The first thing I should say is that the word collapse freaks me out. I don’t use it often, for fear of sounding like an unhinged alarmist. Surely, respectable scientists should want nothing to do with it.
The second thing is that I don’t harbor any secret pleasure in imagining catastrophic failure of the human endeavor. It depresses me, frightens me, angers me, frustrates me, confuses me, and makes my wife crabby.
What keeps pulling me back to it—despite my innate repulsion—is not only credible elements of risk that I will get to in this post, but also that I think it’s too important to tolerate our natural tendency to hide from the prospect. Ironically, doing so only raises the odds of that ill fate: mitigation requires direct acknowledgment. Failure to speak openly and honestly about the less-than-remote possibility of collapse is not in our best interest, ultimately.
So let’s grit our teeth and confront the collapse monster. What conditions make it at once likely and off most people’s radars?
It is a heavy lift for one blog post to do a complete job in motivating collapse as a realistic outcome of the human enterprise. Any one argument can be picked at, but the totality should be considered. This is a long post, so buckle up.
[Added after posting] An early comment helpfully pointed out that I failed to define collapse. For the purposes of this post, we can think of collapse as a drastic and probably chaotic reduction in energy and resource use per person, the result looking primitive by today’s standards. Population may plummet through famine or other disruption. What remains might not maintain much of our present technology, and in the worst cases lose much of our accumulated science/knowledge. I am not talking about extinction of our species or necessarily reversion to hunter-gatherer lifestyles (thought that’s certainly on the table). Most would see this trajectory as a colossal failure of the enterprise.
To Those Who Won’t Have Any of It
First, if like many you find yourself resisting the idea of collapse—even before getting into the details—ask yourself why. Is it because you somehow know it won’t happen? Have you thought through how society organizes itself to confront global resource limits and to cope for thousands of years on natural flows? Have you identified a scheme for—and transition path to—global cooperation and governance that protects substantial areas of wilderness on land and sea for countless generations? Have you thought of a compelling reason why humans would abruptly stop competing and exploiting resources as quickly as possible, or stop striving to accumulate more possessions and luxuries for themselves? Does it seem obvious that humans will—for the first time en masse—adopt an attitude that nature is at least as important as ourselves, and deserves top priority?
If you think these questions are totally missing the mark, then what’s behind the disconnect? Do you dismiss the idea of resource limits? Does Earth seem so vast that human presence cannot possibly ruin whole ecosystems? Do you challenge the notion that nature is important and a necessary life-support system that should be kept intact? Have we transcended evolution or our physical underpinnings? Are we using the same physics? Or are you simply unconcerned with humanity’s fate after you’re gone, so that collapse of civilization and loss of science/knowledge within a few hundred years is no biggie?
It’s also possible that you simply have not thought deeply about it, performed calculations, or considered long enough spans of time. Is it then a preference, a hunch, a reaction—perhaps based on abhorrence of the idea? What can you really say, when it comes down to it, that definitively settles the case that we’re safe from collapse? Are we safe enough, in fact, that even a serious discussion is wasteful or itself more dangerous than any intrinsic threat?
It may be that pride in our accomplishments has swollen into an unshakable faith that human ingenuity trumps natural limits. The appeal and origin of this notion is completely understandable and forgivable in light of the incredible developments of the last few centuries. It is easy to get carried away in awe of human achievement, overlooking the fact that the recent amazing past has been fueled by our spending a one-time inheritance as fast as humanly possible. Humans always have been amazing creatures, and always will be. What sets the last few centuries apart is the speed with which we’ve consumed Earth’s finite stocks.
In order to have a constructive conversation about collapse, we must set aside what we want to be true and try to detach from the enormity of the prospect in favor of a cool analysis. Just as fearing and denying our own death will not prevent its ultimate arrival, similar evasive reactions will not decide our fate on the question of collapse. In fact, they may act to secure a catastrophe. Only by breathing deeply and accepting that collapse is a legitimate possible outcome, and one that many current elements are directing us toward, can we justify any confidence in averting such an end. So collapse, unlike death, is not inevitable unless we fail to take the prospect seriously.
Do I Think Collapse is Coming?
Before getting to the main event, I should clear the air on the question of whether I am a “collapsist,” if that’s a word (spell-checker is saying no). My simplest answer is: I am decidedly anti-collapse, and am optimistically and perhaps irrationally motivated to do whatever it takes to prevent such a catastrophe from materializing. But I see the risk as being real enough and scary enough that I’ll take sober acknowledgement of the possibility over careless dismissal any day.
So my decision is to communicate the risk of collapse as perhaps the best way to ultimately dispel my concerns. Nothing would give me greater joy than for heightened awareness and consequent mitigation efforts to prove my worries to be wrong. Dismissal, sadly, plays right into my worst fears. Thus, until I see global efforts explicitly aimed at mitigating the collapse-prone elements detailed below, I am afraid that my fundamentally conservative core requires a default position that collapse is the most likely outcome: assume the risk real, so that it may be prevented.
Elements Promoting Collapse
What follows are separate but not always independent points of consideration. The goal is to hold all these in mind simultaneously. As a builder of scientific instruments, I have become accustomed to respecting a handful of different constraints and objectives all at once in order to forge a compromise path in developing a device that works and delivers useful data. Forgetting any one of several dozen—sometimes interacting—constraints can lead to a failed instrument. What follows is a bit like that for me: a swirling collection of important elements, none of which may be ignored. Ask yourself as you go along which of the 21 points/perspectives are firmly planted in the public consciousness as an obvious matter enjoying broad agreement.
- Civilization (cities, agriculture) is about 10,000 old. If we want to believe that civilization is in its infancy and not near its end (i.e., if we are to reject the notion of collapse), then we should be thinking about thriving on timescales of 10,000 years or longer. Even a collapse within 1,000 years would probably be regarded by nearly everyone as an undesirable failure of humanity.
- The growth trajectory is manifestly impossible to continue for centuries more. In physical terms, continuing energy growth at about 2% per year results in Earth reaching boiling temperatures in 400 years—not due to CO2 but just the sheer thermodynamics of waste heat. In mineral resources, maintaining a similar growth rate would have us mining materials at a pace 10,000 times the current pace in 400 years. How much accessible copper is even around? Have we not scooped out the easy resources—the low-hanging fruit? Indefinite growth in any physical measure is incompatible with a finite planet bearing a finite inheritance and a finite carrying capacity. For a resource that we have used 10% of, for instance, any rate of extraction greater than 0.0002% per year is unsustainable. Exponentials are cruel beasts, and cannot persist for long in a physical system.
- Holding steady is hard, too. Since growth is an absurd short-lived anomaly, what about leveling out in population, resource use per capita, and adopting a steady-state economy? The problem here is that the rate at which we are depleting one-time resources today is unsustainable. We’re simply spending our bank account without paying attention to the balance and without any source of additional income. Most clearly, forests and wild spaces are down by a factor of two in the last 60 years, and will be gone within 60 years at current rates of depletion. Before even getting to steady state conditions, inevitable near-term increases in population together with sought-after increases in standards of living around the world spell an even shorter lifetime for critical habitats. Meanwhile, fisheries are failing in domino fashion; aquifers are being depleted at rates alarmingly higher than replacement; soils are degrading and arable land is lost; fertilizer depends on a finite resources; habitat loss is resulting in species extinctions far in excess of natural rates. Even the plunder of mineral resources in the seemingly infinite crust is getting harder, only a fleeting century or so into our spree. Sustaining present levels for even a few more centuries is a dubious (i.e., unsubstantiated) proposition. It is practically absurd to imagine sustaining present practices for 10,000 years. Humans simply have not yet demonstrated an ability to maintain a technological society without utter reliance on grossly unsustainable inheritance spending.
- Climate change is accelerating and causing disruption in many sectors, threatening to end the stability of the Holocene that coincides with all of human civilization. Oceans are acidifying and corals are giving up the ghost, the ripple effects from which could be catastrophic for the broader set of oceanic ecosystems. Changes are faster than evolution can track in terms of seasonal timing or adapting to new climate conditions. Plants do not easily migrate, and animals are often cut off by development to remain captive in disconnected islands of increasingly hostile habitat. It is very hard to predict the degree to which these changes could result in large scale ecosystem collapses and thereby pose an existential threat to our own survival. Even if we stopped emitting CO2 today—an absurdly unrealistic conjecture—the damage mounts as Earth’s oceans continue to warm and more ice melts, while the planet slowly coasts toward a new equilibrium bringing unknown hardships.
- Renewable Energy is harder than fossil energy. Wind and solar installations are taking off, right? A look at Figure 7.8 in the textbook shows these two rocketing upward globally over the last several years. But the scale is still very small, and at the recent impressive rate of expansion would still take over 100 years to replace current (enormous) energy appetites. Also, beware of the fact that we go for the low-hanging fruit first, giving a distorted sense of broader suitability. Some folks at UC San Diego are evaluating ways to retire the campus’ methane-burning infrastructure for electricity, heating, and cooling—ideally generating and storing all its own renewable energy via solar. It’s very hard—both practically and economically. UCSD is an affluent land-rich campus in an affluent, progressive state in an affluent country; free of the political rancor typical of state and national governance; benefiting from guidance and leadership by sage academics rather than elected politicians; situated in a sunny and mild location; and not even trying to solve the thornier problems of transportation, shipping, or manufacturing. Yet it seems extremely unlikely that we can pull it off. If transitioning away from fossil fuels is prohibitive for UCSD, then who, exactly, could we expect to succeed in making a clean break to fossil-free renewable energy?
- The Limits to Growth work was an early eye-opener that robust and ubiquitous dynamical modes like delayed negative feedback create conditions for overshoot and collapse. The contortions they had to execute in order to prevent a 21st century collapse illustrated just how “baked in” collapse could be. While no model should be interpreted literally, neither should we dismiss the top-level findings and the inherent warning that—at first blush—we run a serious risk of collapse. So far, our trajectory is still consistent with their nominal model case. The jury is still out, and I don’t like what the sneak peek implies.
- We face an energy trap (Section 18.3 of the textbook), in that the ease and cheapness of fossil fuels will likely delay large-scale migration to renewable energy until declining availability of fossil energy forces our hand. But then we learn that a massive build-out of renewable technologies (panels, turbines, concrete, installation) takes a tremendous amount of energy that can’t be conjured (financed) like money. Redirecting diminishing energy flows into a new infrastructure results in available energy declining even more rapidly as a result, for the few decades it takes to accomplish a transition. Such a “voluntary” energy decline is politically difficult to initiate and maintain, which may bind us to a path toward reduced capacity and resource scarcity. Successful navigation, in other words, requires decade-scale sacrifices for a better “far” future outcome—not something we are particularly talented at accepting.
- Resource wars seem likely, wasting an enormous amount of energy and resources on destructive, not constructive ends. As Earth’s inheritance of fossil energy and other material resources are plundered around the globe, the process will be geographically uneven in terms of where supply and demand exist. Figure 8.11 in the textbook illustrates this for oil: the largest consumers are not the ones possessing the largest reserves. Humankind’s historical predilection for war suggests a likelihood for forceful acquisition of critical supplies by powerful nations lacking adequate domestic resources. Other prosperous but resource-poor nations may object and decide to fight for access. Otherwise the aggressor, capturing vast supplies, becomes an unrivaled and literal superpower for the foreseeable future. Success requires global cooperation to protect ecosystems that know no political boundaries. Earth is an island in space, so we need an island mentality to survive: we’re all in this together. Past and present global relations, however, are better described by the word competition than by cooperation.
- Earth has never in its history had to contend with 8 billion fire apes, intelligent enough to have leveraged power by exploiting and burning one-time resources. We now operate outside the bounds and protections of evolution: in breach of contract, without a map to success. What could possibly convince us that this fireworks show—which has not even come close to standing the test of time—can maintain anything like its current resource impact for the long haul? Humans have demonstrated convincingly that we can live in a primitive state for hundreds of thousands of years. Our present mode is a few-century flash, supported almost entirely by inheritance-spending. Arguing that we have found a new normal is a precarious position that I would not be eager to defend. Parties end. Fireworks shows end. Why would our flash be any different? It’s not just guesswork: what other outcome could result from rapid resource exploitation on a finite planet?
- Are we problem solvers, or problem creators? Make a list of global problems we have created. The list might include: climate change; fossil fuel dependency; staggering inequality; habitat and species loss; desertification and salt build-up in agricultural lands—to name a few. Now make a list of global-scale problems we have solved. The ozone hole? Not convincingly, but at least holding steady now. Hunger? Energy? Pollution? Waste? Happiness? Population? Stabilized wilderness? I am not pretending that the human endeavor is devoid of improvements, like sanitation, health care, and tolerance (all to do with treating ourselves better, notice). But does it seem like global problems are fewer in number today than 100 years ago, or the reverse? A root problem is our sense that we are the dominant species on the planet and justified in prioritizing our needs over those of other elements of nature. Yet, a partnership is the only way to make it work long-term.
- We’re the worst judges. We were all born during a fossil-fueled fireworks show unlike anything that ever happened on this planet. Given all the threads that argue for the temporary nature of this inheritance spending spree, we should at least seriously question default assumptions that tomorrow will be “bigger” than today. Having been born during the fireworks show, it is no surprise that we are collectively unable to appreciate what “normal” on this planet really looks like. People are either oblivious to the danger, or unable to discern credible concerns from specious alarmism.
- People want stuff. We’re like ravens: “shiny” stuff appeals. Ultimate success means a truly sustainable lifestyle, which could well be materially poorer than today’s life, depending on population. How would we mitigate intrinsic individual desires to acquire more stuff (and power)? It may be a fundamental incompatibility in that evolution prepares self-motivated organisms looking out for their own prosperity. If a species develops “unfair” power advantages that were not part of the evolutionary script, the result may be destined to end poorly as that species uses its discovered power to damage ecosystems beyond repair—ultimately only harming themselves.
- Most of what we do today promotes failure, not success. Given that long term success requires a humble partnership with the life support machine we call the biosphere, most activities today serve to hack it down rather then preserve or build it back up. Economic constructs like the discount rate explicitly devalue the future, which points us in the direction of maximal exploitation for short-term gain—to the obvious detriment of nature and thus our own life support. In other words, we let financial decisions drive the planet, and that system is not based on values and principles that promote long term sustainability (a.k.a. success). We should not be surprised if that train—whose engine is often explicitly counterproductive to ecosystem health—fails to deliver a viable future.
- We’re attracted to the amazing. The unquestioned narrative of our time is of endless and accelerating technological breakthroughs. Since this seems to have been the case for several generations, it is considered to be a constant of the human condition. But how could we be so easily fooled? It is not that hard to see the error in the story by imagining a person living around 1900 suddenly transported to 1960, while another from 1960 is popped into 2020. Which person sees more unrecognizable “magic” all around? Cars, planes, radios, televisions, computers, nuclear power, all manner of household appliances like refrigerators and washing machines came into widespread use across the first interval. But what would the 1960 person be confused by? Microwave ovens would be new. Computers and phones advanced impressively, but not beyond recognition. A citizen of 1960 would correctly guess that the rectangle held to your cheek is a dumb-looking phone whose wire has been replaced by radio communication: not magic. So are we really accelerating? Is the next 60 years going to bring back the magic, or is that phase mostly done now? Challenge your assumptions. Snap out of the maladaptive stories we tell ourselves.
- One of those stories is that we’re just great. Human intelligence has paved the way for many very impressive accomplishments—no doubt. It is easy to be inspired—as I am—by some of our capstone achievements. But this breeds a certain self-congratulatory faith in human capabilities, and a hubristic sense that we can outsmart nature and “do nature” better than even it does. Consider that our perception is skewed by having witnessed the easy half of modern history. As we expanded from 1 billion to 8 billion people on the planet, we executed an unprecedented smash-and-grab of earth’s resources—largely unconstrained and even rewarded for the speed and efficiency with which we could carry it out. We devised political and economic systems to maximize material gain (almost always translating to a loss on nature’s side of the books, by the way). How will we fare when the fortunes reverse: when demand outstrips supply? Let’s not pat ourselves on the back just yet. Any fool can spend down the inheritance in an extravagant party. The real test is getting over the hangover and buckling down to a real job for the duration. So far, it’s been child’s play.
- Space fantasies are alarmingly alluring. They’re like reverse mortgages, attracting rafts of seemingly sane individuals, lured by Tom Selleck’s moustache. It’s a trap, people! As exciting as it is to think about, fueling imagination in an otherwise “boring” reality, it’s simply impractical to a degree that entertainment fails to convey. Space ambitions promote collapse in three ways. First, it’s an enormously intense mis-allocation of precious resources that just dig our hole deeper for no meaningful reward other than stoking fantasies. Second, promoting space as a viable escape hatch from earthly woes is a form of denial that defeats what might otherwise be an appropriate “immune system” response to the threat of collapse (thus, akin to an auto-immune disease). Finally, it may serve as a window into irrational human responses to real challenges. If we’re so easily misled in this domain, how can we have confidence that we’ll approach other aspects of collapse threats soberly and realistically?
- Show me, don’t theorize. A key bottleneck is that many people have a hard time accepting a challenge to the prevailing narrative, when the view out the window looks fine. (This relates to personality types, discussed in Section 18.1 of the textbook.) To discuss global collapse of civilization is by definition discussing the unprecedented. That’s hard to swallow. History is of limited use. Direct experience offers little value. Getting one’s head around it requires a mode of thinking and synthesizing that is hard and unfamiliar to many. Going against prevailing attitudes and persistent narratives is even harder. As social animals, we take cues from those around us. It’s hard for many to stick their necks out and be different. It’s isolating. Honestly, without the language of math and science, I can’t imagine I would ever find enough conviction to buck the norms. But these tools are invaluable in poking into the future, where history runs out. Few individuals are equipped with well-honed tools of this sort, though.
- We tend to avoid blame. It is impossible to entertain the idea of collapse without connecting the fact that your own actions as a member of society are contributing: that you are partly responsible. That’s a heavy load to bear, and it torments me personally. A tempting way out is to deny the likelihood of any such collapse—which turns out to be pretty easy to do.
- We’ve been conditioned to ignore. From stories of Chicken Little (“The Sky is Falling”) to the Boy Who Cried Wolf (recall, the wolf did come, though), we are taught to ignore ever-present prognosticators of doom. A long time ago, I asked a friend why he would not at least turn the car onto a new path if a road sign said “cliff ahead.” His response was that he’s seen the same sign all his life and it hasn’t been true yet. Years later, I finally have a retort: but now it’s scientists who are holding up the sign.
- Dangerous Denial. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching of my concerns over potential collapse—already mentioned a few times in this post—is the degree to which the notion is too unpopular or radical to discuss, for many. Because of this tendency, many have not honestly confronted the possibility and run through considerations like the ones outlined above. And, of course, failing to acknowledge the possibility is one of the surest ways to fall victim to this fate. It’s a self-unfulfilling prophecy: the very act of “predicting” it won’t happen is the thing that makes it most likely to happen. I would much rather that we are all talking about collapse and devising explicit global strategies to avoid that outcome. The core goal of most people warning of collapse is to be proven wrong, ultimately.
- If we don’t heed these concerns, it seems the likely outcome is overshoot; collapse; failure. Even if we did collectively get serious about a bold new trajectory, it’s still far from easy. So what, exactly, would stop us from overshoot, over-spending the inheritance, and damaging ecosystems beyond their ability to recover? Related to the previous point, it seems unlikely that we would stop by accident or dumb luck, but only out of awareness and recognition. Please forgive me if the current global political climate does not inspire confidence.
Remember, any of these elements in isolation may not commit us to collapse, per se. But we don’t get to choose one element at a time—whack-a-mole style—or call for a timeout: they all operate simultaneously, and nature will not be a forgiving referee or listen to our howling protests of “no fair.” Hold it all in your head, if you can. Then do something about it!
I have been grappling with these sets of concerns for a long while now, and keep looking for ways to stop worrying. The arguments I typically hear downplaying the threat often amount to steadfast faith in humanity (amazingly effective spenders of the inheritance that we are) to prevail over any challenge. I hear much less in the way of specific reasons why the suite of fundamental elements can be ignored or are wrong. The arguments usually aren’t on that plane, and thus to me lack substance.
One potentially revealing tendency I have witnessed is that those arguing against the likelihood of collapse will accuse the ones warning of the danger as wanting collapse, or at least eager to believe in collapse. My head explodes with multiple simultaneous thoughts. First, I can’t speak for everyone, but my sense is that the motivation behind even engaging in this unpopular conversation is to promote avoidance of collapse. If you believe collapse is likely and actually want that outcome, the best way to promote an ultimate crash is to keep quiet about it. Hey, maybe the collapse dismissers actually secretly want collapse and are trying to divert any attention away from our crash-bound trajectory. Just kidding, but it’s fun to turn the tables.
Second, that’s not how this stuff works. Practicing scientists don’t first decide what they want to be true and then make the experiment fit. That’s soooo middle-school science fair. But it may be a window into the motivation behind collapse dismissers. Perhaps the fact that they don’t want collapse to manifest (who the hell does?!) becomes the foundation of their resistance. Then, having some awareness of that motivation in themselves, they may naturally assume (project) that anyone arguing the opposite must therefore want the opposite, deplorable outcome.
Third, a feedback dynamic can arise that would make it seem like the person warning of collapse might be emotionally invested in being proven right, and it goes like this. The idea of collapse is proffered. A strong opposition freaks the profferrer out because if we can’t acknowledge collapse as a viable possibility, it’s that much scarier and likely. So the arguments escalate and take on a desperate tenor. It would be easy to confuse the unspoken, underlying emotional reaction of “why don’t you see this as a problem?” and/or “your denial is exactly why this is an existential problem” as “I desperately want to be right about this.” How would you know the difference? If the exchange becomes antagonistic enough (a human specialty), it is not an uncommon reaction for the collapse-warner to spitefully want the disastrous scenario to play out just to witness the collapse-dismisser suffer with the rest of us and finally admit in their ruin that they didn’t have the answers. Oh, the look on their face! I told you so! That’s an unfortunate personal thing, not a genuine desire to see humanity go down in flames. But to the recipient of the ill-wisher, it can all look the same: this cat wants collapse.
One way to probe underlying sentiments of the person warning of collapse (I’m being careful not to say pro-collapse person, because such a misnomer is sort-of the whole point) is to say: “Hmm, I see why you are concerned. That would be a very bad outcome indeed. What do you think we should do to prevent it?” My prediction is that the person relaxes, visibly relieved, and starts talking in earnest about the elements and barriers to be addressed. Then you know where their heart lies. Or you may encounter something closer to depression if the person has little hope left that collapse can still be avoided and laments the seemingly inevitable loss. Just consider, though: they may be right! How can you claim to know the answer any better than they do?
On the other hand, maybe the individuals dismissing concerns of collapse are right. Smart people may be able to imagine some form of success, but the question is less about how it could go in someone’s mind than about how it will go in the human free-for-all in which we find ourselves. Granted, we’ve got a lot riding on this, and virtually no one wants to see collapse. So we’ll fight tooth and nail to prevent a crash if it becomes a clear and present danger, and maybe if we’re lucky it’s not too late when the risk becomes apparent. My concern is that the tactics we use may be reasonably effective at delaying the result for several years at a time, commensurate with political terms. No one wants collapse on their watch. But kicking the can down the road is not a plan, just a delay.
Avoiding the Worst
The structural transformations that would be necessary to truly put off collapse indefinitely are enormous, and will not happen without first openly acknowledging that collapse is the likely result of inaction (i.e., of business as usual). We would have to transform economies to stop or reverse growth, assess and adopt practices geared for long-term sustainability, prioritize nature over ourselves in deciding what activities are tolerated, and establish a global cooperative to live within our means for generation after generation. Since this will likely involve leaving “goodies” on the shelves, within easy reach but protected from exploitation, it is unclear whether we can even get there and maintain such an unprecedented level of self-control for thousands of years.
All the while, individual action should not be discounted. If feeling overwhelmed by the enormous challenge, forget about saving the planet and bring peace of mind to yourself by living more responsibly as a part of nature. Maybe others will notice and follow. Transformation won’t happen without change at the individual level. Chapter 20 of the textbook offers some (limited) guidance. I am also enjoying a book by Peter Kalmus called Being the Change that aligns quite well with my own perspective.
Until movement on such transformations becomes evident at individual and global scales, I will continue to worry about the real threat of collapse. We’ll have plenty of notice if the world gets serious, as the first step is widespread, open, honest communication. Thus, at present, we would appear to be in no danger of preventing collapse. Indeed, we are just now collapsing across the finish line of this marathon post. Just breathe.
I find your lack of a clear definition of collapse surprising. The definition appears to be that humans will either be extinct or be hunter-gatherers. Is that correct? I am skeptical of that outcome within the nearish future. Babylon, Rome, Greece, China, and others have had very successful civilizations using a tiny fraction of the energy we use. I have much less confidence that space programs, airplane travel, ubiquitous cars will survive long.
I laughed merrily at this line: "benefiting from guidance and leadership by sage academics". Excellent comedy!
My bad. I guess I think of it as a drastic reduction in energy and resource use per person, looking primitive by today's standards. Possibly non-technological (e.g., electronic devices) and likely accompanied by a severe loss of knowledge/science. I'll update the post…
The very successful civilizations you talk about were on a much smaller scale and were made possible by heavy use of human and animal muscle power and biofuels. In addition you don't see very many , if any of them at more northern latitudes. If you go on a tour of southern Greece you will notice that the cities (like Mycenae for example) are more like modern villages in size and are only something like 10 km apart. If you go to a farm supply store you will notice that the fertilizer bags have way more than 3 numbers on them, 7000 years of agriculture really deplete those soils. More modern civilizations like the Russian Monarchy years were built with slave (serf) and animal labour and fuelled with biofuels. One large Russian landowner owned 200,000 serfs along with his land they were bought and sold with the land and were considered to be on par with animals for value.
Well done Dr. Murphy.
I observe a theme throughout your essay of how can something so obvious be so aggressively denied? And doubly so since denial will make the outcome worse.
This issue troubled me for many years until I came across a scientific theory by Dr. Ajit Varki called Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) which provides a plausible explanation for both the existence of our uniquely intelligent species, and its strong tendency to deny unpleasant realties.
I'm glad you're writing again. Keep up the good work.
I, too, consider many of the factors ratcheting us toward failure as "obvious." I would like to understand more about the fundamental disconnect between my views and those who reject any thought of collapse. In the end, I think it may stem from a different basis for beliefs. My views are anchored by physics, while I believe those arguing for indefinite economic prosperity and ingenuity are more steeped in economic theory of the past century and don't see much relevance on the physical side. I wonder how many of them have ever really built something physical. Meanwhile, it's obvious to me that the physical world has more authority than the notions of our species developed in abnormal times.
I pay very close attention to the beliefs of polymaths with physics backgrounds because that group of people, above all, should not deny our predicament, and yet the vast majority of these experts do deny human overshoot. I think Varki's MORT theory, or something like it, is required to explain this.
Here are some examples of polymath's in denial:
For some reason, I've always assumed our way of living is finite, like everything else.
The question to me is when and how.
In my lifetime, my children's, their children (if they still choose to have them)?
Will society hold together? Will I farm with my neighbors, as infinite generations before me or will they try to kill me? (Given the population density around me: doesn't look too good)
Will there be strategic nuclear war to reduce population? Extermination camps? (Nasty, but not something we haven't done before) Biological warfare? Who will do it to whom?
Our ethics are founded on the notion of the intrinsic value of human life. Is it more ethical to abandon all decency for survival of (your branch of) the species or to quietly go into the night.
I hope never to know the answers.
"I hope never to know the answers."
You're already living it. What do you think the past year and a half has been? Some of us have been aware since 2008 that this can't go on. Unrest is growing as more slowly learn that the future is not going to be more! Do you think those at the top aren't aware? They won't tell you, but just look at the past year and half and tell me what happened? Resource usage curtailed, the velvet glove hasn't come off yet but it will.
Wonderful article! I became aware of peak oil in 2000 after reading my geologist Grandfather Pettijohn's memoir in the section he talks about student and life-long friend M. King Hubbert. I found more information at the Colorado School of Mines and elsewhere on Hubbert's curve and peak everything. In 2004 a peak oil meetup group was formed in Oakland that lasted about ten years. Hundreds came and hundreds left because our message of "consume less, organic agriculture, bicycling not cars" and so on is not what people want to hear. They live wind and solar, they can continue to consume endlessly without guilt. People are incredibly resistant to the message that our way of life may not continue. Even my husband who edited my book "Life After Fossil Fuels" refuses to lose hope, though he rationally knows I'm probably right, he can't bear to believe it because he has a son and grandson. I collected why people reject peak everything here: https://energyskeptic.com/2020/telling-others-about-peak-oil/
A lot of the denial comes from not understanding the implications of exponential growth, which I didn't fully realize until meeting Albert Bartlett at the 2005 Denver ASPO conference (which mayor Hickenlooper, not governor, presided over).
Fossils can "paper over" depletion. We can still get water 500 feet down from aquifers. We can get the last schools of fish with factory ships that can travel to the ends of the earth. Hunger would be orders of magnitude greater if diesel trucks couldn't harvest crops in the small window of a few weeks before rain and snow and deliver them nation and world-wide. 4 billion of us depend on the natural gas used as the energy and feedstock to make nitrogen fertilizer.
Ah well, if peak oil did happen in 2018 as per the EIA, or 2008 (conventional) as per the IEA, you may know some of the answers unfortunately…
Interesting experience. I worry that as a whole we are not wired to cope with our own discovered power. Why would we be? I often think of the story of the racoon trap from Where the Red Fern Grows: a shiny coin in a hole in a log, with nails driven at angles into the hole allowing an open paw to reach in, but a paw clutching the coin unable to come out. Will we clutch our material comforts to the point of sealing an ill fate for us all?
Excellent essay! I hope it gets millions of views. I don't expect it WILL, but I hope it does.
The current tendency to consider "human ingenuity" as our ultimate resource, rather than net energy and, y'know, resources… is more a religious assumption about the nature of the universe than anything else. Restated, it goes something like "the universe was so constructed as to have a cheese reward at the end of every maze", if I may borrow a rat-and-psychologist paradigm for this comparison. It SEEMs like our ultimate resource is cleverness because recently we've become quite clever about how to make use of excess net energy. However, Albert Einstein stuck on an island with a beach ball, coconuts and sand would not have done much more in the real world than the animals around him, even if he derived all his advanced theorems in his head. They'd remain theoretical exercises.
I think you've hit on a central issue in how important ingenuity is perceived to be, and how much power it has over physical reality.
A million views would be something. Wow: 0.013% of humans. That should do it! Joking aside, I really would like a substantial fraction of people on the planet to confront these ideas and take stock of realistic paths. How do we come even close? My readership measures in the thousands—at least five orders-of-magnitude shy of game-changing levels. I have plans to roll out some things that might help. Maybe I can knock the shortfall down to four orders-of-magnitude. Yay?
Tom, maybe a podcast with Lex Fridman or Joe Rogan would be the accelerate needed.
Very well done. Space fantasies are just one of a long list of delusions we are subject to. Have a look at the graph of world energy use in this article. Yet repeatedly we here supposedly sane people claim that we can reach zero net CO2 emissions by 2050. The energy and material requirements to build all of the wind and solar infrastructure to replace all of that fossil fuel use are prohibitive.
And yes,a steady state economic system and a civilisation based on the use of non-renewable resources are incompatible, as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen explained many decades ago.
In terms of overshoot – that train's already left the station.
The question in front of us is how badly are we going to crash?
A very good overview of our predicament. I have been battling with this information for a couple of decades now and nothing changes as far as I can see. More and more thoughtful people join the debate against the prevailing mindset but still nothing changes. Please don't take this the wrong way but I think that you may still be in the bargaining phase and have more to go. Perhaps though you have been through them all and you are at acceptance and feel that continuing to speak your message of storms ahead if we do not change course. That is very noble and you do it very clearly and succinctly.
Look after your own ship and try not to shipwreck yourself on the rocky shores of humanity's denial.
I'm not sure I would call it succinct, at 5,000 words. Yet I also suspect it is incomplete, being a bit rushed.
In terms of phases, I seem to be able to hold a superposition of several at once: acceptance and anger and bargaining and even denial all brewed together. I find it useful in communicating to be able to access a heterogeneous audience and have parts resonate with each. Also, while tending to my own ship, I want to know that I at least tried to promote an important conversation.
it doesn't do any good to worry. We've been in overshoot and denial for as long as I can remember.
I was introduced to Limits to Growth in college by our General Studies tutor, who hoped to inspire the upcoming generation of scientists to find answers to our predicament. The overall reaction was summed up by the class smart-ass: "So what? Nobody's bothered" – which our tutor said was the most serious aspect of the problem. Thanks to NASA and popular sci-fi, most of us expected a future of flying cars, space travel and holidays on the Moon. Only eco-freaks and mizzogs imagined otherwise.
I recently read Hall+Klitgaard's "Energy and the Wealth of Nations" (2e, 2018). The final chapter's "Biophysical Plan for a Sustainable Future" reads like a Friends-of-the-Earth manifesto from the 1970s! The critical issues remain unresolved and poorly considered. We are nearing the point where sh*t creek meets the waterfall to oblivion and civilization smacks into Cousteau's wall.
The universe is an entropic / dissipative system: decay and "collapse" are built in, it's only a matter of time. An open, dissipative universe will always behave in this way. Worrying about the inevitable is pointless and a waste of what time we have. To be truly sustainable, a closed / twisted / regenerative universe is required. I spend my time imagining that. Mobilise the Mobius Manoever!
The fact that life on Earth dissipates energy is irrelevant as long as the Sun is supplying the energy to be dissipated. Sure,the 'life' cycle
of the sun means that this planet will be burnt to a crisp, but there is a big difference between that time scale and the problable time that
this civilisation will exist. Living within the constraints of the solar energy flow, with solar energy collectors and dissipators that are self-replicating,and do not require mining or manufacturing for their existence is a prerequisite for human societies to endure for millenia,
as they have endured for millenia . Raiding the solar energy stores
and using them to construct an ephemeral civilisation was the path humanity travelled. If we hadn't been smart enough to smelt metals and develop the technology to exploit that energy store,we would
still be living within the constraints of the solar energy flow, just like
almost all other species on Earth .(chemotrophs excepted) .
Ernst Mayr was right when he said that intelligence was a lethal mutation. It certainly has been a lethal mutaion for many of our fellow species,which have been exterminated by the human juggernaut, the impact of which is orders of magnitude greater in an
industrial civilisation. Will it be lethal for our species ? Maybe,but
our fate is not determined by the fact that life dissipates energy.
We thought we were heading to "The Jetsons." Surprise, we're heading for Bedrock. Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…
From the caves, to the Moon, to the caves.
As that sage, Mike Tyson, once noted, "Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth." You are very clearly pointing out that we are in an even worse condition; we're about to get punched in the mouth and we haven't even really begun to plan.
But, as you rightly indicate, doing nothing and hoping for the best is not likely to improve our prospects. And you do think that it is good and prudent for individuals to do something. So, to carry the boxing analogy a little too far, is it better to try and block the punch (mitigate the worst effects of collapse) or duck under it (just try and avoid those worst effects)?
I think it's our good luck that it is possible for individuals to do both at the same time. Collapse is coming. We don't know how fast or how hard, but since we know it's going to involve the demise of modern civilization we can try and avoid the worst by positioning ourselves to live without that civilization. How? By preparing to live as susbsistence farmers. An additional benefit is that by doing so we may slightly mitigate our environmental footprint at the same time. Continously working to increase soil fertility (increase it's organic carbon content) has got to help a little.
But that's just the plan my family is attempting to execute. Will you be doing a followup on the specific dangers that we moderns will face when our civilization collapses around us?
It seems to me that the worst effects will be concentrated where the dependency on civilization is the greatest – modern cities. What's a city dweller to do? The answers aren't easy, but I'm curious if you've thought about it? Are you and your wife ready to abandon San Diego, go "back to the land" and pick up a hoe? If you have kids, what would you tell them to do?
There not only is no plan, there is censorship about even discussing the issue. The 'Conversation' website in Australia roughly 18 months ago had an article about the possibility of civilisational collapse. (It was a greatly inferior article to this post.) The English academic's opinion was that it was very unlikely. I placed a brief comment, linking to a then recent post by George Mobus,and mentioned his systems science textbook. The post by Mobus was one where he advised young people to 'head for the hills' and set up permaculture communities. Five minutes later, the whole article disappeared (not just my comment). I thought it was probably some glitch in the system,and went back several times to see if the article reappeared. It didn't.
Do you hav a link to the George Mobus article? I gained a great deal when reading about his concept of sapience; https://faculty.washington.edu/gmobus/TheoryOfSapience/SapienceExplained/1.sapienceintroduction/sapienceIntroduction.html
No. It was a post on his blog,if you want to search for it.
Nate Hagens has the 2021 version of his always excellent annual Earth Day talk up. I think it's a nice companion to Dr. Murphy's essay for those seeking to understand what is going on.
This year Hagens did not constrain his talk to a fixed duration and instead gave each topic the time it required resulting in a 3 hour talk. Time stamp links are provided to make it easy to watch topics of interest.
Thanks for this interesting post. I received my copy of your book.
I have just finished working through a flurry of emails from friends in Houston, TX and Lake Charles, LA. Once more, they have been hit with very heavy rain. The people who denied global warming ten years ago now recognize that “something is up” — they see that the climate has changed. Maybe this recognition is the first step toward accepting the possibility of collapse. We have to see it to believe it.
But then, I suppose, it will be too little, too late.
I wonder if this strange ufo fever goin on has something to do with collapse. Strange things seen in the heavens has always been a portent of coming problems. Or could it be the last fevered dream of a dying technological society?
I was a fan of your blog back in the day. But, I tend to think that the last decade has proven "collapse" mostly wrong. Consider:
-The Earth has not run out of fossil fuels, not even close. They're more abundant than ever. There was a time last year when oil prices went *negative*, because there was so much oil that there wasn't anywhere to store it all! Oil wells routinely "flare", burning off natural gas because it's not worth the effort of collecting it.
-Solar PV has grown exponentially, and prices have massively decreased, for both production and storage. The prices have dropped something like 80% in the past decade- not really due to any big technology breakthrough, but from production at massive scale by China.
-Electric cars are now pretty common, on par with the cost of a gas car. The main reason they're not more common is that gas is still so cheap. The batteries from an electric car can be recycled into grid storage.
-Even the "space cadet" stuff is kind of coming true. SpaceX has already achieved a factor-of-ten decrease in costs compared to the Space Shuttle, and they might be able to do another factor-of-ten, or more, with their new Starship rockets. There are plans for a moon landing in 2024- just three years away!
If anything, it's the old fashioned, mundane stuff that's become a problem. Housing, education, and healthcare continue to grow exponentially in cost, with no end in sight. It sounds crazy, but I can imagine a future where it's cheaper to fly to mars then to buy a house in Toronto.
This comment is a good illustration about how short-term considerations can have disproportionate weight in our brains. The bumps and wiggles of one decade are dubious indicators of longer-term constraints. Interpreting short-term fracking gains as a new normal for abundance on a decidedly finite and dwindling resource is almost certainly wrong. The bizarre negative dip in oil price was NOT super-abundance, but a world absolutely reeling from an unprecedented global pandemic, lockdown, and curtailment of almost everything—making the argument at the very least sloppy if not disingenuous. Ask UCSD (see post) if the low price of solar panels solves any problems: it's not nearly the whole story. EVs will increase in market share for cars, but full replacement cannot be judged by the early trends: they can't do it all. That aside, EVs don't address many of the elements pointing at collapse. Showboating in space is neither here nor there when it comes to avoiding collapse.
The mere suggestion that a trip to Mars may some day be cheaper than a house—while being somewhat facetious —probably does as much as anything to calibrate readers to the overall weight of the comment.
The picture I have in my mind is the earth being fed into a meat grinder that is being powered by a coal power plant (representing BAU). The people gathered are celebrating upon hearing the good news.
"Good news everybody soon we can power it all with renewables"
It seems odd to dismiss a decade of exponential growth as "bumps and wiggles," but an anecdote about your own university is supposed to be representative. I wouldn't expect a university to any special expertise at installing solar panels, and it doesn't really matter if they do or not, since they'll just plug into the grid either way.
The people who it does matter to are the workers in the third world, who are rapidly industrializing, and have very little money to do so. India, in particular, has grown its solar electricity exponentially, and is now about 5% solar overall, despite ALSO adding coal plants and being very financially limited. It makes sense for the US to simply continue its old infrastructure- look at the developing world if you want to see rapid changed.
Looking forward to those solar panels making solar panels.
yep, my understanding (Alice Friedman) is that solar energy systems cannot product enough energy to product more solar energy systems.
Our predicament is multifaceted. The three main facets are energy,material,and climate. One example :
to change the global vehicle fleet to EVs would require enormous amounts of various minerals. (Also the material requirement to construct the 'renewable' infrastructure to supply the non-fossil energy) Material limits become problematic, putting it mildly. As the mineral ores become less concentrated,more energy is required to extract them. Energy limitations then become problematic. And all the while, burning of the fossil fuels to keep this treadmill turning is increasing CO2 levels.
At some point you will need to stop with the grid tied solar power and have to start providing storage for intermittent power sources to buffer the fluctuations. Otherwise you may start getting black and brown outs.
Almost all of the predictions of wonderfulness that I read about intermittent sources of power like wind, solar, tidal, etc. simply gloss over any mention of buffering or storage and never, ever mention the dramatic reduction in EROEI of "renewable" sources of power when you add in buffering.
In addition, a 100 MW solar power plant is not the same as a 100 MW fossil fuel or nuclear power plant. Even in the Mojave Desert there is only the equivalent of 5 or 6 hours of full sun per day so you would need at least a 400 MW solar array to provide the equivalent 24 hour per day output of a 100 MW FF or nuclear plant.
When you start using expired EV batteries (80% capacity after 1000 cycles) for solar power buffering what you may find is that they have a very short useful lifetime because you are draining and recharging them every day rather than every now and then over the 20 years it takes to reach 1000 cycles with a vehicle. They will likely last a couple of years at most before they become useless. Just like when your iPhone battery needs replacement.
Those are old, old criticisms and well understood by everyone in the renewable energy industry. There's been massive progress in all of them in the last decade. Nobody is just glossing over these problems- they're being solved, or have already been solved.
Storage: Battery production has expanded about 10x , with many large scale production facilities (like the Gigafactory) planned and being built. The Gigafactory alone makes more battery capacity than the entire world did 10 years ago. Some of those batteries are used for large scale grid storage *now*, like the "big battery" in Australia. They're also expanding quickly, because they can react faster and more cheaply than gas peaking plants.
EROEI- a meaningless number used only by peak oil people because it sounds scary (mostly because the earliest gushers were so easy to drill, and now we have to actually work for it). As long as it's a net positive, it doesn't matter. Normal people just look at the cost of energy in dollars, which remains very low. Maybe even too low- some oil-exporting countries (of which the US is now the biggest!) are having economic problems because oil is too cheap.
Capacity Factor- everyone is well aware that the sun doesn't shine at night. On the other hand, most factories and offices don't run at night either, so an energy source that peaks during the middle of the day is ideal for most uses. You can supplement it with wind and battery storage if you want to be 100% renewable, or a nuke plant if you can build it, or just burn fossil fuels at night since they're more plentiful than ever. Lots of good options, no collapse in sight.
Lifetime: EV batteries aren't really the same as as phone batteries. They last a lot longer because they don't have to be hyper-optimized for a small size (or to force you to buy a new phone ever 2 years). Tesla has a 15-year warranty on its Powerpacks designed for utility storage, others are similar. Not sure how they hold up after that, but they don't suddenly become useless, they gradually degrade just like any industrial equipment. Then again, if battery prices continue to decline like they have, it's not too a big deal to just throw them away build new ones.
>. My simplest answer is: I am decidedly anti-collapse
I on the other hand am all for it 🙁 hear me out before shaking the fist in anger. In order to avoid collapse we'd need a massive change in how we live and exist on the planet THAT is collapse. I'd rather see we managed it but see ZERO evidence of humanity ever cooperating in that way. I mean we have national borders precisely so we can use force to export others in the first place. Can you see Micheal Mann ever giving up the life of jetting all over the world telling us we need to lower emissions, or Jeff Bezos living in a small house growing veg and riding a bike? ie inequality is a huge issue
Some people seem to think change is unacceptable, like riding a bicycle instead of taking a car, or reading a book under a tree. My emissions are comparatively small at about 2.5t per annum (out of choice), if everyone lived like I do we'd literally collapse the economy.
Also, while consumption is the main problem , especially by Americans, population is still an issue and no one addresses that either (I have no kids and had a vasectomy decades ago precisely becasue of that) . The retort there is often, well, make them richer with education better lifestyles etc.That inference ignores the CONSUMPTION part of the equation …
and why is making the rest of the world more like the USA in anyway aspirational. Good video by David Cross here about that
and great insight by Possessor Kevin Anderson here
Awesome post as always Mr Murphy ! thanks for coming back alive here 🙂 and the collapse definition is difficult. Did the USSR collapse or did it just change ?
1 + 1 = 3, or 4/5/6 …. even as high as 20 I understand! This is the maths of Nature that seems so studiously denied. Loved your writing re-conflicting views. I am stuck in a loop with this one. Tired of 'ringing a warning bell' and being called a 'collapsist'. Exhausted even. I have even been confused by the optimistic narrative that 'we create the world in which we live.' worrying that by articulating my concerns I, and others like me, am/are bringing it upon us!! Hardly likely though, given the personal sacrifices (consumption controls) I now find it now necessary to impose on our family life, partly to assuage my own guilt/shame, but primarily to decrease our impact. Been working with ideas that 'to work toward increased innocence is very, very different from ignorance'.
I find your discussion of all this strangely comforting. Thank you for providing me with some tools for next time I am accused of raining on others parade!
"To avoid collapse we'd need a massive change in how we live ..
THAT [change] is collapse [by another name]"
Collapse has two faces – reduction, and agency. Deprivation, and loss of control.
If we did not face a prospect of reduction, we would not try to categorically deny the need for it. Of course next we will also have claim that the advent of reduction is ultimately only possible as a *choice*.
It is not the possibility of reduction we need to discuss, but its inevitability.
Because the claim that Humanity, Inc. will not "deflate" one way or the other is the first denial. We cannot have an honest discussion about sacrifice if we are unwilling to admit that this will be, indeed, a sacrifice of much if not most we could have (at the expense of others across geographic space and historic time).
"irrationally motivated to do whatever it takes to prevent such a catastrophe"
Fighting extinction against all odds is not irrational, it is the only evolutionary stable strategy. Much as celibacy cannot be an inherited trait.
I see the rejection of managed and unmanaged collapse in the same terms I see the dismissal of the idea of "Limits of Growth". Denying the possibility of collapse is a rejection of the idea that there are "Limits to Stability" (or, if you want to denunciate, "Limits of Stagnation"). But equilibrium is an exception, and, until now, it has never been a choice. You cannot argue that our current opportunistic "inflation" is abnormal in evolutionary terms (it is not, anyway) and then propose we should mitigate the impact of our misguided agency by working towards an even more abnormal "equilibrium".
Evolutionary equilibrium is the result of checks and balances. If we are insufficiently checked by other species, how should we us our outsized agency to check ourselves? By removing our agency? Disavowing its fact? Reducing our number to scale back our "leverage"?
Human ingenuity does not "trump natural limits", it merely exploits natural opportunities. The limits of our agency are set by our environment first, the brains it shaped second. If there is no cheap oil, then engineering a combustion engine is of little consequence.
There are 8 billion of us. We can change the world – we have been changing it, we are changing it. But how could we possibly change it into a world no longer changed by our presence, or our collective choices?
The "space cases" are right in one respect: to "sustain" ourselves over millennia we have to live on Earth as if we lived in the void of space. Take nothing, leave nothing behind. Maybe the question of how and where human beings will live in 10,00 years – if at all – is utterly irrelevant to the question of how (and how much of) our five-thousand years of culture will survive the next few centuries ?
Downscaling is inevitable, collapse isn't. While collapsology is a fishy science, I tend to side with those claiming that the main cause of collapse is an inedequate response to the situation / predicament the civilization is in. I guess that is also your point: by recognizing the predicament and NOT promoting actions and policies trying to maintain the current system there is a better chance we can make a more gentle transition to something like a stready state society. Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote a very good article (in German) with the title Heroes of retreat, referring to General Jaruzelski in Poland and Gorbatjov in Soviet Union. Both led a retreat from corrupt and dysfunctional systems, and it is a very tough position to be in – despite their accomplishments Jaruzelski was charged for treason or something similar, but died before trial and Gorbatjov, while being popular in the West is persona non grata in Russia. We need more such heroes today.
In addition, the question is if one can separate the predicament from the political economy that led us here. I don't think we can. From my perspective capitalism as an ideology AND economic system is bound for collapse as it actually both require growth and results in growth.
Whether capitalism then is a strategic target to fight is of course another issue, but I tend to believe it is. That "fight" doesn't have to be only a political fight but can also take the shape of voluntary simplicity and other forms relations between humans which are not based on markets and monetary valuation.
To your list of reasons why people don't take collapse seriously, I would add epistemic learned helplessness: https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/06/03/repost-epistemic-learned-helplessness/
That is, many people are reluctant to believe any argument that sounds weird to them, having been fooled too many times by convincing-sounding arguments.
A good article, and as far as I have read it so far, a great book. As you say, we still have choices here, but so far are moving at glacial speed to make the right ones. If we dawdle too long and get to societal collapse, the best we can hope for is a benign dictatorship to pick up the pieces and force things in the right direction – still ugly, and pretty unlikely.
I am less alarmed about not being able to innovate ourselves around problems, if collapse can be avoided or is brief. Solar panels can be made with beach sand (and lots of energy) and the electricity transported thousands of miles (recent Chinese innovations) on aluminum wiring (widely available aluminum oxide and energy to refine it). Solar and wind intermittency is an issue, but energy hogging industrial processes like reverse osmosis water purification, steel making, aluminum and silicon production, hydrogen electrolysis (for 'green' steel and ammonia fertilizer and transport) can be run intermittently. Admittedly that comes at an increased capital cost for a given production volume, but eminently doable. A large EV fleet hooked up to the grid also offers a significant capacity for both storage and excess capacity buffering. Just takes a good 'smart grid' and societal cooperation.
I would argue that a better bet than San Diegoes around the country using their expensive land for solar might be funding 'solar cities' along the oceans in dry areas to build solar panels and wind turbines. They could pull displaced people out of poverty and electrify backward areas to make them productive while bypassing coal power plants. All of this is existing technology.
Dr. Tom's blog and influence has even seeped as far north as the little school in Whale Pass, Alaska. He is touted as the MS/HS teacher's favorite Physicist!
Excellent post, and glad to see you posting again!
The points here that make collapse inevitable only make sense if you re-define the words as people commonly use them and don't inform anyone that you're doing that.
Growth, as defined by economists, doesn't require constant increase in energy use.
You simply hand-wave away the benefits of space without explaining why it's a "fantasy". Lots of resources to use and places to dump waste heat it space!
And sure, if in 400 years we were mining copper at 10,000 times the current rate, then that sounds like a world facing some new challenges. On the other hand, if per-capita GDP in the U.S. was $570,000,000 per year–as it would be in your scenario–it's a pretty thin imagination that can't understand that we'd have the resources to do something creative to solve problems.
"You simply hand-wave away the benefits of space".
Yes he must do it because the time until these "benefits" will be available will not come. In the next years until 2030 and later the world must master the energy cliff caused by the beginning shortage of oil, gas and coal. Renewable energy will not replace it due limits of mineral resources. Read this paper of the International Energy Agency (IEA)
The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions
Also the IEA avoids to write it very clearly that there are not enough resources as you can read it in the following report
But at page 119 of the IEA report you can see copper, lithium and cobalt will be soon in short supply for the necessary transition of SDS (Sustainable Development Scenario – warming below 2°C). The same will be at least for nickel and some other resources
That doesn't make sense.
Money is merely keystroked into existence, as debt. That debt (even in 'cash' form) is merely an expectation that there will be resources, and energy to process those resources, in the future. How else is debt repaid?
So the ever-bigger pile of debt, is an ever-bigger pile of forward betting on there being more and more resources and energy available, as time goes on.
But this was a full-of-resources planet, which we're emptying at exponentially-increasing rates. The graphs cross. Debt-issued, fiat-multiplied, backed-by-nothing-tangible money, is therefore not a valid counter. It goes without saying, then, that economics, as preached, is not valid either.
I recommend a close study of the case in chapter 2 of the textbook for why economic growth is ultimately bound to physical limits (e.g., in energy use). Chapter 4 details the case for space as fantasy in a way that a single bullet point could not. As Murray indicated, money is ultimately based on physical stuff—not the other way around.
One could argue that seeing past the default, prevailing extrapolation of an ever-"bigger" future to entertain the reversal of a centuries-long trend requires more imagination—relying more on fundamentals and physics than on blind faith in human ingenuity.
Thank you for this article, whose core statement is very close to my heart: if we don't admit to ourselves that the worst could happen, we won't work to prevent it. To reach any effective point of pivot, we humans need to be willing to look without selfishness, self-blinding, and self-defense at the world we have made and the world we are making. Change will have to be structural, yes, economic, political yes; it will require further discoveries of engineering, of basic science. It also will need a change of determination, of psyche and heart; a change of identification from partial to whole. I'm grateful that someone pointed me to your writing and work, which states these things with such clarity and force.