May you live in interesting times


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Farm country, Bennington Vermont

In Vancouver, I had a conversation with Tristan about some of the major energy and environmental changes we are likely to witness in our lifetimes. These include:

  1. Very significant amounts of climate change, very substantial climate change mitigation efforts, or both.
  2. The probable collapse of most or all commercial fisheries globally.
  3. The peak of global oil production, and progressive subsequent decline.

In some ways, the significance of all three is the same – humanity now has the capability to reshape the planet in very substantial ways and no political or economic arrangement to date has been sufficient to stave off some of our most dangerous and damaging behaviours.

Personally, I think this is a poor time to be bringing children into the world. While the loss of fisheries will be tragic, climate change threatens to undermine the ability of global civilization to feed and support itself, if it continues unchecked. Before I would feel confident that future generations will live reasonably good lives, I will need to see global emissions reach a plateau (very soon, if we are to avoid more than 2°C of warming) and begin the long and determined decline that is necessary to restabilize the climate on human timescales.

Within fifty years, we should have a pretty good idea of whether humanity will put in a solid effort in jumping over the various hurdles before us. Given the feedbacks in the climate system, there is no guarantee that even vigorous effort can prevent abrupt or runaway climate change. That being said, there is a big difference between devoting ourselves to making a real effort to overcome the obstacle and simply ploughing along blindly (accelerating all the while) until we hit it.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan January 12, 2010 at 1:20 am

Recognizing that we will see things things is both terrifying and freeing. Terrifying because of the height of the moral requirement to do what is possible to prevent life on earth from becoming much nastier and more brutish. But freeing because, aside from the ever present possibility of death which is our mortality, we will be around long enough to live through many stages of these traumas.

We should certainly do what we can now to quicken the switch to carbon neutral energy sources, but while we do this, it is comforting to know that the atmosphere of overwhelming rejectionism of serious environmental problems which we now see is only one of the horizons we will face as humans living in the end times. Certainly the political climate will be very different after we have already seen significant climate change, and seen the end of world fisheries.

Milan January 12, 2010 at 7:50 am

Certainly the political climate will be very different after we have already seen significant climate change, and seen the end of world fisheries.

I don’t think so, where it comes to fisheries.

It’s a problem of shifting baselines: people remember how things were a few years ago, not a few decades ago. I think people may wonder for a while why things that used to be in the supermarket are no longer there, but will soon forget about it as we have forgotten about most of what is already extinct.

. January 12, 2010 at 7:52 am

Shifting baseline
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Shifting baseline (also known as sliding baseline) is a term used to describe the way significant changes to a system are measured against previous baselines, which themselves may represent significant changes from the original state of the system.

The term was first used by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly in his paper “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries”. Pauly developed the term in reference to fisheries management where fisheries scientists sometimes fail to identify the correct “baseline” population size (e.g. how abundant a fish species population was before human exploitation) and thus work with a shifted baseline. He describes the way that radically depleted fisheries were evaluated by experts who used the state of the fishery at the start of their careers as the baseline, rather than the fishery in its untouched state. Areas that swarmed with a particular species hundreds of years ago, may have experienced long term decline, but it is the level of decades previously that is considered the appropriate reference point for current populations. In this way large declines in ecosystems or species over long periods of time were, and are, masked. There is a loss of perception of change that occurs when each generation redefines what is “natural”.

The concept was further refined and applied to the ecology of kelp forests by Paul Dayton and others from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They used a slightly different version of the term in their paper, “Sliding baselines, ghosts, and reduced expectations in kelp forest communities”.

The term has become widely used to describe the shift over time in the expectation of what a healthy ecosystem baseline looks like.

Tristan January 12, 2010 at 9:39 am

I think shifting baselines would keep us from noticing a fundamental shift if the decline in fisheries were linear – but I think with ocean acidification the decline will be exponential and irreversible. I think that in our lifetimes we will see fisheries change from what is normal now to close to nothing. This will be taken as a clue, perhaps not by specialists, but by the general population.

In general, I do not think the general population is as ignorant as specialists here. While ” experts [use] the state of the fishery at the start of their careers as the baseline, rather than the fishery in its untouched state”, regular people know the stories of how plentiful fish were even 50 or 60 years ago. They also know stories about how plentiful the salmon were for pre-contact first nations groups – that the fish swam so thick you could almost walk on the water.

People might not act politically on this knowledge, it simply becomes part of the “everybody knows” which also includes the belief that the government is run by elites for the interests of the elites.

Milan January 12, 2010 at 10:10 am

I doubt ocean acidification will even be necessary to wipe out global fisheries.


Nature 423, 280-283 (15 May 2003) | doi:10.1038/nature01610; Received 25 November 2002; Accepted 25 March 2003

Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities

Ransom A. Myers & Boris Worm

Serious concerns have been raised about the ecological effects of industrialized fishing, spurring a United Nations resolution on restoring fisheries and marine ecosystems to healthy levels. However, a prerequisite for restoration is a general understanding of the composition and abundance of unexploited fish communities, relative to contemporary ones. We constructed trajectories of community biomass and composition of large predatory fishes in four continental shelf and nine oceanic systems, using all available data from the beginning of exploitation. Industrialized fisheries typically reduced community biomass by 80% within 15 years of exploitation. Compensatory increases in fast-growing species were observed, but often reversed within a decade. Using a meta-analytic approach, we estimate that large predatory fish biomass today is only about 10% of pre-industrial levels. We conclude that declines of large predators in coastal regions have extended throughout the global ocean, with potentially serious consequences for ecosystems. Our analysis suggests that management based on recent data alone may be misleading, and provides minimum estimates for unexploited communities, which could serve as the ‘missing baseline’ needed for future restoration efforts.

. January 12, 2010 at 10:40 am

Can the World’s Fisheries Survive Our Appetites?
By Bryan Walsh
Saturday, Aug. 01, 2009

Their study published in Science on July 31 is the most comprehensive of its kind, combining data on fishery catch totals, stock assessments, surveys from scientific trawls and information from small-scale fisheries and models. “It was a bit like CSI: Fisheries,” says Worm. “We looked for evidence of overfishing and where the practice was improving.”

The two-year study, which broke the world’s oceans into 10 major marine ecosystems, found improvement in half of them, where efforts to limit overfishing appeared to be working. But at the same time, the study found that 63% of the analyzed fish stocks worldwide were still in decline, and that exploitation will need to be reduced further if vulnerable species — like the rapidly disappearing Mediterranean bluefin tuna — are to avoid collapse. “The bad news is that this analysis confirms an increasing trend of species collapse in fisheries,” says Worm. “The good news is that the driving of collapse — exploitation — has been declining in many of the ecosystems where we have data. Some have really begun to limit overfishing.”

. January 12, 2010 at 10:59 am

Fisheries and Aquaculture Face Multiple Risks from Climate Change

A new report, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, predicts “an ocean of change” for fishers and fish farmers.

R.K. January 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm

If we do see the collapse of global fisheries, you can bet there will be people online arguing that it was inevitable, and caused by sunspots rather than human activity.

Milan January 12, 2010 at 4:08 pm

That is sad, but probably true.

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