Black Swans and Habitability

Ceaselessly thinking about the climate crisis and ways to offset it brings one keenly in touch with all of its uncertainties.  And the awareness that uncertainties cut both ways.  All the what-ifs.

What if nation states only partially succeed in ending combustion over the next 30-years?  What if the decarbonization timeline we’re planning-for / hoping-for isn’t the schedule Mother Nature has earmarked for fossil-fuel scofflaws?  Put simply, black swan events can swoop-in unbidden.  Examples of recent grey swans (meaning we had some foreknowledge):  the Financial Crisis of 2008-09, the COVID-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, with its ominous possibility of nuclear escalation.  Even having prior awareness of those events caused major upsets to the established order.  Other grey-ish swans we continue to ignore (mostly): over-population, global warming, air pollution, plastic pollution, resource depletion, falling agricultural yields, reduced access to fresh water, habitat loss.  Our society and economy (call it seconomy for short) depend mightily on having lots of things going right. If the above list of existential greys is any indication, we might be in for a long rough patch, especially if a truly black one appears.  What could we be doing differently?

The Number One priority for reducing risk is eliminating all forms of combustion as soon as possible.  We are overheating the planet in a dangerous and unprecedented manner [IPCC].  That means no more coal, oil, or gas extraction.  Here’s a tested way to expedite that transition [CCL].

Alas the high energy densities embedded within fossil fuels can’t be equalled by renewable energies.  So lower energy-per-capita budgets are a likely outcome of decarbonization in the advanced, energy-intense nations (e.g. North America, Europe).  Less power available per person.

Looking at this systematically, what are the Big Picture options for powering a planetary civilization long term?  Black swans are probably inevitable at planetary scale, so civilization’s underpinnings need to be as resilient as possible to strengthen its capability for resisting Bad Things.  To get better insight, a mapping of all the power options we can imagine will help us understand the consequences of each vision.  With that in mind, it seems that five broad scenarios, or paths, are possible.

 1. Business-as-usual.  This is the path we’re on now, representing growth.  It’s optimized for profit and therefore requires an optimized, market-place economy.  It provides nearly full employment, enables a large middle class, and keeps governments solvent.  It’s also expansionist, tends to ravage the environment, and leads to vast inequities.  Because of its narrow optimization, it is susceptible to non-market perturbations and black swan events.  Although it turns out its greatest emergent hazard is the fostering of a bourgeois upper class who use their dominance to perpetuate the status quo, undermine governance, and marginalize resiliency.

2. Steady-state.  This path represents continuity.  Think of a reformed version of Option 1 designed to prevent future abuse. The idea is to stall-out Option 1 in order to maintain the present seconomy, but without its growth.  Economists give this option low chances of success for the very reason that it eliminates growth without changing anything else [DF].

3. Rocketship.  This path represents super-growth, a wishful-thinking version of Option 1.  An interplanetary society would have to emerge within the next 30-40 years.  With that in place, environmental and resource constraints could be eliminated by moving resource extraction, industry, and pollution away from Earth.  Growth could continue unimpeded off-planet and terrestrial restoration activities could commence.  In effect, Earth would be treated like a global national park.  However the rocket launch energies and program costs necessary to accomplish this lofty goal would be immense, not to mention the technical challenges.

4. Power-down.  This path represents an ordered regression from today’s seconomy — we learn to live within planetary boundaries [JR].  This is a seconomy optimized for sustainability, not profit.  The objective is to decrease per-capita energy demand and ensure all of it is clean.  Promote energy efficiency and resource stewardship.  Power-down differs from market economies and has different priorities, but that doesn’t imply a cashless society.  For example, instead of a currency’s value being based on de facto oil-reserve standards, value might be assessed by a nation’s progress toward satisfying planetary boundaries.  Economic growth will be tolerated, but is has to be growth accommodating those boundaries.  (Within that criteria, there’s no reason why qualifying activities can’t be profitable.)  Resiliency comes about by emphasizing boundaries and sustainability, which can be further reinforced through individual action [TT].  This path is probably at the limits of coping — but it's the only realistic recourse given all the constraints facing our planet.

5. Collapse.  This path is trodden when planetary boundaries are exceeded.  It represents an unplanned, unordered crumbling from today’s seconomy.  Option 1 leads here eventually.


In my view Option 3 “Rocketship” offers the most hope to humanity over the long term.  However it’s completely fanciful, not going to happen over the next few decades.  “Rocketship” is useful only as a thought-experiment.

Option 1 “Business-as-usual” & Option 5 “Collapse” are linked. Both have significant shortcomings which can be catalogued under the rubric “infinite growth on a finite planet”.  There’s no future here.

Option 2 “Steady-state” isn’t viable because governments will go bankrupt, businesses will close, unemployment will soar, and accumulated environmental damage must still be reckoned with.  A Mad-Max sort of future.

By a process of elimination we’re left with Option 4, “Power-down” as the best hope for humanity going forward.  A Hobbiton for humans.

So what are we waiting for?  Let’s get to work.  At best we’ve got a few decades to remake Earth’s global seconomy into a workable platform for the progeny of Earth.  In a future post I will elaborate more on the Power-down path.