Finally, a PLAN

A few years back, I was contacted by Ben McCall—a chemist then at the University of Illinois—about forming a network of academics concerned about the larger challenges facing humanity. The idea was that a number of scattered scholars in various random disciplines might be well aware of limits to growth, energy, and capacity of ecosystems to accommodate human activities, but isolated from each other and within unsympathetic or at least poorly-aligned departments. I identified strongly with this condition and sense of isolation.  For instance, although physicists and astrophysicists have tools relevant to assessing our current predicament, few apply their skills at this level, working instead on deep but narrow questions—as I myself have done for years.  Yet, if we botch civilization, will that type of work survive or have meaning?  Many departments and professional societies therefore lack the community and collaborative opportunities for folks who want to contribute to a higher-level dialog about humanity’s choices.

So Ben pulled together a group of five individuals from a broad range of academic fields to nucleate a network so that we might find kindred spirits and build a diverse academic family united by a shared sense that the trajectory of the human endeavor is not viable, and will come to a bad end if not acknowledged and addressed. By banding together, we would hope to stimulate collaborations and develop ideas that otherwise would be unlikely to emerge. It’s like the setup to many jokes: an astrophysicist, anthropologist, and cognitive scientist walk into a bar. What happens next? What compelling insights and research projects might emerge?

We plodded along for a number of years, constrained by so many other pulls in life. But we have emerged from the long gestation having formed the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; PLANetwork; planet work; lots of ways to play on the name). Do we have a plan? Sort-of.

Step 1 was to write a perspective piece that presents our take on the modern world and its existential challenges. This recently emerged as a paper entitled: Modernity is Incompatible with Planetary Limits: Developing a PLAN for the Future. I hope you will take some time to read the piece. Do the Math readers will recognize a number of tidbits from ideas presented on the blog.

Step 2 was to create a website, which is at planetarylimits.net. It’s not professionally constructed (you get what you pay for), but should serve to get the network off the ground.

Step 3 is recruitment. We have two roles for the website:

  1. Subscriber: For those who would like occasional updates on what PLAN is doing and access to some of the (eventual) website content.
  2. Member: For active academics/scholars who are engaged in production of scholarly work (peer-reviewed publications, for instance) and could potentially collaborate in scholarly pursuits relating to PLAN interests. It does not matter if these individuals have not published in this space before: that’s part of what PLAN aims to change.

A third role of Collaborator is available for committed members who intend to be active contributors to new “scholarly” products, and will be able to (eventually) search for and contact other Collaborators based on concerns, field of study, and other criteria.

So please visit the site and consider joining as a subscriber (anyone) or applying for membership (active scholars). As we are just starting, early members will have opportunities to define and steer the course of PLAN.

So far, PLAN has attracted a fantastic set of big-picture thinkers from a number of fields.  It is a community I can’t wait to get to know better.  I feel like I have found my people!

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Crazy Town Podcast

Crazy Town Podcast Logo

If you’ve enjoyed Do the Math even just a little bit over the years, you have Asher Miller to thank, in part. Asher is the Executive Director of the Post Carbon Institute, whose work I had been following for a few years when I reached out in 2011. I reported that I was going to be passing through their neighborhood, and asked if they would be up for a meeting. I spent a few hours with Asher, and he encouraged me to commit some of my ideas and analyses to writing, suggesting a blog format that could be re-posted to the Energy Bulletin, which is now Resilience.org.

So I took his advice. Within a month, I created Do the Math, and the Energy Bulletin promptly picked up my first post on Galactic Scale Energy, which then found its way to reddit. Thus, within a few days of publishing my first blog post, I had hit the 100,000 page view mark. That strong start—and even the fact that it started at all—is due in no small measure to Asher’s encouragement, suggestion, and the close connection between PCI and the Energy Bulletin.

Fast-forward a decade, and I again was set to pass through PCI’s (relocated) haunt. I again reached out to Asher, who suggested that I stop in for a podcast recording of Crazy Town, which he does with Jason Bradford (PCI Board President; on his farm) and Rob Dietz (PCI Program Director). We had a fun time together, and an enjoyable conversation, which you can listen to on your podcast app of choice by clicking this link, or you could try this semi-permanent link to the “bonus” episode in question.

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Talking to "Other"

Movie poster from Enemy Mine

I have had some success over the years in talking with people who on the surface do not seem to be very much like myself. Superficially, I am a west-coast liberal elite professor who has cats in lieu of children. My tribal affiliation seems clear, yet I am often at ease discussing heavy stuff with all types.

In a recent conversation with a neighbor whose votes likely exactly counter my own, I believe I made substantial progress in broadening his views on COVID vaccinations, news sources, conspiracy theories, and maybe more.

In this post, I’ll run through key messages in that conversation and elements that I believe may have allowed those messages to land. Then I will discuss more broadly some attributes that I think make substantive conversations with unlikely interlocutors possible.

First, we’ll start with my neighbor, Chip. That’s not his real name, but I want to convey a sense of a man’s man. Chip owns and operates heavy machinery, knows his way around concrete, and loves going fishing on his boat.

I took some honey harvested from my bees to thank Chip for loaning me two massive iron spikes that I used as anchors driven deep into the ground to drag something heavy across the dirt. The conversation we had ranged all over, but I capture main themes here as an example of how one might make progress, perhaps offering tips that may allow others to have similar success.

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Credibility from Apparent Hypocrisy

Flip the script! Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Purveyors of unpopular messages are often scrutinized for any inconsistent, seemingly hypocritical behavior that might give lie to their preachings and be used to discredit the unwelcome perspective. A famous example is Al Gore’s heavy air travel schedule to spread the word and take action against climate change, resulting in an enormous CO2 footprint. If we all behaved that way, the very problem at hand would be substantially exacerbated.

Such accusations either knowingly or pathetically miss the obvious point that the net effect of Al Gore’s efforts may be positive owing to the simple idea of a lever: a little expenditure here can counteract vast expenditures elsewhere for an overall gain on the problem. For many, the glaring superficial contradiction is enough ammunition to discredit the entire enterprise.

But identifying possible hypocrisy in those who warn of future perils, as I have done, has a dark edge: if even those cognizant individuals cannot get away from behaviors they know to be damaging, doesn’t that only amplify the severity of the warning?

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Growth Is Our Old Yeller

Poster for the 1957 film Old Yeller

Growth has been our close companion for centuries, and we love it to pieces. It makes politicians swoon, economists dance, investors giggle, and community planners smile.

The only problem is that this friend is about to turn into our greatest enemy.  Pursuit of growth—in money and resource exploitation—has a flip side on Earth’s ecosystems.  Up until now, we mostly saw the good side of growth: conveniences, technology, health care, security.  Becoming apparent is the toll this misguided focus is taking on our irreplaceable home.  No amount of money (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men) can restore lost species and destroyed ecosystems.  So maybe money is a bad metric for what really matters, yeah?

I have struggled to come up with a good analogy for growth that will help us process what it means.  The best I have come up with (and only recently) is that growth is like Old Yeller.  If you’re not familiar with the 1957 film, it’s a real tear jerker.  I remember bawling in concert with my sister when the amazing dog—dearly loved by the family for getting them out of many a pickle—contracted rabies, became aggressive toward the family, and had to be shot.  That’s right: a kid’s movie ended with the beloved central character being shot dead.  Those were different times.  What you really wanted in a kid’s movie was for your children to emerge wrecked. (I also saw Jaws at age 6 and have been scarred since.)

Growth has likewise been this fantastic friend: all upside, upside, upside.  But the rabid side is beginning to show, and our ultimate success depends on killing it.  There will be tears.  Many will bargain, unable to accept the necessity of ending growth.  But it’s no use.  The physics is clear.

Please use the comment forum to suggest other (better) analogies.  Not straying too far, it may be like raising a lion: awfully adorable as a cub, but ultimately a mortal threat to have in the house.  It’s possible that better analogies can be conjured.

P.S. I wrote this in 24 minutes, so please excuse the shortness and sloppiness.

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Let’s Put on a Video, Shall We?

Most of us have seen it happen. An exhausted school teacher, sometimes suffering from what we recognize in hindsight as a hangover, announces to the class that instead of the usual lesson plan, we’re all going to watch a video.

That’s what I’m doing today, in effect. Last week’s post about factors facilitating collapse was of beastly proportions. This week, I’m taking a breather and pointing you to a five-minute video and a write-up of an interview relating to my recent book.

The pieces were put together by the UC San Diego Division of Physical Sciences (Mario Aguilera and Sherry Seethaler coordinating the interview and Debbie Meyer constructing a quality video). I’m sporting the outgrown late-COVID haircut that lopped off my ponytail of 28 years (performed by my terrified wife). It also appears that I failed to prioritize shaving for the interview day, which was scheduled weeks in advance, so did not exactly catch me by surprise. Oh well. Appearances only count for so much.

And since this video is short, I would hate for you to feel ripped off. I might, therefore, recommend another recent video by Nate Hagens that has a slightly longer run time (approaching three hours; I suggest taking it in doses). In an approach somewhat similar to the collapse post, Nate has put together a long list of factors, cast as societal myths, that contribute to our collective miscalibration about how we might expect the future to go. Many of the themes will be familiar to and resonant with Do the Math readers, but from a usefully alternate angle.

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Why Worry About Collapse?

Nothing lasts forever.

The first thing I should say is that the word collapse freaks me out. I don’t use it often, for fear of sounding like an unhinged alarmist. Surely, respectable scientists should want nothing to do with it.

The second thing is that I don’t harbor any secret pleasure in imagining catastrophic failure of the human endeavor. It depresses me, frightens me, angers me, frustrates me, confuses me, and makes my wife crabby.

What keeps pulling me back to it—despite my innate repulsion—is not only credible elements of risk that I will get to in this post, but also that I think it’s too important to tolerate our natural tendency to hide from the prospect. Ironically, doing so only raises the odds of that ill fate: mitigation requires direct acknowledgment. Failure to speak openly and honestly about the less-than-remote possibility of collapse is not in our best interest, ultimately.

So let’s grit our teeth and confront the collapse monster. What conditions make it at once likely and off most people’s radars?

It is a heavy lift for one blog post to do a complete job in motivating collapse as a realistic outcome of the human enterprise. Any one argument can be picked at, but the totality should be considered. This is a long post, so buckle up.

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While We Wait…

I had planned to drop a rather large post today on the thorny topic of collapse. But it’s important enough that I should not rush it and make sure it has all the key pieces I want to convey, and that no sloppiness on my part results in misinterpretations that I later regret.

So what shall we do instead? Hey, I know! Have I mentioned the free textbook I wrote? A few times? Are you getting tired of my plugs? Apologies if so, but what feedback I have received thus far encourages me to believe that it’s a valuable contribution to the world and not intrinsically a flop. People are loving the margin notes, somewhat to my surprise.

However, in order to have a meaningful impact, I would want to do substantially better than the (currently) 7,000 site visits and 3,000 PDF downloads. Sure, many textbook authors might jump for joy at such numbers in less than two months. But millions of people would likely appreciate the message and have enough background to get something out of reading it. From the statistics, it is clear that even most Do the Math visitors have themselves not checked it out yet. I get that it’s a textbook, so: ugh. Who wants to take on that kind of chore? But A) it’s free, B) people report being surprised at how readable it is, and C) the intro provides a graphic (below) that offers a few reading paths that may make it less daunting.

Suggested reading paths through the textbook

Also, no one has yet submitted a review on Lulu. Even if you have not ordered a print copy, the free PDF material is the same so that a review on Lulu based on the electronic version would be perfectly appropriate. Here is the corresponding to-do list to help encourage a larger readership:

  1. Check out the PDF online.
  2. Download a local copy for keeps (from same site).
  3. Tell others about it who you think could be interested (tweet, facebook, e-mail, etc.).
  4. Consider helping others appreciate the pros and cons of the book by reviewing it on Lulu.
  5. If using it in a classroom context, also consider reviewing for the Open Textbook Library.
  6. Leave feedback for me on any errors or suggested improvements so the next release is better.

Hopefully, you’ll have the bandwidth to do something on the list while waiting for the big post next Tuesday. Thanks so much for your support!

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To What End?

Image by naturfreund_pics from Pixabay

Recent reflections on the long-term trajectory of the human enterprise have somewhat transformed the way I look at most activities. Specifically, I refer to the dual realizations that on 10,000 year timescales ultimate success is effectively synonymous with true sustainability, and that the human race stands in blatant breach of contract with evolution and ecosystem parameters—fueled by a mad grab of one-time finite resources. The net effect is that most human activities today promote ultimate failure rather than ultimate success.

As such, when evaluating a proposed or ongoing effort, I ask myself the question:

To what end?

This post will examine some of the activities of current society, and evaluate how much sense they make in the context of a post-party future.

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Life Found on Mars

ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

No, life has not yet been found on Mars, but imagine waking up to that headline. How would you react? The headline’s font would be huge on print newspapers—maybe one word per page, occupying the first four pages. Some bold papers might even put one letter per page and go so far as to have blank pages for the spaces. The point is, it would be big news.

So I ask again, what would this stir for you?

For me, the swirl would be thick with competing thoughts and feelings, tripping over themselves to get out. First would be the raft of questions stemming from pure curiosity. Is it DNA-based? Is it a separate start, or do we share some ancient microbial ancestor—possibly shuttled from one body to the other following a meteoric impact? What lessons can we learn about how life forms? Can we get the discovered lifeforms to call us Mama or Dada? Will they make good pets?

One can imagine the discovery team, whether at NASA or elsewhere, ecstatic with joy. The entire exploration establishment around the planet would likely be giddy. SETI folks would probably be unable to chew for a while, wearing fixed grins.

I would share many of these same reactions, for the pure joy of discovery and the novel opportunity to re-examine what it means to be a part of life on Earth. But then it dawns on me just how devastating the news might actually be for the human race.

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