Metastatic Modernity Launch

I am excited to announce a new effort that will attempt to provide a crucial set of perspectives on modernity. It is to be a series of video shorts (5–10 minutes is my target) called Metastatic Modernity.

The name conjures a grave cancer diagnosis—terminal, in fact. This intentional association captures my sense that modernity is fated to self-terminate, like any cancer, on account of its complete reliability on non-renewable materials, accumulating ecological damage, and failure to exist as a part of an ecological whole in reciprocity with nature.  It has no long-term place on this planet.

But, because modernity is just one of many possible ways for humans to arrange their lives, a failure of modernity does not translate to a failure of humanity. The introductory video is here:

The series description reads as follows:

This series of 17 short videos aims to put modernity (another word for civilization) in perspective. In terms of cosmology, evolution, biology, ecology, and time, modernity is highly unusual and inherently self-terminating (i.e., fated to collapse). Eventually, a cancer metaphor is used to describe the tumor we witness growing out of control, spreading to all parts of the globe (metastasizing) and initiating a sixth mass extinction. Humans are not the cancer, but the infected organ within the community of life where the cancer took root.

As indicated, the present outline has 17 episodes, subject to modest expansion. I’m coming up on a solid year of weekly Do the Math posts, so I’ll probably take my foot off the pedal on that front while I concentrate on the video series. I will, however, plan to post each new release on Do the Math, along with a complementary written version of the content, sometimes with additional material (not a transcript, but a parallel and better-crafted companion). I will strive to maintain a cadence of at least one video release per week.

For now, I’ll share a bit more about the motivation and goals for this effort, followed by a written expression of what the first video covers.

I have recognized for some time that a blog format—and one with “math” in its name, no less—has limited appeal. Over the last year, only four posts broke 10,000 views (about fusion, my confessions, modernity’s fate, and population projections). Yet the video I created about population projections reached 10,000 views within two weeks. So, it’s a channel that might reach more people. By chopping up the big message into small chunks that provide exposure in a more natural communication style, perhaps a greater fraction of humans can begin to see the world we inhabit differently, in a beneficial way.  I have not studied how the YouTube (algorithmic) gods work, but I presume you can help promote the video series’ YouTube recommendations by thumbs-upping the videos and subscribing to my channel.  Apologies for coming off as a self-promoting influencer wannabe!

The Sequence

Here is the first-cut outline of the series content, by episode (this page will provide a portal to each in one convenient place).

  1. Introduction: What is modernity and what does this series aim to do?
  2. Cosmology: Astrophysical perspective on our insignificance
  3. Early Life: The tremendous problem-solving upon which we utterly rely today
  4. Evolution: Simple, elegant, and subtle in the context of a co-evolved community
  5. Biological Inheritance: Almost everything we are is gifted by ancestry
  6. Accidental Tourists: We aren’t the pinnacle, purpose, or destiny of evolution
  7. Timeline: Putting modernity into context as a flash in terms of relevant timescales
  8. Ecological Nosedive: Documenting the explosive start of the sixth mass extinction
  9. Fireworks! How did we fall into this trap? Who’s idea was it? This is weird.
  10. Just Ditch the Bad? Can we keep the nifty parts and just jettison the ill effects?
  11. What About Renewables? Won’t we solve the problems via technology?
  12. Human Supremacy: How we became such narcissists and why it’s deeply problematic
  13. A Species out of Context: A terminal departure from our evolved, ecological context
  14. Cancer Analog: Humans are a victim of this self-terminating disease, and at great risk
  15. What Now? A difficult transition looms. What to expect and how we might react
  16. Perspective Synthesis: Tying it all together toward a unified outlook
  17. Humility back in Human: Establishing who we really are, valuing the truly important

If you’ve been reading Do the Math over the last few years, you’ll probably be able to flesh out a number of these elements from the one-line hints. I hope the exercise helps sharpen things for me, clarifies the perspective for readers, and provides a place to point friends who are more likely to watch a video than to read a blah-blah-blog post—thus reaching a broader audience.

Specifics from Episode

I will make it a habit to include a written version for each episode providing a general sense for what it covers and elaborating key points (sometimes clarifying or correcting). Sections are arranged by “chapter” within the video, corresponding to the navigation handles provided in the description on YouTube.


This is a very brief introduction as to who I am: a recovering astrophysicist who had a career as a physics professor at UC San Diego (more here), now focused on planetary limits and the fate of modernity.

Purpose of Series

The aim is to put modernity into better perspective, currently envisioned as 17 video shorts (it was 15 at the time of recording). I make a firm pledge to deliver low-production-quality videos, unedited, but perhaps compensated by helpful and stimulating content. It is what it is. I hope it’s useful.

What Is Modernity?

Modernity is not too hard to define.  Most people have a sense already: look around you. I show images of a city, a modern home interior (nothing like the natural world), a hospital bed representing medical care, images for science, technology, computers/servers, dense traffic (transportation), a petroleum pump (energy to power modernity), and solar panels as a newer way to power modernity.

Then I show the Creation of Adam painting as a token for anthropocentrism (human supremacy): a source of many problems. This is followed by a picture of a distressed orangutan whose forest has been leveled (also suffering a tranquilizer dart in his side). The orangutan did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance. These harms are often hidden from view and purposefully ignored: too uncomfortable to confront. Our lifestyles end up creating misery for many animals on the planet.

Is Modernity Terminal?

Since I call the series “Metastatic Modernity” and label the first episode “Stage IV,” the strong implication is that modernity is terminal. So is it? This would seem like dire news.

I acknowledge that justifying the claim is a heavy lift that I can’t do in one swipe. That’s what the series is intended to help illuminate, by providing a lot of crucial context that is not often appreciated and held together as a whole—an important but rare achievement.

However, if forced to justify the terminal diagnosis, I offer one word: unsustainable. Unsustainable things fail, and most would acknowledge, I think, that the way the world is going is unsustainable. Then it becomes a matter of degree in terms of how much of the current way of living must fail.


Douglas Adams often pointed out that one of the most attractive features of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the calming effect of the cover, on which DON’T PANIC was printed in large, friendly letters. The prospect of modernity’s collapse might trigger a panic reaction for many, but I point out in equation form that:

Modernity ≠ Humanity

Failure of the first does not mandate failure of the second. Modernity is just a way we live now (trapped within it), but it is not fundamentally who we are: not an immutable expression of our DNA. This realization helps explain why we are currently confused about how to live on this planet.

In comparing modernity to an affliction like cancer, it may help us to appreciate that it’s okay if the cancer dies, if its termination leaves the patient alive. I extend this wish to more than humanity: all living things are presently threatened (the metastatic aspect), and need relief. Let’s focus on what we truly value: life.

The Plan

We need to recognize that modernity has limited our exposure to a very narrow realm, so that we lack a comprehensive perspective from within our bubble. The goal of this series is to step back and absorb something of a “grand” view.

Biased Information

I use a news channel analog to help us better appreciate our restricted view. Most of us are aware of polarized news sources so that people are not even sharing the same factual basis and therefore find it almost impossible to have productive or even genial conversations. The resulting tunnel vision and distrust is hugely problematic.

But all of us are fed almost all of our information by modernity-boosters—generally promoting economic growth and the mythology of progress. Basically every newspaper, magazine, television show, politician, corporation, school and university, and even personal acquaintance is a fan of modernity, promoting its perks and ignoring or dismissing its irreconcilable ills. We don’t see much criticism or questioning whether this whole way of life even makes sense to pursue. It is asserted for the sake of reassurance that ours is the one right way to live, albeit with an expanding set of pesky and persistent problems around the margins that surely technology and policy will address someday. Our exposure is also very anthropocentric: look at any page in a newspaper or magazine and evaluate: is it focused on people and/or human accomplishments?

I also suggest considering what news a German in 1942 would hear. “The Nazi party is awesome; we’re doing great things for the magnificent and deserving German people; we’re building a future so perfect it will carry on for a thousand years.” Missing was coverage of the costs: the ugly side. Concentration (death) camps were hidden from view: not front-and-center. Likewise, our media is essentially propaganda delivered almost universally from boosters of modernity (hint: near-universal alignment to economic interests) talking about how great our future can be if we keep the faith. To my ears, it’s biophysically- and ecologically-blind utopian nonsense.

Course of Action

Our goal is to develop a more complete perspective: to see things through a long lens from a more external point of view. For me, what emerges is a sense that modernity is dangerous and unhinged. I expect others will start to see this, too, if they do not already.

While You Wait

I lamely wrap up in a meandering description of what comes next, and encourage people to check out Do the Math in the meantime (world’s worst salesman). At present, I’m not enough of a YouTube presence to be trusted with live links in the video, but that day might come (after reaching 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch-hours).

Views: 1739

19 thoughts on “Metastatic Modernity Launch

  1. Dr. Murphy is deeply and correctly concerned about the future of humanity, wants to influence citizens to change to a better path, and believes like almost everyone else that is overshoot aware and has not given up, that more effective education is the key to success.

    I think Murphy is wasting his time by not focusing on our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities as explained by Dr. Ajit Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

    Many great minds, like for example, Dr. Dennis Meadows, Dr. William Catton, Jr,. Dr. Bill Rees, and Dr. Nate Hagens and have devoted their lives to educating about overshoot with zero success. Others like Dr. James Hansen have devoted their lives to warning about symptoms of overshoot, also with zero success.

    Success is not possible because the brains of normal humans aggressively deny the obvious reality of overshoot.

    The focus must shift to understanding and finding a way to override our denial mechanism before any progress can be made.

    • I don't deny that denial is an important factor, and often most visible in modern culture in the context of death. But I don't buy the arguments Varki makes over origins. In fact, it seems that pre-agricultural cultures often have more mature/healthy perspectives on death as natural and proper. It is hard for us to imagine other mindsets, as utterly steeped as we are in modernity and its worldviews.

      In a sense, I'm trying to take the conversation in a different direction than what I tried for so long, characterized by: look, people—what about these facts are so hard to accept? Now my emphasis is less on a narrow analytic view—on which denial is perhaps a more effective defense—to more of an "appreciate the whole" perspective that might be a bypass around the analytic impasse. One challenge is that our culture is trained to think in narrow, reductionist, analytic, decontextualized ways so that it will still be a tough pull.

    • Maybe the drop in fertility rates over the past few decades are evidence of humanity beginning to understand overshoot at some level and pull back? Many young "western" people now saying they won't have kids because of the state of the world…

      • Nice point. I find denial to be generationally-correlated. Growing up in the 1950s gave one a sense of awe and wonderment about where modernity might take us, and such dreams are hard to set aside. Those growing up now have no equivalent source of hope—between climate change, AI, ecological ruin, economic convulsions. I can't say they're wrong, of course.

    • Denial might indeed be a problem, with fear and weakness probably being the two most common causes for it (— at least, this is what my research has shown till now). Therefore, helping people to become stronger and more courageous can be helpful to overcome denial, together with providing viable alternatives and thus offering hope.

      However, the view that it is all about denial I think is mistaken. Information, knowledge, education, etc. are still important and the lack of them is still often a cause.

  2. At the age of 62, still fairly young in the modern world, I have been experiencing heart trouble. This is a hereditary condition. Tomorrow I will have a heart monitor installed for 48 hours, and will undergo a stress test. Next week, an ultrasound. I have never spent much time in the medical world and live a healthy lifestyle. This is not my style.
    I will have to make decisions about how deeply I want to get involved in the medical system. I live in Canada, so medical expenses are not the issue. I might have to decide to forgo treatment at some point, just to cap the amount of medical waste I leave behind me after I die.
    Not many people seem to think about the ecological impacts of medical treatments, or at least they seem to believe it’s worth it, in order to extend a (human) life beyond natural boundaries.
    I don’t want to be a martyr, but I have always believed that we devote too much energy to elder care.

    • Wow—touching story, and I'm very sorry to hear of your troubles. Nothing makes it personal in the same way (a way I have not experienced myself). I applaud your consideration of the bigger picture, here. At about the same time, someone commented on the YouTube video that as long as modernity holds on until they die, then no problem (pile on the thumbs-down!). A study in extremes. Best wishes in the path that unfolds for you.

  3. Yours is one of the few blogs I always read, and this series of videos is a great idea for reaching more people.

    The subject of modernity, and its certain failure, could not be more relevant. I hope this series gains a wide audience – I will definitely point people towards it.

  4. Although it's true that modernity¬=humanity don't you think modernity was inevitable, given than there is no such thing as free will and humans act like any other species in using what abilities they have to access resources as quickly as possible to enhance their chances of survival and reproduction? I don't think humans would have lasted very long if they didn't have the ability to make tools and so better and better tools, coupled with finding a dense energy source made modernity inevitable. After a while, following modernity's demise, it humans remain, then they'll blindly attempt the same route, though they won't have the energy to go as far as modern humans have.

    • I have no basis to argue against inevitable modernity, but am simply saying that because modernity must fail on timescales very short compared to evolution, humans themselves need not fail as a species. If humans would already be extinct without resorting to non-ecological means, then that's another way of saying humans are not a viable species. I'm not sure I'd go that far, given a long track record prior to modernity. Rinse-and-repeat is not in the cards on a surface depleted of ores and fossil fuels. That's not to say that some humans won't try and fail again, but likewise this need not be equated with a failure of humanity writ large.

      Put more simply: modernity must fail but humans need not (yet might).

      • Indeed, they need not fail as a species. But it's hard to imagine that they would have done more than scratch out an existence before they learned to make even primitive tools and weapons. Without those opposable thumbs and complex brain, could they survive with just their wits? I believe (but don't know) that their tool making and control of fire were needed to thrive, and even evolve to modern humans. Given that they would probably notice that their tool making and control of fire were giving them an advantage, would they not then figure out better ways to harvest food and more comfortable ways to build shelter? Even domesticating animals gave them a better energy source, allowing more complex behaviours. True, modernity as we know it will almost certainly never be possible again but I feel sure that humans living 100,000 years ago would be living in something that may be characterised as modernity, compared to how their ancestors were living 300,000 years ago. Better tools and weapons, for example. That modernity must fail, of course but it seems likely that, as long as humans survive, a significant number of them would cycle through some form of modernity and primitiveness.

        I look forward to the rest of the series to consider alternatives to my current view.

        • I’m sure there are people living sustainably without the accoutrements of modernity in many countries, but to what degree?

          The BBC featured a documentary about Ken Smith – known as the Hermit of Treig recently, who spurned society 40 years ago to live in one of the most remote areas in Scotland. He constructed a log cabin, burns wood for fuel and catches fish using salvaged equipment – so not quite the utopian existence we perhaps envisage. But it can be done, providing one is determined and content.

          • I've no doubt that there are pockets of people who are living at a level that we'd probably call sustainable. But what is sustainable for a few, or a few dozen people is not necessarily sustainable for a few million, or several billion people. Remember that humans first lived sustainably and may even have been sustainable after they invented simple tools and weapons. But they didn't stay that way because some found out how to do things more efficiently or more effectively. It's hard to imagine that some remnants of our species could live a sparse sustainable life for very long before some discovered more comfortable and more convenient ways to do what they're doing or to do new things and start to expand again.

            Note that the video at the top of that BBC story has the hermit using a bunch of fairly modern tools and modern hardware on the cabin. He relied on modernity and may be self sufficient for a while. It's not a life for 8 billion people, or a lot less without modern equipment.

            I like John Plant's primitive technology videos but even he was starting to figure out how to smelt metal in a primitive fashion. We know where that led.


          • Mike, re.the first paragraph of your 07-04 comment. How much ethnographic work have you read ? Any of Richard Lee or Elizabeth Marshall Thomas ? Their work doesn't support your statements in that paragraph. E.M. Thomas went in 1950 to parts of the Kalahari where the Bushmen had had no contact with European culture . A few had had some limited contact with Bantu tribes , who were a pastoralist culture,and recent invaders of that region, coming from the north. The Bushmen there had been living in a culture that had varied little since
            H.sapiens first ventured into that savanah-desert environment. No other primates were living there. Simple branch and grass shelters, quickly built and abandoned when the group moved on, and rebuilt at the next camp site.
            Digging Stick, Ostrich egg shell for water storage, bone tipped spear , bone-tipped small bow and arrow , dipped in a virulent poison extracted from a moth larvae. No metal smelting. A minimalist nomadic hunter-gatherer culture, probably unchanged for I'm not sure how long, probably over 100,000 years.

          • E.M. Thomas made several trips , decades apart. "The Harmless People " describes the breakdown of that culture, as European cattle ranchers and the Bantu invaded and destroyed the environment where they lived.
            The book "The Old Way " gives details of her first trip.

          • David Higham,

            Thanks for the reference, I'll take a look. I'm surprised that anyone can say a way of life has gone on for 100,000 years. If true (though I don't know how that could be confirmed), it would give me some hope that a sustainable society could be carved out by some humans in some locations but I don't know how that would invalidate my first paragraph (the evidence for my first paragraph is 8 billion humans living in modernity). However, I'll take a read of the book, if I can find it.

            Thanks again.

          • It's impossible to describe the contents of two books in a few brief comments. I'd just like to briefly add that the bushmen had a great love of music and dance, and had some light, easily carried musical instruments as well.
            E.M. Thomas's love for the people and their culture , and her great sorrow at the events that occurred after her first trip, is evident throughout the books.

  5. "don't you think modernity was inevitable, given than there is no such thing as free will and humans act like any other species […]?"
    It is not 'given' that there is no such thing as free will. You still have agency, don't you? Why don't you just use that word instead?

    People aren't 'rational actors', obediently following some path described by a game theorist's model.
    It's not known whether humans of the future will 'blindly attempt the same route'. As has been pointed out here (and elsewhere), many indigenous peoples (eg Australian Aborigines) lived sustainably for thousands of years, before 'progress' arrived and disrupted their lives. Native Americans made a choice to not do agriculture… They excerised *agency*.

    "I feel sure that humans living 100,000 years ago would be living in something that may be characterised as modernity"
    The way humans lived 100,000 BC could in no way be described as modernity.
    To me, it seems once machines got past a certain level of complexity, that's when the problems started.

  6. As an anesthesiologist I have trouble accepting this. But I understands that humanity wont leave fossile fuels so that next generation can make pharmaceuticals. Its sad that we wont have anesthetic for fractures etc. (low tech healtcare.)

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