Context is King!

Think about it first..

It amazes me how long an insight can take to fully develop, sometimes simmering for years while the pieces fall into place. I feel like this when it comes to the importance of context. I presume I’ve known the word since I was a youngster, thrown in with a jumble of other words I might occasionally see fit to use. Over the past decade, I have become increasingly aware of its relevance and value. At this stage, I can think of few more important words or concepts.

In this post, I’ll extract highlights on my path to greater awareness of contextual importance, and its relevance to the present predicament—using a few metaphors to help paint the picture.

Continue reading

Views: 2749

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

Views: 3490

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

Views: 4798

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

Views: 7850

Desperate Odds?

Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

In Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, one of the dialogs I especially enjoyed was in Chapter 11 when the pupil expressed his anxiety around pre-civilization life. The mental image he shared was of a man running along a ridge in deepening twilight, hungry and following tracks on the hunt, while tooth and claw pursued not far behind. The man is “forever one step behind his prey and one step ahead of his enemies.” Ishmael, role-playing a hunter-gatherer, laughed off the concerns as being wildly off the mark.

I find similar expressions of fear from people when I challenge the viability of modernity. For many, losing modernity is a frightening prospect tantamount to certain death—either by starvation or violence by man or beast. The projection is that modernity is the only thing standing between us and a life of misery and anxiety. But since it’s not even a choice whether to continue modernity (unsustainable things fail), we may as well start to think about life without that particular security blanket.

How frightened should we be? Was pre-civilization life a miserable, desperate struggle, or did things seem to be pretty well in hand? I can offer some quantitative arguments suggesting that life could not have been that knife-edge, white-knuckle anxious.

Continue reading

Views: 2447

A One-hour Message

In May of this year, I had the opportunity to give a talk to my department on the matters that concern me. What would I say? How could I pack 20 years of learning, Do the Math writing, and recent perspectives into a one-hour talk for my physics/astrophysics colleagues and for students just beginning their professional journeys? How could I have the biggest impact without coming off as being nuts?

As with many things we do in life, I have mixed feelings about the result: things I should have said; things I could have said differently/better; answers to questions that could have been less clumsy. But overall it seems to have worked. While people were not beating down my door to have further conversations, almost anyone I ran into from the department in the weeks that followed would bring it up—indicating that they had been ruminating on the content and expressing further curiosity. It helps that these are people who have known me for years in another context, but it was still a relief to not simply be dismissed as having veered from the one important path: physics research.

Below is a video capture of the event over a zoom channel. The slides are shown well, but the audio quality varies depending on my movements (could be worse). Questions from the audience are hard to make out. Zoom does amazing things for noise suppression, which also applies to audience reactions (applause, laughter). But hey, you get what you pay for.

The theme of the talk is very similar to that of the shorter video I shared recently. It is also reflected in an article featured in a special sustainability issue of The Physics Teacher in September (below is a PDF of the final paper). So I’m “making a lot of hay” out of this approach, of late.

It has been a while since I posted new written content to Do the Math. I have a backlog of ideas to share, so stay tuned—it’s on the way.

Views: 1862

Here We Are

I was asked some months ago by the Australian Foodweb Education organization to participate in their Here We Are project. The idea is to reflect on the statement: “Here we are, alive, at this moment, in this place, together.”

Over the course of several months, I occasionally tried a written-form response, which might later form the basis for a recording. But I was never quite happy with the result—in part because my viewpoint has been rapidly evolving, making it hard to be completely satisfied.

Finally, in April, I felt ready. So I sat on a grassy slope in La Jolla soaking in a chorus of frog song and jotted down bullet points in some semblance of order. I am not talented enough to read a script without it sounding like I’m reading a script, so kept it light. But when I got to my office to make a recording, I wrote the prompt on my whiteboard and realized I could dissect the sentence in a way that captured my perspectives pretty well. I was able to adapt most of the frog-inspired points into something that seems well designed, but in truth emerged rather rapidly.

For my zoom-recorded session background, I chose from the two or three stock images one that both reminds me of the grassy slope where I committed ideas to paper, and fittingly puts me in my place with respect to nature.

Okay—that’s enough backstory. Here is the video recording, and what follows is a relatively faithful transcript, removing a surprising number of “ums” and “you knows,” and patching up a few things with [insertions]. It’s not as polished as a written work, but it is what it is. I did take the liberty of inserting two bits that it pains me not to have included in the recording, which I represent in green font.

Continue reading

Views: 3397

The Simple Story of Civilization

[Note: This post inspired a podcast interview that traces a similar path.]

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

The stories we fashion about ourselves are heavily influenced by our short life spans during an age of unprecedented complexity. We humans, it would seem, are unfathomably complicated creatures who defy simple “just-so” characterizations. Animals, or humans tens of thousands of years ago are fair game for simple stories, but not so for transcendent modern humans.

Two major problems I have with this attitude are that 1) we are animals, and 2) we have exactly the same hardware (albeit with slightly smaller brains) as we had 100,000 years ago.

So allow me to pull back from our present age of baffling complexity to outline a simple story covering the broad sweep of the human saga. The result may be a little startling, and, for a number of readers, sure to be rejected by cultural antibodies as “not applicable” (see also my views of our civilization as a cult).

Continue reading

Views: 15167

Death by Hockey Sticks

hockey sticks

Courtesy Pixabay (PhotoMIX-Company)

You may be familiar with the term “hockey stick curve,” used describe a trend that has been flat/stable for a very long time, but shoots up at the end of the series in dramatic fashion, resembling the shape of a hockey stick. Hockey can be a violent sport, and it’s easy to get hurt by even one well-aimed swing. Today’s world is being battered from all sides by countless hockey sticks. Mostly, they seem to be targeting Earth’s critters, who are getting bludgeoned unsparingly. But in the end, we’re only harming ourselves.

This post is structured as a gauntlet of hockey stick curves that may leave the reader feeling a bit bruised. Depending on what’s being plotted, many of the graphs shoot up like an exponential, but a few are careening downwards. A theme emerges: the “bads” go up, and the “goods” go down—and not by coincidence.

Continue reading

Views: 73659

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.

Continue reading

Views: 16600