Biosphere switch:
It seems to me that bad changes happen fast and nice changes happen slowly.  If you don’t agree, fine.  It’s just my own impression.  And by and large I am no friend of change.  The laws of thermodynamics specify that things will change and in the process degrade.  I just bought a used car.  It is about ten years old.  My 25 year old Buick has better gas mileage and better performance.  I guess the air bags in the newer car are an improvement, but really I don’t see much in the way of progress.  A key for the old car costs a couple of bucks to duplicate.  A duplicate for the newer car costs about seventy dollars and there is another charge of a hundred dollars to “program” it, at least that was what I was told when I drove to the VW dealer and talked to them. 

I’m thinking, “Program it for what?  All it has to do is say, ‘Hey, it’s me.  Open up.’  The information required to identify itself cannot be great.  With sixteen bit computer code a couple of bytes is over thirty bits, enough to code for more than a billion possibilities.  By the time you are up to six bytes you have … a lot, plenty for uniquely specifying the key.  Yet my flash drive on the same key chain holds maybe six billion bytes and costs a lot less.  It is paranoid of me to think that the newer key is doing something else?  And if it isn’t doing something I know about, then I guess it’s giving somebody else power over me.  Maybe they can track the car.  Maybe they can stop it cold or make it run rough to encourage me to stop.  All I know is that I’m paying for it.”

Since they had said the keys would need to be programmed, I drove to the dealer a second time to collect it.  One of the three men I had seen the day before was there and did find the keys.  When I asked about programming them he said, “You seem to think you can just walk in here and get them programmed.  It doesn’t take ten minutes.  It takes an hour.  And you will have to get worked in.”  (I hoped he meant worked into the schedule, that they were not going to do surgery.)  I walked out.  After spending a while on the internet I found directions for programming the remote car opening thing, but nothing about programming an ordinary key.  So I took the new copies out and tried them.  They worked just fine. 

See what I mean about not much liking change?

Scientists are getting edgy about a change in the biosphere (Anthony D. Barnosky et al. Approcahing a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere NATURE vol. 486 no. 7401 June 7, 2012 page 52) and the effect that change will have on people (Bradley J. Cardinale Biodiversity Loss and its Impact on Humanity same issue page 59). 

The bottom line is it could happen fast and things will be different for all of life.  This does not bode well.

Of course I am concerned about a change in our demographics.  The change, if and when it comes, will be simple.  There will be essentially no babies.  That would be bad.  I think a reasonable and prudent person would agree.  So from the logic of the first sentence, it ought to happen abruptly.  In this case abruptly would mean in a single generation in any one place and another generation for the laggards to catch up with the leaders. 

It hasn’t happened yet.  That’s nice.  But in talking about abrupt changes there is the hidden message of the tipping point.  At some point as the phase change (you know, like water freezing or boiling) is approached there may be a moment when the change is already inevitable but has not yet been fully manifest. 

They have worked out come clues about when to expect a state shift.  There is generally a natural rhythm and variability to natural biological events.  It gets hotter and colder.  It gets wetter and drying.  There are more rabbits and fewer rabbits.  But as a state shift approaches the fluctuations become bigger, more frequent, and intriguingly they become asymmetrical over time.  A displacement may be within more or less the normal variation but it takes longer for it to recover or contrarily it may make a slow move in some direction and then the progress will collapse.

Well it’s nice to know somebody has analyzed it.  I wonder how it will play out in real life.  The climate is warming; I’m convinced of that one.  They predict there will be more violent weather events; certainly there are storms but I don’t really get the feeling that they are all that much more numerous or powerful than in years gone by.  I am more impressed by a recent rash of powerful earthquakes than of powerful hurricanes.  But the experts say no, this earthquake thing is just normal fluctuation.  Indeed it would be hard to believe otherwise.  Certainly our most heedless abuse of the environment can’t have caused a significant change in whatever it is going on Down There. 

So what do we expect to see in demographics?  Will we see birth rates fluctuating vigorously?  I see a global decline, but I do not really see global instability.  Going back to and comparing births per woman with age at first marriage for women, sure enough in the old days things seemed to be bouncing around merrily in places where there were good statistics.  Then there is the characteristic fall in fertility which then stabilizes.  Just at that happens, age at first marriage starts go get older, and that change seems inexorable.

This seem portentous to me, but I would not call it the kind of instability that is expected by the pros.  Of course we may have gone past the tipping point and are simply watching the end game unwind.  Well if that’s the case, we certainly are missing an opportunity for panic.

But people don’t panic.  Not really.  It’s governments that panic.  Let’s just hope that it’s not the case that they see the mene mene tekel upharsin and are keeping mum about it. 

There have been 59,640 visitors so far.

Home page

Belshazzar by Rembrandt