Finally, a PLAN

A few years back, I was contacted by Ben McCall—a chemist then at the University of Illinois—about forming a network of academics concerned about the larger challenges facing humanity. The idea was that a number of scattered scholars in various random disciplines might be well aware of limits to growth, energy, and capacity of ecosystems to accommodate human activities, but isolated from each other and within unsympathetic or at least poorly-aligned departments. I identified strongly with this condition and sense of isolation.  For instance, although physicists and astrophysicists have tools relevant to assessing our current predicament, few apply their skills at this level, working instead on deep but narrow questions—as I myself have done for years.  Yet, if we botch civilization, will that type of work survive or have meaning?  Many departments and professional societies therefore lack the community and collaborative opportunities for folks who want to contribute to a higher-level dialog about humanity’s choices.

So Ben pulled together a group of five individuals from a broad range of academic fields to nucleate a network so that we might find kindred spirits and build a diverse academic family united by a shared sense that the trajectory of the human endeavor is not viable, and will come to a bad end if not acknowledged and addressed. By banding together, we would hope to stimulate collaborations and develop ideas that otherwise would be unlikely to emerge. It’s like the setup to many jokes: an astrophysicist, anthropologist, and cognitive scientist walk into a bar. What happens next? What compelling insights and research projects might emerge?

We plodded along for a number of years, constrained by so many other pulls in life. But we have emerged from the long gestation having formed the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; PLANetwork; planet work; lots of ways to play on the name). Do we have a plan? Sort-of.

Step 1 was to write a perspective piece that presents our take on the modern world and its existential challenges. This recently emerged as a paper entitled: Modernity is Incompatible with Planetary Limits: Developing a PLAN for the Future. I hope you will take some time to read the piece. Do the Math readers will recognize a number of tidbits from ideas presented on the blog.

Step 2 was to create a website, which is at planetarylimits.net. It’s not professionally constructed (you get what you pay for), but should serve to get the network off the ground.

Step 3 is recruitment. We have two roles for the website:

  1. Subscriber: For those who would like occasional updates on what PLAN is doing and access to some of the (eventual) website content.
  2. Member: For active academics/scholars who are engaged in production of scholarly work (peer-reviewed publications, for instance) and could potentially collaborate in scholarly pursuits relating to PLAN interests. It does not matter if these individuals have not published in this space before: that’s part of what PLAN aims to change.

A third role of Collaborator is available for committed members who intend to be active contributors to new “scholarly” products, and will be able to (eventually) search for and contact other Collaborators based on concerns, field of study, and other criteria.

So please visit the site and consider joining as a subscriber (anyone) or applying for membership (active scholars). As we are just starting, early members will have opportunities to define and steer the course of PLAN.

So far, PLAN has attracted a fantastic set of big-picture thinkers from a number of fields.  It is a community I can’t wait to get to know better.  I feel like I have found my people!

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18 thoughts on “Finally, a PLAN

  1. Godspeed.

    Some additional steps for your consideration:
    Step 4: Acknowledge our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities.
    Step 5: Acknowledge human overshoot.
    Step 6: Acknowledge the consequences of doing nothing.
    Step 7: Design policies for population and consumption reduction.
    Step 8: And then a miracle happens.

  2. As one who has advocated for trans-disciplinary ventures for over 45 years, I applaud this endeavour greatly and gleefully. Just one caveat, please. Whatever is accomplished and advocated through the website has to be accessible to all of us who have no, or worthless, academic credentials. In other words, to everyone, since what you aspire to is too important to leave within the halls of academe.

    • One might fairly characterize academics as a collection of questionable worth. But the same applies to just about any group. Consider politicians, executives, military leadership, doctors, lawyers, etc.

      The question is: who is likely to find a path out of our trap? Short cycles and intense electoral pressures limit politicians' abilities. Profit mandates will keep corporations from leading the charge off the hill. The military can think long term, but the focus is on competitive advantage, not ecosystem harmony. Academics, at least can hope to address long-term existential challenges and get the public thinking about choices and values.

      Granted, most academics will maintain a narrow focus in their deeply-understood specialization. But PLAN hopes to find the ones who have their heads up and are thinking well beyond the boundaries typical of their fields. Many academics have the freedom and flexibility to do this, and tend to be thinkers. So why not? I say let's give it a shot. It's important not to fail as a civilization, right?

      • "The question is: who is likely to find a path out of our trap?"

        Self-selection comes to mind: those least likely to benefit from perpetuating the status quo – those who care despite their own short-term interests?

        *Lack* of network connections and credentials might thus actually be preferable.

        See the US Foreign Policy community aka "the Blob". There are fundamental criticisms that cannot be made by those inside the academic network, short of risking career and livelihood. In theory, tenure should alleviate that. In practice, those that are most likely to reject the consensus in the manner it needs to be challenged are farthest from tenure, and least credentialed.

        Experts are experts on the status quo. In an emergency, they are the most invested in not challenging the status quo. Given the volunteer aspect of PLAN, you and Ben already have self-selection – do you really need additional culling mechanisms?

        One simple organizational way is to have a mechanism whereby those already "in" can approach others outside *regardless of academic credentials* and as well as approach the group to support their invitation/sponsor an application. That gives you flexibility to get "minds of interest" into the circle. Otherwise, you get a Club of Rome without the funding and budget?

        That is assuming you would want to recruit not just somebody like Ugo Bardi (no credential problem there) but also Alice Friedeman?

  3. Is the intent in practice (rather than rhetorically) to build pan-planetary network as the name suggests?

    The reason I ask is that all the five founders are based in the US and some of the language used is parochial to the US (e.g. in education you talk of years K-12, rather than age).

    • A good question. One answer is that a global predicament needs global perspectives, and global awareness. From this point of view, national boundaries are meaningless and the network should be fully international.

      As it happens, PLAN was initiated by five folks in the U.S., and conceived at a time when in-person meetings/workshops were envisioned to be a primary mode of interaction. Remote meetings are a reality now, which weakens the notion of a localized network. I would say that U.S.-specific language is an unintentional residue of the lack of global diversity in the founding five, together with an early focus on a more localized form.

  4. I believe you need a more flexible definition of "scholar" than "academic".

    Example: Andrew Huang is not in academia, he might or might not be a scholar, but you really want somebody like him providing feedback on a digital "low power" future:

    https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-death-of-moores-law-will-spur-innovation

    He is also a perfect candidate to illuminate the clash between Western concepts of copyright, patents, intellectual "property" and the realities of a low power world in which R&D and other resources are scarce and cannot be wasted on duplication, and where issues like artificial scarcity of cheaply copied items, mandatory licensing, use-or-lose restrictions on resource ownership, right-to-repair, mandated standardization, modularity, mandated open hardware, mandatory reclamation of commercial products etc. are no longer issues in the context of GMO of John Deere tractors, but pervasive to every aspect of our econnomy.

    The more cynical take is that academia has been "in charge" of the discourse since 1972 (limits) and before (Svante Arrhenius 1896) and has proceeded at a pace substantially slower than one funeral at a time, and while I can relate to the comfort of keeping the circle closed and "professional", a case could be made that a good amount of outsiders willing to "do the work" might at the least be beneficial, and at worst be necessary?

  5. Maybe having a sounding board *retired* scholars – JASON of the culture revolution – will lead to better results than *active* scholars?

    Any sufficiently comprehensive change that could preserve a legacy of our current growth civilization will be indistinguishable from a cultural revolution of sorts. It is a huge mental leap from the second law of thermodynamics to challenge extractive mining interests today. Frankly, we do not need more data, more models, more facts, and there are no magic bullets – what we need is persuasion and communication, science made simple and delivered unflinchingly, with a focus on the problems and the numbers. PLAN implicitly moves from an honest accounting of the problems into the realm of "solutions", even if modestly aiming a mitigation. In reality, we will have to fight – against each other – really hard today to shift the probabilities from a rout to any semblance of an ordered retreat. Because, worst case, any PLAN asymptotically aligns with organized survivalist movements.

    In my own thinking about a low power networked future, I came to realize that this battle will be fought in those nations not yet pervasively industrialized and "developed"/groomed for maximum profit extraction (who also happen to be on the other side of that "demographic transition" that might make or break us this very century). It might well be easier to convince those that have little to nothing to adopt something more sustainable and cheaper, than to try to persuade those of use whose minds (over generations) were imprinted with concepts of limitless growth.

  6. Are you familiar with The MEER : ReflEction Framework meerreflection.com
    This project was created by Dr. Ye Tao at Harvard's Rowland Institute.

    I'm not a scientist or a mathematician, but this seems like it has merit to me.

    Could you please comment on this.

  7. I searched the document for "nuclear", I searched the site for "nuclear". No results! Yes, it's a scary way to kick the can down the road. Yes, it's still true that exponential growth has to stop. But it does mean that the limits to growth are a bit further away.
    There are a large number of groups working on different ideas for cheap nuclear power. I expect success, and even conventional nuclear power can save us from climate change. All nuclear options have low marginal cost of energy. Potentially we can move a lot of farming into buildings with: low water use, optimal light and nutrients, and no need for biocides. There is actually a lot of potential to take our jackboot off nature's neck.
    If you want to be taken seriously you need a considered opinion on nuclear energy.

    • Because the anti nuclear movement has really done its job well, it is an uphill battle to get nuclear power to be considered as a viable option. There are quite a few explanations including that it is too expensive, there are not enough Uranium reserves, and the waste is problematic.
      Nuclear is the only high EROEI source of electricity and heat that isn't intermittent so does not require a backup power plant for when the sun doesn't shine or wind doesn't blow.
      Uranium reserves are a closely guarded secret by everyone involved with the nuclear industry and like all other strategic metals are only revealed as necessary. (Look up the Cigar Lake Uranium mine and see the potential for further deposits in the area) So it may appear like there isn't very much left but it really isn't the case.
      In Southern Saskatchewan there are countless Potash mine tunnels about 1 km under the ground in 300+ million year old evaporite deposits that slowly collapse and seal shut after several years. They have survived several mass extinction events, asteroid impacts, and multiple glaciations so any nuclear waste put in there isn't going to go anywhere for a long time.

      In my mind the biggest obstacle to the traditional green power options, solar and wind, is large scale buffering storage. As with nuclear it is often glossed over or only slightly mentioned in pretty much every presentation about "green" power.

      Indoor farming works well for high value, low calorie crops (tomatoes, lettuce, kale), but can prove to be problematic for low value, high calorie basic food crops like grains and legumes because of the large amount of light required and the low efficiency of plants.

  8. 'It's important not to fail as a civilisation,riight ? ' The evidence suggests to me that industrial civilisation is incompatible with a non-devastated biosphere. That certainly has been the trajectory to date,and I can't see it changing. It will last maybe three centuries,and leave a wasteland in its wake.

  9. tmurphy, could you please comment on: The MEER : ReflEction Framework?
    email: meerreflection.com
    Would this be feasible from a physics point of view? How about resources?
    I think it is time we started to consider any and all possible solutions to global warming,
    especially those that have less dependence on FF and have longer life spans. I don't know for sure, but I think we have plentiful resources to make the glass required.

  10. Have you considered starting a Patreon account? I'm inclined to support the network even though I may not be interested in reading much about your progress…

  11. Have you considered several important questions:

    Is there a good possibility that the most effective plan to mitigate the destructive effects of modernity may be the development of active/violent measures to disable industrial infrastructure?

    Do the legal structures of modern democratic capitalist states take priority over the health of the planet?

    Are your participants willing to be considered "terrorists"?

    With the life or death of a planet at stake, questions like these don't seem too hyperbolic at all. Or do they?

    Is one of your groups foundational assumptions a commitment to non-violence?

    • The notion of perpetrating violent acts to save ourselves has not crossed my mind, and has never come up in the PLAN context. I would guess that for myself and others in the group (thus far), non-violence is self-evident to the point of not needing articulation. My (foolish?) hope is that by our actions, we can *prevent* violent acts of resource wars and the like by instilling a pervasive awareness of our predicament and turning away from our present collision course.

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