Ultimate Success

What success might look like? Image by Emma Farley from Pixabay.

In early fall 2020, I took a break from intense work on textbook preparation to immerse myself in nature, in the form of a month on the Olympic Peninsula. I spent periods of good weather in the backcountry, and therefore didn’t bother carrying a tent along in my already-too-heavy backpack. Somehow sleep is more precious when there’s some chance of being woken by a (black) bear’s slobbery breath in your face. But for the many dozens of times I’ve slept this way in the wilderness, I have not had a single nighttime bear encounter—being exceedingly careful to keep food smells well away from my sleeping site. Luckily, it would seem that my physical person does not smell like food.

I’m not an adrenaline junkie with a death wish, but exposing myself to some risk at the hands of nature brings a greater appreciation of the relationship between humans and the world of the wild. Being a temporary tourist in nature is not quite the same as fully being a part of nature, but it’s closer than many experience in our human-dominated artificial world.

One of my aims for the trip was to step back from the nitty-gritty focus on margin-notes and glossary items for the textbook and synthesize a broader picture. Being immersed in the wilderness really helped that process. Nature is so grand; so ancient; so indifferent. Nature is wild. Nature is mature.

Humans have embarked on a 10,000 year experiment to separate from nature: to build stores and access “old money” that Earth has banked for eons, providing a recent freedom to largely ignore annual, renewable flows in nature. The last several centuries have accelerated the divorce to an alarming degree. But the question I stumbled upon as my boots navigated rocks and roots on the trail was:

Is the 10,000-year-old human civilization in its infancy, or nearer its end than its beginning?

Of course, this is not a question that I or anyone can answer with any confidence, but that’s not the point. The question provides a compelling framework against which to assess what long term success for humans on this planet would mean, by forcing us to think on appropriate timescales. Appendix section D.5 in the new textbook explores this topic in a complementary way to this post.

Local Limitations

General Relativity casts gravity as a curvature of spacetime, so that a particle (or planet) simply responds to the local curvature imposed by nearby masses, executing the straightest path that it can in that twisted space, which distorts into orbits traced out on a global scale. In this sense, we say that gravity is local. It’s not Newton’s “action at a distance” but a locally-felt influence, via the mechanism of curved space.

Humans are similarly “local” by nature, most concerned with events in the very short term: eating today; rent this month; quarterly profits; annual yield; few-year political terms. Some thought goes into decade-level planning, but seldom extends beyond one’s own lifetime. All this is very understandable and is the way it is for good reason. It’s a sensible reaction to dealing with uncertainty and limited control over a complex life, and is highly adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

Economists formalize this natural tendency as a discount rate: devaluing the future relative to the present. Where money counts—that is, in nearly all current human decisions—the distant future may as well not exist, having essentially zero value. [Late addition: putting zero value on the future is one way to assure a worthless future.]

Maybe this dismal framing simply captures human nature accurately. But maybe it also amplifies a destructive tendency—conditioning us to think in these myopic terms.

That’s what is so powerful about the question: is human civilization nearer its end or its beginning? It forces a completely different perspective and timescale for consideration. It suddenly places value on the distant future, and has the potential to reshape actions today to help steer outcomes on such long timescales. It says: “Hey: do you even care what happens to humanity in the long term?”

Futile Future Fantasies?

At this stage, many say: “Sure, but we can’t possibly predict well enough the developments over such timescales to have a meaningful impact by our actions today.”

A large part of this thinking is guided by the only context many of us have: the past. Someone 10,000 years ago surely could not have foreseen the technological world of today. Any mental energy in this direction would have been an utter waste of time. Any actions in preparation for that unforeseeable future would be exceedingly lucky to have any relevance whatsoever.

Here’s why this mindset is not as valid as it seems:

  1. Most of the change in the last 10,000 years has happened in the last 200 years: much more local and fast-moving, and therefore more tractable to understand and predict.
  2. The tools of math and physics permit us to define some things that are not possible to maintain for 10,000 years, allowing us to usefully constrain the “head-space.”  In this sense, we can turn the usual argument on its head and say that people 10,000 years ago could not possibly fathom that we would have tools today to help meaningfully constrain possibilities 10,000 years hence.

The first lesson from physics is that growth cannot be a long-term prospect. The last few-hundred years are the anomaly. We can be sure of that. A 1% growth rate—thought of as modest in the present era—has a doubling time of 70 years. 10,000 years means 140 doublings, which is 42 orders of magnitude. Physics says: not gonna happen. If each year, 1% of any resource is “destroyed” (mined, chopped, burned), it will be utterly gone in 10,000 years. According to the Attenborough show, A Life on Our Planet, wild spaces declined from 62% of the planet to 35% from 1960 to 2020 (very close to 1% reduction per year). Clearly, we’ve been doing it all wrong for the last 60 years, so that the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed is a terrible template for the future, and should probably be utterly ignored: discarded like smelly trash.  We have been deceived by rapid exhaustion of the extravagant inheritance into thinking life will always be at least this rich.

Human civilization in 10,000 years therefore cannot afford to continue any exploitation or destruction of one-time resources. Fossil fuels will be long gone or abandoned. Deforestation must stop. Aquifer depletion must stop. Jeopardizing the survival of any species must stop. Soil erosion or degradation must stop. Anything that is not replenished by nature as fast as we’re using it cannot be part of a successful future.

Success, Sustainability: Synonymous

To me, that rock-solid and rather obvious insight is a big deal. Suddenly, we have a rule book for success. In the end, success can only mean sustainability. The rule book could get by with that one line. The converse is also true: unsustainable is unsuccessful. Which should we aim to be?

To satisfy our desire to be in our infancy as a civilization, and not near the end, we have no choice but to cease actions that result in gradual decline of resources or gradual accumulation of pollutants. Doing it in a controlled manner might allow preservation our hard-won knowledge through the transition. If we ignore the unmistakable call to change, then nature will exercise indifferent control in a way that may not be to our liking, as ecosystems collapse and turn off our life support machine. We’re basically gnawing on the cord that powers the very thing keeping us alive: smart enough to destroy, but not wise enough to preserve.

In this stark—and ultimately correct—view, almost everything we do today is not compliant with the success rule book. Can you guess what is left in the absence of success? That’s right: failure.

Fueling Failure

A restatement is therefore: most things we do today are contributing to our ultimate failure. The dinner table question: “What did you do today?” might as well be asked as “What did you do today that contributes to humanity’s ultimate failure?” The answer is generally the same. Whatever we did likely contributed more to ultimate failure than to ultimate success. Shouldn’t we be shouted at for our juvenile negligence and be sent to our rooms without any dinner?

If, in the course of your day: you used fossil fuels; utilized mined materials; ate food grown using industrially-produced fertilizer or other soil amendments; used furniture whose wood was harvested from a place that is no longer forest; worked for a company whose focus is monetary rather than ecosystem health, enjoyed electricity produced by devices whose materials or fuel were extracted from the ground; lived in a house or building made from extracted materials or chopped forests; ate food irrigated from an aquifer (or animals fed on such food); or looked at a computer screen; then you contributed to ultimate failure. In other words, if you are a member of modern society and not living in harmony with the land like a primitive outcast, then you are perhaps unwillingly and/or unwittingly an accessory to crimes against the ultimate success of humanity.

Scrapping the Script

That’s okay, maybe. It’s not over yet. Nature is resilient and can rebound to support us for the long haul if we take our hands off its throat. It won’t bear a grudge (the upside of its indifference to our fate). We “just” need to sort activities into those that contribute to success and those that contribute to failure, and stop doing the latter in favor of the former. As long as we turn the tanker ship before too much irreversible damage is done to ecosystems, they can recover. But it has to be a system-wide shift, and we don’t have much time. Many ecosystems have already been hacked into small enough disconnected parcels that we cannot be assured of their springing back.

The hard part is how pervasive the failure-promoting practices are. As aware as I am of our destructive trajectory, I can’t avoid contributing to failure as a member of our society. It pains me to know that like almost everyone else, I contribute more to failure than I contribute to success every day. My main strategy has been to drastically reduce how much damage I do by using far less energy, traveling less, buying less stuff, prioritizing nature (even bears, if they decide to eat me), and of course communicating concerns and perspectives that might help leverage broader action.

Change won’t happen overnight, but it must start with awareness. Put on your 10,000 year glasses and ask what things in life are likely to be present in a successful 10,000 year lifestyle. Try to stop doing or at least de-emphasizing those things that contribute to ultimate failure. Be a part of the values shift, and help educate others—trying not to be righteous, condescending, or a know-it-all: just ask others if they think those activities will be possible in 10,000 years to start reflection and discussion. Explore together. Liberally sprinkle “I don’t know” into the conversation to encourage acknowledgement of the same truth from the other side.

To help discern successful modes, think about natural flows: things nature replaces as we use them. Oxygen, water, wood, vine, pelts, bone, thatch, and fibers are resupplied by nature, for instance. Rock and clay are not regenerated, but perhaps abundant/present enough at the surface to be permissible. Primitive modes stood the test of time and offer valuable insight. Note: I’m not recommending everyone rush out to get bone tools, because 8 billion people wanting animal products may unleash a devastating blow against nature.

Conversely, mined materials are not replaced. We may be able to recycle materials, but for how long? How many cycles before corrosion and dispersal preclude indefinite use? 10,000 years is many hundreds of human generations. It is true that the atoms don’t disappear, but our ability to gather them profitably may suffer.  Recycling mined materials may not be a viable possibility in 10,000 years.

Remaining Reflection

I would hope that the far future, while necessarily blending more intimately into nature, can also preserve some critical technology so that we can maintain and improve upon our knowledge of the world. But I honestly don’t know if nature is compatible with a technological species for the long term. We simply have no evidence on Earth or beyond, inspiring this thing I made up (not sure what the rules are, so is this a passage, a quote, or a poem?):

Present practices are fundamentally incompatible with nature.
Is it even possible to maintain technology over the long term?
We, ourselves, will never know the answer.
Meanwhile, the universe says… nothing.

The next post will address the terms of our contract with nature.

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30 thoughts on “Ultimate Success

  1. Our family gets around mostly by bicycle in car-dominated Perth, Australia. My five year-old son commented proudly: "we do it because it's good for the environment!" Maybe I'm a terrible parent, but I couldn't help but explain that it's not good. It's just less bad than getting around by bus or car, and perhaps (for efficiency reasons and depending on diet and what your shoes are made of) walking. Nothing we do in the modern world is "good" – it's only "less bad". I'm aware this is not enough. But I and most people cannot stop work unless we are paid to perform the ecosystem restoration work that is necessary.

    Have you read Kim Stanley Robinson's "Ministry for the Future"? It is about the only optimistic yet realistic cli-fi I've come across, and a central tenet of the book is that we must urgently reorient our economy to fund ecosystem restoration and carbon sequestration as a matter of survival. I agree! And if we do that, perhaps in the 10,000 year timescale we can consider mining the occasional asteroid to replace minerals we can no longer obtain from recycling.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. It's delightful to see you writing here again!

    • In theory, this is true. In practical terms, it becomes a fantastical statement, and therefore does not offer much assistance to change the story. I can't prove that space will never offer relief, but the physics and math show it to be exceptionally hard. In any case, the burden of proof is on those who believe space offers relief, having not come anywhere close to demonstrating its viability. Until then, the prudent course is to assume that we must respond to our situation confined to Earth's surface. Anything else is negligently risky. Secure your mask before assisting the person next to you. Otherwise, both could fail. Let's first make a solid plan for coping without space, and only if we achieve that safe goal, expand horizons. It's conservative, and wise.

      • " It's conservative, and wise." And therefore impossible. So far, humanity has only improved itself through technological advances. World Wars ended at number two not because of our wise diplomacy, but because we developed nuclear weapons. Famine was conquered not by conservatively reducing childbirth, but by the Third Agricultural Revolution.

        What I'm saying is, mining asteroids seems to me more likely than humanity turning into nature-loving elves.

    • "Our resources are not limited by planet Earth."

      Right now, and for decades to come – maybe even 10K years – they are. All life's resources are limited by the sunlight captured on the exposed surface of Earth (plus residual/decay heat from inside the planet).

      Whether or not human beings will ever actually live in space is not one of those questions that can be decided on a 10K timescale. If we want to, and make it a priority, we will. Possibly, the only reason we ever would is because we decided to do it. Space is like sex – you do it because you want to, when you have the opportunity, likely when it is not a smart, wise, or sustainable move.

      But any species that lives in space has no reason to – by then, knowingly – feed an unsustainable ground-bound civilization so that it can destroy even more of our evolutionary heritage. Economically, space is in-situ or void.

      Given the first & only era of spaceflight, possibly ending with ISS de-orbit within the decade, we can guess how this will go over the relevant timescale of "this generation or next".

      Most importantly, I think Tom's main argument is not only that we are limited by how much we can eat, but also by how much we can excrete [edited]. To argue that, in space, there are many more resources to feed and sustain a little longer our unsustainable Fossil Food Orgy, does not really address the issue that we do not want to live in an Outhouse, here or in space, and could not.

      We can do estimates of the total mass of relevant elements in the solar system. guess at accessibility and feasibility of separation and concentration, moving it, turning it into structure. Then, in 10K years, we will be told by somebody:

      "Our resources are not limited by our Solar System"

      However, we can calculate just much much mass we can accelerate how much and move how fast from one solar system to another, and just how much solar output of the available stars that transportation would consume. FAPP, solar systems in our neighborhood are separated too far to exchange anything but information at scale – and we can calculate the bandwidth limits as well.

      Problem is, no amount of calculation will ever convince the unwilling mind. It is one of the most astonishing feats of the human mind.

  2. Have you read Craig Dilworth's 'Too Smart for our Own Good' ? This essay encapsulates that book. Well done.

  3. Finished your book and loved it! D5 and D6 in the appendices were the best and most thought-provoking parts. Glad to see you back writing again.

  4. There is no way the majority of humanity follows your no doubt wise and scientific view of the future. So we are going to follow the slime mould in petri dish and consume ourselves into oblivion.

    You are living in a dream world if you think anything is going to change the current trajectory. The vast majority of humanity can't think, won't think, and the few that do think don't do so very well. Stop hoping and come to terms with our impending termination.

    • Think of this as outlining what would have to happen for success to result. Whether or not we're capable is quite another issue that I did not address head-on in the post. Defining the requirements brings the scope of the challenge into sharper relief, and says: "Hey, if you don't want collapse, here's the heavy lift you must take on. Otherwise you're just contributing to our failure." As I point out, almost everything we do today points us toward failure, and it is indeed hard to imagine things turning around. So under the veneer of hope…

    • The vast majority of humanity thinks decently enough and responds more or less rationally to local incentives. Change the incentives, e.g. through government policy, and you change the behavior.

      Trajectories can be changed, which is why US air and water are cleaner than they were in 1970, and why the ozone layer is recovering.

  5. Based on your reasonable evaluations, I suspect that the term "sustainable global civilization" is an oxymoron. The energy throughput of any society that we might call a "civilization", even those early societies such as the Romans, Chinese or the Egyptians, is far too large to be sustainable over timescales of 10,000 years.

    Perhaps if almost everyone were hunter-gatherers (or subsistence farmers?) we could afford one or two small civilizations around the world that could develop, over-consume the local resource base and collapse without destroying the global ecological equilibrium. That situation would require using only energy sources derived from solar insolation, like wood (charcoal), wind and water. Anything more would allow a dangerously global civilization.

    The etymology of "civilization" relates to the Latin word "civitas" or city. Cities are not sustainable. We need to live without them, and if humanity survives, we will.

    • "is far too large to be sustainable"

      I see no basis for this assertion.

      "only energy sources derived from solar insolation, like wood (charcoal), wind and water."

      There's no reason for excluding electricity from this, and happily we seem able to turn sunlight into electricity (not to mention heat) far more efficiently than if we go through biomass first.

      [edited out unnecessary attack-style language inconsistent with the cultivated comment community]

    • You are right about cities,Joe. It is not only the fact that they are energy and resource 'black holes'. The ultimate non-sustainability of mining that Tom refers to couldn't be clearer when we look at the case of the mining of the nutrients required by industrial agriculture.

      Cities convert cyclic nutrient systems into linear systems. (The sea-floor deposits of those nutrients still cycle in geological terms, but they are not cycling in the short-term as they would in a natural ecosystem) Fossil fuel depletion, climate disruption, dissipation of the phosphorus and potassium reserves currently being mined to keep industrial agriculture functioning, and all the other systemic flaws of this industrial civilisation means that it is intrinsically ephemeral.

      • Professor Duncan Brown wrote a book explaining this in great
        detail,if anyone is interesed: 'Feed or Feedback'.
        Brown quips in the book :"Cities are the reason that this civilisation will inevitably go down the tube. ". His "Ten rules
        of Ecological Bloody-Mindedness" ,also in that book,are worth reading.

  6. I just rejected a well thought but very long comment. Because the author did not provide a valid e-mail address, I could not notify directly. But note that the discussion policy contains the following directive:

    Keep it short.  No rants or screeds. I have to vet every post, and long ones discourage me from investing the time.  If you have complex thoughts that require more than a few short paragraphs, I've found that starting a new blog is a great way to express such ideas: post a link to your content.

    I hate to flush something that a lot of thought went into, but I must discourage long comments as I can't handle the reading assignment that proper vetting requires. Plus, readers likely skip gargantuan posts. Thanks for understanding (and feel free to come back with more manageable posts).

  7. Tom, reading your latest thinking has felt like a reunion with an old friend. The part I found most thought-provoking was the value assignments of "success" and "failure" . I value and prioritise well-being, but when I think deeply about it, I encounter doubts about whether sheer duration of the species is an inherently appealing goal. Could that be a bit like favouring quantity over quality? I'm uncomfortably aware of how crass it sounds, to comfortably type about dismissing the lives of billions, but if we take "avoidance of suffering" as one of our goals, we have to bear in mind that the unimaginable horror of the failure of our biosphere is completely unavoidable, whether through our own mismanagement or the eventual brightening of the sun.

    So with that as a grim constant, the maximisation of value in the finite period we have before our extinction seems like a worthy objective. Here I find myself thinking "we've already done sustainable hunter-gathering; what's new?!" We could have remained in that mode for the entire viability of the biosphere, but isn't advanced civilisation more…interesting? We might not be able mine the metal to send probes out into space continuously for 10,000 years, but could there be some things worth blowing a bit of our exergy window on? Could we consider this a success of a different sort, albeit shorter lived?

    For the record I too live an exceptionally low impact life for a first worlder, avoiding cars, meat and planes, wearing jumpers, using old electronic devices and devoting my career to decarbonisation, so hopefully I'm not just making excuses for my own apathy. However, I can't kid myself about our prospects of bending multiple curves quickly enough in the right direction within the socioeconomic constraints we operate in. All the renewable energy in the world won't halt the cliff edge biodiversity decline, for instance.

    I suppose these ideas are perfectly compatible with yours; you also think the party may soon be over, but are arguing for making a softer landing back to a more primitive mode. So I don't know what my point is exactly…perpetuity may not be a condition of success?

    • I would think survival is a prerequisite for the application of the word "successful" to a species. If extinction is not the ultimate failure, I don't know what it would be.

      • That implies that survival must be literally infinite if we are to avoid writing off the entire collection of human achievements as a failure. Do you believe that to be possible, beyond the death of our sun, and ultimately of all stars? I would say that a 90 year old on their deathbed should be celebrating the rich and diverse life they lived, rather than lamenting their failure.

        • Not infinite, just a reasonably long time in evolutionary terms.

          About 100 billion people have ever lived. If our species survived for a reasonable period, say 10 million years, and the earth supported a reasonable number of people during that time, say 100 million (fluctuating around ice ages of course), then 10,000 times as many people as have already lived would have the chance to enjoy life on this planet. I would consider that a success, even with eventual extinction.

          Are you really saying that the "entire collection of human achievements" to date is worth ending the chance for 99.9999 of humanity to have a chance at life. Think about the "greatest good for the greatest number".

          Then again, we are smarter than sharks, so we should be able to exist for longer than sharks have been around, about 450 million years. If we humans survived for that long, I would consider it a fantastic success.

          • "Then again, we are smarter than sharks, so we should be able to exist for longer"

            Unless intelligence is mal-adaptive after a point. The jury is out, but we're working furiously on the answer.

          • Dr Murphy,

            Indeed. And if intelligence is maladaptive we can use that information to update the Drake Equation just before we go extinct. Too bad nobody would be around to appreciate the achievement (including intelligent extra-terrestrials).

  8. In 1972 Dennis Meadows published his scenarios about the future of the world with his modeling called System WORLD3. These scenarios were not so accurate due to weak computer power at that time.Between 2010 and 2020, a team led by Norwegian-Icelandic scientist Harald Sverdrup developed a far more advanced System WORLD6, actual WORLD7, whose scenarios are specifically designed for resource availability. For the German Federal Environment Agency this system was used to calculate scenarios for the resource consumption of important metals and other substances . Recycling was also considered The results can be downloaded here:

    "The WORLD Model Development and The Integrated Assessment of the Global Natural Resources Supply."

    https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/en/publikationen/the-world-model-development-the-integrated

    It shows that between 2030 and 2080 almost all important resources will have their production peak, after which production will shrink. Results can be seen on pages 407 to 409. From this we can conclude

    At the earliest in 2080, at the latest 40 years later, the following statement will be true, if the world economy continues in a similar style as today (BAU … business as usual):
    For the rest of its existence, mankind will have to get along with fewer resources than it has consumed in the last 200 years.

    Consumed means here, the materials were distributed as waste hardly discoverable relatively finely on the earth's surface.

    A short compilation can be seen here:
    https://www.p-plus.nl/resources/articlefiles/WorldsBookkeeperAVANS.pdf

  9. Given the way many people responded to setbacks brought by the pandemic, I dread thinking about the social and political ramifications of a energy-scarce and ecologically devastated future. So many people simply refuse to accept temporary setbacks like not going out, not going on vacation for a year or wearing a piece of cloth on their face. Try to project all of this on the (very likely) constrained future that you describe, and it paints a bleak picture, even though some current developments do inspire hope (vaccine development) in our better angels.

  10. Just a thought, but perhaps declining population, due to declining reproduction rates brought about by increased levels of education and availability of birth control, will solve the problem?

    • See Chapter 3 of the textbook, in which I discuss the demographic transition (what you describe) and the associated cost. In all cases historically, achieving a declining state (like in many European countries) first involves a reduced death rate (improvements in health and medicine) before birth rate falls. The result is a double-whammy for resources. A population surge accompanies this transition, due to the lag between declining death rate and birth rate, AND the resource use per person goes up as the society advances (which is part-and-parcel with the education level increase you propose). The net effect is a dramatic increase in resource use. But that's the very thing we're fighting, and is ultimately limiting.

      So the idea seems like a great solution, but the cost/result is unbearable by the planet. Also, European countries often try to reverse the decline because they fear being less competitive in the future. If we could all globally agree to reduce population AND resource use per person, that would be amazing.

  11. I can't resist mentioning Brad Werner (UCSD, same as Tom Murphy) who addressed these issues in a paper "Is Earth f**ked?" at an American Geophysical Union meeting a few years ago. From what I understand he said, there is no social mechanism in place to put the brakes on the hell-bent Business-As-Usual scenario we seem to be on, save possibly for radical activism. But evidence for any effective radical changes taking place through street marches, general strikes, or public disobedience is entirely lacking. If you look at societal ills, especially in the US, then racial tensions have been going on for 100's years – still unresolved – same for gun violence, and more recently for covid compliance or climate change (Greta Thunberg). In 2014 fracking doomed in the US any hope that dwindling oil supplies would bring market forces to teach people we were squandering resources ($5 gas might have worked). So relying on multi-decade arguments that the Earth will be 5 degrees hotter by the end of the century largely falls on deaf political and corporate ears. The timescales are all wrong; the majority of people don't want to know. Sorry, I think by the time the disasters pile up and multiply (food shortages, disease, flooding, no more coral reefs or large wild animals, whatever) it will be far too late for sensible coordinated action. How can we deconvolve a seemingly 'successful' society on the brink?

    • Hi David! I should read Brad's paper (I read altogether too little), and even have a discussion with him! Thanks for reminding me. What you say seems realistic. Presumably under the harsh light of this post's success/failure metrics on 10,000 year timescales, it will become more evident to many just how backwards we have things right now. If we're trying to catch the train to success, it is very clear that we are running away from the train station right now. Whether we're capable of turning around is an unresolved question, but evidence is precious short.

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