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The Open Future: Ecopunkt
Jamais Cascio, 13 Mar 06

iceberg_melt.jpgThe Earth's environment, particularly its climate, is not a linear, obvious-cause and immediate-effect system. This has a number of implications, but the one that troubles many of us who pay close attention is the resulting potential for "phase change" shifts in the climate system, where seemingly-small perturbations lead to a major change in how the climate behaves (the classic example of this kind of change is a pile of sand with grains dropping down on the peak; some will slide down, some will stack up, but eventually the entire peak will collapse, radically changing the shape of the pile). As we develop the tools and techniques to better understand the overall global climate and ecological system, these "tipping points" should be at the top of our list of processes to identify and, if at all possible, defend.

This concept of particular points of environmental vulnerability bears a striking resemblance to a seemingly very different concern: the vulnerability of economies and societies to attack by those who would intentionally do harm. Analyst John Robb, in his Global Guerillas weblog (which should be required reading for all of us), calls these points of vulnerability systempunkt (we first mentioned this over a year ago); we could, in turn, think of these points of environmental vulnerability as ecopunkt. Robb defines "systempunkt" in this way:

In Blitzkrieg warfare, the point of greatest emphasis is called a schwerpunkt. It is the point, often identified by lower level commanders, where the enemy line may be pierced by an explosive combination of multiple weapon systems. [...] In global guerrilla warfare (a combination of open source innovation, bazaar transactions, and low tech weapons), the point of greatest emphasis is called a systempunkt. It is the point in a system (either an infrastructure or a market), always identified by autonomous groups within the bazaar, where a swarm of small insults will cause a cascade of collapse in the targeted system.[...] The ultimate objective of this activity, in aggregate, is the collapse of the target state and globalization.

Working with that description, we could define "ecopunkt" as: the point in an ecological system where a swarm of small insults will cause a cascade of collapse, leading to a chaotic destabilization of the environmental system.

Although we don't have dedicated groups of antagonists targeting environmental points of vulnerability in order to destabilize the climate (it just seems that way sometimes...), the risks arising from multiple ecopunkt are nonetheless profound. The "swarm of small insults" need not be intentional, or even obviously damaging; the cumulative effect of myriad seemingly-rational decisions can have be profoundly dangerous to the environment. Moreover, these ecopunkt could become intentional targets, if a political entity decides that the likely environmental disruptions would be less damaging to themselves than to their opponents.

But like the vulnerable points in markets and infrastructure described by John Robb, the ecopunkt could, in principle, be given preferential protection, so as to reduce the ease with which they are disrupted and the intensity of the result should they be damaged. While this would be most readily accomplished by slowing and stopping the damage already underway (by reducing global carbon emissions, for example), we might also be able to respond with mechanisms and technologies after the fact to shore up collapsing systems. This starts to sound like "Terraforming Earth" or "geoengineering," but with the advantage of focusing on a narrowly-defined system. It would still require a better understanding of geophysical and climatological processes than we now have, but that understanding is more likely to emerge if environmental scientists embraced the ecopunkt model.

(Here's an example of what this narrow geoengineering might look like: John Latham, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, suggested that seeding atmosphere above the oceans with salt water vapor, accelerating the formation of clouds, could reflect enough sunlight to slow the planet's warming, but would require many thousands upon thousands of ships operating across the global oceans to do so; an ecopunkt version of this idea, however, would note that the melting of the Arctic ice cap is a very significant warming accelerator, as it greatly increases the absorption of warmth; potentially, a far smaller fleet of ships adding water vapor only in the Arctic ocean could have a greater positive result with much less effort.)

It's tempting to think that the ecopunkt model also tells us that small, distributed groups could have a disproportionate ability to protect the planet's environment. This may be so, and ideas like the Earth Witness/EarthPhone proposal fits in this approach. Unless we can identity the vast majority of ecopunkt, and can be sure of our ability to deal with each effectively, we're better off combining the ecopunkt concept with the more traditional efforts to push global institutions -- governments, NGOs, corporations -- to reduce significantly their carbon and environmental footprints.

In the end, the ecopunkt model doesn't require us to change how we confront climate disaster in radical ways; it's more of an ordering principle, a way to think about how best to prevent the worst types of environmental damage. The volume and variety of changes that we need to make in order to stop climate disaster can be overwhelming, even for those of us who know that solutions are possible. The ecopunkt approach of seeking out and paying the greatest attention to those processes and local systems that face rapid, non-linear collapse from accumulated small insults forces us to pay attention to the complex nature of the planetary environment, but could offer us a real chance to head off global catastrophe.

As always, the Open Future essays are explorations of ideas-in-progress. We encourage readers to comment and discuss, helping us to evaluate and strengthen the concepts.

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Comments

If you are interested in the systempunkt and the thoughts of John Robb he will present Global Guerillas at the Future Salon on Friday 31st of March at SAP in Palo Alto: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bafuture/ More details soon on the Future Salon blog: http://futuresalon.org. The event will be webcasted and taped too. See you there, Mark.


Posted by: m on 13 Mar 06

I'm getting some trouble in understanding the language. Alfa scientists are using a vocabulary and metaphors from the bèta sciences (Deleuze's war machine), only to see bèta scientists take them over to re-translate them back into bèta lingo but in another sense! :-)

If I understand it correctly, the collapse of the thermohaline conveyor belt in the North Atlantic would be a prototypical example of an 'ecopunkt', would it not? Once this belt collapses, there's an unpredictable and uncontrollable effect on the global climate.

The problem with the metaphor is that in the 'Schwerpunkt'/'Systempunkt' analogy, the actors themselves create the 'punkt' within a structure or network, while with the 'ecopunkt', the actors (we) are passive and the ecosystem creates the punkt. [the point in an ecological system where a swarm of small insults will cause a cascade of collapse, leading to a chaotic destabilization of the environmental system.] So the roles are reversed.

It's confusing.

Why don't we simply keep the idea of actors creating Schwer/Systempunkts to fight structural oppositions and resisting knots in an ecosystem (where the thermohaline conveyor belt would be the point of resistance, at which whe throw our accumulated weight). That way you can fight eco-disasters in a Blitzkrieg mode.

On the other hand, what Global Guerillas often refers to is Deleuze's notion of the "War Machine" (i.e. 'guerillas', distributed network of independently acting agents). But the War Machine is explicitely set in contrast to the State's modus operandi. So I don't see how the analogy would work here: to fight global environmental problems (like the collapse of the belt), the State's war strategies are probably much more effective than the War Machines' tactics (difference between tactics and strategy).
A War Machine is great at destroying massive structures (like the State), piercing points through it, swiftly, and escacping. But it is very weak at erecting ordered structures again (that's not the War Machine's objective, on the contrary, if it would do this, it would end being a war machine - the War Machine's only finality is to break through structures and flee). On the other hand the State is great at erecting Massive Defenses, which is exactly what we need when we're dealing with the Global Ecosystem.

So I would stress the fact that the War Machine has destructive, tactive capacities only, never defensive, strategic and constructive ones. And the latter are what we need.

Mm, I don't know, the metaphors are sliding over each other.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 14 Mar 06

I wanted to add that consumers and polluters behave a bit along the lines of the 'War Machine', where the Ecosystem would be the 'State' - a massive structure in balance and that englobes all other actors (obviously we're getting antropomorphic here - but just for purposes of clarity.
Now the countless unconnnected actions of countless consumers create points that pierce through Ecosystem and destroy some of it's structures (e.g. it literally pierces a hole through the Ozone layer). Consumers never act strategically and in an organised manner. It's the accumulated effect of their actions that result in the destruction of ecostructures.

So now what do we do? I don't see how those who try to act against the damages done to the eco-system (a massive and integral structure), can ever work tactically or like a War Machine. On the contrary, they should operate like the State.

Maybe the time for NGO's, ecologists and small organisations has come to converge, unite their forces and try to apply some State strategies. I think their chances at effectively closing the holes caused by the War Machine might be more successful.

(Plz don't call me a reactionary because I advocate the State, I'm just trying to understand the concepts and the images that are being used here.)


Posted by: Lorenzo on 14 Mar 06

There is a determinism in the materials presented on this site and many like it that limit the discussion to prescriptive solutions when “solutions” is inherently wrong headed thinking. I don’t mean to be critical because there are many useful ideas, some even highly creative, presented herein, but paradoxically those clever solutions merely perpetuate and undergird a system that is fundamentally flawed. Education is based on a stovepipe model that is very strong at building on the sequential accomplishments of the past. However it is weak on cross-pollination of ideas. The scientific network compensates for the lack of a systemic provision by webbing for this most essential aspect of a progressive and flexible system. "It does not get it done." Not surprising, as it is based on the well known and observable evolutionary model used by the biota of the planet. It is, however, inadequate for the situation that we find ourselves, i.e. humans facing probable step environmental change.

There are models in the universe that can be observed by humans and resolved by the manipulation of the rate of change. Most environmentalists have managed to assimilate the first small step of exponential rates and a few are conversant with the fundaments of chaos theory which is likely to be a useful tool for “analysis” of what has not even been named adequately, some call it “surprise” which at least hints at the unexpected as a common characteristic of some possible future.

In my opinion, one of the first things that needs to be done is to promote a change in the modalities that lead to inspiration, a revolutionary juxtaposition of human capabilities that exposes the full creative potential of the human consciousness. Martin E.P. Seligman promotes happiness and positive thinking which are necessary but not sufficient, although the concept of creating an openness to new modes of thinking is likely pointing in the correct direction. On the other hand, direction is a major problem as it easily becomes confounded with progress as a moving-forward concept. I am not talking about change, rather it is more closely described by the word "transformation." Daniel Pink fumbles with right-brain, left-brain conceptual distributions. Beginnings, but basically object oriented as are the Western Languages such as English, thus it will be necessary to confound the confounding the cultural tools we so unconsciously adopt before we can begin to “problem solve” thence find “solutions.” As a very basic example of what I am getting at I offer this poem about a well recognized poet that I know. Poetry in this poem is the metaphor for our accepted ways of thinking:

On hearing Kloefkorn
Former Nebraska Hog Calling Champ

Judging by the last part
of the last part
of his next to last live interview
I heard an old man talking
Boasting how strong and virile
he is
Talking about the good times
his memoir records

how poetry just isn’t sufficient
anymore, necessary but
not sufficient
Now that I am senile
I understand
how to misspell his name


Posted by: AB Ender on 14 Mar 06

> It would still require a better understanding of
> geophysical and climatological processes than we
> now have, but that understanding is more likely
> to emerge if environmental scientists embraced
> the ecopunkt model.

As far as I know, they do, except they do this by referring to the climate as a 'nonlinear system,' and by modeling it as such. The nonlinearity of a term implies consequences that may not be immediately obvious in the event of even a small shift in the value of that term.


Posted by: Six Silberman on 14 Mar 06

Answer: Plankton


Posted by: peakguy on 14 Mar 06

There are several ecopunkts which could be used to offset the influence of e.g. GHG's with relative ease and low expense.  One of these is sulfate aerosols.  The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo briefly reversed the last several decades of warming and dropped sea levels half a centimeter by pumping a load of aerosols into the stratosphere.  If we did this deliberately, we could probably stabilize the climate with a few million tons of sulfur per year (a fraction of what goes into the atmosphere from US powerplants alone).


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 14 Mar 06

Oh now I understand 'ecopunkt'. It's a synonym for 'geo-engineering', but with the difference that it is less drastic and more targetted (?)
I'm confusing the mere idea of actions that lead to a critical mass causing a certain tipping point which helps mitigate an environmental problem (the ecopunkt) and who should be implementing this (the war machine or the state).

But didn't Jamais fuse these two questions? How to create and ecopunkt, and which actors could create it?

The ecopunkt itself is a logic of the War Machine (it's a 'tactic'), while the actors who could create it should behave like the State ('strategically'). The problem is that the State can never implement tactics and that War Machines can never implement strategies.

So which agency is going to create an ecopunkt and how is it going to do this?


Posted by: Lorenzo on 14 Mar 06

Thanks for these comments; it's clear that, on balance, I *wasn't* clear in this post.

An ecopunkt is a point in the overall ecological system in which small-scale changes can have large-scale, system-disturbing effects. Ecopunkts are not created by agencies or individuals, at least not directly; rather, they are features of the ecological system itself. Human actions may make these ecopunkts more fragile, but they are more a result of the interaction between elements of a system.

The "punkt" phrasing and the Global Guerillas analogy was meant to suggest that these points of system vulnerability could potentially be manipulated, for better (hopefully) or for worse (worryingly) by concerted action of small groups.

Does that make better sense?


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 14 Mar 06

Thanks for the clarification Jamais, but the punktLogic still doesn't help me see solutions. Taking the environment as a large complex non-linear system is great...but that's an assertion that must be taken seriously and we must admit that the thermohaline conveyor *may* be a point of weakness, or it may be the last great structural point of strength.

In the schwerpunkt example, it is the lower-level field officers who report an observed weakness in the enemy's lines (or the State's Structure). This makes it tempting to credit any of a myriad researchers and observers who agree on a point of vulnerability in the ecosystem.

However, it must be admitted that in fact we have very little proven modeling or global-scale systems uinderstanding that could reliably demonstrate a deterministic connection such as: "reduce GHG here...get moderated climate behaviour there". We are very far from that point.

I think the ecopunkt concept requires us to understand ecological nonlinearities to a far greater degree than we actually do.

On the other hand, if we (the ngo/alternative/world changers) were to behave more like Lorenzo says and become a State, with strategy, convergence, and all the other trappings of positivism and structure, we could at least implement a more sane cumulative interface with the environment.


Posted by: John Brisbin on 14 Mar 06

To convey the ideas of feedback-coupled systems, nonlinearities, and leverage points, and to make those ideas widespread and understood - that by itself is world-changing. We can't think differently without new vocabulary.


Posted by: David Foley on 15 Mar 06

David, you're absolutely right. At the start, an idiosyncratic lingo might be good to attract an avant-garde of actors, which uses the metaphors and images to twist them around and open our minds. But the language must have the potential to become mainstream, or it must be (re-)translated for other and larger audiences later on.
Neologisms are absolutely an interesting part of creative thinking, though.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 15 Mar 06



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