Exponology: Shit Happens. Fast.

We’ve all seen the shirt and the bumper sticker. Shit happens. Exponology is here to extend that reality. Shit happens fast. Real fast.

In the first piece on my formative science called exponology, I laid out the basic tenets, which were probably too simple for the PhDs and too complex for the new adopters. But again I would like to emphasize that this is not on purpose, as I am putting all the pieces of the puzzle together as I find them. In a way, this is an opensourced project, although it would never have been called that in the past. Back then, I would have just taken the advice and suggestions given to me by others and claimed them as my own.

But knowledge is a social animal, and nothing is ever gained without its collective contract. As such, I’ve since heard and sifted through some quality feedback after posting that initial blast, and all of it makes me feel like I’m on the right track. And the mounting stack of news on global warming, oil consumption, viral media and social upheaval is doing the same job of convincing me that exponents — of the numerical and behavioral variety — are vastly underestimated and poorly understood. In fact, the only certainty I have unearthed in my research into what was once a very weird dream is that the only thing everyone knows about them for sure is not too much at all.

Take this eye-opening talk given by Susan Solomon, senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the co-chair of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example. While the damining yet conservative IPCC report laid bare the role of humanity in both the rise of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels and the fall of Earth’s snowpack, Solomon nevertheless gave global warming doubters a pillow-soft comedown, noting that “It would take centuries, if not millennia, to get a four to six meter rise” in sea levels once the ice shelfs and glaciers of the world gently retired into the good night. But when pressed on the fact that several indicators of global warming over the last few years have accelerated at an alarming rate, and whether or not she foresaw the same mechanism in place for the inevitable melt, Solomon had no love for exponents. In fact, she flat out claimed ignorance. “We just don’t know,” she added.

Let’s remember that this is a co-chair of the IPCC talking, not some boneheaded Bush administration appointee. A scientist who once targeted chlorofluorocarbons as the prime suspect in the depletion of the ozone layer, long before anyone knew or cared what it was. A fellow UC Berkeley grad, the head of the atmospheric chemistry division at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, confiding to all that, in the end, she has no idea whether or not we can expect exponential increases in sea levels.

And here is where the other shoe of exponology drops: Is she lying? Is she an exponent of another type, one who champions a dominant ideology? One that believes, as does the Bush administration, that the public’s best interest is served by a continuing ignorance to the changes going on around them? Let us remember that the Bush administration was recently accused by the The Union of Concerned Scientists, a private advocacy group, and the Government Accountability Project, a legal-assistance group that represents whistle-blowers, of roadblocking crucial conclusions and data on global warming, as well as generally interfering to no end in the studies of the scientists across the U.S. government. According to their joint report:

43 percent of respondents reported edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their findings.
46 percent felt administrative requirements that impaired climate-related work.
67 percent said the environment for federal government climate research is worse now than five years ago. ]
And that’s just from the 308 out of the total 1,600 scientists who actually bothered to participate in the survey. Imagine what the numbers would look like if those who weren’t either intimidated or too lazy to participate actually did so. That’s some crunchy data.

But it gets worse. The latest news shows that while exponential increases in sea level may be too hard for top-notch scientists to predict, CO2 levels are anything but. In fact, greenhouse gases have jumped to record highs, and the increase is, you guessed it, accelerating in a hurry. The unexpected jump, according to a Reuters interview with Kim Holmen, research director of the Norwegian Polar Institute whose Arctic archipelago base station in Svalbard measures such things in the North Pole, comes from an expected source: “China is opening coal-fired power plants at the rate of almost one a week.” Nevertheless, Holmen’s description of the average yearly rise in greenhouse gases lays bare an exponological root that some seemed to have missed tripping over.

“When I was young, scientists were talking about 1 ppm rise” every year, Holman said. “Since 2000 it has been a very rapid rate.” The annual rate was 1ppm as recent as 2005, that is until 2006, when it doubled to 2ppm. Add that to the IPCC’s conclusion, cited in the same Reuters report, that “temperature rises were set to accelerate and could gain by between 1.1 and 6.4 Celsius (2.0-11.5 Fahrenheit) by 2100,” and you have all the earmarks of exponology. The onset of floods, droughts and resource wars are enough to scare babies into waking; the thought of that onset occuring exponentially earlier than thought ought to make adults everywhere soil their figurative diapers.

The trick here is to not be fooled by the science or the numbers, because as always the social phenomena urging these upheavals forward are either self-evident, as in the case of China’s emergence as a powersucker and gross polluter, or yet to be found, as in the case of the discovery of fast-moving rivers beneath Antarctica’s ice sheets. Either way, exponology makes room for ignorance by admitting from the outset that things can get worse. In a hurry.

Tale Antarctica’s hidden rivers, which have severely called into the question the integrity of the region’s ice sheets, to the extent that the calculated rate of Solomon’s sea-level rise is practically useless. As Helen Fricker of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego told the Guardian UK, ” We didn’t realize that the water under these ice streams was moving in such large quantities, and on such short time scales. We thought these changes took place over years and decades, but we are seeing large changes over months. The detected motions are astonishing in magnitude, dynamic nature and spatial extent.” In other words, don’t set your calendar to the scientific community’s Nostradamus clock, because there are always details left to be found or to be uncovered, via intrepid exploration or Freedom of Information Act requests, depending on what side of exponology the scientists comes down on.

This somewhat Heisenbergian uncertainty is one reason that UK Environment Secretary David Miliband and others recently called upon the EU to slash emissions by 30 percent by 2020 or risk serious payback from Earth. But even those numbers, digging back into exponology, could be unreliable as well. Which is also why other climate change scientists have thrown in the towel altogether, claiming it may already by too late to stop any of it. The stats on that possibility, according to them? What else? 50-50.

Why? Why else? Humanity.

See, as one among Earth’s myriad shrinking species, humans have a tendency to both fudge and fumble the numbers. And the difference between the two aren’t that different at all, and not just in the Bush administration. Take Britain, for example. America’s proxy in our current resource war in Iraq is having just as much trouble nailing down a predictable rate, because the UK has just as much a stake in the public ignorance on the matters. Because of similarly wrongheaded voluntary reportage and high-level meddling, only 16 of Britain’s top 100 listed companies have passed on worthy emissions information; that’s almost 200 million tons of CO2 to factor back into the equation, exponological and otherwise. To believe that such purposeful omissions are not ubiquitous would be as much of a mistake as believing that they will not accelerate whatever schedule the dominant scientific ideology has laid out for its worst-case scenario, to say nothing of its best-case scenario. For the latter, one need only listen to scientists who testified to the 2007 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who are practically begging the Western U.S. if not the world to get its shit together for incoming droughts of a catastrophic nature.

“We’re already seeing snow packs dwindle and spring runoffs coming earlier and earlier,” Jim Coakley, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Oregon State University told the AAAS. “The dry summers that we’ve experienced recently may pale in comparison to what could happen in the near future. There is a kind of domino effect as temperatures warm. Precipitation that would have fallen as snow will come as rain and run off more quickly. Spring runoffs begin earlier. Summers lengthen and evaporation increases.”

While the domino effect might function well enough as a scare tactic, it is a only a precursor to exponology. The reason is simple, as far as I can tell: Dominos don’t replicate, just fall on top of one another. In exponology, each domino becomes two dominos, each two become four and so on. A line of dominos falls at a regular rate, one to one, until the line is extinguished. In exponology, there is no such steady rate, and the line, doubled and tripled over upon itself, falls faster and harder, shrinking the time window given to rectify the situation to practically nothing. A similar situation applies to what one reader on the Huffington Post explained to me as trophic cascade theory, in which each trophic level of a food web is inversely and directly related to trophic levels above and below it. When one level achieves primacy over another, there is a Newtonian backlash, leading to an imbalance in the webbed ecosystem in question. Of course, that Newtonian backlash is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, and we all know how that entropy works out. Badly, for all involved. Also worth noting in the trophic cascade theory is the most dangeorus component of ecosystems worldwide: Consumers. More ravenous and self-aware than the other components — producers, decomposers, the abiotic environment — of traditional ecosystems, human consumers have upset the planetary equilibrium to the extent that their own survival has been jeopardized.

Which brings us back, again, to the other side of exponology’s coin. In our barely born new millennium, consumption has found no shortage of exponents. After the horrors of 9/11, a moment that should have given us all pause, President Bush asked us to go back to our shopping. Our hunt for the last of the planet’s fossil fuels promises to be a catastrophe in itself: Indeed, a report from Wood Mackenzie, an Edinburgh-based consultancy, explains that “It becomes unclear beyond 2020 that conventional oil will be able to meet any of the demand growth.” And if you think that 2020 is the cutoff date, you don’t know exponology. Or exponential demand growth.

And for that, we return to China, whose thirst for what the Beverly Hillbillies called black gold is a runaway train speeding towards an indeterminate future. The peak oil theorists at The Oil Drum have analyzed the numbers on China, and the results are pure exponology:

“The increase in Chinese oil consumption in the past years is mostly seen as a recent development, supposedly driven by the industrial development of China. In reality, the growth in Chinese oil consumption has been the same in the past two decades. Between 1990 and 1999 annual oil consumption growth in China was 6% on average. Between 2000 and 2006 the average annual oil consumption growth in China was 7%. Also the 2004 anomaly of 13% growth in a single year is nothing new. In 1993 Chinese oil consumption growth happened to be 10%. This misconception of Chinese oil consumption growth is a typical example of underestimating the power of exponential growth. Between 1990 and 1999, absolute growth was around 2 million barrels per day (mb/d), from 2.3 mb/d in 1990 to 4.4 mb/d in 1999. In the past seven years, absolute growth has been 3 mb/d per day according to preliminary figures, from 4.4 mb/d in 1999 to 7.36mb/d in 2006. If this present trend continues, the demand for oil (and other liquid fuels) in China will grow to 9.2 mb/d in 2010 and 12.4 mb/d in 2015.”

Sit back and soak it all in. Because wherever we turn, there is a disturbing preponderance of confusion or quiet — by choice, by accident, by ignorance — about where we are headed in the very near future. And we can tackle the problem in many different ways. We can start hacking snow, if the planet won’t give us any. We can use nanotechnology to create energy in hopes of weaning us off our fossil fuel addiction. Hopefully, we can get smart enough to keep the killer asteroid Apophis from smashing into Earth in 2036, a date that may or may not take exponology into account at all. Let’s hope it does.

But whatever we do, we better tackle the exponents that are killing us softly with their siren songs of an uninterrupted life of consumption and convenience. The Bush administration, faith-based fundamentalists, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, General Motors, and onward. These exponents of an apolitical good life that no longer exists have stood in the way for decades now as the planet has suffered our casual pollution and careless stewardship. And let’s be clear: Ecosystems have a way of righting their own ships. Pestilence, pandemics, exctinctions, they are all capable defense mechanisms against the type of aggressive threats we are farting out of our factories and cars on a daily basis. And it would behoove us to remain clear on another salient point: Earth is going nowhere. We, on the other hand, have no such cosmological reality indemnifying us against annihilation. Try as we might to destroy the environment, we can only fail. Destroying ourselves, however, won’t be that hard. It will be easier than anyone thinks and, with the help of exponology, faster than anyone can imagine.

[This article originally appeared in February 2007 on Morphizm and HuffPo.]