An Inflection point and the metamorphosis of thought

The latest update of the Quartermaster’s Report (QMR) will be published in the next few weeks.  It will be a more expansive document as the very nature of how global warming, climate, and biodiversity impacts people, the planet, and economics have hit a new inflection point. At least that is what the data says to me.

In the past there have been discussions of “tipping points,” those lines we do not want to cross.  What is the difference between a tipping point and an inflection point?

tipping point1: the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.

inflection point2a moment when significant change occurs or may occur: a turning point.

 More simply put, a tipping point is when you are standing at the precipice, and you need to seriously consider if you are taking the next step forward or seeking an alternative path.  An inflection point, in this case, is when the path forward suddenly becomes more precarious, but the reason for the change is not yet clear.

Historically we have thought of floods, wildfires, blizzards, hurricanes, droughts, and other extreme weather as separate, single, and isolated events.  Now we are seeing the resonance between them.

Similarly, our belief that a linear extractive economy could be infinite on a finite planet kept us from recognizing and comprehending the potential harm that could be generated by not confirming the rightfulness and righteousness of our assumptions.  We may talk about CO2  and Greenhouse Gas Emissions as being an externality of doing business.  But that does not alter the reality that those emissions are really pollutants and can cause extensive harm.

When we establish policies, practices, and procedures we do so because we recognize the potential benefits of the new way.  And much of the new way does seem to be more beneficial, at least for a while and in the short-term view of the activity.

How much do we care about the functioning of the ecosystem                   and the long-term health of the ecosystem,                                                           and how much do we care about industry?

Bryan Watts                                                                                                               Director of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology

The specific concern of that statement deals with menhaden in Chesapeake Bay and the two extractive economies that depend upon the fish.  The commercial fishery harvests menhaden directly for the production of fish meal and fish oil.  The recreational sport fishery is primarily focused on striped bass, red drum and rockfish who forage on menhaden (as do Osprey and Bald Eagles).  But with climate change, overfishing and habitat loss/degradation the population of menhaden in the Bay has gone down.  Both fishing industries want to continue, and each believes that the best way for their group to stay in business is for the other group to be out of business3.

That is the central issue with all extractive economies.  When your profits and continuance is based on removing a part of the environment, and there is no responsibility or incentive or profitable mechanism to restore the resource, coupled with no penalty for not restoring the resource, then your economy is destined to collapse.

Take industrial agriculture.  There was both a perceived and a real need to increase agricultural output after WWII. We also had new synthetic chemicals that killed pest species and other synthetic chemicals that prevented (human) non-food plants from competing with crops in the field. We could create synthetic fertilizers to help crops grow bigger/better/faster.

The downside we now have breakfast cereals that contain herbicides4 which we know have adverse impacts on human health.

Our willingness to see each of the components of our extractive economy as isolated and separate entities has led to other ‘unforeseen’ and ‘unintended’ consequences.  In some regions we have over pumped so much ground water that cities and communities are sinking/subsiding into the ground5,6.

The inflection point that we have reached is as much mental as it is physical.  It is the synergy that our thermal, chemical, and physical pollution combined with our direct and indirect extraction of biological resources, habitats, and physical assets has on the environment. . . which in turn impacts our health, our economy, and our longevity.

The major problems in the world                                                                                   are the result of the difference between                                                                  how nature works and the way people think

Gregory Bateson

We have always been in a continuous dialogue and interplay with the environment.  But most people neither saw that nor truly understood that reality.  The environment responds to what we do, we respond to it.  This is not about intent – it is simply a symphony of actions and reactions.

As the rising heat index becomes more problematic, as extreme weather makes agriculture more vulnerable, and storms intensify and cause more damage, as water availability becomes more variable and expensive, and as biodiversity and bio-abundance decline at an alarming rate, we seem increasing willing to acknowledge the need to rethink or relationship with nature and the life support system it provides us.

The wicked problems we currently face are no longer local or even regional.  They are transboundary. They are planetary.  Nor can they be solved separately or sequentially.  They need to be addressed simultaneously and synergistically so that the solutions inherent in the mix of issues become visible, viable, and actionable.  And that requires a new level of consciousness and collaboration to both understand and resolve them.

Complex systems grow to a certain scale at which time they need to restructure, redesign, and redevelop themselves to maintain and maximize their efficiency and effectiveness.

This is the inflection point upon which we stand.

Tim Rumage                                                                                                                           26 February 2024

The first Quartermaster’s Report, compiled by myself, was published in the book (This Spaceship Earth) that I co-authored with futurist David Houle. The second Quartermaster’s Report (QMR) was published in 2023 in the book (Now That You Know) researched and written by the team at This Spaceship Earth (the non-profit).

The purpose of the QMR is to put forth the data that describes the status of the ship, in this case “This Spaceship Earth.”  The reason for taking a planetary perspective is to realign our individual viewpoints and assumptions about resource quantity, quality, and demand with that of TSE’s current operational capability, capacity, and actual status.