The Heat Trap

At the ultimate level of abstraction, there are only two things that cybernetics ever talks about: explosions and traps. Feedback dynamics either runaway from equilibrium, or fetch strays back into it. Anything else is a complexion of both.

The simmering furor around Anthropogenetic Global Warming assumes a seething mass of technical and speculative cybernetics, with postulated feedback mechanisms fueling innumerable controversies, but the large-scale terrestrial heat trap that envelops it is rarely noted explicitly. Whatever humans have yet managed to do to the climate is of vanishing insignificance when compared to what the bio-climatic megamechanism is doing to life on earth.

Drawing on this presentation of the earth’s steadily contracting biogeological cage, Ugo Bardi zooms out to the shadowy apparatus of confinement:

… the Earth’s biosphere, Gaia, peaked with the start of the Phanerozoic age, about 500 million years ago. Afterwards, it declined. Of course, there is plenty of uncertainty in this kind of studies, but they are based on known facts about planetary homeostasis. We know that the sun’s irradiation keeps increasing with time at a rate of around 1% every 100 million years. That should have resulted in the planet warming up, gradually, but the homeostatic mechanisms of the ecosphere have maintained approximately constant temperatures by gradually lowering the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. However, there is a limit: the CO2 concentration cannot go below the minimum level that makes photosynthesis possible; otherwise Gaia “dies”.

So, at some moment in the future, planetary homeostasis will cease to be able to stabilize temperatures. When we reach that point, temperatures will start rising and, eventually, the earth will be sterilized. According to Franck et al., in about 600 million years from now the earth will have become too hot for multicellular creatures to exist.

Even those ecologically-minded commentators who are attracted to the idea of stability might find themselves troubled by the insidious realization that ‘Gaian’ biogeological equilibrium is only achieved through thermo-atmospheric strangulation. Across deep time, the walls are closing in. The biosphere is slowly asphyxiating itself — in accordance with an exquisite self-regulatory mechanism — in order not to bake.

Cybernetic traps produce an objectively schizoid condition, because what they capture is held in a double-bind. The ‘Gaian’ alternative to incineration is phyto-suffocation, so that the biosphere only survives by killing itself. If the human species were entirely extinguished tomorrow, the harshness of this double-bind would not be relieved by an iota. There are no realistic eco-salvation narratives in play.

We can be quite confident that the mega-mechanism works in the way outlined. The long-range reduction of atmospheric CO2 to a trace gas strongly suggests that no alternative thermo-regulation ‘dial’ has been available to the biosphere over the last half-billion years. This same phenomenon indubitably supports the principal AGW contention that CO2 is a significant ‘green-house’ gas, at least over long time scales, since it clearly has been identified as a thermo-regulator molecule by the biogeological machine. A demonstrated option for suffocation indicates a highly constrained adaptation landscape.

These concessions to the climate ‘consensus’ do not dismiss its basic error, or failure of vision. The devotees of Gaia — however calm their scientific their analysis — are aligning themselves with a death trap. Reversing the long-range reduction of atmospheric CO2 is the overwhelming priority of terrestrial life, and any solution that does not recognize this is merely repairing a slow-suicide machine. (This type of understanding is sheer blindness.)

Escaping the Gaian death-grip will require planetary re-engineering on a colossal scale, inevitably involving some combination of:
(a) Raising the earth’s albedo
(b) Constructing orbital IR filters
(c) Dual-purposing of space elevators as planetary heat drains (?)
(d) Changing the earth’s orbit (admittedly, a serious challenge)
(e) Other stuff (suggestions please).
The essential understanding is that these things are to be done not only to cool the earth, but in order to be able to massively raise the level of atmospheric CO2. The reduction of CO2 to a trace gas is already a disaster, which anthropomorphic influence affects in an essentially trivial way. Humanity, at worst, is messing with the mechanics of the death machine.

October 29, 2013admin 18 Comments »


18 Responses to this entry

  • pseudo-chrysostom Says:

    a simpler solution might be designer gasses or particles released into the atmosphere to diffuse light, i recall a plan to use titanium dioxide for such a purpose has been spitballed before.


    Posted on October 29th, 2013 at 3:51 pm Reply | Quote
  • georgesdelatour Says:

    Excellent post.

    Have you read “The Life And Death Of Planet Earth”, by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee?

    I think you might “warm” to Ward’s Medea Hypothesis:


    admin Reply:

    Thanks — supremely fascinating references.


    Posted on October 29th, 2013 at 3:58 pm Reply | Quote
  • pseudo-chrysostom Says:

    alternately, instead of adapting the planet, we can adapt ourselves, perhaps trading our carbonate nanomachines for silicate ones (more heat means more energy, after all).


    admin Reply:

    That’s an impressively ambitious solution.


    pseudo-chrysostom Reply:

    if keeping the ecosystem as such isint the goal, then there are plenty of potential options for adaptation, even more if simply hosting consciousnesses is the goal. not like we wont want to be adapting things in the future anyways.


    admin Reply:

    Yes, speculation can quickly become entirely undisciplined. Best, at least initially, to assume some kind of recognizable eco-preservation is under discussion, in order to connect to the conversations that are already taking place.

    Posted on October 29th, 2013 at 4:15 pm Reply | Quote
  • Grotto Says:

    I don’t see any great problem here.

    As a practical matter, if human civilization still exists in one hundred million years, will we certainly have attained the technical mastery to solve such a problem. Interstellar colonization, using multi-generational colony ships the size of Manhattan, should be well-within reach within a few hundred years. We could build vast solar arrays at the L1 Lagrangian point to appriopriately shield the Earth from solar radiation. There are much nearer-term problems to worry about. The next ice age, for example, which we are already overdue-for and should be occuring sometime in the next 20000 years. Or the emergence of some strong AI.

    As a philosophical matter, I could see how this slow Gaia suicide-clock for the entire Earth could pose a problem for any religious system based on the innate goodness of nature, but nature is so replete with casual cruelty already that I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to invent some rationalization that would keep their core beliefs intact.


    admin Reply:

    The big short term problem is an atmosphere so deficient in CO2 that the biosphere is partially strangled.


    Handle Reply:

    It’s easy to put more CO2 in the atmosphere, isn’t it?


    admin Reply:

    It’s the cooling part that is difficult. The biosphere killer is long-term heating (which almost any kind of ‘anthropocene’ development will exacerbate — activity heats things up). The point of this post, is that cooling through CO2 reduction is a truly horrible solution, but apparently the only one ‘Gaia’ had available. Escaping the terrestrial thermic death-trap requires an alternative cooling solution, such that atmospheric CO2 could be restored to healthy levels (at least two orders of magnitude above the present level), Bioproductivity would then be vastly improved — reversing half a billion years of decline.

    Handle Reply:

    ‘…(at least two orders of magnitude above the present level) …’

    I used to grow tomatoes and occasionally some other plants (legal ones) in a small, enclosed greenhouse with a small gas-burning unit that produced heat, moisture, and CO2. Ideal CO2 levels for most plants was between double and quadruple ambient levels (now about 400ppm, so ideal between 800-1600ppm). After that, and even with ideal lighting and nutrients, you simply reach the biochemical limits of photosynthesis rates.

    On the other hand, most animals including humans can go up to 10,000 ppm with no apparent effect.

    admin Reply:

    @ Handle — thanks for the data. I’m not sufficiently competent at biochemistry to guess, but is it possible that the relatively low level of CO2 absorption you’ve noticed is due to plant adaptation to a low CO2 atmosphere? That’s to say, is this maximum biochemical-physiological in a strong sense, or is it a contingent evolutionary fact? (The reason for asking, of course, is to get a sense of the probability that bio-engineered crops could exploit a ‘richer’ atmosphere, or whether bio-productivity climaxes around the limit you suggest.)

    It seems strange that bio-productivity has fallen so drastically since the Cambrian if CO2 levels are only 75% below an optimum level.

    Handle Reply:


    1. That might be some reason to doubt Cambrian bioproductivity estimates

    2. In the alternative, a huge part of the Northern hemisphere is unproductive most of the year, either Arctic or Desert. A warmer Arctic and a wetter desert (without equal trade-offs elsewhere) would give a giant boost to net bioproductivity.

    3. The main protein involved in carbon capture is RuBisCO (‘The most abundant protein on earth’ – much of the whole biosphere is made of RuBisCO and Cellulose). The genetics of RuBisCO haven’t changed much in many millions of years, but it is indeed the subject of current investigations in genetic engineering. But if there were easy win modifications, you’d think nature would have found them. La Wik, “Some enzymes can carry out thousands of chemical reactions each second. However, RuBisCO is slow, being able to fix only 3-10 carbon dioxide molecules each second per molecule of enzyme.”

    Also, CO2 enrichment has been used as a technique for a century, and, unlike with synthetic fixed-nitrogen, ‘green-revolution’-style horticultural efforts to create hybrids and new breeds that can make use of much higher levels of CO2 have not been … ahem … borne much fruit.

    Like all catalytic enzymes, it has a certain reaction rate of chemical process, and a range of ideal concentration in chloroplasts. At optimal concentration, and given exogenous atmospheric temperature and pressure, the overall rate of photosynthesis is dependent on the concentration of the precursors. But plants will occasionally close their stomas to slow down photosynthesis even below this point because, by letting more CO2 in, they are letting too much moisture out. In a greenhouse you can keep them at maximum healthy hydration so they keep their stomas fully open all the time.

    4. The other issue with RuBisCO is that its process reacts with ambient oxygen levels that are much, much higher than when photosynthesis evolved (indeed, are much higher because of a billion years of photosynthesis.) La Wik, “Thus, the inability of the enzyme to prevent the reaction with oxygen greatly reduces the photosynthetic capacity of many plants.” Some call this ‘oxygen poisoning’ or ‘oxygen toxicity’.

    So you can squeeze some additional productivity of (a few) plants and other photosynthesizing critters like algae if you reduce the oxygen levels a bit and keep them low (but not too low). Obviously this this is much more capital intensive than merely raising CO2 levels. Even if you close off the outside air, raising CO2 levels by 300% only reduces O2 levels by 0.5% – which is negligible. You need electricity-hog membrane filters, and now you’ve created an environment unsafe for humans or, more importantly, pollinating insects.

    The only people who do anything like that now (and on the smallest scales) are pharmaceutical companies and, of course, the highest ends of the Japanese ultra-premium fruit market.

    Though, for people who grow in their basements without bees, you can pollinate on your own with a q-tip attached to an electric toothbrush or flosser, which is very boring, time-consuming, and labor-intensive. (One of the major problems with trying to grow food in space if you don’t bring bugs (and everything else they need) with you). But, in the near future, I can easily envision this monotonous task being automated and conducted by robots who don’t need oxygen.

    Posted on October 29th, 2013 at 6:52 pm Reply | Quote
  • Jozsef Says:

    Xeno Systems, this is very interesting. You are right about the raw severity of the dilation of the conditions of life themselves with human perturbation of those conditions, but raw or absolute severity isn’t the point. What you potentially underestimate is the capacity of even short term perturbation to have cascading impacts on the possibility space of the potential of reason with respect to mapping escape vectors in the longer term. In other words, yes in representational physical-cosmological time the period of AGW dwarfs the time until biosphere extinction due to this compensatory mechanism, but this ratio of two bare physical time durations in itself tells us nothing. Given, as you talk about elsewhere, the telescoping intensification of cybenetic processes, we are in an area of unprecedented stochasticity– we can’t rule out that this short period of time might have large consequences with regards to escape. What happens to humans in the short term can affect what happens to the trajectories of intelligence and it’s possibility for mapping escape in the longer term, considering that human driven assemblages are the currently only bearers of reason in town (and yes, it’s human driven, and no this is not anthropocentric, just a counterfactual realization — delete humans, then what happens to the technosystems?: they stop doing anything except for falling apart). We can’t attach probabilities to things like this, and thus can’t write off the importance of or effects of AGW with regards to longer term events.


    Posted on November 8th, 2013 at 5:50 am Reply | Quote
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  • KZL Says:

    The Deccan Traps are a Verneshot engine; they will do their job. Anything less tough than lithospermia is irrelevant to the galactic ecosystem.


    Posted on January 10th, 2018 at 6:05 am Reply | Quote
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