read in triplets. There is a "frame" which moves along the RNA sequence, reading off three letters at a time. Obviously, under normal conditions, if the frame starts reading in the wrong place (as in a so-called frame-shift mutation), it makes total nonsense: the "triplets" that it reads are out of step with the meaningful ones. But these splendid viruses actually exploit frame-shifted reading. They get two messages for the price of one, by having a completely different message embedded in the very same series of letters when read frame-shifted. In principle you could even get three messages for the price of one, but I don't know whether there are any examples.

Information in the body
It is one thing to estimate the total information capacity of a genome, and the amount of the genome that is actually used, but it's harder to estimate its true information content in the Shannon sense. The best we can do is probably to forget about the genome itself and look at its product, the "phenotype", the working body of the animal or plant itself. In 1951, J W S Pringle, who later became my Professor at Oxford, suggested using a Shannon-type information measure to estimate "complexity". Pringle wanted to express complexity mathematically in bits, but I have long found the following verbal form helpful in explaining his idea to students.

We have an intuitive sense that a lobster, say, is more complex (more "advanced", some might even say more "highly evolved") than another animal, perhaps a millipede. Can we measure something in order to confirm or deny our intuition? Without literally turning it into bits, we can make an approximate estimation of the information contents of the two bodies as follows. Imagine writing a book describing the lobster. Now write another book describing the millipede down to the same level of detail. Divide the word-count in one book by the word-count in the other, and you have an approximate estimate of the relative information content of lobster and millipede. It is important to specify that both books describe their respective animals "down to the same level of detail". Obviously if we describe the millipede down to cellular detail, but stick to gross anatomical features in the case of the lobster, the millipede would come out ahead.

But if we do the test fairly, I'll bet the lobster book would come out longer than the millipede book. It's a simple plausibility argument, as follows. Both animals are made up of segments - modules of bodily architecture that are fundamentally similar to each other, arranged fore-and-aft like the trucks of a train. The millipede's segments are mostly identical to each other. The lobster's segments, though following the same basic plan (each with a nervous ganglion, a pair of appendages, and so on) are mostly different from each other. The millipede book would consist of one chapter describing a typical segment, followed by the phrase "Repeat N times" where N is the number of segments. The lobster book would need a different chapter for each segment. This isn't quite fair on the millipede, whose front and rear end segments are a bit different from the rest. But I'd still bet that, if anyone bothered to do the experiment, the estimate of lobster information content would come out substantially greater than the estimate of millipede information content.

It's not of direct evolutionary interest to compare a lobster with a millipede in this way, because nobody thinks lobsters evolved from millipedes. Obviously no modern animal evolved from any other modern animal. Instead, any pair of modern animals had a last common ancestor which lived at some (in principle) discoverable moment in geological history. Almost all of evolution happened way back in the past, which makes it hard to study details. But we can use the "length of book" thought-experiment to agree upon what it would mean to ask the question whether information content increases over evolution, if only we had ancestral animals to look at.

The answer in practice is complicated and controversial, all bound up with a vigorous debate over whether evolution is, in general, progressive. I am one of those associated with a limited form of yes answer. My colleague Stephen Jay Gould tends towards a no answer. I don't think anybody would deny that, by any method of measuring - whether bodily information content, total information capacity of genome, capacity of genome actually used, or true ("Stuffit compressed") information content of genome - there has been a broad overall trend towards increased information content during the course of human evolution from our remote bacterial ancestors. People might disagree, however, over two important questions: first, whether such a trend is to be found in all, or a majority of evolutionary lineages (for example parasite evolution often shows a trend towards decreasing bodily complexity, because parasites are better off being simple); second, whether, even in lineages where there is a clear overall trend over the very long term, it is bucked by so many reversals and re-reversals in the shorter term as to undermine the very idea of progress. This is not the place to resolve this interesting controversy. There are distinguished biologists with good arguments on both sides.

Supporters of "intelligent design" guiding evolution, by the way, should be deeply committed to the view that information content increases during evolution. Even if the information comes from God, perhaps especially if it does, it should surely increase, and the increase should presumably show itself in the genome. Unless, of course - for anything goes in such addle-brained theorising - God works his evolutionary miracles by nongenetic means.

Perhaps the main lesson we should learn from Pringle is that the information content of a biological system is another name for its complexity. Therefore the creationist challenge with which we began is tantamount to the standard challenge to explain how biological complexity can evolve from simpler antecedents, one that I have devoted three books to answering (The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable) and I do not propose to repeat their contents here. The "information challenge" turns out to be none other than our old friend: "How could something as complex as an eye evolve?" It is just dressed up in fancy mathematical language - perhaps in an attempt to bamboozle. Or perhaps those who ask it have already bamboozled themselves, and don't realise that it is the same old - and thoroughly answered - question.

The Genetic Book of the Dead
Let me turn, finally, to another way of looking at whether the information content of genomes increases in evolution. We now switch from the broad sweep of evolutionary history to the minutiae of natural selection. Natural selection itself, when you think about it, is a narrowing down from a wide initial field of possible alternatives, to the narrower field of the alternatives actually chosen. Random genetic error (mutation), sexual recombination and migratory mixing, all provide a wide field of genetic variation: the available alternatives. Mutation is not an increase in true information content, rather the reverse, for mutation, in the Shannon analogy, contributes to increasing the prior uncertainty. But now we come to natural selection, which reduces the "prior uncertainty" and therefore, in Shannon's sense, contributes information to the gene pool. In every generation, natural selection removes the less successful genes from the gene pool, so the remaining gene pool is a narrower subset. The narrowing is nonrandom, in the direction of improvement, where improvement is defined, in the Darwinian way, as improvement in fitness to survive and reproduce. Of course the total range of variation is topped up again in every generation by new mutation and other kinds of variation. But it still remains true that natural selection is a narrowing down from an initially wider field of possibilities, including mostly unsuccessful ones, to a narrower field of successful ones. This is analogous to the definition of information with which we began: information is what enables the narrowing down from prior uncertainty (the initial range of possibilities) to later certainty (the "successful" choice among the prior probabilities). According to this analogy, natural selection is by definition a process whereby information is fed into the gene pool of the next generation.

If natural selection feeds information into gene pools, what is the information about? It is about how to survive. Strictly it is about how to survive and reproduce, in the conditions that prevailed when previous generations were alive. To the extent that present day conditions are different from ancestral conditions, the ancestral genetic advice will be wrong. In extreme cases, the species may then go extinct. To the extent that conditions for the present generation are not too different from conditions for past generations, the information fed into present-day genomes from past generations is helpful information. Information from the ancestral past can be seen as a manual for surviving in the present: a family bible of ancestral "advice" on how to survive today. We need only a little poetic licence to say that the information fed into modern genomes by natural selection is actually information about ancient environments in which ancestors survived.

This idea of information fed from ancestral generations into descendant gene pools is one of the themes of my new book, Unweaving the Rainbow. It takes a whole chapter, "The Genetic Book of the Dead", to develop the notion, so I won't repeat it here except to say two things. First, it is the whole gene pool of the species as a whole, not the genome of any particular individual, which is best seen as the recipient of the ancestral information about how to survive. The genomes of particular individuals are random samples of the current gene pool, randomised by sexual recombination. Second, we are privileged to "intercept" the information if we wish, and "read" an animal's body, or even its genes, as a coded description of ancestral worlds. To quote from Unweaving the Rainbow: "And isn't it an arresting thought? We are digital archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas; walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days. You could spend a lifetime reading in this ancient library and die unsated by the wonder of it."

1 The producers never deigned to send me a copy: I completely forgot about it until an American colleague called it to my attention. (back)

2 See Barry Williams (1998): "Creationist Deception Exposed", The Skeptic 18, 3, pp 7-10, for an account of how my long pause (trying to decide whether to throw them out) was made to look like hesitant inability to answer the question, followed by an apparently evasive answer to a completely different question. (back)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Accountability: the other climate change
Simon Zadek
31 - 10 - 2006

An appeal to both self-interest and long-term thinking is essential to tackling the pressing threat of global climate change, says Simon Zadek.

The Stern Review's report on the economics of climate change published on 30 October 2006 is an impressive document that calls for action to meet a global challenge on a civilisational scale. It is also unlikely - on present evidence - to have the effect required, for one simple reason.

Today's vested political and economic interests are likely to prevent us from effectively addressing climate change, and so securing a decent future on this planet. It's ghastly, it sticks in the throat, and it's awesome to think it even as I write it. But it's probably true.

This prognosis is suggested by Jared Diamond's best-selling analysis of why societies collapse. Societies are endangered, he argues, when their elites insulate themselves from the negative impact of their own actions in pursuit of power and privilege. His paradigmatic case is of Easter Island, where the overuse of wood products in the production of competing religious totems eventually destroyed its inhabitants' survival prospects.

Jared Diamond argues that this self-destructive spiral might have been halted if those with the power to enforce the cutting down of wood had far earlier suffered the economic and political consequences of this process. As economists would have it, these leaders succeed for too long to "externalise" these costs onto the shoulders, and ultimately the lives of others.

The Stern Review on the Economics of Global Climate Change published its report this Monday. Its author Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, says:

"There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we act now and act internationally. Governments, businesses and individuals all need to work together to respond to the challenge. Strong, deliberate policy choices by governments are essential to motivate change.

But the task is urgent. Delaying action, even by a decade or two, will take us into dangerous territory. We must not let this window of opportunity close."

But surely, you might argue, this could not happen to "us" - people living in the rich, democratic countries of the world, with the knowledge we have, our many institutions for collective action and, most of all, our capacity to hold those with power to account?

Here, however, is exactly where the problem lies: a lack of accountability where it really matters. In the microcosmic areas of social life - fines for taking our children on holiday before the school break, or for allowing our dogs to do what is natural to them in the park - we are overwhelmed by accountability mechanisms. Yet on big, important, collective issues, accountability mechanisms are either non-existent or failing. After all, no rich-nation leader will pay the human and financial costs of the Iraq war, or compensate for the poverty resulting from the failure of the Doha trade round.

Jared Diamond's story shines a sad and disturbing light on our current situation. Our elite do not feel enough pain to allow, let alone lead in making the changes we need.

So what is to be done? Pragmatism and a hard-headed reading of history suggest that "the people" are unlikely to resolve our current crisis. Far from it, we are more likely to degenerate into a toxic blend of hedonism and divided fundamentalisms. Faced with an apparently insoluble problem, the citizens of the world will unite in partying until the curtain comes down.

The terms of debate

Yet there is an alternative - unpalatable but essential. If we cannot make those with power feel the pain, can we help them to profit from taking us along the right path?

This would involve rewarding political leaders who take a stand on climate change, who are willing to tell citizens the tough story, make enemies of those who would deny, and dedicate themselves to creating coalitions of the unwilling. Such political leaders must be empowered, whether by the ballot-box or the amplifying effects of global civil society and the media. And those leaders who choose to pipe an old tune, whoever and wherever they are, along with their advisors and sponsors, must be exposed in their naked splendour for all to see.

And that brings us to business leaders. Business will not solve climate change by what it does not do; compliance will only ever be a marginal part of any serious solution. Business will make a difference by what it does and does best: inventing, making and selling new products and services. (That is why our AccountabilityRating of the world's largest hundred companies measures how smart rather than how moral they are in embedding social and environmental dynamics into their business models and practices).

Co-opting those who can make, or prevent, change requires that "corporate responsibility" grows up and becomes a driver in shaping a global, responsible competitiveness between nations and regions. We need global markets where money is to be made by doing the right thing, creating value and profit by "internalising externalities" that will otherwise destroy us.

Business cannot, and will not do this on its own. Reshaping markets requires unlikely alliances between business, governments and civil society. We have proven we can do this across such diverse challenges as labour standards, access to life-saving drugs, corruption and animal rights. We can and must do it for climate change, reshaping the terms on which business is done to our collective good.

Who will take the lead?

On Easter Island, no leader emerged from any of the dozen clans to reshape timber markets. It is instructive to consider which countries or regions - today's global "clans" - will provide leadership in driving forward responsible competitiveness tomorrow.

Europe has enormous potential, with its leadership on Kyoto and its history of linking social inclusion and markets. But a region characterized (by Nick Robins) as having a "responsibility surplus and an innovation deficit" has to date failed to turn this "social good" to its competitive advantage.

The United States too is an unlikely candidate, essentially the mirror-image of Europe's strengths and weaknesses, over-innovating without focus on the things that count. Directing its business community towards long-term issues is, with some notable exceptions, a contradiction in terms. It would require a seismic shift in the time-horizons and interests of the American electorate and its investment community, unlikely although not impossible on both counts.

Perhaps then we need to bet on China for leadership. We might point today to its dirty economy in more senses than one. But China's culture and practice of decision-making is like no other, rooted in a history of long-termism. Could it be that tackling climate change will be China's equivalent of the moai in the era of their creation: a powerful symbol of emerging leadership?