Shedding our Fossil Fuel Suit

iron man-esque graphic

From Pixabay (Ramdlon)

Fossil fuels have leveraged human power and ingenuity to a remarkable degree. Their discovery and accelerating utilization utterly transformed lifestyles, achievements, and even how we perceive ourselves as a species.

Yet, one thing we know for certain about fossil fuels is that they are a finite resource on this planet—slowly developed in select locations over hundreds of millions of years and being used about a million times faster than the rate of production. We know that we have already consumed a sizable fraction of the initial inheritance: perhaps now halfway through the irreplaceable allotment of oil. So we know that this phase of the human adventure is a temporary one.

The quintessential graphic for conveying this idea is one I have used many times, because I believe it is the most important plot modern humans could possibly absorb. Human energy use has shot up in the last 150 years, and in the context of fossil fuels will plummet on a similar timescale, leaving—what, exactly?

fossil fuel usage is recent, fast, and will be over soon

The fossil fuel energy explosion that powers our current fireworks show is a momentary phenomenon that will be over in a historically short time.

Over timescales relevant to civilization (which began 10,000 years ago with agriculture and cities), plots of almost anything relating to human activity look like hockey sticks: population, agricultural output, industrial output, mined materials, deforestation, species extinctions, and so on. Many of these certainly correlate to population growth, but the per capita impacts also have shot up, compounding the human footprint to a frightening degree. At this point, humans and their livestock account for 96% of mammal mass on the planet, leaving a mere 4% for all wild animals (half of this from massive whales and other marine mammals). It’s not just a footprint any more: it’s a boot on the throat of the planet, leaving non-human life gasping and silently begging for even a little mercy. Is anybody getting video of this?

Almost all of this explosive impact can be traced to fossil fuels, which I have started visualizing as a suit donned by humans that has given us literal superpowers. What would we be without our fancy suit?

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Human Exceptionalism

From Pixabay/Activedia

For almost two decades now, I have been on a journey to understand what comes next in the grand human enterprise. I started out in a mindset superficially similar to that of most people I encounter—assuming that we would innovate our way into a future that became ever better: less poverty and hunger; greater conveniences; a probable space future—fingers crossed.

But the more I dug into the details, the more concerned I became that such a grand vision is an illusion built on top of a highly anomalous period in human history when we over-exploited finite resources on Earth in a one-time bonanza—using those resources to access remaining resources ever faster in an accelerating cycle. I constantly sought reassurance as to what I had wrong about this picture, but found little solace. Those who tried to ease my mind spoke in vague praise of human capabilities and pointed to the arc of history as a reliable pattern by which to understand the future. I did not get the impression that they had confronted my specific concerns and had a blueprint for how to navigate past the pile-up of global-scale problems and irreversible consumption of our inheritance.

Lately, as I meet other academics (via PLAN) who have come to similar conclusions (sober, deep, and careful thinkers, I find), a frequent question that arises is: how can something that seems so obvious to us be dismissed by so many others? What are we missing? Or what are they missing? Why is it so hard to reach common ground? Where is the disconnect?

An answer—or at least a partial one—is beginning to resolve itself in my head. Previously, I tended to focus on growth and ecological overshoot as the most important “upstream” factors impacting our complex civilization on our road to an uncertain future, while issues like climate change and political/social considerations are downstream effects (symptoms) that will not get solved without first addressing root causes (the underlying disease). But maybe I have stumbled onto something even more foundational—the headwaters (pathogen), if you will—and am starting to pinpoint why our peril is so hard to grasp.

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Don’t Look Surprised

planet-killer impact

From Pixabay/Comfreak.

I just watched Don’t Look Up! on Netflix. While the movie has a number of flaws, on the whole I recommend it for the insights it contains in its parody of human attention deficit disorder.

The premise is that astronomers discover a comet on a direct collision course with Earth, due to hit in six months’ time. The world has difficulty assimilating this information, quickly polarizing into the all-too-familiar pattern of believers and deniers. Moneyed interests, techno-optimism, and old-fashioned failures (by non-Americans, of course) thwart mitigation efforts, leaving the entire globe in mortal peril.  Even at a public event dedicated to the planet-killing crisis, the highlight was a pop star’s performance featuring dazzling lights and costumes. How ’bout them priorities!

Yes, it’s complete fiction, so we need to be careful about drawing lessons from the storyline—just as I would caution against forming opinions of space travel from the big screen. Aside from a list of technical nitpicks, I suspect that something as predictable/certain as a comet slamming into Earth would be taken far more seriously and be more universally accepted than are the more nebulous threats we currently face like limits to growth, climate change, and even COVID-19.

This post lacks a single overarching message, but explores a few worthy themes that the movie brings up for me.

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My Brainwashing

From Pixabay/Tumisu.

People rarely recognize or admit that they have been brainwashed. Perhaps the term brainwashed is too extreme, in which case manipulated or fooled may be substituted.

An insightful quote from Mark Twain says:

It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.

What often happens, in fact, is that people on opposite sides of an issue suspect (or are convinced) that the other side has been brainwashed. Sometimes one side is more justified in the charge than the other, in which case the brainwashed victims effectively assert a sort of projected symmetry that rings false.

Bi-directional allegations of brainwashing show up in the context of COVID: masks provide a clear means of identifying either those (masked individuals) who have been fooled into controlled submission to believe that the pandemic is real and deadly vs. those (unmasked fighters for freedom) who have been sadly misled to think it’s all a hoax and in so doing endanger us all. Each side may feel anger or pity toward the other.  Climate change is similar: its denial has become an article of faith for the brainwashed non-believers, who accuse the gullible believers of being brainwashed by self-serving scientists vying for funding, power, or something (cake, maybe?).

To either side, it seems inconceivable that someone could deny the truths that are so obvious to them. For me, an uptick in total deaths closely matching reports of COVID deaths is pretty convincing, and it is hard for me to make out why anyone in power would want to wreck the economy and could somehow convince countries around the world to overlook a competitive advantage and follow suit. It boggles the mind. Likewise, I can see how climate change threatens powerful interests like the fossil fuel industry and even perhaps capitalism writ large—via the imposition of unwelcome limits on what we can do. But I have a much harder time understanding the bizarre allegations of scientists rolling in dough by hopping on the climate change bandwagon. That’s not how it works, people.

In this post, I will provide an example of how I evaluate the question of whether I have been brainwashed in the case of climate change, contrasting the way my knowledge is “received” to that of the opposition.

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Caught Up in Complexity

From analogicus, via Pixabay

Readers of this blog will know that I have come to some big-picture conclusions about success and failure that are unsettling. I don’t like them myself. Not only do they create an inner sadness about where I think the human endeavor is heading, but they result in a sort of isolation that I would rather not suffer—introvert though I am. Among other academics at my institution, it is rare for me to find kindred spirits, even among groups self-selected to care about environmental issues. Most don’t seem to see very far beyond climate change in the lineup of existential threats, increasingly focusing on inequities within the human population that stem from climate and environmental disturbances. I am glad that climate change awareness is high (a genuine threat), but even if climate change had never arisen, I think we would still be in grave trouble from the more fundamental flaws in our explosive approach to living on Earth.

This is a large part of the impetus behind PLAN, which I announced in the last post. Already, I am gratified that people joining the network from vastly different fields and experiences have formed similar conclusions at the highest level. So I’m not crazy, unless we all are. In any case, I am less lonely. [I will say that crazy is usually easy to spot in conversation: a little too insistent/enthusiastic/one-track. The PLAN folks feel really solid, broad, and even perhaps subdued to me: not the type you want to back away from at a party.]

But I still try to understand why so few of my colleagues have reached similar conclusions. The easy answer is that I’m just plain wrong. But believe me, I have tormented myself to try to discover the missing piece and go back to being a happy human bumping along in this race to who-knows-where. It’s not that my unconcerned colleagues have thought more deeply about the issues and can help a rookie out, in my experience.

In this post, I venture some guesses about the disconnect—some of which may even be on target. I will loosely frame the discussion in the context of academia, but much of the logic  also applies beyond this scope. The basic idea is: complexity makes it hard to differentiate between  real and artificial worlds.

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Finally, a PLAN

A few years back, I was contacted by Ben McCall—a chemist then at the University of Illinois—about forming a network of academics concerned about the larger challenges facing humanity. The idea was that a number of scattered scholars in various random disciplines might be well aware of limits to growth, energy, and capacity of ecosystems to accommodate human activities, but isolated from each other and within unsympathetic or at least poorly-aligned departments. I identified strongly with this condition and sense of isolation.  For instance, although physicists and astrophysicists have tools relevant to assessing our current predicament, few apply their skills at this level, working instead on deep but narrow questions—as I myself have done for years.  Yet, if we botch civilization, will that type of work survive or have meaning?  Many departments and professional societies therefore lack the community and collaborative opportunities for folks who want to contribute to a higher-level dialog about humanity’s choices.

So Ben pulled together a group of five individuals from a broad range of academic fields to nucleate a network so that we might find kindred spirits and build a diverse academic family united by a shared sense that the trajectory of the human endeavor is not viable, and will come to a bad end if not acknowledged and addressed. By banding together, we would hope to stimulate collaborations and develop ideas that otherwise would be unlikely to emerge. It’s like the setup to many jokes: an astrophysicist, anthropologist, and cognitive scientist walk into a bar. What happens next? What compelling insights and research projects might emerge?

We plodded along for a number of years, constrained by so many other pulls in life. But we have emerged from the long gestation having formed the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; PLANetwork; planet work; lots of ways to play on the name). Do we have a plan? Sort-of.

Step 1 was to write a perspective piece that presents our take on the modern world and its existential challenges. This recently emerged as a paper entitled: Modernity is Incompatible with Planetary Limits: Developing a PLAN for the Future. I hope you will take some time to read the piece. Do the Math readers will recognize a number of tidbits from ideas presented on the blog.

Step 2 was to create a website, which is at planetarylimits.net. It’s not professionally constructed (you get what you pay for), but should serve to get the network off the ground.

Step 3 is recruitment. We have two roles for the website:

  1. Subscriber: For those who would like occasional updates on what PLAN is doing and access to some of the (eventual) website content.
  2. Member: For active academics/scholars who are engaged in production of scholarly work (peer-reviewed publications, for instance) and could potentially collaborate in scholarly pursuits relating to PLAN interests. It does not matter if these individuals have not published in this space before: that’s part of what PLAN aims to change.

A third role of Collaborator is available for committed members who intend to be active contributors to new “scholarly” products, and will be able to (eventually) search for and contact other Collaborators based on concerns, field of study, and other criteria.

So please visit the site and consider joining as a subscriber (anyone) or applying for membership (active scholars). As we are just starting, early members will have opportunities to define and steer the course of PLAN.

So far, PLAN has attracted a fantastic set of big-picture thinkers from a number of fields.  It is a community I can’t wait to get to know better.  I feel like I have found my people!

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Crazy Town Podcast

Crazy Town Podcast Logo

If you’ve enjoyed Do the Math even just a little bit over the years, you have Asher Miller to thank, in part. Asher is the Executive Director of the Post Carbon Institute, whose work I had been following for a few years when I reached out in 2011. I reported that I was going to be passing through their neighborhood, and asked if they would be up for a meeting. I spent a few hours with Asher, and he encouraged me to commit some of my ideas and analyses to writing, suggesting a blog format that could be re-posted to the Energy Bulletin, which is now Resilience.org.

So I took his advice. Within a month, I created Do the Math, and the Energy Bulletin promptly picked up my first post on Galactic Scale Energy, which then found its way to reddit. Thus, within a few days of publishing my first blog post, I had hit the 100,000 page view mark. That strong start—and even the fact that it started at all—is due in no small measure to Asher’s encouragement, suggestion, and the close connection between PCI and the Energy Bulletin.

Fast-forward a decade, and I again was set to pass through PCI’s (relocated) haunt. I again reached out to Asher, who suggested that I stop in for a podcast recording of Crazy Town, which he does with Jason Bradford (PCI Board President; on his farm) and Rob Dietz (PCI Program Director). We had a fun time together, and an enjoyable conversation, which you can listen to on your podcast app of choice by clicking this link, or you could try this semi-permanent link to the “bonus” episode in question.

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Talking to "Other"

Movie poster from Enemy Mine

I have had some success over the years in talking with people who on the surface do not seem to be very much like myself. Superficially, I am a west-coast liberal elite professor who has cats in lieu of children. My tribal affiliation seems clear, yet I am often at ease discussing heavy stuff with all types.

In a recent conversation with a neighbor whose votes likely exactly counter my own, I believe I made substantial progress in broadening his views on COVID vaccinations, news sources, conspiracy theories, and maybe more.

In this post, I’ll run through key messages in that conversation and elements that I believe may have allowed those messages to land. Then I will discuss more broadly some attributes that I think make substantive conversations with unlikely interlocutors possible.

First, we’ll start with my neighbor, Chip. That’s not his real name, but I want to convey a sense of a man’s man. Chip owns and operates heavy machinery, knows his way around concrete, and loves going fishing on his boat.

I took some honey harvested from my bees to thank Chip for loaning me two massive iron spikes that I used as anchors driven deep into the ground to drag something heavy across the dirt. The conversation we had ranged all over, but I capture main themes here as an example of how one might make progress, perhaps offering tips that may allow others to have similar success.

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Credibility from Apparent Hypocrisy

Flip the script! Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Purveyors of unpopular messages are often scrutinized for any inconsistent, seemingly hypocritical behavior that might give lie to their preachings and be used to discredit the unwelcome perspective. A famous example is Al Gore’s heavy air travel schedule to spread the word and take action against climate change, resulting in an enormous CO2 footprint. If we all behaved that way, the very problem at hand would be substantially exacerbated.

Such accusations either knowingly or pathetically miss the obvious point that the net effect of Al Gore’s efforts may be positive owing to the simple idea of a lever: a little expenditure here can counteract vast expenditures elsewhere for an overall gain on the problem. For many, the glaring superficial contradiction is enough ammunition to discredit the entire enterprise.

But identifying possible hypocrisy in those who warn of future perils, as I have done, has a dark edge: if even those cognizant individuals cannot get away from behaviors they know to be damaging, doesn’t that only amplify the severity of the warning?

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Growth Is Our Old Yeller

Poster for the 1957 film Old Yeller

Growth has been our close companion for centuries, and we love it to pieces. It makes politicians swoon, economists dance, investors giggle, and community planners smile.

The only problem is that this friend is about to turn into our greatest enemy.  Pursuit of growth—in money and resource exploitation—has a flip side on Earth’s ecosystems.  Up until now, we mostly saw the good side of growth: conveniences, technology, health care, security.  Becoming apparent is the toll this misguided focus is taking on our irreplaceable home.  No amount of money (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men) can restore lost species and destroyed ecosystems.  So maybe money is a bad metric for what really matters, yeah?

I have struggled to come up with a good analogy for growth that will help us process what it means.  The best I have come up with (and only recently) is that growth is like Old Yeller.  If you’re not familiar with the 1957 film, it’s a real tear jerker.  I remember bawling in concert with my sister when the amazing dog—dearly loved by the family for getting them out of many a pickle—contracted rabies, became aggressive toward the family, and had to be shot.  That’s right: a kid’s movie ended with the beloved central character being shot dead.  Those were different times.  What you really wanted in a kid’s movie was for your children to emerge wrecked. (I also saw Jaws at age 6 and have been scarred since.)

Growth has likewise been this fantastic friend: all upside, upside, upside.  But the rabid side is beginning to show, and our ultimate success depends on killing it.  There will be tears.  Many will bargain, unable to accept the necessity of ending growth.  But it’s no use.  The physics is clear.

Please use the comment forum to suggest other (better) analogies.  Not straying too far, it may be like raising a lion: awfully adorable as a cub, but ultimately a mortal threat to have in the house.  It’s possible that better analogies can be conjured.

P.S. I wrote this in 24 minutes, so please excuse the shortness and sloppiness.

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