Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sleeper agents in the (somewhat) enchanted biosphere

When I was a young boy, I was afraid of creatures I called "hoppers" who I believed lurked under my bed. They were patterned after leaping animated cartoon figures appearing in the closing credits of "Fractured Fairytales," a segment of the popular children's television program "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." My bedroom had to be checked each night for these creatures before I could enter and go to sleep.

Of course, over time, the hoppers disappeared from under my bed. But, the world never quite lost its enchanted if sometimes menacing quality. Though only vaguely aware of it, I continued to react to animals, plants and just plain objects of all kinds as if they had unusual potency in the affairs of humans--potency with malevolent possibilities.

As a young man in my 20s this peculiar version of reality became conscious to me when I read Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's essay entitled "General Description of Types." Since that day I have learned to sift carefully through my experience and thoughts for the undue influence of this psychological disposition and rigorously question any overly positive or negative conclusions that might have been influenced by it.

Still, the enchanted world of the introverted sensation type (which is clearly my personality type) has never been fully extinguished from my awareness. Jung explains the psychology of the purest form of this type:

[The pure type] lives in a mythological world, where men, animals, locomotives, houses, rivers and mountains appear either as benevolent deities or as malevolent demons. That they appear thus to him never enters his head, though that is just the effect they have on his judgments and actions. He judges and acts as though he had such powers to deal with.

Now every modern, up-to-date, educated person will scoff at such a way of encountering the world. To the extent that any of us remain unconscious of the effects of this kind of archaic psychology in our own thinking, we are slaves to forces that can cloud clear thinking. But, my question is this: Do such psychological forces always cloud clear thinking or can they, when properly understood, be a gateway into a deeper understanding of the world around us?

A modern, up-to-date, educated person has usually been convinced that humans are the only agents in the world. Humans consciously manipulate the world to their benefit. Only humans can actually "manage" planet Earth. Everything else acts by dumb instinct or physical laws. The question becomes: Are those instincts and physical laws "dumb"? That is, are they merely mechanical repetitions of innate patterns or do they display an intelligence all their own?

Perhaps the purest modern manifestation of the idea that the Earth's systems as a whole display intelligence comes not from a poet, but from a renown scientist, James Lovelock. Lovelock posited a superorganism called "Gaia" (after the Greek goddess of Earth) which maintains habitable conditions on Earth for all its living organisms through the interaction of both living and nonliving systems. Lovelock's idea was popularized by his 1979 book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.

The respected scientist was widely criticized for being nonscientific. But his theory spawned subsequent research that unlocked the broad interactions of the living and nonliving worlds and their relationship to the creation of a stable living environment for Earth's organisms.

Now, it stands to reason that every living organism is attempting to ensure its own survival and the continuation of its kind. While the evolution and everyday life of organisms are chiefly determined by their environment, each organism also ACTS UPON the environment in attempting to achieve its goals. In other words, it competes (and sometimes cooperates) with other organisms to obtain food, water, space, heat and light. And, in doing so it interacts with the nonliving world of minerals, air and water.

That means that all organisms on Earth are active agents within Earth's natural systems, both living and nonliving. Humans and every other living organism on the globe are co-evolving in an endlessly complex web of interactions.

This is the web of interactions which we modern humans believe we can "manage" to our benefit without catastrophic effects.

Lovelock disagrees. He wrote a second book entitled The Revenge of Gaia. His thesis: The living world system has been provoked by overuse of fossil fuels, land clearing and other human activities and now has a fever which we call climate change. But, we humans have done other things also touched on in one way or another in the book that threaten their own future: overharvesting of fisheries and forests, soil degradation from industrial farming and the poisoning of air, water and soil with novel toxic chemicals, just to name a few.

Now, we are seeing the world's natural systems "fight back." It is as if sleeper agents in the biosphere have been activated for the battle and created conditions increasingly dangerous to humans (and unfortunately, many other organisms). How can I justify using such words? Because it is conceivable that these trends, if uninterrupted, will lead to dramatic reductions in human population.

The biosphere would thus be destroying the main cause of the problems listed above. I'm not assigning consciousness to the biosphere, but I am assigning agency and intelligence. Before you criticize, remember Friedrich Nietzsche's dictum: "What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent."

The biosphere is vastly more complex than our limited human intelligence can comprehend. To those who believe we can simply manage our way out of our current set of predicaments, I respond (with apologies to Dr. Phil): "How's that workin' for ya?"

It is a conceit that we can manage planet Earth in a way that will allow us to continue business as usual. Our management to date has brought us to this point of peril. Wasn't it Einstein who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity? Managers and would-be managers of planet Earth, take note.

It turns out that my childhood perception of the world as a place full of organisms and objects with agency and intelligence and the potential for malevolence was not entirely incorrect. But we moderns believe we need to divorce ourselves from such perceptions in order to become rational, right-thinking, scientifically bounded adults. In doing so, we divorce ourselves from the world of agents all around us who act and strive in ways surprisingly similar to our own.

Our task then is not to suppress such perceptions, but to transcend our childish interpretations of them--putting these perceptions into the proper framework for acting and living in a world that is very much more alive, intelligent and full of agency than we have been led to believe.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Jason Heppenstall said...

Einstein also said "We understand less than one thousandth of one percent of what nature is telling us."

Yet we seem to have forgotten this and have convinced ourselves that we can manage our way out of trouble. Gaia is taking note, even if we aren't.

We, as a species, are relatively insignificant when compared to the likes of plants and bacteria. Both outnumber us greatly and both have been around for aeons longer than us, and will certainly outlast us. I would highly recommend a book - "Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm' by Stephen Buhner - which I have found to be almost literally mind blowing. It turns out we are not as clever as we think we are - not by a long shot!

Unfortunately it's a race against time as we blunder our way along, causing mass extinctions, climate change and all the rest of it. I await the 'mass change of consciousness' but I'm not holding my breath.

Robin Datta said...

All is absolutely such as it is to be, including any and all the labels (good, bad, right, wrong, etc.) affixed to various things: Suchness. And absolutely everything in the realm of time, space and causality is part of interdependent co-origination.

Anonymous said...

Kurt - thanks for this. It's rare to see any discussion of ecology on the level of the mechanics of creation. The fact that global society is dominated by an aberrant (and remarkably arrogant juvenile) ideological consequence of sybiogenesis is all too rarely explored.

In response to your repeated calls for humility towards the planet it seems to me that our predicament
- on whose resolution the biosphere now effectively depends -
demands not only the halting of further damage, but also the active cleansing of the major pollutants, as well as the control of planetary symptoms in the interim.

To put this in a practical context, a step back is needed.

Earlier this year a study of the satellite record of cryosphere decline since'79 was published. It showed that showed that Albedo Loss due to cryosphere decline,
being just one of the eight major positive feedbacks on AGW observed to be accelerating,
on average gave a warming equal to that from 25% of anthro-CO2 during the period from 1979-2013.

Given that a best case of AGW mitigation by Emissions Control,
say near-zero global GHG output by 2050,
would not end additional warming from GHGs until the 2080s due to the 30-40yr timelag of the oceans' thermal inertia,
that best case would impose at least 70yrs of intensifying global warming and climate destabilization.

Given that just one of the eight major interactive feedbacks is already providing warming equal to that from at least 25% of present anthro-CO2,
it is thus increasingly obvious that mitigation of AGW by Emissions Control alone is not remotely commensurate with the problem.

Geo-engineering, in both its Carbon Recovery and Albedo Restoration modes,
will have to be applied to avoid the proximate catastrophic effect of serial global crop failures,
let alone for controlling the longer term threats.

It therefore seems to me that the essential application of the aforementioned requisite humility
is in the care with which we research, develop and deploy the both Carbon Recovery and Albedo Restoration programs
in a Troika mitigation strategy alongside stringent Emissions Control.

Anything less would leave the planet facing terminal ocean acidification
and the utterly ruinous consequences of intensifying serial global crop failures.
- And which of us, in extremis with children fading out from famine,
wouldn't fell our village's last tree for firewood to sell to buy food for them ?

While the use of Geo-E is not something I welcome, I've yet to see anything resembling a refutation of the inevitability of its use. Quite how belatedely and how well or how badly it is used seem now to be the choices we face.


Lewis Cleverdon

Anonymous said...

Kurt - some further rather off-topic thoughts.

As you may recall, I've had rising doubts about the predictability of a PALF event - being a Peak of Affordable Liquid Fuels -
since studying the potentials of coal-seam gasification + GTL, and methane hydrate extraction + GTL.

However, with an interest in co-product methanol from biochar production for carbon recovery,
I've been searching Olah's work and have just found an article
on a new plant in Iceland
that uses geothermal power to produce methanol from electrolytic hydrogen plus CO2 (captured by more electricity I think).

The plant is intended to provide 2.5% of Iceland's fuel, cut with petrol,
and is claimed to be commercially viable to scale up to match the vast conventional gas-to-methanol plants.
Very little info is given on the process,
apart from it being electro chemical at low temperature and pressure and needing little space
- which is very different from the conventional wood-syngas-methanol process.

IF the claims of commercial viability at scale pan out,
it would appear to offer a replacement for depleting fossil oil, thereby avoiding the PALF event.
However it is at best considerably less than carbon neutral,
and as it is essentially electricity-to-methanol there has to be a question
over the viability of deploying dedicated renewables at a sufficient rate.

The rather poorly written article is at:
and I wonder, if it is of interest to you, whether you might apply your skills
to getting additional info on the technology's process and prospects ?
Of particular interest is the issue of whether it may be adaptable to a CO+CO2+H2 syngas from charcoal production,
as a low pressure and temperature process would greatly raise feasibility in remote poor communities.



St. Roy said...

It is amazing to me how few people realize how close to a huge die-off and probable extinction we are.

Anonymous said...

St Roy - surely it is equally amazing how few realize that the propagandas of apathy and defeatism play right into the hands of the status quo ?



Unknown said...

Stating the obvious is not propaganda or apathy. No amount of phony positivism can stop the inertia we have unleashed.

Anonymous said...

Mark - the term you need is 'momentum', being the product of mass times velocity. 'Inertia' refers to the energy required the move a given mass.

Your idea of the 'obvious' is actually your expectation only; and you overlook both the probability of AGW being controlled by sulphate aerosols as geopolitical destabilization arises in response to serial global crop failures, and the possibility of sufficient pressure being applied to end the US policy of a Brinkmanship of Inaction and agree a commensurate climate treaty that avoids the further destabilization of agriculture.

You also appear to overlook the plain fact that the propagandas of apathy and defeatism are self-fulfilling - in discouraging others from contributing their efforts for the common good. In this sense those propagandas play right into the hands of the status quo.

But then perhaps you knew that ?

Unknown said...

Status quo? 99.9% of N. Americans are the status quo. All I have seen in the last 25 years is a lot of feel good talk, excuses and green washing. Almost no change in consumption or the attitude towards it. Every year the warnings and signs become more obvious and dire, yet every year co2, methane, ocean acidification, deforestation, soil erosion, population, drought, etc etc increase. They will be higher next year too. I have tried to lead by example and educate and what did it get me? People do not want to hear it. They love their life styles I'm not the apathetic one.

Anonymous said...

Mark - I've been on the same treadmill, but for a bit longer, having started in the '60s.

Two points worth considering
- people are daily conditioned into wanting the present lifestyle, which is patently unsustainable and cannot last;
- and the pressures on govt to step back from Cheney's policy of a 'Brinkmanship of Inaction' on climate against China are growing steadily, as both people and corporations within the US and abroad face increasing climate impacts and learn of rising damage curves.

Something I've found helpful for morale is stepping aside from hopes and fears and just accepting that the struggle is worthwhile - today's young people need our help.