The Icarus Scenario

Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637), courtesy of Prado Museum

David P. Turner / February 26, 2020

The future invades the present much more so in recent times than was the case in previous generations.  That’s because the global human enterprise (the technosphere) has initiated an era of global climate change – with potentially catastrophic impacts on future generations.  Thus, humans must now worry more about the future than might otherwise be the case.  While we still have time, humanity must alter course – we must redesign the technosphere.

Earth system scientists have a responsibility to discern coming changes to the Earth system as clearly as possible, and to evaluate potential mitigation strategies.  The time horizon of these scenarios for global change are commonly on the order of a century, or perhaps several centuries.  But examining scenarios that play out over hundreds to thousands of years is also necessary.

In the course of writing a book about global environmental change, I developed a rather dystopian long-timeframe Earth system scenario.  I call it the Icarus Scenario.  This story of Earth’s future is based on emerging Earth system science knowledge about past episodes of drastic global change over the course of geologic history.  On multiple occasions, tectonic movements have initiated periods of massive greenhouse gas emissions (sound familiar?) that led to strong global warming, followed by major alterations in ocean circulation and chemistry, as well as profound changes in the biosphere (including mass extinction events in some cases). 

Humanity might now be initiating the next iteration of that sequence, and the Icarus myth seems an appropriate referent.  Icarus was the figure from Greek mythology who, with his father, constructed wings of feathers and wax.  His father warned him not to fly too close to the sun for fear of melting the wax, but Icarus got carried away with the joy of flight.  He indeed flew too close to the sun, his wings disintegrated, and he crashed to his death on the ground.

A contemporary version of this myth might be manifest as the on-going build-out of the technosphere (with associated greenhouse gas emissions), warnings by scientists about the possibility of overheating the planet, continued fossil-fuel-based technosphere growth driven by an exuberant market economy, and global warming sufficient to push the Earth system through a series of tipping points that catastrophically warm the planet.  Recent geophysical observations suggest the risk of initiating that sequence is increasing.

We can’t of course know the future.  But there are several compelling reasons why we as a global collective should grapple with the Icarus Scenario.

It is likely that the wealthiest people in the world will be able to largely insulate themselves from impacts of climate change over the next generation or so.  Consequently, supporting societal investment in mitigation climate change (e.g. the Green New Deal) may not be a high priority.  However, if their legacy will amount to nothing in a somewhat longer perspective, they might pitch in more vigorously (thanks Jeff Bezos!).

The Icarus Scenario also strengthens the rationale for investing in climate change mitigation as soon as possible to reduce the possibility of passing a threshold and being unable to reverse the trajectory of the Earth system towards catastrophic warming.  The precautionary principle is more readily invoked as the magnitude of a threat increases, and the Icarus Scenario is the ultimate threat.

Being an inveterate optimist, I also formulated in my book a long-term Earth system scenario in which the technosphere builds a sustainable relationship with the rest of the Earth system.  My Noösphere Scenario (pronounced like noah-sphere) assumes cultural evolution towards a high technology global civilization that self-regulates to avoid overheating the planet and consuming the biosphere.  The root word nous refers to mind – Earth becomes a planet organized by collective thought.

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