Bill McKibben: The Planet's Future Depends On Distributed Systems

To environmental activist Bill McKibben, it's all about math. The planet has warmed 1 degree Celsius over the past few decades and is on track to rise another 4 to 5 before the end of the century. An increase of this magnitude is simply too much for the ecosystems we depend on to adapt to that quickly.

Much of the observed warming is due to the fossil hydrocarbons humans burn for energy and industry. McKibben predicts, whether by foresight or necessity, new sustainable energy and agricultural systems will emerge that will drastically reduce the greenhouse impact our modern lifestyle is having on the planet. These will be revolutionary not just for their "greenness", but also because they will be distributed -- disrupting the monolithic control of the current large energy and food producers:

In the late 80’s when I wrote the first book about all of this, we knew trouble was coming. The basic science is not that difficult: with its molecular structure, more CO2 is gong to trap heet that would otherwise radiate back out to space. What we didn’t know was how fast that trouble was coming or really on what scale.

Unfortunately, in the quarter century since, what we’ve learned is that this is happening harder and faster than we would of thought. 25 years ago, no scientist would have thought that at this point we would have melted most of the summer sea ice in the Arctic -- they would have said that’s still 50 or 75 years off. No one would have even bothered to really measuring the PH of the oceans, because we didn’t think we could substantially alter something that vast. Certainly, no one would have worried that, as we learned about a year ago, the West Larsen Antarctic ice sheet seems now to be fundamentally destabilized and beginning its slide into the southern ocean. And I think no one would of guessed the degree to which we’ve seen perturbations of the hydrological cycle, the way that water moves around the planet.

Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, arid areas tend to get more droughts, since the water vapor wants it to evaporate into the atmosphere where it resides on average about seven days. We also get way more precipitation, often in the form of downpour. So drought flood cycles are much more pronounced. This is what happens in the early stages of climate change. So far, we’ve raised the temperature 1 degree Celsius. The same scientists who have predicted what would happen so far, tell us we’re now on track for range of 4 or 5 degrees before the century is out. If that’s true, if we let that happen, if we don’t divert course quickly, that’s a far more temperature rise than we can cope with. There's no reason to think we can have civilizations that resemble the ones were used to at those temperatures. Among other things, growing food becomes a very difficult proposition...

My guess is that we’re going to see a rise of distributed green energy: solar and wind being the best examples. But that's going to result in interesting effects in all kinds of ways. Such a new energy system won’t be as dependent as the one we have today, and there are people in those places who happen to sit on top of coal, and oil, and gas.  This will be a different world; one in which we can meet most of our needs for energy close to home.

And you can see, some of the same things are starting to happen with food as the rise of the local food movement in the last 20 years. You know, the energy future we’re hoping for, I think, is a kind of farmer’s market in electrons: millions of solar rooftops connected to each other in a grid, for instance. And for that, we have that right here on the Internet that we’re using to talk to each other. Thirty years ago, the information system looked a lot like the energy system does now. A few big providers pushing stuff out at us who just had to kind of take it. The same way the a few big power plants now. But that’s not how our information system works anymore, we’re all both producers and consumers. And it shouldn’t be how our energy system works either.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Bill McKibben (31m:48s)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The only credible energy alternative to hydrocarbons is nuclear power.   McKibben himself is now (finally) coming to this realization.   Solar, wind and other "renewables" simply cannot generate the necessary energy density per capita.   More energy, not less, is necessary for not only next generation personal technology devices, but also large scale energy systems such as transportation, water, etc.
A properly functioning human race will only become more energy dense, not less.   Hydrocarbons will not be able to keep up with human development.   India, China, Russia and South American countries are aggressively investing in new nuclear power plants.    China has published plans for helium-3 mining from the moon's surface.   Even Saudi Arabia is calling for the development of nuclear energy plants, looking to the future.  Nuclear energy, especially new technologies such as thorium reactors, are the best solution to hydrocarbon polllution.  

Lastly, McKibben's comment to think of "government" as separate from "people" sounds ghoulishly Libertarian.  

I've even heard it said that "nuclear power is so efficient it's too cheap to meter." wink

Of course, you might say I'm biased because I marched on Washington, DC on May 6, 1979 (shortly after the Three Mile Island accident) in protest against nuclear power.  Still have the T-shirt.



My case is made for me. (Much less ego, Arthur) 
Start again.  

It is becoming very clear that this is an exponential problem that won't have a satisfactory outcome on a finite planet. Our kids need us to man up and start finding real solutions,  and not excuses. 

Here is the plan. 

Divert resources from fighting pretend enemies into Manhatten type efforts on many fronts.  

We can walk and chew gum, but we need to divert resources.  The biggest resource will be young,  flexible rebellious  minds. Minds that do not accept received wisdom. They will be the diamond tipped tools in our toolkit. 

Here are a list of worthy projects to start on.

  • A new set of ideals and philosophies.
  • The manipulation of time and space. We need to escape this gravity well. 
  • Artificial intelligence.  We will need partners in this endeavour. Wet ware is amazing, but frail. (I have a hunch that Quantum computing,  evolutionary programing and optical switching will be a winning combination)
  • Humility in the face of Chaos. No, Gladys. It is not possible to control every parameter.  Life on whatever vessel you choose to travel is beyond your control. It can and should be guided, but forget about control.
Note to Mark.

Biodome 2 Never failed. It was vandalised. Dropping the ball after two attempts should give any student a failing grade. Just not good enough.

On April 1, 1994 a severe dispute within the management team led to the ousting of the on-site management by federal marshals serving a restraining order, leaving management of the mission to the Bannon & Co. team from Beverly Hills, California.
Hardly a Stirling Effort.
Please feel free to address the solution to the problem of infinite growth on a finite planet, and add your list of pivotal needs that have to be addressed. I cannot do all thinking for you. It is your problem Own it.

ghoulishly libertarian? what a bizarre thing to say. libertarians are about liberty, about us having the freedom to live our lives without oppression by others, it is not ghoulish at all, it is liberating, it is about breaking the chains of bondage that keep humanity oppressed.

the adjective "ghoulish" would be more appropriate to apply to apologists of the state, who view human beings as property of their governments, like cattle; not as sentient, self-determining beings who should be free to live their lives as they choose.

government is, absolutely, separate from the people. this is quite obvious. government mandate is enforced by men with badges and guns. if government really represented the will of the people, it would not need to be imposed on people by threat of violence.

i have never agreed to accept the government's laws, they are imposed upon me by force, from an armed gang of violent thugs, the same mafia which engages in massive rampant financial fraud that plunders the wealth of the people, that engages in unjust, unnecessary murderous wars of aggression in other countries that have never attacked us.

human beings have come a long way - the scourge of outright slavery has for the most part vanished over the last few centuries. hopefully within the next few centuries, the scourge of government will vanish as well, and be realized as an unnecessary barbaric relic of a bygone era.

What does this sentence mean?

Better check the depth setting on your downriggers.

I was following along, quite happily until the last 60 seconds. Popish platitudes have little credibility when they are accompanied by the refusal to address birth control and population. If Mr. McKibben wants buy in by the populous and the opinion leaders/politicos, we need to be realistic about our human footprint. The general discussions from this website are bang on most of the time and foster greater awareness.GREAT! Unfortunately, it only takes one "reassuring lie" to counter an "inconvenient truth". To assume nuclear, fossil, or other mechanical conversion technologies will solve our human induced catastrophe, is to ignore the laws of thermodynamics and continue the "reassuring lie".
When I review your past podcasts, they're are superb examples of raising awareness. But let us be careful not to cross purposes. Time to review Nate Hagens slant on things. Employing slaves, energy slaves or otherwise, removes the onus on us to do something. Where I live, 40 pounds of coal is burned daily just so I can have 24/7 power. As I said, Ouch!

Great podcast, just axe the last 60 seconds.


I have worshipped at the alter of the democracy/capitalism most of my life.  It's been hard for me to admit that the gods I have bowed to have been false.

Seeing the end result of years of "freedom" has finally sunk in.  

I know of no better government/economic system that the one we have now.  Never the less, our current system is producing catastrophic results.  Greed, corruption, sloth and ignorance run rampant through our society and it's literally killing us.

Libertarianism is merely another party within an already failing political system.  There is nothing to say it will not wind up like our current two primary parties.

To find a solution that works, we need a new political system, not a new political party.

Individual freedom includes the unrestricted ability to act in a manner that is individually satisfying while at the same time destructive to the people who share the planet.  

One example I can't get out of my mind is the 65 year old woman in Europe who recently gave birth to quadruplets, bringing her child count up to 17.  Her youngest child expressed a desire for a younger sibling, so the woman chose to take advantage of fertility measures.  Think about it.  When the quadruplets are 15, their mother will be 80.  Second, do you actually think a 65 year old mother and possibly her spouse are honestly providing for 17 children by growing enough food and generating enough energy, or are they acquiring the needed food, energy and resources by more effectively manipulating the system than their competitors?

That's largely what I consider when I think about personal freedom these days. 

Not sure quite where the quote originated, but it's one of those universal truths, IMO. 
Having 17 kids in this day and age is completely irresponsible.  <Edit: What is the responsible number of kids we should consider having moving forward? 2? 1? None for a while?>

How do we get people to voluntarily accept a reduced forward reproductive rate without relying on "government" (which history has repeatedly shown will ultimately resort to jackboots et al?). Worldwide?


What are our primary incentives? What is our money?

Our money is nothing more than a claim on a future that no longer exists.

Except in our minds.

I don't think population growth is a problem anymore. The western world's birth rate would take us into negative territory and the way the economic authorities counter this to promote their version of economic "growth" is to bring in tons of immigrants from the rest of the world which still has a growing population and billions of people just bursting to get out and move into our wonderful societies (sarc), many of which find that the grass isn't necessarily greener over here. The odd selfish person who has more than their fair share of kids is more than outweighed by couples with only 1 or 2 kids. Now, even the "third world's" growth rate is beginning to slow towards western rates, although they do have very high populations as a result of all their previous growth.
The problem is no longer population growth, it is growth of consumption and ecological footprint. Almost all leaders believe it is a noble goal to bring the "third world" up to previous western standards of living. Putting moral arguments aside regarding how westerners can criticize third worlders for wanting to live like westerners do (did), the fact remains that this will not be possible, and we are seeing the results as the western world is losing its purchasing power as the third world gains it. Economic growth is a zero sum game on a finite planet that is actually experiencing declining gross ecological production despite intensive modern agriculture. But deeper than this, the drive to modernize the third world reveals that the economic authorities are still clueless about where our wealth comes from and the limitations the environment places on our consumption.

So it would seem that we are now at the point were an almost total collapse of the global marine ecosystems is baked in the cake.  There is enough carbon in the atmosphere now to kill everything in the oceans more sophisticated then a jellyfish within 100 years.  Sucks to be a whale, or a shark, or a coral polyp.  It sounds like the only hope to preserve terrestrial vertebrates is to stop fossil carbon emissions almost completely, very, very soon.  An abrupt end to burning fossil carbon fuel will result in a large fraction of the human race dying rather abruptly.  The substantial fraction of the human race that currently subsists burning renewable carbon fuel such as twigs and dung, however, might have a fighting chance of survival.  There is a popular notion among fossil carbon burners that the renewable, sustainable, subsistence carbon burning lifestyle is repugnant.  
As, it would seem, the extinction of the human race is inevitable, one way or another, perhaps the last, greatest, hope of humanity is not to seed the solar system with "wet ware" (with a nod to Arthur), but with intelligent, self replicating machines.  Perhaps as Trilobites gave way to fish, gave way to amphibians, gave way to reptiles, gave way to us, it is time for us to give way to what ever comes next.  Perhaps, in some distant future, some Greater Thing will look back on us with the same incredulity that we look back on the self replicating molecules that arose around some long lost geothermal vent in a primordial ocean eons ago.  Perhaps, recognizing our inevitable mortality, we should keep the "petal to the metal" in an effort to insure that some future organism will learn to adapt to the harsh extra terrestrial environment the way life before us has learned to adapt to the brutal ultra violet radiation of the oceans surface or the crushing lack of water on land.  Perhaps the idea that living in little climate controlled boxes eating preprocessed food that we reheat with the touch of a button is the culmination of evolution is a little self centered and naive.

Musings from the edge of the abyss,

John G.

I refer you to my link on environmental issues disrupting fertility.

The currently reported World population growth rate is 1.14%.

A few years back I did the math on population growth at the then current growth rate of 1.3%.  Using modified assumptions from the Drake equations, I calculated that, at 1.3% growth, we would overpopulated the Milky Way Galaxy in less than 2,500 years.  Don't underestimate exponential growth, even at "low" levels.

Second, look around you.  Look closely.  The Earth is not doing at all well with 7+ billion.  A sustainable population is likely closer to 2 billion than 7 billion.  Any growth at this point is simply another nail in the coffin lid.

But you just admitted that population growth rate is going down, so it's not exponential. I'm not sure when it will turn negative but probably not too far in the future.Hans Rosling has a good talk and visuals showing how population growth is dropping. He seems to paint a rosy picture that everything in the future will be OK, which I disagree with, but I agree with his population growth demographic projections. They may be thrown off by future wars or famines, who knows.

I don't disagree that population is too high and we should be doing everything to reduce and reverse growth rate, however, the elephant in the closet is growth of per capita consumption in the developing world that dwarfs population growth. This is where the efforts should be mostly directed against because it is not possible for the whole world to live like westerners and by trying to achieve this, economic authorities are dooming us all. Instead we should be trying to improve peoples' lives without using western style development, to do things smarter, not bigger, for example promoting composting toilets instead of complicated sewage systems, local economic development and use of bicycles instead of the car centric urban culture that China has adopted, and to promote more vegetarian-like diets.

I never understood the assertion that the oceans are going to die with rising CO2 concentrations and acidification. CO2 has been generally going down over the Earth's history and it was only 20 million years ago that it was this high, and a hundred million years ago it was way higher, so this is certainly nothing unprecendented in Earth's history. Shellfish have been around for a long time and corals are some of the oldest animals in the world so why it is that they won't be able to build skeletons now, when they had no problem doing this historically with much higher CO2 concs, I'm not sure.
Will global aquatic ecosystems be disrupted and possibly crash as a result of acidification, in combination with our pollution and overfishing impacts? Probably, yes. But are the oceans going to die? No.

is party to all our deals, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice, than we do."  Wendell Berry
I'm not worried about her getting by, I'm worried about me, personally, raising her ire. The Robinson hydrocarbon foot print continues to shrink.

Great podcast.  Thanks, Chris and Bill!

I think the reason John and others (including me) think that there will be a major collapse of the ocean food web is because many of the calcareous organisms at the base of the food chain - esp. photosynthetic coccolithophores and other wee beasties - will not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive the rapidly changing ocean pH.  

There are few instances in geologic time when the composition of the atmosphere changed so rapidly, so even if shell-bearing organisms were able to produce shells at much higher CO2 levels (which I would assume equaled lower pH levels, but there may be a feedback I'm unaware of) in another epoch or era, the organisms would have had a chance to adapt more slowly to the change in most cases (meteorites aside).  Does this sound plausible?



I suspect that if you look at the geologic record, you will find that the Permian Extinction had such acidification. I suspect, further, that you wild find that it was at this time that such creatures as the soft squid and octopus developed from previously shelled creatures.
When you have such a great cataclism, I expect that creatures don’t survive as long; creatures that manage to mate before dying will pass on juvenile characteristics, but the adult characteristics will be unimportant. Therefore, those genes will be open to modification: dinosaurs can develop birds, ammonites can develop to squids, and so on.

"Exponential growth occurs when the growth rate of the value of a mathematical function is proportional to the function's current value."

The rate of growth has declined slightly.  This lengthens the doubling time somewhat, but it is still exponential growth.  The key difference is that the base is changing over time.  That is what distinguishes exponential growth.  10 years ago, it might have been 1.5% growth on 6.5 billion.  Today it may be 1.1% growth on 7.1 billion.

There are a number of good explanations of exponential growth.  The one in the crash course is decent.  Personally, I prefer Albert Bartlett's explanation best.


An exponential growth curve is impossible: it implies unlimited resources. what we have here is a different curve that at some domains appears exponential, but at other domains clearly is not.
That is not to argue that we are at a crisis point – we are, and the entire Peak Prosperity website is based on that point. However, I think we might do better to identify what kind of a curve we really are on: is it an exponential, as claimed? Or an S curve? An arc-tangent? is it a bell curve? Or a stepped bell curve?
Maybe it’s all elliott waves.
The better we can identify the maths, the better we can predict, falsify, and then discover what is really driving all this.