How to face global warming, Part 1

“In this trembling moment ... is it still possible to face the gathering darkness and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?”  Barry Lopez




Humanity has entered a world that is radically different from any preceding period of life on Earth. The growth of  available goods and services and the decline in the diversity of organic life have collided to create a predicament completely beyond humans ability to manage, possibly even to survive. Modern Technology through its highly focused goals and coupled with massive amounts of fossil fuel energy has created the modern world of growth and progress. And now, the technology of creative intelligence of AI unthinkingly accelerates innovations previously unimaginable. However, technology has also created unwanted secondary, tertiary and more distant repercussions in its application. The ongoing success of a multitude of projects is increasingly overwhelmed by natural restraints and limitations. Technology’s greatest success--growth of  a population of eight billion people--presses the limits of the biosphere to sustain them. Some humans may well survive into the foreseeable future. However, most of the survivors will live at a level that is greatly reduced from that of the present.

Today, some people can’t imagine being deprived of modern goods and services, let alone of lessened health care,  the prospect of a shorter life, a shortage of food, or increased restrictions on movement. Instead, they are presented with thoughts of space and undersea travel, of artificial intelligence, and of continued exponential growth of our economy. No one wants to return to the simple lives that over 99% of humans lived until the 20th century. Many believe that current luxuries can exist along side continued heating of the atmosphere, oceans, and land. With a great deal of hubris, humans blithely or unthinkingly believe that they are the masters of the Earth and its other inhabitants even though many of our best scientists warn us that human omnipotence is coming to an end. We have reached an irreversible place in climate warming; we are approaching tipping points when temperatures will accelerate, causing natural and human disasters never before seen on Earth.

What  are some of the ways we can face this oncoming world? What can we do as members of communities and nations, and as individuals--Earthly creatures--who find ourselves approaching this predicament? We must understand that we exist within a world that is beyond simple human solutions. Then, ask what can we do as we survive in a greatly changed world. And how can we humans, especially the younger among us, live in the real world that lies ahead without false hopes or despair that will inevitably arise in a declining society? Many negative emotions will arise when humans no longer are able to grow and reproduce as we have in the last decades. Nor can we remain calm in a natural world that is changing before our eyes. This will require us to discover the very best qualities of what it is to be human. It will require us to find new ways of living and how to comport ourselves with dignity.

First, we need to face the reality of the natural world as, through science, we have best come to know and understand its workings.  We need to become aware of the ways in which are disrupting the natural world. We need to learn how to approach the world without destroying it. And we need to change our behavior with this newly found knowledge.  I present, here, my thoughts on these needs, awareness, and actions.

Second, we need to recognize the tragedy created by the ideas and behaviors of the modern world.  

Third, We need to accept our role in creating this tragedy.  

And fourth,we need to find ways of living in the declining civilization that confronts humanity.

I. Some basic ideas about the natural world

“But to be successful with this experiment of human life on earth we have to understand the laws of nature as they are encountered in the study of the sciences and mathematics.”

 Albert Bartlett

To understand the magnitude of the predicament created by human alterations to the Earth, we must look at the world through fundamental natural processes that touch our lives. Because we have learned about many natural processes only in the modern era, we can now understand aspects of the natural realm that closely affect human existence, many of which were formerly hidden to us. I think that the processes of Ecology, Evolution, Energy, and Environment are  basic and frame the dialectics of natural and cultural interactions focused on the human animal. We  also need to understand the arithmetic function of exponential growth because many of the recent natural and cultural changes follow exponential curves.  

A. Ecology

Ecology is, literally, the study of home or household.  In a more technical definition, Eugene Odum, an early practitioner of biological ecology, defined an ecosystem as: "Any unit that includes all of the a given area interacting with the physical environment so that a flow of energy leads to clearly defined (trophic structure) place in the food chain, biotic diversity, and (material cycles i.e)., exchange of materials between living and nonliving parts within the system...."[Odum, Eugene P. (1971). Fundamentals of Ecology (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania]  An essence of ecology is the understanding of organisms within the many interacting systems that are present in a defined area.  (A system is anything that functions as a whole of interacting parts. The parts are sub-systems in themselves and systems are parts of larger systems.)  Ecology emerged as a scientific study with a focus on particular areas occupied by a common organic theme such as a pond, a forest type, a particular organism or group of organisms. The systematic interrelationships of the organisms with each other and with the impinging natural elements is the focus of ecology. 

However, when considering the interrelationships of all organisms on Earth with their surroundings, the concept of ecology must be expanded greatly beyond studies of limited areas or of limited kinds of organisms. The terms ecosphere or biosphere  better describe the scale of interactions among organisms and natural systems on Earth. When human cultural systems are included the interactions are greatly increased. 


The ecosphere is composed of an extraordinary complexity of interacting systems.  As an example of the complexity, in the partial diagram of a climate system, below, look at its starting point  and its direct links with six other major subsystems (shown in different colors). Each of those subsystems are highly connected internally and with many parts of the other six subsystems as well as systems not shown in the diagram.  Imagine the starting point is the content of greenhouse gases within the Earth’s climate system and its connection with other sub-systems. Each different color represents another system with which it is actively connected. For example, consider the blue represents the system of the carbon cycle; the orange represents links within the oceanic systems; the green represents the forest systems; red/violet represent agricultural systems. And these major systems are interconnected, some more intimately than others.

The impact of changes within the system and subsystems are not simple and direct. Many changes have secondary, tertiary, or more remote consequences. The major point  is that abrupt human alterations to natural ecosystems have extraordinary impacts throughout the Earth’s ecosphere. Changes in the flows of information within and among ecosystems are extraordinarily complicated and carry ramifications at each point of contact. Some computer models have identified limited aspects of natural systems  and their impacts on other natural systems.  For example, many climate models have illuminated the severity that greenhouse gasses have caused in raising atmospheric temperatures as part of a climate system. 

A major difficulty in understanding the biosphere is apparent when you realize that ecosystems are composed of other ecosystems and are also parts of larger ecosystems. It is impossible to identify all of the major ecosystems that are interconnected, let alone, understand them. (Academic studies have largely emphasized specialization of smaller  systems rather than connections within larger systems.)


More generalized consequences of global warming on many ecosystems is indicated in the following diagram.  And each of the illustrated ecosystems or conditions is part of yet other ecosystems as is indicated by dotted lines.  Starting at the bottom of the diagram, the effects of global warming are shown as being intensified with increasing global temperatures. In the middle section, the results of continued global  warming are the passing of tipping points, beyond which changes are irreversible. The upper part of the diagram illustrates probable consequences within the human world. (Diagram is from Job One for Humanity)

Ecologists- Geographers

George Perkins Marsh--1864--Man and Nature --Or Physical Geography as Midified by Man

Carl Sauer, Marston Bates, Lewis Mumford,William Thomas (ed.)--Man’s Role in Changing the Fase of the Earth--1955

Eugene Odum--1961--Fundamentals of Ecology

Howard T. Odum--1971--Environment, Power, and Society in the 21st Century

William Catton--1982--Overshoot; The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

Although ecological theories had not yet been invented in the 19th century, ideas that humans were causing major alterations to the natural  world, were written about  by George Perkins Marsh and others. Almost 100 years later, in the early 1950s, broader recognition of destructive modification of the Earth resulted in the first international  conference of seventy scholars and writers and the publication of “Mans’ Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.”(University of Chicago Press; 1956)  Geographer, Carl Sauer, introduced that conference with an article, ‘The Agency of Man on the Earth’. In it, he states:

“The theme (of the conference) is the capacity of man to alter his natural environment, the manner of his doing so, and the virtue of his action. It is concerned with historically cumulative effects, with the physical and biologic processes that man sets in motion, inhibits, or deflects and the differences in cultural conduct that distinguish one human group from another.” p 49

“We need to understand better how man has disturbed and displaced more and more of the   organic world, has become in more and more regions the ecologic dominant and has affected the course of organic evolution.”

Having taken place 70 years ago, the participants’ discussions of environmental changes, now seem dated. The magnitude of post-World War II alterations of the Earth by humans was largely unforeseen. Fossil fuels had barely begun to exert there extraordinary impact on the Earth. And the relationship of what was said was largely ecological only by inference. 

Fifteen years later, the ecologist Howard T. Odum (Environment, Power, and Society for the 21st Century--The Hierarchy of Energy; John Wiley ; New York 1971--2007) thoroughly discussed the implications of ecological thinking on both the natural world and  human society.  In the 2007 revision of the 1971 edition of the book, he writes:

“The purpose of this book is to increase our understanding of the system of civilization  and its resource basis so as to chart a better future.  A macroscopic understanding of environment and society is sought with the principles of general systems, energy hierarchy, and earth metabolism. By accounting for the sequence of society from agrarian landscapes to urban frenzy, we can extend the reasons for history to the future.  Even now  the environmental resources of the planet are beginning to limit society just as the earth's fossil fuel-based urban civilization is flowering in storms of information. ”

Odum looked at ecology from the perspective of energy flows, storage, and degradation and of the consequences of those actions both in terms of natural materials and within human systems. (I will postpone further discussion Odum’s  ecological thinking to my section on energy.) He addressed a future that emerged out of the first Earth Day in 1967 in which ‘peak oil’ and the running out of fossil fuel energy was a major environmental concern. Global warming was not a major topic  at the time. 

Odum wrote about the “energy crisis: 

“We could make a mess of our transition (to a low energy society) if we fail to understand its nature. The terrible possibility before us is that there will be a continued insistence on growth with our last energies. There would then be no reserves with which to make changes, maintain order, and cushion the impact on human life of a period when energy use must drop.”

Based on his understanding of ecology he hoped that public would become aware that the uses of fossil fuel energy must decline. He showed ways that might lead to a moderate energy, steady state economy. Of course, energy use has accelerated rather than declined. And with it, pollution causing global warming has become the major problem of energy use, not forced contractions  in economy based on the decline in energy supplies.

Another influential late 20th century scholar was the sociologist, William Canton, whose book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, (University of Illinois Press: 1982) placed the actions of humans in the context of ideas and terms derived from  traditional studies in biological ecology. He was most concerned with the concepts of carrying capacity and overshoot. Canton boldly applied biological/ecological terms to human actions and history. 

“We must learn to live within carrying capacity without trying to enlarge it. We must rely on renewable resources consumed no faster than at sustained yield rates. The last best hope for mankind is ecological modesty.”

Catton, William R. Overshoot (p. 260). University of Illinois Press. Kindle Edition. 

The natural systems of most natural scientists have not yet been integrated with the cultural beliefs of religious, economic and political leaders, let alone the general public; Most social scientist have not been concerned with natural ecology. And  humans are still more fascinated with the stories we tell ourselves about culture, politics, economics, religion, and our daily life, than about how our cultural ecosystems are intimately connected to natural ecosystems. If humanity is to survive, these systematic connection must become more widely known and acted on.

  1. B.Evolution

Evolutionary processes are guided by the innate propensity of all organism to grow and reproduce.  And evolution is intimately tied to ecology as a process through which all organisms, including humans, have found a place within the biosphere.  However, in their attempt to grow, not all organisms survive. They die out when they reach the limits imposed by their ecosystems. If the ecosystem changes are slow or minor, many can adjust to the new conditions, although most mutant variations die. Some mutations may be better adapted to rapidly changing ecological conditions and survive in the course of evolution. As explained in the Wikipedia article on evolution,

“Each population within an ecosystem occupies a distinct niche, or position, with distinct relationships to other parts of the system. These relationships involve the life history of the organism, its position in the food chain and its geographic range. This broad understanding of nature enables scientists to delineate specific forces which, together, comprise natural selection. Natural selection can act at different levels of organisation, such as genes, cells, individual organisms, groups of organisms and species. Selection can act at multiple levels simultaneously. ”

When natural ecosystems are changing rapidly and geographically, some organisms will be restricted or selected out; others may evolve into new, distinct species. Most species have disappeared during Earth’s previous five extinction events. A few species may survive the new ecological  systems. An asteroid impact, 65 million years ago caused the last major extinction during which all dinosaurs and many other larger plants and animals died. However, a few mammals, which date back some 85 million years ago, survived this last major extinction event. Among those mammals were the ancestors of humans.

The first hominids appeared about 14 million years ago (mya) evolving into 15-20 species. The earliest species of Australopithecenes evolved about 4 mya. And the first of the genus Homo (shown in green in the diagram below) appeared about 2.8 mya--during just the last 0.0006 % of geologic time.  All hominid species with the exception of Homo sapiens are extinct!



Divergence of Humans from Chimps

Modern man (Homo sapiens) is now thought to have evolved from H. heidelbergensis about 315,000 years ago and diffused out of Africa into Asia 120,000 years ago and to Europe 40-50,000 years ago.


Branches of the later species of humans

(By Homo-Stammbaum, Version Stringer.jpg: Chris Stringerderivative work: Conquistador - This file was derived from: Homo-Stammbaum, Version Stringer.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

During the period of their evolution, small populations of Homo sapiens and other organisms have been able to live through the slowly changing natural ecological systems that accompanied major changes in climate that followed the extremes in the orbital pattern of the Earth. Humans evolved within their ‘distinct niche, or position, with distinct relationships to other parts of the system’. 

The  Quaternary geologic period, which began 2.58 mya, is characterized by 60 major periods of cooling that were accompanied by glacial ice sheets. They were followed by rising inter-glacial temperatures.  This is the period during which our distant hominid ancestors evolved and died. Homo sapiens evolved  during the last four major glacial advances.  These changes were gradual. The last glacial maximum was 22,000 years ago and was followed by increasing warming. In the 20th century, the average peak temperature of the last four inter-glacial periods  was recorded. 



Changes in Temperature, CO2, and Sea Level during the last four inter-glacial periods).

In 1950, temperatures reached the average of the peak temperatures of the last four inter-glacial periods. Since then they have risen exponentially. (See diagram above.) Solar radiation has maintain normal variations; CO2 captured in ice show a moderate increase since 1880; CO2 measured in the air on the Volcano Mauna Loa has been rising exponentially; and global temperatures have followed the rise in CO2.




Our other human ancestors of the genera Homo have died out. Only Homo sapiens remains.  Modern humans have eked out an existence over the last 315,000 year. Their lives were very short until the 20th century. Movements of ice sheets, long periods of drought, and rising sea levels during the Pleistocene forced many groups to migrate if they were to survive. Gigantic volcanic explosions caused major worldwide ash fall. Plagues also killed large numbers of humans.   Homo sapiens are but recent survivors of long periods of adjustment to the natural world that surrounds them. They outlasted or absorbed Denisovan and Neanderthal species of Homo.

However, today humans no longer live within the same natural ecological systems that allowed the evolution of small groups of human animals. Today, humans have greatly altered the Earth’s ecological systems. The natural world  differs from the one within which Homo sapiens evolved. Have Homo sapiens also reached the limits of their particular evolutionary line?

  1. C.Energy 

“Everything that happens is an expression of the flow of energy in one of its forms.   ….components of energy are necessary for the the action of all the processes of the universe. … Energy is a measure of everything. It measures the amount of stored capability for future processes and the rate at which processes go. The total amount of an accomplished process is measured by the energy used. ….Everything has a component of energy.” 

The ecologist, Howard T.  Odum, most comprehensively introduced the concept of energy into ecological studies. With the quotation above, he states a basic concept to understanding  a major aspect of life on Earth and its relationship to the natural world--to understanding the biosphere that includes humans. His ideas derive from the understanding of four laws of thermodynamics.

The first law--the law of conservation of energy--states that energy is neither created nor destroyed. Energy may be transformed, stored, and degraded; but is not lost. 

Until very recently, human existence has depended on the transformation of solar energy derived mainly through direct processing of photosynthesis in plants. Humans have transformed, stored and degraded energy from plants and animals as their major sources of energy. Through the application of technology humans have also used solar energy that drives wind and water systems, for example in water wheels and turbines and in sailboats. In the 315,000 years of life of humans on Earth, only since the 19th century have humans  transformed and degraded solar energy that was transformed and stored in plants that were fossilized in distant geologic time. The rapid degradation of this fossDegraded energy is ultimately in the form of heat.

The second law--the law of degradation of energy--states that All energy when transformed is concentrated and loses heat. 

From its initial form at extraction, the energy of all fossil fuels becomes available for use or transformation. At each stage of its use or transformation, energy is either lost as heat or changed in form, incorporating lesser amounts of energy in the new product or service. At each stage of transformation, the remaining energy also becomes more complex and concentrated as it is stored in a product of service. 



Stored or potential energy, such as is found in fossil fuels, may be used to produce higher quality energy, i.e., more concentrated or more ordered energy. In the transformation process, some energy is concentrated and other energy is degraded. Although some degraded energy may be recycled as exemplified in the recycling of  nutrients when plants decay, much energy is degraded and  is lost in the form of heat. The dispersal of that heat, which  is the loss of the molecular activity as it approaches absolute zero, is called entropy. In common terms, degraded energy is less ordered. That everything tends to fall apart or depreciate  is an example of the 2nd Law of thermodynamics.

A third law or principle of thermodynamics is the maximum-power principle, which states that those systems that survive in competition among alternative choices are those that develop more power inflow (work) and use it to meet the needs of survival. “ They do this by (1) developing storages of high- quality energy, ( 2) feeding back work from the storages to increase inflows; (3) recycling materials as needed; (4) organizing control mechanisms that keep the system adapted and stable; (5) setting up exchanges with other systems to supply special energy needs, and (6) contributing useful work to the surrounding environmental system that helps maintain favorable conditions. “

More simply stated; the system that gets the most energy and uses it most effectively survives in competition with other systems. To be efficient, systems that have the largest sources of energy will produce more places to store energy which may be used as feedback. (Feedback is the reinforcement of the source of the energy.) The continual production of storage places is commonly called growth. The increasing accumulation of  storage places is, at least temporarily, called progress. 

Maximum power is attained when 50 % of the system’s energy is used either to maintain the system or to create storage places that feedback energy used in maintaining the system. The remaining 50% of the incoming energy is degraded. When a system’s maximum power is no longer attained or is short-circuited, other competing systems that are at maximum power, may replace the existing system or modify its position within the larger system in which both exist. This is the energy element in the process of evolution. 

When energy sources exceed production in maximum power efficient systems,  exponential overgrowth or overshoot occurs unless another system subsequently is able to limit its energy sources. The prime example of  exponential overgrowth is the addition of excess energy from fossil fuels into energetically-stable systems. In addition to the production of high quality of goods and services (storage devices), if sufficient feedback to maintain a stable system is not attained, excessive heat will be released into the biosphere. If the continuing use of fossil fuels in satisfying the demands for greater goods and services in modern societies is not accompanied by human limitations to maintain the natural and cultural systems of which they are a part, overgrowth occurs. The question today is: When will the Earthly biome, its natural systems, eliminate or reduce greatly the modern human systems, which are in overgrowth mode?

T.H. T. Odum suggests a Fourth thermodynamic law--the law of energy transformations. 

“All the known energy transformations can be connected in a series network according to the quantity of one kind of energy required for the next.” 

Odum illustrates this in the diagram below.



The Hierarchy of Energy; Columbia University Press; New York. 418 pp. 2007.

a: Reading left to right, energy is transformed from solar energy through the processes of  photosynthesis and is stored as (wood), which may be fossilized as (coal), which may be extracted as a fossil fuels (mining), and subsequently burned in power plants and concentration in factories, (the making of an electric light bulb).  The right-pointing arrows show potential energy (originally solar energy) as it is transformed. The left-pointing arrows show feedback energy. The down-pointing arrows show the degradation of energy to heat. (All measurements are in equivalents of ‘solar calories’.)  

b. At each stage of transformation, power (energy) is lost in work. Compare ‘a” with ‘b’.

c. At each stage, energy is concentrated and more specialized. It is stored in product or as feedback.)

The graph below shows a more generalized example of the transformation of solar energy as it flows through multiple different pathways.  Each pathway uses available sources of potential energy (when measured in common energy terms). Transformations are always toward greater concentration of embedded energy as well as greater degradation of energy. The ultimate source of the potential energy from Earthly sources is transformed at each stage of its use and is accompanied by the loss of degraded 



In this diagram, first levels of transformation--A, B, C, D, E--contribute concentrated energy to the second level of production--J, K, L--which in turn are processed and concentrated--S, T--to the final goods or services--Z. Each process of transformation leads to heat loss but also to feedback of energy to the lower level. Product Z , in turn may supply energy, say to systems of education or entertainment.

The end product, such as a smart phone or an educated person, is the result of huge amounts of concentrated and complex energy that has already been transformed in the stages leading to its use in the parts and services in making a smart phone or education a person. The total amount of energy consumed by a person has already been greatly concentrated in the transformations of energy from their original sources.

These transformations are accompanied by very large amounts of degraded energy that is lost to further concentration of products. Much of this degraded energy results in atmospheric accumulation in the form of greenhouse gasses. (The oceans absorb over 90% of the emitted CO2.) Throughout most of recent geologic time, the flow of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere has equaled their flow out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Only with  human activities, starting with agriculture and culminating today with the burning of fossil fuels, has the warming of the atmosphere by greenhouse gasses exceed its loss to outer space. 

(A major human error in determining amounts and types of energy in the transformation of materials and sources of energy is the selection of only one or two energy pathways or only one or two levels of transformation in  looking at the energy used in the  product in question, often only of the last stage--the desired product.)

The next diagram shows the approximate costs in terms of energy  needed to create a useful form of energy.   (How much energy to you get from the amount of energy it takes to make it useful.  Energy returned on  energy in-EREI) We know, for example, natural gas provides much more energy than the energy used to make useful. By contrast, it is difficult to establish the cost in energy needed to produce electricity from photo-voltaic solar cells.It Is not enough to note that PV solar cells cost fewer dollars  than some other sources of electricity. But does the production of PV cells provide more useful energy than the energy used in making it useful?  The answer is not clear. Although the determination of the actual energy costs are extremely difficult to determine, often speculative, the positioning on scales of concentration of energy and yield in energy remain relatively consistent in various studies done over time. The chart below is one rough estimate of energy costs of production and the energy output from their use. All numbers less than 10  are not cost effective in terms of energy.



                                                                      Materials required in construction (tons/kilowatt hour)




At present, humanity continues to want to maintain an high-energy society. To do so, it has been estimated that an EROI must be above 7 to economical.  Although our leaders may be aware of the natural costs of doing so, they are unable to  continue to find energy sources that do not exceed the energy cost of producing them and the infrastructure to support them. Although renewable sources may not have a high energy return for energy produced, renewable sources may remain desirable because they are less polluting than fossil fuel sources. It should be remembered, however, that  all forms of energy  whether renewable or not, alter the natural systems of which they are a part.

Actual energy costs are not used in determining economic costs. Most energy costs are ‘externalized’ in economic processes. Thus  thinking about the relationship between major human economic systems and natural ecological systems is broken. In the diagram below, you can see where natural resource and waste systems, potential energy and degraded energy, as well as where natural and degraded materials are found. They are all part of the Earth’s biosphere. The economic system is also a part of the Biosphere, but is usually considered a world unto itself. Energy flows in and out of the economic system from the biosphere.  



[The rectangular box (red) represents the economic system that is embedded in the Earth’s biosphere, (shown in green.] The predicament in which humanity finds itself today is represented by the extraction of energy and materials (which can be described in terms of energy) and the waste products, (largely heat, which it discharges into the biosphere.) When these costs are ‘external’ to the economy, their costs to natural ecosystems are excluded. Equating  economic costs  with the energy costs of resources and waste disposal would go a long way towards creating a feedback system within a more stable system that is the biosphere. Energy needs to be evaluated in terms of energy, not simply in financial terms.

The existential crises that humanity faces today have been created by the increased use of energy. Exponential overgrowth of energy today, contrasts with the slow, stable interactions of natural systems of earlier times.  Over millenniums, those systems have slowly adjusted to variations in solar radiation, the rotation and inclination of the Earth, growth in ice sheets and changes in vegetative cover. The exponential growth of the use of energy, especially from fossil fuels since 1950, differs both in its scale and the speed of its occurrence from the energy changes of the Pleistocene. The ecological disruptions of the Earth’s biosphere directly reflect human actions which are based on the increased use of non-renewable energy. To understand the disturbed world in which we now live, energy must be considered along side ecology and evolution.


Environment is a very broad idea that encompasses energy, ecology, evolution, and matter.  At its most comprehensive, environment is whatever interacts with a selected subject through exchanges of information.  Of  most concern in this presentation is the exchange of information between the cultural world of humanity and the natural  world of earthly materials and energy.

Natural Environment 

For millenniums, the human species--an evolving species of mammals--adapted successfully to the flow of information of slowly changing ecological systems--its environment.  Natural ecosystems accepted the habits of the ancestors of the human species. Since the middle of the 20th century, however, the flow of information from humans to natural ecological systems differs radically from what it was when Homo sapiens evolved over 300,000 years ago.  The consequence of those flows of information is that many of the ecosystems within the natural world have  been altered to tipping points, which make them unstable. The consequences to humanity of reaching tipping points of natural ecosystems are extremely uncertain. The environmental evidence is overwhelming  that several  tipping points are locked in. We are most aware of those dealing with global warming.

The climate crisis and the ecosystems at its base may be partially  identified by  an excess of  “greenhouse gases”. For over 400,000 years atmospheric levels of CO2 had not exceeded 300 ppm. Since 1950 they have risen by over 120 ppm. This year, 2023, recorded global temperatures at their highest, as are the levels of the three main greenhouse gases--Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), and Nitrous Oxide (N2O).





The diagram below illustrates some of  the flows of information from increased amounts of greenhouse gasses.  Follow the red arrows from the lower left hand part of the diagram. Several pathways lead to changes in the states of the oceans. Other flows of information from increased amounts of greenhouse gases effect  changes in glaciers, sea ice, and vegetative land  cover.





Other major examples of interference in natural ecosystems by humans as their population grew are the clearing of land for agriculture, the destruction of forests, the damming of rivers,  the extinction of species, and the desertification of dry lands. The amount of  agricultural and grazing lands have greatly increased in the last 200 years, affecting the reflectivity and absorption of solar energy. As the diagrams of Land Use Changes and of the Changes in the Biomass of the world’s Terrestrial Vertebrates show, the environments of all organism has change greatly in modern times.





Ethereal environment or stories we tell ourselves

In addition to a natural environment, humans also participate in an ethereal world through exchanges of information with one another. The unique exchanges of a human animal within his or her ethereal environment are guided by flows of abstract and symbolic information that has been stored within the body/mind, and are expressed in speech, body movements, cultural artifacts, or technology. The flow of information through language, behavior, and artifacts is usually mediated by institutions of which print and electronic media are now among the most important.  



Today the most important narratives--the stories or codified forms of information flow--are science, individualism, and capitalism. An partial example of major stories we tall ourselves is illustrated here. 

 Their coupling with an unrelenting technology has transformed, unalterably, not only the cultural environment of all humans but also the material environment of all life. The material world has increasingly been forced to respond to the increasing productions of the human mind which are creating effects both beneficial and deleterious to the very survival of the human species.

The flows of information from applied natural and social sciences and many modern humanistic studiesare at the root of  today’s existential crises. Because they relate primarily to activities within an ethereal world and ignore natural ecologic systems they remain inventions that are isolated from physical reality.  If Homo sapiens is to survive, many of the underpinnings of our dominant stories demand drastic revision to include the realities of the physical properties of nature.

The growth of human population that is supported by the goods and services of modern life cannot continue when the natural ecosystems  are increasingly altered by that human population.   The “Bads” of  human making--the extinctions, resource extraction, pollution, increasing entropy--are radically transformed natural environments. In the diagram below, the the real world of humans is shown as thrusting its flows of intelligence in the production of artifacts and  descriptions of the real world of Nature. The creation of ‘Goods’ or artifacts has created ‘Bads’--the  alterations of Nature. The world of matter and energy and  wilderness  is now transformed at a scale that has been labeled the Anthropocene because the techniques and values of humans--the ethereal world--have come to be the major transformer of the natural world. All natural environments have been  invaded by ethereal environments.


The Biosphere focused on Human/Nature Environments

The environment of humanity has been greatly changed since the evolution of Homo sapiens. During the last two centuries, especially in the last 70 years, humans have disturbed the environments in which they evolved by their coupling of technology with the burning of fossil fuel energy.  The steady, slow flows of information in both natural and ethereal systems--environmental processes--have been accelerated, interrupted, altered, or broken by human actions and thought.  Humans have created the Anthropocene!

Eight billion humans living on the same planet on which Homo sapiens evolved is the largest environmental change resulting from the use of fossil fuels. Food supplies are adequate to maintain the 8 billion only through the “Green Revolution,” which is based on fossil fuels. The same fossil fuels that let humans live longer and in better health are the same fossil fuels that are creating the environmental  disasters that threaten us.  

E.Exponential Growth


However, within the lifetime of many people still living, the population has quadrupled to 8 billion. Goods and services have grown exponentially in recent decades. Humans have excelled in the imperative to grow and reproduce. And who can decry better health, longer lives, and freer movement? But recently we are beginning to recognizance that economic systems based on stories of growth and progress are also dependent on the real world of nature. 

Only with exponential growth of rapid entropy, have pollution, extinctions, resource depletion and other negative aspects of economic growth become apparent. 






“In this trembling moment ... is it still possible to face the gathering darkness and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?”  Barry Lope

For more information about the author of this article, Alvin Urquhart, Emeritus Professor of Geography who was a founder and director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon, click here.

Here is the link to part two of this article. Part two has all of the recommendations and it is amazing reading!

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