Climate change

October 31, 2008

Olduvai theory – crackpot idea or dawning reality?

Filed under: Climate Change — Barry Brook @ 1:05 pm

Figure 1 – The three phases of the Olduvai Decline.

Olduvai Gorge in East Africa is famous for its fossils of proto-humans and Palaeolithic (old stone age) tools. Fragmentary remains of some of the oldest representatives of hominids generally accepted to be our immediate evolutionary ancestors have been recovered there. To those interested in palaeoanthropology, it is a name steeped in (pre)history. So what of its relevance to the modern world? What the hell is ‘Olduvai Theory‘?

It’s an idea that’s been around for a while, developed about 20 years ago by Dr Richard C. Duncan. In brief, it is (somewhat ironically) an elaboration of the old denialist spleen-vent that our actions on climate change will take civilisation back to the ’stone age’. But the similarity is at best superficial and at worst misleading, because this is a well rounded idea that claims there is a near-inevitable pathway an industrial society must follow, which involves a peaking of energy supply and tech development, followed by a fast drop-off to a low energy state that is, for all intents and purposes, a return to pre-industrial conditions. A full description is given here (with references for further reading), here and here. In sum, this view holds that it will be inaction, not action, on climate change and energy development, that will throw us back to the stone age.

Those who subscribe to the general premises of the theory readily admit that the specific dates on the timeline given in Figure 1 may be out by a handful of years (or maybe not – just think of the ‘excitement’ of 2008), but they consider the phases of the transient-pulse theory of Industrial Civilization to be securely identified and the edge of the ‘cliff’ to be at most 1-2 decades away.

The general principles underpinning this idea have their roots deeply embedded in ecology and agriculture, and were given global prominence via the much-debated scenarios developed in the early 1970s by the Club of Rome, as described in the final Climate Change Q&A by Dr Michael Lardelli.

Deep down, I’m not a pessimistic person, but an honest appraisal of the current confluence of a major global finanical upheaval, a food and water shortage crisis, the (near) peaking of resources and traditional energy supplies, and rise of internecine conflicts in environmentally stressed regions such as Darfur doesn’t brighten the heart. In particular, I’d be interested in what others think about this basic question:

If Olduvai Theory were valid, how far along the ’slide’ phase of the progression curve (figure 1) would we need to progress before it became generally accepted that we’d past the point of no return?” (or must we first step off the cliff?). Or put more simply, what constitutes ’sufficient evidence’ to act?

A similar issue relates to climate change and committed warming, which I’ll develop further soon.

The key way forward in both cases is to: (i) recognise explicitly that the problem (be it peaking conventional energy supply, environmental resource limits, climate disequilibrium) is close to Endgame, and that there is no time left for ‘wait-and-see’ or ’slow-and-steady’ strategies (this fact has now been recognised in the case of global finanical regulation of risk assessment – whether the ‘fixes’ work remains to be seen), (ii) coordinated community (bottom up) and government (top down) action, at sufficient speed, scale and duration to make the difference and halt (or reverse) the slide. This includes large-scale renewables and early systemic investments in energy efficiency, and possibly later investments in geoengineering.

Can we do it? Two of my friends recently wrote a book about (i) and (ii) with respect to climate change, called ‘Climate Cod Red‘. I’ll have to blog on it, and I strongly encourage readers to get hold of a copy.

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