Human Exceptionalism

From Pixabay/Activedia

For almost two decades now, I have been on a journey to understand what comes next in the grand human enterprise. I started out in a mindset superficially similar to that of most people I encounter—assuming that we would innovate our way into a future that became ever better: less poverty and hunger; greater conveniences; a probable space future—fingers crossed.

But the more I dug into the details, the more concerned I became that such a grand vision is an illusion built on top of a highly anomalous period in human history when we over-exploited finite resources on Earth in a one-time bonanza—using those resources to access remaining resources ever faster in an accelerating cycle. I constantly sought reassurance as to what I had wrong about this picture, but found little solace. Those who tried to ease my mind spoke in vague praise of human capabilities and pointed to the arc of history as a reliable pattern by which to understand the future. I did not get the impression that they had confronted my specific concerns and had a blueprint for how to navigate past the pile-up of global-scale problems and irreversible consumption of our inheritance.

Lately, as I meet other academics (via PLAN) who have come to similar conclusions (sober, deep, and careful thinkers, I find), a frequent question that arises is: how can something that seems so obvious to us be dismissed by so many others? What are we missing? Or what are they missing? Why is it so hard to reach common ground? Where is the disconnect?

An answer—or at least a partial one—is beginning to resolve itself in my head. Previously, I tended to focus on growth and ecological overshoot as the most important “upstream” factors impacting our complex civilization on our road to an uncertain future, while issues like climate change and political/social considerations are downstream effects (symptoms) that will not get solved without first addressing root causes (the underlying disease). But maybe I have stumbled onto something even more foundational—the headwaters (pathogen), if you will—and am starting to pinpoint why our peril is so hard to grasp.

I already gave away the big secret in the title. And it may not seem particularly profound. Perhaps not, but bear with me.

Human Primacy

Most belief systems in the world today cast humans as the prime actors. Monotheistic gods (amusing to make gods plural in this context, don’t you think?) seem to consider humans as a primary concern, which is very flattering. For these religions, the world was created for us. Buddhism concerns itself with freedom from human suffering (enlightenment). In secular circles, humanism stresses the sanctity of human life, freedom, rights, and agency. Blends are also possible: many Americans hold both Christian and humanist beliefs. Political/economic ideologies, whether capitalist, socialist, or communist are essentially various flavors of humanist belief systems. Even Nazis could be described as evolutionary humanists.

Perhaps this is not surprising or particularly deep. Political regimes necessarily concern themselves with humans and their well being.

Reality Dose

The trouble starts when these human-centric frameworks are extended to non-human realms—which, let’s face it, is pretty much everything. By almost any physical measure in the universe, humans are insignificant: mere specks on a larger speck moving around a luminous speck within a smudge of a galaxy among many billions of other smudges.

In high school, when reading a news update in Sky & Telescope magazine about a supernova in a “nearby” galaxy 65 million light years away, I realized that my interests extended well beyond humanity, and that this news item would be about the only piece of news we would share in common with some other civilization elsewhere in our galaxy. Since then, I periodically scan more typical magazines, finding that most deal with human affairs: images within them are dominated by humans or their creations. Take a look sometime, through this lens.

Meanwhile, we live on a biophysical planet governed by physical laws that exist without the consent of humans, and would be the same with or without us. Yet our conceit is that the artificial world of human constructs is the one true reality—or at least the most important one.

Prevalence of Primacy

It is the rare individual in the modern world who does not consciously or subconsciously believe in human primacy. Ask someone what their chief concern is: what they care most about; what they would fix if they could. How many times out of ten (or do we need to go to 100?) would the answer be human-centered? Poverty, hunger, justice, inequality, jobs, health, family, economic security, tribalism, wrong-number dialers—the list goes on. This is a signal that humanity is pretty self-centered.

That’s okay: it’s understandable, or even expected for any species. Why would evolution have resulted in anything different? Unlike other species, though, we have acquired the power to destroy whole ecosystems, and that has consequences. This combination of traits is a match not made in heaven, and may prove to be one of evolution’s many (but costlier) mistakes.

Given our self-centered nature, it is no wonder that we collectively neglect the broader menagerie of life on this planet. We do not prioritize nature above ourselves, and are likely to pay the ultimate price for our selfishness as we compromise the very substrate on which we—and other species—ultimately depend.

Message Lost

But more broadly, this phenomenon may help explain why messages of warning about overshoot and potential collapse fall on deaf ears. Overshoot implies that we don’t have all the answers, that we can screw up big time, that nature can smack us down, and that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men (i.e., technology) aren’t enough to realize our arbitrary dreams.

This is hard to accept for the human exceptionalist, who views humans as having a special role on the planet—whether as masters or stewards. This view—perhaps not explicitly acknowledged—holds that we have effectively transcended biophysical limits and have claimed dominion over all of nature. Moreover, this exaltation of ourselves—combined with an impressive recent track record, I’ll admit—leads to a nearly unshakeable faith in technology and innovation: humans solve problems, we tell ourselves. The current crises are no different. Sure, the danger is real, but only if we stop trying to solve the problem…which of course we won’t do.

Faith in the future has been a fundamental requirement for the modern age to function. Investment, fractional reserve banking, and pension plans—among many other things—are predicated on the notion that tomorrow will be bigger than today. It is hard to shake off a central tenet that has proven itself to be true for many consecutive generations—especially when so much rides on it.

Taking the overshoot message seriously is much more likely if a person:

  1. is non-religious: therefore free of the impression that Earth is here
    for our benefit;
  2. is not a humanist: not elevating humans to some privileged status;
  3. is not under the illusion that we have a destiny to succeed;
  4. does not attribute our recent amazing ride mostly to human ingenuity while
    downplaying the crucial role of spent finite resources like fossil fuels;
  5. does not assume that science and technology can conjure a rabbit out of
    the hat for any situation;
  6. is not prone to denial when confronted with a dismal outlook.

This is a tall order, in today’s world. The overshoot message creates instant dissonance and reflexive rejection. Ipecac!

On the plus side, many of these tendencies are not necessarily baked into human DNA. These beliefs have not been constants of human cultures across the ages. We are capable of new (or old) mental models of ourselves and our relation to the world in which we live.

What’s the Alternative?

I can imagine various horrified over-reactions to the suggestion that we place too much value on human life. Am I for murder, then? Genocide? Just how monstrous am I? I might even be an atheist, the way I’m talking! Easy there, partner.

First, of course I’m an atheist, silly goose. This means I follow a well-thought moral code religiously, because it is very personal and meaningful to me—having deeply understood why I follow it; not because someone wearing a robe told me I should. But genocide? Come, now. Wiping out large numbers of any species is reprehensible to me.

A common reaction to talk of overpopulation is “who, precisely, do you propose to eliminate?” To me, this flags a humanist: each life is sacred, and the insinuation that even one individual is too many rings the alarm bells. While I think human population has climbed well above comfortable long-term carrying capacity, we need not panic and eliminate the excess! We simply aim lower and accept that we’ve overdone things, allowing a natural adjustment, while taking care of the people already with us.

But we need to figure out how to do so not at the expense of the rest of the planet. Decisions need to move beyond “what’s good for us in the short term?” Give nature a voice: how would nature vote on an issue? Can we find a balance? Since we’ve left nature out of the last million or so human decisions, maybe it should get a few turns now?

In a strange sense, I only care about these issues because I do value humanity, and celebrate some of our accomplishments. I want to see our best discoveries preserved for eons. So I’m all for having lots of humans on the planet through the ages, just not all at once. We’ve overfilled the lifeboat, and risk its foundering. Our present course may, in fact, minimize the total human footprint on the planet in the long term!

A More Balanced Mindset

Human exceptionalism, then, is ironically about the worst curse you could cast on the human race: practically assuring a hubristic overreach and collapse. Some attitudes that would help us better navigate our tricky future are:

  1. We are not the pinnacle of creation: nifty, sure, but not God’s gift to
    the planet.
  2. Humans coexisted with nature for many millennia as a part of
    nature, not apart from nature. We need to return to being subordinate partners, not self-proclaimed overlords.
  3. Recognize that humans have no prescribed destiny: we are capable of
    botching it—not only for ourselves but for countless other species as well.
  4. Technology is not always the answer. It often makes things worse.
    Think of the global problems we face today: would they be better or worse (or even exist) if not for our technology? Did our modern era solve global problems, or create them? Wait—as a scientist, am I one of the bad guys?
  5. Acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and perhaps collectively
    lack the wisdom to refrain from doing things simply because we can. It is time to focus instead on what we should do, in line with the rest of nature.
  6. In short: humility. Treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves.

If we are to succeed, it seems we need to first come off our high horse. Now: how do we accomplish this feat of psychological counseling on a grand scale?

Note (2023.09.10): Some time after writing this post, I began using the term “human supremacy” rather than a focus on “exceptionalism.”  Humans are indeed exceptional in a number of familiar ways.  But so are all living things exceptional in their own ways: doing things that no other can do.  The problem is one of perceived superiority, as described in this post.  Human supremacists are not in general driven by hate so much as tunnel vision and self regard.

Note (2023.11.19): A post called Our Ugly Magnificence is a fitting follow-up to this one.

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42 thoughts on “Human Exceptionalism

  1. I've read a ton of your blog. And I remember commenting on countless Peak Oil theses that felt the same way. "Yes, sure IF we are resource limited in exactly the way you wrote about it, then demand will be infinite relative to supply. But clearly at the very least there's *some* elasticity somewhere? And that as prices rise *some* behavior changes and innovation will result? People could bike more?"

    And obviously this was the case.

    Every piece you write feels exactly one of those anachronistic peak oil posts that were 9/10th perfectly logical and 1/10th "not even wrong."

    Sure, humans will become resource limited if we keep growing in the exact same way we have been during your lifetime. Maybe in 75 years? Maybe in 200 years? But in the next 20 years alone the cost for energy might drop 8x. The cost to get material into space may likely fall 1000x–and we'll use solar derived energy to get there. And if we run out of room for solar in Nevada, by that time beamed solar or floating solar are possibilities. Or geothermal. I don't have room to list all the plausible solutions.

    And maybe in 20 years we won't have automated taxi drivers, but a conservative projection would be confident that we will have automated solar-panel assemblers and geothermal well drillers. And surely at some point–if the economy has grown enough that we are nearly resource limited–automated rare-earth miners on asteroids.

    And then even if some key resources like, say, lithium or copper became vastly more expensive some of that could easily be replaced with alternatives and price incentives would change behavior. Right now when flights are very expensive I say, "You know what, let's go camping." When used car prices go up, "You know what, one car is fine. I'll take the bus once in a while." Those kinds of choices exist in every part of the economy, everywhere and all the time.

    I feel like you are the reincarnation of a Lakota hunter sitting by a fire 400 years ago: "Sure, *we* can burn this Buffalo dung to stay warm. But there are no trees around here. And I've never heard of coal. And obviously the power of lighting will never be something we control. But if the economy in the Great Plains grew 40,000x by 2022 that means this area would need three-trillion buffalo to support all the camp fires! Clearly it's simply not possible for this region to ever have an economy that size. We'd be buried in Buffalo 20 feet deep!"

    • The First Nations people that you describe in your final paragraph had no way of knowing that there was the equivalent of much more than 3 trillion buffalo worth of dung buried under the ground that would allow the world's economy to grow by 40,000X or more. They also didn't realize that it would be a finite amount.
      Rockets are fuelled by hydrogen and oxygen easily produced using solar power right now.
      If you read the textbook there are serious limitations to the use of geothermal power.
      Solar power would be fine providing efficient storage can be found.

    • Eric M.

      But maybe the Lakota were right in the long run and how we live today is just a blip. The Plains will not support the existing population in 100 years time (if not sooner)

      Science fiction is great at imagining worlds and technology. Much more difficult to create in the real world though.
      Warp drive and teleportation are great narrative tools in Star Trek but they will NEVER happen in real life. Neither will asteroid mining. Space exploration, since the heady days of the 1960's has pretty much ground to a halt. Putting humans on Mars or a colony on the moon are much much trickier propositions than landing on the moon for a few hours and then coming back.

    • You sound like an economist. That is not a compliment. Ingenuity is not infinite. Alternatives are not infinite. No matter how exceptional you think humans are, the laws of physics disagree.

      The kind of tinkering you describe can slow down the apocalypse a little. It will require considerably more to stop it. Too much probably.

    • If you disagree with Eric M, then what he says might feel rather frustrating. But perhaps our collective inaction is evolution *in action.*

      Much as we "N"-type theorists hate to think so, the predominance of Myers-Briggs "S"-type personalities (who value tangible sensory inputs over theory) suggests some evolutionary advantage to waiting until we can see the iceberg before attempting a big course correction.

      True enough: the modern world is far from the stable natural conditions in which human personality types evolved. And by the time an iceberg are in sight, it's often too late.

      But it's equally true that on those occasions when theorists have gotten control of the steering wheel, they have tended to drive their societies into a ditch, since there are so many "unknown unknowns" that make the future impenetrably foggy.

      For example, exactly what should be done about looming energy limits? As John Michael Greer points out, many people suggest pouring huge resources into wind farms and solar panels, or building "lifeboat eco-villages." Except, resources spent on grid-connected wind and solar electricity might turn out to have been wasted, since they feed into a system that might not be viable without fossil fuel inputs. Similarly, while eco-villages might become economically viable 150 years from now, the years until then will be a maze of more immediate obstacles, the solutions to which cannot be known in advance.

      This is not to say that "damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead" is a great strategy. (As an "N"-type I could never admit that.) But the "S"-type approach must be given its due.

    • I agree with Eric M.
      What Tom Murphy seeks to explain regarding his opinions on unproven and in cases unprovable questions involves a necessary ad hominem as to the Deplorable quotient in those expressing a wish to challenge his bias-based prohibitions as here.
      "we need not look elsewhere for the source".

      Is Back radiation an Algebraic fiction.
      Of course this is a different question completely to the Geo Political questions surrounding Peak "Hydro Carbons"
      “…politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, international relations and other aspects of society affect
      the economy. But these effects, whether supportive or distortive, are assumed external to the
      economy proper. And this assumption is pivotal. Although the effects of these so-called external
      factors alter economic outcomes, they leave the economic categories themselves intact. And this
      bifurcation, we argue, is the Achilles’ heel of all economic theories, orthodox and heterodox,
      old and new.
      In our view, capitalism is not an economic system, but a conflictual mode of power. Those
      who rule this mode of power – its dominant capitalists, politicians, mainstream academics,
      opinion makers and the various organizations they control – make every effort to conceal its
      power features. This is why neoclassical economics, beholden to its masters, can never be a
      science. But the problem besieges every and any economic theory that keeps power external to
      its basic categories. In our opinion, it is only when the study of capitalism substitutes for the
      narrow understanding of its economy that power can assume centre stage to reveal what economics is structured to conceal.”

      John Adams referred me to the Murphy book in this comment
      Again I can not commend Eric M's comment highly enough. Perhaps a better title for this blog post would be Scientism exceptionalism for it is scientism rather than the scientific method that is promoted by this blog.

      • Roger G Lewis.

        I'm never quite sure from your post what exactly it is you are saying 🤔?????

        What is it about Eric M's post that you agree with?

        It's not clear to me what the point is you are trying to make?

    • Such a rosy estimation of our ability to solve these problems understates how interdependent so many of our planet's systems are, and how quickly failures cascade. And how even when/if we arrive at some "solution", at the pace things are going it will only be after we have destroyed a ton of ecological richness and life forms novel to the environment we evolved in.

  2. I think the other reason that people aren't listening/seeing is because the message is very SCARY.

    It's easier to watch Netflix.

  3. I’ve followed your Blog for years. I’m so pleased that you are back. But, I’m puzzled that you still have not twigged the root of the problem.

    Its simply that there are too many people on the planet.

    The Earth cannot sustain 8b people, let alone the projected 10b in years to come.

    What happens when a child is born? Food, water, education, accommodation, transport, health care, employment, waste management, fuel,….etc,

    The only way out is to reduce the population. Covid is the start. But Nature will provide…….

    • I did have a post way back on the population problem, and devoted chapter 3 of my new textbook to the issue. In both of these, I point out that resource impact is the major concern, and that can actually be worse in more affluent countries even if the rate of growth appears to be smaller than in some developing countries.

      But yes; when we add 80 million people to the planet each year (another Germany), it is hard to get things under control. It's even worse when per capita resource use is on the rise. COVID has not made a noticeable dent in this annual addition of people. If you slow down from 81 to 80, you're still speeding!

      • One needn't even agree that the world is presently overpopulated in order to concede that sustainability requires balancing inputs and outputs. No talk around sustainability is really serious without accounting for the population factor.

  4. Of course, something that can't go on forever must stop, and that certainly applies to exponential growth.
    But to think we're anywhere near the end, you have to believe that nuclear energy won't happen. It will. Farming will go vertical, and the natural world will return to its former glory. And exponential growth is having a temporary pause with birth rates well below replacement. Tell our grandchildren to make sure exponential growth doesn't come back.

    • Robert Smart.

      Have you read Tom's ebook? Interesting example in it of how exponential growth works. The end comes up really quickly after a long period of not much noticeable change. When we run out of road (oil) it will happen really quickly.

    • Vertical farming is only possible if you are growing low calorie luxury food crops like lettuce, tomatoes, greens, etc. that are very expensive relative to their calorie content. In order to grow low cost, high calorie food crops like oilseeds and starch crops like grains and sugar crops like sugar cane and beets you need to have large areas of land to either grow the crops on or collect enough sunlight for the plants to be able to fix the carbon necessary to provide all those calories.
      Photosynthesis is only so efficient and has not proven to be improvable to any great extent. Because of efficiency issues in solar systems you would need a much larger area of solar panels to provide electricity to power lights to grow high calorie food crops than growing the food crops on a plain field.
      In spite of what vegetable loving humans are trying to get you to believe, you cannot survive on leaves of plants that are grown in vertical gardens, however efficient they may be at growing low calorie crops.
      At our university we have the world's largest set of indoor crop growing growth chambers. You would be amazed at the light intensity. All flat tables. They are for growing grain crops under controlled conditions.

    • It's amusing to reflect on the notion that nuclear already saved us 50 years ago when it burst onto the scene. Fast forward 50 years and our worries are distant memories. Or wait. As for exponential growth taking a temporary pause: are you *only* talking about population? We're adding 80 million per year still: about as much as we've ever added per year. The natural world is still in decline: we have not yet found a way to reverse our hacking of it while carrying on our growth regime.

  5. I share your concern for future resource scarcity and the squandering of our energy inheritance however there is one notable difference between us. I do not believe humanity expects to grow exponentially over the long term. My own personal opinion is that people are only looking to have the same quality of life of those within first world nations. With adequate access to healthcare and education as well as an abundance of energy available to them so they may enjoy it within their homes or when they are out.

    I suspect that once these outcomes occur the god of growth will die

    1. the life expectancy reaches 80 everywhere
    2. renewable high energy density fuel or batteries and vehicular autonomy enable affordable flexible transport for all
    3. Mass deployment of solar + storage enables a 10x increase in energy consumption thus a 10x increase in the number of humans leading productive healthy first world lifestyles

    People will be content leading the lives they do because life will be easy. Robots will do difficult physically demanding work, AI doctors will treat and diagnose illness and disease and battery powered autonomous vehicles in addition to solar powered interconnected mass freight trains will deliver us what we want and to where we want.

    I could be wrong though, maybe humanity really is clueless and doomed.

    • Affluent countries have not sated themselves and voluntarily stepped off the growth train, so I am unconvinced. If it's because even the most advanced are not yet "there," but will be soon given a bit more growth, then we're looking at a 10x increase in scale before the whole world is satisfied. Possibly irreversible degradation to ecosystems is occurring right now, at the current scale. Unless someone addresses viable, detailed mechanisms to increase by a factor of 10 while also reversing the terminal decline in ecosystem health we see today, this just feels like unhinged fantasy to me. Very alluring, sure, but empty.

      • Despite the formal support of growth by most politicians within first world economies major growth as a whole has largely died down in many parts of the developed world. It is primarily the policy of immigration that has enabled the continued growth of conventional industries such as the ones associated with home building or the manufacturing of cars, more nail bars restaurants hair salons etc. Had America decided to close its borders it would have closed itself off to global talent but also would be more along the lines of Japan, Switzerland, Austria in terms of its growth prospects. A situation where economic growth only occurs within the highly lucrative healthcare tech and entertainment sectors of these economies

        The future of growth is also even more open for discussion as automation isn’t likely to make things any better or less complicated. Inequality will increase enormously and the divide between the competent and incompetent will grow. Every year there are millions of ordinary fast food workers who contribute to the circular flow of funds within the economy. What happens when this flow is disrupted and all the money enters the hands of only a few people?

        The difficulty in dealing with the human collective is that while there are a wide variety of solutions that are available for implementation, absolutely none of them are easy. Take for example energy storage. You could go through the process of building electrochemical storage but then you have to build many different types of electrochemistry's for each task. Smartphones need lithium and grid needs liquid metal batteries or sodium sulfur batteries or iron flow batteries and so on

        This study

        Details the possibility of storing enough energy for solar and wind using pumped hydro, 22 million Gigawatt hours or 79 exajoules a day. If we multiply the global primary energy consumption of 557 exajoules by 10 we get under 16 exajoules a day. Using 15% of the worlds most desirable mountains to provide energy is doable but nonetheless an incredibly difficult task requiring the buildup of human capital as well as being a logistical headache.

        We could also take trillions of kilograms of pure Sodium and just …. Burn it …. Like literally use solar power to separate trillions of kilograms of pure sodium and have it transported across the globe for energy during the night and the non arable land of the Sahara desert is the perfect place to start.

        I want to be perfectly clear I do not think you are wrong to be skeptical. Everyday I see buffoons glorifying the stupidities of idiot billionaires that portend endlessly. Ohh look I’m gonna build a cheap rocket to space, a 20k electric car, a humanoid robot capable of advanced mechanical movement and thought, a solar panel that’s the best and best of all a neural lace that will make you a super genius hur durr look at me I can do everything. It’s not like each of those enterprises are a lifetime of effort or anything requiring the genius of others within your organization right?!

        Automation and institutional backing will be required to move us away from a fossil fuel driven collapse. Not only that but people in general becoming more intelligent and informed. Deferring to physics rather than billionaire tycoons or crooked politicians. I haven’t given up hope at least not yet. If however humanity does fail, it will not be because of me or you it will be because humanity chose to focus its time and efforts on activities of frivolous inconsequentiality rather than learning the true nature of the world around them. A species like that cannot be saved. Still though, I believe most humans and most governments have the capacity to be reasonable and have reasonable expectations given time and understanding.

      • But affluent countries *have* stopped growing, by the physical measures that matter: people, energy, carbon emissions, agricultural land use, and so on.

        FWIW I don't think global energy use will rise by a factor of 10. Most likely scenario is maybe a factor of 2 or 3 (to bring poorer countries up to European living standards), then a plateau. I see no physical constraint to getting there and staying there for a very long time.

        • I hope it's clear that I don't think we're going to see global energy rise by a factor of 10 either: I think it's preposterous. But that's what I think would happen absent physical constraints: more people would want more per capita. Even if affluent nations do not grow more, it still leaves a factor of 5 to bring the rest of the world "up," which itself is a very tall order. The key question is whether leveling per-capita energy use in affluent countries is due to our starting to come up against physical limits or because people wouldn't accept more if it were abundantly available. Since my whole point is that nature will not satisfy arbitrary dreams, I lean toward the former. Not only do I think 10x is off-scale unreasonable, I would not be surprised if we never see a factor of 2 above where we are now. It gets harder.

          • (Yes, it's clear that you don't expect global energy to rise 10x; I was responding to Amin on that point.)

            Your "key question" is a great one: Why has per-capita energy use plateaued in rich countries? I don't have a simple answer, but I wouldn't frame the possible answers the way you have. I'll ponder this and maybe even write my own blog article about it at some point.

            I disagree with your "factor of 5". Are you referring to the ratio of US per-capita energy use to world per-capita energy use? That ratio was approximately 5 two decades ago, but it's now a little under 4. More importantly, Europe and Japan have plateaued at a per-capita energy use far below that of the US and only about twice as high as the current world average.

            Yes, it gets harder to keep growing world energy use each year. But we're nowhere near the physical limits on wind or solar or battery deployment, and all these technologies are now cheaper than you or I ever predicted.

          • Of course it is physical limits

            I have a swimmingpool outside 6x4m. It is fun playing in.

            If I could reasonably afford it I would have an 25m indoor for exercise year round.

            It is plain silly suggesting the west including the poorer 50% all of a sudden had enough.

  6. Everything you say seems quite true. In a word, we lack humility. Among the problems of our current age:

    (1). Decadence. The word is not in fashion, but we have been coasting for so long that we have forgotten that building a future takes dedication and laser-focus. Idle faith in technology is, by itself, nothing more than a cargo cult. Comfort breeds arrogance and complacency. It's been a very long time since our society has needed to make any hard choices or serious trade-offs, which makes us inclined to reject plans that call for such things.

    (2). Lack of vision. Our current vision of "The Future"—the Star Trek future—consists of a collection of shopworn 1950's science fiction clichés that nobody really even believes in anymore. We desperately need a compelling new vision of what we're all aiming for.

  7. On the subject of population, 3 thoughts:

    (1). The demographic transition theory is flawed. At least according to Prof. William Ryerson, "[In] every country that has gone from developing status to developed status since World War II—and there are 8 of them—what actually happened was not that the economy went up and then the birthrate fell, but the reverse. The birth rate fell first . . . [I]n each of those eight countries, first the country instituted an effective family planning program including promoting it—not just having clinics, but promoting smaller family norms and promoting delaying marriage and childbearing… And when the birthrate got down to the low two's, like 2.3…now instead of spending all of their income on food…there is money left over [for buying elective goods which stimulates the manufacturing sector, and for savings that builds capital.]"

    (2). It doesn't take force to change population growth dynamics. According to Ryerson: "In northern Nigeria, a [radio] program we ran from 2007 to 2009 was listened to by 70% of the population… [I]t was a smash hit because it was highly suspenseful and highly entertaining. But it had a story-line dealing with a couple deciding to use family planning, which is almost taboo in northern Nigeria… We had eleven [family planning] clinics ask clients what motivated them to come in for family planning, and 67% percent of them named the program as the motivation."

    (3). After a crisis, all options will be on the table. My graduate school roommate was Chinese. During the Great Famine, her father watched all 4 of his brothers and sisters die of starvation. Though my roommate and her friends often criticized the communist party on other issues, they genuinely felt that the One-Child Policy was a no-brainer. As my roommate said, "There's 1.5 billion of us, and China has to import food as it is. If we had kept on having 5 kids each, the world would be up to its eyeballs in Chinese people!" (Under the one-child policy, having extra children was not prohibited but required paying a one-time tax roughly equal to $100,000 per extra child.)

    My point is not to suggest we adopt a one-child policy (especially in light of Ryerson's insights) but to illustrate that, following a crisis, attitudes will change dramatically.

  8. "Renewables: not enough minerals, energy, time or clean and green Posted on January 22, 2021 by energyskeptic " ?

    “Raw material shortages, notably in metals and minerals and polysilicon are impacting the renewable energy industry
    The cost of solar panels, wind turbines, and EV batteries is climbing after years of declines
    Solar panel prices had surged by more than 50 percent in the past 12 months alone. The price of wind turbines is up 13 percent and battery prices are rising for the first time ever “

    • James Charles.

      The increase in the costs of creating renewables may be partly because they are made using fossil fuels and the price of fossil fuels has gone up.

    • The price of everything went up. Groceries for us are now twice as expensive as they used to be.

      Battery demand is at an all-time-high as eBike sales have exploded in the US during the pandemic, nearly every major automaker has new EVs on the way, and home batteries are gaining popularity rather quickly.

      Cheap anything is about to grind to a halt.

  9. Dear Tom,
    I think you will enjoy this interview transcript with Richard Powers and the mental shift he made through a chance encounter with a Redwood.
    "The realization that there is no separate mode of existence, that our very lives are dependent upon the lives of others, over which we can have no control, and the renunciation of control is something that does not come easy to us. It’s not simply sufficient to be appreciative or amazed or delighted by the immense diversity and fecundity and ingenuity and inventiveness of other living things. To be truly filled with awe, you also have to be aware of your own transience, your own ephemerality, your own relative insignificance in this huge community. Those aren’t easy for us—to go from the lord and master to just another member of a big community. That’s a tough lesson. That’s a tough step."

  10. This is an incredibly lovely and necessary essay. Thank you.

    In your "tall order" list, you mention that it is easier to shake off human supremacy if a person is (among other things):
    "non-religious: therefore free of the impression that Earth is here
    for our benefit;"

    It does not seem to me that this follows. I have known religious people who are thoroughly free of the impression that Earth is here for our benefit, as well as non-religious people who are thoroughly burdened by the belief that Earth is here for our benefit.

    The requirement might be more easily stated without making unnecessary (and possibly distracting) reference to religion:
    – to be free of the impression that Earth is here for our benefit, however this freedom was acquired

    • Naturally, exceptions always exist within populations. But if a religion has a built-in belief that is harmful to our ultimate success (like being the pinnacle of creation and the special focus of an all-powerful deity), then I do think that's worth calling out. It's maladaptive and ought to be recognized, even if it bruises some feelings. It's great that some religious people do not have this view: now how do we get *most* to shift? If the only item in the list focused on religion, I could see that as a problem/bias. But I'm trying to cover all angles: what factors are working against us? I believe that religion belongs on that list, whether or not the notion is comfortable.

      • There are religions that don't fit into that category, i.e. Druidry, Shamanism, Paganism, Wicca and other "similar" ones. These do not see humans as the pinnacle of creation or as apart from nature. Their very essence is to see humans as a part of nature, and I don't think they should be lumped in with the "mainstream" religions. They are, of course, minority religions in the civilised world, but I still think it is worth mentioning them because it shows that religion does not necessarily need to be nature's enemy.
        Humans seem to have a built in need for religion, and in my opinion it's more constructive to point to positive examples than to generally condemn religosity; and even if they are in the minority now, change can happen quickly: Christianity was a fringe religion once, too.

        • Pointing out a common trait isn't condemning. There's nothing in the article that states that one must abandon their religion to understand the bigger picture.

          I share Tom's observation. I'm not into religion by any degree (I meet all the criteria in the list in the article). I used to work for a company that was heavily religious (even though the company itself had nothing to do with religion), and thus had the viewpoint that the Earth is here for us and for us to use all resources as we wish. One conversation in particular was regarding coal. The response I got, "It wouldn't be there if we weren't meant to use it." I would've responded, but they walked away right after saying it. Maybe the fact that coal is buried several hundred feet underground is a good reason it shouldn't be used?

          Respect to Tom Murphy for standing by the article as written and not changing the language.

  11. Yeast in sugar water always end up dying in their own shit. Our hubris is in thinking we're different. We aren't.

    • We are different. We tell ourselves fairytales on the way out.

      • We do have one big advantage over animals: they use resources only for food and reproduction—so starvation begins immediately as resources run short. By contrast, humans waste mind-blowing amounts on optional luxuries.

        And that waste a good thing, as far as I can tell. In the long run these surplus resources are a poison, so the sooner we exhaust them, the fewer humans will be living on the planet when the inevitable happens. That means fewer humans who ultimately need starve to death.

  12. Why would assuming that the earth is a gift from the Divine to humanity make us less likely to be careful with it? Wouldn't it be just as likely to make a person extremely careful with it—particularly if that person respected the giver and also realized that there was no chance of receiving another one?

    • I guess I'm more worried about the reverse perspective: that humans are God's gift to the planet—the very reason for its existence as a canvas on which to paint the human masterpiece. I'm fine elevating the earth and nature above humanity, which I think could remedy many ills.

      • I'm not so sure about that, Tim. Whenever humans decide that a particular idea is more important than human lives, you can be sure it will be carried to an extreme.

        When "national honor" was more important than life, over 1,000,000 high-school aged boys charged pointlessly into machine guns at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (outcome: indecisive).

        If society truly came to accept that nature's more important than people, with no limiting principles on that idea, the door would be open to mass atrocities. ("Let's cut the enemy's fertilizer supply. So what if 1,000,000 people die? They were unapologetically damaging the earth.")

        What you're really objecting to, I think, are Cornucopian fantasies ("God will always provide"), and Millenialism ("the apocalypse is nigh anyway"), coupled with the idea that man can do no wrong to the earth.

        What we need is a "cease-fire" agreement between humans and nature, which is really a cease-fire with our own children. Much like aboriginal customs and taboos that limit human engagement with nature.

        If it's to be implemented with love, the philosophical basis of any such "cease-fire" must be that humans—especially young and unborn generations of humans—are the *most important* things. To care for them, we must care for nature.

  13. I believe you are onto the root of our hubris. I believe we, as a species, will have to relearn about nature's limits the hard way. When that has happened, then perhaps a new culture can emerge that reestablishes our relationship with nature. Perhaps….. perhaps not. The fall will not be pretty, and it will be a long while before the rubble stops bouncing, but it has started if one has the nerve to just look around and separate the signal from the noise.

  14. I think that a big move in the right direction would be a changing of societal economic values. Currently, our wealth is measured in units that are all rather destructive to Earth themselves.

    Gold, while having some useful purposes, is largely mined for storage and jewelry. We, as a society, have teams of workers digging up billions of cubic meters of dirt, some thawing permafrost in the process as a prerequisite to extraction, sorting out little bits of metal, so that the metal can be melted into larger bits of metal, that then spend most of the next century sitting in a steel and concrete vault. What value do we really get from that?

    The US Dollar, the reserve currency of the world, despite not being officially backed by anything tangible, relies largely on the flow of oil so that the banking system managing US Dollars doesn't collapse on itself. Oil is still enemy #1 to the biosphere.

    Even Bitcoin derives its value by scarcity. It costs a lot of energy to obtain uncirculated Bitcoin, and that energy also provides transactional security. Low energy coins exist with their own methods of controlling inflation/deflation. Social economics places a low value on these coins because they are cheap to acquire (half decent internet connection and your existing computer can accrue these coins on the order of 5% of held coins per year).

    If we really want to make some progress on not destroying our only home, our societal values must change. Why do we cherish these units of value that they themselves don't intrinsically offer actual value? If our living situation turns really bad and infrastructure is gone, can you eat that Gold coin, $50 bill, or Bitcoin for nutrition? Will they keep you warm for more than a minute? Do they fix Carbon and provide Oxygen? If you got stuck in the middle of a desert with nobody around (take your pick, hot sand, ocean, or ice sheet), would a vault full of gold bars or a stack of $100 bills in your back pocket offer you any value? Wouldn't you rather have a gallon of potable water so you at least can survive a bit longer?

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