Cheaters!

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

No, the title does not refer to fast felines. I’m talking about the humans of modernity, who I characterized as “rule breakers” in the last post. The context was in considering an encounter between a speeding vehicle and a deer, concluding that the deer did nothing wrong by wandering onto a road, and does not deserve a death penalty. The road is in the wrong, by being there. The car is “wrong” by being—contextually speaking—an impossibly fast instrument of death. And, of course, the humans did something wrong by operating so far out of line with what the rest of the community of life is prepared to handle by the rules of evolution and of living on this planet.

Sometimes, an old-timer will say something like: If man was made to fly [or swim, etc.], God would have made him with wings [or gills, etc.]. Aha, the modern human will say: but God gave us big brains so we can engineer wings [scuba equipment, etc.]—never asking whether it will do net good or net harm to the community of life. This is what I mean by cheating.

Continue reading

Hits: 1788

Deer in the Headlights

Too late to stop. Must hit deer or car. Pick a lane.

Do the Math readers have surely noticed a new bone I like to gnaw of late: human supremacy. For me, this started in early 2022 with a post that I called at the time Human Exceptionalism. Since then, I recognize that humans are indeed exceptional, as are other species—each in their own ways. In the 20 months since writing the “exceptionalism” post—bolstered by things I’ve read in the interim—my sense has only strengthened that the perception of separateness began in earnest when we started mastering land and beast via agriculture and herding, became far more pronounced during the Enlightenment, and now is the chief engine behind modernity and the meta-crisis. I recommend a magnificent book chapter by Eileen Crist from 2015 (republished at Resilience) that was missing from my life these past 8 years. At this point, I would far sooner try to address the root problem of human supremacy than engage in any talk of technology—which simply becomes a tool to effect human supremacist aims to the ultimate detriment of all..

If we could somehow stamp out human supremacy, I believe that humans would spontaneously organize differently, prioritize the more-than-human world, begin to place more value on the far future, set aside science/technology fetishism to focus on deeper values, and—in short—become wiser. Many of the ills caused by modernity would simply melt away under a new worldview, accompanied by a complete overhaul of how we think, know, and live. Many of the actions of today would seem unthinkable and repulsive under a non-supremacist worldview.

So how might we stamp out human supremacy? One step is to employ tools that help us recognize it in ourselves. Are you a human supremacist? I was. No doubt I still harbor aspects of the scurrilous affliction, embedded as I am within modernity. My apologies (and respect) if you happen to be the rare bird who has escaped the cage, but the safest assumption for now is that you are indeed a human supremacist—whether you recognize it or not—as that’s what our culture produces en masse. If you don’t like the suggestion that you’re a human supremacist, then good! That’s a great starting place, and I could hardly ask for more. Most racists bristle at being called racist, which is adorable in a contemptible sort of way.

This post proposes a crude test for deep-seated human supremacist attitudes. It has echoes of the classic “trolley problem,” and I hate myself for that. But the setup is not as hypothetical or unlikely. Also, rather than the intractable weighing of (sacred) human lives against action/inaction, I think this one has a clearer logical resolution.

The Scenario

Two cars rapidly approach each other on a two-lane road that for a short span has no shoulders (e.g., guard rails, steep bluffs). Shortly before the cars reach each other, a large deer suddenly pops out into one lane and freezes. It is too late to brake in time to avoid hitting the deer, so the only choice on the part of the unlucky driver is to plow into the massive deer at windshield height or swerve into the oncoming car for a destructive head-on collision and near-certain death of those in both cars. In order to bypass the effect of self-preservation, let us stipulate that the driver in the lane with the deer will die either way, and knows this. Which choice makes sense? Is it obvious to you?

Continue reading

Hits: 1971

Are WE Lucky?

What if we ask a rough-skinned newt, assigning it greater importance than is customary?

To prevent the reader from wondering if they have the wrong blog, I will warn that this post starts in an unfamiliar voice. In some respects, it reflects a younger me. But mostly it channels views familiar to modernity, by no coincidence.  We start with a guy (of course) hogging the microphone.

Space is cool. Astronauts are badass. Maybe me too, someday.

What we’ve learned is amazing—we have tamed so much—our reach and control are ever-increasing.

Information and analysis are accelerating: we’re on our way to mastering everything.

We have learned to outmaneuver all limits. Nothing can stop us from having it all—even immortality may be in the cards soon.

We are so lucky to have pulled ourselves out of the muck—no longer mere animals.

We are so lucky to be as clever as we are: ingenious innovators.

We are so lucky (and brilliant) to have found the fossil fuels that powered our ascent—but that’s just the start.

What’s this you say? Growth can’t go forever on a finite planet?

Well, not to worry: did I mention that space is cool, and that it is in our nature to skirt past limits?

What’s that? Space colonization is a juvenile fantasy, you say?

No, I can’t prove that it’s destined to happen. But why would the burden of proof be on me, when it’s so obvious that’s where we’re heading? What relevance is it that we have no examples even remotely close to sustainable living in space over long durations?

What’s this? Fossil fuels are finite and likely to decline this century?

No matter. Renewable energy: solar, wind, nuclear!

Don’t be a pest. It’s beside the point that nuclear is not renewable—you know what I mean: unlimited energy awaits. Fusion, then.

Wait: too many things at once:

  1. Of course unlimited energy is a great thing—why the hell wouldn’t it be?
  2. Why should it be relevant that we’ve never built solar panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels?
  3. What does it even matter if these technologies use ten times the mined resources as fossil fuels? Earth is enormous.
  4. Surely, you jest that we don’t have ways to make concrete and steel, carry on our mining practices, support air travel and global shipping without fossil fuels. I can probably find a cute demonstration blasting each of these, or at least imagine them—which is theoretically enough.
  5. I don’t understand the relevance of your point that most of our 8 billion people are fed by the fruits of fossil fuels for fertilizer and mechanization: we’ll just do something different/better!

So don’t get hung up on fossil fuels! Yes, they are causing climate change, but that’s just another hiccup that we’ll master and tame in the usual heroic fashion: just look at the explosion of solar and wind and electric cars (now roaring up to a few percent penetration!). We’re lucky, remember! Fossil fuels are just a stepping stone to an even richer future. Failure is not an option, say I: we’re increasingly capable and increasingly in control. Our destiny is clear: just look at how far we’ve come! This trajectory must continue. To think otherwise ludicrously ignores a centuries-long trend—even if you do claim to rest your argument on biophysical reality and not on an inheritance-spending extrapolation lasting only a handful of human lifetimes. It’s only your toxic (lack of?) imagination and lack of faith that threatens our greatness: we have to believe in order to mold reality to our dreams.

Hey—how dare you! Give. Me. (grunt) Back. That. MICRoph…

Continue reading

Hits: 2325

Can Modernity Last?

Image by Daniel Borker from Pixabay

Do the Math started out with a pair of posts about limits to growth. Galactic-Scale Energy pointed out the nonsense that results from continued growth in energy use, and Can Economic Growth Last? turned to the economic implications of stalled physical growth. This combination of topics later appeared in a dinner conversation between myself and an economist. The same pairing also evolved into chapters 1 and 2 of the textbook I wrote in 2021. And if that wasn’t enough, I published a paper in Nature Physics called Limits to Economic Growth based on the same theme. When I do podcast interviews, the hosts often want to step through this (powerful) logic.

Perhaps the result has me sounding like a broken record. It feels to me like the song “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fans will not allow the band to perform a concert without playing this classic hit. There’d be riots. I’ve had a lot to say following those two posts in 2011, and have especially taken a profound turn in the last few years. But the point remains central to our modern predicament, and until we all have it firmly planted in our heads that growth is a very temporary phase that must end, I guess I could do worse than repeating myself to new audiences—and to veterans holding up lighters.

In this post, I echo the bedrock question of whether economic growth can last with the question of whether modernity can last (see the previous post for definition and possible inevitability). Okay, nothing lasts. The whole universe is only 13.8 billion years old. The sun and the earth are only about 4.5 billion years old, and will be around in recognizable form for a comparable time into the future. Species typically hang around for millions of years. Homo sapiens is a few hundred-thousand years old. Depending on definitions, modernity has been around for at least a century or as long as 10,000 years—brief in either case, in the scheme of things. Nothing is forever, but how long might modernity last?

Whether modernity can last is perhaps a more important question than whether growth can last. The fact that growth can’t last is shocking enough for many. But it still allows mental space for maintaining our current way of life—just no longer growing. But is that even possible? I can’t be as confident in my answer as I am for growth, since the question of growth comes down to incontrovertible concepts and, well, math. Still, I strongly suspect the answer to this new question is “no” as well, and in this post I’ll expound on my misgivings.

[Note: I had another post in 2021 enumerating reasons to worry about collapse, which is a relevant but—I would say—less enlightened precursor to this piece. Since then, I have become aware of the important role of human supremacy, the materials difficulties associated with renewable energy, the crushing numbers on loss of biodiversity, and have released my anxious grasp on modernity—having better appreciated the more-than-human world and our role within the greater community of life.]

Continue reading

Hits: 16678

Was Modernity Inevitable?

I seem to love asking questions that can’t be answered definitively. Yet, attempting to do so can yield useful insights. I am gearing up to post a sizable piece about whether we can expect modernity to last, but realized that it would probably be a good idea to first take a stab at defining modernity, and to explore whether this phase in human history basically had to happen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I lean toward the conclusion that modernity was inevitable. My position is reasonably strengthened by the observation that we are, in fact, where we are. It would be much harder to argue the counterfactual that modernity was unlikely, and simply wrong to say that it could not have happened.

I am finding that a number of people reject any application of determinism to human affairs—the insulting notion that we might be subject to dynamics beyond our awareness or control. As with many things these days, I tend to suspect such reactions as stemming from a sense of human supremacy: “surely we humans have transcended base forces and bring full agency to all that we do…” I, however, am perfectly comfortable seeing humans and cultures caught in a current, so will proceed on those grounds.

In its broadest sense, we might say that the biggest discontinuity in human ways is between hunter-gatherer mode and agricultural mode, as permanent settlements, cities, and nations only become possible in an agricultural context. From this high perch, “modernity” might be interchanged with “civilization,” and therefore extend to earlier times, while those on lower branches might conceive that modernity started with televisions or smart phones. You can’t please everyone. One thing I have noticed is that people seem to be somewhat willing to accept the notion of modernity’s end, but react more strongly to the notion of civilization’s end. So some distinction lurks in the minds of people between these two—probably in how far back we would have to set the clock upon modernity’s failure (1980 isn’t so bad, but 10,000 years back?  Eeek!).  I will use the term modernity throughout, but personally am willing to substitute civilization much of the time.

The term “anthropocene” is often used to describe the modern age. This is meant to delineate a new geological era dominated by the presence of humans on the planet. The idea has definite merit, given the overflowing presence of humans on the planet and our devastating impact on climate and biodiversity. My main beef with the anthropocentric term is that I wonder if it makes sense to give an era (or epoch) name to something that may be over as quickly as it started.  We don’t have a name for the era between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic marked by the chaotic period in the aftermath of the comet impact 66 million years ago.  Likewise, this disruptive moment may simply delineate two eras, while the disruption itself is brief enough to appear like the thin black layer in the rock between two periods.  In any case, this post will partly lean on this human-dominance aspect in assessing inevitability.

Continue reading

Hits: 2487

The Dawn of Everything

Graeber and Wengrow’s book The Dawn of Everything keeps coming up in my life—especially as I dip an amateur toe into trying to understand human prehistory—so I thought I had better take a look. The title sounded promising, and I had heard that the book offers many pieces of interpreted evidence from humanity’s distant past. I like data.

I elected to “preview” the book as an audiobook borrowed from the library, jotting 32 pages of notes as I went along. 24 audio-hours later, I am ready to report. A key point from the authors is: it didn’t have to be this way. To which I say: but it is. Making a convincing case that it could have gone much differently is a tall order given a single—seemingly conclusive—global experimental run. But we’ll get to all that.

I will say up front that I am unqualified to supply a scholarly critique of the book. I can’t argue about any of the archeological evidence, but do find that I have a few bones to pick when it comes to logic and interpretation.

Before I got very far into the book, I wrote down some things I wanted to learn from it.

  1. Is my basic understanding correct: that agriculture leads straight to modernity, in time?
  2. Will the book provide insight into the emergence of human supremacy—a false sense of separateness or transcendence above nature that drives much of modernity?
  3. Does the book talk about animist belief systems and how languages embodied different ways of thinking?
  4. Does the book present our history in the context of one-time inheritance spending of, e.g., fossil fuels and ecological health?
  5. Is the “Everything” in the title broader than an anthropocentric focus on the last 10,000 years as civilizations arose?

I can say that the answer to all these questions is, disappointingly, no. But I’ll be a bit slippery on the first point, in due time.

Continue reading

Hits: 2301

Married to an Axe Murderer

The day you met your spouse, it was love at first sight. They were charming, witty, warm and affectionate, good-looking, complimentary, showered you with gifts, devoted time to you, pledged to look after you into your old age and even to help take care of your aging parents. They impressed you with their big dreams: raising a family, buying a big house, owning expensive cars, traveling the world, and they were inexplicably adept at putting meat on the table.

It goes without saying that you got married. What a lucky catch!

It didn’t take long before suspicions arose: unaccountable nocturnal absences; waking to the sound of laundry being done at 4 AM; an odd reluctance to move the axe out of the car trunk and into the garage with the other tools. But why spoil a good thing with awkward questions? Life for you is going great, so better not to rock the boat with silly notions of some monstrous secret. Plus, you’re in love!

But the cops finally caught up and your yard turned into a media-infested nightmare. It took ages to even accept the possibility that this was real—not a case of mistaken identity or wrongful framing. How could such a generous and loving partner really be a violent menace?

So here’s the thing: Modernity is an axe murderer, and we’re—unfortunately—married to it. It isn’t hard to see modernity’s fatal flaw of being constitutionally unsustainable, and that it’s on a violent rampage. Turns out it’s been out at nights murdering the planet.

So how do we react? What does this mean for us?

Continue reading

Hits: 1793

Learning to Walk Again

For many years now, I have made efforts to live differently—initially motivated by a sense of resource limits and the recognition that scaling back could have a dramatic effect if adopted widely. I was able to cut my domestic energy demand by a factor of four or five. I changed my habits of diet, travel, heating/cooling, laundry, showering, consumer activity, and much else.

Yet I remain firmly in the grip of modern ways. I am still a member of “normal” society, and don’t (yet) draw stares when I go out in public. I live in a house, drive a car (sparingly), buy food at a grocery store, and eat lunch at the university food court. Yes, I could shed more of these. I could try a living in a yurt, getting by without owning a car, and finding ways to get my food locally without scanning bar codes. But even though I have gone much farther than most, going “all the way” has always felt a little overboard to me. It edged up to seeming performative; to virtue-signaling; to those choices becoming the focus instead of a means. I often think of it in terms of trying to convince a group of hikers to make better progress: you don’t do it by disappearing over the horizon and losing influence. You’re better off staying close enough to encourage others along.

When reading the book Hospicing Modernity, by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, I came across this great analogy:

There is a popular saying in Brazil that illustrates this insight using water… The saying goes that in a flood situation, it is only when the water reaches people’s hips that it becomes possible for them to swim. Before that, with the water at our ankles or knees, it is only possible to walk or to wade. In other words, we might only be able to learn to swim—that is, to exist differently—once we have no other choice.

I instantly had a new friend in this metaphor. In fact, it filled a gaping hole that had been present for many years. Sure, I could flop down and try to swim right now, but I would look a fool floundering in the muddy water. Yet, I can help prepare myself and others for the day when we must swim.

As much as I love this framing, one thing bothers me about it, and I have a proposed alternative, but it has the downside of requiring a longer telling.

Continue reading

Hits: 3236

Our Time on the River

A post from last year titled The Ride of Our Lives explored the game theory aspect of modernity: those who adopted grain agriculture and new technologies had a competitive advantage over neighbors who didn’t. The “winners” were destined to be those who followed the path that we now call progress.

In that post, I used the metaphor of a gentle stream turning into a swift river—by now a raging class-5 rapid—heading toward an inevitable waterfall as a feature simply built into the landscape from the start. In this post, we will examine this river more closely, pausing to pay tribute to the various tributaries that contribute to its estimable flow. I even drew a map!

Metaphorical map of modernity’s journey. The orange time references relate to the post: The Simple Story of Civilization. Click the image to enlarge.

Here is a PDF (vector graphics) version.  I suggest having this open in another window while reading the post.

Continue reading

Hits: 3964

Ecological Cliff Edge

The numbers had already left impressionable marks on me, and as they swirled in my head for some months I certainly had a sense for the urgent warning they wanted me to hear. But it wasn’t until I rubbed the numbers together that the message really rang out. Then plotting the historical evolution shook me anew.  I was staring at the ecological cliff we appear to be driving over.

Let’s build the punchline from a few facts that were already rattling around in my head. Human population, at 8 billion today, was 1 billion around the year 1800. At a global average human mass of 50 kg, that’s 400 Mt (megatons) of humans—matching the 390 Mt I had seen in a superb graphic from Greenspoon et al., shown later in this post. This same graphic shows wild land mammal mass at 20 Mt today. I also knew that wild land mammal mass was about 4 times higher in 1800, and 5 times higher 10,000 years ago.

Put these together, and what do you get? In 1800, every human on the planet had a corresponding 80 kg of mammal mass in the wild. Wild land mammals outweighed humans in an 80:50 ratio.

Today, each human on the planet can only point to 2.5 kg of wild mammal mass as their “own.”

Let that sink in. You only have 2.5 kg (less than 6 pounds) of wild mammal out there somewhere. A single pet cat or dog generally weighs more. Not that long ago, it was more than you could carry. Now, it seems like hardly anything!  I especially fear the implications for mammals should global food distribution be severely crippled.

The graph is even more alarming to me.

Mass ratio (left axis) and total mass (right axis) of wild land mammal mass per person on the planet.  Note the logarithmic vertical axis, as is necessary to show the wide range of values.

The vertical scale is logarithmic in order to show the enormous range involved. The precipitous drop in the present age is staggering. How can we look at this and think that we’re heading in the right direction? That’s modernity for you, folks.

Continue reading

Hits: 6794