Friday, July 10, 2020

The Holobiont as a New Vision of the World

Long-term predictive models don't have a very good record, but some turned out to be prophetic. One case is that of Hubbert's 1956 prediction of a peak in the production of fossil energy shortly after the start of the 21st century. He was optimistic about the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy, but, apart from that, he was right on target. Now we are on the edge of the cliff and we have to take a different attitude toward the ecosystem that supports our existence. The concept of "Holobiont" may help us a lot in this task. We are holobionts, the ecosystem is a larger holobiont, we must find a way to live together. 


The American geologist Marion King Hubbert deserves the credit of having been the first to see the main trends of the 21st century, nearly 50 years before it were to start. In his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, Hubbert presented the figure above: a bold attempt to place the human experience with energy on a 10,000 years scale.

Of course, Hubbert was overly optimistic about nuclear energy which, in reality, started declining before fossil fuels did. But, with this graphic, Hubbert had laid down the human predicament several years in advance with respect to "The Limits to Growth" (1972). Catton's "overshoot" (1980), and many others. Without a miracle that could replace fossils well before they would start declining, the human world as it was in the 20th center was doomed. Nuclear energy was not, and could not have been, that miracle.

Hubbert's may not have been always cited, but the debate on the decline of the natural resources raged for decades -- with most of it based on various interpretation of the concept of technological progress. In the most optimistic views, depletion was not considered a pressing problem but, in any case, it was believed that technology would chase the problem away, automatically, and without pain for anyone, purely on the basis of market forces. In this view, it made no sense to slow down in order to save resources: on the contrary, accelerating the exploitation would lead to economic growth and to the consequent availability of more and more advanced technologies. The opposite attitude was that the problem was important and imminent, but that predictive models could lead to planning efforts based on slowing down the exploitation of the remaining resources and a technology switch toward higher efficiency/new sources.  Over time, the debate veered more and more toward the concept that climate change was a much more important problem than resource depletion. But the attitudes didn't change.

All the debate led to nothing. Nothing was decided, nothing was done. Society turned out to be impervious to early alerts and technology unable to be the miracle that was touted to be. In 2020, we have arrived to a critical point: the start of the irreversible decline of the technological society that had been developed over about two centuries of use of fossil fuels as energy source. We are seeing the "Seneca Cliff," the unavoidable destiny of a system that has expanded beyond its limits, that has gone in heavy "overshoot" to use Catton's definition?

And now? Clearly, it is too late to deploy miracle technologies: we are starting to go down and the question how to face the decline: can we still avoid to turn it into a crash? The data show that it would still be possible to soften the decline and to go down on a relatively smooth slope. But the resistance to the unavoidable is actually worsening the situation. Politicians and most of the public are still convinced that the way to go is to "restart growth" without realizing that they are hastening collapse and making it faster and harsher.

How did we arrive here? It was not a failure of science and technology. It was a cultural failure. We tried to manage the future without the right tools. In retrospect, it was obvious that tools developed in an age of abundance wouldn't be useful, actually counterproductive, in an age of scarcity. Imagine a banker stranded on a remote island trying to get food by building a automated cash teller. You get the point.

At this point, we could say that we need a new vision of the ecosystem. That's correct, although reductive. It is not a question of what we "need." It is a question of an unavoidable cultural transformation that's going to come, whether we like it or not. We have to come to terms with the ecosystem. In different terms, we could say that the ecosystem is going to decide what it is going to do with us -- not consciously (probably) but just practically. Either it is going to get rid of an obnoxious species -- the humans  -- that has done only damage to everything, or that species is going to take a different attitude that will make it less obnoxious.

That's the challenge we face, not an easy one, but not impossible either. The cultural tools we need have been partly developed and are being developed. A basic one is the concept of "Holobiont" the idea that the fundamental components of the ecosystem are not organisms, but holobionts intended as colonies of creatures that hang together for mutual benefit. Human beings are holobionts, trees, forests, steppes, and tundras are holobionts. The whole ecosystem is a holobionts. And we can be proud of being good holobionts and learn to live together with the greater holobiont we call "Gaia." Will we be able to do that?

We can discuss these matters on the new blog "The Proud Holobionts" and in the Facebook group with the same name. Onward, fellow holobionts!


9 comments:

  1. I wish more people were familiar with Catton's book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for this post; I have just started learning about the Gaia Hypothesis/Theory. Here are few first impressions.

    When I was a student, more than a few years ago, we learned about Le Chatelier’s Principle. The simple example was that we add two chemicals, A and B, to a beaker of water. They dissolve and react to create C and D. This reaction is reversible, so all four chemicals are present at any one time, and are in equilibrium. If we add more of chemical A to the system, then some B will be consumed, and the concentrations of C and D will go up. Eventually a new, but different equilibrium is established.

    I read your very informative post ‘The great chemical reaction: life and death of Gaia’ to do with silicate weathering. It seems to me that the calcium silicate, carbon dioxide balance that you describe is also an example of Le Chatelier’s Principle (although much more complex). But I don’t see a need to explain this balance teleologically. Given the laws of physics, chemistry and thermodynamics, a deterministic approach works just as well. (Maybe some person or entity created those laws, but that takes the discussion into a very different place.) I see no need to use a mythical Greek goddess to explain what is going on, or to assume that the Earth is an entity that has a purpose or teleological goal.

    A further complication is that the Gaia concept often takes us out of the realms of science. It is associated with many pictures of attractive young ladies surrounded by fluttering butterflies. These pictures are distraction — admittedly an attractive distraction — but still a distraction.

    I liked the comment about ‘It is not a question of what we “need”’. The Gaia/systems approach could be useful in figuring out how to respond to the crises that we face. We need to learn to live within the biosphere, to be part of ‘nature’. So many of our discussions/arguments are binary. Either we are for globalization or we are for national and individual rights. Neither seems to be working. Maye Gaia offers a third way.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for this post; I have started learning about the Gaia Hypothesis/Theory. Here are few first impressions.

    When I was a student, more than a few years ago, we learned about Le Chatelier’s Principle. The simple example was that we add two chemicals, A and B, to a beaker of water. They dissolve and react to create C and D. This reaction is reversible, so all four chemicals are present at any one time, and are in equilibrium. If we add more of chemical A to the system, then some B will be consumed, and the concentrations of C and D will go up. Eventually a new, but different equilibrium is established.

    I read your very informative post ‘The great chemical reaction: life and death of Gaia’ to do with silicate weathering. It seems to me that the calcium silicate, carbon dioxide balance that you describe is also an example of Le Chatelier’s Principle. But I don’t see a need to explain this balance teleologically. Given the laws of physics, chemistry and thermodynamics, a deterministic approach works just as well. (Maybe some person or entity created those laws, but that takes the discussion into a very different place.) I see no need to use a mythical Greek goddess to explain what is going on. Moreover, I see no need to assume that the Earth is an entity that has a purpose or teleological goal.

    A further complication is that the Gaia concept often takes us out of the realms of science. It is associated with many pictures of attractive young ladies surrounded by fluttering butterflies. These pictures are distraction — admittedly an attractive distraction — but still a distraction.

    I liked the comment about ‘It is not a question of what we “need”’. The Gaia/systems approach could be useful is in figuring out how to respond to the crises that we face. We need to learn to live within the biosphere, to be part of ‘nature’. So many of our discussions/arguments are binary. Either we are for globalization or we are for national and individual rights. Neither seems to be working. Maye Gaia offers a third way.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hello Ugo Bardi
    I came here from cassandras legacy, where I am still unable to see or post comments. I left you a comment, but can not tell if Blogger ate it. Anyway, and partially on topic to above comment, the Gaia theory (to reach more than a tiny group) must "take us out of the realms of science"... into the realms of fiction and even fantasy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This one seems to have worked. Strange that your posts disappear on "Cassandra's legacy"

      About fantasy, you won't believe that, but I am working at a gaian script to be submitted to Netflix. Who knows? They might like it!

      Delete
  5. There should be more Gaian style fantasy fiction .. perhaps you remember the impact of the "Mists of Avalon" a few decades ago ... a bit of feminism and a bit of Wicca seemed to show people something new and different. Something based on a concept as big as the planet is worth doing. GLWTS Good luck with the sale.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, a bit of feminism, a bit of Wicca, a city of women warrioresses and mysterious dark witches....

      Delete
  6. Here is a potential contribution to your holobiont vision of the world:
    Ecological theory of mutualism: Models generalizing across different mechanisms
    https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.10.25.343087v1.full.pdf

    ReplyDelete

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)