Unsustainable Goose Chases

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

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

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

Why so bold? Glad you asked.

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Inexhaustible Flows?

Photo from Monash Universiry

I recently came across a statement to the effect that once we transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy like solar, wind, and hydro, we would essentially be home free for the long run—tapping into inexhaustible flows. It is a very pleasant notion, to be sure, and one that I believe is relatively common among enthusiasts for renewable energy.

Naturally, I am concerned by the question of: what magnificent things would we do with everlasting copious energy? As an excellent guide, we can ask what amazing things have we done with the recent bolus of energy from fossil fuels? Well, in the course of pursuing material affluence, we have eliminated 85% of primeval forest, made new deserts, created numerous oceanic dead zones, drained swamps, lost whole ecosystems, almost squashed the remaining wild land mammals, and initiated a sixth mass extinction with extinction rates perhaps thousands of times higher than their background levels—all without the help of CO2 and climate change (which indeed adds to the list of ills). These trends are still accelerating. Yay for humans, who can now (temporarily) live in greater comfort and numbers than at any time in history!

But the direction I want to take in this post is on the narrower (and ultimately less important) technical side. All the renewable energy technologies rely on non-renewable materials. Therefore, inexhaustible flows are beside the point. It’s like saying that fossil fuel energy is not practically limited by available oxygen for combustion, so we can enjoy fossil fuels indefinitely. Or that D–T fusion has billions of years of deuterium available, when there’s no naturally-occurring tritium (thus reliant on limited lithium supply). In a multi-part system, the limiting factor is, well, the limiting factor. Sure, into the far future the sun will shine, the wind will blow, and rain will fall. But capturing those flows to make electricity will require physical stuff: all the more material for such diffuse flows. If that stuff is not itself of renewable origin, then oops. The best guarantee of renewability is being part of natural regeneration (i.e., of biological origin). If solar panels, wires, inverters, and batteries were made of wood and the like: alright, then.

Recognizing that biological organisms—plants and the animals that directly or indirectly draw energy from them—have already figured out how to tap into (essentially) inexhaustible flows—solar, primarily—I became interested in comparing the performance of the human animal to that of a solar panel or wind turbine, in terms of mineral requirements. After all, the biosphere gets by without mining the depths. So let’s dig into the material requirements of life.

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Sustainable Timescales

Image by günter from Pixabay

The word “sustainable” is overused to the point of becoming almost meaningless in our culture. In principle, though, it’s an easy enough concept. Unsustainable things fail: unable to continue indefinitely. By this logic, sustainable implies the opposite of failure: success.

Note that “sustainable” does not mean some mythical equilibrium, which has never existed for life on this planet. The key condition is that major changes are gradual enough to allow ecological adaptation. When they aren’t, we get mass extinctions—even when it takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years for the precipitating changes to fully develop.

So, step one in assessing sustainability is to ask: what can continue without failing? But the question needs an associated timescale to be meaningful. This post explores timescales on which it makes sense to assess sustainable practices.

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Mysterious Materialism

Image by Kerstin Herrmann from Pixabay

My recent posts have suggested that our world, in all its magnificence, needs nothing beyond physics and emergent complexity to still be mysterious and inspiring, which in turn can lead to being better, humble ecological partners in the community of life. While many human cultures have gravitated toward beliefs in gods, human transcendence, or a higher purpose, I point out that the billion-year timescales of evolution offer plenty of room for unfathomable results that defy our cognitive capacities to grasp. What if all it takes is physics (particles in uncountable relationships) and lots of time for amazingness to emerge? Are you not entertained?

Such a view might predictably be denigrated as reductionist, materialist, and lacking imagination. It’s ironic, because from my point of view it seems to require a super-human amount of imagination: so much that I don’t possess nearly enough on my own—nor has any other human been able to put it all together for us. The very same “failure” of complete end-to-end explanation that causes many to reject the premise leaves me in awe, wonder, and appreciation. One might say that it’s a more challenging concept than the alternatives.

Our recent trajectory has been one of serial demotions, each perhaps more insulting than the last. Earth is not at the center of creation. Nor is the sun at the center of the galaxy. Our galaxy is not at the center of the universe. Our universe may indeed be one among countless others (we can probably never know). Closer to home, we learn that humans evolved from apes, tracing back to slime in our distant lineage. As a corollary, humans are not, in the end, exempt from the laws of life: we are physical beings still subject to—and dependent on—biological and ecological constraints. The proposal I discuss takes the demotion series another step: removing imagined transcendent properties of free will (mind, or soul) and divine favor—instead establishing us as compulsory actors in an extravagant production of physics. It all makes for a rough day, unless your expectations are unusually low.

What could be more humbling than to accept ourselves as piles of atoms executing the interactions of physics? Note that we could use heaps and heaps more humility in our world. Perhaps this is one route to get there: a principle that also more closely binds us to all other life—to our collective benefit.

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A Religion of Life

Image by Karen .t from Pixabay

The following discussion about belief systems may seem out of place coming from a recovering astrophysicist, and perhaps I am as surprised as you are. But my path has taken me to an unexpected place, so that I now think we would be wise to make a radical course change at the deepest level of what we believe.

Why should we consider a major change?

  • Because we don’t know everything, and never can.
  • Because what we do know tells us we’re on the wrong track, initiating a sixth mass extinction—not just from CO2, but from modernity itself.
  • Because we now (collectively) believe in the wrong things, like human supremacy and economics (gross).
  • These beliefs are actively hurting the living creatures of the planet, including us.

Science has revealed so much about the origins and rules of the universe, and how life came to be so exquisitely diverse. Let’s tap into what this tells us. Let’s also acknowledge that mysteries will always remain. Rather than continue to be paralyzed in this urgent time by what we don’t yet know, let’s fill in the gaps with belief—or even faith—rooted in the science we already do know. Let’s move beyond the current stories we tell ourselves in modernity, and fashion new ones that move us in a better direction—to the enduring benefit of all life on Earth.

I’m not sure I know how to tell this story, so please bear with me and accept my apologies for a long-ish read. For those who saw last week’s post, this one contains familiar echoes, but represents a fresh approach intended for a more general audience.

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My God: It's Evolution!

I never thought it would happen to me, but I’ve had a divine revelation, of sorts. Have you heard the good news?

While being brought up in a Methodist church, and educated for 8 years in Catholic schools (where I went to mass five days a week for the first three years), I abandoned Christianity midway through high school—tentatively traversing an agnostic phase on my way to calling myself an atheist. Now I eat babies and make my clothing out of puppy skins. Just kidding: I am playing off childish myths about atheists, though I now recognize how completely ludicrous and backwards this perception is. Atheists actually eat puppies and use baby skin for clothing. Ah—I can’t stop kidding around.

I’ll skip over all the physics training, astrophysics exposure, outdoor experiences, etc. that contributed to my worldview. Suffice it to say that I found no shortage of phenomena in the world worthy of awe and appreciation. It was all the more amazing to reflect on the simple origins of everything and the emergence of astounding complexity—especially in the spectacle of life. To me, the idea that our biodiverse world rests on a relatively simple set of physical laws makes the outcome FAR more interesting and dazzling than does the comparatively unimaginative invocation of a sentient creator.

The revelation at hand did not arrive all at once. An initial grounding is partly contained in the reading journey I laid out some while back. Most importantly, the writings of Daniel Quinn (who lived for a time in a monastery aiming to be a hard-core Trappist monk) played a major role—recently reinforced by Alex Leff’s excellent podcast treatment of Ishmael. The revelation finally matured in the context of my post from last week on free will, and the illuminating responses it generated.

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Recommended Podcasts

This is a short “bonus” posting about some worthwhile podcasts I have been following lately that might be appreciated by Do the Math readers. I’m not a particularly thorough podcast consumer, often having a spotty relationship even with the ones I enjoy. That said, I’ll start with the most recent, and the one that in fact inspired this posting.

Human Nature Odyssey

Alex Leff has created what I think is a masterpiece in his first “season” of Human Nature Odyssey. The series is an entertaining, engaging treatment of Daniel Quinn’s 1992 book, Ishmael. I read this book and its companions in 2022, finding powerful and important insights that have stuck with me and grown. I highlight these in an account of my reading journey, and later in a dedicated post. Alex brings humorous life to the story in a richly textured production.

I can’t say personally how well the series would work without first reading Ishmael, but I suspect it would still work quite well as a stand-alone experience (Alex intended it to be able to work). I can say that I enjoyed it enough to run through twice. I won’t rule out a third pass—which would be a personal first for any podcast series. So, it receives my highest recommendation. Give it a try, and tell friends and family about it if you enjoy it. No, I am not getting paid or compensated in any way!

Holding the Fire

Dahr Jamail followed his 2020 book The End of Ice with a palliative book together with coauthor Stan Rushworth called We are the Middle of Forever, which presents perspectives from a variety of Indigenous voices within North America (Turtle Island). Holding the Fire expands the effort, in audio form, to an international set of Indigenous people who have wisdom to share. I am struck by the common themes offered by people from such different environments and cultural histories. These commonalities can’t be coincidence, and might light the way for long term success: living on this planet as humble participants within a community of life.

The Great Simplification

I have referenced a few inspirations from this series, by Nate Hagens, in previous posts. Nate talks to leading scholars, thinkers, practitioners, and activists in the world who are engaging with the meta-crisis in various ways. Nate encourages systems thinking that is not ecologically blind, energy blind, materials blind, etc. It is rewarding to learn that others in the world are thinking about these topics, although the number of guests whose narrow focus appears to result in one or another “blindnesses” is its own sort of lesson as to how rare a broad perspective on the meta-crisis is—but Nate gracefully and gently probes some of the blind spots. Besides the regular series (featuring guests), Nate also creates a sidecar “Frankly” series of shorter installments addressing relevant pieces of the puzzle.

Crazy Town

Jason Bradford, Rob Dietz, and Asher Miller—in association with the Post Carbon Institute—gather (in the same room, no less!) to chew on topics and trends relevant to the meta-crisis.  These are fun conversations, with lots of good-humored jabs at each other.  All three are very insightful, compassionate, and well-informed.  Their episodes on mega-wankers like Elon Musk are entertaining, as part of a series on “Phalse Prophets.”

Doomer Optimism

Finally, I am less familiar with this series except that I was a guest on the recent episode 195. That’s right: they’re approaching 200 episodes. Among other guests, they have had Bill Rees, Daniel Schmachtenberger, John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg and Kate Raworth. While I have not explored this one very thoroughly, I resonate with the title, as I am doomerish when it comes to modernity, while remaining oddly optimistic when it comes to humanity.

This statement brings me back to the Ishmael-based podcast (Human Nature Odyssey) mentioned at the top of this post: we can enact other stories going forward—stories of respect, awe, and reciprocity.

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Free Will: Good Riddance

This baby violet-green swallow faces the first big decision of her life: should I stay or should I go, now.

I never cared much for arguments about free will, one way or the other. I put free will into a similar category to other wastes of time in philosophy, like the Great Deceiver concept or the trolley problem. Angels on the head of a pin, anyone? It seemed like one of those unresolvable debates that has persisted for centuries: a tar baby that one would be foolish to punch.

If an opinion was demanded of me, I would say without particular conviction that I leaned toward a position that free will was an illusion, but that I was happy to behave as if I had free will, and then get on with life. My leaning toward illusory free will stemmed from a sense that our decision center is no more than a bolus of interconnected neurons, shaped by many influences in the physical universe.

After listening to a podcast featuring Robert Sapolsky based on his new book Determined (which I have not read yet), I found my position coming into focus. A large majority of people in our society—over 80%—believe in free will. Indeed, it is often pointed out that our criminal justice system is predicated on the concept. Some folks (called compatibilists) adopt a squishy compromise position that attempts to assess how “internal” a decision is (good luck with that). Few members of modernity reject free will completely, but that’s where Sapolsky landed, and I found his arguments to be persuasive.

A recent article by Richard Heinberg explored the interaction between belief in free will and our response to the meta-crisis: can we save the world if we don’t have free will as a motivating engine? Although I am somewhat reluctant to weigh in on the pernicious free will topic, what the hell. I find myself compelled to do so.

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Reasoning with Robots

Image by Văn Tấn from Pixabay

As technology has invaded many facets of our lives, I am guessing that all of us experienced the frustration of trying to reason with algorithmic minds. Have you ever raised your voice to a device, asking “Really!?” We might wonder if the application was designed by an unpaid intern, or if the designer ever tried to use it in realistic circumstances. But no amount of frustration will have an effect. The operating space is prescribed and rigid, so that no matter how many times we try, the thing will stubbornly execute the same boneheaded behavior.

Imagine that a self-driving car in a city detects a voluminous plastic bag in its way. It will stop, and say—perhaps silently to itself—”Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” I could go all day. No, actually I can’t. But it can, and that’s the point. A really sophisticated version might say: “Bag.” “Bag.” “Bag.” “Bag.” Meanwhile, a human driver might look at the bag, and based on the way it waves in the breeze decide that it’s mostly empty, but just looks big, and is safe to drive over without even slowing down—thus avoiding interminable honks from behind.

Arguing with robots would likely be similarly tedious. No matter what insults you are compelled to fling after reaching your frustration threshold, all you get back is the annoyingly repetitive insult: “Meat bag.” “Meat bag.” “Meat bag.”

Meat bag brains have the advantage of being able to take in broader considerations and weave in context from lived experience. We can decide when algorithmic thinking is useful, and when it has limits. Unfortunately, I buy the argument from Iain McGilchrist that modern culture has increasingly programmed people to be more algorithmic in their thinking—in my view via educational systems, video games, and ubiquitous digital interfaces. I often feel like I’m arguing with robots, but of the meat variety.

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A Lifetime Ago

Image by brfcs from Pixabay

Having just ticked over a new year, it’s a fitting moment to think about time.  I have often compared modernity to a fireworks show—dazzling, short, then over—and indeed we often celebrate the New Year with a fireworks display.  Perhaps lasting 10 minutes, the display occupies one fifty-thousandth of the year.  This is like the past 50 years of explosive impact relative to the 2.5–3 million years of humans on Earth, or our 10,000 year agricultural period compared to the time since a different explosion: the Cambrian.  Our current ways are indeed as transient as a fireworks show, also marking a sort of culmination of a long era.  But let’s approach temporal perspective from a different angle.

Growing up, I thought of World War II as ancient history: long before my time. But now, I have lived more than twice the span that separated WWII from my birth in 1970. Only 25 years elapsed between the end of WWII and 1970, while we’re presently 54 years away from 1970. 25 years, I now realize, is nothing! When I was born, WWII was still fresh in the minds of many who had lived through it.  Indeed, both my grandfathers fought in WWII, carrying the physical and psychological scars to prove it.  To my grandfathers at the time of my birth, WWII seemed like “only yesterday,” as 1999 seems to me now.

A related trick is to keep track of the date that was as distant from your birth as you are today. In other words, the year in which your anti-self who lives backward in time would find themselves. For instance, I was born at the beginning of 1970 (which also happens to be the start of Unix time), and therefore find myself about 54 years from my birth date. Thus 54 years prior to my birth date is 1916, smack into the middle of the first World War. I can probably expect my backward self to make it past the turn of the century, before the fireworks show of modern life really got underway: before airplanes, for instance.

But the main point of this post is that the past, and all “history” isn’t really that far back. We’ll play a game based on the question: who was the oldest person alive when the oldest person today was born, and likewise back to the more distant past.

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