Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year. It's the oceans, stupid.

Here's my joke:

What's the difference between 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013?
I don't know.

I'm ready for things to change. That may not be what I want. As the Chinese curse points out "May you live in interesting times" is not for the better, but it does make for a difference, and I want things to be different. Or at least not to suck so blandly. I may get my wish.

Someone asked me what I thought things would be like twenty-five years from now. I mentioned what Charlie Stross said about speculative fiction writing, that short- and long-term stories are easy to do, but mid-long-term stories are the toughest. Easy to trend a few years into the future. Easy to make shit up about the far future. But human-life-span (or twice- or thrice-) type of futures, almost invariably wrong.

Example: Using trending in 1888, write about twenty-five years in the future. Now do the same from 1889. Two completely divergent worlds. Linear trending does not predict WWI, which happens in 1914. So... chaos theory may be your only hope. You might be able to predict the entendue of all possible orbits of a clearly feedback dependent, nonlinear societal future, and that's about it.

(In my use of the word, I roughly borrow from optics, where entendue is the spread out area of light from a point source at any given time. In my usage, it is any future cross section of all paths of recursive iterations of a nonlinear equation, and thus, the sum-over-histories extent of most possibilities. In other words, just how bad - or good - things can get).

So, right now, the movie Soylent Green is looking pretty damn accurate. Worst case we don't have a movie for, as it involves WWIII and the reset button. Maybe even we avoid that, seeing as the ripest point on our history for WWIII was probably August 11, 1984, when Reagan "outlawed Russia forever".  Oh sure, those of that remember that "joke" think of it as a face-palm moment for American diplomacy, but honestly, it's a good thing some few Soviets had a sense of humor.

But anyway, 2038, my bet is we are still around and it ain't as bad as Soylent Green (which is scheduled for 2022, and 23 years after Marty McFly arrives from 1985 Let's review some facts in case you think me suffering from optimism bias.

Soylent Green predicted 7 billion people in 2022, with 40 million in NYC alone. Those numbers are a little off. We are at 7 billion now, with 2 billion more expected by mid-21st-century. Right now, 80% are at poverty level. It's true that some billion or so have been lifted out of poverty since the 1980s, but that just means an even bigger human maw to feed.

Half of the world's forests have been consumed, most since 1950. 90% of all large wild fish have disappeared from the world's oceans - all from industrial fishing. Dead zones from agricultural run off are spreading at an unprecedented rate. "Garbage patches" of floating and sinking plastics are on the uptake in size and numbers. The oceans are rapidly acidifying, and soon will be fit for naught but the most primitive life forms - jellyfish and microbes. It is estimated that humanity now diverts and consumes one quarter of the energy of Earth's biosphere. We are beyond a force of nature.

Despite concerns about resource depletion, energy is still plentiful. We will run out of fossil oxygen long before we run out of fossil fuels. Some 70 precent of the oxygen we breath is provided by underwater life. Blue green algae provide 20% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and other planktonic species, see grasses, mangroves, kelps, and other algae provide oxygen and carbon sequestration.

All are in decline.

Let's not even talk about the the loss of glaciers and the warming of the higher latitudes. Some people say "viva la global warming" (I myself have said it on balmy winter days). But the more likely scenario is called the Big Squeeze, when the desert move north, and the newly defrosted swamps and storms move south, creating a latitudinal squeeze of farmable lands, and an increase in bugs, pests, vermin, and diseases.

To use a neologism, humanity seems hellbent on venusiforming planet Earth, turning into a dead world, or at least one that we have to hide from in order to survive.

Okay, so have I got a sane idea of what's happening? Think I'm off the mark?

Pretty bleak. And yet, I am optimistic. Fully half the coral reefs are in good shape. Ten percent of large predator fish are out there still swimming. Conservation efforts are underway in the most critical core systems, such as Indonesia, South China, and the Philippine Seas to avoid overfishing and restore habitat. (Keep in mind, this in an area of the world that support one fourth of all humans). Large marine parks are proposed throughout the world's oceans. Efforts are underway to reduce agricultural pollution.

And I give us twenty-five years to get our shit together. After that, well I won't be around hopefully, and will just send out a ghostly curse to a doomed humanity.

But we still got a chance. And maybe it's I got off my ass and help do something instead of bitching about it.

That's a hell of a New Year's resolution. Maybe I should just lose some weight.

Happy New Year, dear reader!    


  1. I'm glad you are optimistic. Me, I think we're stuck in self-destruct mode. My only hope is that we succeed in our own demise before we totally ruin the planet.

  2. There really is no paradox to the Fermi Paradox. The most likely answer to "Where Are They?" is that no civilization has made it yet. They kill themselves off. Intelligence, it seems, as an evolutionary strategy, is self-selecting for extinction. In other words, it's not just about us. The Universe is sending us an important message: get your shit together, or join all the other dead civilizations.