THE BLOG
02/21/2007 03:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Exponology: Shit Happens. Real Fast.

We've all seen the shirt and the bumper sticker. Shit
happens
. Exponology is here to extend that reality. Shit
happens fast
. Real fast.

In the
first piece on my formative science called exponology
, I laid out
the basic tenets, which were probably too simple for the PhDs and too
complex for the new adopters. But again I would like to emphasize that
this is not on purpose, as I am putting all the pieces of the puzzle
together as I find them. In a way, this is an opensourced project,
although it would never have been called that in the past. Back then,
I would have just taken the advice and suggestions given to me by
others and claimed them as my own.

But knowledge is a social animal, and nothing is ever gained without
its collective contract. As such, I've since heard and sifted through
some quality feedback after posting that initial blast, and all of it
makes me feel like I'm on the right track. And the mounting stack of
news on global warming, oil consumption, viral media and social
upheaval is doing the same job of convincing me that exponents -- of
the numerical and behavioral variety -- are vastly underestimated and
poorly understood. In fact, the only certainty I have unearthed in my
research into what was once a very weird dream is that the only thing
everyone knows about them for sure is not too much at all.

Take this target="blank">eye-opening talk given by Susan Solomon, senior
scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and
the co-chair of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, for example. While the damning yet conservative IPCC
report laid bare the role of humanity in both the rise of the
atmosphere's carbon dioxide levels and the fall of Earth's snowpack,
Solomon nevertheless gave global warming doubters a pillow-soft
comedown, noting that "It would take centuries, if not millennia, to
get a four to six meter rise" in sea levels once the ice shelfs and
glaciers of the world gently retired into the good night. But when
pressed on the fact that several indicators of global warming over the
last few years have accelerated at an alarming rate, and whether or
not she foresaw the same mechanism in place for the inevitable melt,
Solomon had no love for exponents. In fact, she flat out claimed
ignorance. "We just don't know," she said.

Let's remember that this is a co-chair of the IPCC talking, not some
boneheaded Bush administration appointee. href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Solomon" target="blank">A
scientist who once targeted chlorofluorocarbons as the prime
suspect in the depletion of the ozone layer, long before the public
knew or cared what the ozone layer was. A fellow UC Berkeley grad,
the head of the atmospheric chemistry division at the National Center
for Atmospheric Research, confiding to all that, in the end, she has
no idea whether or not we can expect exponential increases in sea
levels.

And here is where the other shoe of exponology drops: Is she lying? Is
she an exponent of another type, one who champions a dominant
ideology? One that believes, as does the Bush administration, that the
public's best interest is served by a continuing ignorance to the
changes going on around them? Let us remember that the Bush
administration was recently accused by the The Union of Concerned
Scientists, a private advocacy group, and the Government
Accountability Project, a legal-assistance group that represents
whistle-blowers, of roadblocking crucial conclusions and data on
global warming, as well as generally interfering to no end in the
studies of the scientists across the U.S. government. href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16886008/" target="blank">According
to their joint report:

  • 43 percent of respondents reported edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their findings.
  • 46 percent felt administrative requirements that impaired climate-related work.
  • 67 percent said the environment for federal government climate research is worse now than five years ago.

And that's just from the 308 out of the total 1,600 scientists who
actually bothered to participate in the survey. Imagine what the
numbers would look like if those who weren't either intimidated or too
lazy to participate actually did so. That's some crunchy data.

But it gets worse. The latest news shows that while exponential
increases in sea level may be too hard for top-notch scientists to
predict, CO2 levels are anything but. In fact, greenhouse gases have
jumped to record highs, and the increase is, you guessed it, href="http://www.commondreams.org/headlines07/0216-04.htm "
target="blank">accelerating in a hurry. The unexpected jump,
according to a Reuters interview with Kim Holmen, research
director of the Norwegian Polar Institute whose Arctic archipelago
base station in Svalbard measures such things in the North Pole, comes
from an expected source: "China is opening coal-fired power plants at
the rate of almost one a week." Nevertheless, Holmen's description of
the average yearly rise in greenhouse gases lays bare an exponological
root that some seemed to have missed tripping over.

"When I was young, scientists were talking about 1 ppm rise" every
year, Holman said. "Since 2000 it has been a very rapid rate." The
annual rate was 1ppm as recent as 2005, that is until 2006, when it
doubled to 2ppm. Add that to the IPCC's conclusion, cited in the same
Reuters report, that "temperature rises were set to
accelerate and could gain by between 1.1 and 6.4 Celsius (2.0-11.5
Fahrenheit) by 2100," and you have all the earmarks of exponology. The
onset of floods, droughts and resource wars are enough to scare
babies into waking; the thought of that onset occurring exponentially
earlier than thought ought to make adults everywhere soil their
figurative diapers.

The trick here is to not be intimidated by the science or the numbers,
because as always the social phenomena urging these upheavals forward
are either self-evident, as in the case of China's emergence as a
powersucker and gross polluter, or yet to be found, as in the case of
the target="blank">discovery of fast-moving rivers beneath Antarctica's
ice sheets
. Either way, exponology makes room for ignorance by
admitting from the outset that things can get worse. In a hurry.

Take Antarctica's hidden rivers, which have severely called into the
question the integrity of the region's ice sheets, to the extent that
the calculated rate of Solomon's sea-level rise is practically
useless. As Helen Fricker of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
in San Diego told the Guardian UK, "We didn't realize that
the water under these ice streams was moving in such large quantities,
and on such short time scales. We thought these changes took place
over years and decades, but we are seeing large changes over months.
The detected motions are astonishing in magnitude, dynamic nature and
spatial extent." In other words, don't set your calendar to the
scientific community's Nostradamus clock, because there are always
details left to be found or to be uncovered, via intrepid exploration
or Freedom of Information Act requests, depending on what side of
exponology the scientists come down on.

This somewhat target="blank">Heisenbergian uncertainty is one reason that href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6369171.stm" target="blank">UK Environment Secretary David Miliband and others recently called upon the EU to slash emissions by 30 percent by 2020 or risk serious payback from Earth. But even those numbers,
digging back into exponology, could be unreliable as well. Which is
also why other climate change scientists have thrown in the
towel
altogether, claiming it may already by too late to stop any
of it. The stats on that possibility, according to them? What else?
50-50.

Why? Why else? Humanity.

See, as one among Earth's myriad shrinking species, humans have a
tendency to both fudge and fumble the numbers. And the difference
between the two aren't that different at all, and not just in the Bush
administration. Take Britain, for example. America's proxy in our
current resource war in Iraq is having just as much trouble nailing
down a predictable rate, because the UK has just as much a stake in
the public ignorance on the matters. Because of similarly wrongheaded
voluntary reportage and high-level meddling, only 16 of Britain's top
100 listed companies have passed on worthy emissions information;
that's almost 200 million tons of CO2 to factor back into the
equation, exponological and otherwise. To believe that such purposeful
omissions are not ubiquitous would be as much of a mistake as
believing that they will not accelerate whatever schedule the dominant
scientific ideology has laid out for its worst-case scenario, to say
nothing of its best-case scenario. For the former, one need only
listen to scientists who testified to the 2007 annual meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, href="http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/us-needs-to-plan-for-climate-change-induced-summer-droughts-12616.html"
target="blank">who are practically begging the Western U.S. if not
the world to get its shit together for incoming droughts of a
catastrophic nature.

"We're already seeing snow packs dwindle and spring runoffs coming
earlier and earlier," Jim Coakley, a professor of atmospheric sciences
at Oregon State University told the AAAS. "The dry summers that we've
experienced recently may pale in comparison to what could happen in
the near future. There is a kind of domino effect as temperatures
warm. Precipitation that would have fallen as snow will come as rain
and run off more quickly. Spring runoffs begin earlier. Summers
lengthen and evaporation increases."

While the domino effect might function well enough as a scare tactic,
it is a only a precursor to exponology. The reason is simple, as far
as I can tell: Dominos don't replicate, just fall on top of one
another. In exponology, each domino becomes two dominos, each two
become four and so on. A line of dominos falls at a regular rate, one
to one, until the line is extinguished. In exponology, there is no
such steady rate, and the line, doubled and tripled over upon itself,
falls faster and harder, shrinking the time window given to rectify
the situation to practically nothing.

A similar situation applies to what one reader on the href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-thill/enter-exponology_b_41495.html"
target="blank">Huffington Post explained to me as href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trophic_cascade_theory"
target="blank">trophic cascade theory, in which each href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trophic_level"
target="blank">trophic level of a food web is inversely and
directly related to trophic levels above and below it. When one level
achieves primacy over another, there is a Newtonian backlash, leading
to an imbalance in the webbed ecosystem in question. Of course, that
Newtonian backlash is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, and we
all know how that entropy works out. Badly, for all involved. Also
worth noting in the trophic cascade theory is the most dangeorus
component of ecosystems worldwide: Consumers. More ravenous and
self-aware than the other components -- producers, decomposers, the
abiotic environment -- of traditional ecosystems, human consumers have
upset the planetary equilibrium to the extent that their own survival
has been jeopardized.

Which brings us back, again, to the other side of exponology's coin.
In our barely born new millennium, consumption has found no shortage
of exponents. After the horrors of 9/11, a moment that should have
given us all pause, President Bush asked us to go back to our
shopping. Our hunt for the last of the planet's fossil fuels href="http://www.ft.com/cms/s/11ba213e-bf7e-11db-9ac2-000b5df10621,_i_rssPage=6700d4e4-6714-11da-a650-0000779e2340.html"
target="blank">promises to be a catastrophe in itself: Indeed, a
report from Wood Mackenzie, an Edinburgh-based consultancy, explains
that "It becomes unclear beyond 2020 that conventional oil will be
able to meet any of the demand growth." And if you think that 2020 is
the cutoff date, you don't know exponology. Or exponential demand
growth.

And for that, we return to China, whose thirst for what the Beverly
Hillbillies called black gold is a runaway train speeding towards an
indeterminate future. The peak oil theorists at The Oil Drum have href="http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/2270" target="blank">analyzed
the numbers on China, and the results are pure exponology:

"The increase in Chinese oil consumption in the past years is mostly
seen as a recent development, supposedly driven by the industrial
development of China. In reality, the growth in Chinese oil
consumption has been the same in the past two decades. Between 1990
and 1999 annual oil consumption growth in China was 6% on average.
Between 2000 and 2006 the average annual oil consumption growth in
China was 7%. Also the 2004 anomaly of 13% growth in a single year is
nothing new. In 1993 Chinese oil consumption growth happened to be
10%. This misconception of Chinese oil consumption growth is a typical
example of underestimating the power of exponential growth. Between
1990 and 1999, absolute growth was around 2 million barrels per day
(mb/d), from 2.3 mb/d in 1990 to 4.4 mb/d in 1999. In the past seven
years, absolute growth has been 3 mb/d per day according to
preliminary figures, from 4.4 mb/d in 1999 to 7.36mb/d in 2006. If
this present trend continues, the demand for oil (and other liquid
fuels) in China will grow to 9.2 mb/d in 2010 and 12.4 mb/d in 2015."

Sit back and soak it all in. Because wherever we turn, there is a
disturbing preponderance of confusion or quiet -- by choice, by
accident, by ignorance -- about where we are headed in the very near
future. And we can tackle the problem in many different ways. We can
start target="blank">hacking snow, if the planet won't give us any. We
can use target="blank">nanotechnology to create energy in hopes of weaning
us off our fossil fuel addiction. Hopefully, we can get smart enough
to keep target="blank">the killer asteroid Apophis from smashing into
Earth in 2036, a date that may or may not take exponology into account
at all. Let's hope it does.

But whatever we do, we better tackle the exponents that are killing us
softly with their siren songs of an uninterrupted life of consumption
and convenience. The Bush administration, faith-based fundamentalists,
Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, General Motors, and onward. These exponents
of an apolitical good life that no longer exists have stood in the way
for decades now as the planet has suffered our casual pollution and
careless stewardship. And let's be clear: Ecosystems have a way of
righting their own ships. Pestilence, pandemics, exctinctions, they
are all capable defense mechanisms against the type of aggressive
threats we are farting out of our factories and cars on a daily basis.

And it would behoove us to remain clear on another salient point:
Earth is going nowhere. We, on the other hand, have no such
cosmological reality indemnifying us against annihilation. Try as we
might to destroy the environment, we can only fail. Destroying
ourselves, however, won't be that hard. It will be easier than anyone
thinks and, with the help of exponology, faster than anyone can
imagine.