The “Planetary Crisis” Rules (Part 1)

On 5 August 2010, the Russian authorities declared the state of emergency for the territory of the Ozersk, because raging giant wildfires had been devastating the country since July, and were now threatening the city and its strategic nuclear waste reprocessing plant specialized in the processing of nuclear waste. It was of strategic importance to isolate it from the fire, in order to prevent a possible nuclear disaster (“Russia declares state of emergency in nuclear town as wildfire blazes”, The Telegraph, 10 august 2010).

This took place during the historical heat wave that struck Russia and Ukraine from late July to the end of the second week of August 2010. Since then, the link to climate change has been debated. If a direct link has not been established so far, climate scientists warn nonetheless that this kind of event is certainly going to be the new normal during the 21st century as climate changes (Alyson Kenward, “2010 Russian heatwave more extreme than previously thought”, Climate Central, March 17, 2011).

320px-Russialsta_tmo_2010208_lrg-300x225While this heat wave triggered and fuelled immense wildfires that ravaged the Russian forests and lands, it also reduced by more than 10% the Russian and Ukrainian production of cereals. As a result, the world cereal price increased, and in turn the price of bread in the Arab world went up during the fall and winter 2010, as well as throughout 2011 (Michael Klare, “The Coming global explosion”, TomDispatch, April 21, 2013).

Bread being the staple food in these countries for the vast majority of the population, the rising prices were a powerful factor in the emergence of intense social and economic tensions.

320px-Tahrir_Square_on_November_22-300x201These were followed by an “epidemic” of urban riots, and profound political and strategic disruptions, which are still cascading nowadays, especially through the destabilization of Syria during the 2011 “Arab spring” (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013).

In other words, the Russian heat wave of 2010 has been a “hybridation” event between climate change and the Russian energy and agricultural sectors with global environmental, agricultural, political and strategic consequences. This process of hybridation (Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, 1991) is at once the origin and the very nature of the contemporary geophysical and biological era called the “Anthropocene”.

From a political and strategic point of view, the emergence of the Anthropocene has massive implications on a planetary scale, which question the future of politics and strategy at the deepest level.

In order to further our understanding of this evolution, we shall first wonder about the nature of the Anthropocene and explain the place of modern human societies within this new epoch. In the next, forthcoming, article, we shall study the political and strategic consequences of this state of planetary and international affairs.

Transforming the planet

We have to understand first the reality of the Anthropocene, currently and in the future, for the planet, i.e. a massive and constant shift of life conditions, not “on” Earth, but “of” the Earth.

Paul Crutzen, the great atmospheric chemist and Nobel peace prize, coined the term “Anthropocene” in 2003 (“Anthropocene”, International Geosphere Biosphere program).

He devised this concept to qualify the fact that humanity, through the way it has developed itself by using and transforming its own environment, has become the dominant geophysical force on Earth (Jan Zalasiewicz, Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?, 2011). After twelve years of debate on the validity of the concept, “A proposal to formalise the ‘Anthropocene’ is being developed by the Anthropocene’ Working Group. for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target date of 2016” (Working Group).

This new study establishes that new evidences show that the Earth has entered in new geological epoch (Waters, Zalasiewicz et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”, Science, 08 January 2016).

For example, and among other signals, the amount of plastic that can be found in the terrestrial and marine environment is now identifiable through geological studies; the amount of concrete used is such that half the concrete ever produced has been so during the last twenty years, inducing an extremely rapid artificialization of land; the presence of radio isotopes from nuclear bombs’ testing during the fifties and the sixties is ubiquitous on land (Zalasiewicz, ibid).

lossy-page1-320px-ACID_WATER_OIL_AND_ACID_CLAY_SLUDGE_ARE_EVIDENT_IN_THIS_FIVE_ACRE_POND_ALSO_CLUTTERED_WITH_JUNKED_CARS_AND_OTHER..._-_NARA_-_555852Furthermore, the anthropogenic origins of climate change are accepted and identified by the vast majority of climate scientists (Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, How a handful of scientists obscured the truth from tobacco to global warming, 2011); the biodiversity crisis is massively tied to human activities and settlement; the acidification, warming, pollution and overfishing of the ocean is rapid; the cycles of nitrates and phosphorous are deeply altered by industry and agriculture (“Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity”, led by Johann Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center (Ecology and Society, 2009).

It is of the first order of importance to understand that this list of changes is not exhaustive, and that these dynamics are not isolated from each other.

On the contrary, they form a very dynamic system (James Howard Kunstler, The Long emergency, surviving the converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century, 2005).

Warzone_in_Gulf_of_MexicoFor example, ocean acidification is caused by heightened doses of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which partially dissolves itself in the water. Consequentially, the change of the ocean pH is endangering marine life sensitive to this level of acidification, and, with it, the whole interdependent biological web of marine life, as well as the whole marine-terrestrial food chain (Callum Roberts, The Ocean of life, the fate of Man and the Sea, 2012).

In other words, the Anthropocene, the “human epoch”, is nothing but a world knowing rapid changes in basic life conditions for human and non-human species. It must be remembered that the life conditions known on Earth over the last seven and half million years – i.e. the historical sequence during which the human species has progressively emerged – have been dominated by the specific conditions that emerged of the Earth system from its own geophysical and biological specifics.

These ecological conditions have allowed already existing life forms to attain their current form, through the very complex dialectics of adaptation and natural selection (Edward O. Wilson, The Future of life, 2002 and Heams et alii, Les Mondes Darwiniens, l’évolution de l’évolution, 2009). During the millions of years of biological and cultural evolution, the human species has emerged as being able to drive itself to the “social conquest of Earth” (Edward O. Wilson, The Social conquest of Earth, 2012).

However, since the emergence of the steam engine and the consequent industrial revolution during the eighteenth century, things have been changing very quickly, at a pace thus far unknown on the planet (John MC Neill, Something new under the Sun, an environmental history of the twentieth century, 2000).

In fact, these last fifty years have been especially important for this process, because of the generalization of the industrial model to the economy, as well as to the agriculture, as the aim is to transform the top soil and vegetation into industrial surfaces, notably through a selection between “good” and “bad” species through the continental use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962).

This, coupled with the rapid extension of urban areas, has deeply transformed the natural habitats and water cycle, and destroyed immense swaths of the complex networks between, animal and vegetal populations and species (Tim Flannery, Here on Earth, A Twin biography of the Planet and of the Human race, 2010). However, this transformation has turned into an autonomous dynamic transformation, under the form of global change, which is not under control.

In the same time, the Anthropocene is signalled by the emergence of new geophysical-biological conditions, which are different from the ones (Zalasiewicz et alii, ibid) that emerged at the end of the Pleistocene and since the Holocene (from 40 000 years to nowadays). For example, according to NASA’s satellite observation in August 2014, the Aral Sea basin, in Central Asia, has now completely dried up (Enjoli Liston “Satellite images show Aral Sea Basin “completely dried””, The Guardian, 1 October 2014).

The Aral Sea was an interior sea that has been devastated by an immense Soviet water diversion project: the Amu Darya and the Syr Daria, the two rivers that were feeding the Aral Sea, were detoured in order to bring water to arid Kazakhstan to develop agriculture (Fred Pearce, When the Rivers run dry, 2006). The effect was the disappearance of the Aral Sea over the last fifty years. Furthermore, during the sixties and the seventies a lot of chemical pollution from the agricultural and industrial development of the region accumulated into the silt.

Journey_of_Discovery_-_On_route_to_Beijing_6886191892Today, the Aral Sea is a very arid region, where the constant wind erodes the upper ground of the former marine basin, and spreads salt and chemically polluted dust from, Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan, inducing chronic epidemics of blood and kidney ailments, and specific problems for pregnant women and unborn children (Pearce, ibid).

In other terms, the Aral Sea and its region were projected into the Anthropocene through the transformation of the ground water natural network for agricultural reasons. It completely changed the set of regional environmental conditions, and this transformation was coupled with the effects of the Soviet agricultural and industrial development. So, today, the Aral Basin is constituted of a new system of top soils, water, chemical, weather, and climatic conditions, which interact with each other in a very different manner compared with the dynamics existing before the fifties.

These conditions are quite adverse to the reproduction and thriving of animal and vegetal life, which has gone through a regional collapse. Meanwhile the biological conditions of human social life have been so degraded that the population of the rural and urban areas around the former sea has been forced to move.

In other terms, they could not adapt to the new set of environmental conditions that emerged with the Anthropocene.

Are “human societies” able to adapt to the Anthropocene?

2015 appears to have been the hottest year on record (Justin Gillis, “2015 appears was hottest year in historical records, scientists say”, The New-York Times, January 20, 2016). It seems this is due to the planetary interaction between a strong El Nino episode and anthropogenic climate change.

This has for consequences a string of extreme weather moments all around the planet, such as the extreme heat wave that struck the Middle East between July and August 2015 (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Climate nightmare in the Middle East”, The Red Team Analysis Society, September 14, 2015).

This “heat dome” has put dozens of millions of people at risk, because atmospheric temperature peaked at 70° C in Iran and Iraq, which, for example, led Iraqi authorities to declare a four days holidays, in order to protect people from heat strokes at work (Katie Valentine, “Extreme heat leads to protests, deaths in the Middle East”, Think Progress, August 10, 2015).

If we consider the happenstance of the Anthropocene, this case shows how changing the climate of an arid region and coupling it with other geophysical and biological process through industry, the choice of coal, oil and natural gas for powering it, as well as urbanization, is turning entire regions into zones of non-sustainability and danger for the human societies, and the animal and vegetal species that developed there over centuries.

320px-Rocinha_Favela_Brazil_SlumsThe massive strategic problem that goes with this new epoch is that the planetary present and future are now dominated by a complex dynamic of global change, and that the rhythm of change is now attuned not to geological temporality, but to its coupling with the human current forms of technological, industrial and urban forms of development (Naomi Klein, This Changes everything, capitalism vs the climate, 2014).

Furthermore, the Anthropocene is not controlled by human politics and technology, contrary to the changes brought to the environment by the human species since the Pleistocene and the end of the last glacial age, more or less 130 000 years ago (Tim Flannery, Here on Earth, a twin biography of the Planet and the Human race, 2010). On the contrary, the Anthropocene is a planetary dynamic that acquires its own dynamic.

In effect our (only) planet is going through an extremely rapid change, composed of multiple and interlocked dynamics, which interact with each other, and are powered by their own feed back loops. This is particularly clear in the Arctic, which warms quickly because of anthropogenic global warming (Dahr Jamail, “The Vanishing Arctic ice cap”, Truth Out, March 31, 2014).

The Arctic ice field is like a giant mirror, sending back solar radiations in space. However, because of the very rapid warming of the region, the more the summer ice melts, the more the sea warms, the more the ice melts, in a self-sustaining feedback loop (James Hansen interview, in Subankar Banerjee, Arctic Voices: resistance at the tipping point, 2013). The ongoing consequence of this process is that the whole planetary atmosphere-ocean system accumulates more and more energy, and thus adopts a new global behaviour. Consequently, the Arctic Ocean accumulates more and more energy and heats up.

One of the consequences is the rising humidification of the Arctic air and the disruption of the Polar jet stream, the west/east air current defining the limit between Arctic and non-Arctic part of the atmosphere, that is deeply altered and humidity-charged.

Late_Spring_Ocean_Ice_8429843175This alteration of the Jet stream appears more and more clearly to be linked to the growth of extreme weather events around the globe over the last few years (Joe Romm, “Study: Arctic Sea Ice Loss Shifts Jet Stream, Driving Deluges In NW Europe, Drought In Mediterranean“, Climate Progress, October 30, 2013). In December 2015, the North Pole has known temperature above zero, meaning close to the melting point (Ryan O’Hare “Arctic ‘heatwave’ hits the North Pole: Storm Frank causes temperatures to soar by 60°F taking the icy region close to melting point”, Daily Mail on Line, 31 December 2015).

In this context, the modern industrial/carbon powered global society is both at the origin of the Anthropocene and has become one of its engines. The others are the multiple environmental feedback loops that are rapidly deploying themselves throughout the global Earth system.

The anti-human age?

This is where lies the fundamental paradox of the Anthropocene: human beings have induced the emergence of a geological epoch that is transforming the Earth into the equivalent of an autonomous global devouring monster, created by the industrial societies. However, these dynamics are so powerful and autonomous that our societies find themselves into a planetary situation that could overwhelm them.

“Industrial societies have transformed the Earth into the equivalent of an autonomous global devouring monster…”

This new planetary risk is well described, for example, by Bill Mc Kibben, who explains how climate change is turning the Earth from a planet very favourable to life into a nightmare planet afflicted by an out of control global warming, coupled with a lethal over acidification of the ocean. This global process transforms the Earth into “EAARTH”, a totally nightmarish planet from the point of view of the “Earth” evolved species (Bill Mc Kibben, EAARTH, Making a life on a tough new planet, 2010).

So, the Anthropocene raises the question of knowing how human societies, which are organised in different political entities, are going to solve the Anthropocene paradox? What are they going to do to stay alive? Recalling that war is the continuation of politics through other means, is war going to be an issue while the Anthropocene mutant conditions are settling in, and transforming politics in the process?

That is what we shall study with the second article.

End of part 1.

Featured image: Warzone in Gulf of Mexico By kris krüg (Flickr: Warzone) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.