Parables Of Climate Destabilization

The world, science, and human behavior under Global Climate Destabilization might be best understood with parables.

  • My son and I saw a young man driving a car, stop at an intersection, look carefully both ways, and roll on. "That's some good driving," I said. My son replied "but is he a good driver?", to which we agreed that one cannot prove that one is a good driver — one can only DISPROVE it.
  • A frog is being boiled alive in a pot that started out at a pretty frog-friendly temperature — but which has been ratcheted up slowly by degrees until the frog is too groggy to get out, and ultimately cooked.
  • A man is chopping down trees; a friend sees him, and tries to get him to stop, but alas! A week later the man misses the trees. He does plant some more, but — too little, too late? The genie's out of the bottle; the toothpaste's out of the tube; the horse is out of the barn….
  • A camel's back is being loaded, very slowly; one straw at a time. Eventually one single straw, one tiny fragile straw, will break that camel's back.
  • The invisibility of small sins: a man being tortured by electric shock; each person in society contributes a mere millivolt to the shocks the man receives, apparently insignificant: but add them all up, and …. This is also reminiscent of a good old-fashioned stoning: it's not that one is killed by any one blow — one is killed by the combined effect of many small blows.
  • A man on the railroad tracks listens as a train whistle blows; yet he stands firmly on the tracks. Even as the lights of the train bear down on him, he stands unbelieving — or shell-shocked.
  • Ulysses S. Grant knew that he could lose men 2-to-1 to Lee, and still win the Civil War. He understood logistics. Our food comes to us from Chile, from South Africa; transported by vehicles fueled by dinosaurs. What if the chain should break?
  • A monkey is trapped by an orange in a bottle: how can that be? His fist is clenched around the orange someone has placed inside; the hand, wrapped around the orange, blocks their removal through the narrow neck of the bottle. Release, or be taken and killed! — but the monkey can only think of the orange so close at hand, at that moment….
  • Evil men sell us the seeds of our own destruction. We plant them, and the carnivorous plants grows splendidly, until they devour us in the end.
  • A man chops off our hands and tells us that we'll save on gloves.
  • The Brazil Nut, the agouti, and the jaguar
  • Harper's Index, Harper's Magazine, May, 2013:
    • "Number of on-air minutes during last fall's campaign season that CNN devoted to climate change: 23;
    • To Joe Biden's smile: 43"
  • A dung beetle wearing a cap can't navigate by the stars. However beautiful and fashionable it makes the beetle look, it is a vital mistake.
dung_beetle_cap_stars.jpg dung_beetle_stars.jpg
Don't you just hate it when you can't find your way home?

I want to turn the following into parables:

  • "It's hard to convince a man…."
  • WalMart
  • Idling

Nature is non-linear

Linear behavior means that small changes lead to small consequences: The ends are proportional to the means. An example of linear behavior is converting between Celsius and Fahrenheit: there is a linear function that converts one to the other. For example, to get the Celsius temperature from the Fahrenheit value, use

\begin{align} C=\frac{5}{9}(F-32) \end{align}

To convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit, use

\begin{align} F=\frac{9}{5}C+32 \end{align}

In either case, small changes in one scale lead to small changes in the other. A unit change in F leads to to a 5/9 change in C; a unit change in C leads to a 9/5 change in F.

However, non-linear systems don't necessarily behave as well:

  • In non-linear systems, small changes can have dramatic consequences (e.g. one small step in the wrong direction at the Grand Canyon: a one-meter displacement may mean a drop of one-tenth of a meter as you approach the edge; but at the edge itself, a one-meter displacement may mean a drop of 200 meters. Small changes in x do not necessarily mean small changes in y, and that may vary by where you are along the x axis.)
  • "Singularities" in a system are points or places at which the behavior of the system changes dramatically. Many systems exhibit such singularities. We are lulled into believing that what happened in the previous year will happen again this year — and we may be sadly, even tragically, mistaken….
  • The intricate and highly interdependent web of nature (see The Brazil Nut, the agouti, and the jaguar) suggests that extinctions may not happen in isolation: "highly obligatory dependencies court mutual extinction" as Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata say in Tropical Nature. We are not smart enough to know that an assault on all species may be an assault — in fact must be an assault — on our own species.

"…human ability to exist and to act in freedom depends on the longevity, endurance, mutability, and stability of the natural ecosystems in which our human communities are embedded." Anne Primavesi, in Making God Laugh (p. 123)

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