Climate Change globe toaster (Eric Brown)

Published on December 6th, 2012 | by Michael Ricciardi


“Is Earth F**ked?” – Science Conference Talk Has Provocative Title, Troubling Message

globe toaster (Eric Brown)Throughout this week, nearly 20,000 scientists will attend the annual American Geophysical Union meeting, held this year in San Francisco. The important conference features rather dry-sounding seminar and session offerings, with typically academic titles like ‘Atmospheric and Oceanic Variability Associated With the MJO in the Tropical Indian and Western Pacific Oceans’. †

But not this year…not, at least, for one such session.

On Thursday (today), Brad Werner, professor of geophysics and complex systems at the University of California, San Diego*, is giving a talk entitled: ‘Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism’ as part of the AGO session “The Future of Human-Landscape Systems II.”

The eyebrow-raising talk draws upon Werner’s research into the “dynamical relationships” which are “illustrated and explored using a numerical model that simulates the short-, intermediate- and long-time-scale dynamics of the coupled human-environmental system.” (i.e., a ‘virtual Earth’ model)

Indeed, the abstract to Werner’s paper includes this statement:

“[T]he dynamics of the global coupled human-environmental system within the dominant culture precludes management for stable, sustainable pathways and promotes instability,”

This quote would seem to offer a resounding “yes” answer to the session’s title question. The talk would seem to hold promise of other provocative content, as well, given its critical calling out of the “dominant culture”.

Werner analyzes the environmental challenges that we face over short , intermediate and long-term time scales, noting the increasingly “two-way, nonlinear interactions” (i.e., chaotic or disproportionate interactions) between global (resource exploiting) markets and the “Earth System”. These challenges — driven by increasing resource demand — result in a “mismatch between short-time-scale market and political forces driving resource extraction/use and longer-time-scale accommodations of the Earth system to these changes.”

Human markets and the Earth System, observes Werner, operate along different time scales.

This is what drives these mismatches and “non-linear connections”, and this is the basis for Werner calling to task current environmental management policies and their “widespread inability” to address challenges like climate change and soil degradation; environmental managers are “slaved to short-to-intermediate-term interests.”

But Werner is not completely pessimistic, noting the important, dissipative role ‘direct action’ (as mentioned in the talk’s title) plays in pushing for change in the short-term, market-driven, dominant culture:

“Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups, increases dissipation within the coupled system over fast to intermediate scales and pushes for changes in the dominant culture that favor transition to a stable, sustainable attractor.” [emphasis added]


“The transition from unstable dynamics to sustainability is sensitively dependent on the level of participation in and repression of resistance. Because of their differing impact inside and outside the dominant culture, virtual Earth predictions can either promote or oppose sustainability.”

Invaluable food for thought, and, it would seem, a measured call to action (while it also points out the context-dependent, dualistic nature of predictive models).

The talk, to be delivered Thursday, Dec. 6, is being recorded for on-demand viewing later this week.

Brad Werner’s research is supported by the National Science Foundation, Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics Program.

For additional session information for this year’s AGU conference, visit the AGU Meeting website.

* Complex Systems Laboratory 0225, University of California – San Diego, La Jolla, CA, United States.
† (AGU session title) Charles Long (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) and Angela Rowe (University of Washington)
Author Note:
   Out of respect to AGU and Brad Werner, I have delayed publishing this post until after the session time, PST.
   I have liberally quoted here from Werner’s abstract, which is publicly viewable on the above linked AGU website, to give broader import and context to the rather sensationalized title of this post and the scheduled talk, and for general educational purposes regarding current scientific findings on climate change and environmental issues in the public’s interest.
Top Photo: (Globe toaster recycled art) by Eric Brown, photo by M. Ricciardi

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About the Author

Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles as well as essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, Arthur Shapiro, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website ( He is also the author of the (Kindle) ebook: Artful Survival ~ Creative Options for Chaotic Times

  • Michael R.


    Thanks for your comment…and important question…the (tentative) answer would seem to be more conflict in the form of social/political unrest and oppression (suppression)…in a word: ‘chaos’…but that may be short-term thinking also…perhaps in the longer term (if the dissipative force is maintained), there will be a great ‘even-ing out” as we transition to sustainable societies….but as always, there are branching paths within (and prior to) any such transition phase…it’s a guess which one we will take, but perhaps we can “weight” the probability of taking the sustainable path through continuous, sustained, collective (informed) action (outside and inside the dominant culture).

    Michael R.

  • Mary Saunders

    “Direct action” could contribute to non-linear dissipation of business as usual. 

    I just heard the X-Prize founder talk about non-linear growth of particular industries.

    What happens when non-linear growth bumps into non-linear dissipation? 

    I am reminded of squirrels on the roof watching a cat fight.  It could be interesting.

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