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Peak oil, energy descent, climate change and the end of the world.

Things can look bleak. James Lovelock's latest conclusion is pessimistic. If the world can't be saved, what is the point of trying to live sustainably now?


What is meant by the end of the world?

In terms of peak oil and energy descent it is an end to the global capitalist/consumer economy. This may be a disaster to many people in the so-called modern world but it would essentially be a human disaster as in a disaster for humans but it is not the end of the world as in all life becomes extinguished on a barren desert planet. On the contrary, in world terms it may provide huge opportunities for developing sustainable societies and agricultures.

In terms of climate change the end of the world is a much bigger event. In Lovelock's view, global warming continues and kicks off positive feedback systems that cause a rapid increase in the already rising temperature. The biosphere becomes increasingly turbulent with large scale changes in ocean currents and major weather patterns (e.g. the Gulf Stream), moving through a chaotic period before eventually settling into a new stable state. What this new stable state may be like is impossible to predict, nor how long it might take to occur. The new temperatures and atmosphere may not, for example, sustain mammalian life.

This then would be the end of the world for us and a really large number of other species. But its still not the end of the world. The Earth goes on spinning and it is highly unlikely that life will disappear entirely from her face given the extreme conditions that some organisms tolerate readily today (around undersea vent holes for example). I seem to remember Lovelock himself suggesting that any new stable state was likely to be more productive than the old (our current state) in energy terms (In his book The Ages of Gaia, I think).


Similarities to the diagnosis of a terminal illness in an individual

It is interesting to consider Lovelock's view as a diagnosis, rather like the diagnosis of a potentially fatal condition in an individual. The diagnosis places the individual in a uniquely powerful position. Most if not all that has gone before in their life may suddenly appear meaningless or irrelevant in the looming face of their perhaps immanent doom. Current projects or concerns may be similarly stripped of value and the immediate moment may become hugely intense. Various options or courses may present themselves or otherwise arise. I have tentatively listed some below.

Any or all of the above may occur in combinations in the same individual, over time, as oscillations, cycles, repetitions etc. and all may have parallels on populations, cultures and groups.

That the individual either gets better or doesn't is not necessarily the point. If a stage is reached where a recovery is pronounced then life is truly wonderful. If the individual dies then this is indeed sad. If a path of grace has been followed and the individual still dies, it may be that their path has both prepared them for, and allowed them to more fully experience both their living and their dying.


Reasons to continue the work (or how to deal with Lovelockian pessimism)

These are presented as tentative answers to pessimism and are not necessarily either conclusive or correct..

1) he's a scientist not a prophet therefore he could be wrong. It has not proved unusual over the last couple of thousand years for individuals or groups to proclaim a vast and imminent destruction that has consistently not happened (so far).

2) at the interim conference of the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change (Feb 2004 in Exeter I believe) amongst the reports of doom and gloom I found a really interesting nugget of hope. This concerned a previously known fact, that when coral warms up it produces an extremely small particle in huge quantities. It had now been realised that these particles float to the surface of the sea from which they are carried up into the atmosphere. Here they form nuclei for water to condense on, thus creating clouds, thus casting shadow upon the sea, thus cooling the coral.

This is an excellent example of a Gaian feedback response (a la Lovelock). I would not suggest that this (coral making clouds) in itself will save the world, rather I would suggest that as this feedback mechanism has only just been recognised, it would seem very likely that there are other, possibly more complex, larger feedback mechanisms that may come into play, in our favour, as the temperature goes up.

3) recombinant ecologies.

The breaking up of the original land mass of the earth (Gondwanaland?) ensured the separation of genetic material and the creation of a wide variety of climatic zones in which distinct evolutionary solutions could be propagated. This led to the formation of many unique ecologies (assemblies of species given locally available materials, topography, energy flows- light/heat, wind, water etc. etc.).

Over the last two thousand years, accelerating in the last 200 and even more so now, these separate examples of genetic evolution (plants, animals, fungi, insects etc.) have been increasingly moved about and mixed up through deliberate introductions, escapees, stowaways, flukes, accidents etc. etc. so not only are we are seeing the recombining of once widely separate species in new assemblies but also these new assemblies have never been seen before on the planet. In effect, nature now has a much wider pool of genetic resources to throw into play, largely because of our activities as plant gatherers. If we then add to this increased opportunities for vegetative production (through more heat and carbon dioxide) and allow current ecologies to change or adapt (i.e. if we stop cutting down what nature puts there because its not native) it is highly likely that these new ecologies will be extremely productive in terms of carbon dioxide absorption/sequestration. Rhododendron comes to mind...

4) We may yet see the flowering of our truly experienced human ingenuity and problem solving skills that we evolved during our 1 million year gardening apprenticeship. These patterns of thought and behaviour are genetically programmed into all of us, should we but know it, and as we access this vast resource it may be possible to encourage the interaction with and further the development of recombinant ecologies that are far more productive that anything we have at present, either agricultural or "natural", that handle the atmosphere as well as providing for all our basic needs (food, shelter, warmth etc.). I see this as the essence of permaculture design.

5) Something else.

The "something else" would be very unpredictable or unusual; I have only given a few hesitant examples


So why love sheep?

Over the years I have met many people who would consider themselves to be green who absolutely hate and despise sheep with vehemence because sheep have deforested the uplands. This is both misguided and misplaced and it is only just and proper that someone should point this out. I hereby take that responsibility.

Firstly, it is not their fault. Sheep only do what is in their nature and did not ask ask for the deforestation of Ynys Prydain (Britain). So there is no need to hate the sheep for this. Nor indeed is there even any need to hate the shepherd or farmer, for similar reasons. Rather hate the patterns of thinking and behaviour that allowed such huge imbalances to arise and challenge these at their sources (starting in our own heads before turning to CAP reform).

We have kept sheep for a quarter of a century at Benthros and so are just beginners. Our sheep are stacked in with other grazers and eat grass, browse tree fodder and have a scrap of hay in the winter. They receive no routine medicines or vaccinations and are treated only if any unwanted symptoms appear which is not usual. They are not dipped; I hand shear and find no parasites. They live as a small flock (4-6) and have two or three or four lambs a year. Old Black the original ram died a few years ago at the age of fourteen. The current flock were all born on the holding and have never left it. In theory we kill enough to keep the numbers at about four for the winter; at this level they only need hay if there is persistent frost or snow.

Sheep are excellent at converting low grade environmental resources into high quality human food, as well as providing wool. We get about 20-25 lb of meat per animal which equates to protein for about 25 meals for the two of us. So three animals a year covers roughly 75 meals (i.e. nearly a quarter of the years main meals). This is a considerable return for the equivalent of about three days work per year and minimal energy expenditure (though do note that "counting the flock" every day is stacked into other general duties). We used to kill them at Benthros but legislation is making this increasingly difficult. If we are forced to take them to the abattoir it will add two fifty mile round trips to the energy equation as well as freak out the sheep.

This bit about sheep does not really fit here but I wanted a catchy hook. My apologies.


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