Global Cooling: The Chilling Effect
Do you find the weather forcing itself into your awareness more lately?
Winter is making the news -- "record cold" in Texas, "killer blizzards"
in Chicago, "arctic conditions" in Great Britain [not to mention record
heating bills, and raw red hands in the lands of sunshine]!
Less noticeable locally, and less widely known, are other signs of
climatic turmoil -- increasing Arctic snow cover; more tornadoes, often
in unaccustomed places; increasing incidences of flooding, heat waves,
and drought. Some of these phenomena appear contradictory. Heat waves
and drought seem "warm", in contrast to indications of cooling.
Surprisingly, evidence suggests the interlinkage of all these phenomena
in a single, consistent pattern of causation. What follows is an "in
depth" weather report, describing a new hypothesis which links climatic
deterioration to larger events in the history of the biosphere.
The Causes of Global Cooling
Our best paleo-anthropological evidence indicates that the last Ice Age
was the cradle of humanity. The biosphere was in a very bad way then. Homo sapiens
was born into an ecosystem in decline, a dying world. Earth, mostly
tropical through its history, even in today's temperate latitudes, and
iceless even at its poles, lay largely entombed in glacier. The once
majestic intercontinental forests were broken, vanquished by blades of
ice, beaten back to a narrow equatorial perimeter held under siege by
new deserts or mile-high juggernauts of unmelted snow. The luxuriant
frondescence of the Carboniferous Age [300 million years ago] and of
the Cretaceous [about 100 million years age] were no more. The balding
of the biosphere had begun.
Any violence that humanity has ever done to any other part of this
planet's Nature is utterly dwarfed by the violence that this Nature did
to itself in that onslaught of ice. Both the standing biomass and the
primary self-productivity of the Earth's biosphere dropped drastically.
The planetary ecosystem has never yet recovered from the colossal
damage. In fact, the Ice Age is not over. We live in a lull in this
great war of White versus Green. The present geological period has seen
a cooling trend which, stretching back into the late Cretaceous, may be
the critical factor in the demise of the vast dinosaur ecology that
covered the planet for so many millions of years.
Recently the Milankovitch hypothesis, explaining ice ages in terms of
cyclical variations in Earth's orbit with the sun, achieved strong
empirical successes. The problem is that the Milankovitch cycles, of
periods of around 100,000 years and less, extend throughout Earth's
history. Glaciations do not. The two synchronize only for the last
~450,000 years. Before the recent evidence of cooling came out, a spate
of science journal articles warned that CO2
release by fossil fuel burning might overwarm the climate. But
overlooked all along was the degree to which photosynthetic activity
may have depleted its atmospheric CO2
resources in the very process which laid down the fossil fuels in the
first place. The photosynthetic metabolism of the biosphere itself may
have precipitated the ice ages, by taking
globally-tropical-climate-maintaining atmospheric CO2
concentrations below a threshold where the Milankovitch cycle could
trigger, not just minor moderations of that global tropical climate,
but cooling to the point where continental ice accumulation could begin
its high-albedo-amplified self-acceleration.
Much evidence points to a marked scarcity of CO2
in today's atmosphere relative to that of past ages, and a resulting
fall in the general rate of photosynthesis. Many plant varieties grow
more rapidly and luxuriantly in an artificial atmosphere enriched with
five to ten times the present ambient CO2
concentration. In terms of the Earth's photosynthesis-based biomass
primary self-productivity, the biosphere has been in decline since the
Cretaceous, possibly since the Carboniferous.
Climatologists tell us that the 55-year period from 1885 to 1940 [when
the present cooling set in] was one of unusually warm and
agriculturally favorable climate for the current, generally glacieral
epoch. In the past, the biosphere had relied on fermentation by its
bacterial decomposer stratum to return organic carbon to the atmosphere
as CO2. Many climatologists believe that the great "human ferment" of
the industrial revolution, with its tremendous releases of heat and CO2
from fuel burning, caused this climatic improvement. But since circa
1940, the gathering Milankovitch momentum for cooling may have
overtaken the warming effects of even rising rates of anthropogenic CO2 enrichment.
The Milankovitch theory clearly implies that we are moving toward a
return of full ice age conditions. This process, of course, spreads
over many centuries. But, indications are, that, though glaciations
last for millennia, they come on with great suddenness.
In 1974, Dr. George Kukla of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory
noted a doubling of arctic snow cover during the years 1968-1972. He
also noted that average snow cover increased by four million square
kilometers during the bad winter of 1971. He estimated that just seven
consecutive winters of similar severity could establish ice cover equal
in area, if not in depth, to that of the last ice age.
Climatic cooling involves feedbacks by which that cooling accelerates
itself. As ocean surface waters cool, they absorb more airborne CO2.
Colder surface waters also mean less water evaporation, hence less
later water re-precipitation over land, causing drought and
desertification, changing land surface reflectivity ["albedo"] in ways
which further cooling. The resulting drought, and lowered
photosynthesis rates due to drought, plus heightened oceanic CO2
depletion, also lead to lowered evapo-transpiration rates by plants.
The resulting drop in atmospheric water vapor levels furthers drought
and desertification, and also adds to cooling in another way, because
water vapor too has a strong greenhouse effect, in some ways stronger
than that of CO2.
Moreover, increasing land snow cover means maximally increased "albedo"
-- increased reflection of sunlight back into outer space, exacerbating
the climatic cooling in a self-amplifying fashion.
Side Effects of Global Cooling
There are other, less obvious, consequences of global cooling.
Expanding arctic ice cover means that the anti-cyclonic arctic "air
mass", the" circumpolar vortex", whose flowing outer/southern edge has
been named "the jet stream", bulges outward, further southward, closer
to the equator. The buffer zone separating it from tropical air masses
shrinks. When these meteorological opposites -- arctic air masses and
tropical air masses -- meet, violent, often tornadic thunderstorms
ensue. Tornadoes occur more frequently, with greater intensity, and in
places where they formerly occurred never or rarely. This is but one
example of the many ways in which cooling leads to increasing climatic
variability. The amplitude of climatic fluctuations, and the extremity
of climatic extremes, grows. The massive weight of expanding ice cover
may also cause increased earthquake and volcanic activity through it
effects on "isostasy", the changing balance of forces depressing versus
elevating the Earth's crust.
Global cooling means shrinking growing seasons, as well as drought. The
long winter of 1977-78 cut four to six weeks from the agricultural
season in the northern hemisphere. Many are concerned that the cooling
will drastically curtail food production even before its other effects
become alarming. The agricultural regions of the industrialized
temperate zone global latitudinal band will probably be harder hit, at
first, than the unindustrialized equatorial zone global latitudinal
band of the Earth's noosphere.
Reversing Global Cooling
Production of a capability to reverse this global cooling trend may
require a future very different than many today envision. An all-out
"Marshall Plan" mobilization to industrialize the Third World might be
designed to, among other benefits, bring fossil fuel CO2
production up to levels sufficient to preclude renewed
Milankovitch-cycles-sired global glaciation. A more rapid depletion of
fossil fuels would require accelerated development of higher sources of
energy, nuclear fusion being the presently most promising candidate.
The photosynthetic biosphere emerges as the cause of its own,
ice-age-mediated demise. By the phrase "the photosynthetic biosphere"
we mean especially its most vigorous, zenith forms in the Carboniferous
and the Cretaceous. Via the ice ages' intensifying "selective pressure"
for accelerated cognitive and cultural development, this biosphere may
have caused the rise of homo sapiens as well. Not external
causes, but causes internal to the Earth's ecosystem, produced the
present relatively denuded and declining state of that ecosystem. The
great glaciers and the Milankovitch processes may look like exclusively
external causes. But these external processes merely mediated a
biospheric self-activity; this reflection of biospheric
activity back upon itself, the activity of global photosynthesis
depleting its own primary resource, atmospheric and oceanic CO2, converting that CO2 into the vast, carboniferous accumulations of deceased organic matter that became the fossil fuels.
These observations ground the hypothesis of macro-ecological succession, or macro-ecosystem succession,
involving a concept of ecological succession at the level of the whole
biosphere. At that level, the concept of equilibrium as final term of
ecological- succession, the "climax hypothesis", breaks down. According
to this macro-succession hypothesis, the biosphere is not already in,
or increasingly attracted to, a "stationary state", or a "limit-cycle",
characterized by at most cyclical change. The biosphere is,
instead, an internally self-developing ongoing-event-entity. It is a
succession of qualitatively different biospheres, each one bounded-off
from its successor by a self-induced ecological crisis.
The photosynthetic biosphere was itself the solution to the crisis of
the previous form of the biosphere. According to the Oparin Hypothesis,
that predecessor biosphere rested on a fermentative metabolism. Organic
molecules synthesized in the early atmosphere self-organized into
cellular forms in the primitive seas. They then, by fermentation, fed
upon other such molecules, and thereby fueled their growth and
reproduction. Their numbers eventually outstripped and depleted the
food supply from primitive 'atmosynthesis'. The waste products of their
fermentative conversion of this molecular food into metabolic energy
for their cellular bodies accumulated in the early oceans, some of
these waste products acting as lethal pollutants relative to their
cellular organization. The innovation of photosynthesis, a cellular
interiorization of 'atmosynthesis', a process that was, originally,
external to the first, fermentative cellular organisms, not only
prevented the absolute death of the fermentative biosphere, but qualitatively expanded both its contents and its limits to growth, in its self-creation of its own successor, fermentative plus CO2-based photosynthetic/O2-based respirative biosphere.
The moral of all this is that no natural formation can continue indefinitely
as-is, in the same qualitative status or condition. An inescapable
new-materials-accumulative ['pollutive'] as well as old-materials
dis-accumulative ['depletive'] dimension renders equilibrium,
stationary state zero growth, or even limit-cyclic, zero growth impossible.
Instead, there is a natural pattern of self-transcendence. The
alternative to "dissipative" -- 'depletive' and/or 'pollutive' --
collapse is not zero growth, but qualitative growth; not change in the quantity of growth, but change in the kind of
growth. The way Nature continues itself, extending its space and time,
is to go on creating itself, continually pregnant with new qualities,
continually growing new layers.
A Definition of Human[ized] Nature's Role as a "Natural" Part of Nature as a Whole
The hypothesis of macro-ecological succession suggests a re-assessment
of humanity's place in Nature. Much discussion about humanity's
alienation from nature itself exhibits a much deeper alienation which
goes unnoticed in those discussions. The human species is seen in them
as an invader in the biosphere, as if it arrived here, somehow, from
outside the universe. It is not realized in such discussions that we are Nature, a self-continuation of Nature; that Nature acts through us, as
us. Rather than seeing ourselves as invaders of Nature, from outside of
Nature, it would be more apt to say, metaphorically, that the biosphere
invented us, innovated us within itself, to solve its latest ecological crisis. For homo sapiens sapiens
alone has the potential to intelligently, and with sufficient
speediness, monitor and regulate the otherwise self-destructive
tendencies inherently arising in a blind-running, consciousness-less
ecosystem, and to guide its further evolution -- if it can master its
Now perhaps Nature's solution has gotten out of hand again. The
solution has become a new problem. But, as we've seen, that's been par
for the course. Human evolution, being a willful, potentially conscious
and deliberate phenomenon, potentially partakes in the potential for
aberration as well as the advantages unique to that level of evolution.
As human beings, our charge -- our opportunity, challenge, and
privilege -- is to master these aberrations and advantages, not to flee
back into the darkness of pre-mental and vegetative existence. To meet
the challenge of the climatic chilling effect, not to mention other
natural crises, we may have to overcome a different "chilling effect":
the recent deterioration in the psychic climate of human
culture which is having a paralyzing impact on our ability to mobilize
as a species. I refer to the misanthropic tendency which declares that
technology is evil, and can only damage the ecosystem; that people are
pollution for the biosphere, and that all post-feudal human
social-evolution should be undone. Ironically, not only our survival,
but also that of the rest of Earth's ecosystem may depend upon our
dispelling this gloom.
Capitalist Crisis Studies
formatted for release to the web by
Adventures in Dialectics
17 February 2006