As sketched in the previous post, I believe modernity to be an unsustainable flash that will not persist into future millennia. Uncomfortable with untethered speculation, I have said little about what might come after, but feel I owe something in this vein. Semantically, what follows the modern age must be the post-modern age, right? Except that name is already taken by a rather inane school of thought that may be even worse than modernist thought (it actually does not fundamentally refute modernism anyway, just throws sand into any conversation).

Despite my disdain for post-modernism, I will appropriate the term for what it will likely come to mean in centuries hence (long after people have finally forgotten the silly modern version of post-modernism). I feel better already.

The simplest explanation for why I have not written much on post-modernity is that I don’t feel I have much to say. The range of possibilities is quite large, and I would be a fool to pretend that I—or anyone, really—can paint a credible picture. I’m virtually certain I know how humans will live on the planet tomorrow, fairly sure I could paint an accurate picture for life one year from now, reasonably confident about a decade out, pretty damned fuzzy on a century from now, perhaps a little more clear a millennium into the future (as most of modernity has melted by then), have a decent guess for several million years hence (less likely to still have homo sapiens), and am increasingly certain when the number turns to billions of years (complex life on Earth extinguished). For me, the hardest part is the century scale: the messy, chaotic transition likely characterized by de-industrial scavenging.

Ignoring my discomfort of wading deep into the unknown, it may at least help some folks to get a screenshot of my fuzzy imaginings in this space.

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Distilled Disintegration

Photo by Nigel Brown; licensed under Creative Commons

My adult life has run on two diverging tracks. On one, I played science. The other track branched off at age 34—twenty years ago this month—when I started teaching a class on Energy and the Environment. I was eager to piece together our likely energy future: how we would beat climate change and leave fossil fuels in the dust. Against my wishes, this fork presented unexpected turns that took a long time to sink in. The two tracks eventually became too divergent to keep a foot on each. At this stage, I can’t seem to muster the denial it would take to disregard what I have learned so that I might return to the more blissful play-time track.

Much of my writing in the last few years has tried to capture why I have become convinced that modernity can’t last, likely to begin disintegrating in the near-term. In this post, I attempt to distill core elements informing this sense. My apologies if this seems like a rehash. For what it’s worth, the packaging exercise is something that helps me address the question I constantly ask myself: what part of this might I have wrong? It’s a way to take stock.

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They Didn't Stand a Chance

My apologies for such a dismal post topic, but modernity made me do it. I’ve borne witness to a number of the following tragedies first-hand. When exposed to similar atrocities in your own life, I recommend repeating the mantra that appears at the end of every point below. I think it helps in fighting human supremacism, validating other life and recognizing the pain we inflict—often unwittingly as we animate the maw of modernity. Evolution did not prepare the plants and animals of this planet for a sudden and dramatic up-ending of the world they were customized to inhabit. That’s on us.

Twenty Terrible Tales

A massive tree that took hundreds of years to attain tremendous height and bulk was no match for an hour of chainsaw action. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A gangly moose was minding its own business in the willow thicket along the stream edge, when—BAM—its head was taken to grace the lodge wall. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Domesticated bees were bred to produce more honey and be less aggressive. Weakened against parasites and disease, their colonies crashed. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A deer, finding itself on a strange, hard, flat ribbon stood transfixed as two unearthly lights sped closer, seemingly set to pass on either side. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Orangutans who lived for countless generations in the dense and biodiverse rainforest found their home destroyed and replaced by oil palms. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance. [Warning: only watch the link if you are ready to be haunted for life by seeing the skinny, muddy “bean” at the end of all things.  It grieves me to my core.]

A butterfly created a caterpillar who had the misfortune to eat pesticide-coated leaves, undergoing metamorphosis into a dead lump. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The noble forebears of our dumb-bred domesticated (captive) animals had no evolutionary answer to ropes and tall fences. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The chattering swallows returned in spring to raise a new set of chicks. But the local mosquitos had been exterminated, leaving the parents and chicks to starve. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

An 80-year-old tortoise followed the familiar route through the forest, across a road that wasn’t there in its youth, just as a truck came along. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The wasps weren’t bothering anybody when they went about their business raising young in a nest under the eaves, only to be shot by a 3 meter jet of poison. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Native grasses and flowers tried to restore health to a corn field, only to be coated in herbicide dropped by an airplane. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Crabs, lobsters, clams, and oysters found that they were no longer able to make protective shells in more acidic water, ultimately perishing from this earth. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A rough-skinned newt, in bursts of slowness, made its way across a wet road at dusk, only to have its innards abruptly and rudely squashed out through its mouth. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The exquisite ruffed grouse cruised into a clearing, aiming for trees that turned out to be a reflection in a house window. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Salmon had fed the forest for millions of years, but demand for heat pumps, electric vehicles, and chat-bots put a dam in their way. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A large prairie dog colony had lived on this patch of land as long as anyone could remember. The commercial developer orchestrated their final solution. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The polar bear cubs got exhausted from swimming in a futile effort to find ice and seals. Their inevitable end was cold, wet, hungry, and oh-so skinny. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The foxes in the Mojave desert required large unobstructed habitat, which vast new solar farms fenced, shaded, and uprooted. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A sea turtle had no notion of the word “bycatch,” yet found itself dying in a crowded net all the same, only to be discarded as waste upon discovery. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Pursuers of modernity forgot themselves, thinking they owned and controlled the world, no longer subject to limits or part of a larger ecology. The world taught them a cruel lesson on the definition of unsustainability. They, for a change, might have known better, but as it was didn’t stand a chance.

End Note

The common thread is forcing plants and animals out of their evolutionary context, as we have done to ourselves as well via modernity.

I kept coming up with more examples, and eventually decided to stop because I felt I was beating a dead horse. It’s surprising how many more examples I could have used, and I suspect you could come up with a number not covered here yourself. It is telling that we are not running short on grim accounts of biodiversity loss.

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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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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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A Story of Mice (and Men)

Picture a natural prairie, boasting an explosive diversity of grasses and flowers. Every year, at different times of the year, the grasses and flowers produce seeds. Some of these seeds, naturally, propagate their respective species so that the grasses and flowers will survive into the next year and the next.

But the plants are generous, generating more seeds than are necessary. Being the only form of life on the prairie capable of harvesting solar energy and turning it into food, they know they have sole responsibility for supporting their entire community. And why would they want to share their wealth? Well, they rely on insects for pollination, fungi for trading nutrients, worms for turning the soil, birds for spreading seeds far and wide, mice for planting their seeds and providing rich fertilizer, and on and on. Open-ended generosity pays back via other gifts in a spirit of reciprocity.

The mice in the prairie have done well for countless generations. While they are capable of explosive reproduction, they can’t expand willy nilly because food resources are limited: if they overgraze, fewer plants will survive into the following year. Meanwhile, hawks, owls, foxes and snakes are always looking for a snack. And so the prairie has settled on a roughly stable mouse population that works in concert with the rest of the ecological community. The population of mice (and of their predators) is not rock-solid: it fluctuates from year to year, but seldom strays very far before self-correcting. When mice are few, their predators diminish, seed abundance goes up, and the stage is set for a resurgence.

Then one day a foraging mouse notices a new hole at the base of an abandoned silo on the edge of the prairie that’s been dormant and irrelevant for all these years. Out of this hole some grains of wheat have spilled out. Tasty! Excited by her find, she brings her friends and they all have a feast. Within weeks, the mice are growing in number and exploiting this seemingly endless resource. All troubles would appear to be over.

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Our Ugly Magnificence

Image by 12019 from Pixabay

Several sources recently made me aware of a Techno-Optimist Manifesto clumsily assembled on social media by one of the world’s many billionaire nobodies. I didn’t get far before dismissing it as a delusional toddler tantrum. This impression was later reinforced via references to 50 billion people, space colonization, and thousand-fold increases in terrestrial energy. The part I did see told me almost all I needed to know, in the line: “We are told to denounce our birthright—our intelligence, our control over nature, our ability to build a better world.”

Birthright? Hmmm. Calls to mind blood and soil. It’s all there: destiny, rights, self-flattery, obsession with control, and the hubris that we build the world—and can do it better, in fact. This is textbook human supremacy, which I believe is what got us into this mess! Doubling down will only make the loss more severe and catastrophic, in my view.

I have pointed before to the excellent essay by Eileen Crist on the topic of—call it what you like—anthropocentrism, human exceptionalism, or human supremacy. Part of the essay walks us through a disconcerting thought experiment about techno-social success of the sort that many today preach and seek:

…assume for the sake of argument that social justice is achievable on a planet of resources—a planet used, managed, and engineered to be productive for human beings. Let’s posit, along these lines, that humanity recognizes the folly of the unequal distribution of resources and decides to share the so-called commonwealth […] fairly among all people. This thought experiment discloses the second reason that social justice is untenable without a radically new relationship between humanity and the more-than-human-world. Consider the following analogy: that Adolf Hitler had won the war and the Third Reich achieved global rule. People of Nordic descent established their dominion, while “inferior human stock” was exterminated, assimilated, or put to work; the Aryan race succeeded in founding its Golden Age, with its members enjoying, more or less equitably, all the amenities of the good life. Now map this thought experiment onto the achievement of a just world for all humans (regardless of race, ethnicity, class, caste, religion, gender, etc.), within a civilization built upon the subordination of the Earth’s nonhumans and the appropriation of their oecumene (a.k.a. the wild)—a human world that, in order “to raise all ships,” required the unavoidable side effects of (mass?) extinction, global ecological depredation, and techno-managerial planetary oversight; required, in a word, an occupied planet. Does this scenario not describe a victorious Human Reich—with all its members partaking equitably of the world’s resources?

Compelling. The brilliance is putting ideals that seem to be on opposite extremes—equity for all (humans) and its vile antithesis of Nazi racism—in the same basket as both being comparably exploitative of an underclass. The feeling of whiplash is similar to what one experiences when recognizing that the most extreme on the political left share some common ground with the most extreme on the political right on an issue like drug legalization.

It’s unfortunate that we need to reference the worst atrocities against humans in order for the larger-scale atrocities against life to even register as a thing. Extinction rates are up a thousand-fold, and huge fractions of life are disappearing under human domination, but collective outrage only seems to emerge when one human group embarks on elimination of a sub-group of other humans, regardless of the relative magnitude.

What I thought I might try is to express the underlying beliefs of techno-optimists (those stalwart heroes of modernity) in language that I perceive would get general nods from most members of our society. In what follows, I have thought carefully about each sentence, and will point out later why every one of them is wrong—and I’m not talking about spelling or grammar (at least I hope those are okay).

It might be fascinating to pass the next section (four paragraphs) to others in your circles and see if it raises objections. To facilitate that, here is a link to a separate page that contains the same text in isolation, with minimal context. I would want every sentence to raise objections. But I’m guessing that most statements will go down easy, swallowed as familiar and correct mythology.

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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.

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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?

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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…

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