Catastrophe theory is a branch of mathematics concerned with
dynamic systems that change from one state to another without
bothering with the smooth continuous occupation of intervening
states. A frequently proffered example is a twisting rubber band.
Anyone who has ever wound the propeller of a rubber band
powered model airplane knows that as stress builds up in the
band due to twisting, there will come a time when the rubber band
goes from unknotted to knotted. This change of state does not
happen gradually: there is no knot; then suddenly there is a knot.
This is what you want in this instance, so the word 'catastrophe'
in mathematics implies no value judgment.
However, in the real world catastrophic changes of state can also
be catastrophic in a non-mathematical sense. I recently attended
a talk about the 2008 economic crisis. I am not an economist, but
a graph was shown of the S&P 500 Index Level, and the High Yield
Bond Spread, over the time from January 2007 to January 2009.
In a healthy economy the former graph is evidently supposed to
wiggle its way through time about twice the value of the latter.
At the end of 2007 this changed to some extent (rubber band
twisting). In the first half of 2008 there was a more marked change
(more twisting, meaning in this case more stress on the economy),
but not being an economist (although being one we now see is
clearly no key to understanding), this section of the graph did not
look like it was a cause for concern. In late September the two plots
suddenly, and catastrophically (in all senses of the word) switched
positions, with the Bond Spread taking the high road, and the S&P
dropping to the low road (rubber band knotted).
At this point, we were told, by people who ought to have seen this
coming, that the global economy had been shaken to its core and
was on the point of a very serious meltdown. Steps had to be
taken by governments to shore things up, and bail the venally
culpable out of the mess they'd created. The governments and
other entities involved in these bailouts are rather like the hands
of gods, and the average individual can only hope these gods
know what they're doing.
But this screed is not about the economy, it is about catastrophes
and the environment. The economy simply offers a vivid example,
that anyone reading this can now comprehend to some extent,
of what can happen to a complex system when it is stressed, and
no effort is made to prevent further stress. As has been pointed
out by numerous pundits, there are many ways in which our
environment can undergo a catastrophic change of state that
may cause cascading alterations to our global climate, global
ecosystem, and global economy (which, of course, will spark
unrest, conflict, and all the rest of the lovely things people get up
to when they lose hope). If these changes are large enough,
no governments will have the ability to bail us out. No, in that
case we will need real gods, and I wouldn't advise holding your
breath waiting for that one. We can not bail out our planet.
The global environment is extremely complex, and certainly
more complex than the rabid outpourings of most of those on
both sides of the debate as to the origins of climate change
(anthropogenic or not - but there are many other forms of
environmental degradation that are clearly anthropogenic, and
it is suspicious how many of those who deny our part in global
warming have an association with the oil/coal industries and/or
monster truck rallies and their ilk).
Personally I believe population growth is the principal source of
stress on our planet. There has to be a rough number N of people
the planet can possibly (and peacefully and cleanly) support.
So, let's just consider some the ways the planet will prevent its
population from reaching N+1, or 2N:
- we do it ourselves rationally and peacefully;
- we do it ourselves violently;
- nature lends a hand with catastrophic environmental change;
- nature lends a hand with disease and starvation;
- nature lends a hand with a big rock or chunk of ice from space;
- a combination of these and other means foreseeable and not.
One of these things is not like the others - one is preferable.
But keep in mind, our problems are encoded in our DNA.
Well, that's a happy thought.