Caught Up in Complexity

From analogicus, via Pixabay

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

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

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

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

Too Much Confusion

Sharp minds are capable of coping with complexity, and are apt to revel in the convolutions and nuances of ideas. Thought feeds the soul, for the intellectual sort.

In the panoply of fields and ideas represented within academia, one finds a rich ground of substantive topics to consider or debate. Is the construct of capitalism the source of our modern problems, or does the simple mechanism contain the seeds of salvation? Is communism a better system? Has communism been shown to fail by example, or has “real” communism never been tested? Is it even possible to achieve a pure enough instantiation, or will human nature prevent such a test—and if not, is it relevant? Would redistribution address inequity? If our system prevented the rise of multi-billionaires, or limited corporate power, would many of our problems melt away or become worse in some other way? What role does religion play? Is any one flavor better than another, or would we be better off abandoning faith altogether? And are we still making progress on racial equality, or are we lately lurching backwards? Does authoritarianism threaten to derail seemingly stable democracies?

Amidst all these concerns, isolating the problem and devising a system that would tame our most significant ills seems to be hopelessly mired in complexity. Opinions/ideas abound, making it effectively impossible to arrive at consensus on the relative merits of ideas. So the wheels of academia spin, churning out heaps of well-considered publications, and sometimes achieving demonstrable bits of progress.

The Two Worlds

A Planetary Limits perspective steps to the side and starts by acknowledging a non-negotiable physical basis to everything.

In this view, we have created and prioritized an artificial world atop the real physical world, full of constructs that are malleable and in some senses arbitrary. Perhaps because the elements of this attention-dominating artificial world are of our own creation—agriculture, cities, political and legal systems, economies, industry, gadgets, entertainment, etc.—we acquire the illusion that we really are masters of the world and can design it to our collective wishes. The focus becomes on maneuvering through these complex constructs (political, legal, monetary, social) to achieve our goals. The canvas appears to be unconstrained, inspiring a certain enthusiasm for the “possible.”  It is easy to overlook the fact that this artificial world has not stood the test of time, as the real physical world has by construction.

Meanwhile, the physical foundation is taken for granted like the air we breathe; or at least relegated to engineering “problems” to be solved. Our tendency is to throw physical considerations into the mix to swirl among all the other complexities: just another “pet issue” on an equal footing, and therefore as debatable, fungible, or perhaps ignorable as all the rest.

As an extreme example: whatever your passion, try making your case without any air in the room. Not only won’t the sound propagate, but you’ll be in a bad way for oxygen. Try maintaining your position for days or weeks without allowing any intake of water or food. The physical foundation is so obviously important as a prerequisite for anything else that it deserves its own (necessarily finite) canvas, within which everything else must operate in deference to the limitations/boundaries. Yet we take it for granted: treating something of paramount importance with little regard.

But is it Critical?

It makes sense that we do this, when hard limits have seemed remote or irrelevant this past century and more. The oxygen example above borders on ludicrous, since we are not in serious jeopardy of running out of air to breathe—space fantasies pushed aside. Food and water are less guaranteed. But generally speaking, ignoring physical limits is unwise when suddenly 8 billion people are scooping out the inheritance of Earth’s finite one-time resources as fast as humanly possible. We have not seen the full consequences yet, and can no longer take the foundation for granted, as we have already used up a shocking fraction of Earth’s offerings in the blink of an eye on timescales of evolution or even of civilization. We are chewing on the power cord to our life support machine, as if it’s just another fun choice on the menu. It’s the worst choice we could make, as exciting as Amazon deliveries might be.

To most, it seems that physical resources have always been available in sufficient quantity—notwithstanding costs that act to curb our appetites, operating as a crude and imperfect signal that quantities must be limited in some manner. The problem is typically conceived to be one of efficient organization and distribution, so that physical availability takes a back seat to human-controlled factors.

Perhaps a useful way to drive the point home is to pause and look around you. Most eyes will land on a lot of physical “stuff.” Or think about the stream of delivery trucks, unloaded car trunks, and curbside waste as a marker of material throughput in most households. Where does it all come from? Is the source limitless? Could you gather the resources that make your life possible on your own little patch of land: metals, plastics, wood, energy resources? Who, in fact, can? Or can you at least offer something of value that can be traded for things you don’t happen to have on your property? Can the things you need even be sourced in your local region? The stuff we rely upon is not exactly easy to acquire, and it gets harder as the prime resources are fully exploited/depleted on this ever-smaller globe.

Dismissing Limits

Ignoring physical limitations allows human exceptionalism to take center stage, subsuming physical concerns under the “engineering” category of human mastery. And many engineers are perfectly happy to receive well-defined “kits” to puzzle out, creating the temporary illusion that cleverness triumphs over natural limits.

Space fantasies fall into this category: thought to be just a matter of the political stars aligning and some advances in engineering. Never mind the question of whether Earth even has the resources to launch a large human footprint in space, or the staggering paucity of resources in that hostile environment. Those considerations were not part of the kit, and take away from the fun.

Percentage of global energy resources consumed by the U.S. over time. The dashed line at bottom represents the fraction of U.S. population in the world, so that energy use above this line means a greater-than-average share, which is true for all sources.

In this context, I am reminded of the physical basis for American dominance in the latter half of the 20th century. A plot of the fraction of global energy resources consumed by the U.S. during this period is eye-opening (Figure 7.9 in textbook, reproduced above). Having only 6% of the world’s population in 1950, the U.S. used over 70% of oil, and over 80% of natural gas. This  qualified the U.S. as a literal superpower, following the physics definition of power as rate of energy use. It wasn’t just energy. The North American frontier was laden with physical resources primed for exploitation. A common sentiment is that America should return to those glory days (not great for all, I note)—as if it’s a matter of attitudes or ideologies. No! It was a reflection of physical dominance. We’re not going back there, no matter how we cast our votes.

Another common focus of how we might fix many of the world’s ills is redistributing the wealth of billionaires. But perversely, perhaps locking up the wealth without physical expression is doing more good than harm, in Earth’s eyes. If a multi-billionaire released, say, $30k each to 1 million people, we might expect 1 million car purchases, or the equivalent. Yet billionaires don’t have million-car garages. In general, because only a tiny sliver of energy and material resources go to the few billionaires (disproportionately small compared to their wealth), I would expect redistribution to result in a substantial increase in energy and material resource consumption: more fossil fuels; more CO2; more deforestation; more mining; more Amazon and back to billionaires! It’s a large part of what drives the appeal of redistribution: more access to “stuff” for the masses. What would the forests and animal kingdom want? Prioritizing people and their wants over ecosystems is a losing strategy, in the end.

Our tendency to ignore the value of physical resources in relation to our artificial pursuits is also seen in the way we treat resources as essentially free in our price structures. The cost is dominated by the extraction effort (a human activity), land rights (another artificial construct), and maybe a little profit for those who have the means to secure and perform the extraction/exploitation. No one pays into a global coffer for the extracted oil, or the cut-down tree. The actual thing that’s valuable is plucked for free—uncompensated. No wonder we fail to properly value those resources as special. Our woefully inadequate construct of money is not up to the task of protecting our life support machine.

Good News: Bad News

As a jarring illustration of our tendency to value the human side over the prerequisite physical/ecological side, imagine that somehow we manage to emerge from the coming centuries having established a truly sustainable existence. All resources are renewed by nature at the rate of extraction for human needs; population is steady and at a level just tolerable to the planet in terms of indefinite support. Diverse ecosystems are left to thrive in their natural states. But imagine that we are still plagued by cancer and other maladies, so that life expectancy is, say, 90 years.

Then what if a team of researchers hits on a cure for (most forms of) cancer? Hurray! At last! Unambiguously good, right?

Well, not so fast. All other elements held the same, longer life spans translate to a higher population, putting additional resource burdens on the planet that it cannot handle in the long term. In order to adopt and implement the cure for cancer, we would have to either deliberately reduce population or lower the standard of living to accommodate the change. All other considerations of the complex society about economic impacts, equity of distribution, legal and political facets, or interaction with religious belief systems must take a back seat to the most fundamental and important question: is this change physically viable on this finite planet in the long term?

Physical Priority

Physical limits should be the start of every discussion. Every policy, every philosophical argument, every religious choice, every economic decision should first consider the immutable impact on the physical world: the real and non-negotiable world. Will the proposal have a net negative or a net positive effect on ecosystems (neutral also okay)? Only after planetary limits are respected should considerations in our artificially constructed world be applied. Otherwise we write the prescription for failure.

Picking up some language from a recently-joined PLAN member, one might say that most of our constructs are downstream from physical considerations. I think this is a helpful way to frame it. Carrying the metaphor, the culture of a village on a river bank might be richly interwoven with the river. Rules about water use for drinking and irrigation, fishing, swimming, washing, and waste disposal mix with religion, history, personal stories, and down the line. But if the source of water—high in the mountains and out of sight—is disturbed or eliminated, all of that defining complexity becomes essentially meaningless.

Human civilization is downstream from the provision of physical resources and planetary health. We need to set aside distracting complexities until we get this part right.

It turns out that what’s good for humans (in the short term) is not necessarily good for nature. In our current—utterly unsustainable—mode, choices that are thought to be good for humans are usually decidedly terrible choices for the planet and therefore ultimately bad for us, too. Take care of the real world first, and then you can have dessert.

The overall point is that the world in which we operate is divided into the physical and the philosophical. One is real and not the least arbitrary or negotiable in its rule set. The other is imagined to enjoy great freedom from constraint, encouraging us to paint anything that pleases. Lumping them together in a confusing mash of relativism is bound to result in ultimate failure, because it’s just wrong. The canvas is not unbounded, so adjust your painting ambitions accordingly, before applying the first stroke.

[The last sentences in each of the last three paragraphs convey a very similar message. Apologies for any resulting sense of repetition, but I became attached to each version.]

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32 thoughts on “Caught Up in Complexity

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. It's an interesting question how we might place that value in the natural world. Some economists are calling for a specific monetary value to every ecosystem, to every tree, etc. But as I believe you've mentioned here in the past, to do so is to make such things fungible, and to allow the rich to simply pay any fine as the cost of doing business. Another value system can come from traditional animist religions, where the natural world is in some ways sacred. While a lot of us feel this way, the destruction of ecosystems that makes our modern lives possible is often happening out of sight, both in space and time. So the emotional cues that would moderate our behaviour are missing.

    What about a way of drawing on the connected human experience: the way we care about what others think and believe? Flight-shaming is a good modern example. I'm sure the point has been brought up many a time, but for groups of people to take a collective irrational decision (in this case to care about a rain forest on the other side of the planet and not click the "buy it now" button) do you need a religion? That's a disappointing conclusion for this atheist. But I wonder if it has a greater chance of success than other ways of coordinating human behaviour, like government, which seems unable to plan beyond short-term interests, since they need to remain popular to stay in power (almost everywhere, some police states are the exception).

    I can see why so many science fiction authors conclude that we're not getting out of this situation without deep modifications to our sense of empathy. Thinking on the Fermi paradox, I believe evolution brings every sentient environment-modifying species to this same problem. There's no selection basis for planet-wide empathy, or reducing the discount rate on future generations. But self-modification of the species brings on its own enormous ethical issues, and I doubt vast empathy would be the quality that the first ones to try it would go for! New game theory problems spring eternal.

    • Lots of good points here. On religion, atheists drop the silly "Santa Claus" stories propping up most religions, but don't tend to drop morals. In many cases, they improve upon those morals in an intellectually consistent manner–essentially forming a personal religion (set of guiding principles). The fact that religion has been a part of essentially every human culture is a clue that we probably can't do without it. But what I wouldn't give if the religious foundation on the planet were eco-centered rather then human-centered. Taking the themes of this post, and putting physical concerns above all else, one could imagine a religion rooted in unassailable truths of the natural world. Morals and norms flow from these bedrock understandings, putting humanity appropriately downstream from the top-level concerns. Have we found our calling?

      On the Fermi paradox, I'm on the same page completely: why or how would evolution accidentally result in the first "sentient environment-modifying species" being wise enough not to exercise their powers fully? It's almost baked in that evolution will discover the mal-adaptive upper limit to intelligence in a sad, unguided experiment. Only if that species can recognize the flaw and rewire their behavioral impulses based on finally "getting it" can we hope to avert the more likely outcome.

  2. I think if you were to study Ajit Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory it would answer your question about why so few of your colleagues see our overshoot predicament.

    MORT also answers other important questions, like for example, why is there only one species with the brain power to leverage fossil energy while simultaneously denying the obvious consequences, and why is that same species the only species that believes in gods and life after death?

  3. >So I’m not crazy,

    Haha, no 🙂 Well… unless as you suggest we all are. I have come to accept there are no solutions. I came to your blog so many years ago when I was still hunting for solutions because, humans can't be that "stupid".. can they 🙂 and yet look where CO2ppm and resource over use, plastic use etc are now. Limits to Growth indeed.

    So I have moved on from the question of will we… to how do I ensure I am not first in the queue, (moved up hill, closer to the poles, learning self sufficiency skills, etc) Why ? It's like getting vaccinated against Covid, that's a strategy to not be first in the queue for a Covid death and action is an anecdote to to the ennui. BUT I don't want to make it worse for others, so I vote Green, ride a bicycle, eschew flying, support Extinction Rebellion (It's literally in the name!) etc to hedge my bets in case I am wrong and we do transition to a better world anyway (something the orthodoxy can't do so why vote for them).

    I struggle with those who deliberately choose to make the biosphere their actions and their vote but that is why we are in this mess I guess.

  4. As a fellow physicist I naturally agree that physical limits are fundamental.

    Still, I’m reluctant to literally start every discussion with physical limits, for fear that people really would back away from me at parties!

    More seriously, I’m not sure I understand your point about complexity. Seems to me that even the natural (“real”) world is enormously complex and this complexity makes it inherently difficult to discern where many of the important physical limits on human activity actually lie. Plenty of smart people from Malthus to Hubbert to Ehrlich have thought they found physical limits and turned out to be wrong. This doesn’t mean there are no physical limits, but it does mean we need to do a lot of hard work to find them.

    You must know hundreds—even thousands—of academic colleagues who are doing that hard work right now: engineers, chemists, geologists, climate scientists, ecologists, economists, political scientists, and so on. They may not agree with all of your conclusions, or even with your framing of the questions, but they’re still helping us learn more of the answers and that’s what seems more important to me.

    • This is a very good point. It is all very well to say would should start with the physical limitations, but than you have to say what they are.

      Global warming is one obvious example. Ignoring the deniers, you still get a very broad range of what people actually think will happen. And this is critical because you have to trade off what (remaining) fossil fuels you are willing to keep 8 billion people alive, versus what at times is called an existential threat from overheating.

      It's like that other (less common) trope of sci-fi where you have a conspiracy by various rich folks to kill off most of the people on the planet, so that they can live better lives. Some of our green "solutions" seem to hover fairly close to this scenario.

      • Thank you for reading my comment!

        I probably should have been more vivid and listed some of the specific physical limits that I think are worth discussing.

        Tom often writes as if the most important physical limit is the amount of fossil fuel that can be extracted without too much difficulty. It seems clear that humanity could hit that limit within about a century, but it's not at all clear, at least to me, whether there are important limits, for instance on liquid fossil fuels, that we'll hit within only a decade or two. (Two decades ago I thought we were hitting a limit on liquid fossil fuel production rates and I was wrong!)

        Most people nowadays seem to think the global warming limit is more imminent than the fossil fuel resource limit. I understand the physics but I'm no geologist or climate scientist so I mostly have to trust the experts on this.

        What about renewable energy? Tom has rightly pointed out that the physical limit on solar energy capture is far beyond humanity's current total rate of energy use—good news! But he's pessimistic about both batteries for short-term storage and hydrogen for long-term storage, and I hope at some point he'll write more about why.

        I've been trying to read up on global limits for wind energy production, and I'm seeing numbers like 100 TW as a physical limit. The practical limit is much lower, but it's not clear to me whether it's closer to 1 TW or 10 TW, and the difference between those two levels matters a whole lot!

        What are the important physical limits on resources other than energy? As a mere physicist I'm far less qualified to assess claims about those.

  5. "I agree physical limits are fundamental."
    "But I avoid discussing them because people won't like me."

    This kind of intellectual cowardice is a perfect explanation how individuals and cultures become unhealthy and eventually self-destructive.

    The rest of your post shows the naive belief that "science and technology will solve our problems, you know, if we just work hard enough."

    Wait, you just agreed that physical limits are fundamental, no matter how hard we work, right?

    [Moderator removed unnecessary bite]

  6. Tom,
    Great work, thank you! This post reminded me of something I learned of sustainability in Hawaii:

    Early Hawai’i and the Ahupua’a

    One of the most salient features of the native Hawaiian social structure was the ahupua’a, a traditional land and sea tenure system where local communities and resource systems were organized. Typically, an ahupua’a encompassed an entire watershed, from the top of the ridge to the deep sea. Resources were managed in a hierarchal fashion and tasks were stratified socially and by occupation. Each individual ahupua’a was managed by a local leader, a Konohiki, who was granted the authority by the ruling chiefs. Different uses of land and sea occurred in different areas of the ahupua’a. The upland forest was reserved for gathering wood and hunting, the fertile valley floor was used to grow taro in irrigated pond-fields called lo’i, rivermouths were encircled by walls for fishpond aquaculture, and expert fishermen, po’o lawai’a, oversaw offshore fishing.

    The success of the ahupua’a system was enabled by a high level of sophistication and complexity of knowledge developed by native Hawaiians. Strict rules accompanied resource use and were enforced in a draconian system. Restrictions included rotating closures of local fisheries to prevent overexploitation, restriction of certain food items depending on social status and regulation of water use. Perhaps most importantly, the ahupua’a system was designed to ensure a constant and steady supply of basic materials for subsistence, including food, building materials and ornamentation.

    Though similar management systems exist elsewhere in Polynesia, the ahupua’a was developed to sustainably utilize the unique terrestrial and marine resources of Hawai’i. But the ahupua’a was as much a social system as it was a natural resource management system. The system was dynamic and changes in Hawaiian societies resulted in alterations to the ahupua’a system to meet societal needs.


  7. Note that the key biblical passage related to population, namely the command in Gen 1:28: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.", has a planetary limits-compatible exegesis. Since it does not say "multiply indefinitely", it is legitimate to ask "up to what point should humans multiply?" And the answer is right next in the passage: "up to the point when they have filled the earth". So, we need to define when humans will have filled the earth. IMO, it will be when they will have sustainably maximized the total amount of photosynthesis (including oceanic) captured for their subsistence, in the form of vegetable food, forage, raw materials and energy. The "sustainably" takes into account the issue of aquifers. I focus on photosynthesis because food and water availability are the immediate constraints to human population.

    • The unfortunate situation is that every religion on earth has a similar passage in its documentation and most religious leaders and religious dominated government leaders interpret it as racing to obtain a large enough population to raise a big enough army to subdue a whole bunch of the earth with their servants before some other guys do it.

      An interesting thing to do is to overlay the entire world that was written about in the bible over a map of your home state, country, or province. Their world was very small. The Sea of Galilee is a good sized lake. The Salton Sea is substantially larger than the Dead Sea.

      Another unfortunate situation is that it is impossible to eliminate the influence of religion. Religious documentation written thousands of years ago when everyone thought that the earth was a small little piece of flat land that was the centre of the universe is still being taken as all the knowledge that we need by billions of people, even in the face of massive evidence that it isn't. If you don't believe me, simply try and convince an anti-vaccine person that they should get a Covid vaccine. When you have billions of people intensively indoctrinated from birth into a lifestyle and belief system where they are rewarded with an eternal afterlife in paradise it can be impossible to get through to them.
      (another task that might be interesting is to go on a trip to Wyoming or North Dakota and see if you can convince some people there to remove the "rolling coal" engine control modules from their pickup trucks.)
      There have always been billionaires. They used to be known (and still are in most cases) as royal families. Their fortune used to be land and people, one eastern European noble owned 200,000 serfs. The Queen of England still technically is the largest landowner in the world, owning Canada and Australia among other things.
      Modern billionaires play around with their money, flying off into space and living a life of leisure rather than buying countries and people and having wars with their relatives to keep themselves amused.

      When you have financial things with no benefit whatsoever to mankind like bitcoin using as much energy as some fairly large countries to process completely unnecessary transactions you can see that the world in general has no intention whatsoever in limiting emissions and are only out to make sure that they get what they believe is their rightful piece of the pie.

  8. Tom, what are your thoughts on these three posts?

    1. Dan Schroeder, "a fellow physicist" [edited down] relies on hard work as a strategy to overcome Earth's physical limits (right after he admits they cannot be overcome).

    2. Ivan Idso enthusiastically suggests (observes?) stone age Hawaiian culture as a "sustainable" model for 8 billion humans where "strict rules are enforced in a draconian system" (while ignoring the devastating collapse of Rapa Nui due to resource exploitation – exceeding their physical limits).

    3. Johannes confidently tells us that an ancient religious myth defines "sustainability" as a demand for humans to multiply, fill the earth, conquer it, and then "dominate all living things" – which of course is the exact opposite of any relevant definition of "sustainability" (and exceeds physical limits, causing the current mass biodiversity extinction event).

    Look forward to your comments.

    • My policy for comments is that I post them if they are personally respectful, not self promoting, and express what seems to be a genuinely held point of view. I elect not to comment on a number of them because it seems to serve little purpose (other than perhaps demonstrating to others how disagreements might be respectfully debated). It seldom results in a changed mind or retraction. Sometimes, the statements are self-defeating in their obvious flaws. I let readers judge for themselves the merits of the comments, or lack thereof. Some commenters are their own worst enemies.

  9. I did not post my previous comment to show off "Hey, look how planetary limits-compatible the Christian worldview already is!" Rather, I posted it to show that a dialog with Christians about this issue is possible in principle, since they do not need to discard any Christian dogma or otherwise authoritative doctrine in order to become planetary limits-aware. Of course, this does not mean that most Christians will readily or even easily become so. E.g., this year I brought up this exegesis of Gen 1:28 in the combox of a Catholic blog and someone immediately called my view heretical (which he could not substantiate when I asked for an authoritative source for it).

    Since there are lots of Christians around, I think it is important to note that they do not need to deny any authoritative Christian doctrine in order to become planetary limits-aware. Of course, what is authoritative depends on each Christian denomination. Some Protestant denominations and even some Catholics hold a naive view of biblical inerrancy which is incompatible not only with the notion of planetary limits but also with most modern science, including physics, geology, biology and history. But the key issue is whether this view is authoritative for the denomination in question. E.g., Roman Catholicism relies on definitions by Popes and Councils, and neither has ever defined an authoritative exegesis of Gen 1:28, so each Catholic is free in principle to interpret "multiply" as either "multiply indefinitely" or "multiply up to the point when you have filled the earth". In Protestantism, in turn, each one is his own Pope.

    Of course, one thing is the notion that human population should stabilize and another thing is the morally acceptable means to achieve that stabilization. Christians will always reject abortion as the homicide of an innocent human person, and that is a core Christian doctrine across denominations.

  10. Hi Tom,

    The reason why people cling to stupid "facts" is the inability / unwillingness to reason from first principles. The indoctrination is so strong and constantly inflamed by the media, that it's really difficult to escape – a religion basically.

    To be honest, there is no better example than the current respiratory nuisance – in Germany of all places, we are constantly reminded that there is a certain group of people that is responsible for the current situation, and that there is the ONE solution, and that the nonconforming must be pressured into submission, and now (although in the past categorically denied) we will very likely introduce mandates for everyone. The GOOD people have certificates that prove that they are good, so that the BAD can be excluded from most societal activities.

    And the GOOD applaud all this in overwhelming majority!

    There is no hope, I'm afraid.

  11. "But imagine that we are still plagued by cancer and other maladies, so that life expectancy is, say, 90 years.

    Then what if a team of researchers hits on a cure for (most forms of) cancer? Hurray! At last! Unambiguously good, right?

    Well, not so fast. All other elements held the same, longer life spans translate to a higher population, putting additional resource burdens on the planet that it cannot handle in the long term."

    Any civilisation that can't handle a (likely temporary, if parental adjusts) 10-20% increase in population is already at the Malthusian ceiling, as is any wildlife it continues to allow existing (no room to expand). But of course such a civilisation would not be doing much science research.

    Re. the Hawaiians – *every* society has had some way of regulating the consumption of resources to avoid overuse. Probably better for the West to stick to models that were developed *in* the West and are as such more suited to our culture and temperament (do you seriously think the common land was immune to overgrazing?).

    The universe may be a finite canvas, I won't dispute that, but how big it is from our perspective depends on how finely we can draw… and whether we're restricting ourselves to a tiny portion of it (no-one has actually made a convincing case that space – which, btw, does not have a paucity of resources, that's a bizarre statement to make – is out of our reach. Damn you should do the math on how much nickel the Lunar regolith holds). And of course we can and do transform certain areas to be more suitable for drawing on. It's quite the assumption to make that we're using the whole available canvas at close to 100% efficiency.

    • This blog has made a very convincing case that space is out of our reach. The tl:dr is that the amount of energy and resources needed to explore and exploit space is so large that if we had them we wouldn't need space in the first place and would be much better off using them to fix our problems in the much more hospitable environment here on earth.

      • This blog made up a bunch of numbers and claimed that constituted an argument. Hop David knocked them back down here –

        In short, when it comes to space, our host here is incapable of doing the math. Anyone who doesn't understand delta-V should sit back down and let the people who know what they're talking about speak.

        Which really calls into doubt everything else he says. Like trusting someone on statistics who insists that it makes no difference whether or not you change cars in the Monty Hall problem. It's comparable to insisting that long distance travel will have to end in an energy constrained future, because you're only looking at the efficiency of cars at moving a single passenger.

        • I will just note, with some amusement, the rich irony that space enthusiasts are themselves hopelessly Earth-bound. The argument would be far more convincing from a greater height. This is one way to say that the burden of proof rests heavily on the proponents. If it's so easy/practical…

          I recently saw a life cycle analysis (in preparation for publication) of the space enterprise to date, and one conclusion is that the environmental impact (using greenhouse gas as a proxy) for each hour a person spends in space is three orders-of-magnitude higher than that of the average global citizen on the ground. All of the resources to support spaceflight come from Earth. Make no mistake that the energetic requirements to hoist humans and environments from the ground into space is rather gigantic. It is not at all clear that Earth could survive large-scale expansion of the space enterprise. We're having a hard enough time coping with the cumulative impact of average global citizens.

          • "I will just note, with some amusement, the rich irony that space enthusiasts are themselves hopelessly Earth-bound. The argument would be far more convincing from a greater height."

            If that is your standard of proof, then you don't get to rely on dodgy calculations to "prove" that it can't be done. You've already decided that calculations don't count.

            " All of the resources to support spaceflight come from Earth."

            Disingenous. Again. None of the 'space cadets' are advocating that we haul everything up from Terra. You simply do not wish to engage in good faith with those who disagree with you.

            But, you are an astrophysicist, so practical calculations are not exactly your strong point I will grant that.

          • Please attempt to be more civil and avoid ad-hominem attacks [which I usually edit out when directed at other commenters].

            Aside from solar power, what non-terrestrial resources have yet been used to support a space mission (materials, propellants, etc.)? How is that disingenuous? If you can come up with an example, please quantify what fraction of all the spacecraft masses to date have come from anywhere but Earth. Is it even 0.001%?

          • No. The onus is on you, the one claiming that maths makes these things impossible, to prove it. Just as it would be on anyone claiming that heavier than air flight is impossible prior to the Wright flyer.

            In case you missed it, we haven't been out of LEO for almost 50 years. The only resource available in LEO *is* solar power. You're asking for something we haven't done *yet*, and claiming that that proves that we *can't* do it. In which case I will use the same logic to prove that computers are impossible, electricity doesn't exist, nuclear fission don't real, and peak oil is a myth. Because something not having happened yet means it is impossible, and if it's impossible it can't possibly happen in the future.

          • Well, that's a fair enough point in general: not having happened is not proof in itself. But neither is it wholly irrelevant. The fact that we have not been out of LEO in 50 years is another expression of how hard it is. As far as the math goes, am I off by a factor of two? An order-of-magnitude? Does the factor cross some threshold that is a game-changer? Also, I think it would be out of character for me to make a claim as strong as "impossible" as you suggest. I am much more likely to say impractical or unlikely.

            And speaking of practicality, I put a lot of stock in accomplishment on hard tasks. My acquaintances at JPL, for example, have walked the walk and know about practical difficulties. In this exchange, am I dealing with someone who has built impressive technologies that work and do new things in challenging environments? It may make a difference in how much weight I give the arguments.

        • Interesting rebuttal, but even if each and every point was correct, it really doesn't affect the main point. Which is that the amount of resources and energy needed to meaningfully exploit space would be so large that if we had them we wouldn't need space, and we could much easier use them to solve our problems here on Earth. Adjusting the calculation of how much combustible it takes to reach the appropriate delta-V (assuming this guy's calculations are correct and Murphy's were wrong) doesn't touch the main point.

          • The amount needed to get started are miniscule in comparison to those used by even a far more modest Terra-bound civilisation. After that, the resources by and large come from space itself, which is awash in power and metal and rock and ice.

            If you call your blog "Do The Math", then doing the math *is* the main point. If you screw up there, then you are not worth listening to.

  12. [editor substantially shortened original post]

    Hey there Tom,
    I'm making my way through your textbook- it is thoughtfully structured and a compelling read- bravo! I'm struck by what seems a recurring philosophical contradiction: unyielding laws of nature, discovered with a science which can only ever show "how" but not answer "should", presents results with 'alarming' implications (and for which any number of mitigations could be attempted- with potential results spanning 'good' to 'worse.') But here we have 'alarming, good, worse' which in any case implies a value judgement to which science/nature is indifferent.


    What if, for example, well intended policy to curb exponential excess escalates to authoritarianism and strive which cuts humanity far worse than dealing with the potential "collapse" that limits to growth present (and how can we be sure it be an abrupt collapse vs. an externally cause dampened forcing function regardless of what we do?) I don't mean to make such Hedonistic arguments to continue the obviously insanely wasteful energy use as-is, but I just note that all the inferences from the book seem to lead back to moral philosophy which science does a poor job of addressing. […]


    […] I'm reminded of one of your blog posts about how once you had the solar panel system, the energy was "yours" and thus wasn't to be wasted. It's a profound thought that has stuck with me since you wrote it as it's very relatable- and I think the book strikes the same tone.

    (It's also interesting to note even here that judgement/interpretation of "energy ownership" again leads to philosophy.)

    • You are correct that I am veering out of the normal confines of the dispassionate realm of descriptive/explanatory science, and into morality. The evidence often comes in the form of the word "should." But those who claim that science should not tread there are themselves making a moral argument. Who, then, is allowed to do so?

      Science could remain a neutral observer, documenting and even anticipating an unfortunate and calamitous collapse, for instance. But is that the best way to use science? Should not science be an important input in guiding moral principles? I'd rather it be verifiable, repeatable, truth serving as a foundation than other forms of "knowing." So I am moving to embrace the springboard of science into morality. Insisting on a bulkhead between the two is a choice, but maybe not the most favorable one to successful navigation of a most difficult transition ahead. If scientists remain mute and cowed on the moral implications, we risk letting others who don't appreciate what science has to say defining our moral choices without that input, which could lead to avoidable hardship.

  13. Wow
    Pretty crazy comments really sorry. I guess too much Flash Gordon and Star Wars. Must be a bunch of calculus majors familiar with imaginary numbers. Basic thermodynamics will tell you what can’t be done won’t be. Sure the universe has nearly unlimited power. The oceans have nearly unlimited uranium anyone mining that. The geologic life of this planet has given man ores in concentrations he could utilize given our limited energy. Never to be repeated because it’s depleted. Hey Rich Kid you spent your inheritance and then some now what? But people believe what they want and will find echo chambers that support it. Thanks for all your work Tom but you might want to block comments again.

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