To What End?

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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.

I’ve had enough of the human tendency to “follow our noses” based on near-term advantages at the disastrous expense of long-term success. Humans have acquired the power to radically change the world. Great power should ideally be wielded only by those capable of great responsibility. But we cheated somehow, and grabbed power because we could, without first demonstrating responsibility. No higher or wiser authority was present to tell us not to.

The result is even worse than doing things willy-nilly, like an unconstrained firehose. Because even that firehose will sometimes by random chance throw water on the fire. Our actions are more systematically directed at accelerating destruction by eroding ecosystems that ultimately constitute our own life support on this planet.

A core problem is that most people lack the tools of math and science to inform thought, relying instead on history and experience as their bedrock. Even those adept at math and science generally have not directed their skills toward critical inspection of society’s prevailing narratives. In fact, the magnitude and complexity of the problem are overwhelming to the point that it might seem futile to even try to wrap one’s head around it. So it is easy enough to “buy in” to unexamined narratives and go with the flow, focusing attention on whatever small corner of unexplored territory presents itself. We’re wasting a lot of talent.

Once these tools are brought to bear on the big-picture long-term prospects for humanity, the unavoidable conclusion is that our present mode of growth and mounting ecosystem damage is highly abnormal and cannot persist much longer. Yet, here we are without a plan.

On civilization timescales of 10,000 years, successful inhabitation of this planet will necessitate embracing steady-state principles and living off annual flows provided by nature—no longer able to rely on “inherited” one-time resources or on depletion far outstripping replacement rates. 10,000 years hence, fossil fuels will be long gone. Accessible deposits of metals will be depleted. Recycling will have sputtered out after hundreds or thousands of cycles due to corrosion, wear, and dispersal. Aquifer extraction rates will no longer be able to exceed replacement rates. Steady deforestation will no longer be possible.

Lacking this level of awareness, our society plows ahead only asking what we can do right now. But to what end?

Money has displaced critical thought, by conveniently expressing a sloppy version of societal values in a flawed system that fails to appreciate the value of Earth (see Box 19.1 in the textbook): failing to place proper value on its irreplaceable biology and one-time resources. Indeed, the future is formally devoid of worth in our economic schemes via the construct of the discount rate, or opportunity cost. How can we possibly expect responsible behaviors to result from such a backwards system? Surely the future is worth more than the present. For one thing, there’s a lot more of it! And even the present would seem to lose value if the future is reduced to a nihilistic void. Why bother doing anything at all of enduring value?

Recasting Assumptions

Once we substitute physics, math, and logic for current monetary policy in guiding long-term prospects, the picture changes dramatically. For what follows, I will assume that Earth’s resources are finite, and that we exploit the low-hanging fruit first, blowing through a sizable fraction of accessible one-time resources in a few centuries. I will assume that any successful long-term future has found its footing in true sustainable principles utilizing Earth’s annual flows of energy and regenerated resources. I will assume that growth is long gone, perhaps leaving a smaller human population on the planet and scaled-down resource utilization per person. In other words, I will assume that the present unsustainable modes are unsustainable, and that Star Trek is not our future—merely a fantasy of entertainment far beyond our means.

Under this set of assumptions, most present activities cease to make sense. We can build additional factories, cargo ships, and distribution centers, but to what end? The result only speeds up the exploitation of finite resources and hastens ultimate failure. This would be tolerable if those precious resources were devoted to creating a world that could step off the materially-intense treadmill into sustainability, but very little of the current global effort is in that direction.

Most jobs are driven by financial gain, implicitly embracing the woefully flawed value system provided by current markets and economic thinking. This makes most jobs worse than pointless, driving us faster toward failure. Does a new toothbrush design help restore ailing ecosystems—beginning the march toward success—or does it translate to more material extraction and waste? We can develop any number of new gizmos, but to what end? How will they help us reverse the exploitation of the planet and set us up for a more likely successful path? New products usually only dig the hole deeper toward failure. So why pursue them?

The operational answer that “it makes money” ceases to provide appropriate justification in light of the fact that financial interests are often directed diametrically opposite to the actions that promote ultimate success. Traditional economists excel at optimizing our speed toward failure, setting us up for elegantly maximized suffering in the “worthless” long-term future.

Even something as seemingly altruistic as health care selfishly focuses on human health, to the exclusion and often direct detriment of ecosystem health. Are we really doing ourselves favors in the long term by making the destructive human enterprise healthier, more populous, longer-living, and therefore better able to carry out its damaging activities? If this sounds abhorrently anti-human, it’s because the human enterprise is currently relentlessly anti-planet. Anything that is anti-planet will dismantle ecosystems that serve as critical life support for humans, spelling failure for the human enterprise. So it’s really the human enterprise that is anti-human by way of being anti-planet. Sorry if I lost you, but it makes sense to me, somehow. The best way to assure long-term prosperity is to forge a non-human-centric partnership with nature that does not always put short-term human interests above those of non-human elements of nature. Even “good” activities like health care therefore miss the boat in terms of building a better tomorrow.

We can pursue fusion research, but to what end? Electricity is not hard to make from alternative, renewable energy sources. Solar plus storage seems at least as good as fusion, and works today, affordably. Do we need fusion to feel special? Is it ego? Do we see it as a necessary stepping stone to warp drive or replicators or some other nonsense that won’t come to pass? I think of fusion as being like a light saber: an alluring fantasy future technology that we just wants, precious (Gollum voiced that last part). But since fusion would ultimately only boil water for steam, it’s like learning that the only practical use for a light saber is as a letter opener. I also worry that giving humans more power at this point would only accelerate resource depletion and ecosystem devastation: what, exactly, would stop us if every jackass on the planet had access to all the power they wanted?

We can cosplay our way to Mars as a stunt, but to what end? I immensely enjoyed an article by Shannon Stirone in The Atlantic titled Mars is a Hellhole, accurately describing why Mars ambitions are juvenile. We’re not solving our predicament that way, people. I would say “knock yourselves out” to those who eagerly pursue such goals, but for the fact that propagating the fantasy is itself harmful to our eventual success by shifting focus and promoting a form of denialist escapism.

And What am I Doing, Exactly?

I even ask “the question” about the kind of research I have done for most of my career, and by extension that of my colleagues as well: to what end? I have great respect and warmth toward many of my colleagues, but wonder what good their pursuits serve in the context of our current trajectory. Most of them likely make the same assumption I did for most of my life: that every incremental scientific advance acts like a ratchet: securing another irreversible gain in our climb up the hill, whatever that hill might be. Who cares if we don’t have an accurate map of the hill or a potential precipice waiting a the top of the climb: just keep stepping “up.” Blindfolds become comfortable, after getting used to them.

But now, recognizing that current institutions are urging us toward ultimate unwitting collapse—in that they are not embracing elements necessary for long-term success—the risk of wiping out most of those gains stands as a legitimate potential outcome. Shouldn’t I therefore direct my efforts toward encouraging others to peek out from the blindfold so that we might avoid this regrettable fate, and even help salvage the survival of my colleagues’ work? Would my colleagues pursue their current research if aware of a substantial chance that everything they’ve accomplished will be flushed and forgotten within a few hundred years? How important is the notion of posterity to them, deep down? At what percentage chance are they willing to make the gamble? I would bet that, being fundamentally conservative in the dictionary sense of the word, even a 10% chance of collapse would cause many to turn attention to establishing a long-term-viable human existence, increasing the probability that their own contributions and those of so many others would be preserved for the long haul.

Reason to Worry

The first sentence in the preceding paragraph may lose many of my colleagues, though, sounding alarmist and kooky. I struggle with this, and as such have re-evaluated my position countless times—digging deep in an attempt to understand the foundations of the predicament. I will dedicate an upcoming post to summarizing the logic. For now, I would recommend following the new textbook (free PDF). At least read the introductory paragraphs for each chapter, and the short Upshot sections at the end of each for a brief tour of the emergent message. To compactify it even more, the arc is:

  1. Physics says continued growth at familiar rates is impossible beyond a few centuries (Chapter 1).
  2. Economic and population growth must also end, perhaps even overshooting due to the ubiquitous presence of delayed negative feedback (Chapters 2 and 3).
  3. Space is a marvelous stage for exploration, but does not offer a tangible, realistic solution to the problems above (Chapter 4).
  4. Fossil fuels have many amazing attributes that are hard to replace. They made explosive growth possible, but will necessarily fade away and perhaps trigger destructive resource wars in the decline phase (Chapter 8).
  5. Climate change, as a consequence of fossil fuels, is a serious threat, but just one of a long list of ills inflicted on ecosystems and finite resources (Chapter 9).
  6. Alternative energy technologies have trouble preserving expectations, so that not only is growth destined to stop: we may very well face a decline in available energy (Chapters 10 through 17).
  7. Human psychology and political/economic institutions turn a technically difficult predicament into a nearly hopeless trap. Incentives are staggeringly biased toward short term reward in explicit ignorance of future peril. Prevailing optimism is based on backward-looking assessment (history) and sentiments like “so far so good,” “humans are amazing and will solve any problem,” and “things always get better” rather than on an objective assessment using tools of math and science to elucidate the unavoidable consequences of continued growth and resource use (Chapters 18, 19, and Epilogue).
  8. We are lamentably ill-equipped to appreciate the abnormality of our time and assess a more accurate picture of what long-term “normal” must look like. Failure to do so leads to uncontrolled…failure. Evolution may well have discovered by its usual blind experimentation a limit to how smart a successful species may be (Epilogue, Appendix D.5 and D.6).

In summary, we can ignore the warning signs and insist on continuing the current trajectory, only tolerating minor tweaks as long as we experience little or no inconvenience. But to what end? If that approach leads to failure of civilization, is it still the right choice? We’re smart enough to have dug an impressive hole for ourselves. Are we wise enough to look past our shovels to understand where this ends, and change behaviors enough to avoid the worst fate? I am eternally and perhaps irrationally hopeful that we are, but still yearn for reassuring evidence.

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44 thoughts on “To What End?

  1. "I have great respect and warmth toward many of my colleagues, but wonder what good their pursuits serve in the context of our current trajectory. Most of them likely make the same assumption I did for most of my life: that every incremental scientific advance acts like a ratchet: securing another irreversible gain in our climb up the hill, whatever that hill might be. . . Shouldn’t I therefore direct my efforts toward encouraging others to peek out from the blindfold so that we might avoid this regrettable fate, and even help salvage the survival of my colleagues’ work?"

    This question is why despite my PhD in physics, I find the best action for those of us who understand nature is to learn the skills of leadership in general and sustainability leadership in particular, which requires practicing both, not just reading and writing about it. It's hard and new, but the cause of our problems is not CO2, plastic, or mercury, but our behavior.

    Few to no leaders who don't understand the science know what direction to lead in. Scientists who don't understand leadership don't know how to change culture (spreading facts doesn't do it and often achieves the opposite). Even scientists who know how to lead but haven't practiced personally living sustainably don't know the particularities of others acting sustainably, so they sound like doctors who smoke and drink. They lose credibility and they don't know how to change habits, which means support, community, role models, and such.

    But people who know all three through experience — leadership, science, and living sustainably — can change culture. There aren't many of us, but I see it as the only combination that can effectively change human culture toward sustainability. I just finished the manuscript to my book, on sustainability leadership and how to learn to lead people, not lecture at them or rely on guilt or other ineffective techniques. Since this community knows science, if Tom doesn't mind my reaching out, if anyone here is interested in it, I'd love to share it and get your thoughts.

  2. "Physics says continued growth at familiar rates is impossible beyond a few centuries"

    As always, this is only because you insist that the only kind of growth that matters is physical growth. That the world has limits that constrain physical growth is as unremarkable to economists as it is to astrophysicists.

    Luckily, humans do not need an ever increasing supply of stuff to increase human welfare and because of this economists have counted non-physical goods as welfare increasing growth for the better part of a century or more.

    If you are having trouble convincing people it may be because you dont understand (or dont want to understand) them, rather than the other way around.

    • Truly, non-physical growth is a real avenue and I don't deny it. But it has a floor, or an end. While we could each spend all day pointing out examples of non-physical improvements to welfare and instances of decoupled activities, in the end it doesn't matter. The economy can't grow arbitrarily large on the back of non-physical elements, else the physical part (non-negotiable component of living physical beings) would be reduced to a negligible fraction of the economy and become simultaneously scarce and essentially free (contradiction). Chapter 2 of the textbook explains more systematically. I get the appeal of the idea you present, but hope we don't need to learn the hard way how limits imprint themselves on the entire enterprise.

      Also, I would appreciate it if you dial down the snark and personal attack style. It is possible to make points without it, and I try to run a friendly forum.

      • Ok ill try an be more civil, my bad on that. To your response:

        ". The economy can't grow arbitrarily large on the back of non-physical elements" Why not? Is there a limit to what we can learn? Or what art, music literature we can create?

        "else the physical part (non-negotiable component of living physical beings) would be reduced to a negligible fraction of the economy" So? What difference does it make if physical things make up a diminished proportion of our welfare?

        "and become simultaneously scarce and essentially free (contradiction)." This makes no sense to me. Why would the physical become more scarce? Maybe in comparison to the intangible, but why does that even matter?

        Ive read chapter 2 of your book but you dont seem to address the question of why the growth of physical things is the only one you seem to address. If im wrong, point me to the section where you answer and ill be happy to respond to that, saving you from having to rewrite the argument.

        • It's just that we can't eat music, or boil water with art (except by burning it) and those staples will not be reduced to an arbitrarily small cost (or I would buy it all and then raise prices). Section 2.3 in the book and associated Figure 2.4 tries to explain why physical limits ultimately imprint on economic growth to avoid absurdity (as in Table 2.2). Then Box 2.3 summarizes the logical sequence.

          • "It's just that we can't eat music, or boil water with art (except by burning it)" Sure, but adding more art doesnt make food scarcer.

            "and those staples will not be reduced to an arbitrarily small cost (or I would buy it all and then raise prices)" Arbitrarily small does not mean 0. For most of the United States, potable water has a negligible cost. So cheap that drinking fountains and public bathrooms give it away for free. So cheap that fountains spray it into the air for our own amusement. Go try and buy all the potable water in the US.

            From Section 2.3: "How can essential, non-negotiable, life-sustaining commodities that are in finite supply become essentially free? The idea goes against another, more fundamental economic principle of supply and demand."

            Because the finite limit is way higher than the demand for it. I cant drink all the water in lake Erie and so my personal demand will always be lower than the finite supply.

            One thing i think you are overlooking in this regard is *how* things become so cheap. You are right that supply and demand dictates this. Prices go down when either a) supply increases, b) demand reduces or c) both. in this hypothetical we are both entertaining, supply has increased so much that all reasonable demand can be trivially satisfied without adversely affecting cost

            And nothing in your response explains why increasing our proportion of non-physical goods is somehow limited by physical goods.

            Ill respond more tomorrow, i have to run now.

          • I don't think I've said that buying more art (or other non-physical expenditure) makes food or other physical commodities scarcer. If it is already limited, as many things on a finite planet will be, the price being driven down is at odds with the built-in scarce-but-essential combination.

            Water is a poor example to illustrate the point, for the reasons you indicate: a distraction. Think of other finite resources that do not have a biological limit but a planetary one. Fossil fuels or energy in general, wood, metals, etc. Is it reasonable that all the materials to make a skyscraper would cost $1 or less, when a typical individual's annual income is, say, $100,000 per year? What about all the gold in the world for $1? If allowing non-physical things to swell indefinitely, the relentless mathematical cruelty of exponential growth leads to these absurdities by having that sector completely dominate the economy, so that the physically-limited essentials diminish to obscurity. I have a hard time allowing that to happen in my mind. I think there is a floor to the value we would assign to limited physical commodities, acting as an anchor that keeps the rest (art, etc.) from sailing into unlimited heights. Maybe just like the water example, we have limited tolerance/capacity for non-physical fluff.

          • Seems to be a nesting limit on your comment system so Ill respond at this level.

            Im not sure why you dismissed my water example, it has all the characteristics you name in box 2.4 and the para above it. Its finite, essential to life and so cheap its only ever measured in bulk and yet you cannot buy all of it.

            " Is it reasonable that all the materials to make a skyscraper would cost $1 or less, when a typical individual's annual income is, say, $100,000 per year?"

            Sure, why not? The limiting factor will be the labor to craft it into something useful, not any constraint on the raw material. As my name implies, im just another guy, not a millionaire or anything, and yet i could probably purchase all the raw materials necessary to construct the Great Pyramid of Giza. Without the labor, its just a big pile of rocks.

            And even at its best, your argument isnt very convincing. I mean, whats the big takeaway here? 'Do the Math: In 10,000 years, economics as we know it will be unrecognizable'?

          • I think this conversation has run its course, so I will cap it here, only commenting that it seems unlikely we would come into alignment. Finding specific examples illustrative of a point cannot be applied in blanket form to everything else. Decoupling here does not imply decoupling everywhere. But at this stage, readers can decide which line of argument is more compelling.

          • This is insane.

            Why do you bother arguing with people who clearly don't want to face reality?

            Get the hell out of SD, set up a well-defended permaculture to provide for you and yours, and enjoy the popcorn you grew yourself as these people starve to death.

            The upside to the coming catastrophe is that it will have weeded out the impulsivity and rapaciousness of the unprepared normies from our gene pool. Steady state economies are only possible after that.

            Love your writing, glad you're back.

      • Hi Tom, brand new reader of your blog, very glad to have found it.
        I look forward to reading your book, but for now I wonder if the best argument against de-coupling optimism is this: The production and consumption of immaterial goods and services is ultimately constrained by the total population of humans to produce and consume them.
        Humans require real resource inputs. Taken to the absurd, we could grow the immaterial economy to the point where every person alive spent every second of their existence transacting in ideas, art, entertainment, whatever. At that point of saturation, further growth would require population growth, and we're back to pushing on physical resource limits.

        • Respectfully, i dont think this is the most compelling argument. Imagine telling someone that they must rethink their behavior because at some hypothetical point in the possibly highly distant future, we might have to give up on the notion of further growth (whatever that means) due to being totally saturated with transactions in art, entertainment and ideas.

          I think most people will, rightfully, reply, "sure, ill get right on that".

          • If we're not wise enough to see what must come, then we risk only reacting when the crisis has become apparent: too late. If we know that the current mode is unsustainable, then why pursue it? Selfishness? Greed? Human nature? Is failure to make long-term plans going to commit us to a bad end?

        • For the same reason we keep going despite knowing that our sun will one day supernova; its so far out as to be irrelevant.

          Its also not clear to me that even if i accept your argument as 100% correct that it constitutes some form of crisis. In a world where physical things are so prevalent that they are almost meaningless, who cares if we have to abandon some notion of economic growth?

    • 'That the world has limits that constrain physical growth is as unremarkable to economists as it is to astrophysicists. '

      That statement is incorrect when it is applied to mainstream economics. The ecological economists and biophysical economists have been unsuccessfully attempting to educate mainstream economists about how the physical world works for decades. Robert Solow received a Nobel Prize for an economic analysis which included the statement ' In effect,the world can get by without natural resources.'

      Mainstream economics is a pseudoscience which is based on an incorrect understanding of how the physical world works. When Adam Smith, J.S.Mill et al were developing their ideas, the scientific insight which they based their understanding of how the physical world works was the law of conservation of matter, which later became the first law of thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics had not been discovered. The whole edifice of mainstream economics is constructed on scientific ignorance.

      Herman Daly relates the (amusing,or tragic ) time he had when he worked at the World Bank,and the scientific ignorance of his top-tier economic peers there.

      This as well:

      • Also,the most vociferous leader in the campaign to discredit
        the 'Limits to Growth' report was an economist, William Nordhaus.

      • "That statement is incorrect when it is applied to mainstream economics. The ecological economists and biophysical economists have been unsuccessfully attempting to educate mainstream economists about how the physical world works for decades."

        Id love to see some examples of this. Im not an economist, but i do study it to some extent out of my own interest and ive never heard of any of this.

        That Scientific American article… is bizarre. Again, not an economist, but i can say that at least one of his claims "The costs of damage to the external natural environment by economic activities must be treated as costs that lie outside the closed market system or as costs that cannot be included in the pricing mechanisms that operate within the system." is provably false. Externalities have been an economic concept since the 20s.

        As they say, "spectacular claims require spectacular proof", and so, when an english professor claims that the whole field of economics is wrong and unaware of some pretty basic concepts, id say it would take a lot of proving to establish that. More that a 6 paragraph editorial at least.

        • I recommend the textbook by Daly and Farley on Ecological Economics. Externalities have been part of the language for some time, but it hasn't changed the fact that they are not appropriately priced into the market. Short-term interests preclude a scheme that would satisfy sustainable practices in the very long term.

          • "they are not appropriately priced into the market" Sure, i agree, but the linked article claimed that externalities "must be treated as costs that lie outside the closed market system or as costs that cannot be included in the pricing mechanisms that operate within the system"

            *Must be excluded* and *cannot be included* is totally different from 'should be included, but arent'

            Have any more info on the textbook? Ill see if my local library can get me a copy.

        • "Spectacular claims require spectacular proof" is a subjective not an objective scientific view. All claims require the application of the scientific method to determine its veracity. All stand equal before the null hypothesis.

        • Chapter two of 'Ecological Economics' is the key one, if you don't intend to become an economist. Several chapters of 'Energy and the Wealth of Nations' by Charles Hall are also key, and explain why the focus of mainstream economics on land, labour and capital, while treating energy as just another resource is fundamentally flawed. I haven't read Tom's textbook, so some of this might be covered there.

          Daly wrote 'Steady State Economics' in 1977, and explained most of this then. All of this discussion is now irrelevant, because the key battles to develop something resembling sustainabilty were lost then. All of the mainstream economists lined up like sheep behind Nordhaus, so it is with bitter amusement I read someone claiming that mainstream economists have any clue about the unsustainability of economic growth.

          To be clear, implementing a steady state economic system now would be an exercise guaranteed to fail. A prerequisite for that system to function is that the human population has to be below the long-term carrying capacity of the planet. We are far beyond that limit.

    • With regards to art or music could you please give an example where those do not use a single physical resource. Since physical resources are finite you still end up in a limit defined system.

  3. "We have layered an artificial world atop the natural one.
    Which do you think will stand the test of time?
    The sooner we dovetail back to the natural,the greater our chances for success become.
    Tom Murphy, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, Part IV: Going Forward (my emphasis; disclaimer: I didn't read the book yet.)


    What do you mean with "success?"
    Do you firmly believe homo sapiens sapiens was meant to be everlasting?

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

    The inexorable:
    Anabolism – Catabolism – Limit
    (May those who believe this can be overcome never lose their hopes & dreams.)

  4. "Yet, here we are without a plan”.? What mean 'we,' white man?

    We may lack a plan. China, the most numerate society on earth, does not.

  5. "The economy can't grow arbitrarily large on the back of non-physical elements, else the physical part (non-negotiable component of living physical beings) would be reduced to a negligible fraction of the economy and become simultaneously scarce and essentially free (contradiction)." You pose a very good question about this as problem 14 in chapter 2.6 of your book, essentially, "How much decoupling can there be?" . . . It seems like the Exponential Economist in your 2014-04-12 post and _just another guy_ above maybe just have intuitively way different ides about how much decoupling there can be than you or someone like me to whom the contradiction seems more pressing and important. It's like to them, it's valid, but so far off to be a barely conceivable abstraction, but to you, it's closer to a practical and realistic matter. So I'm curious, are there any serious studies about this?

    • Thats a fair description of my position, in part, anyway. The physical constraints necessary for the contradiction he describes to become valid are both so far off as to be unimportant and the limiting factor is going to be something else anyway, like labor. Paying for a huge amount of steel is trivial, paying someone to make into something useful is not, and wouldnt be in his thought experiment either.

      • JAG – your mindset is not uncommon, but have a little think:

        Money is issued as debt, at a keystroke. Since Nixon recognised the reality, but arguably since WW1, money has not been related to anything physical.

        But debt is nothing but a forward bet. It expects to be repaid, and to be repaid with interest (well, until recently – which I suggest tells us we're hitting the Limits). This means some work must be done in the future, to do the repaying. Interest says it will be more work. That work requires energy.

        Now, we can have efficiencies, until we hit practical expressions of the Laws of Thermodynamics. They are hard Limits.

        And we can have 'value added', including the human-brain-held notion of 'value' – where we are very happy to accept that our current, existing, aging house, is somehow 'worth' several times what it was (and we complain if it goes the other way).

        But the underlying fact is that the ultimate home for money, is in being exchanged for a processed portion of a finite planet (there being no other source of anything) and that the processing (along with the extraction, delivery and disposal) of said part, took energy.

        Our ever-more-debt-issuance, worked until it couldn't. For the last decade, interest has trended towards – and even under – zero. And all the physical indicators – Climate, tons of overburden to tons of resource ratios, depletion-rates, sink-capacity filling-rates; all tell us we're well into the last 'doubling-time' growth-wise.

        Can we grow virtual 'trade' Of course. Indefinitely. Bitcoin yourself to infinity – but don't expect to cash it in for REAL stuff. Oh, and don't forget there's not just you and that lake; there were 3 billion when I was born and there's 8 billion now, all wanting the hypothetical swim.

        Go well

      • Your labor argument is increasing falling apart with the acceleration of robotics/AI. Energy is still the underpinning factor though. Nothing happens without energy, no matter how efficiently it is used. Even producing art requires some energy. And energy does not grow to infinity. So this should necessarily limit art and music. The word growth is meaningless when it comes to art and music, it is just more variety. If we think that art/music are to satisfy the need to be happy, you cannot grow happiness indefinitely and infinitely with more and more music and art, more art and more music just prevents boredom that comes from what has come before, just kind of maintains a steady state of non-boredom/satisfaction/happiness. And beyond some point, you can simply recycle old art and old music and still achieve the same result (we may be approaching this point, there seems to be enough online music that probably an entire life of consuming would be all different content). When it comes to clothing, old fashions reappear from time to time. New gadgets that make life easier also have a limit because it cannot get more easier than a certain point e.g a mere thought of a desire would "make it so" due to high technology (we are kind of close with Amazon 1 day shipping) but beyond that point there is nothing. The economists can make this steady state of non-boredom look like continuous growth but that would just be fooling ourselves as a society, it is just steady state and such growth would be nothing but pure inflation. And why would anyone care about so called economic growth at that point? It would look silly really. Even if energy were arbitrarily cheap and nobody evil bought all of it to screw everyone, there are only 24 hours in a day and we can only consume so much art and music per unit time and as I mentioned all this is just to maintain the steady state of non-boredom. The time limit also limits the attention economy (the sum of revenues of all companies based on attention economy is limited by time, the rate of consuming content by our brain is also biologically limited). Our brains are also finite in size and have a certain structure, so the entire set of thoughts that can emerge from the brain (individually or collectively) may also be finite. Indeed, many are simply recycled or reappear independently or reappear in more modern contexts (different form, same thing) when we look at long periods of time.

        • I think what many people forget is that our virtual/artificial world has a very real impact on the physical world. All of that art and music that we enjoy lives on servers that draw serious amounts of power 24/7/365.25. Granted, if you listen to Apple Music, those servers' energy usage is all covered by renewables, but all of that still has real-world impact and implications. Continuously expanding the selection of art also continuously expands the need for disk storage, usually in the form of new servers every 5 years for the increasing number of data centers around the world.

          That said, however, sharing of art, including music, is far down on my list of what I'd like to see go away for the sake of the planet. Big Data/targeted advertising and the ever-increasing payload of content are high on my list. Seriously, what do we need with higher than 4K video resolution or websites larger than 5 MB? 4K movies would still be sharp if projected onto the side of a large building.

  6. I'm not sure China has a plan…. having built many many coal fired plants in recent years.

    But it is an interesting question as to whether we would need a worldwide dictator who spells out the future, and what process would lead to "good" dictator? IMF Good?

    Current political leadership also appears to be dishonest: 9-11, JFK, Climate Change, Lack of discussion around Peak Oil. Covid?

    Is there anything indicating that we/will have an honest discussion about our predicament?

  7. Thanks for writing this interesting post. I ordered a copy of your book — it has not showed up yet.

    We hear the phrase “Listen to the science”. This admonition is applied to those who believe that we can continue growing our economy indefinitely. The science tells them to slow down — that we cannot have never-ending growth on a finite planet. Furthermore, it is pointed out that only when we understand the basic physics, biology and thermodynamics that has got us into this mess can we figure out a sustainable path forward.

    But, ironically, having listened to the scientists, we then need to listen to the philosophers. There is a moral thread throughout this post. We see this thread in the use of the word “should” in the phrase, “Great power should ideally be wielded . . .” The next sentence uses the word “cheated”. Again, there is a moral backdrop to the use of that word.

    Some religious thinkers see morality as being just as objective as physics and mathematics. For example, children quickly learn to say that something is “not fair”. They don’t just mean that they are at a disadvantage, they are appealing to a deeper truth that is outside us, and that many consider to be just as objective as the First Law of Thermodynamics.

    “To What End” seems to be taking us through science — which can come up with practical responses — to the fundamentals of right and wrong. And that is a conversation that has been going on for thousands of years.

    In the context of today’s unprecedented crises we need to figure out what right and wrong mean in every day life — just as we need to decide how and where to use our limited physical capabilities. So, in the discussion to do with health care, what is the morality of using scarce, valuable resources to keep someone who is terminally ill alive for a long period of time? Who gets to decide? What is the morality — as distinct from utility — of developing nuclear fusion?

    None of this is easy. Once more, thanks for your insights.

  8. The self-running mechanism of capitalism. Insanity as normality.

    Most western people think capitalism is the best economic system. But when we read the following definition and its consequences, one might think it is insanity.

    Capitalism is a positive feedback amplifier circuit – a part of the privatized wealth (output signal) is fed back – through which the natural wealth of nature, freely available for humans, animals and plants, is transformed into monetarily measurable private wealth, i.e. capital. Like any positively feedback amplifier circuit, it will "crash"

    – by the disappearance of non-renewable natural wealth (example: mineral resources)

    – by the much slower than required regenerative capacity of renewable natural wealth

    – by massive disruption and degradation of the regenerative capacity (environmental pollution)

    It should also be discussed to what extent the concept of freedom is helpful. Freedom in the sense of self-determined living which is so absolute in the West especially for the affluent.

    The French philosopher and later sinologist Francois Julien compares in his book

    "From Being to Living : a Euro-Chinese lexicon of thought (Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society)".

    twenty important concepts of Western philosophy and worldview with their Chinese equivalents.

    The Western concept of freedom does not exist in Chinese philosophy. Julien sets the Chinese philosophic concept of availability against it. It means to be able to adapt to all eventualities which should help to remain capable of acting. Probably a better way of dealing with the world.

    This example is only here to demonstrate – as Julien does – that western thinking isn't by far so exceptional as it is always believed.

  9. Thanks, nice post – again Tom. I am also somebody raised in a scientific or even scientismic environment, dreaming about great scientific revelations as a child. And I still do a lot of counting and math – currently mapping the carbon cycle of the agrofood sytem om Sweden. However, I am not so sure that math and natural science will help us a lot in our current predicament or answering the fundamental questions of "why are we here" or "to what end" as you put it. I find that (natural) science makes it quite easy to determine things that don't work, but it is not very good in helping us in normative issues.
    On a totally different note: I have started to read your book, and I like it – well done. One small question: I wonder why solar heating (i.e. solar collectors for warming water etc.) is not included? I put up 40 m2 of solar collectors for heating a house, producing warm water for the household and for a small food industry in the 1990s, and they have served well – complemented with firewood for the winter (this is Sweden after all). I see now that people use pV to make electricity which in turn is used to heat their warm water, and that seems to be an unecessary detour as pV has much lower efficiency per m2 than solar collectors. Or did I miss something?
    PS. I also have some comments/questions on the food section of the book, but I think I will mail them.

  10. An excellent post Tom. It is good to see the real issue being discussed.

  11. I guess the idea is to not arrive at an end. But every day we struggle to do just that. If you exhaust the energy gradient, that is the end. Maybe our behaviors evolved under the sun's regime and just as we never imagine the sun not rising, we never imagine the sun setting on fossil fuels.

  12. To what purpose? What does life aims to?
    Clearly, it's endless self-replication, adaption and evolution.

    You measure life's success by its continuity.

  13. My wife was an artist/painter during her life and I was a woodworker. While our lifestyles were relatively low impact in terms of our energy usage, it was not negligible. I made her stretchers and she bought canvas and paints (oils being very expensive and therefore reflective of all the various energy steps to produce them). We had to have studios to work in and clients to buy our work. I had to use electricity to run my machines and she had to show in galleries.

    What I'm trying to say here is that there is no way to escape our use of energy even in what looks like a sustainable lifestyle. What people don't understand is that you can't claim that you live a sustainable lifestyle if the larger society in which you are imbedded is in overshoot. All those claims by businesses about how they are sustainable is just that, false. At one time, I believed that about my own lifestyle, but now I see it from an ecological view. We have to recognize limits and make decisions based on that fact.

  14. I'm firmly convinced that humanity can't and won't change course. The immediate-term benefits of mass consumption of fossil fuels and other resources are too appealing, it would be both political and military suicide for any country to try to meaningfully reduce these things until forced too by circumstances. Current nations are already too large and disunited and complex to hold together much longer, so hope for some kind of benevolent world empire arising to impose benign managed degrowth on the world is more fanciful than Mars colonies.

    At most we'll see some more of what we're already seeing: laughable token measures (replacing coal electric plants with natgas, bans on plastic shopping bags) and subsidy grifting by billionaires (EV's, solar panels, biofuels) among developed nations while developing nations like China and India continue to hoover up every dirty resource they can, basically letting rich countries outsource their pollution to them in exchange for a share of the resulting wealth. No one with any real power anywhere will ever try to strike at the root of the problem with ideas like population stabilization or controlled de-industrialization or de-globalization. Every powerful and wealthy person on the planet will fight against these things with every resource at their disposal.

    I do believe that political and business leaders are to some extent aware of these problems; it's not a question of getting them to suddenly wake up and realize that nothing grows forever and fossil fuels will certainly run out one day, it's that there are no solutions to these problems that are both effective and palatable. So they serve out their terms, offer the aforementioned fake solutions, and wish their successors luck.

    I try to be sanguine about all this; as Joseph Tainter pointed out, civilizational collapse often meant an improved standard of living for the people who survived, and it's hard to look at the decadence and mismanagement of the modern developed world and feel like it deserves to continue forever. A post-technological-collapse world would impose many hardships on people, but those hardships would demand a certain level of virtue that the modern world doesn't. They may not have the internet or even reliable electricity, but neither will they have porn addictions or surveillance capitalism or pampered racial grievance politics. Anyway, there's a certain frisson in recognizing that human history isn't over, and may not have even really started yet.

    (incidentally, if you want a good adventure novel set in a plausible post-collapse future, I can heartily recommend Star's Reach by John Michael Greer)

    • Thanks for this Tex. it’s exactly my thoughts/feelings on our predicaments.

      I switched for searching for solutions to trying to convince others that there are no solutions so that we can start talking about how to manage. To no avail. Even supposed environmentalists, hippies, farmers… nobody except strangers on the internet seem to be on the same page.

  15. "To What End?" could be your signature question as "And then what?" was Garrett Hardin's. His question lacks the implied "should" that is maybe time to add. He saw the educated mind as supported by three pillars: literacy, numeracy, and ecolacy. The ecolate mind (systems science literate) is one that always asks, "And then what?" to every proposed "solution". He also noted that the intelligentsia are typically at best literate (except in science, the endeavor to tell likely stories), often innumerate (and proud of it), and wholly inecolate. This touches upon the foundational failure of modern techno-industrial society's educational (or schooling) system. Of the three, it is possible to live long, prosper sustainably as the millennia pass, and be illiterate and innumerate, but not inecolate, e.g. the Kogi as remnant survivor of Taironan genocide of 1600-1650.

  16. I think Professor Murphy is saying that we (almost) 8 billion are all creatures of ancient sunlight, and we exist only because we drew upon, and continue to draw down, this energy stock. And we use this energy to destabilize and degrade the natural systems and resources through which we actually evolved and on which we absolutely depend.

    If I am at home listening to Beethoven or reading Shakespeare, my well-being is increased, with modest energy use. But my very existence–my life, my food, my heat, shelter, and sustenance in every sense of the word is based on the stock of ancient sunlight that I draw down each day to continue to read and listen.

    I think Professor Murphy is asking us to consider the fate of our 8 billion, our animal (homo sapiens and domesticated partners) colony created with, and continuing to live on, ancient sunlight, that may be in an evolutionary bind unless we learn to see our place on earth differently, and act accordingly.

  17. Wonderful post, thank you ! Clarity and brilliant points in support of having the Collapse discussion. Have downloaded textbook – great resource, thank you so much for offering it free! (Will review and recommend widely, and share as a resource in our forum )
    Out of curiosity have you heard of the Deep Adaptation forum? If not, you may well find a philosophical home among us… this blog (via was posted in the Deep Adaptation Facebook group today (12.6K members) to a very enthusiastic response.
    If you haven't heard of it, you may find some of Prof Jem Bendell's 2018/updated 2020 paper "Deep Adaptation" interesting? Perhaps not the initial climate science portion as that's more your field, and not his, and now a little old and overtaken by actual events, but the later part – discussing why we need to plan to adapt personally, emotionally and spiritually as well as start considering what useful practical responses, at a communal, national and global level, we humans should make, to potential collapse. The DA forum has since taken the conversation a LOT deeper, we would love to discuss and debate this with you?
    More here:
    Prof Bendell's latest blog references the reactions we are seeing, to the possibility of collapse:

    There is also a french group of academics talking about this subject as Collapsologie? Do you know of them? Originally published a book in 2015. Perhaps sharing some of your perspectives closely enough to be of interest :

    Apologies if you are aware of all the above – I know Prof Bendell, but it was members of the forum who suggested I reach out and invite you, as we don't see you in the Facebook group. Perhaps you're not a facebook type though 🙂

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