A Climate Love Story

From Pixabay (Kranic17/535 images)

The year is 2050. Things are unimaginably better than anyone in 2022 might have predicted. Such turnarounds are not without precedent. After all, the boom time in the 1950s came on the heels of the Great Depression and a crippling world war against ominously dark forces.  From the depths of those hard years, it would have been hard to foresee the glory days around the bend.

In our imagined 2050, climate change has been tamed by a spectacular suite of technological feats: fossil fuels are all but obsolete except in a few backwater places, replaced by an impressive profusion of solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, thorium reactors, deep geothermal installations, and a nascent fusion industry on the verge of commercialization. Electric transport handles most domestic needs, while a bounty of biofuels powers air travel and long-haul shipping.

Breakthroughs in battery technology have resulted in large banks of lithium storage everywhere you look to smooth out the irregularities in renewable production. Seasonal-scale storage is around the corner, so that even places like Alaska will be able to satisfy demand year-round based on a massive energy haul from long summer days.

Freed from the constraints of obtaining energy from petro-states, countries are able to source all of their energy needs within their borders and in fact have more available energy than they did when dependent on primitive fossil fuels. Economies are thriving: global trade is more vigorous than it has ever been because energy is cheap and abundant.

Continued revolutions in computing power and device technology has us swimming in cool gadgets—putting something akin to Star Trek tri-corders in our hands, in contrast to the smart phones we fawn over today (mere walkie-talkies by comparison).

Abundant energy has transformed energy-intensive practices of food production and mining, so that everyone’s dietary and material needs are met, finally ameliorating hunger and gross inequity globally. Based on rising standards of living, birth rates are predicted to stabilize by century’s end so that we are on track to cruise toward a stable, peaceful, sated global regime.

In short, we’re total rock stars for having achieved a whole new phase of prosperity and amazingness. Martian colonies? Why not? While we’re fantasizing, let’s throw those in too! So yes, we are on our way to exporting our conquest to the stars and all is as it should be.

Part of me feels really crummy doing this to you. My motivation is not to be mean, really. Rather, I think it is incredibly important that we approach our future prospects realistically and understand fundamental planetary limits. So I’m afraid this is where I pull the rug out from under you. But see, I’m warning you and apologizing in advance rather than gleefully anticipating your bruising fall. Feel free to step off the fantasy on your own, if you have not already done so. Three. Two. One.

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Death by Hockey Sticks

hockey sticks

Courtesy Pixabay (PhotoMIX-Company)

You may be familiar with the term “hockey stick curve,” used describe a trend that has been flat/stable for a very long time, but shoots up at the end of the series in dramatic fashion, resembling the shape of a hockey stick. Hockey can be a violent sport, and it’s easy to get hurt by even one well-aimed swing. Today’s world is being battered from all sides by countless hockey sticks. Mostly, they seem to be targeting Earth’s critters, who are getting bludgeoned unsparingly. But in the end, we’re only harming ourselves.

This post is structured as a gauntlet of hockey stick curves that may leave the reader feeling a bit bruised. Depending on what’s being plotted, many of the graphs shoot up like an exponential, but a few are careening downwards. A theme emerges: the “bads” go up, and the “goods” go down—and not by coincidence.

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Limits to Economic Growth

Readers of Do the Math will be familiar with my line of argument that economic growth as we know it is destined to end. It was the second post of the whole series, and the basis for one of the more popular posts recounting a conversation I had with an economist. I also adapted the same reasoning into Chapter 2 of my recent textbook. Already, I sound like a broken record. Yet I write this update to announce the publication of this idea in a “real” article in Nature Physics. Unfortunately, Nature Physics does not allow open access for Comments, but this Share link should allow you to read the content without a subscription. If the link does not work, here is a link to the PDF. Anyway, that’s all. Please share with anyone you think may be interested.

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The Ride of Our Lives

Courtesy Pixabay/fraugun

How much time do we spend fretting over the course we take as a human species? Granted, perhaps too few are focused on ultimate success, which I define as long-term sustainable living as a subordinate partner to all of life on Planet Earth. Even for those who do concern themselves with the intermediate and far future, attention tends to focus on what adjustments we can make to steer a safer course. Yet, when have we ever truly steered our path as a species? Are we actually in control at all? I’ll argue that we’ve never really been in the driver’s seat on the decisions that have mattered most. Our path has been more like an amusement park ride equipped with an ornamental steering wheel, giving the adorable tykes an intoxicating but illusory sense of control.

The central idea is that any development conferring a short-term competitive advantage will come to dominate the landscape, so that failure to adopt it means losing the race and dropping out of the future. It’s a meta-evolution selecting for something other than our best interests. And it’s winning, as it must.

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Shedding our Fossil Fuel Suit

iron man-esque graphic

From Pixabay (Ramdlon)

Fossil fuels have leveraged human power and ingenuity to a remarkable degree. Their discovery and accelerating utilization utterly transformed lifestyles, achievements, and even how we perceive ourselves as a species.

Yet, one thing we know for certain about fossil fuels is that they are a finite resource on this planet—slowly developed in select locations over hundreds of millions of years and being used about a million times faster than the rate of production. We know that we have already consumed a sizable fraction of the initial inheritance: perhaps now halfway through the irreplaceable allotment of oil. So we know that this phase of the human adventure is a temporary one.

The quintessential graphic for conveying this idea is one I have used many times, because I believe it is the most important plot modern humans could possibly absorb. Human energy use has shot up in the last 150 years, and in the context of fossil fuels will plummet on a similar timescale, leaving—what, exactly?

fossil fuel usage is recent, fast, and will be over soon

The fossil fuel energy explosion that powers our current fireworks show is a momentary phenomenon that will be over in a historically short time.

Over timescales relevant to civilization (which began 10,000 years ago with agriculture and cities), plots of almost anything relating to human activity look like hockey sticks: population, agricultural output, industrial output, mined materials, deforestation, species extinctions, and so on. Many of these certainly correlate to population growth, but the per capita impacts also have shot up, compounding the human footprint to a frightening degree. At this point, humans and their livestock account for 96% of mammal mass on the planet, leaving a mere 4% for all wild animals (half of this from massive whales and other marine mammals). It’s not just a footprint any more: it’s a boot on the throat of the planet, leaving non-human life gasping and silently begging for even a little mercy. Is anybody getting video of this?

Almost all of this explosive impact can be traced to fossil fuels, which I have started visualizing as a suit donned by humans that has given us literal superpowers. What would we be without our fancy suit?

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Human Exceptionalism

From Pixabay/Activedia

For almost two decades now, I have been on a journey to understand what comes next in the grand human enterprise. I started out in a mindset superficially similar to that of most people I encounter—assuming that we would innovate our way into a future that became ever better: less poverty and hunger; greater conveniences; a probable space future—fingers crossed.

But the more I dug into the details, the more concerned I became that such a grand vision is an illusion built on top of a highly anomalous period in human history when we over-exploited finite resources on Earth in a one-time bonanza—using those resources to access remaining resources ever faster in an accelerating cycle. I constantly sought reassurance as to what I had wrong about this picture, but found little solace. Those who tried to ease my mind spoke in vague praise of human capabilities and pointed to the arc of history as a reliable pattern by which to understand the future. I did not get the impression that they had confronted my specific concerns and had a blueprint for how to navigate past the pile-up of global-scale problems and irreversible consumption of our inheritance.

Lately, as I meet other academics (via PLAN) who have come to similar conclusions (sober, deep, and careful thinkers, I find), a frequent question that arises is: how can something that seems so obvious to us be dismissed by so many others? What are we missing? Or what are they missing? Why is it so hard to reach common ground? Where is the disconnect?

An answer—or at least a partial one—is beginning to resolve itself in my head. Previously, I tended to focus on growth and ecological overshoot as the most important “upstream” factors impacting our complex civilization on our road to an uncertain future, while issues like climate change and political/social considerations are downstream effects (symptoms) that will not get solved without first addressing root causes (the underlying disease). But maybe I have stumbled onto something even more foundational—the headwaters (pathogen), if you will—and am starting to pinpoint why our peril is so hard to grasp.

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Don’t Look Surprised

planet-killer impact

From Pixabay/Comfreak.

I just watched Don’t Look Up! on Netflix. While the movie has a number of flaws, on the whole I recommend it for the insights it contains in its parody of human attention deficit disorder.

The premise is that astronomers discover a comet on a direct collision course with Earth, due to hit in six months’ time. The world has difficulty assimilating this information, quickly polarizing into the all-too-familiar pattern of believers and deniers. Moneyed interests, techno-optimism, and old-fashioned failures (by non-Americans, of course) thwart mitigation efforts, leaving the entire globe in mortal peril.  Even at a public event dedicated to the planet-killing crisis, the highlight was a pop star’s performance featuring dazzling lights and costumes. How ’bout them priorities!

Yes, it’s complete fiction, so we need to be careful about drawing lessons from the storyline—just as I would caution against forming opinions of space travel from the big screen. Aside from a list of technical nitpicks, I suspect that something as predictable/certain as a comet slamming into Earth would be taken far more seriously and be more universally accepted than are the more nebulous threats we currently face like limits to growth, climate change, and even COVID-19.

This post lacks a single overarching message, but explores a few worthy themes that the movie brings up for me.

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My Brainwashing

From Pixabay/Tumisu.

People rarely recognize or admit that they have been brainwashed. Perhaps the term brainwashed is too extreme, in which case manipulated or fooled may be substituted.

An insightful quote from Mark Twain says:

It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.

What often happens, in fact, is that people on opposite sides of an issue suspect (or are convinced) that the other side has been brainwashed. Sometimes one side is more justified in the charge than the other, in which case the brainwashed victims effectively assert a sort of projected symmetry that rings false.

Bi-directional allegations of brainwashing show up in the context of COVID: masks provide a clear means of identifying either those (masked individuals) who have been fooled into controlled submission to believe that the pandemic is real and deadly vs. those (unmasked fighters for freedom) who have been sadly misled to think it’s all a hoax and in so doing endanger us all. Each side may feel anger or pity toward the other.  Climate change is similar: its denial has become an article of faith for the brainwashed non-believers, who accuse the gullible believers of being brainwashed by self-serving scientists vying for funding, power, or something (cake, maybe?).

To either side, it seems inconceivable that someone could deny the truths that are so obvious to them. For me, an uptick in total deaths closely matching reports of COVID deaths is pretty convincing, and it is hard for me to make out why anyone in power would want to wreck the economy and could somehow convince countries around the world to overlook a competitive advantage and follow suit. It boggles the mind. Likewise, I can see how climate change threatens powerful interests like the fossil fuel industry and even perhaps capitalism writ large—via the imposition of unwelcome limits on what we can do. But I have a much harder time understanding the bizarre allegations of scientists rolling in dough by hopping on the climate change bandwagon. That’s not how it works, people.

In this post, I will provide an example of how I evaluate the question of whether I have been brainwashed in the case of climate change, contrasting the way my knowledge is “received” to that of the opposition.

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Caught Up in Complexity

From analogicus, via Pixabay

Readers of this blog will know that I have come to some big-picture conclusions about success and failure that are unsettling. I don’t like them myself. Not only do they create an inner sadness about where I think the human endeavor is heading, but they result in a sort of isolation that I would rather not suffer—introvert though I am. Among other academics at my institution, it is rare for me to find kindred spirits, even among groups self-selected to care about environmental issues. Most don’t seem to see very far beyond climate change in the lineup of existential threats, increasingly focusing on inequities within the human population that stem from climate and environmental disturbances. I am glad that climate change awareness is high (a genuine threat), but even if climate change had never arisen, I think we would still be in grave trouble from the more fundamental flaws in our explosive approach to living on Earth.

This is a large part of the impetus behind PLAN, which I announced in the last post. Already, I am gratified that people joining the network from vastly different fields and experiences have formed similar conclusions at the highest level. So I’m not crazy, unless we all are. In any case, I am less lonely. [I will say that crazy is usually easy to spot in conversation: a little too insistent/enthusiastic/one-track. The PLAN folks feel really solid, broad, and even perhaps subdued to me: not the type you want to back away from at a party.]

But I still try to understand why so few of my colleagues have reached similar conclusions. The easy answer is that I’m just plain wrong. But believe me, I have tormented myself to try to discover the missing piece and go back to being a happy human bumping along in this race to who-knows-where. It’s not that my unconcerned colleagues have thought more deeply about the issues and can help a rookie out, in my experience.

In this post, I venture some guesses about the disconnect—some of which may even be on target. I will loosely frame the discussion in the context of academia, but much of the logic  also applies beyond this scope. The basic idea is: complexity makes it hard to differentiate between  real and artificial worlds.

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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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