The Ride of Our Lives

Courtesy Pixabay/fraugun

How much time do we spend fretting over the course we take as a human species? Granted, perhaps too few are focused on ultimate success, which I define as long-term sustainable living as a subordinate partner to all of life on Planet Earth. Even for those who do concern themselves with the intermediate and far future, attention tends to focus on what adjustments we can make to steer a safer course. Yet, when have we ever truly steered our path as a species? Are we actually in control at all? I’ll argue that we’ve never really been in the driver’s seat on the decisions that have mattered most. Our path has been more like an amusement park ride equipped with an ornamental steering wheel, giving the adorable tykes an intoxicating but illusory sense of control.

The central idea is that any development conferring a short-term competitive advantage will come to dominate the landscape, so that failure to adopt it means losing the race and dropping out of the future. It’s a meta-evolution selecting for something other than our best interests. And it’s winning, as it must.

Before jumping in, I will note that this line of thinking was heavily inspired by a Great Simplification podcast episode featuring Daniel Schmachtenberger. (This relatively new podcast by Nate Hagens has many excellent, thought provoking episodes and an accompanying high-quality animation: I recommend checking it out.)

The idea is simple enough, and has played out over and over and repeatedly and repetitively throughout our history. A tribe that utilized fire could access food (via cooking) that others could not, stay warmer in cold periods, alter landscapes to their benefit, flush out game, and use it as a weapon against competitors. Should a tribe either not develop the skill or opt out of utilizing it, they simply lost the competition and faded. The language Schmachtenberger uses is that superior technology is obligate: its use is obligatory. Eddie Izzard captures the essence of this no-brainer “choice” in the question: Cake or Death?

The same logic applied to agriculture. Those who opted in enjoyed surplus/stored food, increased numbers, freedom to specialize, and could afford to stand up full-time soldiers. Those who didn’t play along—especially if they occupied valued land—were destined to fail. The fact that agriculture emerged independently across the world and came to dominate once the climate became sufficiently stable speaks to the de-facto compulsory nature of the “choice.”

Next we stumbled on Enlightenment (scientific) thinking. The advantage is obvious, in that the underlying principles work every time. Just as a game player who has absorbed all the rules will have a substantial competitive edge over someone who is just winging it, mastering the rules of the actual universe is a winning strategy.

Rather than beat this drum to excess, I’ll lump the next four into one giant roll: fossil fuels, technology, capitalism (a market economy), and democracy (or other political systems, but the pairing of capitalism and democracy has been especially potent for maximizing growth). I know—it’s a lot. All four together have promoted breathtakingly rapid growth of the human endeavor. Never mind that said growth comes at the expense of over-exploitation of the biophysical substrate—likely to the point of its own eventual demise. The selection process operates on the short term. Any society electing not to use these tools self-limits to its own detriment and potential demise.

No Agency

In this light, we can see that we never sat around a table and debated whether to use fire, agriculture, science, fossil fuels, technology, or capitalism. Sure, we had discussions, and may fool ourselves into thinking we were in control—yet another facet of our human exceptionalism. But it wasn’t a true choice, in that those opting out are either gone or not faring well in our current global civilization. So it can seem in hindsight like a series of deliberate moves that put us on the “right” track—where “right” just means “current,” possibly translating to “disastrous.”

Yet, based on the obligate nature of all these branches, we actually had little or no agency in their outcomes. It’s as if floating on a raft on a stream that joins a larger river and asking which way to go at the juncture. All the forces point downstream. A raft deciding to hold steady or struggle upstream risks foundering, while those who “decide” to go downstream can congratulate themselves all they want, but really have nothing to do with how easily the transition was accomplished: it hardly could have succeeded any other way.

Today, markets and financial systems obligate the victors of this world to pursue short term returns, robbing humanity of the opportunity to exercise wisdom or consider the far future.  As an illustration, Bret Stephens of the New York Times disappointingly asserted that “Democrats need to figure out a set of climate-change policies that don’t threaten people’s wallets, jobs or businesses.” Those are indeed the elements firmly clutching the steering wheel, navigating a route to failure by naively inverting the hierarchy of artificial systems with respect to biophysical reality—as if proclaiming that nature dare not impose bounds on our ambitions and ideals.  Such tantrums demand Immediate “empty calorie” gains that in practice out-compete more rational approaches.

Class 5 Rapids

Continuing the raft metaphor, we can think of the agricultural shift as people stepping onto a raft on a slow, gentle stream. The choice conferred some modest advantage at first, traveling toward resource security more swiftly than would be possible by bushwhacking along the shore. But it was still possible to safely hop back and forth between the shore and raft for a time. Eventually, those who stayed on the raft got ahead of the shore-bound folks. The stream joined another and picked up speed—now undoubtedly superior to travel along the shore. The larger stream, joined by other branches, became a small river. Fast-forward to today, and we find ourselves bumping along on a class-5 rapid. It’s exhilarating, more than a touch dangerous, and unbelievably fast.

Since the acceleration to our current breakneck speed has taken many generations, most perceive this insane condition as being normal, and don’t give much thought to the situation. Yet, we owe it all to an extravagant one-time spree of inheritance spending: a fireworks show, made possible by our fossil fuel suit. Some attempt to better contextualize our situation by casting their gaze upstream toward our history, asking how each “decision” at each confluence led us to this impressive state. Many imagine that the ride only gets more exciting. In a sense, they may be right—in that we likely face a waterfall ahead that is unsurvivable in our primitive raft. Not everyone agrees that there’s a waterfall: we haven’t had one yet (ignoring previous civilization collapses in tributaries to our river). While some look to the past and use this as a basis for extrapolation, most simply look within the raft (consumed by culture, human affairs) or over the immediate edge (hey look: there’s a fish!). The waterfall is not obvious from our low perch in the churning water. But it is not really that hard to see the mist and discern an approaching roar.

Techno-optimists might suggest retrofitting our raft with thrusters so that we can take to the air as we cross the waterfall’s edge. At least that approach acknowledges the waterfall, but let’s be more realistic. A friend suggested that we really need to throw a line to the shore, but lack any rope in our raft. We have to make a rope out of materials on hand. Well, we could use our own hair! This is apt, because getting out of our current situation will involve pain and sacrifice. Are we capable of it? Do we even have time?

Part and Parcel

No metaphor is perfect, and I may be over-using the stream/raft/waterfall construct, but the essential aspect is the inexorable nature of the beast. Once we stepped onto the raft, the path was set. The watercourse does what it does. Powerful forces pushed us into our current configuration. Sure, history could have gone many other ways in the details, but whoever mastered fire, agriculture, technology and fossil fuels was destined to prevail. Picture a sailing ship-of-the-line from the Napoleonic era up against a modern battleship: no number of cannon shots from the wooden ship would risk sinking the battleship, while a single, precise blow from the battleship would knock the primitive craft into splinters—as if swatting a pesky gnat to its instant oblivion.

The fact that fire exists is independent of human existence. Likewise for the concept of agriculture (ants also farm), fossil fuels, etc. Taken to their logical conclusion, these forces become so effective at resource exploitation that ecosystem collapse (the waterfall) is a built-in feature. It’s just what this river does. It was always so, and here we are, finally able to anticipate the consequences.

Nature does not care about our fate. Evolution results in many blind trials. The fact that a self-destructive, yet obligate pathway exists is both fascinating and unfortunate. The “river” does not have our best interests at heart. Fire does not care what its adoption does to us. While wheat enjoys a genetic advantage from having domesticated us (settling us into permanent homes), it cannot know or care where this ultimately leads. Fossil fuels give us superpowers to accelerate our overshoot in spectacular fashion. None of it is about us. The world possesses dangers. Slippery slopes and harrowing waterfalls are a part of the landscape.

After drafting this post, I happened upon Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress after first reading it about 15 years ago. Although I did not appreciate or absorb it at the time, I seem to have slowly drifted to a similar conclusion. On page 30, he says:

This [human] experiment has never been tried before. And we, its unwitting authors, have never controlled it. This experiment is now moving very quickly and on a colossal scale. […] We have reached a stage where we must bring the experiment under rational control, and guard against present and potential dangers. It’s entirely up to us. If we fail—if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us—nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.

What’s the Point?

Some may find my perspective about lack of agency and a collapse-scale waterfall ahead to be fatalistic and full of despair. That’s not how I feel. First, I would rather understand the situation than not. Secondly, at some level, it absolves us of responsibility: not so much a matter of us screwing up as just inhabiting a world where this sort of thing is natural or even inevitable.

But I’m not one to acquiesce. Again paralleling Ronald Wright’s sentiment above, I hold that understanding the situation is the first step in crafting a strategy to avoid total failure. Just because we have never effected agency in our route to the present (we never really had to) does not mean that we cannot try to learn something new and finally step up to the challenge. The mere possibility that we are capable of understanding the situation is huge. If we can collectively acknowledge our peril and recognize the need to make radical changes—to fight or ignore the forces that have pushed us onto our current path—then that is a feat worthy of song. Is it at all possible? I don’t know. But I’m energized to do what I might. As I keep telling folks, I am a wild-eyed optimist, deep down. To characterize my message and efforts as pessimistic is too narrow an interpretation: a reflexive rejection/denial of the necessary pretext (the bad-news portion). The overall context is rooted in hope.

Our reaction, then, is where fatalism and despair find purchase. The facts don’t create resignation: we do. We at least have agency in that.

Hits: 2978

52 thoughts on “The Ride of Our Lives

  1. Very good essay but you missed the key question. How is it that a uniquely powerful intelligence can be selectively disabled to enable the universe to do what it wants to do, which is to dissipate energy gradients as fast as possible? Answer, you need an evolved behavior to disable that intelligence by denying unpleasant realities, as explained by Ajit Varki's Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

    If you are someone that still hopes for a rational conscious course change to reduce the coming suffering resulting from human overshoot, then the only good path is to focus on finding a technique to override reality denial. I think that technique is to understand and acknowledge MORT, and to put policies in place to minimize its harms.

    For example, we understand that alcohol makes one feel good, is addictive, and impairs judgement, so we have created policies with enforcement methods to prevent airline pilots from drinking while working. Perhaps we should screen and prevent candidates from running for office if they have normal denial genes. Only people with defective denial genes, like Tom Murphy, would be permitted to hold key leadership roles.

    • With the cascade of dilemmas rapidly coming our way, do you seriously think that nations are going to institute selection committees to only allow certain individuals who possess "defective
      denial genes " to contest elections ? Who is going to be selected
      for the selection committees,and will those who are not selected
      meekly accept their judgement ?

      • Citizens expect and are comfortable with the costs of preventing drunk pilots. Bad political leadership that denies reality is a much bigger risk. If citizens understood our genetic tendency to deny reality they would demand action to minimize harms.

        The hurdle is denial of denial. But it's worth trying. What alternative is there except a lot of suffering and 600M people living like medieval peasants?

        • Thanks to you Rob and Varki, some of us now understand denial, but… " If citizens understood our genetic tendency to deny reality they would demand action to minimize harms." If we're all in denial to some extent or other, who, or how would we do this. Tom is right…we're on a raft careering down to the waterfall. Efforts to prevent the outcome are too futile now, even if we could convince the majority, and evolutionary selection is inevitable.

          • Tom made a persuasive argument that we should stop fretting about bad choices and simply enjoy the ride because we have no free will. But then at the end he shifted gears and oddly argued for more education so we can choose a more sustainable course.

            It seems that most overshoot aware people that have not given up and still want to make the future less bad believe more education is the correct path.

            I think more education is a complete waste of time because the problem is our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities.

            I'm not saying we can overcome genetic denial, in fact my personal experience of trying to raise awareness for 10 years suggests denial of denial may be an impossible barrier, however I am saying that if you want to improve the future then you must focus on denial awareness because it blocks all other paths.

            In summary, it's either enjoy the ride or find a way to deal with denial.

          • I don't think the first sentence captures my message very well. I am not at all in the "enjoy the ride" camp. I'm merely articulating an understanding of how we got where we are, and that if we don't assert deliberate control over our path, we can expect the waterfall (collapse). I think it's important to understand the forces that have acted in the past so that we might recognize and subvert them going forward. I certainly never expressed the sentiment in the piece that we should stop fretting and enjoy the ride.

            I also do not call for "more education" in the last section. I stress understanding the predicament. Why not interpret that as understanding denial? That fits just as well as education. In fact, "If we can collectively acknowledge our peril and recognize the need to make radical changes" is all about defeating denial (key words: acknowledge, recognize as anti-denial actions).

  2. "I’ll lump the next four into one giant roll: fossil fuels, technology, capitalism (a market economy), and democracy (or other political systems, but the pairing of capitalism and democracy has been especially potent for maximizing growth)."

    I'm not sure Democracy is really a cause of growth or our innate need for short-term gain. Capitalism is the driver here. Democracy, it seems to me, is just one of the cars on the growth train. Chinese state-controlled capitalism certainly has been driving growth in their part of the globe, for instance. I think that rather than Democracy, I would say the idea of private property rights might be more important. Where private property rights have been recognized, the seeds of capitalism have been planted in fertile soil, resulting in often explosive growth as humans chase short-term private personal gains.

    In terms of your overall message, I basically think you are on target. The idea is a parallel to the Maximum Power Principle, which, paraphrasing, says that system designs always trend towards those that maximize their access to and ability to use power/energy to maximize their production/growth. This appears inherent in living systems (like humans), and likely in systems produced by living systems. I think this probably suggests a trend to short-term decision-making, probably evolutionarily, because the access to power resources over long term cannot be assumed (given entropy). At the very least, the ideas dovetail.

  3. I think it's an interesting question as to how much agency people have had about technological choices, and I also suspect that "not much" is the answer. However, I'd be careful jumping to conclusions based on a cursory or flawed understanding of world history and anthropology. How much do we really know about the choices available to our ancestors, based on reading books about the past with political agendas?

    Here's a long book review of a flawed book that raises an interesting source of questions, suggesting that the past may be weirder than we think:

  4. Nice post. Ivan Illich used the term "radical monopolies" to describe technologies that you can't opt out of, such as the use of fire, schooling or automobiles. Today the internet, I would say. In that sense he describes something similar to the "obligate technology" even if you here apply it on a societal scale. But it is true that it is almost impossible to opt out of capitalism if you live in a capitalist society. I have tried several times, but as the whole society is an expression of capitalism, you can't really do it. In my writings I have long argued that "consumer choice" is just a veil to make us believe that capitalism in some way is democratic. But of course, consumer choice is just an illusion as such, despite the fact that some have a lot more choice(s) than other.

    I would agree with the comment above that democracy as such is not part and parcel of capitalism, it just happened to be a vehicle for tearing down feudalism that suited the capitalist class. But democracy as a myth for justification of capitalism is important. All systems must produce myths that make them credible and acceptable for the people.

  5. This tracks my thinking.

    Re: democracy, I tend to agreee with your comment on your “energy suit” post – democracy is at least partly an artifact of an expanding pie. When the pie shrinks – or even when the rate of increase drops – constituencies are much harder to buy off.

  6. It seems the topic of democracy deserves a bit of elaboration. For many of us, our cultural antibodies are activated by the insinuation that it's a maladaptive element contributing to our current mess.

    Democracy appeals to our sense of fairness: that everyone has a say. Ignoring the gross distortion of this ideal by powerful interests and mass manipulation of perception via information monopolies, the problem is that it cedes decision making to the population as a whole—which is its whole point. This works fantastically in a growth phase, when resources are relatively abundant and people who want more can vote for their best outcomes. It is this advantage that earns a place on the "obligate" list: by maximizing the rate of return (via self-interest), it outcompetes alternative governance in the aggregate. China still grows under state-sponsored capitalism, but empowering its people would seem likely to accelerate this even more.

    The result is common-denominator decision making on the big, important issues. I think democracy is especially poor at limiting current resource demand for some far future stability. Humans in general are not good at this, and leaving existential decisions up to the masses ensures that we will not transcend this aggregate shortcoming.

    • Indeed. I would go further to posit that democracy tends to become dysfunctional and maladaptive in times of privation and declining resources. The overwhelming incentive is for the poor and unemployed masses to vote themselves money and resources, cannibalizing society's infrastructure in the process.

      No elected official could tell the people: "We have to permanently reduce your gasoline ration so that we can pay for the hydroelectric system."

      The result is a hopelessly dysfunctional government, eventually leading to popular demand for a dictator to come in and sort the mess out.

      • This is kinda where Jimmy Carter was going with his speech, where he encouraged us to pivot away from oil. It's widely known as the "malaise" speech, although he never actually used that word. He realized that OPEC and oil-producing nations were NOT, really, our allies and, so long as we remained addicted to their product, they'd be able to jerk us around at will.

        He didn't get re-elected. His successor promptly took the solar panels off the White House because he perceived them as "wimpy." That guy got 8 full years to wreak havoc on our nation.

        We've had the opportunity to choose a different path. The majority has chosen NOT to pursue it. Given a similar choice today, I doubt the USA would choose a different (even if it's better, long-term) path.

        Many of us are, privately, choosing that different path, looking for ways to reduce rampant consumerism and wasteful excess in our own lives. There aren't enough of us to swing an election which might alter our national trajectory.

        By the time there ARE enough people to do so, I suspect we'll be a day late and a dollar short.

  7. We require self-control to solve our sustainability problem. We collectively have no self-control.

    • Rubbish. That's what he (or most/all of his current or former Ministers) would call this blog.

  8. I believe you have hit the target dead center. And I think you are the first one commenting in this area to have hit the target so precisely.

    Far from being fatalistic or defeatist, I believe your central thesis is *foundational*, in the same sense that René Descartes discarded centuries of ancient superstition and drilled down to sound bedrock with "Cogito ergo sum" — the one thing he could know for certain, and therefore the best foundation for real progress. We have to know where we stand if we are to go forward.

    I like the analogy of the carnival ride steering wheel. It is ironic that, in the name of appealing to rational action, most espouse a pseudo-religious faith that humans are in control. (E.g., what will "we" do about carbon emissions? Answer: absolutely nothing; any energy not used by me, or by my nation, will be used by somebody else, or some other nation, to their own short-term advantage).

    We stand on the frontier of a new era. To borrow the title of a recent book, "the end of the world is just the beginning." It may be that many of us (individuals, communities, cultures) who are well-adapted to life in the old era are not best equipped for the age which dawns. But somewhere, some people possess the recipe for success in the world that awaits. The future belongs to them, and their offspring, and to the communities which they construct.

    As for the rest of us, we should strive to give those pioneers every advantage we can.

  9. "…possible translating to disastrous"

    Remember: we choose to call it that. Humans, and all of their actions, are a natural phenomenon of this planet. Like the weather. More natural, even, then the asteroid which killed the dinosaurs.

    If you believe we are subservient to the earth, then you may release the idea that "disaster" is anything which humans see as subjectively bad.

    (And how much of a disaster is it, really? Humans were around before oil, and we'll be around after oil, and every single one of the 8 billion humans now alive will soon enough be dead of old age no matter what anybody does.)

    Let the Earth be what it is.

    • I agree with this sentiment, though I pre-lament the way I imagine we will adapt to the new reality. A heavy dose of awareness now could blunt the worst collateral damage. When I reflect on my word choice, I realize that I am many people at once: not only a superposition of all the "past me" stages (including a techno-optimist blind to our predicament and expecting great things for the future), but also an imagined "average person" or target audience reader whose perspective I want to inhabit for the sake of resonance. I can therefore simultaneously feel horrified and commodious when considering an ultimate erasure of our present civilization.

      • "A heavy dose of awareness now could blunt the worst collateral damage."


        "I can therefore simultaneously feel horrified and commodious when considering an ultimate erasure of our present civilization."

        The thought is a somber one for anybody who believes in the goodness of mankind. Our present civilization was built, brick by brick, by innumerable individuals who mostly sought to make life *better.* To reduce suffering (or at least someone's suffering) and increase happiness. To see so many centuries of efforts come largely to dust, with the attendant suffering, is not a happy moment.

        But the animating force that these accomplishments represent will live on in humans. It is who we are today and tomorrow that really matters, not what others built in the past. If we can remind our children to act with love and not hate, then we may hope the civilization they build will also be good.

  10. It would seem likely that, as we approach the drop-off, some groups might try to gain an advantage, perhaps the richest, maybe others, and try to survive better than the average. I'd think those who already are doing it, smaller indigenous groups for example might have better chances than your average office worker? Underground high-tech bunkers for the uber rich? Could that self select in the same way? I.e. those who didn't take action died out?

    • What will “the rich” do? If you earn more than $30,000 per year in the United States, you are in the top 1% globally. (The 99% are real. I had the chance to meet some while traveling. They are very nice, and quite poor.)

      We the rich will demand our leaders secure our continuing luxury, even as others starve.

      You needn’t wait. There will be famine in some parts of the world because of the Ukraine crisis, as some nations rely on Ukraine for nearly all their grain imports. We had a choice: we could allow the normal amount of cropland be dedicated to the production of food for export, or we could change policy to incentivize more farmland be used for the production of low-energy corn ethanol in the hopes that domestic gasoline prices would be a few cents cheaper before the midterm elections.

      Guess what we, the rich, did?

      Of course you will overlook that tiny blemish when casting your ballot: there are far more important political matters for you then the starvation of others. So it always has been, and always will be.

  11. By coincidence, John Michael Greer posted an excellent essay today, "The End of the Industrial Age", which I think makes good companion reading:

    "This doesn’t mean that we’re going “back to the caves.” It doesn’t even mean that we’re going “back to the Middle Ages,” though it’s probably a safe bet that much of today’s overdeveloped world will see periods, ranging from decades to centuries, that will have a very medieval ambience to them. It means that we can expect a troubled period several centuries in length during which societies will get by using a patchwork of brittle legacy technologies and jerry-rigged substitutes, most people will have to make do with a small fraction of their current access to energy and manufactured products, population levels will decline steadily, and an enormous share of today’s knowledge will be lost irretrievably. That’s what happens when a civilization overshoots its resource base and stumbles down the long arc of decline and fall."

    "This is not to say that things can’t get better. In fact, they will get somewhat better in a few years and then we can expect another few years of relative stability before the next round of crises hits. That's the normal rhythm of events when a civilization tips over into decline . . . unsustainable things go by the boards, and the losses free up enough resources to allow some degree of stability to return, for a while."

    • Great read as well! Greer does not come across as super concerned with climate change, and I get the vibe that he believes some fairly substantial part of us will survive the class 5 rapid.

      • Hi Volvo740!
        In brief, Greer believes that we will follow a ragged stair-step decline—periods of crisis alternating with periods of temporary stability—eventually terminating about 300 years from now in a post-industrial dark age.

        More specifically, his theory of "catabolic collapse" is that a society with declining resources is like a man living in a huge mansion that he can no longer afford. Society solves crises by giving away part of the "mansion" (e.g., Ancient Rome stops repairing its aqueducts, and abandons a large province to the barbarians). This ends the immediate crisis by freeing up some desperately-needed resources. Thus, piece by piece, the society "downsizes" itself into the dark ages.

      • P.S. – To answer your other question, extinction is not Greer’s base case. But neither does he imagine we can maintain anything like 8 billion people. In the end, perhaps 0.5 to 1 billion, depending on how badly we mismanage the decline. Two billion may be theoretically achievable, but highly unlikely.

  12. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Perhaps it's outside the scope of this post, but it seems to leave the concept of "failure" undefined, in the interest of the "waterfall" metaphor. Does failure mean "humans go extinct"? Everything we know about the universe tells us this is inevitable, eventually, so it's a question of time scale. On the other hand, does failure mean, "10% of humanity survives & does just fine by letting the other 90% die in misery?" Kind of a bad timeline, but 10% of humanity is 800 million people so that's not a threat to the species. Does it mean, "Western civilization as we know it today gets replaced, with violence, by something we wouldn't like, but which a lot of people living in it will say is a moral and social advance over the degenerate past?" Proposed definitions of "failure" could be multiplied indefinitely, and that vagueness seems to hang, unsettled, in the background of what you're saying. The very nature of "collapse" seems to be another one of those matters that turn on who gets to decide what words mean.

    • Those are great questions. My thoughts are that slow collapse, let's say with with fewer people starving to death would be preferred, and that had we had a more open discussion about this in the 60s perhaps that would have been possible. Greer also alluded to this in his post.

      In addition you have actions taken by large players. My personal opinion is that some of the resource wars the US have started played two roles: 1. Secure energy resources. 2. Demand destruction. You no longer have a thriving country there that will use the resources themselves.

      I think you could certainly argue that collapse came to Iraq a long time ago.

      • A managed decline would obviously be ideal. If we could manage that I would be thrilled. But if people must starve, maybe its best for it to happen relatively quickly.

        A lot of people like to talk about slowing down our use of fossil fuels, but I'm not sure that's a great idea.

        First, that means population will continue to grow, which exacerbates the level of overshoot.

        Second, when we begin to run short of food, we will strip this planet from end to end looking for the last resources to feed a starving world. Every tree will be burned, and, as Ron Patterson says, "We will eat the birds out of the trees."

        The longer that process goes on—the more slowly the fossil fuel Band-Aid comes off—the more utter destruction we will do.

        Maybe the best humanity could hope for would be a relatively quick, relatively sharp end to the fossil fuel age. If we could manage a really epic collapse, perhaps so much the better for our posterity.

  13. I was alerted by email on existence of this line of thought:

    I wonder if anyone played 'toy' simulation there or may be can come up with more nuanced software?

    Today we have this massive shitgenerator called Fecebook/Google/Twitter whatever – may be this enourmous propaganda machine can be at least briefly hacked so it will coerce people not into paying and giving away data but into seeing such complex problem fully, without easy esacape? a someone noted somewhere, 'seizing memes of (re)production' might give us chance to fork ….

    Also, I found ideas like permacomputing actually interesting (simpler systems often can produce surprizingly good results)

    • The title of the article is "Planning An Eco-Socialist Utopia."

      It proposes a one-world central planning agency "Gosplant" (a play on the old Soviet "Gosplan"). It's one of those "central planning would have worked if only we had more control" essays. In this case, more computing power and better algorithms.

      "Linear programming requires Gosplant only to lay out goals that have been democratically decided upon"

      I fear democracy would take a back seat to the dictates of the computer, that those who proposed abolishing Gosplant would be silenced or imprisoned as eco-terrorists, and that those running the computer would mysteriously end up with a lot more resources than anybody else. Just like has always happened. (Funny. Length: 8 seconds)

      But the food-fight between capitalists and socialists may be moot, in the sense that the existence of centralized governments with big bureaucracies (and the huge administrative apparatus to effectively enforce their detailed mandates) may require more surplus energy than the future world will have to spare.

      • A very interesting article you guys referenced. I'm enjoying the historical perspective it offers.

        Have y'all read "Daemon" and "Freedom," by Daniel Suarez?

        TLDR; extremely rich guy dies and leaves a semi-sentient AI in charge of his riches. It exterminates everyone who has direct knowledge about it, then sets about remaking the world. Because it has significant wealth it can throw around, it can drive the creation of more-sustainable energy in certain areas and the creation of armies of mechanized death and mayhem for those who choose to oppose it.

        A great many who are only seeking to earn a living, feed their families, etc. get paid to create elements of said armies; others are provided with tech and funds with which to create a more sustainable future. Even more money is seized, as a variety of well-heeled companies are taken over by the AI. Those who are genuine thorns in the side of progress die in a variety of gruesome ways.

        Not all who are helping this along are good guys (different people, different motives, etc.). Not all who oppose this are bad.

        The most rapid progress tends to be seen where there is a "benevolent dictator" running the show (genuinely interested in the greater good, unlimited power to affect change). This is part of how China has grown so rapidly in the last few decades (debatable how "benevolent" their leadership has been; I suspect the majority of China would agree that it is). The semi-sentient AI fills that role, in these books. Since it has no essence of greed or vanity, that a human being might have … it makes an interesting tale.

        Pretty sure this is NOT the first book or series to posit such an outcome.

  14. This was a great post!!! I also went back and re-read which is also a great post.

    A thought: I think you could come up with an argument for why not to worry about collapse. For example, if this topic makes you depressed, why dive in? Maybe focus on things that make you happy, while perhaps not going out of the way to sink the ship – like traveling by plane.

    But the thing is, in our society here in the US (as well as other places), you contribute to collapse, by simply participating in the system. And you had no say in being here today.

    Even participating in small ways is contributing. Grocery shopping. Heating/cooling your modest home. Buying a bike. If 8B people did that – not good.

    And I think most people realize that their possibility to significantly alter the course for humanity is small. Not 0, but small. Altering course for yourself is more doable, and one group trying that are the "preppers". Sometimes they take heat (or get ridiculed) from other groups. My guess is that's because their actions and ideas can be uncomfortable to others.

    It's also well known that "going on about collapse" with friends that don' want to hear about it is a great way to lose said friends. And they may be important to you.

    Keep the good work up! Thanks!

    • You're right. And that's one personality trait I never understood: insistence on a "happy ending" to every story, or else we don't want to hear it. Optimism is one thing, denial is another thing. But to simply close one's eyes to avoid seeing a monster? Frankly, I think this is some of the most immature behavior that adults can display.

  15. So, what's is the plan? That's the $64k question.

    I propose some hypothetical constraints:

    (1). Society as a whole will not heed advance warnings; it will wait until a crisis and then begin to react. A corollary is that if enough years go by without a crisis, future generations will test the boundaries until a new crisis occurs.

    (2). Only a minority of the population will ever truly be "on board." (In the same sense that individuals who are true liberalists aren't more than ~35% of the population; it doesn't mean liberal policies can't get enacted, but it does mean forming alliances with the authoritarian left and religious right.)

    (3). Adherence will be intermittent. Any plan will surely be suspended in times of war or near-war. And demagogues will periodically come to power and dismantle the existing plan for a temporary prosperity boost.

    (4). As surplus energy shrinks, central-style governments and bureaucracies will grow increasingly difficult to maintain, along with the highway system and everything else built on a huge scale.

    (5). Solutions which may be ideal in the future, if built today, must survive until they come into their own. (E.g., eco-villages might be the bees' knees 150 years from now, but they would need to survive through some very different economic and political conditions until that point is reached.)

    (6). By the time the nature of the problem is fully recognized, we will likely already be desperately short of energy. Serious implementation efforts might even have to wait until we get through the first round of crises (i.e., after enough infrastructure and population have been jettisoned to give us some temporary breathing room), and will thereafter be hobbled by chronic shortages of everything.

    20th-century grandiose thinking will be out the window: we'll need to learn to think small and aim low.

  16. Tom, based on all I've seen of your earlier writing, I initially assumed that the waterfall was a metaphor for fossil fuel depletion. But then you said no, it's a metaphor for "ecosystem collapse".

    As physicists, you and I can understand fossil fuel depletion in a reasonably quantitative way: we can do the math. By comparison, "ecosystem collapse" strikes me as a pretty vague concept.

    How would you define "ecosystem collapse" in a reasonably unambiguous way, so we could all agree—at least with sufficiently complete information—on whether a particular scenario for the future entails ecosystem collapse? I'm looking for a definition that works at the global scale, since that seems to be what you have in mind.

    • Naturally, my conception of the predicament has evolved over the years. And while fossil fuel depletion has always been a significant piece, the very first Do the Math posts were on the more general concept of limits. Those limits are ecological/biophysical, in the end. Referring to the Guide to Posts (, #15 (2011) explored what would happen if fossil fuel depletion was not a barrier at all, kick-starting an energy-profligate future. In such a case, ecological limits rear up as the primary concern. More recently, #82 puts ecological health at center stage, and #87 provides a list of 21 worrisome elements, of which only #5, #7, #8, and #9 focus on fossil fuel depletion. Ecosystem concerns are higher on the list.

      In short, the story is much broader and more complex than the narrow story of energy, where a physicist's quantitative skills are well-suited. And even here, quantitatively energy is not the problem (solar, nuclear options, for instance). But what would we *do* with that energy? Continued ecosystem destruction seems most likely, unless we first recognize ecosystem health as the ultimate goal, and redesign our system in support of that goal.

      A plausible scenario for ecosystem collapse in my mind is based on the fact that we currently support 8 billion people on a fossil-intense agricultural system. We have over-leveraged that finite resource to "borrow" millions of years of eco-services (photosynthetic energy) and now host a population that probably never could have existed in ecological equilibrium. Even if fossil fuels were not going away, it seems likely we would see continued erosion of the globe's ability to support this current unsustainable mode. We have already lost about half of the wild animal life in my lifetime: is that halfway to collapse? Take away the fossil fuels, and I imagine over-hunting and rapid deforestation will take an enormous toll on ecosystem health.

      Where you draw the line and call it collapse is a distraction. This is no game. It is more important to recognize the factors at play, interdependencies, and risks. Ecological disaster does not care how vague our definitions are: that's not where the problem is.

      • Thank you for the detailed response. In fact I've read all the posts you cite, and I was being a little lazy in narrowly referring to fossil fuel depletion. Let's add in global climate change (whether due to an increased greenhouse effect or waste heat from massive use of nuclear fusion, etc.) to the list of quantitative threats that we physicists can understand reasonably well by doing the math.

        I had forgotten (or perhaps didn't notice) that in an update to post 87 you defined "collapse" pretty clearly in terms of human society: a plummeting human population and/or standard of living. That's a sensible definition that I think coincides with most people's intuition.

        One thing that confuses me is that here you use the phrase "ecosystem collapse" rather than simply "collapse". I'm not sure how much to read into that. I do see that in Item 4 of post 87 you specifically suggest that climate change "could result in large scale ecosystem collapses [plural!] and thereby pose an existential threat to our own survival."

        On the other hand, in Section 9.6 of your book you say pretty plainly that you consider climate change to be a less imminent threat to civilization than resource disruptions. This leaves me puzzled about why you've chosen in the present essay to associate the waterfall with *ecological* collapse—a term whose meaning I'm still hoping you'll clarify.

        • When it comes to the ecosystem, one species’ “ecosystem collapse“ is another species’ career advancement program. Just ask the dinosaurs and the mammals.

          Since we are talking about humans here, why can’t we define ”ecological collapse“ as any ecosystem change which would be the proximate cause of a human societal collapse (in the general sense you referred to)?

          For example, if the temperature drops below freezing even once or twice in an average summer, agriculture as we have known it for the past 10,000 years becomes impossible. For us, that would be a big problem. (Though the ants might hardly notice.)

          • That definition would be clear enough, but I'm not clear at all on whether it's what Tom has in mind when he says "ecosystem collapse".

        • Okay, firstly, don't read too much into the phrase "ecosystem collapse." But don't throw it out as a misprint either. I would be fine substituting "collapse" into the waterfall association (the more important of the two words). But any such collapse is not divorced from ecosystem concerns: it's all taking place on that stage. If resources don't precipitate societal collapse first, I fear that an overtaxed planet will lead to ecosystem collapse. We already see some ecosystems collapsing (the origin of the plural construction), like coral reefs or areas where deforestation has obliterated habitat. Climate change is certainly one agent of ecosystem pressure, but not at all the only one. So I can still worry about the ability of Earth's ecosystem to support the human enterprise without any consideration of climate change: it's just one of many symptoms/ailments.

          It's hard for me to separate ecosystem collapse from collapse of the human enterprise due to their myriad interdependencies. It seems collapse in one likely accompanies collapse in the other (more certainly in one direction than the other, admittedly). In general, I would say that any "services" (pollination, nutrient processing, food chains, habitats/nurseries, water cycle) that get disrupted or shut down—even regionally—constitute an ecological collapse. We could bring those on by overt action, indirectly via unintended consequences, or even in reaction to resource scarcity by suddenly shifting dependencies from fossil resources to biological ones.

          • Thanks again for this explanation.

            You say we're "already" seeing ecosystems collapse. I would say we've been seeing it since the late Pleistocene (megafauna extinctions, early uses of fire to modify landscapes), continuing through the development of agriculture, the Columbian Exchange, and the Industrial Revolution, right up to yesterday when I allowed my dishrag to dry out in the sun.

            So far, none of these ecosystem collapses seem to have threatened the human enterprise. Many of them have been beneficial (from our perspective).

            I suppose you could argue that the current pace of these local and regional disruptions/collapses is greater than ever before, and this increased pace makes it harder for us to adapt to whatever negative (for us) side effects the collapses may cause. The counter-argument is that in recent decades humans have learned a great deal about how to avoid disrupting ecosystems, and about how to adapt to the negative side effects.

            So it's not obvious to me that we're in any greater danger from local or regional ecosystem disruptions today than we were a century ago, or that dangers of this type will be any greater a century from now than they are today. I'm open to being persuaded that these dangers are on the rise, but only by seeing detailed evidence and analysis. Broad philosophical pronouncements don't convince me.

            What has changed in the last century is that we're now causing global temperatures to rise by measurable amounts. This kind of global threat is in a different category from merely regional ecosystem disruptions and deserves everyone's attention. But are there any other truly global human-caused ecosystem threats? There's ocean acidification, which of course is closely related to rising temperatures. There's stratospheric ozone depletion, but that seems to be under control. If there are others that I should be aware of, please educate me.

          • If the basis for dismissing serious ecological collapse is that it hasn't happened yet, well, good luck with that. Humans and livestock now comprise 96% of mammal mass on the planet. We're putting the squeeze on the wild world. Animal populations are down by a factor of two in the last 50 years. We can't take another 50 years like that. Insect populations have been hard hit, and messing with the lower rungs of the food chain seems like a bad idea.

            It hardly matters how much we have learned about disrupting ecosystems. Most ignore what we know and have learned, and keep engaging in damaging practices anyway. We've known about the tidal wave of climate change for decades, and that whole time the principal cause—fossil fuels—has only risen. Even recently, annual fossil fuel use has continued to rise. Color me skeptical that "we've got this."

            It's not at all hard to educate yourself on the numerous ecological crises, if you choose to be objectively interested in it. And it's not at all hard to understand why a sudden surge of 8 billion fossil-fueled humans taking the planet and its resources by storm would be extremely disruptive. It seems a much harder job to make the case that all this will be fine—especially in the face of all the hockey stick curves (some of which are inverted and plummeting, like animal populations, habitat, and other measures of ecosystem health). I've been slowly crafting a post to showcase these hockey sticks, but it takes a while to collect/plot the data among my other tasks.

  17. Humans have deliberately changed course or chosen directions before.

    The book Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild describes England's abolitionists who changed the view of slavery as normal, a part of most cultures since before recorded history, and good to illegal, overcoming objections that sound like polluters' today: if we don't someone else will, it's too big to change, it's always been that way, it's not as bad as you say, etc.

    That system was stable and could have persisted if not forever, a lot longer than had not a small number of people acted.

    Dr. Edwards Deming changed the course of Japan starting in 1950, helping transform a bombed out nation to leading the world in several industries.

    Smoking, same-sex marriage, Apartheid, walking on the moon, the ozone hole, . . . we may not have steered all of humanity before, but we've deliberately acted on large scales before, even global. Yes, each other situation was unique and none apply exactly to today, but the scope and scale suggest it's possible.

    That's why I focus on leadership. Everyone connects with nature in some way and therefore has some intrinsic motivation to act. The challenge isn't to get people to do something they don't want to, but to evoke and inspire based on existing intrinsic motivation. The playing field is the hearts and minds of people not ready to act yet. The work is hard with no guarantee of success, but not something we've never done.

    I offer something I've heard from no one else: we will love the process, if effectively led, not convinced, cajoled, and coerced. Hence my strategy, if you don't mind my sharing a link to my podcast episode describing it:

    • Dear Josh,
      Interesting thought. One could quibble with your specific examples, to suggest that perhaps they were “downhill“ trips. (For example, Christianity always had a general problem with slavery, leading to its eventual abolition in Ancient Rome and later in other places; and the Japanese diaspora have been very successful wherever they put down roots.) But there is no need to quibble: point taken.

      And of course, Dr. Murphy’s point still remains: even if 9 out of 10 families/societies/nations can be convinced to voluntarily reduce energy use, the 10th will take the advantage left by the others.

      But all that aside, your post makes me wonder if there is an underlying principle governing coordinated mass action in humans. Something like: “If the group has excess energy to use, then humans will work together to use it, but if basic needs are unmet then coordinated social action becomes difficult as humans turn against larger society in favor of the self or smaller social units.”

      Before societies reach the point of fragmentation, there are certain types of neurotic behaviors which they seem to predictably engage in as energy runs low: war, fanaticism, isolationism, etc.

  18. Your essay provided me with lots of dopamine. Thank you!

    First, I love Eddie Izzard. Second, your explanation of Schmachtenberger's take on obligate technology is an eye-opener: "Yet, based on the obligate nature of all these branches, we actually had little or no agency in their outcomes. It’s as if floating on a raft on a stream that joins a larger river and asking which way to go at the juncture. All the forces point downstream." For some reason this reminded me of Mark Twain, the arrow of time, and John Lennon's song Tomorrow Never Knows. Finally, the real kicker was this: "While wheat enjoys a genetic advantage from having domesticated us (settling us into permanent homes), it cannot know or care where this ultimately leads." What a twist.

    • I'm all for breaking the current economic system, which is dragging us into a worsening world. However, the focus here is: "human dignity, solidarity and social justice, environmental sustainability." One could do worse, but the ordering/hierarchy is wrong: any long-term viable system needs to first and foremost address the impact to the non-human world, and only then see to human concerns. Putting human needs on top is what got us here in the first place. Fascinating that the same bird in the background was in all locations.

      • Thanks for the feedback. On a fundamental level, there is no real dichotomy between (long-term) human and non-human needs (not wants) as this automatically entails living within carrying capacity.

        So the question is how do we organise and correct ourselves to attain this what Ian McHarg calls "creative fitting"? Certainly not by denying we are humans but by showing how these legitimate human needs* can be met together.

        Voluntary governance (not AI) of the massive human herd can only be done through adequate storytelling. A narrative we instinctively feel we can trust, think we (kind of) understand, relate to and is generic enough for adaptation and broad adoption.

        I don’t think we have much time for endless debates. The ECG platform seems to me a good enough starting point for aggregating a critical mass. As it entails a rather clever evolutional transition, not the setback damage of the revolution we seem to be heading towards. Perhaps time to unite forwards?

  19. "[We must] first and foremost [consider] the non-human world, and only then see to human concerns. Putting human needs on top is what got us here in the first place."

    Technically correct. The problem is that such a philosophy has no limiting principle, when used as a basis for action. For one, if other species' concerns are paramount, then we must use non-democratic dictatorial powers against the selfish humans.

    The well-being of the individual is the only basis for a democratic government, since it is the only basis for decision-making by the individual voter. Therefore we'd need a technocracy.

    Whenever academics or intellectuals advocate a technocracy, they—in their delusional arrogance—always imagine themselves in charge of it. The experiment has been run many times, and the academics never fail to be shocked when ruthless and self-interested political operators seize control after approximately 5 minutes. All of the communist revolutions were attempts to install rational and humane technocracies.

    It is usually at this point that the intellectuals and academics—deeply offended and betrayed—turn strongly against the dictatorship which they helped usher into being, resulting in them being promptly imprisoned for trying to overthrow the new government.

    The lesson is that if we are to have humane government, it must remain bound to the well-being of individuals *as judged by the individual.*

    The solution, if there is one, must be to encourage people to attain a more advanced understanding of what human self-interest is. Properly understood, self-interest isn't what's good for you today; it's what's good for you and your children today, and tomorrow, and *across time.* Humans do understand this. Approached from this angle, human-centered progress is possible. No?

    • Traditional governance structures, including democracy, seem likely to fail. Promotion of short term human interests, which you point out is the goal of human governance, is unbalanced and has failure risk built in. I don't see technocracy as a solution either. Only your last paragraph approaches what I think is necessary: emphasis on far future success. In this sense, it can still be centered on human self-interest (not as an individual, though). But to get it right, we'd have to recognize that we must also value the interests of all other species on the planet. Successful selfishness, therefore, needs to be less selfish.

      None of this would be relevant if we did not possess the power to effect major disruption. We're about to lose one of our chief enablers, in fossil fuels. Maybe that will restore some balance/recovery despite any governance or values structures we adopt.

Comments are closed.