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Divining The Future: Apocalypse, Retreat, Or Revolution

November 9, 2011

It’s hard to know how to respond to the overwhelming sense that the priorities and inertia of human culture are trashing the planet. But I just came across a thought-provoking review of a fascinating book. Revolutions That Made The Earth, which helps frame the choices.

First off, the book is about how life on earth has previously adapted to dramatic change, and it argues something critical: that the forces humanity has set in motion, particularly with regard to climate, are going to cause major transformations to earth no matter what we do now. In other words, an Apocalyptic change is coming. Here is how the book explains it:

Even the normally cheerful and creative Jim Lovelock argues that we are already doomed, and nothing we can do now will stop the Earth system being carried by its own internal dynamics into a different and inhospitable state for us. If so, all we can do is try to adapt. We disagree—in our view the game is not yet up. As far as we can see no one has yet made a convincing scientific case that we are close to a global tipping point for ‘runaway’ climate change.


Yet even without truly ‘runaway’ change, the combination of unmitigated fossil fuel burning and positive feedbacks from within the Earth system could still produce an apocalyptic climate for humanity. We could raise global temperature by up to 6 °C this century, with more to come next century. On the way there, many parts of the Earth system could pas their own thresholds and undergo profound changes in state. These are what Tim [Lenton] and colleagues have called ‘tipping elements’in the climate system.

They warrant a book by themselves, so we will just touch on them briefly here. The tipping elements include the great ice sheets covering Greenland and West Antarctica that are already losing mass and adding to sea level rise. In the tropics, there are already changes in atmospheric circulation, and in the pattern of El Niño events. The Amazon rainforest suffered severe drought in 2005 and might in the future face a climate drying-triggered dieback, destroying biodiversity and adding carbon to the atmosphere. Over India, an atmospheric brown cloud of pollution is already disrupting the summer monsoon, threatening food security. The monsoon in West Africa could be seriously disrupted as the neighboring ocean warms up. The boreal forests that cloak the northern high latitudes are threatened by warming, forest fires and insect infestation. The list goes on. The key point is that the Earth’s climate, being a complex feedback system, is unlikely to respond in an entirely smooth and proportional way to significant changes in energy balance caused by human activities.

Okay, let that sink in for a bit.

Then, as mathematical physicist John Baez on his Azimuth blog notes, they suggest two responses to this Apocalyptic scenario, which Baez quotes:


A popular answer to apocalyptic visions of the future is retreat, into a lower energy, lower material consumption, and ultimately lower population world. In this future world the objective is to minimize human effects on the Earth system and allow Gaia to reassert herself, with more room for natural ecosystems and minimal intervention in global cycles. The noble aim is long-term sustainability for for people as well as the planet.

There are some good and useful things we can take from such visions of the future, especially in helping to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, achieve greater energy efficiency, promote recycling and redefine what we mean by quality of life. However, we think that visions of retreat are hopelessly at odds with current trends, and with the very nature of what drives revolutionary changes of the Earth. They lack pragmatism and ultimately they lack ambition. Moreover, a retreat sufficient to forestall the problems outlined above might be just as bad as the problems it sought to avoid.


Our alternative vision of the future is of revolution, into a high energy, high recycling world that can support billions of people as part of a thriving and sustainable biosphere. The key to reaching this vision of the future is to learn from past revolutions: future civilizations must be fueled from sustainable energy sources, and they must undertake a greatly enhanced recycling of resources.

Baez writes that he thinks that we could have a combination of Apocalypse and Revolution:

For now, I would just like to suggest that ‘apocalypse’ and ‘revolution’ are not really diametrically opposed alternatives. All three previous revolutions destroyed the world as it had been!

For example, when the Great Oxidation occurred, this was an ‘apocalypse’ for anaerobic life forms, who now struggle to survive in specialized niches here and there. It only seems like a triumphant ‘revolution’ in retrospect, to the new life forms that comfortably survive in the new world.

So, I think we’re headed for a combination of apocalypse and revolution: the death of many old things, and the birth of new ones. At best we have a bit of influence in nudging things in a direction we like. I don’t think ‘retreat’ is a real option: nostalgic though I am about many old things, time always pushes us relentlessly into new and strange worlds.

And I would say I agree. Except I want to add that this does not seem like a very appealing future to me. Both Baez and Revolutions That Made The Earth more or less dismiss Retreat as unrealistic (though Baez does indicate he would find it appealing). They could be right. They probably are right. But Retreat–with its emphasis on conservation, anti-consumerism, and balance with the natural world–has to be the central theme of the Revolution (though I wouldn’t call it Retreat, I would call it something more positive). In fact, it is the key to real revolution. And while technology, which seems to be at the core of the Revolution scenario, might give us a world in which we can survive, it doesn’t really promise a world in which we can LIVE.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2011 5:33 pm

    Thanks for this treatment of a difficult topic. I agree that “retreat” is a terrible word, with its connotation of defeat. I’d rather use a word like “harmonize.” It’s about learning and sensing how to best coordinate with natural forces while doing the least damage and nurturing ecosystems wherever possible. But we knew that over 40 years ago and too many people have just gotten stupider since then.

  2. timzimmermann permalink*
    November 9, 2011 5:42 pm

    Harmonize. Excellent suggestion, Howard. Thanks. We can now embark on the Great Harmonization.

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