Working on the KAPIISeawall on the endangered island of Kiribati

David Suzuki has a clip on YouTube where he discusses compound growth.

He postulates a colony of bacteria which doubles in numbers every minute in a test tube. At 60 minutes of doubling. the bacteria will fill the test tube. At 55 minutes the test tube is about 3% full, and he makes the point that even if one bacteria could convince the other bacteria there was a problem at 55 minutes, and the bacteria go to work and produced 3 more test tubes, the system would be full at 62 minutes.

Then he states that all scientists are convinced the human race has passed the 59th minute. (There is no effort to build to three new earths, just billionaires gathering as much profit as possible, perhaps to buy their way out of the test tubes).

Unfortunately, Dr. Suzuki was a bit too subtle in his discussion; he acknowledges that the bacteria fill the test tube in 60 minutes, even though the tube looks mostly empty after 55 minutes. Let’s look at what’s happening in a bit more depth. Here’s a graph showing exponential growth.

When the test tube becomes full, the bacteria have consumed their resources, space and food. This is the point at which their population growth stops and decays.

NO SYSTEM, financial or living, bacterial or Human, CAN GROW EXPONENTIALLY FOREVER. Sooner or later, the population explodes until its resources are stretched to their limit, and the population cannot grow any larger. The flat top cannot exist indefinitely either; resources which sustained growth become exhausted, and the population decays and dies. The growth/decay curve looks more like a hill, with growth side, a flat top, and a decay side, where the population collapses due to resource shortages. Growth and decay curves are shown here.

It certainly has happened to all empires in history, where the decay side of growth is called “the fall of empire.” This time, the effects may be more widespread.

And now we can discuss climate change.

Humans have enjoyed some degree of compound growth since the end of the last Ice Age. Just to be difficult the rate of growth over the period was not constant, with some drops in population (for example, around the 1340s with the Black Death, there was a fairly significant population decline in Europe).

However, over the past century or so, we have been busily filling up the planet, and we are facing both resource constraints, and climate change. The effects of climate change are unarguable. Just look at the weather events we’ve experienced in America this last year; extremes in heat, cold, water, and drought that we have not encountered before. As an example, look at the temperatures recently in Chicago, and the ice in the state of Georgia. Astonishing.

The relationship between the cause and the effect are not worth discussion, because there is no conceivable plan which could cut greenhouse gases and not kill 90% of the earth’s population. We are on an economic train moving at considerable speed, there are no stops, we cannot get off, and the train has significant momentum. Delivery of food and fuel is a considerable part of the moving economic train, which if stopped would cause both mass starvation and have people freeze to death. How many people in the Center and North East of North America this winter would die if heating fuel was eliminated? 100 Million, or more?

No environmental group has proposed any meaningful plan to reduce carbon dioxide to the “recommended” 350 ppm through any practical means which does not destroy either the train of the economy, with the resulting death toll.

We have economic momentum, and the only way to shed the momentum is to crash! A catastrophe!

Back to the effects of climate change:

  1. The glaciers are melting (retreating), this we can see with our own eyes.
  2. The arctic Ice Cap is shrinking, summer by summer, this we can see it through satellite photos.
  3. The great Ice Shelves (Greenland and the Antarctic) are somewhat breaking up.

Sea Ice, which forms on the ocean’s surface when it gets really cold, does not raise sea levels. That ice is merely existing salt water which has frozen. The LAND ICE, Ice in glaciers and ice shelves (the majority in ice shelves) in Greenland and Antarctica, if completely melted has the potential to raise sea levels 200 to 300 feet.

And there’s the problem: Potential 200 to 300 feet of sea level rise.

We humans have a habit of making assumptions. One of which is that the Ice Sheets are so dense they will melt more slowly than ice floating on the sea. Such a belief defies any logical explanation, and that’s slowly becoming apparent. However there is a second assumption, which is that Ice Sheets must MELT before raising sea level.

Well that’s not true. We know that under the glaciers, there is liquid water, which provides a lubricant for glaciers to move. Typically, the glaciers have moved slowly, but things are starting to change. Now, if a large chunk of Ice sheet slid off the land and landed in the sea , the sea level would rise quickly. (See: here, here, or here )

Operative word: Quickly.

Now let’s consider infrastructure, and a concrete example. At the mouth of the Santa Ana River in California, next to the coast lies the Orange County Sewage Works, some few feet above sea level. It serves about 2 million people. If sea levels rose 1 foot, the plant would probably be unharmed. If sea levels rose 10 feet, the rise might be containable. If sea levels rose 50 feet, a large part of Orange County would have no sewer service, become uninhabitable, and the population would have to leave.

Where would the 1 to 2 million people go? How would they be housed? Who would pay for their food, shelter, clothing, medical costs and so on, for they’d be destitute? How would they compete with resources with the other millions of people who were similarly destitute? Or would they be left to their own devices, which would result in a very significant death toll?

We can build new sewage plants; however, we can neither build such a facility quickly, nor can we build a replacement plant without raising taxes. If the sea level rise is gradual, then both the tax raise and construction would be deferred, if the rise is rapid, no construction could be completed. There wouldn’t be time.

Time and politics (raising taxes) become our enemies in building a new plant, and there is no guarantee the new plant would not become inundated very soon after construction if sea levels continued to rise quickly. This is Orange County(R), the home of proposition 13, and a place with largely Republican attitudes to both climate change and taxes. Both militate against preparing for sea level rise.

We expect that at a minimum, chunks of the Ice Sheets will slide into the Ocean, and then melt. No one can predict when and how much ice will slide. Once a chunk of ice sheet starts moving, it may take a year or so to slide into the Ocean. When the chunk slides into the ocean, there will be a rapid rise in ocean level, as measured at the shoreline. Depending on how much ice slides, significant portions of seaside cities will be underwater. If a lot of ice slides, huge populations will be forced inland, with no resources. The Ice Sheets may slide into the Ocean in chunks, and generate successively higher oceans and tidal waves ̶ in which case people will most probably die from enormous tidal waves. No one can yet say just how much ice will slide into the ocean; the potential, however, is significant, and cannot be ignored. What could happen?

Consider the Ice Sheets of Greenland falling into the Atlantic. The US, up to the Appalachians would probably be scraped clear of people, and Europe up to the Alps and Pyrenees would be under water. That’s a lot of farmland, gone. Power distribution and transportation would be affected.

We’d forecast deaths in the billions, and would be surprised if 500 Million people survived worldwide, depending on the amount of ice that moved from land to sea.

Good luck surviving that catastrophe, Mr. Billionaire-in-denial. There is equality in death. We recommend relocation now to high ground to avoid the rush. Learning self-sufficiency might help too.

However, the transition back to a pre-industrial economy will be very hard. We, civilized people, do not have the skills to survive. The best-prepared survivors will be those people who are community-oriented, and are practiced in basic living skills. We used to call such peoples “uncivilized,” not recognizing that their civilization simply had a different focus from ours. Now it looks like their civilization may survive, whereas there is a high probability that ours will not.

Which is why we wonder if the entire daily news cycle of, NSA malfeasance, Washington political posturing, bribes, daily reports of bowel movements of the Dow Jones index, and the Kardashians, might all be moot in the not-too-distant future? Somewhere between 10 and 100 years from today?

Pass the popcorn, and the “making a basic bow and arrow” instructions.

Photo by Carlo Iacovino, Global Environment Facility, used under Creative Commons license