Brad Werner has a simple question: Is the Earth fucked? He also has a remarkably complicated methodology yielding a very simple answer: yes, unless people start a serious global rebellion.
Werner, a complex systems researcher at UC San Diego, spoke on Wednesday at the huge American Geophyiscal Union conference going on in San Francisco. This is a meeting where a typical talk might be called "Status and potential capacities to sequester carbon of China's terrestrial ecosystem," or "The significance of the opening angle of pyroclast ejection during explosive volcanic eruptions." Werner's talk really was called "Is Earth Fucked?"
AGU Executive Director/CEO Christine McEntee told ScienceNow, "Our program committee evaluates the scientific merit of the abstracts and accepts those that meets their criteria. Our scientists are free to create the titles of their sessions."
Werner, sporting a neon green winter hat over bright pink hair, discussed the nature of interactions between humans and the environment, and what those interactions say about the future. His argument goes something like this: modern culture, with its emphasis on money and economics, is far too focused on short time scales. Capitalist culture tends to encourage decreases in "dissipation of transactions" – it is much easier to get food now than it used to be, or to talk to someone not next to you. These changes reduce friction within our system, and a reduction in friction "promotes instability." So we're in the process of destroying things thanks to that instability, and even when we engage in environmental management efforts, we couch them in capitalist terms, like cost/benefit analyses as efforts to deal with climate change. This, Werner says, will inevitably lead those management schemes to fail over a long enough time frame. And he actually created a computer model to study all of this… stuff. Broadly, the result is discouraging.
"What happens is not too surprising: the economy very fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage," Werner said during his talk. He is still finishing up the model, so no details on the inputs and the final simulations are available. Still, I asked him afterward to clarify if his model had answered his baseline question. Is Earth fucked? "More or less," he said.
But don't worry! There's a solution: resistance movements. It was extremely unusual to hear this in a talk given at one of the biggest and most highly respected environmentally-related scientific conferences in the world. "Resistance is basically when people, groups of people, step outside the culture," Werner said. "They adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture."
In some ways, he says, this sends us back to pre-technology, pre-capitalist times, which promotes the stability we have otherwise lost. He went on during our conversation:
Because resistance cultures do replicate to some extent the long time scales and tightly connected time scales within indigenous cultures, we might expect that the influence of resistance, even without thinking about the details, would be to stabilize and promote sustainability.
Capitalist society moves too quickly, and our connections to each other and the world have become too superficial, to avoid destroying the world. But resistance movements – Werner cited the Arab Spring and Occupy movements as recent examples – could disrupt our otherwise inevitable course of enviro-destruction. That's a hard proposition to gather evidence for scientifically, but Werner didn't seem to mind. The abstract for Werner's invited talk at the AGU went even farther, stating that the an important solution is "Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups."
I asked him if his conclusions double as a call to violence. "I'm not calling for anything, I'm just trying to understand the system," Werner says. "I think it's important, though, to say, if this is what happens, then this is what we expect. And if people engage in resistance, then the general impact of it is likely to promote sustainability."
So, to sum up: even our best efforts at environmental management are doomed to fail, unless massive scale resistance movements start springing up and send our cultural personality back toward a pre-technological era. Science has given you your mandate, people: Go blow some shit up.