SUMMARY: Swedish anthropologist Alf Hornborg says economic crash could empower change to save climate. UK scientist Sergei Petrovskii on new paper: warming die-off of oxygen-making plankton. Robert Shirkey gets climate warning labels on Canadian gas pumps. Radio Ecoshock 160120


It sounds impossible. An expert with decades of experience says global warming between 4 to 6 degrees could lead to mass die-off of the plankton that produces up to 70% of the world’s oxygen. Forget rising seas Sergei Petrovskii says, we are more likely to stifle than drown.

I’ll also be talking with Robert Shirkey, the Canadian campaigner who got climate warning stickers put on gas pumps, and his campaign to take it global.

But first, we’re going to visit with an “economic anthropologist” – and one of Sweden’s leading thinkers on the economy, money and climate change. Alf Hornborg is hoping the next economic crisis can help us change.

I’m Alex Smith, and this is Radio Ecoshock.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

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Imagine technology as a system that gathers up days of people’s lives, mixes them with nature, physical and living things – and channels products toward a minority, in fact, to a dwindling number of the wealthy elite. All the while, the same technology reduces our chances for survival. I think that’s how the Swedish author, and anthropologist Alf Hornborg sees it, but only he can say, in this Radio Ecoshock interview.

It seems everyone, from greens to super-capitalists, is looking for the next technology to save us. It’s solar power, it’s geoengineering, it new nuclear tech – but there are other options. It turns out that technology organizes humans to draw time and work from other people’s lives, and channel it upward to a diminishing number of people at the top. We just learned that the top 1% in this world own more than the 99% rest of humans on the planet.

Hornborg says politics is really about the ways and means of money. Speaking in Paris a couple of years ago, he suggested only an economic crisis would open doorways for meaningful change. It looks like we are entering another crisis now. Should that give us hope? Our best hope may be for smaller disasters to come soon, rather larger ones later in this century.

The moment we are suffering real problems in terms of food security, energy supply and so on – I mean the kinds of metabolic problems that strike civilization just before they collapse, historically – then maybe the politicians will be able to talk about more relevant things.

– Alf Hornborg, VIMEO “Thinking the Anthropocene”

He suggests that a country like France or Sweden could print a “complimentary currency which they distribute every month, to every household, in proportion to the size of those households, which can only be used to purchase local products and local services.

At 17 minutes of this video, he explains in concrete terms how this could work. It would drastically increase demand for goods and services that are locally produced. These are more likely to be equitable between people, and have a hope of being sustainable, without the ecological costs of long-range transport. “It would radically decrease the demand for long-distance imports”. Fossil fuels used in global transport would be “radically reduced”.

Alf Hornborg became more widely known after his 2001 book “The Power of the Machine“. This year he will publish another, titled “Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street.”. I ask Alf for a couple of examples of the way his thinking has evolved in the last 15 years.

Hornborg has compared social blindness to slavery in Rome, or in colonial America, to our current rationalization for lifestyles we know are changing not just the weather, but the climate for millennia to come. How does it work, and is there a cure?

We started talking about technology. People grudgingly admit money could be a root of evil, but surely not technology! Is Hornborg suggesting we can unplug, and walk away from the “technomass” we have created? Would not billions of people die in short order if we did?

Actually, Alf says, the fear that billions would die without technology is a myth. There is still enough land to return to, and by the way, if all humans gave up eating animals and animal bi-products, there may be enough to feed 30 billion human vegans.

One justification is the geographical locus of this collection machine has shown an ability to shift over time. We think of the rise of Japan, Korea, and now China as centers of not just technology, but the accumulation of capital. The wealth might appear anywhere, we say. Or does technology always need slums and poverty somewhere else? Hornborg says it does.

Provocatively he says “The steam engine would not have been possible without the American slave plantations“.

Technology, Hornborg says, is not the idea, or the blueprints. It is the system that keeps the machinery functioning over time – and that always, he says, demands appropriation of the time, resources, or spaces of others who are disadvantaged compared to the user of the technology.

Technological progress can thus be reconceptualized as the saving or liberation of human time and natural space in core regions of the world-system at the expense of time and space lost in the periphery. I have called this time–space appropriation (Hornborg 2006, 2013).”

I reached Alf at the prestigious Lund University in Sweden, where he has been Professor of Human Ecology since 1993.


Download this 27 minute Radio Ecoshock interview with Alf Hornborg in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

You can find a wiki-style bio of Alf Hornborg here.

Here is a stimulating interview on the blog “Collapse of Industrial Civilization” about the way we have all been mystified by technology.

Watch this 2013 interview with Alf on Vimeo, from the Paris conference “Thinking the Anthropocene”.


You have heard that a warming world will flood coastal cities. Hotter seas will drive more extreme weather events. All that may
not matter, if a new paper on plankton is correct. The authors say: if the ocean life that creates more than half the oxygen in the
atmosphere dies off, we are more likely to stifle than drown.

To understand this new threat, let’s get to work. The paper is called ‘Mathematical Modelling of Plankton–Oxygen Dynamics
Under the Climate Change’ as published in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology, with an abstract here.

From the Department of Mathematics at the University of Leicester in Britain, we’ve reached the co-author Sergei Petrovskii. We
learn in the interview that Petrovksii was a senior scientist at the Russian Shirshov Institute of Oceanology for 15 years before moving to Britain. His work in Russia involved modelling plankton growth. So he is more than qualified.

Sergei Petrovskii

From the paper:

Plankton consists of two different taxa: phytoplankton and zooplankton. Zooplankton are animals (e.g., krill), and phytoplankton
are plants. As most plants do, phytoplankton can produce oxygen in photosynthesis when sufficient light is available, e.g., in the
photic layer of the ocean during the daytime. The oxygen first comes to the water and eventually into the air through the sea
surface, thus contributing to the total oxygen budget in the atmosphere. This contribution appears to be massive…

It is estimated that about 70% of the Earth atmospheric oxygen is produced by the ocean phytoplankton (Harris 1986; Moss 2009). Correspondingly, one can expect that a decrease in the rate of the oxygen production by phytoplankton may have catastrophic consequences for life on Earth, possibly resulting in mass extinction of animal species, including the mankind. Therefore, identification of potential threats to the oxygen production is literally an issue of vital importance.”


1. Most discussion on the impacts of global warming on the oceans focus on changes in global circulation or impacts on polar ice, with consequent sea level rising.

2. But the oceans are also the world’s largest ecosystem of living things.

3. Plankton has been studied as the basis for the food chain, and consequently fisheries. It’s also a good measure of the biomass in the seas.

4. Plankton also provide the majority of the world’s oxygen.

5. Plankton production is well-known to be sensitive to ocean temperatures.

6. The plant type of plankton produces oxygen in the day, and consumes oxygen at night. The difference produced, and released into the atmosphere, is the “net oxygen production”.

Scientists know this all-important net production of oxygen (and reduction of CO2) depends on ocean temperatures.

Studies of some plankton species find that oxygen production goes up as the oceans warm, Petrovskii and his co-author Yadigar Sekerci proceed with an abundance of caution. After all there are many, many different types of plankton, and perhaps not all will flourish with warmer water. So the authors make two models, one which assumes that plankton/oxygen will increase as the oceans warm, and one that assumes a decrease.

The amazing (and frightening) result is: whether plankton/oxygen increases or decreases as the oceans warm, IN BOTH CASES a tipping point develops where plankton, and the oxygen they make, crashes, possibly toward extinction levels.

Our results have important implications. A lot has been said about detrimental consequences of the global warming such as possible extinction of some species (and the corresponding biodiversity loss) and the large-scale flooding resulting from melting Antarctic ice. In this paper, however, we have shown that the danger to bestifled is probably more real than to be drowned.


If I take only one thing away from this interview with Sergei Petrovskii, it is this: reality is littered with traps. In hindsight we can see that a semi-intelligent species discovering mechanical power from stored carbon riches may well self-exterminate with them, due to the carbon/climate trap.

But consider this: if Petrovskii is right, we may advance into the future fooled by the response of plankton. As the world warms,
plankton could appear to thrive, providing lots of oxygen, and sequestering more carbon dioxide. We all cheer. Apologists tell
us our worries were overblown. But then, a limit beyond sustainable cycles is reached, and plankton world-wide could experience a mass die-off. That’s another trap: it looks good, until, as Petrovskii and his colleagues call it, “catastrophe 2” occurs.

Maybe the model is wrong. Maybe our civilization is wrong. I hope the funding and the drive arrives to test out this plankton
nightmare rather than waiting to find out the hard way.

Listen to/download this Radio Ecoshock interview with Sergei Petrovskii in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


NASA’s take on global warming and plankton:


Using NASA satellite data, Jorge Sarmiento of Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., and colleagues have demonstrated the close links between ocean productivity and global trends in climate.

Surface warming increases the density difference, or vertical “stratification” of the ocean waters, leading to less mixing between the surface water layers, where phytoplankton live, and the deeper water layers, which contain the nutrients they need to flourish. This is bad news for phytoplankton that live in the tropics where nutrient supply will be reduced due to less mixing and a shallower “mixed layer”, but good news for phytoplankton that live in colder regions, where increasing temperature causes the growing season to start earlier in the year. Clearly, a changing global climate will have a different impact on ocean biology in different parts of the world.


Climate Change Effects on Marine Phytoplankton


DOI: 10.1201/b16334-4

If you hit the Full Text button for this paper, it works without signing up or needing permission. The lead author is Valeria
Guinder, marine biologist at UNS Argentina.

This paper agrees with the work of Petrovskii, saying:

Temperature is a key parameter that directly affects physiological rates of marine biota at multiple scales, e.g., enzymatic
reactions, respiration, body size, generation time, ecological interactions, community metabolism, etc. (Peters 1983). Phytoplankton experience an increase in enzymatic activity and growth rates over a moderate range of temperature rise with an average Q10= 1.88 (Eppley 1972), which suggest that an increase in SST from 18°C today to 21.5°C in 2100 (McNeil and Matear 2006), may lead to an increase of ~25% in growth rate assuming that there are no other factors (Finkel et al. 2010).


Research led by Deakin University (Warrnambool, Australia) and Swansea University (UK) has found that a species of cold water plankton in the North Atlantic, that is a vital food source for fish such as cod and hake, is in decline as the oceans warm. This will put pressure on the fisheries that rely on abundant supplies of these fish.

‘There is overwhelming evidence that the oceans are warming and it will be the response of animals and plants to this warming that will shape how the oceans look in future years and the nature of global fisheries,’ explained Deakin’s professor of marine science, Graeme Hays.”

Find out more here.

According to Wikipedia, many species of plankton went extinct before, and this paleoclimatic record is something Petrovskii
continues to study, as he further refines the model. Things like ocean acidification, and ocean stratification with warming also
have to be factored in.


Cigarettes kill millions and we warn users right on the pack. Burning gasoline kills the future. In Canada, Robert Shirkey left his
law practice to put us right into the climate changer driver’s seat.

As Robert writes in the Huffington Post

On Nov. 16, 2015, the City of North Vancouver made world history when its council unanimously voted to mandate climate change risk disclosures on gas pumps. It’s an idea that my organization developed and launched in early 2013 and it has since been endorsed by over a hundred academics from a variety of disciplines at universities across North America, including some of the top climate change researchers in the world.

North Vancouver’s vote was covered by the CBC, Global News, CTV, VICE, The Atlantic, Business Insider, and many more. These articles were shared via social media around the globe. While North Vancouver was the first to actually require the labels by law, numerous municipal councils across Canada have passed resolutions in support of the proposal. We’re now working to share these examples of Canadian leadership with the world and we’re asking for volunteers to help us make it happen.

Read that whole article here.

The essential point is: we all like to fight against pipelines, the tar sands and all that. Meanwhile, we feel pretty innocent about
putting gas in our tanks, if we think about it at all. And yet, as Robert shows in a graph, most of the emissions come not from
fossil fuel production, but from OUR TAILPIPES and other end uses.
We should know that.

The colorful labels fit right on the gas pump handles, where gas stations conveniently places a square spot for advertising. Instead, you get a photo of a polar bear, or a flooded city, with a warning that using gasoline endangers the climate of the world.

Robert Shirkey is the leader of the new group You can help support his campaign to get local governments to force climate warning stickers on all gas pumps, but contributing at his site. Right now he’s running the whole thing on his VISA card, he tells us.

Watch Robert’s video on gas pump labels here.

Download this 10 minute Radio Ecoshock interview with Robert Shirkey in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

I totally support Robert’s campaign, and expect to see warning labels on all gas pumps soon.