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Ecopunkt: Points of Environmental Vulnerability

This article was was written by Jamais Cascio in March 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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.

The Open Future: Ecopunkt is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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