Distilled Disintegration

Photo by Nigel Brown; licensed under Creative Commons

My adult life has run on two diverging tracks. On one, I played science. The other track branched off at age 34—twenty years ago this month—when I started teaching a class on Energy and the Environment. I was eager to piece together our likely energy future: how we would beat climate change and leave fossil fuels in the dust. Against my wishes, this fork presented unexpected turns that took a long time to sink in. The two tracks eventually became too divergent to keep a foot on each. At this stage, I can’t seem to muster the denial it would take to disregard what I have learned so that I might return to the more blissful play-time track.

Much of my writing in the last few years has tried to capture why I have become convinced that modernity can’t last, likely to begin disintegrating in the near-term. In this post, I attempt to distill core elements informing this sense. My apologies if this seems like a rehash. For what it’s worth, the packaging exercise is something that helps me address the question I constantly ask myself: what part of this might I have wrong? It’s a way to take stock.

Growth

I began the Do the Math blog with a pair of posts about why growth can’t last—hitting limits in a historically short time. I also dedicate the first chapters of my textbook to the same topic. In 2022, I synthesized the arguments in an academic paper. This thread should be very familiar by now to my readers, and in fact really ought to be common knowledge. Yet, modernity still operates in a market economy and political system built around a growth expectation. Pension plans and social safety nets (like Social Security and Medicare) become Ponzi schemes unquestionably destined to fail at some point as growth falters.

Strike one against modernity. Rookie mistake. Pursuit of growth won’t end well, although it will not be abandoned without a fight—taking place this century, I would guess.

This awareness led me early on to embrace the pleasant notion of steady state economics as a helpful illusion to alleviate the worry. But I had much to learn, still.

Energy

The primary focus in my early years of exploration was energy. To a physicist, this was familiar territory. Moreover, as an experimentalist (basically a sub-par engineer of every stripe), I could evaluate practical pros and cons of implementation, and even cobble together my own off-grid home experiments. I operated under the all-too-common but naive assumption that technology and cleverness can solve essentially any problem.

I began with an awareness that modernity was made possible by a one-time rapid expenditure of fossil fuels, and that these would disappear about as quickly as they appeared, leaving us in a precarious position: uncharted waters for modernity.

Initially, I was wowed by the overwhelming scale of solar input: four orders-of-magnitude more than what we currently use! Delivered free for billions of years. Nothing else comes even close. It seemed so obvious. Case closed. I can still access the feelings of reassurance I had in those optimistic days. This is how life is when operating within narrow boundaries: straightforward. It’s related to why computers excel at games where the rules and parameter space are well-defined and bounded.  Narrow the scope until—viola—a solution!

I was, of course, aware that storage was the main technical problem. But if storage could be solved on seasonal time scales, solar could work practically anywhere in the world (e.g., by banking summer input for use in winter). Solar-to-liquid (artificial photosynthesis) was an especially appealing notion. In any case, the fact that I had a working off-grid solar operation at home put this avenue so firmly “onto the real axis” that fusion hopes seemed quite unnecessary and fraught, by comparison.

What I had not fully considered yet was that:

  1. Electricity is not obviously able to satisfy modernity’s demands in agricultural, manufacturing, and transportation domains.
  2. The ecologically-destructive materials treadmill required by diffuse forms of energy would never be renewable/sustainable.
  3. Most importantly: what we use energy to do on this planet is itself fundamentally unsustainable. A “win” in technology/energy is a loss for life and humanity.

I eventually developed some awareness of the first point via my Alternative Energy Matrix and had glimmers of the second point in my evaluation of a battery large enough to satisfy demand. The third was still off my radar.

Can we kick the can down the road for some time longer using technology? Yes. But at what ultimate cost, and to what end?

Materials

It is obvious enough that we process a lot of stuff to run modernity, and that this comes from somewhere (mining) and goes somewhere (waste, pollution). But the earth is large, yeah? The limits hit home for me in 2012 when I visited the long-closed Kennecott copper mine in the remote Wrangell mountains of Alaska—still remote today. One hundred years ago it was far more so. The fact that they even found this copper deposit, that it was worth building a dedicated railroad (with trestle bridges) across rugged terrain, and that it was depleted of high-grade ore over several decades of operation all told me that this planet has been well-scoured for the low-hanging fruit. Indeed, mines once exploited ore concentrations of 5% or better, but now must settle for 0.5% or lower (and ever-diminishing).

The copper demand alone for building enough solar panels just to maintain steady-state replacement in a full-scale solar deployment would rival present-day global copper extraction indefinitely. Recycling can reduce new mining (once initial build-out is done), but never eliminate it. Thus, the ground assault—and associated ecological damage and biodiversity loss—must actually ramp up to support alternative energies (see Table 10.4 in this DoE report), and doesn’t let up.

Recycling is also a long-term disappointment. At typical recovery rates, only a few cycles are possible before debilitating depletion is achieved. Even unheard-of 90% recovery is down to half the original resource in only 7 cycles, and down to 10% in 22 cycles. Recycling is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. A “circular economy” in the context of modernity is another empty fantasy. Biological/ecological systems manage something like it, but involving a completely different set of materials and context—worked out over billions of years of tuning by lots of trial and lots of error.

We can recycle (and then kick) the can down the road for a while, sure. But at what ultimate cost, and to what end? Modernity will eventually become materials-starved, ruining many environments on the road to nowhere.

Timescale

This brings us to a key insight that we are surprisingly, shockingly ill-equipped to grasp. Our lives are inconsequentially fleeting compared to relevant timescales, so that our lens on life is grossly distorted to the detriment of our species and others. Evolution has operated over billions of years—about 50 million human lifetimes—to produce current biodiversity. Humans have been on the planet for 30,000 lifetimes. Our own species has been around for 3,000 lifetimes. All of recorded human history only spans 70 lifetimes. What most people associate with modernity (post-Enlightenment) is just 5 lifetimes, tops. Even much of this modern period seems distant and obsolete to many: an exceedingly short-sighted view. Compounding matters, market economies focus on timescales far shorter than a lifetime, so that the mismatch becomes even more extreme and glaring.

Why does this matter? It’s almost the whole story! Grasping the flash in time that modernity represents prepares the brain to recognize that flashes are usually exactly that, rather than the beginning of a new normal. This argument in itself certainly is not conclusive, but as soon as one makes the—you know—neural connections to other contextual elements in this post (some yet to come), arguing otherwise puts one on very thin ice.

Ecological Health

I frequently point out that humans and our domesticated animals constitute 96% of mammal mass on the planet, leaving a rapidly-diminishing sliver for wild mammals. Most striking to me is that only 2.5 kg of wild land mammal mass remains for each person on the planet: it’s almost gone, and soon will be at the current rate of attrition. In my lifetime, the average decline in vertebrate populations is an alarming 70%. A sixth mass extinction appears to be underway, with vastly more populations in decline than are increasing, and extinction rates about a thousand times over background rates—climbing fast. Like the boiling frog, we are calmly witnessing ecological doom as our normal backdrop, awaiting the next iPhone model (the two phenomena are not disconnected).

Modernity has supplied the temporary illusion—initiated by our foray into agriculture—that humans stand alone and apart from the community of life on this planet. Our narratives around evolution, even, have emphasized the survival of the fittest rather than complex interdependencies and mutual cooperation in a co-dependent web of life. We imagine ourselves as the victors in the game. Winning, in this sense, is the quickest path to losing—because it’s not a competition.

I find that this argument often falls on deaf ears, as our culture has lost basic ecological awareness—fed by grocery stores and living in sterilized boxes. We have lost the understanding that WE (all life) are all in this together, and succeed or fail as a community. The fact that modernity is a short-lived stunt based on rapid depletion of non-renewable stocks (even arable land, in practice) is somehow not obvious to most. In our typical narrow-boundary analysis, it feels like we’ve finally figured it all out. If we manage to shut out the facts that:

  • growth can’t continue,
  • modernity has always been utterly dependent on a one-time stock of fossil fuels,
  • the low-hanging fruit of materials has been exhausted,
  • “renewable” energy is still completely dependent on diminishing non-renewable materials,
  • it has all happened in a blinding flash (fireworks show), and
  • all at tremendous cost to the web of life,

then I suppose the limited view that remains looks pretty great. It just leaves out too much for me to go along.

Evolution

One of my more recent revelations ties a number of these elements together. We got where we are (as human organisms) by no other mechanism than evolution, which operates on many levels at once in a tangle of ecological relationships forever beyond our understanding. Success and failure slowly operate over millions and billions of years to shape a dynamic equilibrium in something that approximates wisdom.

We owe everything to this heritage. Let’s keep the hierarchy straight: universe; habitable planet; evolved life; ecological community; our species; our constructs (like the economy). Each owes its existence to the preceding entry. Operating under an inverted presumption (e.g., most college curricula) is a recipe for disaster: it’s a fiction that can’t sustain itself.

Thus, any species that gets out of step with the rest of the community of life (either biologically or via its constructs) will fail by the dispassionate judgment of evolution. It might take a while to be fully expressed: even a hundred human lifetimes is quick on evolution’s pace. The degree of destruction to biodiversity and ecological health inflicted by modernity won’t fail to provoke a proportional response, which will bite hard when communities of life fail and our own survival is imperiled.

Counterfactual Context

Our cultural tendency is to focus on one detail at a time by deliberately removing messy contextual links so that we may scrutinize the internal logic of each piece in isolation (see Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary for insights into this phenomenon). I’m sure any of the previous sections could be made to seem less scary/dire in such a piecemeal way by intentionally ignoring the full context. But guess what: the actual real biophysical world we live in does not operate as tidy, isolated, non-interacting domains—rendering invalid many of our analysis efforts, however elegant.

When holding all the factors together, in relation to each other, it is exceedingly difficult to argue that modernity is at all likely to succeed. In order to contrast our actual situation with the sorts of contextual inputs that would offer convincing—but counterfactual—evidence that modernity has a decent chance of sustaining itself, consider the following list of statements in an alternate universe:

  • Versions of modernity have succeeded numerous times in the universe, as evidenced by advanced alien civilizations almost everywhere we look.
  • Modernity has been around on our planet for millions of years, so that life on Earth is fully adapted and compatible in an evolutionary sense.
  • Modernity is not reliant on non-renewable energy sources, and has not been so for tens of thousands of years.
  • Modernity hasn’t needed to mine new materials from geological deposits for countless millennia.
  • Biodiversity is holding steady: with population increases balancing decreases; and extinctions consistent with background rates.
  • Forest cover, fresh water, habitat, are all stable—as is climate in keeping with long-term natural variation (i.e., no anthropogenic contribution).
  • [Late addition] Wildlife can move unimpeded through contiguous habitats, because modernity is unobtrusive and self-limits its footprint.

Each of these is demonstrably and overwhelmingly false, yet many would have to be simultaneously true to be convincing. Modernity, therefore, doesn’t have a leg to stand on in arguing for prospects of its long-term continuance. It’s empty, sputtering hope. Not only do we obviously lack the track record to demonstrate longevity (on timescales relevant to evolution), but this set of conditions cannot be convincingly illustrated even in theory—while paying attention to the full context. No one really knows how any of this could work, long-term, in anything other than vague, hand-wavy form.

Some might say that I am equally hand-wavy—unable to offer conclusive proof of modernity’s terminal condition. Sure: no one can claim certainty about the future, but I ask: which seems like a safer bet to manifest into the indefinite future:

  1. A new mode unknown to exist elsewhere in the universe, causing lightning-fast ecological degradation on Earth (mass extinction), and by means that are not evaluated in terms of ecological sustainability; or
  2. A reversion to the way things have worked for 99.9998% of Earth’s history?

Justifications

As a physicist, I came to value end-run arguments that quickly differentiate the possible from the impossible. I’m referring to symmetries and conservation laws that one can employ to cut past messy details in order to make confident statements about broad-brush aspects of a problem. While such powerful tools do not exist for predicting the course of humanity, by stepping back sufficiently far, it is easy enough to mark modernity as woefully unsustainable.

So here’s the question: if modernity is bound to fail (likely via inelegant collapse), what degree of longevity would justify its existence? Under the presumption that the inherent unsustainability of modernity means it perishes and that all its “gains” are lost, what toll on other species justifies the experience? Bear in mind that the longer it runs, the worse it is for everyone—human and more-than-human alike. Here’s a suggestive menu to help:

  1. Any duration (even 50 years) is awesome: I mean, lunar landings! Worth the damage.
  2. A few centuries, even if Earth takes many thousands of years to recover.
  3. It would need to go at least 1,000 years to justify itself, given the permanent toll on biodiversity.
  4. Many thousands of years would justify it, even if mass extinction is guaranteed (likely including humans).
  5. A million years, even if it results in extinction of most complex life on Earth (including humans).

Some might reject the premise, and imagine open-ended technological flourishing. Imagination allows many unconstrained flights, divorced from reality. My point is that we need to ground ourselves and not get carried away in unsupportable fantasy just because we like the sound of it.

Note that I doubt most of the options above are even viable, and it appears to be plausible that the duration thus far is enough to trigger a mass extinction. To my mind, if failure is practically guaranteed, and the cost is greater the longer the run, I have difficulty justifying any duration. I see it as a mistake: a misguided detour that separated us (most cultures today) from the community of life, to everyone’s detriment. Indigenous traditions that never embraced modernity—often on principle—have my enduring respect. They were right all along. Shunning property rights, money, human supremacy, and pronounced inequality seems like a wiser way to live: one that does not obviously run afoul of how the rest of the living world works.

I try to understand the disconnect between my view and mainstream views. If someone’s gut reaction is to dismiss talk of modernity’s demise as dismal doomerism, I wonder what bolsters their confidence in the opposite conclusion. What evidence points to a sustainable new normal? What mix of assumption, wishfulness, or analysis (in full ecological, temporal context) guides their reaction? How wide are their boundaries of analysis? How circumspect are they about things like ecology that we don’t fully understand? How counterfactual must they be to keep the faith? Is their reaction based on a simple dislike of the prospect of modernity’s end (note that I didn’t end up where I am by preference), and is that even relevant to how things will play out? Granted, it took me years to process and absorb my evolving view, so I can’t expect a quick turnaround in others. Once initiated, however, it appears to be a one-way road.

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39 thoughts on “Distilled Disintegration

  1. Well Tom, seems like you’ve put it all together, and your blog is no longer needed (I’m being silly, keep it going). I too began teaching a course in Energy and the Environment about 25 years ago (after beginning my academic career as an astronomer). I never “played science” like you have (bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts) but have always been keenly aware of the “stuff of science”, the wide range of research that’s been going on for decades. But after reading works like Limits to Growth and Ishmael, I came to realize that modernity is in fact doomed – plain and simple. Your writings over the last several months have cemented that idea in my mind.
    Your distilled summary in the areas of growth, energy, materials, timescale, evolution, ecological health, and counterfactual context brought a lot of things together. Your statement “Our cultural tendency is to focus on one detail at a time by deliberately removing messy contextual links so that we may scrutinize the internal logic of each piece in isolation” was enlightening. Any physicist would grok to the “spherical chicken” analogy (for the non- physicist: imagine shooting a chicken out of a canon, how do we model its trajectory? Well, first assume a “spherical chicken”). We have to start with these simplifying assumptions. Unfortunately, most physicists don’t get past this initial stage – and don’t get that the real answers lie in the complex set of interrelationships that you’ve been describing.
    I won’t bother to reproduce the last paragraph of this week’s blog, but your readers should take care to re-read it several times (time out while I do just that). It’s clear that we are on a one-way road. This is not “doomerism” but died-in-the-wool reality. There are no simple solutions to the vast array of complex, interrelated problems we face. Solutions can’t take place in a piecemeal fashion the way we’ve been attempting them – maybe 50 years ago piecemeal solutions would have worked – but not any longer. It’s just too complex!
    I think our goal moving forward is to get as many people to understand our predicament(s) as possible, and to advance a new world view or “story” – the story of “Life”, not the story of the “Knowledge of Good and Evil”. Like you said, “it took me years to process and absorb my evolving view, so I can’t expect a quick turnaround in others”. But maybe that turnaround is in view. Let’s hope so.
    Perhaps if people can observe this upcoming eclipse with “new eyes” we can move forward toward this “new view”.

  2. I look forward to each blog post, no matter how depressed it makes me feel afterwards.

    "I try to understand the disconnect between my view and mainstream views. If someone’s gut reaction is to dismiss talk of modernity’s demise as dismal doomerism, I wonder what bolsters their confidence in the opposite conclusion. What evidence points to a sustainable new normal? What mix of assumption, wishfulness, or analysis (in full ecological, temporal context) guides their reaction?"

    They are ignorant for whatever reason. Please teach them anyway you can! I love your writing but you are preaching to the choir. I have forwarded your wrintings to several friends. I say you are my favorite astrophysicist. Your writings should be in newspaper opinion pages, letters to the editor or columns in major newspapers.

    Let everyone have a favorite astrophysicist. Spread the word, please!

  3. Dear Tom.

    The idea of competition and survival of the fittest in evolutionary narratives has further reinforced the notion of human exceptionalism. Darwin's theory of natural selection has been revolutionary in providing insights into the mechanisms of evolutionary change. However, it has been sometimes misinterpreted as advocating for a ruthless struggle for existence. This interpretation has been used to justify various forms of social and economic inequality and environmental degradation under the guise of "natural law." As ecological science has advanced, our understanding of evolution has become more nuanced. Concepts such as mutualism, symbiosis, and ecological interdependence have gained prominence, highlighting the intricate web of relationships that sustain life on Earth. Ecosystems are complex networks where every species plays a vital role, and disruptions to these networks can have far-reaching consequences.

  4. A good next step for your personal growth would be to study Dr. Ajit Varki's Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

    MORT explains that behaviorally modern humans exist because we evolved to deny our mortality, which has a side effect that we deny all unpleasant realities, including our own overshoot.

    This explains why no amount of evidence or logic can convince those around you to see what you see.

    MORT is the place to focus if you're still looking for a path to make the future less bad.

    https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-25466-7_6

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqgYqW2Kgkg

  5. Yes. Investigation of the many layers of the onion. , You've covered it well. I realise that your point about "renewable" energy in the "Ecological Health " section
    is referring to it's use in the industrial context. For probably over 99% of humanity's existence on the planet, solar energy stored as part of the short-term carbon cycle has been our energy source. The difference between that long-term usage, which was sustainable, and our energy sources now, is stark; Exploiting the
    carbon which was safely sequestered, as well as being finite is causing severe
    climatic disruption. The sustainable solar energy collecting and storage system
    uses plants which are self-replicating, and doesn't require mining and manufacturing for their existence. That solar usage has to be combined with other
    requirements as well , which is where the other layers become clear. The human
    population has to be low enough to live within that solar energy flow, forests can't be cleared for agriculture and the smelting of metals.
    Craig Dilworth covered this pretty well in his book "Too Smart for Our Own Good ".
    Your point about urban humans being unaware and disconnected from all of this is correct , of course. It is a completely hopeless task attempting to change this
    civilisation into something even resembling sustainability. I think Ernst Mayr's
    summation will prove to be correct : " Intelligence is a lethal mutation "

    • Insightful comments, thank you.
      If you cannot imagine some (future) state, you cannot create it, I believe that is so. But it's an ontological belief just the same. However the opposite is definitely not true, namely if you can imagine, you can create. So imagination is necessary but not sufficient condition, in that regard, Rob Hopkins is right (making the case in his book From What Is to What If.
      Whether intelligence is lethal is another question. I would say that 'Intelligence' with a capital "I" is the primordial stuff of the universe and is evolving in Lifeforms including Humans. We are at a dangerous ie lethal transition stage like a teenager with brawn and no social ethos. People like Murphy, Schumacher, Illich, Jacobs, Heinberg, Holmgren and thousands more have reached the necessary level of intelligence, but the species has not, hence it's lethality lies in its immaturity. But that leaves open the door for a remnant to squeeze through the Bottleneck.
      I"m interested to hear what your response is.

      • I disagree with the human self-flattery and mind-first stance in the original statement. We stumble onto lots of things: circumstances present something we would never have imagined, but we utilized all the same. We need not imagine a baby, a poop, a smile, nighttime, death, or really most things/states for them to happen. Think about life: it is not necessary for a caterpillar to imagine a butterfly in order to create a cocoon. Plenty examples where what you say is true, but I would not hold it up as a universal or even frequent truth.

  6. Thanks. Very similar to my journey. It's still evolving and I think I may be further along that you as there are a couple of points I'd have issue with. But that's for another comment. Oddly, though, I'm almost more at peace with the ending of modernity than I was much earlier in the journey.

    • I should have ended by saying that it's okay that modernity won't last. In fact, it's the best news life on Earth could get. We're all better off without it. We need to allow ourselves to become disillusioned, see it as a giant wrong turn, and start distancing ourselves—bit-by-bit. So yes, it once caused me grief to think that modernity might perish, but that was before I recognized that modernity does not equal humanity. Humans can get by just fine in "right relationship" with the community of life without modernity's ugly face.

  7. Thank you, this is a great summary of your work. Sometimes I wonder how powerful xenophobia and human exceptionalism would be in a world with two species of Homo? What stories would we tell ourselves if intelligent beings similar to us miraculously continued to live next to us throughout history? I believe that the course of ecological pluralism and reality 101 should start in kindergarten with professional astrophysicists, not nannies-educators 🙂

  8. The Fermi Paradox is also evidence to support your thesis. Your list of obvious earthly constraints, particularly those related to maintaining a high level of metals use, that limit the lifespan of modernity on our planet also apply to all other planets. The Second Law applies everywhere.

    That's probably why we see no evidence of moderns anywhere else in the universe. Modernity just can't last very long, amounting to no more than a momentary flash in the context of deep time, where even a million years is just 0.2% of the time complex life has been around on earth.

  9. This is my view as well. But it's so terrifying ( and unbelievable to most other humans ) that I just keep my mouth shut about it now.

    • agreed, it's an urban biology class legend…
      but do deer stay in the forest where they smell smoke?
      Do rabbits stay in their warrens when they see water seeping from rising flood waters?
      Do fish stay in the lake pools as the water evaporates?

  10. Why the disconnect between your view and the mainstream? Alas, most people are a bit thick. If you were to try and tell the average worker, whether in an office, a building site, a restaurant – whereever – that modern civilization is doomed to fail… you would be unsuccessful.
    For a variety of reasons (including the 'education' system, immersion since birth in a consummerist culture, belief in lies told by authority figures etc.) such questions don't even cross their minds. Critical thinking is not encouraged is this 'culture', and is even viewed with suspicion or ridiculed.
    Anyway, it doesn't matter. They'll know soon enough when TSHTF.

    • I take back my comment. Of course it's not a question of intelligence.
      People who design weapons, smartphones, microchip factories etc. etc. clearly do not lack intelligence. The problem, as Tom has said, is a lack of *wisdom*.
      So I should have written (with regards to the discrepancy between Tom's view and the mainstream): "most people are not wise".

  11. Thanks, Tom, for your continual refining of ideas. It helps me to review your writings regularly to deflect me from my inherent tendency (as a mechanical engineer) toward techno-optimism. If humanity were to stumble on a relatively clean energy source, based on some as-yet-undiscovered principles of physics, your conclusions would of course have to be re-calibrated. I'm not holding my breath for that.

    I keep wondering just how ecologically impoverished a planet can become before it ceases to be able to sustain complex life. It's an experiment that we're conducting right now; the answer will gradually become apparent over the course of the coming decades. I won't live to learn that answer. To the future generations of humanity, and to all the wonderful forms of life that are surely due to disappear, I can only say that I deeply regret we humans didn't do better.

    • Any energy technology, independent of its "clean" qualities, in the hands of a human supremacist culture (modernity) will use such a source to keep driving ecological destruction in an effort to expand the human enterprise, extract more materials, cut down more forests, and work to amplify the material wealth and health of humanity—all at the expense of ecological health. Recalibration complete.

      Unless our cultural priorities undergo a radical shift to place highest value on biodiversity, ALL life, and ecological health, technology of any stripe becomes a net harm, in my view.

    • Like lots of questions depends on your definitions, here of "complex life". The geohistory consensus has come around to there likely having been not one but multiple "Snowball Earth" episodes, where *near the entire planet froze over in ice sheets up to the tropics*. The last is estimated 650-750 million yrs ago. This is after not just multicellular life emerged but after *the major eukaryote kingdoms*, of animals, plants (under the modern definition this includes various ocean life, everything descended from the ancestral cell that wound up acquiring a cyanobacteria as its proto-plastid symbiote), and fungi, did, meaning all came through that one. Did lots of things die oh sure just like in any extinction event, but plenty didn't. Life forms miles down at the ocean floor at hydrothermal vents etc can't care much less about what goes on up at the top floors. "Send down more marine snow organic detritus if you wouldn't mind."

  12. Tom, I could easily use a thousand words in telling how much I appreciate your blog but since I don´t want to risk boring you, I just say YOU ARE GREAT!
    And please, continue share your wisdom and knowledge with this blog.

  13. Dear Mr. Murphy,
    Thank you for your mind. You are one among few who grasped human predicament nearly in its wholeness. It seems that impermanence is current civilization’s property by definition (Have you heard about “Industrialism – Our Commitment to Impermanence” by Christopher O Clugston?). We (the readers of this blog) know how the upside of the Carbon Pulse (Nate Hagens)/”one-time rapid expenditure of fossil fuels” looked like. It seems that we are at the beginning of the downside (Peak Conventional Oil likely happened in 2018, also look work of Jem Bendell) of it. The question for me is “What one should do about it?”. If this trajectory was unavoidable thanks to the “Monkey Trap” (Nate Hagens), then how should we behave knowing all of that? How to behave during the collapse of the MTI Civilization (Ruben Nelson)? I think that might be a great topic to think and write about.

    Homo Sapiens made 99% of its journey without “the light” from fossil hydrocarbons. Carbon Pulse will be like a day of light between thousands of years of darkness. Will there be anyone to experience this “darkness” in e.g. 5024 AD?

  14. This essay is a thing of beauty. I have written on the same stuff for some time, but never so well-presented and crisply analyzed. Those who encounter Tom's mind and writings are lucky indeed, if they seek clarity instead of nonsense narratives. Such writings are often laid out with the progressing stepwise logic of an unassailable scientific proof, but are still accessible to anyone who can read. I think Tom could wind up being one of the most impactful science communicators in the world when the world clearly needs it most. If the path to that was pure meritocracy he'd be there already.

    Breathtaking!

  15. I basically agree with everything you've said, and reading this blog, and your book, has opened my eyes to a clearer appreciation of where we're at right now. That said, I cannot suppress a feeling of concern when I hear someone talking like this, and I feel an innate need to say something upbeat in response. So here it is: I have a happy place I go to when thinking about all this gets me down, and – don't laugh – it's a belief in the multiverse. If this interpretation of QM is correct (and it seems the most plausible one to me) then it changes everything. There's no single now, no unique future you, and even time isn't what it seems. I don't worry too much about the future when I'm in my happy place, because it's just one future of many, and even the other presents are still floating around, somewhere.

    For other people, thinking about God probably does the same trick. Take care.

    • The multiverse (of a different sort; not the many-worlds quantum splitting business, but separate spacetime instances native to inflationary theories) is reassuring to me too: they don't all have to be like this. Most probably can't form stable atoms, stars, galaxies, or life. Having a multitude of them takes the pressure off ours being special or "just so." It becomes a simple selection effect: by definition we can't find ourselves in a universe (where even the rules and parameters of physics can vary from one to the other) incapable of supporting life. I like it because it's yet another step in making us humble. Earth is not at the center of the universe. Nor is the sun, or the galaxy. Hell, even our universe isn't particularly special. Humility achieved.

      • I suppose one path to humility… in an odd kind of way, it is a 'many worlds' interpretation… is that for Advaita this is just one illusory world… best brief exposition contained Ramana Maharishi's _Who Am I?_ concluding with the need for humility… akin to some 'primitive' thought.
        https://youtu.be/Fj3-b6yDGHI?si=4JZ0y137rgqj64jy

  16. To me the only question left is: when?

    At what point will it become clear (to the majority) that modern society cannot continue on its current trajectory?

    According to Tim Morgan and the SEEDS model we aren't far off economically speaking https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/ and we probably aren't that far off from a biodiversity or climate perspective either

  17. I will get the quote somewhat wrong since it's been about 50 years since reading LTG*, but the sentiment is correct: "In a complex system if one element of that system is unsustainable, then the system is unsustainable."

    * While on a submarine patrol in the Pacific.

    • This is a good point. We often read about some behaviour being modified to be sustainable. But nothing in our civilisation can be sustainable unless the whole civilisation is sustainable. We have to ask whether that behaviour could be continued indefinitely within an unsustainable system.

  18. I think that the idea that the default relationship between species may be one of mutual cooperation is contrary to observation. Certainly, ecosystems can reach an equilibrium, climax, state until perturbed. That isn't a state of cooperation, though. The predators and prey, along with current environmental and geographic conditions, are in a temporary balance, that is all.

    You give a good treatment of the notion that some period that a way of life can be sustained is justification for it. And how would that be viewed during that period? Half-way through, the way of life could then only be sustained for half of the time. So, if it takes the likelihood of the way of life lasting for 1000 years for that way of life to be justified, that means some years into that period, it can no longer be justified. And near the end of those 1000 years, it would be on the brink of collapse; would it have any justification at that point?

    On indigenous communities, it must be remembered that humans all lived in indigenous communities at some stage, before modernity start to set in. I don't think it's possible for humans to live that way for ever, some would eventually break from that if it gives them an advantage.

    • Ecologies are far more complex than predator-prey. Lots of interdependencies and mutual strategies have emerged via evolution. Evolution of one organism works in the full context of other organisms, co-evolving in often complementary ways. The broad topic is called multi-level selection, which digs far deeper than the lay understanding of evolution. Both competition and cooperation co-exist in complex relationship.

  19. "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." This is attributed to Herb Stein, possibly erroneously.

  20. [editor shortened to key points]…We are likely in a mass extinction event right now that started about 2 million years ago when the atmospheric CO2 concentration dropped below the level that allows periodic glaciation events when the Milankovitch cycles line up, but due to the arrangement of the continents it is taking a longer time because when there is a continuous land mass from north to south crossing the equator if the climate change is slow enough that life on earth can migrate to warmer or cooler areas so they can survive the climate change cycles and periodic glaciations. The glaciation cycles seem to involve 5 to 8 degrees C of temperature change due to changing rotation and orbit angles of the earth and when the CO2 levels get low enough, glaciation occurs.

    The problem with the current climate crisis is that the CO2 levels are rising extremely rapidly and the climate is changing too fast for life to adapt. If the change was slower with 5 to 8 degrees occurring over a few thousand years the effect would be that we would be able to avoid another glaciation event and have another 80,000 years before catastrophic global warming occurs.

    Intermittent renewables are different from fossil fuels and nuclear in that the EROEI occurs all up front rather than a bit up front and then ongoing energy to extract and process the FF or nuclear energy. So you end up in a serious Energy Trap situation when you try and install high renewable capacity especially if it is buffered with storage.

    On my recreational property i occasionally harvest biofuels or biomass. I can tell you for sure that biofuels are not the answer to anything. It is an insane grind to try and harvest biofuels in quantities large enough to provide enough energy to do anything. On paper 60 pounds of dry wood is the equivalent of a 20 pound BBQ tank of propane but in real life there is a big efficiency factor with a big energy input that needs to be factored in.

  21. What a delightful blog to read and consider, Tom. Even if the principal subject matter is overwhelmingly bleak. Thank you for your insightful, cogent writing.

    Your journey will be familiar to many readers, who will have arrived on the same road but from different backgrounds and perspectives. I was born in the early 1960s, but have been fortunate to bear witness to the generation gone before, those from the late 19c. For sure fossil fuel extraction was being exploited, my grandfather, a blacksmith in the coal mines in Scotland, was my early introduction to the industry.

    Those of us who care to remember will read this blog and be grateful for the way it joins up all the various strands of our own experience – and makes sense of what we are now bearing witness to.

    I suspect the only hope we have is for a rapid depopulation to pre-19c levels, which would certainly challenge the survivors, especially the legacy we leave them with, because despite of what you write – and what we all know intuitively – those running the game show no sign of changing course. How terribly sad, but unsurprising, given the frailty of human nature.

    I note the HPAI H1N1 has now infected and killed a significant percentage of mammalian sea life in South America – sea lions, walrus, seals – the zoonotic jump from migratory birds. Given the recombination potential of both SARS 2 and Influenza and the high facility rate with the latter HPAI H1N1 – modernity and human civilisation as we know it – could very well becoming to the obvious conclusion.

    At least the dinosaurs had a valid excuse…

  22. I'm reminded of a quote from (and I paraphrase) The Sand County Almanc, where the author opines that to be an ecologist, you have to harden your heart to the daily world in order to survive. That was written in 1948.

    I am heartened by the post, having gotten there 10 years ago after a 20 year journey.

    The questions now will be how do you live with this because it is a lonely place to be.

    (I don't l mean as in I am lonely) but the worlds abuzz with continual nonsense, I remember a quote by Peter Kalmus (Climate Scientist) I saw on Mastodon about the world being deeply into discussion on The Barbie Movie and yet nothing much on climate change at all

    It's like they are having a tea party on a train track oblivious to the train, it gets tiring pointing the trains approach out to them and the necessary disaster their continual ignorance entails, especially when they keep inviting you to the table. If you're too insistent you'll be ostracized not necessarily a bad thing because the worst of all things is to be surrounded by people who don't share your values..

    We seem able to fool ourselves and each other but nature cannot be fooled.

    Will any of this matter in a billion years ? Certainly not in 10 Billion

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