Unsustainable Goose Chases

As we look toward the uncertain future, it may occur to some among us that we’ll need energy on Mars. How are we going to get it? Presumably Mars has no fossil fuels—although on the plus side its atmosphere is already 95% CO2, compared to Earth’s 0.04%, so they’re likely to be less uptight about carbon emissions on the red planet.

At this point, we could launch into an extensive discussion, full of quantitative detail and analysis about the solar potential: insolation, materials availability, dust storm mitigation, and on and on. But the real answer to how we will get energy on Mars is probably: we won’t. We’re extremely unlikely to set up a permanent presence on Mars, if humans ever even go there at all. So the exercise would be of questionable value.

I feel similarly about discussions of full-scale renewable energy and associated storage and grid shenanigans. How will we rise to the challenge to keep modernity powered into the future? In all likelihood, we won’t. Besides the misdirection of “inexhaustible flows,” keeping modernity powered by any means looks like game-over for ecological health, and therefore humans, if pursued at all costs. So, enough with the fantasy schemes.

Why so bold? Glad you asked.

Past posts of mine have dealt with the question of what sustainability means, and associated timescales:

  1. Ultimate Success: thinking 10,000 years ahead, what’s still possible?
  2. Can Modernity Last?: an attempt to synthesize why continuance is not in the cards
  3. Sustainable Timescales: the relevant scope is that of biological evolution
  4. Inexhaustible Flows: the dead end of materials-hungry “renewable” energy technology

Additionally, The Simple Story of Civilization frames the current epoch as so mind-numbingly new and rapid that it boggles the mind how we could ever think of modernity as a normal time that might have staying power, rather than a fireworks show. It’s only because that’s all our short lives have shown us.

Can We Get Back to Sustainable?

I characterize previous modes of human lifestyles on the planet as follows, in reverse chronological order.

  • Present (modernity): UNSUSTAINABLE!
  • Post-Enlightenment: unsustainable
  • Antiquity: unsustainable
  • Agriculture: unsustainable
  • Hunter-Gatherer: sustainable?

Most, I claim, are unsustainable, to varying degrees. I’ll expand on why below, but the short version is that all post-agricultural modes set up accumulating ecological decline that would eventually spell game-over. Monotonically downward measures of ecological health cannot be called sustainable, even if it takes millennia to drop to terminal levels. The only one I characterize as potentially sustainable is the last. The question mark is because of megafauna extinctions, being the only species to use fire, and the fact that an ability for symbolic representation and complex speech might be the recipe for a runaway species capable of rapid cultural evolution and technology development out of step with the rest of the community of life, and therefore maladapted to long-term co-existence in ecological relationship. If it looks like we’re winning the “battle against nature” right now, that’s actually what losing looks like.

So, the question mark in the last item reflects the fact that we still do not (and cannot) know whether Homo sapiens is an evolutionary step too far, bound for self-termination (although sadly not confined to our species as we take many down with us). I will operate under the assumption that we are not evolutionarily doomed, for two reasons. First, if we’re destined to fail as a species, then our goose is cooked, and nothing I suggest will change the animal we are. Second, we know of cultures that have deliberately suppressed overreach, valuing a humble role in the broader community of life. We therefore have models for how things can work, at least for the intermediate term.

Before going on to explain the other entries, I should get in front of one potential objection. I am not claiming that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the only way for humans to live sustainably on the planet: just that it’s the only one we’ve tried yet that is potentially sustainable. Everything that has branched off that path so far appears to be a dead end. Might there be new paths as yet unexplored—perhaps merging the knowledge we’ve acquired with time-tested wisdom? Surely, it would seem. But don’t ask me to describe ways in which no human has yet lived: I can’t.

It might be obvious that the present way of living is grossly unsustainable (thus the BOLD CAPS above). As a hint, it is likely that any mode that contains 8 billion humans—so that humans and associated domesticated animals constitute 96% of all mammal mass on the planet—will be unsustainable for any relevant length of time.

I “did the math” in an earlier post showing that human population growth in all but the hunter-gatherer mode was on track to reach 8 billion in contextually short order. The upshot was that the four unsustainable modes would have reached 8 billion (assuming growth rates characteristic of those times held steady) by the years 2020, 2300, 3800, and 8800 in the order listed above. Keep in mind that 7,000 years from now is still a flash compared to contextually relevant timescales.

Okay, but it’s clear enough that continued growth at any rate is a prescription for trouble, as this blog has quantified six ways to Sunday. In that case, what if we just went back to 1990 levels and held steady there? Life wasn’t so bad then, and we weren’t nearly as unsustainable as today. No? Maybe the 1950s, then—a swell time. Not buying it? 1900? Really? Okay, so then before fossil fuels, like 1800, when global population was just 1 billion. Surely cutting back human presence by an order-of-magnitude and living more simply would set us to rights. Even that level of “sacrifice” would be asking an awful lot of people!

Let’s address reasons why I characterize earlier modes as being unsustainable, working backwards in time.

Modern Living

We start by assessing “20th century” lifestyles, the definition of which could be loosened to go back to mid 19th century in accommodation of the Industrial Revolution, and up through the present. Ours has been an age defined by fossil fuels.

First, any mode dependent on fossil fuels is right out, in the sustainable contest. Setting aside the CO2 emissions issue, any system based on a non-renewable substance is unsustainable—killing many fantasies. That certainly rules out 20th century living, as executed. Because so many elements of modern lifestyles are completely in the context of fossil fuels—how we feed people, how we manufacture cities and roads and consumer goods, how we extract materials from far-flung places and move them around the world, how we impose hegemony and “peace” through military might—we can’t surgically remove fossil fuels and pretend that the system would look anything like what actually developed. Once a cancer is fully metastasized—integrated throughout the body—it is impossible to separate cancer and body, or to kill the cancer while keeping the body alive. Nor can the body continue to live that way, making the metaphor more apt than I originally intended. Yeah: we’ve got Stage-IV Modernity on our hands. Most unfortunate. Time for Hospice.

Many would react by saying: “Okay, but don’t be daft: what about performing all those tasks by alternative means like solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, etc.?” Several things come to mind at once (head-exploding moment). First, what we do with copious energy—in any form—has been devastating to the community of life. Swapping the gas chainsaw for an electric one is pointless if its application is sawing off the branch on which we and many other beings stand. Second, we have not demonstrated the ability to do these things without fossil fuels at scale. Electricity is just not the same as combustion, or as chemical feedstock (thinking fertilizer, here). High-temperature heat for processing mined ores and for manufacturing, energy-dense storage for long-haul transport and global military operations (all part of our present mode) may not be possible in 20th-century style without fossil fuels. Third, no energy technology is free of non-renewable materials (mined), and in fact the “renewables” require more mined materials than fossil fuels do to produce electricity from such a diffuse source. It becomes very hard to make a convincing case for continued renewable energy technology over timescales that matter. The advocates don’t even try to make this case or address how we we would somehow stop using energy to execute ecological atrocities—which to me indicates a core part of our problem: the focus is far too narrow. Lots of “punting” going on, hoping for the best (more “living large”).

The main point is that the rapid declines in ecological health over the last few centuries (see hockey sticks and cliff edge posts) are not due to fossil fuels either being finite or emitting CO2, but because that’s what abundant energy does in the hands of a human supremacist culture. I’d say you can’t have 20th-century life without a heck of a lot of energy, and without a heck of a lot of collateral damage in a completely unsustainable way. Any system that strives to maintain billions of people at industrial-scale energy will continue to wreck the community of life and therefore self-terminate by its own “success.”

Rewind to 1800

So, what about life in 1800? I’ll focus on the European mode of living (essentially the same as settlers in America): high culture, global trade, science. I’ll ignore the inroads that fossil fuels were already making, which indeed were beginning to transform some aspects of life by then.

A main caution concerns global trade. Engaging in global trade might just mean you’ve exceeded your local sustainable capacity. Sure, I understand that it doesn’t have to be this way, because the world is not homogeneous. Trade allows redistribution so that everyone might get what they want or need, in principle, with plenty to go around. It’s just that it seldom actually works according to such an attractive theory, historically, and the “civilized” world has never operated in balanced steady-state trade without net depletion and degradation of ecological health.

Rather, trade has generally been between conducted between “unequals.” Here, I will take the voice of the more powerful (“advanced”) side. “I’d like that stuff you have and that we no longer do (ahem; never mind why). It’s lucky for both of us, because you don’t (yet) have a need for it, or recognize it as useful, you see. By the time you do, in a few centuries perhaps, we’ll already have taken all of it. Besides, you’re not able to defend the resource from our appropriating it. But rather than have this get all nasty—keeping in mind that you would make a rather cute colony—we’ll give you some shiny coins that you can spend on something real nice for yourself, according to your primitive notions.”

In other words, trade tends to be exploitative (surprise!) and is closely connected to colonization—which often cleverly means not having to pay uncouth locals for the loot. Poorer countries are not market-forcing America to chop its forests and pollute its air and water: it works the other way around.

One place local unsustainable excess shows up that is subsequently “fixed” by trade is in the denuding of the British Isles as timber demand soared. Naval ships (inseparable from trade concerns) placed a tremendous demand on timber, so that by 1800 Britain was importing large amounts of wood from distant shores. But ships alone did not rid the isles of their forests: plenty of other demands were swelling simultaneously. By 1900, forest cover had shrunk to 5%. Whatever diverse demands for wood existed at the time, they were too great to support.

The essential point is that if the whole world lived like Europeans of 1800, even at just 1 billion people total, the world’s resources would likely soon be stripped clean. Again, imports are a warning sign of unsustainable imbalance.

Since Earth does not import resources, we can look at global metrics of forest cover and other attributes of ecological health to assess if things are sustainable. Downward trends have been the rule for many centuries: the opposite of sustainable. It has been a very long time since human activity has not resulted in aggregate global decline of ecological health.

Aside on Extinctions

As a measure of ecological decline, extinctions are swelling in number, and have been for quite a while. For a depressing time, see the Wikipedia page enumerating a chronological list of over 800 extinctions. While this surely is not a complete list (strong vertebrate bias, for instance), the simple exercise of counting the entries is revealing: it’s more than just the Dodo in 1688. Tables that initially are broken into millennia become just decade-long tables near the end, and actually have more entries than their millennial counterparts! I can’t vouch for uniform completeness across the span, but the planet has been crawling with naturalists for the last few hundred years, so I tend to trust the recent numbers. All the same, I am impressed with how much we do know about prehistoric extinctions from the various pieces of forensic evidence left behind. The table below captures the trend of extinctions per century across various time spans (in years).

From To Extinctions/Cy
−10000 −2000 1.5
−2000 0 2.5
0 1000 5
1000 1600 10
1600 1800 35
1800 1900 130
1900 1950 275
1950 1990 385

After 1990, the numbers begin to taper, presumably because many extinctions become official only after a conclusive delay. All the numbers are above the long-term background rate, but swell by a couple orders-of-magnitude as modernity revs up. Only three of the causes offered in the Wikipedia table are potentially attributed to modern climate change. The rest stem from the usual suspect list of deforestation, habitat loss/destruction, hunting, invasive introductions (by humans) and related diseases. In short: what we do with energy.  No: 1800 was not sustainable, even with a small fraction of the globe living like Europeans. This leaves us with little confidence that even a billion people could live sustainably in that way.

Fall of Rome

What about antiquity? Could the whole world live like the Romans, or the Greeks? Well, even they couldn’t manage to do so, even while exploiting surrounding areas that lived more simply. The model does not scale if everyone tries to do the same, at the same time, with no externally exploitable people/lands. Sumerians, Babylonians, and Mayans were likewise unable to hold it together, among others. Many scholarly works have expounded on the factors contributing to these failures. While it is not a one-size-fits-all story, a common thread is exceeding local carrying capacity by engaging in short-term inheritance spending of ecological wealth (soils, forests, biodiversity), accumulated over much longer tracts of time. It’s a cunning trick, while it lasts: so tempting!

But the people of antiquity didn’t have technology and solar panels, one might object. Yeah, and if they did, how would they keep the materials treadmill going? We’re still dealing with finite resources and inescapable degradation of existing materials. Plus, one could argue that the destruction would have been faster if assisted by additional power input: all the better to shred the local web of life. I don’t know how exactly I allowed modern technology to creep into antiquity.  Nice try.  In general, unless any extra energy (beyond the ecological distribution) is used for ecological restoration, it’s generally going to result in its destruction.

Pre-civilization Agriculturalists

Okay, if we must keep backing up, why couldn’t the agricultural ways predating city-states have been carried out sustainably and indefinitely, if population growth is somehow held at bay?

Fertile lands do not remain so forever. Annual agricultural practices accumulate a toll. The soil is effectively “mined” of mineral content that if not fully replenished (all poop back on the field) will result in eventual cessation of productivity. Irrigation tends to slowly concentrate salt, eventually poisoning the ground. Plowing disturbs the integrity of soils, contributing to wind and water erosion. Grazing by domestic animals also leads to similar fates. Eliminating all but the desired plants (“weeds,” “pests”) impoverishes the soil in terms of microbial, fungal, and invertebrate diversity. Without natural cycles replenishing lost nutrients—like floodplain deposition of new soils, which happens only in a few special places, lately not tolerated and prevented by levees—agricultural exploitation is a one-way ride. The ride can indeed persist for many generations of humans, but is still short-term compared to timescales that matter.

The past is littered with stories of places once agriculturally productive that are now desert or scrub. Over the thousands of years that agriculture was practiced prior to recorded history, archeological evidence points to abandoned efforts that only lasted a few hundred years before the land could no longer support the experiment.

What matters, here, is that the agricultural method is not vetted by multi-level selection (evolution) to be a viable way of living in stable relationship with the community of life. Besides the fact that agriculture tends to build surplus, which fuels population growth, hierarchy, armies, etc. (see post on the river metaphor), and therefore sets up an unsustainable growth train, it appears to fail even without those elaborations just based on what the land can support, long term, without being monotonically degraded by the effort.

Forests and other ecological arrangements can indeed self-sustain “indefinitely,” but only because they self-select a diverse complement of organisms that perform all the necessary functions to keep the cycle going—in everybody’s mutual interest. It’s not “survival of the fittest,” but survival of the collective that matters. Agriculture is an artificial approach that might try to mimic some vital ecological functions, but incompetently and without the benefit of many millions of years of self-tuning. It can appear to work for a time, and get a major extension by being propped up on fossil-fueled fertilizer and labor—further distorting our narrow perspectives. Given the brevity of the experiment, we certainly cannot proclaim the practice to be sustainable, especially when evidence points to the contrary.

Snap Out of It!

I am not calling for an immediate cessation of agriculture. I depend on it as well. What I am doing is calling into question baseline assumptions—uncomfortable as that might be. In laying the tracks for future generations, we might encourage exploration into different modes of living, with an eye toward long term sustainability.

I can’t stop myself from returning to the metaphor of cutting off the branch we stand on. In light of this post, we started the project 10,000 years ago using a crude stone edge that later became an iron axe—beginning to make some slow progress. The enlightenment brought a toothed steel saw: much more effective. The fossil fuel revolution introduced the chainsaw. Luckily the branch is large and resilient, capable of much abuse. But just as we’re nearing completion of the cut, the fossil fuel inputs and outputs are becoming problematic (smelly fumes). Shall we then switch to a solar-charged electric chainsaw to finish the job? I’d rather we pause to ask what exactly it is we’re doing, using a broad lens in terms of time and ecology. Safety first!

Meanwhile, can we please stop indulging fantasy engineering babble about a high tech future that either never will come or if it does just proves to be one more bad idea that prolongs (and worsens) the eventual fall? The ecological nosedive (sixth mass extinction) continues to steepen, making the chances of recovery slimmer year by year. I don’t want to hear about energy on Mars or grid-scale pumped storage that drowns every dam-able bowl on the terrain. It’s embarrassing. Enough destruction. The goals are all wrong.  Let’s begin the healing, by first falling out of love with (abusive) modernity, and thinking about what matters most in life. Hint: don’t stop at humans, as that spells a dead end for humans as well.

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38 thoughts on “Unsustainable Goose Chases

  1. Unsustainability is unfortunately baked in the logic of the evolutionary process, which tends to favor the short term.

    Any sustainable mode of existence must, by definition, be non-expansionary, but that means that some group nearby adopts an unsustainable aggressively expansionist mode of existence, then the latter will wipe out the former.

    This is both a general abstract point and exactly what has been happening with humans on this planet for the last several tens of thousands of years. Hunter-gatherers being displaced by agriculturalists, pre-industrial agriculturalists being displaced by industrialists, etc. etc.

    Sure, in the long term the aggressively expansionist mode of existence is doomed, but evolution works at the transition from one generation to another.

    And the aggressively expansionist mode of existence is something that appears again and again and again, it going extinct once does not mean it goes extinct forever. Which is why we have all these countless civilizations (and not just civilizations) that went through the overshoot-and-collapse cycle.

    So there are no good news to be found here…

  2. Hopefully we get rid of AI when the the tipping point of the world occurs. Maybe the beginning of the end really got started when the domesticating of animals took place some 10000 years ago.

  3. Hey Tom, thanks for that great post. This passage struck me … we can’t
    surgically remove fossil fuels and pretend that the system would look anything like what actually developed. Once a cancer is fully metastasized—integrated throughout the body—it is impossible to separate cancer and body, or to kill the cancer while keeping the body alive. Nor can the body continue to live that way, making the metaphor more apt than I originally intended. Yeah: we’ve got Stage-IV Modernity on our hands. Most unfortunate. Time for Hospice.

    When do you think our culture will need hospice? Yea, we're already there … look at Jimmy Carter (going on 100 but still there!).

    Keep going on your Unsustainable "Wild" Goose Chases!
    I

  4. Excellent post.

    What is it we think we're doing, you asked. If only we could start asking that question. What is the end goal of all this destruction? Is there some greater good that will become known before the collapse is complete?

    Sadly, humans being human, I can't see how any mode of living, if sustainable at some point in time, can remain sustainable for long.

  5. Thanks, Tom. It's been interesting following your thoughts since the "Galactic Scale
    Energy " days. A brief note on the "Hunter -Gatherer " category. I guess you could call the "Hunter-Horticulturist " societies a "sub-category ". These societies
    hunt and gather, but do some small- scale horticulture as well. Some Amazon
    groups, for example, plant seeds of various fruit trees through the forest that they
    inhabit, as well some patches of bananas and cassava through the forest.
    We could probably call it the original permaculture . The forest is modified, but still
    intact.
    Your point about the cycling of nutrients is also correct. A brief summary would be
    that once human societies develop cities, their fate is sealed. Cities convert a cyclic nutrient system into a linear system. The depletion of the lands supplying wood
    and food to the cities is inexorable. A book detailing this process is "Feed or Feedback" by Professor Duncan Brown.. Brown quips that " Cities are the reason that this civilisation will inevitably go down the tube "
    Of course,all we can be is observers of the inevitable. Probably less than 1% of the 8 billion humans infesting this planet have an interest or knowledge about any of this.

  6. I can't believe that technology won't work, I grew up with it. What book will help me lose my faith?

    • " Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet " should help.
      I'm trying to remember who the author was.

      • That's funny—especially as my own reaction was: "Gee, that's a great question—I don't know right off if there is such a book. I'll have to think on that. If that book doesn't exist, then it's long overdue!" Still, I will be giving it some thought…

    • There are some revelations in this book: Antonio Turiel
      PETROCALIPSIS

    • Perhaps The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen. Or A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright.

  7. Truly the question that is most important is this. Can humans innate desires for bigger homes, bigger belly’s and easy jobs coexist alongside a protected biodiversity? That is the question that will determine the long term viability of the human species. If the townhouses, cars, synthetic hydrogen facilities, and robots eventually stop being built, there could maaaaaybe conceivably be an end to the loss of biodiversity. It seems if anything that there needs to be a cap on just about every experience humans have and want. A limit to kids, a limit to house size, a limit to pollution, probably even a limit to lifespan (unless it can be extended using tech that doesn’t reduce biodiversity)

    Good luck forming a movement or government that proposes those outcomes …..

    If however peoples expectations continue to grow, well … then it’s gonna get real messy

  8. Tom,

    I broadly agree with your assessments, but as a conceptual counter argument, consider ant-fungus mutualism. Here a large ant colony effectively cultivates a crop of fungus for food. Ants have lasted 10s of millions of years, so if not actually sustainable, then at least the rate of depletion is sufficiently slow to allow time for the ant version of Elon Musk to get to Mars 🙂

    Surely the issue has two major components which are negatively correlated: how big is a population in relation to the ecosystem (i.e. not just a headcount, but perhaps a fraction of biomass); and what level of lifestyle is allowable in terms of food security, luxury, individualism (so effectively both the embedded and flow of materials). A human model of this might be fire-stick agriculture as practiced by native Australians for tens of kiloyears. This approach comes between agriculture and hunter-gatherer in your bullet list. It's hard to imagine what difference (if any) modern knowledge but without modern material flows would make to this model, but it's worth remembering that there are spectacular examples of meg-structures that were built without mechanisation (Great Pyramids of Giza; Newgrange …). So destructive, but not ecologically catastrophic, manipulation of e.g. river basins for dams is perhaps viable??

    Craig

    • Good point, Craig: Lisi Krall and John Gowdy have studied other agricultural species like the ants you describe—finding that they, too, develop division of labor and other systemic attributes similar to our own post-agricultural organizational structures. Lisi makes a point that grain agriculture seems to set up surplus and loads of consequences that ants don't face.

      Another key attribute that other agricultural species don't appear to have is language and symbolic thought, which allows a much faster evolution of capability via culture than ants, whose innovations take place on a slower genetic clock. Changing faster than the community of life can track seems to me to be a fundamental modality that opens the door to big trouble on the ecological interface.

      • One more detail, the life span of a person and ants is different. It differs by orders of magnitude, population doubling time, negative feedback, volume-mass share of occupied space (place of residence, necessary infrastructure for living), provision of ecosystem services, etc.

    • Several years ago I was able to observe the rise and fall of an ant "civilization" in our garden. We had planted a nice big strawberry patch and were enjoying it very much. In the second year I noticed a lower yield even though we had been maintaining the patch. I looked closely and saw that ants were farming an unusual grey aphid on the roots of the strawberries. After another year of this the strawberries, ants , and aphids were all dead. The ants had multiplied out of control, it required more and more aphids to feed them and it killed their source of primary production.
      There are many different species of ants and they go through the rise and fall of their civilizations all the time when they wreck their little closed mini-environment by overuse. You can even find trees that fallen over because the carpenter ants excavate too many tunnels in them.
      Ants are quite a good model for human civilizations.

  9. >Hunter-Gatherer: sustainable?

    For sure, these guys lasted some 100,000 yrs, the only reason they stopped was we used force, not for ecological reasons
    https://aeon.co/essays/why-inequality-bothers-people-more-than-poverty

    >Most remarkably, his research revealed that the Ju/’hoansi managed this on the basis of little more than 15 hours’ work per week. On the strength of this finding, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics (1972) renamed hunter-gatherers ‘the original affluent society’.

    >There is no question that this dynamic was very effective. If a society is judged by its endurance over time, then this was almost certainly the most successful society in human history – and by a considerable margin. New genomic analyses suggest that the Ju/’hoansi and their ancestors lived continuously in southern Africa from soon after modern H sapiens settled there, most likely around 200,000 years ago. Recent archaeological finds across southern Africa also indicate that key elements of the Ju/’hoansi’s material culture extend back at least 70,000 years and possibly long before.

  10. Dear Tom.

    In any given ecosystem, the amount of energy available to a species is limited by what is known as the Maximum Power Principle. This principle constrains the amount of energy that can be harnessed by a species and ultimately affects the size and growth of populations within the ecosystem. Essentially, the Maximum Power Principle dictates that energy flows within the ecosystem are constrained by the laws of thermodynamics, and that there is a limit to the amount of energy that can be extracted and utilized by any given species. Humankind is no exception to this principle.

    • The MPP essentially also dictates that species will use the most resources that they can access. So any society which doesn't do that will have to consciously rein in that tendency and keep it reined in. That's a tough ask since all it takes is a breakaway group which wants to gain an advantage by foregoing restraint.

      • You're right, Mike. Initially, the easily accessible resources are utilized, but once they are exhausted, it becomes increasingly difficult and resource-intensive to extract the deeper resources. This pattern has been observed with old-growth forests, coal, oil, natural gas, and precious minerals like gold and silver.

  11. I think that most, if not all, of the modern people have no idea what living in a society of hunters-gatherers really means. I do have a vague idea, having traveled in areas where the last hunter-gatherer communities live. I'm not saying it's necessarily bad, only that it's not like having a picnic in the countryside. Apart from the obvious lack of ANY modern facility (central heating, running water, toilets, internet, books, television, radio, etc.), there's no advanced medicine and you can die at any time from perfectly treatable diseases, no rich cultural life, no modern science (which requires sophisticated tools and experiments that only modernity can afford), etc.

    One can be happy even in this context, no doubt. Some hunters-gatherers whom I met appeared to be happier than the average modern city dweller. However, what is the point in just surviving for generations without any progress whatsoever in any direction? just perpetuating for ages the same status quo? I think (I hope) there are alternatives. For that, we should redefine what progress really means, and find a workable way to perpetuate our species not forever, but for a meaningful extent of time. "Meaningful" must be understood in relation to our final goal, which needs to be defined, of course.

    • [Edited with "friendly" filter] Very few would expect a post-civilization era to be a picnic.

      However, looking at those first items you mention, they're all artificial constructs, which actually remove people from the reality of being an animal.
      Central heating? Total luxury. Running water? Very handy, but life would continue with rivers, rainwater etc. Toilets? The absence of a large porcelain bowl doesn't mean you'll have no place to relieve yourself. Internet, books, TV, radio etc.? All rubbish.

      No advanced medicine/you can die at any time? The healthcare sector, when you think about it, consumes vast resources to perform its 'miracles'. Finite resources that can't be replenished quickly enough.
      (And even *with* modern medicine, you can die at any time.)
      No rich cultural life? Good! It's all BS anyway, venerating wealth, celebrity, conspicuous consumption… it's completely shallow. Even the 'old' culture was mostly just boasting about mankind's 'greatness'.
      No modern science? Well, what has it really achieved? 8 x 10^9 humans, all wanting a life full of cars, gadgets etc. at Nature's expense. It's merely fast tracked our exploitation of the natural world, to produce… endless consumer products. Millions of machines, to do… nothing of any real use. Advanced weapons, nuclear bombs… so clever, yes indeed.

      "what is the point in just surviving for generations without any progress whatsoever in any direction? just perpetuating for ages the same status quo?"
      Life is its own point. What is progress? An ever-larger pyramid of wealth and hierarchy? If it's what led to the modern world, you can keep it.
      What is the meaning of a status quo, in the context of hunter-gatherers?

      As for "our final goal", there is no such thing.

    • Obviously I disagree with much of this assessment: not because I don't enjoy some of the comforts of modernity, but because it's not actually a long-term choice at all if having those things is unsustainable (fails). My preferences, or anyone's, are irrelevant against ecological collapse (a sixth mass extinction). We don't get to choose unsustainable and expect it to last, thus must ask what truly is or is not sustainable for the long term (the subject of many of my posts).

      The thing that epitomizes modernity's attitudes here is the "pointless" charge. It's so over-the-top human supremacist: Human Reich stuff. What's the point of being an elephant? I mean what have they accomplished? Compared to the human accomplishment of driving the globe into a sixth mass extinction (as a direct consequence of all the temporary "perks" mentioned above), elephants are shamefully worthless and lacking a final goal, as are all 10 million species on the planet—including us.

      • Yes, I think the Diego illustrates the problem with agreeing a sustainable society. He is not alone in thinking that there must be some way of living which retains all of the things we want to retain and can last for a very long time. Of course, towards the end of that "very long time" those living might curse their ancestors for not coming up with a sustainable way of living.

      • Tom, I am pretty sure I cared about the environment much before you (and James) discovered it, so the charge of "Human Reich" is really misplaced, at least for what I am concerned. I was just pointing out that many have no idea what they're talking about when they propose a hunter-gatherer society as an alternative to modern society. As for the sustainability point, of course I completely agree with you: if something is not sustainable, it will stop. But you (and James) seem to understand the concept of "goal" only in modern, techno-capitalistic terms. Our goal may not necessarily be building "an ever-larger pyramid of wealth". There are more things worth considering.

  12. Aloha Tom,
    Great post!
    I am currently writing a book (480 pages so far) focusing on climate change and its ecological impacts on Hawaii, with a focus on Honolulu. Hawaii is the US island state that imports 85% of its food, 100% of its oil, and 100% of everything else from bobby pins to ship anchors. Yet, it is trying to become energy independant using wind and solar with state and city development plans seeking to be "sustainable". Based on all my readings (including your text book and blog posts) I will likely violate the rule to end it on a positive note with hope, because I have too many doubts about sustainability.
    Aloha and regards,
    Hal Senter

    • I wish someone could write a similar book about Greenland since there almost everything is imported except some fish. There is a cold climate and to heat their houses and get electricity they have to burn imported oil except for some electricity in the capital Nuuk. What will happen with Greenland over the next hundred years. Will all people disappear as they did around year 1200? The smelting of ice will probably not help.

  13. Well written piece, Tom. Unfortunately your audience is composed of mutants like me who don't reflect the vasy majority. It is extremely unlikely that logic and probability analyses will do the job. Nature (we are part) will bring our numbers back into balance at somen. The longer it takes, the smaller our numbers will be. Eventually, if conditions permit, thenubers will attempt expansion again. Plague Phase is part of the cycle, and we're there now. See Hans Selye's GAS (General Adaptiation Syndrome)

  14. Dear Tom,

    Your perspective is one I have come to appreciate. Thank you for sharing it. If ever convenient, your thoughts on the following brief article would be appreciated. It discusses the hypothesis: human population are a function of food availability, NOT the other way around.
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/357430417_Human_population_activity_the_primary_factor_that_has_precipitated_a_climate_emergency_biodiversity_loss_and_environmental_pollution_on_our_watch

    • I find a lot of merit in this argument. Chapter 3 of my textbook noted that jumps in human population growth rates are associated with mechanization (Industrial Revolution), and later fossil-fueled fertilizer and agricultural practices (Green Revolution). Even the agricultural revolution produced a new phenomenon of grain storage and food surplus, which began a steady march of human population growth that would project to 8 billion people 7,000 years from now (closer to that than to the beginning of agriculture). Daniel Quinn speaks at length about "more food makes more humans" in a very clear and convincing manner (I think in The Story of B, but maybe My Ishmael).

      • This extrapolation about agriculture seems disingenuous. Sure, if the rate of increase held steady, then the population will increase exponentially over time. But the fact is that within the bounds of a certain technology to obtain food (be it hunting+gathering, early agriculture, or the mechanized oil-augmented one of today) only so much food can be produced. So if we didn't have technological advances, or if we didn't discover fossil fuels, eventually we would have hit a limit to the population that could be supported, long before getting to 8 billions.

        • Sure: this is one of the factors involved, but not the entire story. See the bit about decline of land's ability to support a system that is "engineered" outside the slow judgment of ecological fitness. The argument rests on more than a single parameter, and therefore does not feel disingenuous to me. I may be wrong, but not deliberately so.

          • I don't disagree on this; but it is an historical observation, it is unclear to me whether it would generalize to all possible situations as you seem to assume.
            It seems obvious to me, largely thanks to your past work, that 8 billions people cannot be sustained indefinitely. But it seems less obvious that some form of agriculture could not be made sustainable for an indefinite future for a significantly lower human population.
            The overshoot-crash cycle may not necessarily crash all the way back to hunter-gatherers or some similar level of "de-modernization". Or at least I haven't seen a persuasive argument as to why agriculture as such cannot be (as opposed to: historically has not been) made sustainable. The reasoning with regard to the impossibility of infinite economic growth, and also the impossibility of continuing even at this level of energy expenditure indefinitely, seems ironclad to me; that with regard to the necessary failure of agriculture as such less so.

  15. The obvious possible, if improbable, change to conceivably allow all the goodies and long-term sustainability too is a profound shift in human consciousness. Like Stewart Brand says (I paraphrase), "Since we have assumed the power of gods, we must act with the wisdom of gods." Assuming a fundamental change in human nature and behavior is definitely in the realm of "deus ex machina" solutions rather than the extrapolation of any historical or scientific data and may not be allowed in this conversation, but it is not a complete fantasy. Spiritual inquiry, the Perennial Philosophy, the true nature of reality–lots of amazing research and evidence for several thousand years now. Hundreds and thousands of people from Sam Harris and Albert Einstein to LaoTsu have shifts and observations to make.

  16. I think this is a rabbit hole that isn't going to end well. Given how nearly all species at some point in time have gone through the overpopulation and collapse cycle, I don't believe that our current definitions of 'sustainable' are correct. They presume that there is some way to maintain a steady state indefinitely and I don't believe that this is possible. The only constant is change. Life can continue on in some form for a surprisingly long time, but since we are ultimately dependent on our nearby star (that itself is unsustainable), life starting elsewhere or current Earth life becoming multi-planetary in some form is the only way for life to become sustainable in the sense that it can outlive the Sun. Perhaps in the relevant time scale, we only need to be sustainable enough for some living things to experience the death of the Sun.

    Ok. So now that everyone is going through an existential crisis, here's the bright side. I don't think human society as a whole is going to be capable of averting catastrophe when we hit a hard limit. We're going to go through the same cycle as billions of living things before us have. The question becomes, what is the next step in our existence? How do we make the best of bad situations and find our way through them?

    • This rabbit hole is why I set the timescale at hundreds of thousands or millions of years: the timescale on which evolution works (see Sustainable Timescales post). Stasis is not the goal: no such thing, as you point out. We just can't afford to outpace biological evolution with our cultural adoptions (agriculture, modernity, etc.).

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