On Thin (Sea) Ice: Some Thoughts on Ecological Economics, the Earth-System, and Storytelling (by Martin Sers)

arctic_sea_ice_minimum_comparisonAnyone paying attention to the news over the last month may have heard of unusual things happening in the arctic. Even as the polar night was falling, temperatures were recorded at times as being 20 degrees Celsius above historical averages. These ”anomalous” temperatures naturally coincided with record low sea ice formation and indeed very brief spells of sea ice decline during the very period when sea ice growth is expected. While sea ice decline and the general malaise of the arctic has been ongoing for some time it is numbers like 20 degrees that really hammer home the fact that change is happening and rapidly.


The Arctic and Antarctic can in some sense be considered the climate canaries in the coal mine. The poles, for a variety of reasons, are expected to warm more rapidly than the planet as a whole in a manner that is largely unstoppable due in part to the presence of a simple feedback process. As ice cover decreases there is a corresponding decrease in surface albedo (reflectivity) and more solar energy is therefore absorbed. This additional absorption leads to more warming and hence additional ice cover loss. It is an elegant and frightening process that we are privileged enough to watch as the years go by. Unfortunately, there is potentially a hidden monster in the system in the form of methane and carbon held in arctic permafrost, which due to melting, has the possibility of being released in large quantities with rather dire implications. That we are on thin ice with certain components of the earth system, both in reality and in the metaphoric sense, is not a pleasant realization.


I have for some time now been fascinated with the functionings of the earth system. It is a wonderfully complex object of study, with numerous interlocked cycles, feedbacks, and fantastically complicated dynamics. The story of the earth-system is a deeply fascinating adventure through deep time starting with the Hadean eon 4.6 billion years ago. From this turbulent and violent beginning, one can move forward in time tracing the passage of eons and witness the incredible evolution and behaviors of the earth system. At times it has been far warmer than current, and at times it has been nearly entombed in ice and snow (snowball earth hypothesis); over time it has developed the oxygen-rich atmosphere we have today. Throughout this grand narrative life has emerged, has been repeatedly challenged by mass-extinction events, and has returned to flourish anew each time. The earth system is unreservedly the most interesting thing I have ever studied.


However, interest eventually begins to give way to feelings of existential dread as one understands that the earth-system can be vengeful when perturbed too quickly. The problems in the arctic mentioned in this post are simply a subset of a much larger list of issues affecting the earth-system; however, the news covering the spectacular and abnormal temperatures recorded there this past November brought home the reality of climate to me in a way that few other news stories have. It struck home that time is perhaps not on our side. Rapid changes, in the geological sense, of the earth-system, have gone hand in hand with mass-extinction events. Today we live in a world undergoing profound environmental changes and unsurprisingly we are living through the sixth mass extinction event.


My main preoccupation as an ecological economist and indeed as a human living on the earth is the notion of the “closing window”, by which I mean simply the increasingly small time frame to affect meaningful change in order to ameliorate the worst aspects of climate change. The image of the “closing window” is a powerfully evocative metaphor for earth-system processes that, once pushed past tipping points, become self-reinforcing and carry on regardless of whether we change our behavior. It provides a much-needed sense of urgency to processes that may at times seem abstract from our everyday lives. It was, as a matter of fact, this inescapable notion of a time limit that brought me to ecological economics in the first place.


In learning ecological economics we come to appreciate the simultaneously profound and obvious realization that the economy is a subsystem of the earth-system. In turn, it becomes starkly obvious that the exponential growth of our activities in this finite system must necessarily have deleterious impacts and that there are hard limits to growth as usually pursued. The problems of the earth-system today are in large part brought about by humanity’s desire to harness ever greater flows of materials and energy while simultaneously ignoring the problem wastes. Eventually, something has to give, and that is precisely what we are beginning to see. From anomalous sea ice behavior to the increasingly apparent signs that the sixth mass extinction is well underway, we are not lacking in signals and warning signs.


Yet, despite the growing list of ominous warning signs, economic growth still largely inhabits the privileged position of goal above all others. Economic growth has become, in some sense, our societal religion with economists and politicians its clergy; it is almost universally beyond question (secular stagnation attains a darkly humorous interpretation when growth is understood in these terms). When the famous Limits to Growth was released in 1972 it was met with indifference and scorn from the established field of neoclassical economics. All these years later the idea of limitations to growth is essentially still a fringe proposition. At no time in my economics education did I encounter the concept and I cannot presume that modern economics education has changed drastically in the two years since I last studied the subject. Growth has become such a critical and unquestioned aspect of our society that it should not be surprising that many are incredulous of its limitations.


Ecological economics, now more than ever, has the unenviable and vast task of championing a position that is antithetical to the common narrative. That this task must now be taken in an age increasingly dominated by the metaphorical closing window is daunting, to say the least. The earth-system does not have any obligation to wait for us to get our act together and change our societal narrative.


I feel quite lucky to be a student in the E4A program; to be able to work with a diverse and inspiring group of graduate students on a substantial problem is not an opportunity many people get to have. I am also aware that the views of our group are not perhaps representative of the much vaster majority. Challenging the narrative of perpetual growth will take many voices, and hopefully, from this chorus will emerge a different story about the future. This story, I would contend, must make the earth-system and all its complexities a central character. The human-Earth relationship is highly complex and it is essential that we get it right; after all, the earth system at the end of the day is home. This is a fact that is too often forgotten and something that we must all work to bring to light, and in a timely manner, I might add.


Martin Sers is an E4A PhD student at York University. He is motivated by the challenge of applying macroeconomics to a world defined by planetary boundaries.

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