Outside the Fishbowl

Image by Jazella from Pixabay

One consequence of having developed a perspective on the long-term fate of modernity is a major disconnect when communicating with others. Even among people who have a sense for our predicament, my views often come across as “out there.”

Let me first say that I don’t enjoy it. Having different views than those around me makes me uncomfortable. I was never one to make a point of standing out or of having a contrary opinion for the sport of it (we all know those people). My favorite teams as a kid were the local ones (Falcons, Braves, Mocs), like everyone else around me. I wear blue jeans basically every day, blending in to Americana. No tattoos, piercings, or “non-conformist” affectations. It is, in fact, because of my continual discomfort at having stumbled onto a divergent view that I am compelled to write and write and write about it. I feel trapped between what analysis suggests and what almost everyone else around me thinks/assumes. The discomfort means that I keep trying to discover where I’m wrong (my life would be easier!), but the exercise usually just acts to reinforce the unpopular view.

In this post, I want to try to turn the tables: make members of the mainstream feel uncomfortable for a change. It probably won’t work, but I’ll try all the same. I could have titled the post: “No, You’re Crazy.”

My mental image for this post is one of a fishbowl in a vast and varied space devoid of other fishbowls. The fish living in the bowl have each other, the enveloping water, a gravel floor, fake plants, a decorative castle, and manna from heaven morning and night. Concerns of the fish need not, and in a way cannot extend beyond the boundaries of the bowl. The awkwardness is that the bowl is wildly different than the rest of the space in all directions. It’s the anomaly that the inhabitants deem to be normal. The analogy to ourselves in modernity should be clear…

What happens when the caretaker of the fishbowl disappears: when the food stops coming, and the environment becomes fouled? The artificial context of the bowl ceases to function or even make sense. The best outcome for the fish might be to get back to a pond or stream where they could live within their original context: woven into the web of life, enjoying and contributing to a rich set of “ecosystem services.” But getting there is not easy. Once there, figuring out how to live outside of the dumbed-down artificial construct presents another major challenge. As good as the fish seemed to have it, the fishbowl turns out to have been an unfortunate place to live. I invite you now to re-read this paragraph, substituting modernity for the fishbowl.

Our Caretaker?

The caretaker analogy doesn’t work transparently well in our case, as the closest thing we’ve got to a caretaker is the trio of biodiversity, ecological interconnections, and evolution. That’s what got us here and those are the mechanisms that will govern the future trajectory of life on our planet. In this sense, we are actively killing our caretaker by eliminating biodiversity, dismembering the ecological connections that bind life together, and producing damages far faster than evolution can track/correct.

The Fishbowl View

Getting back to the main thread, what exactly is the fishbowl view? In brief, it’s the pervasive sense that the current material environment is a normal fixture of life, so that imaginings of the future automatically import these anomalous features—often imagined to get even “more so.”

A repetitive theme of my writing has aimed to provide a temporal perspective (Story; Lifetimes; Movie; Limits), and for good reason. Likewise, I harp on the vastness of space and uniqueness of Earth in supporting life. Both of these help to illustrate our fishbowl: unusual locality in space and time.

Imagine tracing an invisible line horizontally through a modern neighborhood that happens to pass through an actual fishbowl in somebody’s house. As you move along the line, you murmur to yourself: “not fishbowl…not fishbowl…not fishbowl…” before finally: “fishbowl!” But then as you continue along, it just as suddenly reverts to “not fishbowl…not fishbowl…not fishbowl…” …possibly forever. Earth is the same way in space, and modernity is the same way in time. Having been “born in the fishbowl,” it is hard for us to imagine any other state. Even intellectually recognizing that the past was much different, it’s hard to let go of the emotional idea that something like the present is forever.

Our spatial isolation suggests that we ought to care deeply about Earth and its precious ecology—the primary thing that makes this planet special and ourselves possible. Likewise, this unusual moment in time suggests that we don’t get too complacent in our assumptions about its permanence.

Transient Perks

When musing about the “far” future (few-millennia scale; not really that far), most people in my experience take it for granted that we will have some form of:

  • electricity;
  • computers;
  • metals;
  • houses;
  • plumbing;
  • cities;
  • mechanized transportation;
  • books;
  • satellites;
  • universities;
  • nations;
  • money;
  • in short: almost all the things you lay eyes on when looking up from your screen.

I’m not here to tell you that none of these things can or will persist, but to say: it’s not at all obvious. Welcome to thinking outside the fishbowl. It may seem crazy to suggest that we would lose all or most of these things, but outside the fishbowl it seems even more crazy (unsubstantiated, unexamined) to assume they’ll stay.

The items in the list above are quite new to the planet. Do you presume that we’ll have electricity a few-thousand years down the road? Consider for starters that having only utilized it for 150 years (ballpark), 99.95% of the time Homo sapiens has been on the planet has been without electricity. That’s 99.995% of the time humans of any form have been on the planet, and 99.999997% of Earth’s history. What about something as old as cities, use of metals, writing, or money—let’s say 5,000-years-old as an approximate catch-all? Even these things were not around for 98.3% of Homo sapiens, 99.8% of humans, and 99.9999% of Earth history. Being recent even on the scale of our species’ longevity carries the implication that the species could very probably outlast these transient features.

I recognize that a simplistic numerical game of this sort does not in itself prove anything about the future: just that these everyday elements are new on the scene, and therefore are presently indistinguishable from transient phenomena on relevant timescales. What tends to seal the deal for me is that these practices are joined at the hip with unsustainable modes of living that are driving ecological collapse. Unsustainable means transience: failure.

The Role of Imagination

My suspicion is that when people imagine the future, they are not taxing their imaginations very heavily but doing something more along the lines of extrapolation based on the familiar. When someone assumes we’ll have electricity in 1,000 years, it’s usually not because they have analyzed the continued availability of necessary materials and infrastructures, assessed the state of ecological health after 1,000 more years of continued high-tech life, or thought through issues of geopolitical stability and international trade in the context of potential deterioration of resource availability, climate, agricultural yield, market hegemony, and any number of other necessary conditions. No: the thinking seems to run little deeper than that it’s here now, so will be here then. The assumptions are not critically questioned.

Imagination is extremely tricky, because we can imagine in an instant things that have no biophysical basis and cannot transpire. Try it! The problem is—as pointed out previously—it is far easier to imagine the one way something could work (like preserving electricity ad infinitum) than the myriad—and thus more probable—ways such a thing could fail to happen.

I will admit that my starting point was just like that of most people: an unquestioned assumption that life would continue in recognizable form, only “giving up” things if superior substitutes became available. No reversion, for all love! What I realize now is that I wasn’t actually thinking about, analyzing, or fully contextualizing the situation. I’m ashamed to say that I was using the lazy, facile, common form of imagination: untethered from biophysical realities.

What Could Go Wrong?

Keeping the example of continuing to use electricity indefinitely—as a stand-in for many other items on the list—it seems easy to imagine its preservation simply because we have it right now. We’ve figured it out and would seem unlikely to forget how to produce it. Don’t we lock in that knowledge, and isn’t it possible or even likely that knowledge is the secret ingredient that can turn a “transient” into a new normal? What’s missing are the broader contextual and material conditions that are present today and are not guaranteed or even likely to persist. Consider for instance this exhausting heap of potentially relevant points (or skip if weeds aren’t your thing right now):

  • Commercial electricity began in 1882, well after fossil fuels had transformed capabilities, and has thus only existed alongside temporary fossil fuels.
  • Materials processing to make the necessary components have relied on heat from fossil fuels all this time (hard to replicate using “renewable” electricity).
  • Fossil fuels are finite, and it isn’t clear how we would maintain current manufacturing capability (and mining) to support electricity without them.
  • Producing, distributing, and utilizing electricity requires almost exclusively non-renewable resources: materials in addition to fossil fuels.
  • Non-renewable resources are a sort-of one-time inheritance, not an indefinite guaranteed flow.
  • Manufactured things break, corrode, and are discarded, so that their materials eventually become lost or (energetically, entropically) useless.
  • Recycling is never 100% effective, and often recovery is well below 50%. Even aspirational 90% recovery is down to half the material after 7 cycles (taking decades, not millennia).
  • Maintaining technology dependent on non-renewable materials requires perpetual mining, which gets progressively harder (and destructive) until it’s essentially prohibitive.
  • Together, these spell a metal-starved future, making many present capabilities progressively harder to maintain.
  • Manufacture of electronic equipment relies on non-renewable resources from global or at least widespread regions, access to which is also relatively new and fragile—and something we’ve never managed without fossil fuels.
  • Depleted soils, aquifers, and other hits to agricultural productivity could lead to enough hunger and disruption that the stability required for maintaining high-tech industry is eroded.
  • Demographic trends by themselves could lead to a substantial diminution of human population, the associated disruption also making it difficult or impossible to maintain electricity production and distribution.
  • Economic collapse brought about by the inevitable failure of requisite growth, substantial future uncertainty, resource wars, loss of confidence, a shrinking workforce, or any number of other factors could leave industry in ruins and reliable electricity diminishingly rare around the world.
  • Climate change plays its own role via geopolitical disruption and storms that make electrical distribution increasingly difficult to maintain (on top of many other environmental challenges), all while exacerbating ecological damage.
  • Underneath all of this is ecological health: without it, life on Earth struggles and the domino effects are beyond our reckoning, as helpless dependents on the web of life’s integrity.
  • Having initiated a sixth mass extinction, carried out by access to energy, continued powering of modernity (via electricity, for instance) most likely means compounding ecological harm, piling up accelerating extinctions, under which conditions high-maintenance humans are unlikely to fare well. (More likely, electricity will stop before modernity manages to extinguish most species on the planet, giving humans a chance to try again without electricity/modernity.)
  • Core question: is electricity (and all that must come with it) compatible with ecosystem health, biodiversity, and evolution? Answer: we have no idea; but it certainly has not stood the test of time, and the present alarming declines should be a massive warning sign indicating: one is probably crazy to think so. What enormous set of concerns must we ignore to imagine it could work?

Okay, that dose of context is a lot to take in. Maybe not every point delivers a death knell to electricity and its associated/required practices. But why would each one in isolation need to kill electricity when even one or a few operating simultaneously could do the job. The way the real world works is that lots of things are happening all at once, interrelated, and beyond control. Perhaps more important is that I threw this list together off the top of my head and probably missed the main factors that will actually spell the end for electricity. For those who assume we will preserve the capability, what is the fully-contextualized analysis that simultaneously knocks out all these concerns and also the ones I failed to conceive? Whence the improbable certainty?

What about Knowledge and Innovation?

I know that it can be hard to imagine that clever humans, having invented electricity, would ever be without it from this point forward. A huge part of the conceptual difficulty is that no one alive today has ever lived on a pre-electrified Earth: we lack the personal experience of any other lifestyle (life in our fishbowl). Similarly challenging is that the story for generations has been one of steady accumulation of capabilities, far outnumbering the few capabilities we’ve lost.

I would say that we overvalue human thought as somehow transcendent and as overriding physical realities. It’s connected to human supremacist thinking: that we are as gods. We imagine knowledge as locked in forever. I suspect that many readers tripped over the “lost” clause at the end of the previous paragraph. It seems inconceivable that we could lose anything!

All you have to do is listen to an old-timer to pick up things that we used to be able to do but can’t any more. We tell ourselves that these quaint losses are obsolete, but their absence is genuinely missed (I’ll bet you also lament the loss of some things that are no longer realizable). In one category, species losses are irreversible. On the way to extinction is population loss and rarity. It is not hard to believe that a kid 50 years from now will almost think adults are making up stories of magical fireflies, polar bears, flying rodents (bats), honeybees, or the night call of the whip-poor-will.

We also lose technological practices. Unthinkable in my childhood, NASA no longer launches humans into space (since 2011). The instant response is that this is a temporary setback, soon to be remedied. Doesn’t it illustrate, however, that trends are reversible? Is it truly beyond the realm of imagination that in 100 years human spaceflight will be a thing of the past on a planet depleted of energy deposits, struggling to feed people, reeling from ecological harm that finally revealed its fundamental importance? Likewise, a person can no longer purchase a ticket for supersonic flight across the Atlantic. Supersonic passenger service failed for all sorts of reasons, and may very well never return.

The anticipated objection is that we don’t lose the knowledge to do these things. Not right away, sure. But how many generations of lost practice does it take to translate into lost knowledge? We’ve already lost knowledge on past ways of living. After 500 years of no human spaceflight and a much-simplified material way of living, I doubt humans would confidently claim to still possess the knowledge to launch people into space. The point is that material conditions are more “real” and powerful than human knowledge, which itself tends to rely on particular and sometimes transient material conditions for preservation. Use it, or lose it! Things that seem permanent within the narrow confines of the fishbowl may look completely different (fleeting) in a broader perspective, once the fishbowl construct runs its course. Expecting otherwise seems crazy to me.

Hits: 1950

30 thoughts on “Outside the Fishbowl

  1. Human supremacist thinking probably stems from the biblical instruction for man to have dominion over the world, even though who knows, it could be something else.

    What the author describes is pretty much inevitable, one doesn't have to be overly smart or prescient to come to a conclusion that's more or less the same. But people don't want to and won't. The wild binge of the historical period that is ending has been too good and everybody wants more. If anything, most people think that they haven't got enough.

    The answer to the implicit question whether the landing will be soft or hard is simple. The taller they stand, the higher they fall. Those who have the most the lose will lose the most. Those who live a humble life, whether by choice or necessity, will lose less and will probably fare better.

    I don't think people will voluntarily give up their gluttonous consumerist lifestyle, simply because they don't have another raison d'etre. Likewise, I don't think that coercive efforts to curb consumption will be successful, whether implemented under some pretext or even if people are told in their face what the predicament is (they won't believe it). Things will probably run their course and all we can hope is that humans won't blow themselves up in a big puff of smoke.

    • Human supremacist thinking has existed long before any 'biblical instruction.' The Christian Bible is a late comer. Its claim to fame, supremacist-thinking-wise, was to assure us that 'even the lowest' would be above all things.

      Constantine saw the power in it.

      Didn't stop him from putting himself at the top of it all.

  2. The goldfish bowl is a very useful analogy – thanks! Got me thinking that others, such as Art Berman, must also experience this sense of disconnection. In your cases you present reality – perhaps 'deep reality' or some stronger term (although it is actually quite obvious, as you repeatedly show) – in the face of magical thinking that is currently our default (was it always?).

    Lewis Carroll nailed it:

    “Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said. 'One can't believe impossible things.'

    I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

  3. The secret of the strength of Roman concrete was discovered very recently. I will also give an example of an algebraic calculation, which was forgotten in schools. For example, you need to find √13. The value is between 3 and 4, and is therefore equal to 3 with a fraction. So: √13=3+x, and hence 13=9+6x+x². The square of the fraction x is a small fraction, so we neglect it. Then, 13≈9+6x, hence 6x≈4, and x≈⅔≈0.67. Therefore, approximately, √13=3.67. If we want to know the value even more precisely, then √13=3⅔+y, where y is a small fraction, positive or negative. 13=121/9+22/3y+y². y≈-2/33≈0.06. Therefore, √13≈3.67-0.06=3.61. We repeat the third approximation in the same way, etc.

      • volcanic ash! nice, that could be considered renewable material, I guess. Of course we would ruin it by using is much faster than volcanos spew it out…

        • The point is that without knowledge of chemistry and physics, but only due to experiments, the Romans were able to obtain mixtures that not only have strength and stability, but also some ability to regenerate and "heal" cracks.

          The article is not about the fact of exhaustion or infinity of volcanic material, but about the fact that knowledge is fleeting and largely useless.

          Many former cultures did not try to discover and learn everything. They were quite content to understand that the nature of some things is what it is. And they were more interested in the direct application of these things than diving into the depths of metaphysics.

          • Actually what I understood from the article is that indeed knowledge is fleeting, but not useless. Being fleeting is one of the causes of civilization (like the Romans) collapse. In this example they begin having maintenance issues when they forget how to make concrete.

  4. When I read the first paragraph, I viewed the “caretaker” as the easily available, low cost energy including fossil fuels. They, like the caretaker allow the manna/fish food to fall from the heavens while the fish are largely disconnected from the source of the food. The caretaker also magically takes away the waste and makes a locally clean and pleasant environment. “What happens when the caretaker disappears”, the fish face the consequences. The biodiversity and supporting ecosystems don’t exist in the fishbowl. They are the pond that the fish would be better off in.

  5. Since the dawn of agriculture humans have become progressively radicalized through language, myth, culture, technology and more. Through your reading, work and writing you have essentially gone through a process of de radicalization, so of course most ‘normal’ people struggle with your views. It’s pretty heavy stuff, so they need time to work through the stages of grief (or not). But they might realize that reaching acceptance is not so bad nor defeatist and certainly less stressful than the other stages.

    Like you I keep looking and learning and I cannot see how this line of thinking is incorrect. That we are hopelessly dependent on finite resources is enough to seal the deal – life without metals looks pretty different. Life with destroyed biodiversity looks … unimaginable.

    Thanks for all your work in this area, to make so very clear that we are on a dead end path. I’ve suspected for a very long time, but it is kind of nice in a weird kind of way to understand why and to know there are others ‘out there’.

  6. I can still remember my grandfather: born in 1894, died when I was 9. He was born into a world without cars, radio, TV, telephones, aeroplanes, satellites, domestic electricity, computers or the internet, although maybe you could have prototype versions of domestic electricity and a car if you were very rich (he wasn't). That world wasn't all that long ago.

  7. "a major disconnect when communicating with others" – welcome to my world.
    As you say, part of the problem is that people have lived their whole lives in the 'matrix'. It feels normal to them, to the extent that they can't countenance life 'unplugged' from it (aka reality).

    It amuses me, seeing people speed by in their huge, noisy, expensive vehicles, wasting colossal amounts of energy and thinking they're something. They believe all the adverts, and everything the system's media feeds them. Good, obedient consumers – don't think, just keep consuming, more… and more… Buy a 'smart'phone so the system can track and manipulate you yet further… Vote for the 'Red' MIC frontmen or the 'Blue' MIC frontmen…

    Modernity sucks so bad. I sincerely hope it crashes, catastrophically. The only question left in my mind is which system will collapse first, theirs or mine? Lol

  8. Saying that houses in general are impossible outside the "fishbowl" is frankly ridiculous – there's too many ways for some form of sheltered dwelling sustainable, too many different types of materials for construction, etc. (Maybe you meant modern houses and construction, in which case I'd grant your point). Look at all the indigenous peoples who've been making longhouses for centuries. Same with books – mass media and the printing industry might go away, but a) they are far too valuable for transmission of complex information, which can't really be done orally, and b) as long as either Abrahamic or Vedic religions continue to exist at ANY significant scale, so will their scriptures. Full reversion to some pre-agricultural mean isn't going to happen, because humans are going to fight to save everything that they've achieved over the last ten millennia in whatever way they can, and some of these achievements are much more ecologically adaptable than others.

    But that aside: your posts where you've started to question human supremacy have given me a lot to think about, and I think there's many valid points. But I want to see you write a post about the fact that if modernity fully collapses, then billions of people will not survive. The land base (especially after severe climate change) won't be suitable to the type of agriculture needed to feed all of them, but even beyond that, so many of us depend on modern medicine just to survive, let alone thrive (diabetics, women who can't birth vaginally, people with pacemakers, or almost anyone who has ever needed a surgery to fix some underlying condition to save their life). Sure, you can say that if the collapse of modernity is inevitable, so is the largest die-off in the history of our species, and that we must accept the inevitable. But I've never seen anyone who's taken such an angle really grapple with the implications of just what that means, and what that means for us morally or ethically. Lemme tell you how I've grappled with it – I'm almost 30, and I don't know if I should off myself in another ten or so years so I'll be spared seeing such unbelievable suffering. I don't currently have a reason to live (not merely survive) through such a collapse, although I'm searching for one.

    So it'd be nice to see how you grok all that, so to speak.

    • Yes; I had the houses of today's style in mind. As for books, you're probably right (not guaranteed: read Earth Abides for a window into how younger generations react), but part of my goal is to shake the foundations and assumptions: all bets are off.

      To cast a die-off in moral or ethical terms pretends that it's a choice on our parts. Okay, so maybe it was never ethical to future generations (us, now) to initiate modernity way back when. But things flow as they do. I wish it didn't have to happen, but the greater the degree of unsustainability, the more colossal the failure.

      Please don't "off" yourself: the world needs people who can accept our path and help others cope. For me, the trick has been to fall out of love with modernity, and in love with the more-than-human world, in which I find joy. That's what's important. That's what will (we hope) last. That's the future. Modernity ain't it.

    • "if modernity fully collapses, then billions of people will not survive." Yes, that is an inescapable conclusion. The number of humans the planet can support sustainably is almost certainly less than 1 billion (our number pre-industrial revolution) and may be as low as 1 million (our number pre-agriculture). The rest, as you say, will have to die. I've spent many years wondering what my role as a doctor should be, faced with this awful problem, and I decided that one useful and humane contribution I could make to the Long Descent would be to re-invent plant based anaesthetics. Hence my blog.

  9. Thank you for your continued work. You shine the light of truth on our predicament. Everyone deals with the truth of our situation differently. My good wife chooses to ignore it, tries to live simply and with as little waste as possible, but does not want to discuss it. I'm an INTJ so you know how I roll!!

    When looking at the longer future I believe we can still have some metals. It is a matter of scale. With the amount of fossil fuels embedded in food production today, the loss of soils and aquifers, fossil fuel derived fertilizers and pesticides, climate impacts, etc. there will be a lot fewer humans, perhaps 500 million at equilibrium. There are tremendous amounts of metals on the surface in our infrastructure and a robust salvage economy will persist for several hundred years. This will allow modest amounts of electricity on a local level. An interesting book is The Pre-Modern European Economy. In the 1600's there were over 10,000 windmills in the low countries of Europe. About 25 hp each. Wooden gears no less!! So I believe a lower tech society can emerge that has some capabilities to harness the wind and the sun in ways that do not need FF. A modern version of these windmills, with metal gears, shafts and bearings turns out 40 hp. A lot of meaningful work can be done with that. Leaving energy at the mechanical level locally is highly efficient and much simpler!

    A bicycle can be moved at 15 watts per mile, a large canoe at 30 watts per mile, one day we will see the wisdom of lighter and slower. Small motors, small generators. Charcoal will still be available for small forge work. We are inclined to look for the big solutions, grid level solution as that is what we were born in to. Small is beautiful, simplicity is elegant, reliability and longevity of a product is worthy. I have been recently restoring singer sewing machine of 1930's vintage and teaching myself how to sew, I am humbled by their construction and elegant design. There is a way forward, less material, less energy, more localized. Folks will have less time to wonder about their purpose in life as that will be self evident. Connections with family and friends will deepen. Work will be more physically demanding, but perhaps more rewarding. Anyone who has thought deeply about the future with an open and objective mind will reach conclusions similar to your own. It is possible to begin forging a different path NOW, living differently, doing so puts you ahead of the crash. It takes years to acquire the skills, tools, land, etc. The solutions will not come from our central government, they are focused on infinite growth and the short term. The solutions will come at the local level as folks adapt to reality. Become the change you wish to see.

    • One other thing to mention is that experimentation in the modern area has yielded some alternative techs that are still low energy and low ecological impact, but are more efficient than anything that came before, like rocket stoves. So there's at least some measure of "progress" there that we can build on. Like I said in my previous comment – there won't be a full reversion to the mean (and by all realistic forecasts, the apocalypse won't be fast enough for all knowledge to suddenly be destroyed, unlike that SF novel that Tom recommended).

      As for metals – I keep wondering whether concentrating sunlight with solar forges for metallurgy will ever be feasible. There was a YouTube vid I found once (and can't find again sadly) of a guy who managed to melt pieces of metal with a TV-screen sized Fresnel lens in his backyard. That feels like the beginnings of what could be a great sustainable tech to me, even if it may not be able to forge anything much beyond what ancient blacksmiths did.

      • Aside from energy constraints, in the (very) long run metallurgy on any meaningful scale will cease, because metals will erode/oxidize away quicker than they get replaced by meteorites.
        Metal objetcs will only be able to to made by people lucky enough to find a meteorite containing sufficient metal.
        Hard to picture, but true.

        • [slightly edited] oxides, Iron oxide for example are mined. Heating it up breaks the oxygen bond and leaves the iron. Old dumps will be mined for the concentration of metals found in them. People will have metal for a long while yet.

          • To add on to this, iron is the fourth most abundant element in Earth's curst, making up 5% of its mass. Some common rock types concentrate iron further, with basalt typically containing between 10 and 14% precent weight Fe2O3. I think this is a concentration that is mineable with difficulty. As a result, I don't think it is possible for humanity to run out of iron.

            Source on Basalt iron concentration.

      • The principle involved in a rocket stove are ancient, See Dakota fire pit for examples. Same idea as a rocket stove.

        • No matter how much iron is in the Earth's crust, if it gets used quicker than it gets replaced then it will effectively run out (bar meteorites).

  10. As R D Laing so eloquently stated, "you're born and before you know it you are hooked, and you don't even know that you are hooked". Determinism (not fatalism) in action. I've lost count of the number of people who have attempted, throughout Human written history, to highlight the Fishbowl concept and the cultural / biological determinism behind it, to those around them. From the Classics like Plato's Allegory of the Cave through to the popular culture of movies like Sausage Party and The Truman Show. Add to this the many wonderful Physicists who have tried tirelessly over decades to communicate the complexities and facts of the hard sciences, encouraged (lately) by marketers and publishers to do so via emotional 'narratives and stories' that will supposedly be more 'acceptable' to the wider populace, and one can easily get a sense of how little has actually changed.

    Can I imagine something more than what the vast majority unknowingly settle for? Indeed. I can imagine a World in which our species has understood and embraced the facts: that we live in a deterministic (not fatalistic) cause and effect Universe, one that is entropic, has no meaning / purpose or point and therefore appears to be absurd, and that in such a Universe the concept of Human 'progress' is a nonsense. I can imagine that in this World, we will have dispensed with interpersonal relationships that are centered around game playing, illusions, delusions, exploitation and deceptive narratives / stories, replacing them with relationships that have at their core a deep sense of humility and wonderment. I can imagine this much and more, but getting there is another matter…..

  11. I always thought Plato's Allegory of the Cave must be one of the worst allegories in history. It doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny – anyone watching the shadow 'reality' would only have to glance down at their own hands and body to see true, 3D reality.

    Much as I love this blog, the comments section sometimes appears to be populated by nihilists. Belief in strict determinism doesn't make it so.
    A less hubristic approach is to say "I don't know". That is my own approach – I make no claim to know the deepest level of reality. .

  12. "As I grow older, a note of intellectual dissatisfaction becomes an increasingly insistent overtone in my life. The things that bother me most, seem to involve my relations with other people. The irrationality of the relations of people to each other obtrudes itself more and more. I am coming to appreciate and emotionally accept, that man in present society is more than he realizes an irrational animal, and that most of his social reasoning is a veneer to give a factitious respectability to actions dictated by emotion or by common sense which has eluded analysis. The problem of how I can live an intelligently satisfying life in this environment, presses upon me."

    Percy W Bridgman – 1938

  13. In the vein of discussion of deep time in your last few folks, it’s important to keep our human egos in check with respect to our importance for both good and bad. There is a lot of talk these days about being in he 6th extinction, but little of the first five. How many people can identify when they happened? When I thought about it, I was only confident in knowing that the last ones took out the dinosaurs about 60-70 million years ago. I’d read about a few of the others but I had to look up when they were 66, 201, 252, 359 and 443 million years ago. The dinosaurs were around about 250 million years so they survived one and likely benefited from another. Some quick searches on our best estimates on recovery of biodiversity are that it took a few to maybe 10 million for biodiversity to recover and probably a few tens of millions of years for biodiversity of large animals (let’s not kid ourselves, we view the loss of whales, moose, polar bears, etc more than insects or other species yet to be identified by man). While the sun has several billion years left, let’s assume earth will be inhospitable to life in 1 billion years. That means enough time for about 10 more rounds of mass extinctions and recovery in the earths lifecycle. I’ve heard the argument that this one is different since we can prevent it. But can we? As Tom alluded to in some posts, even if modernity is not sustainable, groups that haven’t gone along for the ride haven’t fared well. Assuming we can make conscious choices to stop the consequences of modernity may be the opposite side of the coin of human supremacy.

    This isn’t a call to give us a free pass, which most readers here will recognize. I see it as a way to avoid despair though. Keep fighting the good fight, but if it doesn’t work out, life will go on. I tend to agree with George Carlin, the planet is will be fine, now the people…

  14. To me, despair and or hope are merely unevolved irrational human constructs, created in order to help us in our attempts at evading or obfuscating the reality of how the Universe works. We could add numerous other constructs too, like 'free will', 'human progress', 'nihilism', 'optimism', 'pessimism', 'love' etc. Humans have, over time, discovered that they happen to live in a Universe that doesn't suit them, and have been busily running around trying to create a Universe of their own that does, one that 'appears' to have overcome all of the deep-seated fears and insecurities they *still* harbor. The creation of a host of irrational constructs designed to justify and uphold the 'meaning' and 'importance' of their new Universe, has been vital, as has the suppression, eradication and destruction of the true reality. This view is also nothing new and has, in part, also been articulated before…


    As I have stated previously, I can imagine a different Human World, but getting there is another matter entirely….

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