The World is Erupting
Everywhere I look the world is erupting-- political tweets, marches, facebook fights, rainstorms, floods, wars, and earthquakes. The earth and the climate (political, social, environmental) all seem a little unsteady. To understand the fullness of our current context, let's first consider the system we live in.
We live in a dynamic-steady state (Robertson, 2014). Meaning that depending on the scale of time we choose to analyze, the Earth is not stagnant or constant. The ups and downs of everyday life have probably been present since the beginning of time. However, these "necessary undulations" as C.S. Lewis eloquently states, are not rising and falling along a linear equilibrium. Instead, these undulations build and pressurize until they hit a threshold or tipping point.
A simple environmental parable of this type of dynamic-steady state system would be a geyser in Yellowstone. The geyser system is filled with a fluid influx of ground water. As the water gathers over a volcanic area, it warms and eventually the geyser pressurizes. To the passerby the eruption seems sudden. (They just hopped out of their cars and ran to the see the spectacle, that the park ranger has been waiting for like clock work). The geyser eruption is a tipping point. The water reached a threshold and needs to let off some steam.
To the passerby it seems erratic, unpredictable, and surprising. To the park ranger, however the eruption is calculated. The park ranger has the context and history of the geyser system and knows that it will tip and then begin another cycle. Then one day the ranger too is caught off guard. Now the geyser is erupting double, triple, quadruple, and even 20 times more than normal. Someone is pumping excess water into the system and the eruptions (tipping points) have increased in frequency. The ranger is unsure if it is safe to let the passerby near the geyser anymore. Someone could get hurt. The system is no longer predictable.
The Earth's climate system like the geyser is not stagnant. It is fluid. Climatologists have been measuring it's predictability since 1908 with the work of chemist Svante Arrhenius (Robertson, 2014). Over time climatologists realized they could use pollen, ice cores, sediment, etc. to determine the pattern of the climate before 1908 to predict the future. Like the geyser system, the climate ran like clock work-- glacial periods followed by warming, a somewhat predictable pattern. However, starting in the mid-1950s the climate system began to change (Rockström, 2015).
The climatologist wonders if it is safe any more. Someone is pumping something new into the system. Frequent eruptions are making it erratic, unpredictable, and surprising. Someone could get hurt. The system is no longer predictable.
Robertson, M. (2014). Sustainability principles and practice. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Rockstrom, J. (2017, January 25). Planetary Boundaries. Lecture presented at Planetary Boundaries & Human Opportunities, Stockholm. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from (2015). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from https://courses.sdgacademy.org/learn/planetary-boundaries-and-human-opportunities-september-2015
Images: Marco Evaristti at Grapevine