Keeping Up On Appearances

Over the last year or so, a number of audio/video productions have accumulated in which I have had an opportunity to express my evolving thoughts. Being challenged in the art of self promotion (Do the Math is the closest I come to social media), I tend not to link to everything that comes along. Yet, I recognize that some readers may value pointers to these other formats. So this brief post is an aggregation of recent appearances, to put it all in one place, arranged by context. Still feels a little gross.

The first—and most recent—pair of links relates to the latest Do the Math post on The Simple Story of Civilization. This post started as one page on a bedside note pad, scribbled by coincidence the night before a scheduled podcast interview with Hart Hagan. Although I did not connect the two, I did mention the outline to Hart when we began the zoom session, in case he found it interesting. To my surprise, he launched the conversation with a rough run-through of the script. Here is the video chat:

Shortly after this recording, I wrote up and released the post—which inspired Nate Hagens to record a targeted “Frankly” that follows the thread of the post:

About a year prior to this, I dropped in on the Crazy Town podcast trio on a road trip, and recorded this episode with them (also can try this link). It was a fun discussion about physical limits and what features future success must have (I did link this previously on Do the Math). Update 2023.02.21: In the initial posting, I forgot to include this podcast episode (51) from Breaking Down: Collapse from September of 2021.

Early in 2022, Nate Hagens included me on his new podcast called The Great Simplification, as episode 18. I am pleased to be in such good company: the other guests on the podcast have been insightful and thought-provoking. In episode 18, Nate and I explore physical limits to growth—echoing some of the foundational posts of the Do the Math blog.

Update 2023.02.21: Hart Hagan recently did a second podcast interview with me:

The next video is a relatively high production-value interview by the UC San Diego Division of Physical Sciences about my free textbook. (I put this up before, but also include here for completeness.)

This next pair relates to my involvement in the formation of the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; see post about it here). First I’ll point to a radio interview of myself and PLAN co-founder Melody LeHew, in which we discuss the predicament, and what PLAN might do in this context. Next is a video interview for Scientists’ Warning along with PLAN instigator Ben McCall, in which we address the challenges associated with radical change in our academic trajectories:

So I think that’s all I want to point out here. Anyway, I hope at least some of these provide value.

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Holiday Haikus

I’m no poet, preferring prose for its clarity and completeness. So please forgive this amateur attempt to capture two opposing views on planetary limits in haiku form. One gracefully respects constraints, while the other…well, you’ll see.

Just as in haiku
Earth imposes hard limits
We must live within

And in the red corner:

It’s preposterous
To think that human imagination is lim…

Buzzer. Disqualified. Nice try. And the winner is…

Wishing you peace and meaning this holiday season.

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The Simple Story of Civilization

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

The stories we fashion about ourselves are heavily influenced by our short life spans during an age of unprecedented complexity. We humans, it would seem, are unfathomably complicated creatures who defy simple “just-so” characterizations. Animals, or humans tens of thousands of years ago are fair game for simple stories, but not so for transcendent modern humans.

Two major problems I have with this attitude are that 1) we are animals, and 2) we have exactly the same hardware (albeit with slightly smaller brains) as we had 100,000 years ago.

So allow me to pull back from our present age of baffling complexity to outline a simple story covering the broad sweep of the human saga. The result may be a little startling, and, for a number of readers, sure to be rejected by cultural antibodies as “not applicable” (see also my views of our civilization as a cult).

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Finite Feeding Frenzy

Image by ariesjay castillo from Pixabay

You may be aware that our food industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, to the point that it takes about 10 kcal of energy input to deliver 1 kcal of consumed food. The enormous energy multiplier is due to extensively mechanized plowing, harvesting, processing, and delivery of food; fossil-fueled fertilization (via methane feedstock); refrigeration and preparation; then of course food waste. In olden times, when all agricultural energy came from muscle power that needed to be fed, the system would collapse (i.e., starve and fail) if energy inputs exceeded energy ingested.

Some have phrased our current practice as “eating fossil fuels,” and in fact a 2006 book by Dale Allen Pfeiffer had this title. So what? More power to us—literally.

The problem, people, is that fossil fuels are finite. We have already consumed a fair fraction (roughly half?) of the accessible allotment. And before concluding that we therefore have a century or so before needing to worry about the consequences, realize that the inflection point happens around the halfway mark, wherein decreasing ease of access tends to result in ever-decreasing output rates in the second-half of the resource. We see this behavior in individual oil fields and in regional (country-scale) aggregations. The low-hanging fruit is taken first, sensibly, so that what’s left is more stubborn.

Because human population has been substantially boosted by fossil fuel input, we have put ourselves into a vulnerable position. What happens when fossil fuels begin to give out on us?

It’s been a while since I did any, you know, math for this blog, as I seem to be living my own worst nightmare and turning into an armchair philosopher (oh the shame). In this post, I return to something closer to math. It’s illustrative rather than quantitative, but helps frame the peril we have put ourselves into in a low-effort sort of way.

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A Random Fix to Polarization

From the New York Times; 2022-11-13

Following the midterm elections in the U.S. this week, the punditry is ablaze with stories about how voters have rejected the lies, spoken out about abortion, indicated that this inflation spike is not a primary concern, and that perhaps we are finally shaking off this fever-dream and turning a corner.

Really? By what margin? The mere fact that the balance of power has taken so long to determine (still not settled in the House, as of this writing) indicates to me that we are not collectively on the same page about these issues. The main story, to me, is that the deep polarization pattern continues to stymie our political system.

I have an idea that could make a huge difference. It’s an idea that has essentially no hope of gaining traction—especially since: who the hell am I? But I will put it out there all the same. Maybe others will see the logic.

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The Cult of Civilization

From Pixabay/KELLEPICS

I recently watched a Netflix documentary series about fundamentalist Mormons, exposing along the way a number of beliefs that seem bizarre from the outside, but that are accepted as perfectly normal within their insular community. Though the term “cult” is not used in the series, it is hard not to see the sect in this light. It would be nearly impossible to convince any one of its members that they are deeply in error, in part because doing so threatens the salvation that has been dangled in front of them.  If they are pure enough in their faith, resisting external evils that try to knock them off the one true course, eternity is theirs. In today’s world, one need not look far to find other groups whose beliefs are at once bonkers and seemingly immune to attack.

Hearing the perspectives of ex-members of these cults never fails to be fascinating, providing a window into how they could have swallowed all the lies and goofy stories. Also important to know: it is possible to escape, and to suddenly see the magnitude of the deception. Once out, there’s no going back.

Cult beliefs look insane from the outside, so why don’t its adherents detect the lunacy? Why is it so hard to convince them of their folly? One possible answer—as a tangent—is that cults offer a deeply satisfying sense of identity, belonging, and (seemingly) unconditional acceptance/support within its community that we have otherwise lost in today’s society, but that in times past were central offerings of tribal life to which humans are intimately adapted. It is remarkable how quickly tribal cohesion instincts of mutual help resurface as soon as core elements of civilization (provision of food, water, electricity, for instance) fail in a natural disaster. We’ve still got it, underneath the veneer.

Leaving that for another time, let me now condemn myself in the court of civil opinion by making the charge that most people on Earth are members of a dangerous cult whose central beliefs seem every bit as bizarre to one who has escaped the thought prison, but that are seldom questioned and even fiercely defended. This post offers ten heretical statements that seem obvious to me, but tend to produce emotionally charged reactions by members of the cult of civilization. Watch yourself, now. Continue reading

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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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