Thursday, August 21, 2014


1987: As Good as It Gets

1987. Reagan, Gorbachev, and Thatcher were in power. It was a year where we witnessed the first naked-eye supernova explosion since 1604, Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Minnesota Twins won the World Series. In October, on Black Monday the stock market saw its biggest one-day drop. World population reached 5 billion.

And in 1987, atmospheric CO2 levels reached 350ppm. Bill McKibben and his young colleagues chose this number to name their international climate activist network. It represents the theoretical limit of safe levels of CO2, a climate that is favorable to human life on Earth. Though the IPCC continues to hold 450ppm CO2 as the upper risk limit, a key study of paleological climate data by James Hansen and his associates puts it at 350. With high respect for Hansen, has worked tirelessly for years to make this number iconic, a benchmark for their efforts to awaken the world to the imminent dangers of irreversible climate change.

Both friendly critics and cynics point out that fixing on 350 is an unattainable fantasy, making the entire premise of the organization a false one. As one of those friendly critics, I would have to say that the number is unattainable short of global financial collapse. Even then, the carbon we have emitted takes 20 years to cycle through the biosphere, so its full greenhouse effects are unfinished. For instance, to the delight of climate skeptics, we have hovered around a .8 degree rise in the average global temperature for several years, But since the last major El Nino event in 1997-98, an extra .2C has been held in the oceans, and will not be released until the next big one. In the spring, that looked likely for this fall, but the trade winds have resumed their usual east-west pattern, so the heat will remain locked in for awhile.  Meanwhile, we passed 400ppm in May. With carbon emissions steadily increasing (except for a slight pause during the global recession n 2008), we have not even moved to a carbon-neutral emissions posture, much less a carbon-negative one.

If Hansen and McKibben are right, and 350ppm represents our precautionary limit, 1987 marked our apogee as a global civilization. In a remarkable coincidence, that was also the year in which human beings gobbled up ALL of the earth's annual biotic production. We now consume it by mid-August, right about now, thus exceeding annual earth biotic production by 35%. In other words, we are consuming our biotic capital at an ever increasing rate. The cartoons showing the earth diminishing as bulldozers cut into her innards are no joke. No amount of economic spin can avoid this key fact. Though economic growth in advanced economies is less dependent upon natural resources, there is no getting around the need for minerals, soil, forests, and a balanced, functional biosphere, the famous “ecosystem services” that are definitely not in the service sector. I have often said that the Clinton years represented the peak of our society's wealth, but the hidden watershed was 1987, with this fateful coincidence of CO2 emissions and last-ditch biotic equilibrium.

1987 was also the year my friend Sunderlal Bahuguna accepted the Right Livelihood Award on behalf of Chipko, a woman's movement which preserved the Himalayan forest above 1000 meters. By 1988, James Hansen was giving congressional testimony on the imminent danger of global warming, and the IPCC was formed by the UN's World Meteorological Council. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, as the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a pivotal time.

The day after Black Monday, as I faced my class at Emory University I asked the business majors, the majority of my flock, about their confidence in a system in which most economic gains involved finance, not production. Every one of them fully believed the system would hold. And if you look at the subsequent growth of the market and figures for GDP, it has. But next time you read a report by mainstream economists, remember that whatever Wall Street and Big Government say, we peaked in 1987. That was as good as it gets.

NOTE: Under the guidance of the IPCC, the nations of the world have committed to holding the increase in atmospheric temperature to 2 degrees Centigrade. Since this number was accepted as the norm, several studies have indicated that a safer maximum should be less, between 1 and 1.5 C. One writer recently pointed to 2007 as the year we passed the point of noreturn, at .76C. Though this seems pretty extreme, that year marked the completion of the 20-year carbon cycle that began in 1987.

Peak Oil supposedly passed in 2005. So, industrial civilization declines, food shortages kill billions, greenhouse gases decline,
balance is restored. interesting times.
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