Through the wonders of TiVo, I have been getting caught up on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s phenomenal reboot of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos television series. Highly recommended!
That being said, the season finale ends with a pull-back from the Earth as seen from space, with a voice-over from Carl Sagan as he quotes from his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. And as I watched the camera pull back and the Earth slowly recede to a tiny, pale blue dot in sync with Sagan’s eloquent ruminations about life on our lonely little world, my ears caught a sentence that literally made the hair stand up on the back of my neck:
“Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”
Now that the impending attack on Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons on its people has somewhat been defused, perhaps now would be a good time for a serious discussion on what drove the country, long thought to be one of the most stable of Arab region, into bloody civil war.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s say the government decides to listen to the world’s climate scientists and begins to aggressively pursue policies designed to reduce the amount of CO2 produced each year. And, let’s say that, by the end of the century, we find out that the climate scientists were completely wrong. What would be the downsides? Cleaner air, cleaner water, perhaps the end of starvation as we learn to feed ourselves more efficiently and sustainably? Doesn’t seem to be a bad outcome to me.
However, let’s say that the government continues to listen to the deniers, and continues with business as usual. And let’s say that the climate scientists were correct, after all. What would be the downsides? Mass extinction of a significant portion of the biosphere, unimaginable misery, and the death of literally billions of people.
So, who would you rather back, even if they are wrong?
One way to view our lonely little world is as a remote, isolated island with a finite sustainable carrying capacity. Like any large island, some items – such as food and water – are endlessly regenerable when utilized within limits, and some items – such as metals located in the ground and fuel supplies – are either gone forever when expended, or extremely difficult to replenish. Within the confines of the island, the sustainable standard of living will obviously be determined by the number of people living on it. And the future of the island’s population will obviously depend on how wisely it allocates its resources.
I had the occasion to recently watch the film Chasing Ice, a visually stunning and compelling documentary of photographer James Balog’s multi-year venture to capture time elapsed pictures of the rapid erosion of several of the world’s glaciers.
Yet, in the middle of watching the documentary, with its inevitable discussion of loss of glacial ice and the corresponding, devastating rise in ocean level that will cause the inland migration of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, I was struck with this thought: the inland migration to where?
Graceful degradation is an engineering concept by which complex systems are designed such that they can still perform their core functions even while sustaining significant damage, albeit at a reduced capacity. Although often treated as equivalent to fault tolerance, the fundamental difference is that fault tolerant systems are designed such that a backup component or system can quickly be brought back on line to maintain full system capability, while the goal of graceful degradation is to support reduced functionality so as to prevent catastrophic failure. A lot of times, they are used together to maintain maximum reliability: for example, the battery backup system of a computer server room that may temporarily shut down non-critical servers on a power outage so as to maximize battery life (graceful degradation) until a backup generator can be brought on line (fault tolerance).
To say that these are dispiriting times for the environmental movement is quite the understatement. Between “Climategate,” the constant harassment by the climate change deniers, marginalization by the government, reversal of past successes, and several other factors, many people have just given up. And rightly so, part of me thinks. To continue seems to be a lesson in futility.