Tuesday, May 22, 2007

SOLAR Global warming

The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
No 51 - December 2006
Solar global warming

In his book Gaia - A New Look at Life on Earth, James Lovelock observed that, over the last 3.5 billion years, the Sun's output has increased by 25 per cent (1). Despite this, Earth has maintained a fairly constant temperature of between 10 to 20 °C. It is surprising facts like this that underpin his Gaia hypothesis - somehow the Gaia system has managed to counteract increasing heat from the Sun.
Lovelock told me that few astronomers writing about stellar evolution consider the dull middle ages of stars. Consequently, few mention this solar warming. An exception was Nigel Henbest, who observed that 'the Sun is gradually brightening, and is now shining about half as brightly again as it was in the early history of the solar system'. He also noted that, despite this, Earth's average temperature has remained 'between the boiling point and freezing point of water'. His explanation for this was that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has 'depleted' (2). Henbest was writing about the time of the publication of Lovelock's Gaia book, and so probably did not realize that he was describing a Gaia activity.

But why is the Sun getting hotter? Lovelock told me that it was because, like the Earth, the Sun suffers its own global warming from a greenhouse gas. As hydrogen is fused in the core of the Sun, helium is produced. While most of this helium accumulates at the centre of the Sun, some escapes to act like a blanket and causes the core region to get hotter, so increasing the rate of the fusion reaction. However, according to Kasting, the accumulation of helium at the core causes the latter to contract and heat up, thereby making the nuclear fusion reactions proceed faster (3).
The gradual increase in the Sun's luminosity (S) is usually calculated from Gough's formula:
S = S0 / [1 + 0.4 t/t0]
Where S0 = present luminosity; t0 = 4.6; and t = time in billion years before present (4). The result is as shown in the table, where the present S is taken as 1.000.
This shows that solar luminosity has increased by 40 per cent since the Earth formed and by 30 per cent since the beginning of life (~3.5 billion years BP). The data also show that the rate of solar warming has been increasing by about 3.7 per cent per half-billion years.
The fact that the Sun was fainter in the distant past led to what is called 'The faint young Sun problem/paradox', the problem being to explain how, with a faint Sun, the Archean climates of Earth and Mars were so mild, or even warmer than today. The answer appears to be that a higher concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) was responsible. Subsequently, with the rise of oxygen about 2.3 billion years ago, a decrease in these greenhouse gases led to the paleoproterozoic glaciations, including 'Snowball Earth', when almost the whole planet was a sheet of ice. Glaciation increases Earth's albedo, reflecting more heat back into space. It also lowers sea level, so providing more land area for plants, which can absorb more CO2.
According to Lovelock, the Sun's heat was ideal for life about 2 billion years ago. Since then, although it has become progressively too hot, Earth has maintained an equable climate. Because plants produced the oxygen that led to glaciation, it can be argued that this was Gaia at work. However it seems to have overdone the cooling, nearly extinguishing all life in a planetary glaciation.
Does this mean that the present warming of Earth is partly due to solar warming? Anthropogenic warming is only about a century old, over which time the increase in solar luminosity has been only about 0.000008 per cent. Nevertheless variation in the Earth's orbit and perhaps minor changes in the solar output, on a shorter timescale than the gradual warming, may be partly responsible.
It does mean that we are frustrating Gaia's attempt to cool the planet in the face of increasing insolation. Left alone, Gaia was probably determined to bring about increased glaciation. Whatever we do about global warming, we should take note that the Sun is going to continue increasing its output. In an earlier article (5), I explained how a solar shield is one of the few ways available to cool the planet. Such a shield will be needed eventually to counter the Sun's own global warming. Left alone, Gaia would eventually have to shift to a hotter world.
Notes and references:
I refer to the OUP ed. of 2000, but it was first published in 1979. Unfortunately, Lovelock went on to claim that the Sun's output was 30 % less 3.5 billion years ago. When I pointed out this error (it was 20 % less), he was gracious enough to acknowledge his mistake and told me that I was the first person to spot the mistake in the 27 years since first publication. I noticed similar errors in his latest book (The Revenge of Gaia). When I pointed them out, he was amazed and explained that 'six otherwise good scientists have already reviewed the book without noticing these errors'. I have since pointed the need for further corrections on the matter of the relative strength of the Sun's output.

The Exploding Universe, 1979
James F. Kasting (2005): 'Methane and climate during the Precambrian era', Precambrian Research, 137, 119-129
D.O. Gough (1981): 'Solar interior structure and luminosity variations', Solar Physics, 74, 21-34
Steuart Campbell (2005): 'Cooling the Earth', ASE Journal, 48, 3-6

Carbonist Manifesto
From: "Jeff Berkowitz (jjb)"
Date: Wed, 07 Jun 95 09:19:00 PDT
Summary: CO2 good, O2 bad
X-Moderator-Note: reprinted with permission

The Consequences of Gaia
- or -
The Carbonist Manifesto

Copyright (C) 1992 Jeff Berkowitz (jjb@sequent.com)
Revision 1 of 30 Nov 92

Permission to redistribute this work is granted
provided that (1) it's unmodified, (2) it's all
there ("in entirety"), and (3) my name and the
copyright notice are still attached. The fact
that Sequent's name appears in my e-mail address
has no more significance than if I gave you my
work phone number; it's just a way to reach me,
not an endorsement.

This essay describes some philosophical, ethical, and cosmological
implications of the Gaia hypothesis. Although loosely grounded in
recent research in ecology and paleoclimatology, this is clearly an
essay and not a scientific paper. It is also distinctly tongue in
cheek, but the author has spent some serious moments wondering
whether the belief system outlined below is any more unreasonable
than certain "mainstream" viewpoints.

* * * *

Over the last few years, we've become familiar with the notion that
the biosphere is a dynamic, self-regulating system. In fact, an even
stronger assertion can be made: the biosphere, in its present oxygen-
rich form, is "a kind of superorganism that in its entirety maintains
the conditions that best suit life on earth." [1] This formulation,
known as the Gaia Hypothesis, was originally advanced by naturalists
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (novelist William Golding suggested
the name.)

A key point in the Gaia hypothesis concerns the stability of the
carbon cycle: that the level of atmospheric CO2 has been maintained
within relatively narrow limits for hundreds of millions of years.
This point is critical because the temperature of the biosphere
is largely controlled by the quantities of greenhouse gases
(primarily CO2) in the atmosphere. Various geophysical and
biological processes cooperate to lower the amount of free CO2
when the biosphere warms, and release CO2 when it cools. Thus
the assertion that CO2 has remained relatively constant is also
an assertion that the temperature has remained within relatively
narrow limits: at no time in the last billion years has the Earth
been a pressure cooker like Venus, or a snowball like Mars.

This essay contends that over geological time periods (in particular,
over the last 500 million years) the amount of available carbon in the
biospheric carbon cycle has slowly decreased. This decrease has been
driven by long term processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and
deposit it in rocks. Plants, for example, capture free carbon in the
molecules making up their tissues. As the plants die, their carbon
sometimes leaves the dynamic biological domain of the "carbon cycle"
and enters the geophysical domain as "hydrocarbon deposits" (coal,
oil, and seafloor sediments.)

Various pieces of indirect evidence exist for this slow decline in the
CO2 content of the atmosphere. Numerous plant species, for example,
thrive when subjected to an atmosphere lower in oxygen and higher in
CO2 than the current atmosphere of Earth. It is natural to suppose
that this beneficial effect is a holdover from the bygone era in which
the photosynthetic "apparatus" of these plants evolved; their initial
evolutionary "best fit" has slowly become a "misfit" due to decreasing
levels of atmospheric CO2 across intervening megalenia. Some direct
evidence of CO2 decrease also exists in the form of ice cores [1, p 42]
although it covers a much shorter time scale.

It is true that several arguments for the "essential stability" of the
atmospheric CO2 level exist, in addition to well-understood mechanisms
that "reverse the process" by removing carbon from the geophysical
domain and returning it to the biosphere (that is, the domains are not
truly separate.) It has been widely observed in the literature that
CO2 levels could never have _fallen_ to less than one-third of their
current value, nor could O2 levels have _risen_ significantly from
their current values, without deadly consequences for life [2].

The author finds these arguments too weak to deflect the main thrust
of this essay. None of the data presented in Garrels et al [2] appear
to rule out the possibility of somewhat higher atmospheric CO2 in ages
past. In fact, their discussion of the carbon cycle gives short shrift
to "reservior five" - organic carbon locked up in sediment. It is the
relationship between humankind and this crucial reservior five that we
will now continue to explore.

As we've shown, conventional reasoning links the general stability of
the carbon cycle to the general stability of biospheric temperature.
This same reasoning also serves to link the slow decrease in CO2 to an
equally slow (yet systematic) cooling of the biosphere. The Gaian
temperature "equilibrium" is not, in fact, stable. Across geological
eons, the Gaian feedback system achieves not stability, but rather a
slow cooling. Various evidence for this cooling trend exists [5].

Of course, the Gaian system is quite robust - as evidenced by its
repeated recovery from the effects of barrages of big rocks from
outer space. As Gaia ages, however, it is faced with the threat
of a calamity worse than the impact of a dinosaur killer. This is
the threat of "cold equilibrium", more colorfully called "the White
Earth scenario."

The White Earth scenario is part of the dirty laundry of the climate
modelling community. As noted in Gleick's "Chaos: Making a New
Science" [6], some seemingly reasonable (although simple) climate
models suffer from an odd characteristic of falling into a state in
which much of Gaia's free water is locked up in snow and ice; the
surface albedo of the planet is high; and no obvious mechanism for
increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas content or otherwise warming
the planet presents itself. Since this state does not seem to
correspond to anything in the historical record of the Earth, it
is regarded as anomalous and incorrect.

I suggest that we take take a truly novel approach to these seemingly
valid models that drop into the White Earth state: let's presume that
they are valid, and that they are telling us something important. We
are at risk of "cold equilibrium" in the near geological term.

The ability of the paleoclimatological community to accumulate the
data leading to this conclusion and then avoid the conclusion itself
is quite astonishing. One paleoclimatologist [4] has the audacity to
draw a graph of Gaian temperature that trends smoothly downward for
many millions of years, but is suddenly consumed by a series of sharp
vertical excursions ("wiggles") over the past few hundred thousand.
It's similar to the graph of a coin which rolls slowly around in a
large circle, then rattles rapidly around in an oscillating spiral
for a few moments before coming to rest in an equilibrium state,
stable and dead - Gaia converges on the White Earth.

Now let's take a step back from this impending frozen death for a
moment. The key to the Gaian system is that it is *self-adjusting*.
As observers who have only recently had our eyes opened to this
wonderful concept, the Gaian model, we cannot hope to appreciate
the myriad ways this all-encompassing system might find to regulate
itself - to adapt to conditions and to maintain the equilibrium
necessary for life. We must not underestimate the ability of the
Gaian organism to evolve temporary organelles designed to deal
with crisis.

The last 100,000 years have seen some of the coldest times in the
500 million that have elapsed since the Ordovician period. These
100,000 years form less than 1/1000th of the intervening 500 million

Oddly, they're the same 100,000 years that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has
existed on Earth.

Clearly, the biosphere has reached a point of crisis. The relatively
stable processes of self-regulation that have worked for the past
hundreds of millions of years have reached the limit of their ability
to correct.

In response to the impending crisis, Gaia evolved a solution. At the
edges of the ice sheets that flowed down over the northern hemisphere
during the last ice age, Gaia brought it to fruition: a short term
corrective process designed to restore the natural balance of free
carbon dioxide in the biosphere.


Yes, Man. Not the destroyer, the pillager, the environmental
rapist of the popular lore; an utterly different view of Man the
restorer, the savior, the solution to an environmental crisis more
dangerous to the biosphere than even the giant stone that ended the
age of dinosaurs. Man, whose only purpose in the Gaian system is
to extract carbon from the rocks and put it back in the atmosphere
where it belongs.

It is not far-fetched to suggest that the evolution of mankind is
an adaptive reaction. Organisms under stress are known to exhibit
all manner of extraordinary behaviors. It is likely that
Levenson's "one last coincidence" [1, p 56] is not a coincidence
at all -

From 1500 to 1850, throughout the Little Ice Age, the
nations of Europe expanded in population, power, techno-
logical competence, military strength, economic endeavors,
in world rule - in virtually every measure of the vigor
of a civilization.

No, it is not a coincidence at all. It is, quite literally, our
destiny; that is why we are so well equipped to succeed and expand
our CO2-returning practices during periods of intense cold.

The climatological community has come close to the point:

Within a few centuries, we [human beings] are returning
to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated organic
carbon stored in the sedimentary rocks over hundreds of
millions of years [3].

But as scientists, the community lacked the zeal to make that
final, fundamental leap from observation to motive - the observation
that this is not merely an unanticipated side effect of intelligence,
but the very reason for its existence.

Post-Gaian Environmental Ethics

Given this recognition of mankind's role in the Gaian system, it
is possible to construct a consistent system of environmental ethics
that might be called "Carbonism."

- Carbonists hold viewpoints that differ significantly from widely
accepted environmental viewpoints, but Carbonists are not wanton
destroyers of the environment. Carbonists do not favor poisoning
the environment with long-lived toxins such as heavy metals or
radioactive nucleotides, the accumulation of solid waste, or any
other practice that does not contribute the the increase of CO2
in the biosphere.

Carbonists do hold, however, that other concerns are outweighed
by the prospect of even a small increase in the necessary CO2 in
Gaia's thinning veil.

- Anything that has the direct effect of taking carbon from the
geophysical reservior and returning it to the atmosphere is good.

- Burning coal and oil for heating or to produce electric power
are the greatest goods. Temporary particulate pollution of the
atmosphere associated with these practices are of no consequence.

- Automobiles are very good. Automobiles contribute other
greenhouse gases, in addition to CO2, all at a minimal cost
in annoying particulate pollution.

- Burning wood is good. Logging is good. Slash-and-burn
agriculture is good, particularly when it is done to raise
ruminants (cud-chewing animals) which themselves contribute
nontrivial quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

- Eating red meat is good. Consumption of red meat has an amazing
ability to act as an economic incentive for slash-and-burn
agriculture and the cultivation of ruminants in the tropical
regions of the world.

- Hydroelectric and Nuclear power are bad. They replace beneficial
coal and oil burning. Dams are also harmful to fish, and harming
fish has no evident CO2 benefit - Again, Carbonists are not wanton
destroyers of the environment.

Aside from its unfortunate tendency to substitute for coal and oil
burning, nuclear power is fairly neutral. This reflects my personal
viewpoint that the nuclear economy is unlikely to result in
significantly poisoning the environment over time. Being anti-
nuclear is the appropriate Carbonist viewpoint no matter what your
feelings about the safety of nuclear power. Nuclear safety is a
non-issue for Carbonists.

- Natural gas is not good, although it is not as bad as hydroelectric
power (it does add small amounts of certain greenhouse gases to the
atmosphere.) In most cases, however, natural gas substitutes for
the significantly more beneficial practices of burning coal or oil,
and so should be avoided.

- Air pollution is good, particularly when it kills large areas
of forest (Central Europe, California, etc.) These dead trees
are far more likely to end up rotting and burning (and hence
contributing to atmospheric CO2) than to end up in the ground.

The Longer Term and the Meaning of Life

A short term consequence of the restoration of a proper CO2 balance
to the atmosphere will be a radical drop in the number of species
within the Gaian system. This holocaust will be caused by the
inability of most species to adapt to the rapid shift in climate,
non-CO2 pollution occurring as a side effect of CO2 boosting, and
related effects.

The loss of speciation might well approach the worst of the dinosaur
killer episodes in scope - perhaps 75% or more of Gaia's individual
species will disappear in a period of only a few centuries.

In the longer term, what of it? It's happened before, and it will
happen again. The Gaian system has a proven ability to recover
from loss of speciation. The destruction of 75% of Gaia's species
is a routine event of no consequence; the impending White Earth
Catastrophy offers the prospect of the death of Gaia itself - a
multibillion-year-old organism of unimaginable richness and variety.

Finally, it is worth noting that Carbonism speaks directly to the
fundamental questions of human existence in a way that is both simple
and profound. Carbonism holds that neither individual human life
nor any achievement of humanity, other than the liberation of free
carbon, has any significance whatsoever. Only the collective
behavior of the human species is significant to Gaia, and in a
few centuries (when the carbon balance has been restored) Gaia's
need for humanity will be at an end.

Mark Sweiger (sweiger@sequent.com) suggested the name "Carbonism."

Reviewers of the document and victims of my lunchtime rants have
included my wife Sylvia and numerous long-suffering engineers
at Sequent.

[1] Levenson, T. "Ice Time: Climate, Science, and Life on Earth."
Harper and Row, 1989, p 10 and others.

[2] Garrels, Lerman, Mackenzie, "Controls of Atmospheric O2 and CO2
Past, Present, and Future." In "Climates Past and Present",
Skinner, B Ed. William Kaufman Inc, 1981.

[3] Baes, Goeller, Olson, Rotty, "Carbon Dioxide and Climate: The
Uncontrolled Experiment." In "Climates Past and Present",
Skinner, B ed. William Kaufman Inc, 1981.

[4] Butzer, K. "Environment and Archeology. An Ecological Approach
to Prehistory", Second Edition. Aldine Athertone 1971, p 18.

[5] Hecht, A. "Paleoclimate Analysis and Modelling" John Wiley &
Sons, 1985, p 402.

[6] Gleick, "Chaos: Making a New Science", p 170. I've also
exchanged some email with members of the community, one of
whom indicated that explaining why this has never really
happened on earth had "the status of a cottage industry"
for a time.

Do not remove the checksum endmarker that follows.
Do the folks in charge know what they're doing?
Richard Heinberg

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As I write this essay, the U.S. is embroiled in post-election chaos. The nation that styles itself the world's foremost democracy is having difficulty choosing its next president, due not only to the closeness of the vote, but also to antiquated election procedures, confusing ballots, and outright electoral fraud. What was intended as a well-choreographed ritual has descended into low farce.
Despite the stress and frayed tempers, there is a quality of delicious uncertainty about the exercise. Unlike all the execrable TV political ads and the excruciating presidential debates, the events of mid-November have been largely unscripted. Ordinary people are actually talking about electoral reform, rather than merely comparing and contrasting candidates' personalities and nostrums. For a few days or weeks, we have entered a Twilight Zone in which it is possible to fantasize the possibility of real democracy, even to imagine a reality in which no one is president. I'm reminded of the saying, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans" For the moment, nobody is in control and anything could happen.
This temporary ripple in consensus reality invites fresh consideration of a much larger issue beyond the election - the future of industrial society in the face of oil depletion, global warming, and overpopulation. If the electoral process in the reigning global superpower is vulnerable to disruption, what about the rest of the world's political and economic control system? Do the folks in charge of the world (whoever they are) really understand the problems facing us all? Is the system they command capable of finding and implementing solutions? Are we standing on solid ground, or might it shift at any moment?
These are not questions amenable to objective, scientific examination and clear resolution; however, they are of such great subjective import that they cannot be ignored. The entire edifice of modern civilization is at stake, as well as what's left of the natural world and the lives of millions or billions of people.
In talking to students, colleagues, and friends about these questions, I've found that answers, while articulated in a wide range of ways, are usually variations on four basic themes:
1. Yes, the folks in charge know what they're doing. The problems confronting us may be serious, but they will think of something, and we'll all pull through, because the alternative is inconceivable. More information and more sophisticated technology ensure that the problems will eventually be solved. As a result, everyone will be better off.
2. Yes, the folks in charge know what they're doing, but their "solutions" to global problems are mostly diabolical. The global manipulators are incredibly knowledgeable and resourceful, but at the end of the day they are mostly interested in consolidating and protecting their own power base. They will not allow civilization to collapse into chaos, but their methods for "saving" it will entail the enslavement of virtually the entire planet.
3. No, the folks in charge don't know what they're doing, and it's a good thing. Their control over the world's peoples and resources is fragile and at some point will falter. The result could be an outbreak of populist, self-organizing anarchy - in the best sense of that term. The world's problems have mostly come about because of the global manipulators' actions, so we should not look to those same manipulators for solutions; rather, we should assume that when the rich and powerful are no longer in charge it will be easier for the rest of us to act in our own best interests, and to collaborate in the solution of the world's problems through the exercise of our collective, innate human genius.
4. No, the folks in charge don't know what they're doing, and the result will likely be horrific for almost everyone. Even though the global manipulators have created many of the problems now plaguing humankind, they have done so by simultaneously creating a system of dependency on which nearly all of us rely for life support. The collapse of that system will result in profound, widespread tragedy. Even so, the manipulators themselves may still come out relatively unscathed, given their immense stockpiled wealth. In the end, the only way they will suffer personally to any great extent is if humankind approaches extinction. But that possibility cannot be ruled out.
Now, it is of course likely that the situation is complex and cannot be characterized solely by any one of these options. I would argue that third and fourth are probably the most accurate: the ruling elites, despite immense power and wealth, are largely clueless; whether that will lead to good or bad results remains to be seen.
Most people I talk to disagree with me about this. So here, once and for all, I want to state my reasons for my position. What I propose to do here is, first, offer a brief parable expressing metaphorically my own take on the situation; next, state the evidence and reasoning for each of the four alternatives; and finally, discuss some implications.

Imagine yourself in the following circumstance. You have just awakened from sleep to find yourself on a tarpaper raft floating away from shore. With you on the raft are a couple of hundred people, most of whom seem completely oblivious to their situation. They are drinking beer, barbecuing ribs, fishing, or sleeping. You look at the rickety vessel and say to yourself, "My God, this thing is going to sink any second!"
Miraculously, seconds go by and it is still afloat. You look around to see who's in charge. The only people you can find who appear to have any authority are some pompous-looking characters operating a gambling casino in the middle of the raft. In back of them stand heavily armed soldiers. You point out that the raft appears dangerous. They inform you that it is the safest and most wonderful vessel ever constructed, and that if you persist in suggesting otherwise the guards will exercise their brand of persuasion on you. You back away, smiling, and move to the edge of the raft. At this point, you're convinced (and even comment to a stranger next to you) that, with those idiots at the helm, the raft can't last more than another minute or so.
A minute goes by and still the damn thing is afloat. You turn your gaze out to the water. You notice now that the raft is surrounded by many sound-looking rowboats, each carrying a family of indigenous fishers. Men on the raft are systematically forcing people out of the rowboats and onto the raft at gunpoint, and shooting holes in the bottoms of the rowboats. This is clearly insane behavior: the rowboats are the only possible sources of escape or rescue if the raft goes down, and taking more people on board the already overcrowded raft is gradually bringing its deck even with the water line. You reckon that there must now be as many as four hundred souls aboard. At this rate, the raft is sure to capsize in a matter of seconds.
A few seconds elapse. You can see and feel water lapping at your shoes, but amazingly enough the raft itself is still afloat, and nearly everyone is still busy eating, drinking, or gambling (indeed, the activity around the casino has heated up considerably). You hear someone in the distance shouting about how the raft is about to sink. You rush in the direction of the voice only to see its source being tossed unceremoniously overboard. You decide to keep quiet, but think silently to yourself, "Jeez, this thing can't last more than another couple of minutes! What the hell should I do?"
You notice a group of a dozen or so people working to patch and reinforce one corner of the raft. This, at least, is constructive behavior, so you join in. But it's not long before you realize that the only materials available to do the patching with are ones cannibalized from elsewhere on the raft. Even though the people you're working with clearly have the best of intentions and are making some noticeable improvements to the few square feet on which they've worked, there is simply no way they can render the entire vessel "sustainable," given its size, the amount of time required, and the limited availability of basic materials. You think to yourself that there must be some better solution, but can't quite focus on one.
As you stand there fretting, a couple of minutes pass. You realize that every one of your predictions about the fate of the raft has been disconfirmed. You feel useless and silly. You are about to make the only rational deductions - that there must be some mystical power keeping the raft afloat, and that you might as well make the most of the situation and have some barbecue - when a thought comes to you: The "sustainability" crowd has the right idea . . . except that, as they rebuild their corner of the raft, they should make it easily detachable, so that when the boat as a whole sinks they can simply disengage from it and paddle toward shore. But then, what about the hundreds of people who won't be able to fit onto this smaller, reconditioned raftlet?
You notice now that there is a group of rafters grappling with the soldiers who've been shooting holes in rowboats. Maybe, if some of the rowboats and their indigenous occupants survive, then the scope of the impending tragedy can be reduced. But direct confrontation with the armed guards appears to be a dangerous business, since many of the protesters are being shot or thrown into the water.
You continue working with the sustainability group, since they seem to have the best understanding of the problem and the best chances of survival. At the same time, your sympathies are with the protesters and the fisher families. You hope and pray that this is all some nightmare from which you will soon awaken, or that there is some means of escape - for everyone - that you haven't seen yet.

That's how I feel - most of the time, anyway. But a lot of other people don't feel the same way - or at least if they do they don't admit it. They regard me as a pessimist and themselves as optimists.
One of the optimists' main reasons for discounting forecasts of collapse is that similar past predictions have failed spectacularly. The raft is still afloat, after all. Remember Y2K? How about the Jupiter Effect? World Marxist revolution? Earth Changes? Or what about that prescient book, The Great Depression of 1995?

The elites have virtually unlimited resources of all kinds at their disposal. They certainly know all about petroleum depletion and global warming. They maintain armies of experts equipped with all the latest monitoring and mapping devices in order to determine the exact current status of every variable that could conceivably affect their interests. They hire teams of computer nerds to project significant trends far into the future so that risks can be avoided and advantages exploited. These people are simply too smart to allow the raft to founder. The folks in charge may be greedy, but they know that, in order to keep the ship afloat, they will have to make sure everyone's basic needs are met.
Sure there are problems, but potential solutions abound. While international industrial corporate capitalism constitutes a fairly young system, it has proven itself extremely resilient and adaptable. There will always be local catastrophes or temporary setbacks. But, over all, the marriage of science with high technology is propelling our species on an inexorably upward trend.
Who makes this case? Nearly all the paid spokespeople for the system itself - including journalists, commentators, and the entire public relations profession. Economists accept it as an article of faith; and of the economists, the late Julian Simons was perhaps the most bullish. He argued that it is in the nature of human beings to solve problems; the more humans there are, the more human genius is available to find solutions. Therefore the population "crisis" actually guarantees our extrication from all apparent dilemmas.
While this philosophy is nearly universal among economic conservatives, plenty of liberals also swear by it. Yes, the corporations have made a mess of things, the latter say, but corporations can be reformed. Even the oil companies realize that global warming and petroleum depletion will be bad for business. That's why BP's CEO, Sir John Browne, has said that his company's name should no longer be taken to mean "British Petroleum," but rather "Beyond " That's also why companies like Dow Chemical, Ford, General Motors, Mitsubishi, Monsanto, Shell, Sony, Texaco, Toyota, and Xerox have joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Environmentalists and human rights advocates must still be vigilant in convincing corporate foot-draggers to hop fully aboard the reform bandwagon, but the trend is clear: the folks in charge know in their heart of hearts that we will all have to change in order to survive.

Hold on - what about the WBCSD: just what is it, what are its plans, and who stands to benefit from it?
Made up of the world's 150 largest corporations, the WBCSD was formed in 1995 to work for "sustainable development, i.e., environmental protection, social equity and economic growth." The organization's aims, in its words, are "to develop closer co-operation between business, government and all other organizations concerned with the environment and sustainable development . . . to encourage high standards of environmental management in business itself [and] . . . to contribute through our global network to a sustainable future for developing nations."
Sounds pretty high-minded. And no doubt there are plenty of people at Shell, Toyota, etc., who genuinely hold those ideals. But might there be other motivations in play? There are cynics who say that the transnational corporations (TNCs), seeing the end of the petroleum era on the immediate horizon, view "going green" as merely an economic survival strategy. Corporate tactics may change, but basic goals don't: increase profits and market share, whatever it takes!

In an article titled Global Manipulators Move Beyond Petroleum (New Dawn, November-December 2000), Australian journalist Susan Bryce writes:
The corporations are now starting to unveil environmentally friendly technologies that they patented and locked away years ago. The TNCs must take control of alternative and renewable energy sources so that the masses continue to be dependent upon them. This way, continued profits and the stability of the world economy are ensured.
The TNCs have banded together to usher in a new era of "corporate responsibility." This new "ethic" will see TNCs becoming concerned with human rights, the environment, labour standards, women, and minorities. Corporate social responsibility means just that. The corporations will take responsibility for our social development.

Not only the corporations, but also the world's military and "intelligence" establishments are planning for survival in a world with rapidly diminishing oil reserves, unstable climate, disappearing fresh water supplies, and a vast and still growing human population. These institutions are able to hire the very best and the brightest engineers and analysts. What are these wise people planning? What's their idea of a "green" future? Start with a genetically engineered food supply. Add genetically engineered humans. Privatize fresh water and clean air. Pacify the populace with saturation levels of electronic entertainment. And create "sacrifice zones" - regions, even whole continents, where pollution, resource depletion, and famine can be localized - so that other zones can be "saved."

That's the reality of the elites' "green" agenda. And it's not a pretty picture.

Fortunately or not, this is a strategy of desperation that won't and can't work. The folks in charge may have plenty of brain power at their disposal, but all the geniuses in the world, lined up end to end, can't reach a solution in which the global control system survives in any recognizable form.
Why? The basis of all existence is energy: all living systems on planet Earth rely on energy derived ultimately from the Sun, and so do human social systems; the more complex the system, the more energy per capita is required for its maintenance. We are coming to the end of a century or so of burgeoning energy availability derived from fossil fuels. Within the next few years global petroleum production will peak and energy availability will begin to decline dramatically. The only alternative sources in sight (photovoltaics, wind, etc.) provide less energy at lower levels of concentration.
Previous complex societies have met analogous energy crises, and in every case the result has been the reversion of the society to a lower level of complexity - in common parlance, collapse. As archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out in The Collapse of Complex Societies, collapse is an economizing strategy (usually not deliberate) necessitated by serious and prolonged energy deficits.
But how do we know that the system's managers haven't foreseen petroleum depletion and somehow planned for it? After all, they're smart and they have a lot to lose if the ship goes down. They wouldn't make a blunder that big, would they?
Of course not - not if they were rational and had any choice in the matter. However, they are not and do not. So far as industrial society is concerned, fossil-fuel dependency constitutes a long-term trend. The trend began decades before anyone thought seriously about petroleum depletion and its ultimate consequences. By the time analysts had determined when the oil would begin to run out (they did this in the late '50s and early '60s), dependency was systemic and profound; and the production peak was far enough away that those in charge could only simply hope that somehow an alternative would appear. They've been hoping ever since.
We must remember that, no matter how well-funded an intelligence organization may be, and no matter how many satellites and computers it deploys, it is still fallible. Consider the CIA and its spectacular record of ineptness over the past few decades - its inability to foresee the revolution in Iran, its miscalculations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even information that has been gathered and processed by computers must still be evaluated and passed along the chain of command by human beings, and humans are never entirely rational.
Every organization tends to discourage unwanted information. If you happen to be an underling charged with carrying news to managers, you know that you are more likely to be rewarded if the news is good. For industrial society, petroleum depletion is the ultimate bad news. Nobody wants to hear it, so nobody wants to deliver it.
Suppose you're a senior executive at Boeing. Someone in the long-range planning department mentions in a report that petroleum production will peak around the year 2005, after which jet fuel will quickly become prohibitively expensive. You make an inquiry to your engineering staff, who tell you that there is no alternative to kerosene for fueling jets. The implication: by 2020, perhaps much sooner, it may no longer be possible to operate a commercial airline anywhere in the world. The responsible thing to do would be to pass this information along to clients - airlines and governments that are intending to spend billions of dollars to purchase new jets with a projected operating lifetime of thirty years. If you tell the clients, you will lose your job, the mortgage bills on your million-dollar house won't get paid, and your son or daughter might even have to drop out of college. Stockholders will sue the company for billions and everyone you've worked with will hate you. On the other hand, you could bury the report and continue with business as usual, take home the million-dollar bonus, and retire rich and happy. Tough choice.
Most CEOs and senior strategic managers are close to retirement. And it is a truism of management that, as one ascends the ranks, the time span between when a key strategic decision is made and when one becomes accountable for its consequences lengthens. It is one's successors who will have to deal with whatever mess results, and they in turn will be similarly motivated to pass the buck to their successors.
We must also remember that, while industrial capitalism is in many respects an integrated system, it is not controlled by a single unified power center, but rather by a feudal oligarchy of corporate, governmental, military, and intelligence establishments. Within and among these establishments there is often fierce competition. Managers spend much more of their time looking for short-term advantages over their competitors than they do considering the long-range picture of where society as a whole is headed.
There are, of course, some managers who do understand the long-range picture; but the most they can do, given all the constraints just mentioned, is to create a corporate "sustainability" initiative that is mostly public-relations hype, and to make desperate plans for worst-case scenarios (Build more prisons! Expand the military!). None of these measures can change the basic fact that industry runs on oil, and oil is going away.
Now, assuming that the folks in charge really don't know what they're doing, does this spell catastrophe for everyone? Not necessarily. There is probably no way to avoid economic turmoil and wrenching social dislocations over the next few decades. However, an argument can be made that the collapse of the current predatory, exploitive system will be a good thing in the long run, in that it could open the way for other possibilities. As Tainter notes, collapse means simply a reversion to a less-complex level of social organization. Despite the likelihood of short-term chaos, that could be a chance for humanity to internalize and implement a new environmental ethic. The way could be opened for the survival of currently embattled indigenous cultures, and people in industrialized countries would be forced to return to local self-reliance and community solidarity. Organic agriculture would be the only kind of agriculture possible. Look to Cuba for some hint of how we might get along quite well in a post-petroleum, post-globalization world. That's the third alternative.
There's no point wasting many words on the fourth. If everyone is on the raft and the raft goes down, only strong swimmers will even have a chance. It's not difficult to spin out scenarios in which there would simply be no survivors.

My message - that the folks in charge don't know what they're doing - doesn't work to the advantage of any political group: environmentalists, conservatives, and liberals all need to assume the continued existence of their playing field. They are all associated with organizations, and high-level operatives in those organizations have motives that are similar to those of our hypothetical Boeing CEO. They want to project the status quo into the future, since any fundamental discontinuity would be bad for fund-raising and career security.
Sure: in order to build a constituency behind any plan of action one needs to be able to tell people some bad news (the world is going to hell); but that must immediately be followed by good news (however, our group is working to improve things, and, if you do what we say, the world won't go to hell after all!). The formula of the presentation is basically the same whether the presenters happen to be communists, Islamic fundamentalists, or Christian Republicans.
The fact is, I'm not at all sure there is anything we can do, institutionally, to salvage society at anything like its current level of complexity (though some courses of action would clearly be better than others; for example, diverting the Pentagon budget to renewable energy research would be much better than preparing for an oil war in the Middle East - but how likely is such a diversion?). So, if there's no institutionally "acceptable" solution, why even bother discussing the problem? Because, as far as I can tell, this is the truth, even if it happens to be a truth that almost no one dares discuss. I have the luxury of exploring it here in MuseLetter because this happens to be a publication with no advertisers, supported only by subscribers.
I don't know how, or when, or how quickly collapse will occur. I've suggested the equivalent of "any second now" or "in a couple of minutes" too many times. Moreover, I don't want to be proven right about any of this. I genuinely hope there is some way out that we haven't seen yet. But I personally need to base my hopes on something more than a belief in a mystical power that works to keep rafts afloat.
This is the part of the essay in which I would naturally expect to address the question, "So what?" That's difficult to do in this instance. Obviously, if the folks in charge don't know what they're doing, we should be shoring up whatever part of the raft we happen to be on, practising our swimming strokes, and figuring out how to navigate back to shore. But I have to admit that I don't happen to be a particularly good swimmer or raft builder. All I can say is, it appears to me that this is the situation we're in.
To those who say that this is just too pessimistic an outlook to tolerate, I say: forget it, then. Enjoy yourself. Have some barbecue! Life is a gift to be cherished, after all, and I have no interest in making people unnecessarily depressed. To me, optimism is a state of being that is not necessarily based on a rational forecast of events (and, believe it or not, I tend to be a fairly optimistic person).
What kind of response from readers do I hope for? I don't know. I'm letting you know how I think and feel (and, over the months and years, I've shared a fair amount of evidence that leads me to these views). What do you think?

If you wish to republish any of these essays or post them on a web site, please contact rheinberg@museletter.com for permission

Plastic Ocean
Our oceans are turning into plastic...are we?
By Susan Casey, Photographs by Gregg Segal
May 11, 2007 - 11:45:03 PM
A vast swath of the Pacific, twice the size of Texas, is full of a plastic stew that is entering the food chain. Scientists say these toxins are causing obesity, infertility...and worse.
Fate can take strange forms, and so perhaps it does not seem unusual that Captain Charles Moore found his life’s purpose in a nightmare. Unfortunately, he was awake at the time, and 800 miles north of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.

It happened on August 3, 1997, a lovely day, at least in the beginning: Sunny. Little wind. Water the color of sapphires. Moore and the crew of Alguita, his 50-foot aluminum-hulled catamaran, sliced through the sea.

Returning to Southern California from Hawaii after a sailing race, Moore had altered Alguita’s course, veering slightly north. He had the time and the curiosity to try a new route, one that would lead the vessel through the eastern corner of a 10-million-square-mile oval known as the North Pacific subtropical gyre. This was an odd stretch of ocean, a place most boats purposely avoided. For one thing, it was becalmed. “The doldrums,” sailors called it, and they steered clear. So did the ocean’s top predators: the tuna, sharks, and other large fish that required livelier waters, flush with prey. The gyre was more like a desert—a slow, deep, clockwise-swirling vortex of air and water caused by a mountain of high-pressure air that lingered above it.

The area’s reputation didn’t deter Moore. He had grown up in Long Beach, 40 miles south of L.A., with the Pacific literally in his front yard, and he possessed an impressive aquatic résumé: deckhand, able seaman, sailor, scuba diver, surfer, and finally captain. Moore had spent countless hours in the ocean, fascinated by its vast trove of secrets and terrors. He’d seen a lot of things out there, things that were glorious and grand; things that were ferocious and humbling. But he had never seen anything nearly as chilling as what lay ahead of him in the gyre.

It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.

How did all the plastic end up here? How did this trash tsunami begin? What did it mean? If the questions seemed overwhelming, Moore would soon learn that the answers were even more so, and that his discovery had dire implications for human—and planetary—health. As Alguita glided through the area that scientists now refer to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” Moore realized that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles. Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled across the 21st-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body.

“Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” This Andy Warhol quote is emblazoned on a six-foot-long magenta and yellow banner that hangs—with extreme irony—in the solar-powered workshop in Moore’s Long Beach home. The workshop is surrounded by a crazy Eden of trees, bushes, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, ranging from the prosaic (tomatoes) to the exotic (cherimoyas, guavas, chocolate persimmons, white figs the size of baseballs). This is the house in which Moore, 59, was raised, and it has a kind of open-air earthiness that reflects his ’60s-activist roots, which included a stint in a Berkeley commune. Composting and organic gardening are serious business here—you can practically smell the humus—but there is also a kidney-shaped hot tub surrounded by palm trees. Two wet suits hang drying on a clothesline above it.

This afternoon, Moore strides the grounds. “How about a nice, fresh boysenberry?” he asks, and plucks one off a bush. He’s a striking man wearing no-nonsense black trousers and a shirt with official-looking epaulettes. A thick brush of salt-and-pepper hair frames his intense blue eyes and serious face. But the first thing you notice about Moore is his voice, a deep, bemused drawl that becomes animated and sardonic when the subject turns to plastic pollution. This problem is Moore’s calling, a passion he inherited from his father, an industrial chemist who studied waste management as a hobby. On family vacations, Moore recalls, part of the agenda would be to see what the locals threw out. “We could be in paradise, but we would go to the dump,” he says with a shrug. “That’s what we wanted to see.”

Since his first encounter with the Garbage Patch nine years ago, Moore has been on a mission to learn exactly what’s going on out there. Leaving behind a 25-year career running a furniture-restoration business, he has created the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to spread the word of his findings. He has resumed his science studies, which he’d set aside when his attention swerved from pursuing a university degree to protesting the Vietnam War. His tireless effort has placed him on the front lines of this new, more abstract battle. After enlisting scientists such as Steven B. Weisberg, Ph.D. (executive director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project and an expert in marine environmental monitoring), to develop methods for analyzing the gyre’s contents, Moore has sailed Alguita back to the Garbage Patch several times. On each trip, the volume of plastic has grown alarmingly. The area in which it accumulates is now twice the size of Texas.

At the same time, all over the globe, there are signs that plastic pollution is doing more than blighting the scenery; it is also making its way into the food chain. Some of the most obvious victims are the dead seabirds that have been washing ashore in startling numbers, their bodies packed with plastic: things like bottle caps, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, and colored scraps that, to a foraging bird, resemble baitfish. (One animal dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic.) And the birds aren’t alone. All sea creatures are threatened by floating plastic, from whales down to zooplankton. There’s a basic moral horror in seeing the pictures: a sea turtle with a plastic band strangling its shell into an hourglass shape; a humpback towing plastic nets that cut into its flesh and make it impossible for the animal to hunt. More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning.

Bad enough. But Moore soon learned that the big, tentacled balls of trash were only the most visible signs of the problem; others were far less obvious, and far more evil. Dragging a fine-meshed net known as a manta trawl, he discovered minuscule pieces of plastic, some barely visible to the eye, swirling like fish food throughout the water. He and his researchers parsed, measured, and sorted their samples and arrived at the following conclusion: By weight, this swath of sea contains six times as much plastic as it does plankton.

This statistic is grim—for marine animals, of course, but even more so for humans. The more invisible and ubiquitous the pollution, the more likely it will end up inside us. And there’s growing—and disturbing—proof that we’re ingesting plastic toxins constantly, and that even slight doses of these substances can severely disrupt gene activity. “Every one of us has this huge body burden,” Moore says. “You could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100 industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950.” The fact that these toxins don’t cause violent and immediate reactions does not mean they’re benign: Scientists are just beginning to research the long-term ways in which the chemicals used to make plastic interact with our own biochemistry.

In simple terms, plastic is a petroleum-based mix of monomers that become polymers, to which additional chemicals are added for suppleness, inflammability, and other qualities. When it comes to these substances, even the syllables are scary. For instance, if you’re thinking that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) isn’t something you want to sprinkle on your microwave popcorn, you’re right. Recently, the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) upped its classification of PFOA to a likely carcinogen. Yet it’s a common ingredient in packaging that needs to be oil- and heat-resistant. So while there may be no PFOA in the popcorn itself, if PFOA is used to treat the bag, enough of it can leach into the popcorn oil when your butter deluxe meets your superheated microwave oven that a single serving spikes the amount of the chemical in your blood.

Other nasty chemical additives are the flame retardants known as poly-brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These chemicals have been shown to cause liver and thyroid toxicity, reproductive problems, and memory loss in preliminary animal studies. In vehicle interiors, PBDEs—used in moldings and floor coverings, among other things—combine with another group called phthalates to create that much-vaunted “new-car smell.” Leave your new wheels in the hot sun for a few hours, and these substances can “off-gas” at an accelerated rate, releasing noxious by-products.

It’s not fair, however, to single out fast food and new cars. PBDEs, to take just one example, are used in many products, incuding computers, carpeting, and paint. As for phthalates, we deploy about a billion pounds of them a year worldwide despite the fact that California recently listed them as a chemical known to be toxic to our reproductive systems. Used to make plastic soft and pliable, phthalates leach easily from millions of products—packaged food, cosmetics, varnishes, the coatings of timed-release pharmaceuticals—into our blood, urine, saliva, seminal fluid, breast milk, and amniotic fluid. In food containers and some plastic bottles, phthalates are now found with another compound called bisphenol A (BPA), which scientists are discovering can wreak stunning havoc in the body. We produce 6 billion pounds of that each year, and it shows: BPA has been found in nearly every human who has been tested in the United States. We’re eating these plasticizing additives, drinking them, breathing them, and absorbing them through our skin every single day.
Most alarming, these chemicals may disrupt the endocrine system—the delicately balanced set of hormones and glands that affect virtually every organ and cell—by mimicking the female hormone estrogen. In marine environments, excess estrogen has led to Twilight Zone-esque discoveries of male fish and seagulls that have sprouted female sex organs.

On land, things are equally gruesome. “Fertility rates have been declining for quite some time now, and exposure to synthetic estrogen—especially from the chemicals found in plastic products—can have an adverse effect,” says Marc Goldstein, M.D., director of the Cornell Institute for Repro-ductive Medicine. Dr. Goldstein also notes that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable: “Prenatal exposure, even in very low doses, can cause irreversible damage in an unborn baby’s reproductive organs.” And after the baby is born, he or she is hardly out of the woods. Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who specifically studies estrogenic chemicals in plastics, warns parents to “steer clear of polycarbonate baby bottles. They’re particularly dangerous for newborns, whose brains, immune systems, and gonads are still developing.” Dr. vom Saal’s research spurred him to throw out every polycarbonate plastic item in his house, and to stop buying plastic-wrapped food and canned goods (cans are plastic-lined) at the grocery store. “We now know that BPA causes prostate cancer in mice and rats, and abnormalities in the prostate’s stem cell, which is the cell implicated in human prostate cancer,” he says. “That’s enough to scare the hell out of me.” At Tufts University, Ana M. Soto, M.D., a professor of anatomy and cellular biology, has also found connections between these chemicals and breast cancer.

As if the potential for cancer and mutation weren’t enough, Dr. vom Saal states in one of his studies that “prenatal exposure to very low doses of BPA increases the rate of postnatal growth in mice and rats.” In other words, BPA made rodents fat. Their insulin output surged wildly and then crashed into a state of resistance—the virtual definition of diabetes. They produced bigger fat cells, and more of them. A recent scientific paper Dr. vom Saal coauthored contains this chilling sentence: “These findings suggest that developmental exposure to BPA is contributing to the obesity epidemic that has occurred during the last two decades in the developed world, associated with the dramatic increase in the amount of plastic being produced each year.” Given this, it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that America’s staggering rise in diabetes—a 735 percent increase since 1935—follows the same arc.

This news is depressing enough to make a person reach for the bottle. Glass, at least, is easily recyclable. You can take one tequila bottle, melt it down, and make another tequila bottle. With plastic, recycling is more complicated. Unfortunately, that promising-looking triangle of arrows that appears on products doesn’t always signify endless reuse; it merely identifies which type of plastic the item is made from. And of the seven different plastics in common use, only two of them—PET (labeled with #1 inside the triangle and used in soda bottles) and HDPE (labeled with #2 inside the triangle and used in milk jugs)—have much of an aftermarket. So no matter how virtuously you toss your chip bags and shampoo bottles into your blue bin, few of them will escape the landfill—only 3 to 5 percent of plastics are recycled in any way.

“There’s no legal way to recycle a milk container into another milk container without adding a new virgin layer of plastic,” Moore says, pointing out that, because plastic melts at low temperatures, it retains pollutants and the tainted residue of its former contents. Turn up the heat to sear these off, and some plastics release deadly vapors. So the reclaimed stuff is mostly used to make entirely different products, things that don’t go anywhere near our mouths, such as fleece jackets and carpeting. Therefore, unlike recycling glass, metal, or paper, recycling plastic doesn’t always result in less use of virgin material. It also doesn’t help that fresh-made plastic is far cheaper.

Moore routinely finds half-melted blobs of plastic in the ocean, as though the person doing the burning realized partway through the process that this was a bad idea, and stopped (or passed out from the fumes). “That’s a concern as plastic proliferates worldwide, and people run out of room for trash and start burning plastic—you’re producing some of the most toxic gases known,” he says. The color-coded bin system may work in Marin County, but it is somewhat less effective in subequatorial Africa or rural Peru.

“Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated—and it’s a very small amount—every bit of plastic ever made still exists,” Moore says, describing how the material’s molecular structure resists biodegradation. Instead, plastic crumbles into ever-tinier fragments as it’s exposed to sunlight and the elements. And none of these untold gazillions of fragments is disappearing anytime soon: Even when plastic is broken down to a single molecule, it remains too tough for biodegradation.
Truth is, no one knows how long it will take for plastic to biodegrade, or return to its carbon and hydrogen elements. We only invented the stuff 144 years ago, and science’s best guess is that its natural disappearance will take several more centuries. Meanwhile, every year, we churn out about 60 billion tons of it, much of which becomes disposable products meant only for a single use. Set aside the question of why we’re creating ketchup bottles and six-pack rings that last for half a millennium, and consider the implications of it: Plastic never really goes away.

Ask a group of people to name an overwhelming global problem, and you’ll hear about climate change, the Middle East, or AIDS. No one, it is guaranteed, will cite the sloppy transport of nurdles as a concern. And
yet nurdles, lentil-size pellets of plastic in its rawest form, are especially effective couriers of waste chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, which include known carcinogens such as DDT and PCBs.

The United States banned these poisons in the 1970s, but they remain stubbornly at large in the environment, where they latch on to plastic because of its molecular tendency to attract oils.

The word itself—nurdles—sounds cuddly and harmless, like a cartoon character or a pasta for kids, but what it refers to is most certainly not. Absorbing up to a million times the level of POP pollution in their surrounding waters, nurdles become supersaturated poison pills. They’re light enough to blow around like dust, to spill out of shipping containers, and to wash into harbors, storm drains, and creeks. In the ocean, nurdles are easily mistaken for fish eggs by creatures that would very much like to have such a snack. And once inside the body of a bigeye tuna or a king salmon, these tenacious chemicals are headed directly to your dinner table.
One study estimated that nurdles now account for 10 percent of plastic ocean debris. And once they’re scattered in the environment, they’re diabolically hard to clean up (think wayward confetti). At places as remote as Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, 2,100 miles northeast of New Zealand and a 12-hour flight from L.A., they’re commonly found mixed with beach sand. In 2004, Moore received a $500,000 grant from the state of California to investigate the myriad ways in which nurdles go astray during the plastic manufacturing process. On a visit to a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe factory, as he walked through an area where railcars unloaded ground-up nurdles, he noticed that his pant cuffs were filled with a fine plastic dust. Turning a corner, he saw windblown drifts of nurdles piled against a fence. Talking about the experience, Moore’s voice becomes strained and his words pour out in an urgent tumble: “It’s not the big trash on the beach. It’s the fact that the whole biosphere is becoming mixed with these plastic particles. What are they doing to us? We’re breathing them, the fish are eating them, they’re in our hair, they’re in our skin.”

Though marine dumping is part of the problem, escaped nurdles and other plastic litter migrate to the gyre largely from land. That polystyrene cup you saw floating in the creek, if it doesn’t get picked up and specifically taken to a landfill, will eventually be washed out to sea. Once there, it will have plenty of places to go: The North Pacific gyre is only one of five such high-pressure zones in the oceans. There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. Each of these gyres has its own version of the Garbage Patch, as plastic gathers in the currents. Together, these areas cover 40 percent of the sea. “That corresponds to a quarter of the earth’s surface,” Moore says. “So 25 percent of our planet is a toilet that never flushes.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1865, a few years after Alexander Parkes unveiled a precursor to man-made plastic called Parkesine, a scientist named John W. Hyatt set out to make a synthetic replacement for ivory billiard balls. He had the best of intentions: Save the elephants! After some tinkering, he created celluloid. From then on, each year brought a miraculous recipe: rayon in 1891, Teflon in 1938, polypropylene in 1954. Durable, cheap, versatile—plastic seemed like a revelation. And in many ways, it was. Plastic has given us bulletproof vests, credit cards, slinky spandex pants. It has led to breakthroughs in medicine, aerospace engineering, and computer science. And who among us doesn’t own a Frisbee?
Plastic has its benefits; no one would deny that. Few of us, however, are as enthusiastic as the American Plastics Council. One of its recent press releases, titled “Plastic Bags—A Family’s Trusted Companion,” reads: “Very few people remember what life was like before plastic bags became an icon of convenience and practicality—and now art. Remember the ‘beautiful’ [sic] swirling, floating bag in American Beauty?”

Alas, the same ethereal quality that allows bags to dance gracefully across the big screen also lands them in many less desirable places. Twenty-three countries, including Germany, South Africa, and Australia, have banned, taxed, or restricted the use of plastic bags because they clog sewers and lodge in the throats of livestock. Like pernicious Kleenex, these flimsy sacks end up snagged in trees and snarled in fences, becoming eyesores and worse: They also trap rainwater, creating perfect little breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.

In the face of public outrage over pictures of dolphins choking on “a family’s trusted companion,” the American Plastics Council takes a defensive stance, sounding not unlike the NRA: Plastics don’t pollute, people do.

It has a point. Each of us tosses about 185 pounds of plastic per year. We could certainly reduce that. And yet—do our products have to be quite so lethal? Must a discarded flip-flop remain with us until the end of time? Aren’t disposable razors and foam packing peanuts a poor consolation prize for the destruction of the world’s oceans, not to mention our own bodies and the health of future generations? “If ‘more is better’ and that’s the only mantra we have, we’re doomed,” Moore says, summing it up.

Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, Ph.D., an expert on marine debris, agrees. “If you could fast-forward 10,000 years and do an archaeological dig…you’d find a little line of plastic,” he told The Seattle Times last April. “What happened to those people? Well, they ate their own plastic and disrupted their genetic structure and weren’t able to reproduce. They didn’t last very long because they killed themselves."

Wrist-slittingly depressing, yes, but there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Green architect and designer William McDonough has become an influential voice, not only in environmental circles but among Fortune 500 CEOs. McDonough proposes a standard known as “cradle to cradle” in which all manufactured things must be reusable, poison-free, and beneficial over the long haul. His outrage is obvious when he holds up a rubber ducky, a common child’s bath toy. The duck is made of phthalate-laden PVC, which has been linked to cancer and reproductive harm. “What kind of people are we that we would design like this?” McDonough asks. In the United States, it’s commonly accepted that children’s teething rings, cosmetics, food wrappers, cars, and textiles will be made from toxic materials. Other countries—and many individual companies—seem to be reconsidering. Currently, McDonough is working with the Chinese government to build seven cities using “the building materials of the future,” including a fabric that is safe enough to eat and a new, nontoxic polystyrene.

Thanks to people like Moore and McDonough, and media hits such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, awareness of just how hard we’ve bitch-slapped the planet is skyrocketing. After all, unless we’re planning to colonize Mars soon, this is where we live, and none of us would choose to live in a toxic wasteland or to spend our days getting pumped full of drugs to deal with our haywire endocrine systems and runaway cancer.

None of plastic’s problems can be fixed overnight, but the more we learn, the more likely that, eventually, wisdom will trump convenience and cheap disposability. In the meantime, let the cleanup begin: The National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is aggressively using satellites to identify and remove “ghost nets,” abandoned plastic fishing gear that never stops killing. (A single net recently hauled up off the Florida coast contained more than 1,000 dead fish, sharks, and one loggerhead turtle.) New biodegradable starch- and corn-based plastics have arrived, and Wal-Mart has signed on as a customer. A consumer rebellion against dumb and excessive packaging is afoot. And in August 2006, Moore was invited to speak about “marine debris and hormone disruption” at a meeting in Sicily convened by the science advisor to the Vatican. This annual gathering, called the International Seminars on Planetary Emergencies, brings scientists together to discuss mankind’s worst threats. Past topics have included nuclear holocaust and terrorism.

The gray plastic kayak floats next to Moore’s catamaran, Alguita, which lives in a slip across from his house. It is not a lovely kayak; in fact, it looks pretty rough. But it’s floating, a sturdy, eight-foot-long two-seater. Moore stands on Alguita’s deck, hands on hips, staring down at it. On the sailboat next to him, his neighbor, Cass Bastain, does the same. He has just informed Moore that he came across the abandoned craft yesterday, floating just offshore. The two men shake their heads in bewilderment.

“That’s probably a $600 kayak,” Moore says, adding, “I don’t even shop anymore. Anything I need will just float by.” (In his opinion, the movie Cast Away was a joke—Tom Hanks could’ve built a village with the crap that would’ve washed ashore during a storm.)

Watching the kayak bobbing disconsolately, it is hard not to wonder what will become of it. The world is full of cooler, sexier kayaks. It is also full of cheap plastic kayaks that come in more attractive colors than battleship gray. The ownerless kayak is a lummox of a boat, 50 pounds of nurdles extruded into an object that nobody wants, but that’ll be around for centuries longer than we will.

And as Moore stands on deck looking into the water, it is easy to imagine him doing the same thing 800 miles west, in the gyre. You can see his silhouette in the silvering light, caught between ocean and sky. You can see the mercurial surface of the most majestic body of water on earth. And then below, you can see the half-submerged madhouse of forgotten and discarded things. As Moore looks over the side of the boat, you can see the seabirds sweeping overhead, dipping and skimming the water. One of the journeying birds, sleek as a fighter plane, carries a scrap of something yellow in its beak. The bird dives low and then boomerangs over the horizon. Gone.
Energy and Human Evolution
by David Price
From Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies
Volume 16, Number 4, March 1995, pp. 301-19
1995 Human Sciences Press, Inc.

Life on Earth is driven by energy. Autotrophs take it from solar radiation and heterotrophs take it from autotrophs. Energy captured slowly by photosynthesis is stored up, and as denser reservoirs of energy have come into being over the course of Earth's history, heterotrophs that could use more energy evolved to exploit them, Homo sapiens is such a heterotroph; indeed, the ability to use energy extrasomatically (outside the body) enables human beings to use far more energy than any other heterotroph that has ever evolved. The control of fire and the exploitation of fossil fuels have made it possible for Homo sapiens to release, in a short time, vast amounts of energy that accumulated long before the species appeared.

By using extrasomatic energy to modify more and more of its environment to suit human needs, the human population effectively expanded its resource base so that for long periods it has exceeded contemporary requirements. This allowed an expansion of population similar to that of species introduced into extremely, propitious new habitats, such as rabbits in Australia or Japanese beetles in the United States. The world's present population of over 5.5 billion is sustained and continues to grow through the use of extrasomatic energy.

But the exhaustion of fossil fuels, which supply three quarters of this energy, is not far off, and no other energy source is abundant and cheap enough to take their place. A collapse of the earth's human population cannot be more than a few years away. If there are survivors, they will not be able to carry on the cultural traditions of civilization, which require abundant, cheap energy. It is unlikely, however, that the species itself can long persist without the energy whose exploitation is so much a part of its modus vivendi.

The human species may be seen as having evolved in the service of entropy, and it cannot be expected to outlast the dense accumulations of energy that have helped define its niche. Human beings like to believe they are in control of their destiny, but when the history of life on Earth is seen in perspective, the evolution of Homo sapiens is merely a transient episode that acts to redress the planet's energy balance.

Ever since Malthus, at least, it has been clear that means of subsistence do not grow as fast as population. No one has ever liked the idea that famine, plague, and war are nature's way of redressing the imbalance -- Malthus himself suggested that the operation of "preventive checks," which serve to reduce the birth rate, might help prolong the interval between such events (1986, vol. 2, p. 10 [1826, vol. 1, p. 7]). 1 And in the two hundred years since Malthus sat down to pen his essay, there has been no worldwide cataclysm. But in the same two centuries world population has grown exponentially while irreplaceable resources were used up. Some kind of adjustment is inevitable.

Today, many people who are concerned about overpopulation and environmental degradation believe that human actions can avert catastrophe. The prevailing view holds that a stable population that does not tax the environment's "carrying capacity" would be sustainable indefinitely, and that this state of equilibrium can be achieved through a combination of birth control, conservation, and reliance on "renewable" resources. Unfortunately, worldwide implementation of a rigorous program of birth control is politically impossible. Conservation is futile as long as population continues to rise. And no resources are truly renewable. 2

The environment, moreover, is under no obligation to carry a constant population of any species for an indefinite period of time. If all of nature were in perfect balance, every species would have a constant population, sustained indefinitely at carrying capacity. But the history of life involves competition among species, with new species evolving and old ones dying out. In this context, one would expect populations to fluctuate, and for species that have been studied, they generally do (ecology texts such as Odum, 1971 and Ricklefs, 1979 give examples).

The notion of balance in nature is an integral part of traditional western cosmology. But science has found no such balance. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, energy flows from areas of greater concentration to areas of lesser concentration, and local processes run down. Living organisms may accumulate energy temporarily but in the fullness of time entropy prevails. While the tissue of life that coats the planet Earth has been storing up energy for over three billion years, it cannot do so indefinitely. Sooner or later, energy that accumulates must be released. This is the bioenergetic context in which Homo sapiens evolved, and it accounts for both the wild growth of human population and its imminent collapse.

We are caught up, as organic beings, in the natural process through which the earth accepts energy from the sun and then releases it. There has been life on Earth for at least three and a half billion years, and over this time there has been a clear and constant evolution in the way energy is used. The first living things may have obtained energy from organic molecules that had accumulated in their environment, but photosynthetic autotrophs, able to capture energy from sunlight, soon evolved, making it possible for life to escape this limited niche. The existence of autotrophs made a place for heterotrophs, which use energy that has already been captured by autotrophs.

It is not clear how photosynthesis got started, although it is a combination of two systems that can be found singly in some life forms that still exist. But blue-green algae, which are among the earliest organisms documented in the fossil record, already employed the two-stage process that was eventually handed down to green plants. This is a complex sequence of events that has a simple outcome. Carbon dioxide (of which there was an abundance in the earth's early atmosphere) reacts with water through energy from light, fixing carbon and releasing oxygen, and a portion of the energy remains captive as long as the carbon and the oxygen remain apart. Plants release this energy when and where necessary to conduct their metabolic business (Starr & Taggart, 1987).

As time passed, the sheer bulk of life increased, so that more and more energy was, at any given time, stored in living matter. Additional energy was stored when carbon from once-living matter was buried, in ever-so-tiny increments, under the surface of the earth-in deposits that became coal, petroleum, and natural gas as well as in sedimentary rocks containing calcium and magnesium carbonates derived from shells. Of all the carbon that has played a part in the life process, very little was separated out and held apart in this way, but over the course of millions and millions of years, it has mounted up. More and more carbon wound up under the ground, with a greater and greater amount of oxygen in the earth's atmosphere. This separation of carbon and oxygen from a primeval atmosphere in which carbon dioxide and water were abundant represents a vast accumulation of solar energy from the past.

Life evolves to exploit every possible niche, and as autotrophs developed better ways to capture and store the sun's energy, heterotrophs developed better ways to steal it. Independent locomotion was adaptive in the search for nutrients, although it took a little more energy than being buffeted about by the elements. Cold-blooded fish and amphibians were followed by warm-blooded species, which reap the benefits of remaining active at lower temperatures, while using yet more energy in the process. The development of predation opened access to a supply of high-energy food with a further energy investment in procuring it. Throughout the history of life, as increasingly dense reservoirs of energy became available, species that made use of increasing amounts of energy evolved (see Simpson, 1949, pp. 256-57). This is the natural context of Homo sapiens, the most energy-using species the world has ever known.

The extent of human energy use is a consequence of the human capacity for extrasomatic adaptation. This capacity makes it possible for human beings to adjust to a wide variety of novel circumstances without having to wait many generations for evolution to change their bodies. A comparison of somatic and extrasomatic adaptation will show just how remarkable an ability this is: If longer, sharper teeth are adaptive for a predator, animals with teeth that are slightly longer and sharper than those of their fellows will have a slight reproductive advantage, so that genes for longer and sharper teeth will have a slightly greater likelihood of being passed on, and so, over the course of time, the teeth of average members of the population will come to be, little by little, longer and sharper. In contrast, a human hunter can imagine a longer, sharper arrowhead; he can fashion it with nimble hands; and if it is really more efficient than the short, blunt arrowheads that everybody else has been using, his peers will soon adopt the new invention. The chief difference between the two means of adaptation is speed: Humans can adapt, relatively speaking, in a flash.

Extrasomatic adaptation is possible because humans are, in the idiom of the computer age, programmable. Somatic adaptation is like building a hard-wired computer to perform a certain task better than a previous hardwired computer. Extrasomatic adaptation is like writing a new program to perform the task better, without having to build new hardware. The use of language, with its arbitrary relationship between signs and referents, makes possible a wide variety of different software.

Programmability -- the ability to learn -- is not unique with human beings, but they have developed the capacity much further than any other species. Programmability probably developed as an evolutionary response to pressure for flexibility. The ability to make use of a variety of different resources runs deep in the human background, for placental mammals arose from ancestral forms in the order Insectivora that presumably ate insects, seeds, buds, eggs, and other animals. When our hominid ancestors came down from the trees to exploit the African savannas, flexibility was again advantageous. Homo habilis and his fellows were furtive little scavengers who picked what they could from carcasses that leopards left behind and rounded out their diet with fruits and nuts and roots (see Binford, 1981; Brain, 1981). They lived by their wits, and natural selection favored hardware that would permit quick-wittedness.

Programmability -- and the consequent capacity for extrasomatic adaptation -- have made it possible for human beings to advance a very old evolutionary trend at a vastly increased rate. Humans are the most recent in the series of heterotrophs that use increasing amounts of energy, but they differ from other species in this lineup in their ability to use more energy without further speciation. Over the course of humanity's short history, greater and greater amounts of energy have been used by the same biological species (see White, 1949, chapter 13).

Some human innovations have dealt with the fate of energy channeled through metabolic processes. The development of weapons, for example, made it possible to focus somatic energy so as to obtain high-energy foods with much greater efficiency. Man became a hunter. This may have been the innovation that let Homo erectus prosper and permitted his species to radiate out of the African cradle, pursuing game throughout the tropics of the Old World (Binford, 1981, p. 296). Similarly, the use of clothes brought about a conservation of bodily energy that helped make possible the conquest of more temperate regions.

But the most remarkable human innovation is the use of extrasomatic energy, wherein energy is made to accomplish human ends outside the bodies of its users. And the most important source of extrasomatic energy, by far, is fire. Fire was used by Homo erectus in northern China more than 400,000 years ago, and there is sketchy evidence suggesting that it may have been used long before that (Gowlett, 1984, pp. 181-82). Through the use of fire, meat did not have to be rent by main strength; it could be cooked until tender. Fire could be used to hollow out a log or harden the point of a stick. Fire could drive game from cover and smoke out bees. Fire could hold fierce animals at bay.

The exploitation of animal power played an important role in the densification of population that was at the root of what we call civilization. Animals pulled the plow, animals carried produce to market, and animals provided a protein-rich complement to a diet of grain. Wind power was soon utilized to carry cargo by water. But fire remained the most important source of extrasomatic energy, and it made possible the development of ceramics and metallurgy.

Until quite recently, however, there was no real innovation in the fuel used to make fire. For hundreds of thousands of years, fire was made with the tissues of recently deceased organisms-principally wood. The development of charcoal improved on the energy density of untreated wood, and made a substantial contribution to metallurgy. Then, just a few millennia later, the same oxygen-deprived roasting process was applied to coal. In England, coal had been used to heat living space since the Norman Conquest, but the development of coke and its suitability for steelmaking set off the Industrial Revolution. Within an evolutionary wink, petroleum and natural gas were also being exploited, and Homo sapiens had begun to dissipate the rich deposits of organic energy that had been accumulating since the beginning of life. If the slow accretion of these deposits in the face of universal entropy can be likened to the buildup of water behind a dam, then with the appearance of a species capable of dissipating that energy, the dam burst.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, resources are "An available supply that can be drawn upon when needed" and "Means that can be used to advantage." In other words, resources include all the things found in nature that people use-not just the things people use for survival, but things they use for any purpose whatever. This is a very broad concept, as required by the nature of the defining animal. The resources used by other animals consist primarily of food, plus a few other materials such as those used for nest building. But for Homo sapiens, almost everything "can be used to advantage."

For something to be a resource, it must be concentrated or organized in a particular way, and separate, or separable, from its matrix. Ore from an iron mine is a resource in a way that garden soil is not-even though both do contain iron. Similarly, wood from the trunk of an oak tree is a resource in a way that wood from its twigs is not.

Using a resource means dispersing it. When we quarry limestone and send it off to build public monuments, or when we mine coal and burn it to drive turbines, we are making use of a concentrated resource, and dispersing it. A large, continuous mass of limestone winds up as a number of discrete blocks spread around in different locations; and coal, after briefly giving off heat and light, becomes a small amount of ash and a large amount of gas. Resources may be temporarily accumulated in a stockpile, but their actual use always results in dispersal.

Resources may be used for their material properties or for the energy they contain. Bauxite is a material resource, while coal is an energy resource. Some resources may be used either way; wood, for example, may be used as a construction material or burned in a wood stove, and petroleum may be used to make plastics or to power cars.

The exploitation of all resources requires an investment in energy; it takes energy to knap flint or drill for oil. The exploitation of energy resources must entail a good return on investment; unless the energy they release is considerably more than the energy used to make them release it, they are not worth exploiting.

Since nothing is a resource unless it can be used, resources are defined by the technology that makes it possible to exploit them. Since exploiting a resource always requires energy, the evolution of technology has meant the application of energy to a growing array of substances so that they can be "used to advantage." In the brief time since humans began living in cities, they have used more and more energy to exploit more and more resources.

The cost of energy limited the growth of technology until fossil fuels came into use, a little less than three hundred years ago. Fossil fuels contain so much energy that they provide a remarkable return on investment even when used inefficiently. When coal is burned to drive dynamos, for example, only 35% of its energy ultimately becomes electricity (Ross & Steinmeyer, 1990, p. 89). Nevertheless, an amount of electricity equal to the energy used by a person who works all day, burning up 1,000 calories worth of food, can be bought for less than ten cents (Loftness, 1984, p. 2). 3

The abundant, cheap energy provided by fossil fuels has made it possible for humans to exploit a staggering variety of resources, effectively expanding their resource base. In particular, the development of mechanized agriculture has allowed relatively few farmers to work vast tracts of land, producing an abundance of food and making possible a wild growth of population.

All species expand as much as resources allow and predators, parasites, and physical conditions permit. When a species is introduced into a new habitat with abundant resources that accumulated before its arrival, the population expands rapidly until all the resources are used up. In wine making, for example, a population of yeast cells in freshly-pressed grape juice grows exponentially until nutrients are exhausted-or waste products become toxic (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Growth of yeast in a 10% sugar solution (After Dieter, 1962:45). The fall of the curve is slowed by cytolysis, which recycles nutrients from dead cells.

An example featuring mammals is provided by the reindeer of St. Matthew Island, in the Bering Sea (Klein, 1968). This island had a mat of lichens more than four inches deep, but no reindeer until 1944, when a herd of 29 was introduced. By 1957 the population had increased to 1,350; and by 1963 it was 6,000. But the lichens were gone, and the next winter the herd died off. Come spring, only 41 females and one apparently dysfunctional male were left alive (Figure 2). 4

Figure 2. Growth of reindeer herd introduced to St. Matthew Island, Alaska (After Klein, 1968:352).

The use of extrasomatic energy, and especially energy from fossil fuels, has made it possible for humans to exploit a wealth of resources that accumulated before they evolved. This has resulted in population growth typical of introduced species (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Growth of worldwide human population (Adapted from Corson, 1990:25).

Around 8,000 BC, world population was something like five million. By the time of Christ, it was 200 to 300 million. By 1650, it was 500 million, and by 1800 it was one billion. The population of the world reached two billion by 1930. By the beginning of the '60s it was three billion; in 1975 it was four billion; and after only eleven more years it was five billion (McEvedy & Jones, 1978; Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1990, pp. 52-55). This cannot go on forever; collapse is inevitable. The only question is when.

Today, the extrasomatic energy used by people around the world is equal to the work of some 280 billion men. It is as if every man, woman, and child in the world had 50 slaves. In a technological society such as the United States, every person has more than 200 such "ghost slaves." 5

Figure 4. Worldwide energy consumption. Estimates of the world's annual consumption of energy, at twenty-year intervals beginning in 1860, appear in Dorf, 1981:194. World population for these years is calculated from a graph in Corson, 1990:25. Per-capita energy use for more recent years is given in the Energy Statistics Yearbook, which is published yearly by the United Nations. Figures differ somewhat from volume to volume; I have chosen to use more recent ones, which are presumably based on more accurate information.

Most of this energy comes from fossil fuels, which supply nearly 75% of the world's energy (see note 5). But fossil fuels are being depleted a hundred thousand times faster than they are being formed (Davis, 1990, P. 56). At current rates of consumption, known reserves of Petroleum will be gone in about thirty-five years; natural gas in fifty-two years; and coal in some two hundred years PRIMED, 1990, p. 145). 6

It should not be supposed that additional reserves, yet to be discovered, will significantly alter these figures. Recent advances in the geological sciences have taken much of the guesswork out of locating fossil hydrocarbons and the surface of the earth has been mapped in great detail with the aid of orbiting satellites. Moreover, these figures are optimistic because the demand for energy will not remain at current rates; it can be expected to grow at an ever-quickening pace. The more concentrated a resource, the less energy it takes to make use of it; and the less concentrated a resource, the more energy it takes. Consequently, the richest deposits of any resource are used first, and then lower-grade deposits are exploited, at an ever-increasing cost. As high-grade mineral ores are worked out, more and more energy is needed to mine and refine lower-grade ores. As oldgrowth timber vanishes, more and more energy is necessary to make lumber and paper out of smaller trees. As the world's fisheries are worked out, it takes more and more energy to find and catch the remaining fish. And as the world's topsoil is lost -- at a rate of 75 billion tons a year (Myers, 1993, p. 37) -- more and more energy must be used to compensate for the diminished fertility of remaining agricultural land.

The system that sustains world population is already under stress. The growth in per-capita energy use, which had been increasing continually since the advent of fossil fuels, began to slow down some twenty years ago -- and the accelerating pace at which it has been slowing down suggests that there will be no growth at all by the year 2000 (Figure 4). Agriculture is in trouble; it takes more and more fertilizer to compensate for lost topsoil (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1990, p. 92), and nearly one-fifth of the world's population is malnourished (Corson, 1990, p. 68). In fact, the growth rate of the earth's human population has already begun to fall (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Growth rate of world population. Based on an average of estimates by Willcox (1940) and Carr-Saunders (1936) as adjusted and presented in United Nations, 1953:12; United Nations, 1993:6-7; and CIA, 1993:422.

People who believe that a stable population can live in balance with the productive capacity of the environment may see a slowdown in the growth of population and energy consumption as evidence of approaching equilibrium. But when one understands the process that has been responsible for population growth, it becomes clear that an end to growth is the beginning of collapse. Human population has grown exponentially by exhausting limited resources, like yeast in a vat or reindeer on St. Matthew Island, and is destined for a similar fate.

To take over for fossil fuels as they run out, an alternative energy source would have to be cheap and abundant, and the technology to exploit it would have to be mature and capable of being operationalized all over the world in what may turn out to be a rather short time. No known energy source meets these requirements.

Today's second-most-important source of energy, after fossil fuels, is biomass conversion. But all the world's wood fires, all the grain alcohol added to gasoline, and all the agricultural wastes burned as fuel only provide 15% of the world's energy (WRI/IIED, 1988, p. 111). And biomass conversion has little growth potential, since it competes for fertile land with food crops and timber.

Hydropower furnishes about 5.5% of the energy currently consumed (see note 5). Its potential may be as much as five times greater (Weinberg & Williams, 1990, p. 147), but this is not sufficient to take over from fossil fuels, and huge dams would submerge rich agricultural soils.

The production of electricity from nuclear fission has been increasing, but nuclear sources still supply only about 5.2% of the world's total energy needs (see note 5). Fission reactors could produce a great deal more, especially if fast-breeder reactors were used. 7 But anyone with a fast-breeder reactor can make nuclear weapons, so there is considerable political pressure to prevent their proliferation. Public confidence in all types of reactors is low, and the cost of their construction is high. These social constraints make it unlikely that fission's contribution to the world's energy needs will grow fifteen-fold in the next few years.

Controlled thermonuclear fusion is an alluring solution to the world's energy problems because the "fuel" it would use is deuterium, which can be extracted from plain water. The energy from one percent of the deuterium in the world's oceans would be about five hundred thousand times as great as all the energy available from fossil fuels. But controlled fusion is still experimental, the technology for its commercialization has not yet been developed, and the first operational facility could not come on line much before 2040 (Browne, 1993, p. C12).

Visionaries support the potential of wind, waves, tides, ocean thermal energy conversion, and geothermal sources. All of these might be able to furnish a portion of the energy in certain localities, but none can supply 75% of the world's energy needs. Solar thermal collection devices are only feasible where it is hot and sunny, and photovoltaics are too inefficient to supplant the cheap energy available from fossil fuels.

While no single energy source is ready to take the place of fossil fuels, their diminishing availability may be offset by a regimen of conservation and a combination of alternative energy sources. This will not solve the problem, however. As long as population continues to grow, conservation is futile; at the present rate of growth (1.6% per year), even a 25% reduction in resource use would be obliterated in just over eighteen years. And the use of any combination of resources that permits continued population growth can only postpone the day of reckoning.

Operative mechanisms in the collapse of the human population will be starvation, social strife, and disease. These major disasters were recognized long before Malthus and have been represented in western culture as horsemen of the apocalypse. 8 They are all consequences of scarce resources and dense population.

Starvation will be a direct outcome of the depletion of energy resources. Today's dense population is dependent for its food supply on mechanized agriculture and efficient transportation. Energy is used to manufacture and operate farm equipment, and energy is used to take food to market. As less efficient energy resources come to be used, food will grow more expensive and the circle of privileged consumers to whom an adequate supply is available will continue to shrink.

Social strife is another consequence of the rising cost of commercial energy. Everything people want takes energy to produce, and as energy becomes more expensive, fewer people have access to goods they desire. When goods are plentiful, and particularly when per-capita access to goods is increasing, social tensions are muted: Ethnically diverse populations often find it expedient to live harmoniously, governments may be ineffective and slow to respond, and little force is needed to maintain domestic tranquillity. But when goods become scarce, and especially when per-capita access to goods is decreasing, ethnic tensions surface, governments become authoritarian, and goods are acquired, increasingly, by criminal means.

A shortage of resources also cripples public health systems, while a dense population encourages the spread of contagious diseases. Throughout human history, the development of large, dense populations has led to the appearance of contagious diseases that evolved to exploit them. Smallpox and measles were apparently unknown until the second and third centuries AD, when they devastated the population of the Mediterranean basin (McNeill, 1976, p. 105). In the fourteenth century, a yet larger and denser population in both Europe and China provided a hospitable niche for the Black Death. Today, with extremely dense population and all parts of the world linked by air travel, new diseases such as AIDS spread rapidly-and a virus as deadly as AIDS but more easily transmissible could appear at any time.

Starvation, social strife, and disease interact in complex ways. If famine were the sole mechanism of collapse, the species might become extinct quite suddenly. A population that grows in response to abundant but finite resources, like the reindeer of St. Matthew Island, tends to exhaust these resources completely. By the time individuals discover that remaining resources will not be adequate for the next generation, the next generation has already been born. And in its struggle to survive, the last generation uses up every scrap, so that nothing remains that would sustain even a small population. But famine seldom acts alone. It is exacerbated by social strife, which interferes with the production and delivery of food. And it weakens the natural defenses by which organisms fight off disease.

Paradoxically, disease can act to spare resources. If, for example, a new epidemic should reduce the human population to a small number of people who happen to be resistant to it before all the world's resources are severely depleted, the species might be able to survive a while longer.

But even if a few people manage to survive worldwide population collapse, civilization will not. The complex association of cultural traits of which modern humans are so proud is a consequence of abundant resources, and cannot long outlive their depletion.

Civilization refers, in its derivation, to the habit of living in dense nucleated settlements, which appeared as population grew in response to plentiful resources. Many things seem to follow as a matter of course when people live in cities, and wherever civilization occurred, it has involved political consolidation, economic specialization, social stratification, some sort of monumental architecture, and a flowering of artistic and intellectual endeavor (Childe, 1951).

Localized episodes of such cultural elaboration have always been associated with rapid population growth. Reasons for the abundance of resources that promoted this growth vary from one case to another. In some instances, a population moved into a new region with previously untapped resources; in other instances the development or adoption of new crops, new technologies, or new social strategies enhanced production. But the Sumerians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mayas, and even the Easter Islanders all experienced a surge of creative activity as their populations grew rapidly.

And in all cases, this creative phase, nourished by the same abundance that promoted population growth, came to an end when growth ended. One need not seek esoteric reasons for the decline of Greece or the fall of Rome; in both cases, the growth of population exhausted the resources that had promoted it. After the Golden Age, the population of Greece declined continually for more than a thousand years, from 3 million to about 800,000. The population of the Roman Empire fell from 45 or 46 million, at its height, to about 39 million by 600 AD, and the European part of the empire was reduced by 25% (McEvedy & Jones, 1978).

Even if world population could be held constant, in balance with "renewable" resources, the creative impulse that has been responsible for human achievements during the period of growth would come to an end. And the spiraling collapse that is far more likely will leave, at best, a handfull of survivors. These people might get by, for a while, by picking through the wreckage of civilization, but soon they would have to lead simpler lives, like the hunters and subsistence farmers of the past. They would not have the resources to build great public works or carry forward scientific inquiry. They could not let individuals remain unproductive as they wrote novels or composed symphonies. After a few generations, they might come to believe that the rubble amid which they live is the remains of cities built by gods.

Or it may prove impossible for even a few survivors to subsist on the meager resources left in civilization's wake. The children of the highly technological society into which more and more of the world's peoples are being drawn will not know how to support themselves by hunting and gathering or by simple agriculture. In addition, the wealth of wild animals that once sustained hunting societies will be gone, and topsoil that has been spoiled by tractors will yield poorly to the hoe. A species that has come to depend on complex technologies to mediate its relationship with the environment may not long survive their loss.

For Malthus, the imbalance between the growth of population and means of subsistence might be corrected, from time to time, through natural disasters, but the human species could, in principle, survive indefinitely. Malthus did not know that the universe is governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics; he did not understand the population dynamics of introduced species; and he did not appreciate that humans, having evolved long after the resource base on which they now rely, are effectively an introduced species on their own planet.

The short tenure of the human species marks a turning point in the history of life on Earth. Before the appearance of Homo sapiens, energy was being sequestered more rapidly than it was being dissipated. Then human beings evolved, with the capacity to dissipate much of the energy that had been sequestered, partially redressing the planet's energy balance. The evolution of a species like Homo sapiens may be an integral part of the life process, anywhere in the universe it happens to occur. As life develops, autotrophs expand and make a place for heterotrophs. If organic energy is sequestered in substantial reserves, as geological processes are bound to do, then the appearance of a species that can release it is all but assured. Such a species, evolved in the service of entropy, quickly returns its planet to a lower energy level. In an evolutionary instant, it explodes and is gone.

If the passage of Homo sapiens across evolution's stage significantly alters Earth's atmosphere, virtually all living things may become extinct quite rapidly. But even if this does not happen, the rise and fall of Homo sapiens will eliminate many species. It has been estimated that they are going extinct at a rate of 17,500 per year (Wilson, 1988, p. 13), and in the next twenty-five years as many as one-quarter of the world's species may be lost (Raven, 1988, p. 121).

This is a radical reduction in biological diversity, although life has survived other die-offs, such as the great collapse at the end of the Permian. It is unlikely, however, that anything quite like human beings will come this way again. The resources that have made humans what they are will be gone, and there may not be time before the sun burns out for new deposits of fossil fuel to form and intelligent new scavengers to evolve. The universe seems to have had a unique beginning, some ten or twenty billion years ago (Hawking, 1988, p. 108). Since that time, a star had to live and die to provide the materials for the solar system -- which, itself, is several billion years old. Perhaps life could not have happened any sooner than it did. Perhaps Homo sapiens could not have evolved any sooner. Or later. Perhaps everything has its season, a window of opportunity that opens for a while, then shuts.

I want to acknowledge the advice and encouragement of Virginia Abernethy, Thomas Eisner, Paul W. Friedrich, Warren M. Hern, David Pimentel, Roy A. Rappaport, Peter H. Raven, and Carl Sagan, who read earlier drafts of this paper.


1. In the 1798 version of his essay, Malthus said that population grows geometrically while subsistence grows arithmetically. in later editions, he said that arithmetical growth was the most optimistic possible hypothesis; he was well aware that the availability of fertile soils must actually be diminishing.

2. The distinction between "nonrenewable" and "renewable" is arbitrary. Petroleum is considered nonrenewable, because when it's used, it's gone; while sunlight is considered renewable, because its energy can be used today and the sun will shine again tomorrow.

But given enough time, today's forests could become tomorrow's petroleum, and given an astronomical sweep of time, the sun itself will burn out. Only in terms of human time is an energy resource renewable or nonrenewable; and it is not even clear how human time should be measured. Wood is often considered a renewable resource, because if one tree is chopped down, another will grow in its place. But if a tree is taken off the mountainside rather than allowed to rot where it falls, nutrients that would nourish its successor are removed. If wood is continually removed, the fertility of the forest diminishes, and within a few human generations the forest will be gone.

3. Loftness actually says six cents. I have changed the figure to ten cents as a rough correction for inflation.

4. When the resources exploited by an introduced species are living organisms, they can reproduce -- and they may eventually evolve defense mechanisms that promote an equilibrium between predator and prey (see Pimentel, 1988). The topsoil, minerals, and fossil fuels exploited by human beings do not have this capacity, however. They are more like the finite amount of sugar in a vat or the plentiful but slow-growing lichens on St. Matthew Island.

5. Worldwide production of energy from fossil fuels in 1992 was 302.81 x 1015 Btu, while energy from nuclear reactors was 21.23 x 1015 Btu and from hydroelectric sources was 22.29 x 1015 Btu (Energy Information Administration, 1993:269). Biomass is thought to account for about 15% of the world's extrasomatic energy (WRI/IIED, 1988:111). Other sources of energy make only a minor contribution (Corson, 1990:197). Thus, the total extrasomatic energy used in the world must be on the order of 407.45 x 1015 Btu per year. World population is taken as 5.555 billion (CIA, 1993:422). The energy expended by an individual in doing a hard day's work is taken to be 4,000 Btu (Loftness 1984:2, 756). Energy consumption in the United States is on the order of 82.36 X 1015 Btu (Energy Information Administration, 1993:5). U.S. population is taken as 258 million (CIA, 1993:404).

6. These are reserves known in 1988, depleted at 1988 rates. I have subtracted six years from the figures cited to account for time that has already elapsed.

7. Loftness (1984:48) says the same amount of uranium, used in a fast-breeder reactor, will provide 60 times as much energy as in a light-water reactor. Hafele (1990:142) says one hundred times as much.

8. According to a traditional interpretation, the four horses stand for war, famine pestilence, and the returned Christ. The original text (Revelations 6:2-8) is not so clear.


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