Recent reflections on the long-term trajectory of the human enterprise have somewhat transformed the way I look at most activities. Specifically, I refer to the dual realizations that on 10,000 year timescales ultimate success is effectively synonymous with true sustainability, and that the human race stands in blatant breach of contract with evolution and ecosystem parameters—fueled by a mad grab of one-time finite resources. The net effect is that most human activities today promote ultimate failure rather than ultimate success.
As such, when evaluating a proposed or ongoing effort, I ask myself the question:
To what end?
This post will examine some of the activities of current society, and evaluate how much sense they make in the context of a post-party future.
Evolution is like a lengthy job application process. Each new species endures a long and harsh vetting procedure to judge what role it plays in the ecosystem, how prepared it is to deal with lean years, predators, disease, climate variations, and anything that might reasonably be expected to arise even once in a thousand generations. Those species not able to satisfy the impartial judges of nature are voted off the island. It’s a tough crowd.
The successful species—the ones that have held on for many thousands of generations—essentially have signed a contract with nature. The contract is implicitly a “common law” arrangement: if you’ve stayed with us this long, you’re (indifferently) accepted as part of the family.
The terms of the contract are also implicit: as long as you continue to operate within the parameters by which you were judged to be adequate members of the ecosystem, you enjoy the built-in protection of that same ecosystem to continue survival, having carved out a role integrated into the rest by a complex web of interdependencies.
Humans signed our contract with evolution based on a primitive lifestyle that persisted for hundreds of thousands of years. We also inherited clauses from ancestor species, whose capabilities we incrementally altered, thus extending the vetting span to millions of years.
Humans today stand in gross violation of our pact with nature. We are egregiously in breach of contract. Our protections are thereby revoked.
A 2018 paper by Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo in PNAS contains a fascinating figure (Figure 1) that bears staring at for some time. It shows the dry carbon biomass distribution of various forms of life on Earth. Plants account for 450 Gt (giga-ton; 1012 kg) of mass, while the sum of all animals adds to 2.5 Gt. Humans comprise only 2.4% of animal mass on the planet, but that’s almost ten times as large as wild mammal mass. Add human livestock (outweighing human mass) and wild mammals are only 4% of the human-livestock-mammal trio.
But this post is heading somewhere else: lament about the un-wilding of the planet on your own time (kidding aside, please do!). Let’s start by considering the following question. Which do you think is more valuable: the web of living animals on this planet, or all the gold accessible in the ground? If given a choice to eliminate one and preserve the other, which would you choose? Gold, among Earth’s mineral stocks, is used for this question because it has served as a physically-based monetary standard for many cultures throughout time.
What follows has absurd elements to it, but hopefully in forgivable service of a larger point about the value of life on this planet and in shining a glaring spotlight on current human values.
This is the TV poster for “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.” (CNS photo/Netflix)
If you have not already watched A Life on Our Planet, serving as a witness statement from Sir David Attenborough, please find a way to do so. During his experience-rich lifetime, Attenborough has had a front row seat to the steady whittling down of nature. Any contemporary nature show will justifiably sound the climate change horn, as A Life on Our Planet does as well. But Sir David digs deeper, as few tend to do, and scoops up the essence of the matter.
I have now watched the show three times. The first instance resonated strongly with recent revelations and writings of my own, and I gladly watched it a second time with my wife. The third time, one hand hovered over the pause button while the other scribbled notes and captured key quotations. This post delivers said quotes and connects them to themes dear to my heart. Note: the quotes in the show are delivered verbally, so any formatting emphasis is my own.
I started Do the Math in 2011 as a way to reach a larger audience than a handful of students every year or two in an energy course at UCSD. I had (and still have) deep concerns about the assumptions we make as a society based on our fossil fuel trajectory over the last century or so. Trying to steer policy from the top seemed a losing proposition: feckless politicians hew to their constituents’ desires via a mechanism we call democracy, so why not try to get people on board directly?
I never imagined creating a blog that would get millions of pageviews, although this by itself falls well short of having an impact on a grand scale. But I figured I owed it to myself to reach as many as I might. What I have found is that a select few seem to share my concerns. And some vocal contributors to comments strongly disagree that we need to worry (why then make the seemingly wasted effort to respond to—in their eyes—doomsaying kooks if in fact we need not be concerned?). But most people simply don’t care enough to tune in. They’ve learned to ignore prognostications of any flavor, perhaps. Lately, even fewer people are entertaining ideas of resource limits owing to increased global oil production (led almost entirely by U.S. shale oil) and a recovering economy.
But I think there is something more fundamental going on here. I think we’re dealing with personality traits cooked into human nature. Are we capable of mitigating a far-off potential calamity via proactive efforts decades ahead of a putative crisis? In this post, I’ll use some survey data suggesting that we may be in trouble.
It’s a bit off-topic for the series, but I can’t even go to Google now without being reminded of the World Cup and soccer this, soccer that. (Apologies to non-Americans who know the sport as football—but don’t get me started on football!) I have often wondered: given characteristic low score values, is soccer anything more than Poisson noise? When discussing this with colleagues, one pointed me to this XKCD comic, reproduced at right.
Any random process that produces discrete events in some time interval, with uniform probability per unit time follows a Poisson distribution. When the number of events becomes large, the distribution tends toward a Gaussian (normal) distribution.
My thesis is that soccer is an amalgam of random processes whose net effect produces rare events—those more-or-less unpredictable events spread more-or-less uniformly in time. Whether a good or bad bounce off the bar, a goal keeper who may or may not prevent a goal, a referee who may or may not see an illegal action, a pass that may or may not be intercepted, and on and on: the game is full of random, unpredictable events. So I expect soccer to behave similarly to a Poisson process and follow a Poisson distribution. By extension, I will claim that the attention devoted to the World Cup is founded on flimsy numerology and might even be called a tremendous waste of time and money.
Normally I allow comments on Do the Math for ten days after each post. I’ve tackled some controversial topics and stirred up emotional responses. Yet I predict that the outrage generated by my insinuation that watching soccer is a waste of time will absolutely dwarf the reactions to my saying that we may not be looking at a space-faring future, or that indeed we may face collapse of civilization. To the extent that this (untested) prediction is true, it would seem that soccer is more important than the fate of the world, in the eyes of many. Scary, if true. [After reconsideration, I enabled comments, but I won’t have time to vet and respond with my usual level of attention.]
But getting back to soccer numerology, my question becomes: given a final score (which is taken to be the ultimate “truth” of the match) how likely is it that the victor is actually a better team?
A colleague pointed me toward an article in the LA Times last week, which lays out a plan to remove financial incentives legally bestowed on solar photovoltaics (PV) to the detriment of utility power companies. The plan is spearheaded by the Koch brothers and their political action group, Americans for Prosperity.
In summary, they target two laws that give a big boost to solar: net metering, and renewable mandates. Both impart crucial advantages to solar installations that can change the economics by a large factor.
The holiday season is upon us, and for many, this translates into a marked uptick in the consumption of tasty food treats. I’m no different, and can really pack it in on such occasions. For instance, the day after Thanksgiving this year, I stepped on the scale to find myself about 5 pounds (~2 kg) above normal weight. I kicked in my diet plan, and by Monday morning (3 days later) I was back to normal. Resume course. I use a simple formula, backed by physics, that works every single time. The topic is Do-the-Math-relevant for two reasons: it applies quantitative physics to everyday life, and it touches on attitudes relevant to energy/resource conservation.
Sometimes considered a taboo subject, the issue of population runs as an undercurrent in virtually all discussions of modern challenges. Naturally, resource use, environmental pressures, climate change, food and water supply, and the health of the world’s fish and wildlife populations would all be non-issues if Earth enjoyed a human population of 100 million or less.
The subject is taboo for a few reasons. The suggestion that a smaller number would be nice begs the question of who we should eliminate, and who gets to decide such things. Also, the vast majority of people bring children into the world, and perhaps feel a personal sting when it is implied that such actions are part of the problem. I myself come from a long line of breeders, and perhaps you do too.
Recently, participating in a panel discussion in front of a room full of physics educators, I made the simple statement that “surplus energy grows babies.” This is motivated by my recognition that population growth bent upwards when widespread use of coal ushered in the Industrial Revolution and bent again when fossil fuels entered global agriculture in a big way during the Green Revolution. These are really just facets of the broader Fossil Fuel Revolution. I was challenged by a member of the audience with the glaringly obvious statement that population growth rates subside in energy-rich nations—the so-called demographic transition. How do these sentiments square against one another?
So in the spirit of looking at the numbers, let’s explore in particular various connections between population and energy. In the process I will expose the United States, rather than Africa, for instance, as the real problem when it comes to population growth.
People can be individually smart and collectively dumb. Or some may argue that people can be individually dumb yet collectively smart. When it comes to plotting a future path, I think we often get the worst of both worlds. In this post, I’ll look at the role that mental horsepower plays in our societal narratives, for better or for worse. We’ll explore two aspects to the problem: people who are so smart that they have dumb ideas; and smart people who are held captive by the manufactured “dumb” of society.
A word of warning: “smart” and “dumb” are loaded words, and even impolite. We place so much value on intelligence in our society that being called smart can make a person’s day, while being called dumb can cut to the core. We’re very sensitive to people’s perceptions of our intellectual standing, and some of the choicest insecurities are laid upon this foundation. I use “smart” and “dumb” as blunt instruments in this post, so if you’re particularly touchy on the topic, either steel yourself or skip the post and call it the smartest thing you did all day.
Let me preface what I am about to say by the disclaimer that most of this is conjecture. I have little data, relying instead on hunches about what makes people tick based on personal observations.
One other disclaimer: this isn’t a post whose veiled message is how smart I am. I might once have thought so, but then I met bona-fide geniuses when I was in grad school at Caltech. Fortunately, I was mature enough at that point for it not to cause a crisis of confidence or identity, and rather enjoyed the window I had into the off-scale brilliance of some individuals. So let’s go ahead and put me in the dumb box so we can move on to what I want to say.