Most of us have seen it happen. An exhausted school teacher, sometimes suffering from what we recognize in hindsight as a hangover, announces to the class that instead of the usual lesson plan, we’re all going to watch a video.
That’s what I’m doing today, in effect. Last week’s post about factors facilitating collapse was of beastly proportions. This week, I’m taking a breather and pointing you to a five-minute video and a write-up of an interview relating to my recent book.
The pieces were put together by the UC San Diego Division of Physical Sciences (Mario Aguilera and Sherry Seethaler coordinating the interview and Debbie Meyer constructing a quality video). I’m sporting the outgrown late-COVID haircut that lopped off my ponytail of 28 years (performed by my terrified wife). It also appears that I failed to prioritize shaving for the interview day, which was scheduled weeks in advance, so did not exactly catch me by surprise. Oh well. Appearances only count for so much.
And since this video is short, I would hate for you to feel ripped off. I might, therefore, recommend another recent video by Nate Hagens that has a slightly longer run time (approaching three hours; I suggest taking it in doses). In an approach somewhat similar to the collapse post, Nate has put together a long list of factors, cast as societal myths, that contribute to our collective miscalibration about how we might expect the future to go. Many of the themes will be familiar to and resonant with Do the Math readers, but from a usefully alternate angle.
The first thing I should say is that the word collapse freaks me out. I don’t use it often, for fear of sounding like an unhinged alarmist. Surely, respectable scientists should want nothing to do with it.
The second thing is that I don’t harbor any secret pleasure in imagining catastrophic failure of the human endeavor. It depresses me, frightens me, angers me, frustrates me, confuses me, and makes my wife crabby.
What keeps pulling me back to it—despite my innate repulsion—is not only credible elements of risk that I will get to in this post, but also that I think it’s too important to tolerate our natural tendency to hide from the prospect. Ironically, doing so only raises the odds of that ill fate: mitigation requires direct acknowledgment. Failure to speak openly and honestly about the less-than-remote possibility of collapse is not in our best interest, ultimately.
So let’s grit our teeth and confront the collapse monster. What conditions make it at once likely and off most people’s radars?
It is a heavy lift for one blog post to do a complete job in motivating collapse as a realistic outcome of the human enterprise. Any one argument can be picked at, but the totality should be considered. This is a long post, so buckle up.
I had planned to drop a rather large post today on the thorny topic of collapse. But it’s important enough that I should not rush it and make sure it has all the key pieces I want to convey, and that no sloppiness on my part results in misinterpretations that I later regret.
So what shall we do instead? Hey, I know! Have I mentioned the free textbook I wrote? A few times? Are you getting tired of my plugs? Apologies if so, but what feedback I have received thus far encourages me to believe that it’s a valuable contribution to the world and not intrinsically a flop. People are loving the margin notes, somewhat to my surprise.
However, in order to have a meaningful impact, I would want to do substantially better than the (currently) 7,000 site visits and 3,000 PDF downloads. Sure, many textbook authors might jump for joy at such numbers in less than two months. But millions of people would likely appreciate the message and have enough background to get something out of reading it. From the statistics, it is clear that even most Do the Math visitors have themselves not checked it out yet. I get that it’s a textbook, so: ugh. Who wants to take on that kind of chore? But A) it’s free, B) people report being surprised at how readable it is, and C) the intro provides a graphic (below) that offers a few reading paths that may make it less daunting.
Also, no one has yet submitted a review on Lulu. Even if you have not ordered a print copy, the free PDF material is the same so that a review on Lulu based on the electronic version would be perfectly appropriate. Here is the corresponding to-do list to help encourage a larger readership:
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.
ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
No, life has not yet been found on Mars, but imagine waking up to that headline. How would you react? The headline’s font would be huge on print newspapers—maybe one word per page, occupying the first four pages. Some bold papers might even put one letter per page and go so far as to have blank pages for the spaces. The point is, it would be big news.
So I ask again, what would this stir for you?
For me, the swirl would be thick with competing thoughts and feelings, tripping over themselves to get out. First would be the raft of questions stemming from pure curiosity. Is it DNA-based? Is it a separate start, or do we share some ancient microbial ancestor—possibly shuttled from one body to the other following a meteoric impact? What lessons can we learn about how life forms? Can we get the discovered lifeforms to call us Mama or Dada? Will they make good pets?
One can imagine the discovery team, whether at NASA or elsewhere, ecstatic with joy. The entire exploration establishment around the planet would likely be giddy. SETI folks would probably be unable to chew for a while, wearing fixed grins.
I would share many of these same reactions, for the pure joy of discovery and the novel opportunity to re-examine what it means to be a part of life on Earth. But then it dawns on me just how devastating the news might actually be for the human race.
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.
What success might look like? Image by Emma Farley from Pixabay.
In early fall 2020, I took a break from intense work on textbook preparation to immerse myself in nature, in the form of a month on the Olympic Peninsula. I spent periods of good weather in the backcountry, and therefore didn’t bother carrying a tent along in my already-too-heavy backpack. Somehow sleep is more precious when there’s some chance of being woken by a (black) bear’s slobbery breath in your face. But for the many dozens of times I’ve slept this way in the wilderness, I have not had a single nighttime bear encounter—being exceedingly careful to keep food smells well away from my sleeping site. Luckily, it would seem that my physical person does not smell like food.
I’m not an adrenaline junkie with a death wish, but exposing myself to some risk at the hands of nature brings a greater appreciation of the relationship between humans and the world of the wild. Being a temporary tourist in nature is not quite the same as fully being a part of nature, but it’s closer than many experience in our human-dominated artificial world.
One of my aims for the trip was to step back from the nitty-gritty focus on margin-notes and glossary items for the textbook and synthesize a broader picture. Being immersed in the wilderness really helped that process. Nature is so grand; so ancient; so indifferent. Nature is wild. Nature is mature.
Humans have embarked on a 10,000 year experiment to separate from nature: to build stores and access “old money” that Earth has banked for eons, providing a recent freedom to largely ignore annual, renewable flows in nature. The last several centuries have accelerated the divorce to an alarming degree. But the question I stumbled upon as my boots navigated rocks and roots on the trail was:
Is the 10,000-year-old human civilization in its infancy, or nearer its end than its beginning?
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.
In this post, I take a bit more time to introduce new elements in the book that Do the Math readers have not seen represented in some form in earlier posts. In other words: what new insights or calculations lurk within the book?
The following is organized into three sections. The first takes a brief tour of the book, pointing out large, new blocks that are not already covered by Do the Math in some form. The second highlights the results of new calculations or figures that bring new context to our understanding. Finally, I summarize some of the new big-picture framing that emerges in the book.
Rather than laboriously inserting associated graphics into this post, my intent is that you treat this as a companion to be used side-by-side with the downloadable PDF of the book. References are to sections, figures, boxes, etc. rather than page numbers, which vary between electronic and print forms. So go ahead and get a version of the PDF up, and let’s jump in…