Homeostasis n. The tendency of a system to maintain internal stability, owing to the coordinated response of its parts to any situation or stimulus tending to disturb its normal condition or function.
Let’s apply that description to the status and dynamics of that largest of all local systems: the earth. One of the most common topics of discussion among the chattering classes these days is global warming and climate change. Humankind, it appears increasingly certain as the scientific evidence grows, is warming up the earth’s surface by our activities. Foremost among these is our burning of carbon-based fuels. This is causing the earth to deviate from “its normal condition or function” according to this growing heap of historical/geological evidence.
“Normal” is the crucial word here. After all, the geological evidence indicates that the earth has regularly gone through periods of warming and cooling and that we are currently in one of those recurrent warming trends. So what’s the problem? Well, it also appears that there haven’t been any rates of warming in past ages that match what’s going on now.
Take glaciers, for example. Glaciers in past ages have retreated significantly as air temperatures rose, of course, but those retreats occurred over millennia, not decades, as far as we can tell. The current rates of glacial melt in Greenland and Antarctica appear to be unprecedented and we appear to be the culprits.
I should point out that there are opposing opinions about all this, even among scientists. One of the more interesting ones is discussed in an article Global Warming Heretic appearing in the New York Times Magazine on 29 March 2009. The focus of the article is on Freeman Dyson, a unique character in the world of physics and philosophy, who thinks the dangers of global warming are overblown. Dyson is particularly concerned about the â€œenormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories.â€Â We don’t know enough yet to justify our global panic about the topic, in Dyson’s view. In particular, he thinks that rash efforts to impose carbon caps would seriously impede the development of countries such as China that must depend on coal as their primary source of energy.
I say that, in the long run, homeostasis will rule. Suppose that we continue to mine our carbon-based energy resources at or above the current rates in order to allow everyone on earth to have energy available to their heart’s contentâ€”even as the global population reaches or exceeds 9 billion. No problem, in the long run, because we will run out of oil, then coal until these sources are no longer available at a price the remaining humans will be willing or able to pay. With these sources of energy gone, then there will be no more carbon available to increase global warming. Problem solved.
Homeostasis will then set in and we will all slide into a millennium or ten of global cooling as the earth adjusts to its new carbon balance. As Robert Frost so succinctly put it:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Now the question is, how much do we want to gamble on the long run homeostasis solution?