Your Magic Number

Guy McPherson

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“An ice-free Arctic, which appears imminent, seems likely to trigger the 50-Gt burst of methane from the relatively shallow sea floor of the Arctic Ocean described by field researcher Natalia Shakhova and colleagues at the European Geophysical Union meeting in 2008 as ‘highly possible for abrupt release at any time.’ Such an event would raise global-average temperature beyond the temperature experienced by humans in the past, and almost certainly would cause the demise of civilization as a result of our inability to produce and store grains at large scale, thereby adding another 3 C or so to global-average temperature.”—Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Guy McPherson

A world we're unequipped to inhabit is upon us.

A world we’re unequipped to inhabit is upon us.

“Only when you accept that one day you’ll die can you let go, and make the best out of life. And that’s the big secret. That’s the miracle.”—Gabriel Bá

Guy McPhersonSAN ANTONIO Belize(Weekly Hubris)—November 2017—Every mentally well person older than twelve knows that everyone dies. Yet, essentially, everyone acts as though the concept of death applies only to non-human animals . . . and to other people. Rather than living with death in mind and, thus, with urgency, we occasionally take an online longevity quiz to comfort ourselves and then go on living as though we’ll make it comfortably to the century mark.

A similar mentality afflicts entire cultures. Among the best known societal delusions covered in this space is those climate-change projections indicating that all will be well until 2100. After that, look out!

Once you admit and accept your own death, life takes on new meaning. Various activities become less worthy of one’s time. Relationships rise in importance as the acquisition of fiat currency declines in priority.

And even that becomes childish and ethereal relative to the urgency of life lived in hospice. Admitting one’s death in a century’s time, or even in a decade’s, is one thing. Admitting one’s death in three days is quite another.

What’s your magic number? At what point will you live differently in light of your terminal diagnosis? Do you want to receive the “bad news” six months in advance? Six weeks? Six days? Six hours? Six minutes? Or perhaps not at all?

At some point, does it become irrelevant to you? Is it better for the medical doctor to lie to you? If so, at what point is it acceptable for the doctor to lie? Six months in advance? Six weeks? Six days? Six hours? Six minutes? Or perhaps it’s always better for the medical doctor to lie, read play God.

What’s your magic number?

I don’t know your expiration date. Neither do you. But if I had to guess, I’d guess my guess is better than yours. It’s sooner, too. Almost everybody reading these words has a remaining lifespan of weeks or months, not years. Decades? Fuhgettaboutit!

Details follow. Abandon hope, all ye who read the following.

What would you do if you had fewer than ten years to live? How would you act? How would you live? What if it were four years? A year? Would you live more fully every day? Every moment? Would you prioritize your work differently? Or your relationships? What is important to you? Who is important to you? Are you acting now as though these things and these beings are important?

I’ll address primarily five topics here: 1) habitat for human animals; 2) civilization as a heat engine; 3) the Catch-22 of terminating civilization; 4) the Sixth Mass Extinction on Earth; and 5) how we respond to a terminal diagnosis.

First up: What is habitat? According to the first definition in my Merriam-Webster online dictionary, habitat is “the place or environment where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives and grows.”

I’m a professor emeritus of conservation biology, and I largely agree with this simplistic definition. Habitat is one of the three pillars of conservation biology, along with speciation, and extinction. Speciation is the process of how, when, and with what ancestors a species comes into existence. For example, our favorite species, Homo sapiens, came into being about 300,000 years ago, is descended from earlier members of the genus Homo—all of which are now extinct—and is currently represented by some 7.5 billion specimens.

Extinction is the process by which a species meets its demise. So far, more than 99 percent of the species to appear on Earth have gone extinct. Based on substantial evidence, our own species is headed into the abyss of extinction far sooner than most people realize.

According to James Hansen, the godfather of climate science, we’ve had humans on the planet up to about 2 degrees Celsius above the 1750 baseline, when the planetary temperature was about 13.5 C. Hansen reported this conclusion in a legal brief filed on August 12, 2015. I suspect 2 C above the 1750 baseline is the maximum temperature at which we will have habitat for humans on Earth. We’re currently at least 1.6 degrees above the 1750 baseline. No species persists long without habitat, not even the clever ones.

A synthetic paper written by Oliver Tickell and published in the Guardian on August 11, 2008 concluded via headline, “On a planet 4C hotter, all we can prepare for is extinction.” That 4 C number seems a tad high to me. The paper goes on to explain that humans will persist at up to 6 C above the 1750 baseline, thus about 19.5 C. I doubt there will be a tree on the planet, or much other complex life, with a rapid rise to 17.5 C. But we don’t know, because we’ve never experienced Earth with humans at anywhere close to 4 C above baseline, much less at 6 C above baseline, about 19.5 C.

On to Item Two, Civilization as a heat engineTim Garrett is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah. He has been studying the thermodynamics of civilization for several years, and wrote the signature paper on the topic in 2007. In that and subsequent papers, Garrett concluded that civilization itself is a heat engine. His initial paper on the topic was submitted in 2007, rejected by ten journals, and finally accepted for publication in the prestigious journal Climatic Change in 2009 by a courageous editor during his final months on Earth. The paper was ultimately published in February 2011. The initial paper is supported by subsequent papers that point out that the heat engine of civilization can be stopped only when civilization collapses.

Civilization is a tricky subject, so I’ll clarify what it means, from Garrett’s perspective.

Civilization refers to the set of living arrangements into which most of us were born and to which we’ve all become accustomed. Collapse of civilization means no fuel at the filling stations, no food at the grocery stores, and no water pouring out the municipal taps. This civilization—industrial civilization—is like all previous versions of civilization in that it depends upon the production, storage, and distribution of grains at considerable scale. Without storing food, there is no means by which humans can go into human-population overshoot.

Civilizations first arose a few thousand years ago in more than half-a-dozen places around the globe. No civilization came into being for the first 2.8 million years of the genus Homo, or for the first roughly 300,000 years of the species Homo sapiens, and then, suddenly, civilizations were popping up like trolls on the web. People within these early civilizations discovered grains such as maize and wheat, thus enabling humans to survive through droughts and other environmental inconveniences. Large-scale production and storage of grains also allowed control of the local food supply, hence control of the people. Thus did the sociopaths assume control.

Why did several civilizations arise essentially simultaneously a few thousand years ago? Apparently, the answer to this question is found within the global-average temperature of the planet. Coming out of the last Ice Age, the global-average planetary temperature rose from 12 degrees Celsius to about 13.5 degrees C. More important, planetary temperature stabilized at that point. This relatively cool and stable temperature allowed grains to be grown in sufficient quantities to allow development of cities. The word “city” shares the same root as civilization, civitas, and the building of cities is the very definition of civilization. After all, cities allow human-population overshoot, initially locally and ultimately globally, because they depend upon surrounding areas for the delivery of clean air, potable water, healthy food, and the wood, bricks, and mortar with which structures are created.

Not only is civilization a heat engine, even if the civilization is powered by “renewable” energy, but each civilization trashes the planet to provide conveniences for city-dwellers.

Consider, for example, the 200 or so species being driven to extinction every day, the fouling of the air, the pollution of the waters, the utter destruction of the soil, and the many other undesirable outcomes of this version of civilization.

The story we tell ourselves about ourselves—to use one definition of civilization—is filled with contradictions. This civilization, like others, is characterized by endemic racism, endemic misogyny, endemic monetary disparity leading to poverty, overshoot of the human population, accelerating extinction of non-human species, and various other undesirable characteristics. Unlike other civilizations, this version is characterized by the infinite-growth paradigm, nuclear materials sufficient to cause our own extinction via multi-generational horrors resulting from lethal mutations, and also a much quicker means to our end: global dimming.

Global dimming is the Catch-22 of human extinction, our Item Three. Civilization is a heat engine that is in the process of killing all life on Earth. Turning off civilization destroys most complex life on the planet, even more rapidly than keeping it running. Allow me to explain, albeit briefly.

As we all know, industrial civilization puts into the atmosphere greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and a few others. These greenhouse gases serve as “blankets” that hold the heat provided by the sun close to Earth. As it turns out, industrial activity also produces particulates that serve as an “umbrella” and protect the planet from incoming sunlight. These particulates are cooling the planet to the tune of about 3 degrees Celsius. Industrial activity constantly puts these particulates into the atmosphere, most notably by burning coal high in sulfur. The particulates constantly fall out, very rapidly. If we suddenly stop burning coal and other fossil fuels, the global-average temperature of Earth could heat to more than 4.5 C above baseline in a few weeks.

The slow rise in planetary temperature to date has destroyed habitat for myriad species including, in many places, humans. The gradual rise in global-average temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is proceeding 10,000 times faster than vertebrates can adapt, according to the stunningly conservative refereed journal literature. Abrupt climate change has recently begun. An abrupt global-average rise in temperature resulting from the loss of global dimming taking Earth to more than 4.5 C above the 1750 baseline, with the vast majority of the temperature rise occurring within a few months, surely will destroy habitat for our species and many others far faster than expected. It’s difficult for me to imagine much multi-cellular life on our only home with a rapid rise from the current temperature to a much warmer temperature occurring over a matter of decades, much less months.

We are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction on Earth. This is Item Four. The current rate of extinction of species, along with the current rise in planetary temperature, is unprecedented in planetary history. The ultra-conservative refereed journal literature caught up to the Sixth Mass Extinction on June 19, 2015 with a paper in Science Advances. Coincident with the release of the paper, lead author Gerardo Cellabos concluded via interview, “Life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on.” Indeed, a United Nations report issued during August 2010 conservatively estimated the extinction rate of 150-200 species each day. Nearly five years later, the journal literature caught up to the ongoing genocide.

The worst of the previous five Mass Extinction Events occurred about 252.2 million years ago. The Great Dying was characterized by a global-average rise in temperature from Ice Age—12 degrees C—to hothouse and beyond: 23 C. This is the warmest temperature experienced by Earth during the last 2 billion years. It has happened once during that time. According my own conservative analysis (from August 1, 2016 analysis on my blog, guymcpherson.com), we are headed for a similar temperature by mid-2026. That’s in less than a decade. I simply added the primary contributors to global heating to come up with this result.

According to an analysis posted on the Arctic News blog on April 24, 2017 that assumes exponential temperature rise, rather than simply adding up the primary contributors of temperature rise, the planet will reach 23 C—some 9.5 degrees above the 1750 baseline—in 2021. That’s in four years. Lest you believe this is crazy, a similar analysis conducted in 2012 predicted only a global-average rise in temperature of 4 C above the 1750 baseline by 2030. The analysis from 2012 has proven wildly conservative.

We’re headed for an ice-free Arctic, as predicted via analysis conducted by members of the United States Naval Postgraduate School. This event last happened some 3 million years ago, before our genus appeared on Earth. In 2013, the School predicted an ice-free Arctic in 2016, plus or minus three years. We’ve dodged four bullets so far, and it appears our luck is about to run out.

An ice-free Arctic, which appears imminent, seems likely to trigger the 50-Gt burst of methane from the relatively shallow sea floor of the Arctic Ocean described by field researcher Natalia Shakhova and colleagues at the European Geophysical Union meeting in 2008 as “highly possible for abrupt release at any time.” Such as event would raise global-average temperature beyond the temperature experienced by humans in the past, and almost certainly would cause the demise of civilization as a result of our inability to produce and store grains at large scale, thereby adding another 3 C or so to global-average temperature. Thus could Earth reach 19.C C, about 6 C above the 1750 baseline of 13.5 C, by next summer.

That’s a year away.

People in bunkers might survive a few years. They’ll be dehydrated, hungry, lonely, and living in a bleak world nearly devoid of other complex life. Their survival will be a day-to-day proposition, with every day more tenuous than the day before, much as it is today for non-human species.

Or perhaps civilization will reach its overdue end as a result of the demise of the petro-dollar. I’m not predicting this outcome. And I’m not ruling it out. If it occurs, we can expect an abrupt global-average rise in temperature well beyond the temperature at which Earth has harbored anything resembling humans. Most people dwelling in cities will die within a few days as a result of dehydration or starvation.

Finally, then, as Item Five, I’d like to consider how we act.

I strongly suspect we are the final humans on Earth. In light of this knowledge, will you live more fully every day? Every moment? Will you prioritize your work differently? Or your relationships? What is important to you? Who is important to you? Are you acting now as though these things and these beings are important?

Are you passionately pursuing a life of excellence? Or are you stuck on the treadmill onto which you were born? Do you reinforce the jail cell into which you were born with bars comprising societal expectations? Are you pursuing a life of your own choosing, or are the cultural shackles strong enough to control your every action?

To summarize, I have three essential messages: Remain calm, as nothing is under control; pursue excellence, even within a culture of mediocrity; and pursue love, contrary to the messages we receive every day from this culture.

I’m not pleased with the evidence supporting my prognosis of our collective, near-term demise. Results of my own latest online longevity quiz indicate I have decades to go. So does the latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The online quiz is the more reliable source of the two. It’s still wrong because it fails to account for abrupt climate change, hence lack of habitat for humans on Earth.

Note: The image used to illustrate this essay derives from http://www.businessinsider.com/you-can-now-cruise-the-arctic-passage-2016-3.

To order Dr. McPherson’s books, click the cover images here below:

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Guy McPherson

About Guy McPherson

Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and the world’s leading authority on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 14 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-hosted his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes.
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10 Responses to Your Magic Number

  1. Emmett Peels says:

    Hello Guy I’ve been following your presentations for so long now it’s almost like I know you, firstly let me say thank you for your diligence and commitment in the work you have taken on: i.e. spreading the information. as a fellow truth seeker I know from first hand experience that it is not the easy road. You often mention that death is sitting on our left shoulder – advice I’m guessing borrowed from Don Juan/Carlos Casteneda and along with the seemingly somber message it is also potentially sobering and may even have the capacity to promote ‘enlightenment’ whatever that is? Your prognosis seems based in fact, void of hysteria and therefor – for my ears – completely acceptable. As a species (Homo Sapiens) has been abusing the planet and the potential that came with her almost since we became Erectus: creating and distributing garbage is our collective talent and it would seem obvious that this volume of disdain cannot go on without consequence. I reside in a small regional town in Western Australia and have for nearly all of my adult life been involved in some form of activism/action against issues that have negative impact on the environment and the inhabitants. I realize that you are no longer (actively) involved in causes or movements but I thought I would share an ongoing situation with you using as motivating agent the same one as yours: sharing info. The Australian Federal government is currently involved in a scheme that is based in corruption of the highest order. Rather than go into detail I will include the link that will provide the entire sordid story – it is a prime example of how we have arrived at this point, the creation of our own demise. Here is the link – http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/digging-into-adani/9008500 if you felt like sharing it further I would appreciate it. Also since becoming one of your ‘followers’ I have been keeping an eye on a couple of other issues which are intrinsically attached to abrupt climate change but neither of the other issues ever gets a mention within your presentations, I’m wondering why that might be? The first is the dire predicament being delivered to us from Fukishima – I know you do include in your stuff how lack of cooling via power interruption to all the nuclear facilities will have huge immediate impact on rising temperatures but no specific mention of the current situation in Japan. Secondly is the Geoengineering weather modification programme that is taking place worldwide. I would be very interested in your take on these – apart from the obvious that talking of them will make no difference. Once again thank you for your contribution, men of honour such as your good self are few and far between. If you ever have cause to be in my neighbourhood the kettle is always on. Kind regards Emmett the wandering fool walking the path with heart.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful message, Emmett. I used to mention Fukushima. When I did, an argument invariably followed. The argument derailed my message. I’ve commented on geoengineering at Nature Bats Last. Rather than repeat the message, I offer this link: https://guymcpherson.com/2015/08/geoengineering-real-and-imagined/

  3. EMMETT says:

    Hello Guy – I have just had a look at a YouTube presentation from Nov 2017
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3l9wI1Gvds featuring yourself and Paul Beckwith and then found another more recent offering from Mr Beckwith where he admonishes those like yourself who are suggesting that we are in the midst of an extinction event, in fact he says that it is very irresponsible and discrediting of the scientific community for anyone to make such ridiculous claims? I realise we are in the age where things are changing quickly – including views and news and that each are entitled to an opinion: I’m just wondering if there is now a real divide between yourself and Mr Beckwith? Regards Emmett

  4. Thank you for comment, Emmett.

    We are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction on Earth. Abundant evidence from the most conservative publications concurs. To claim humans are immune to extinction is irresponsible and denies the handful of species in the genus Homo that have already gone extinct.

    There’s always been a divide between those of us who pursue evidence regardless where it leads and those afflicted with a severe case of the dominant paradigm. Perhaps Mr. Beckwith’s money, privilege, children, and lack of knowledge about conservation biology preclude him evaluating evidence. Perhaps Mr. Beckwith’s belief in human supremacy disallows a comprehensive view of our predicament.

    I’d appreciate a critical assessment of the evidence I present. So far, I’ve received only attacks on me, not on the evidence. These attacks come from many sources, including Mr. Beckwith.

  5. Emmett Peels says:

    Thanks Guy for your response I wasn’t sure if my email would find you given that I tagged onto one of your older presentations, thanks also for clarifying the probable reasons behind the (apparent) divergence between yourself and Mr Beckwith. I am a solutions focused type so I have come up with a plan to fix at least three of the current (climate) problems making world headlines: collect all the plastic in the worlds oceans, make a pipeline to gravity feed the excess water from Paris down to Capetown – sorry but I like to try to retain a sense of humour amid the ridiculous.
    Regards Emmett

  6. I appreciate your sense of humor, Emmett. Humor, mostly the gallows version, keeps me going every day.

  7. EMMETT says:

    G’day Guy – I was just having a look at your recent post on Nature Bats Last – How Deep – regarding the ruling overlords, again just FYI – Mr Beckwith suggests anyone who believes in (the existence of) such an entity will also believe in Leprechauns, Unicorns and the negative impact (of the leaking radiation at) Fukishima. Here’s to what may be found at the end of the rainbow ? Thankyou again for the work you are doing and the sane information you deliver, Regards Emmett

  8. Emmett, I present abundant evident to support each of my statements. Mr. Beckwith presents no evidence to support his nonsensical claims because there is none.

  9. Norm Roberts says:

    So how do people act when they know their expiration date? For better or worse I am a tax accountant who specialized in trusts and estates, and therefore have had more than my share of experiences with people anticipating their end. I think it makes a great deal of difference whether people are anticipating their own individual death within the context of a continuing civilization or society, or anticipating their end within the context of a more universal death. In addition I think I can safely say with confidence that what people say they would do, and what they actually do diverge quite a bit. This phenomenom is due to the “lower of standards” as a person becomes sicker, and appears to be nearly universal.

    During the Black Death (about 1350 in Europe) (and as distinguished by the worldwide plague about 1666), people pretty much assumed that they would die, and soon. Although estimates vary, it is widely thought about 50% of the population died in this event. In addition social structures completely changed (the plague also killed feudalism.) In this context it is said that there was much debauchery as people partied away their last days. The more religious took to beating themselves with whips and chains (the Flagellants) trying to get their god look with just a little more favor upon them. OK, so that is one response.

    In the absence of death, doom, and destruction, it appears to me that people try to (or if unable, pine for) settling their affairs so that whoever has to deal with their estate in terms of assets and family will have less of a mess to deal with. They will try “to get their affairs in order.” Sometimes successfully, but more often than not, not so much. As you have said, that “ordering” may include various relationships that perhaps had gone awry, and need to be repaired.

    Thus two possible and opposite possibilities for dealing with imminent death. Perhaps these two possibilities revolve around the existence of legacy and progeny, or not. Ironically the possibility that you appear to be advocating is more likely when there is legacy/progeny, which in your view, would not meaningfully exist.

    I have not yet mentioned “denial.” The second most powerful force in the universe is human’s capacity for self-delusion. When realization of denial dawns then the most powerful force takes over: inertia! So here is the third possible reaction. I think this would be the most prevalent reaction, even if “the end” was extended over months or even a year or two.

    In order to get a quick end, we would almost have to have (assuming no nuclear war or exogenous event) a gigantic methane eruption. I used to think this was not likely based on the paleoclimatic history where the last “terminal” methane eruptions(252 mya, over period of 10,000-20,000 years) did not occur until the temps were much higher than todays (maybe 18 deg C or more.) Then it occurred to me that stored methane would equilibrate to the world’s temp, whatever that was. That would mean that there was much less methane stored and vulnerable then than there would be now. Lower worldwide temps (and stable at that – which is important) should mean that a lot more methane can be stored in the sea, permafrost, etc. than would be at higher temps. That realization not only did not make the problem go away, but actually has made the current situation potentially dramatically worse! So in a “power law” context we would be treated to a number of smaller methane explosions continually building to large explosions setting off even bigger explosions. In case rapidly rising temps weren’t enough, once the methane reached concentrations of 5-15% in the atmosphere, the atmosphere itself would start exploding. In this case, I would vote for debauchery being the main response. As we know debauchery has the advantage of lots of pleasure in a short period of time! (Irony intended…)

  10. Guy McPherson says:

    Norm, thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I suspect most people will act as they already do, regardless of circumstances. Our virtual absence of free will, a result of genetics and personal history, indicates as much. Along with most ethicists, I propose we act as if we have free will, contrary to evidence. What a conundrum!

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