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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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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Inexhaustible Flows?

Photo from Monash Universiry

I recently came across a statement to the effect that once we transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy like solar, wind, and hydro, we would essentially be home free for the long run—tapping into inexhaustible flows. It is a very pleasant notion, to be sure, and one that I believe is relatively common among enthusiasts for renewable energy.

Naturally, I am concerned by the question of: what magnificent things would we do with everlasting copious energy? As an excellent guide, we can ask what amazing things have we done with the recent bolus of energy from fossil fuels? Well, in the course of pursuing material affluence, we have eliminated 85% of primeval forest, made new deserts, created numerous oceanic dead zones, drained swamps, lost whole ecosystems, almost squashed the remaining wild land mammals, and initiated a sixth mass extinction with extinction rates perhaps thousands of times higher than their background levels—all without the help of CO2 and climate change (which indeed adds to the list of ills). These trends are still accelerating. Yay for humans, who can now (temporarily) live in greater comfort and numbers than at any time in history!

But the direction I want to take in this post is on the narrower (and ultimately less important) technical side. All the renewable energy technologies rely on non-renewable materials. Therefore, inexhaustible flows are beside the point. It’s like saying that fossil fuel energy is not practically limited by available oxygen for combustion, so we can enjoy fossil fuels indefinitely. Or that D–T fusion has billions of years of deuterium available, when there’s no naturally-occurring tritium (thus reliant on limited lithium supply). In a multi-part system, the limiting factor is, well, the limiting factor. Sure, into the far future the sun will shine, the wind will blow, and rain will fall. But capturing those flows to make electricity will require physical stuff: all the more material for such diffuse flows. If that stuff is not itself of renewable origin, then oops. The best guarantee of renewability is being part of natural regeneration (i.e., of biological origin). If solar panels, wires, inverters, and batteries were made of wood and the like: alright, then.

Recognizing that biological organisms—plants and the animals that directly or indirectly draw energy from them—have already figured out how to tap into (essentially) inexhaustible flows—solar, primarily—I became interested in comparing the performance of the human animal to that of a solar panel or wind turbine, in terms of mineral requirements. After all, the biosphere gets by without mining the depths. So let’s dig into the material requirements of life.

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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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The Intransigence of Now

Everybody has beliefs. Many are so deeply ingrained that we do not even recognize them as such. The most staunch scientist—who spurns belief in Santa Claus or God—still operates on a metaphysical foundation of beliefs about how the world works: e.g., that the scientific method is the only valid path to truth, and that unproven conjectures have little worth—and unprovable ones even less—even if quite possibly correct (and important). For instance, science can probably never tell us if animals experience emotions the way humans do, but isn’t it obvious by non-scientific interactions? Maybe some animals experience a sense of awe for natural phenomena, or notice the stars and wonder, or are more aware of their own mortality than we could ever know. Plants “scream” when attacked; will science ever deliver an understanding of what it is like to be a tree? How could it?

But I digress, already. This post is not about the narrow, literalist, and almost certainly incomplete metaphysics of science, but about the stubbornness of brains. People have a very hard time getting rid of some notions, or accepting something that runs counter to their assumptions. One might even suspect some “hard” wiring at play! Hey wait—people’s predispositions, personalities, and beliefs must indeed map to real neural connections in their brains (where else: we don’t use cloud storage!). Changing minds means down-weighting or destroying some connections and making new ones: not easy. Incomplete attempts often “repair” themselves back to something close to the original state, as beliefs are woven into so many offshoots as to be difficult to eradicate fully.

But neither is this a post about brain functions. Come on, Murphy, get it together! What this post is about is how intransigent people are, in general. After a few familiar examples, we’ll turn an important case: people have a very hard time seeing how unusual and temporary this moment is, it having lasted all their lives and more. The claim that most humans don’t appreciate the obvious temporary nature of modernity might seem as dismissive as the claim that animals don’t appreciate their own mortality. Yet some can, and that’s very important.

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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.

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Holiday Haikus

I’m no poet, preferring prose for its clarity and completeness. So please forgive this amateur attempt to capture two opposing views on planetary limits in haiku form. One gracefully respects constraints, while the other…well, you’ll see.

Just as in haiku
Earth imposes hard limits
We must live within

And in the red corner:

It’s preposterous
To think that human imagination is lim…

Buzzer. Disqualified. Nice try. And the winner is…

Wishing you peace and meaning this holiday season.

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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).

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Finite Feeding Frenzy

Image by ariesjay castillo from Pixabay

You may be aware that our food industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, to the point that it takes about 10 kcal of energy input to deliver 1 kcal of consumed food. The enormous energy multiplier is due to extensively mechanized plowing, harvesting, processing, and delivery of food; fossil-fueled fertilization (via methane feedstock); refrigeration and preparation; then of course food waste. In olden times, when all agricultural energy came from muscle power that needed to be fed, the system would collapse (i.e., starve and fail) if energy inputs exceeded energy ingested.

Some have phrased our current practice as “eating fossil fuels,” and in fact a 2006 book by Dale Allen Pfeiffer had this title. So what? More power to us—literally.

The problem, people, is that fossil fuels are finite. We have already consumed a fair fraction (roughly half?) of the accessible allotment. And before concluding that we therefore have a century or so before needing to worry about the consequences, realize that the inflection point happens around the halfway mark, wherein decreasing ease of access tends to result in ever-decreasing output rates in the second-half of the resource. We see this behavior in individual oil fields and in regional (country-scale) aggregations. The low-hanging fruit is taken first, sensibly, so that what’s left is more stubborn.

Because human population has been substantially boosted by fossil fuel input, we have put ourselves into a vulnerable position. What happens when fossil fuels begin to give out on us?

It’s been a while since I did any, you know, math for this blog, as I seem to be living my own worst nightmare and turning into an armchair philosopher (oh the shame). In this post, I return to something closer to math. It’s illustrative rather than quantitative, but helps frame the peril we have put ourselves into in a low-effort sort of way.

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The Cult of Civilization

From Pixabay/KELLEPICS

I recently watched a Netflix documentary series about fundamentalist Mormons, exposing along the way a number of beliefs that seem bizarre from the outside, but that are accepted as perfectly normal within their insular community. Though the term “cult” is not used in the series, it is hard not to see the sect in this light. It would be nearly impossible to convince any one of its members that they are deeply in error, in part because doing so threatens the salvation that has been dangled in front of them.  If they are pure enough in their faith, resisting external evils that try to knock them off the one true course, eternity is theirs. In today’s world, one need not look far to find other groups whose beliefs are at once bonkers and seemingly immune to attack.

Hearing the perspectives of ex-members of these cults never fails to be fascinating, providing a window into how they could have swallowed all the lies and goofy stories. Also important to know: it is possible to escape, and to suddenly see the magnitude of the deception. Once out, there’s no going back.

Cult beliefs look insane from the outside, so why don’t its adherents detect the lunacy? Why is it so hard to convince them of their folly? One possible answer—as a tangent—is that cults offer a deeply satisfying sense of identity, belonging, and (seemingly) unconditional acceptance/support within its community that we have otherwise lost in today’s society, but that in times past were central offerings of tribal life to which humans are intimately adapted. It is remarkable how quickly tribal cohesion instincts of mutual help resurface as soon as core elements of civilization (provision of food, water, electricity, for instance) fail in a natural disaster. We’ve still got it, underneath the veneer.

Leaving that for another time, let me now condemn myself in the court of civil opinion by making the charge that most people on Earth are members of a dangerous cult whose central beliefs seem every bit as bizarre to one who has escaped the thought prison, but that are seldom questioned and even fiercely defended. This post offers ten heretical statements that seem obvious to me, but tend to produce emotionally charged reactions by members of the cult of civilization. Watch yourself, now. Continue reading

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