Post-Modernity

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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Can't Spell Fail Without AI

Abstinence is a word that frequently applies to me. Alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, drugs, Facebook, Twitter, Insta, TikTok, Bitcoin, stocks, email on smart phone, and lots more: not for me, thanks. I also semi-abstain from various energy/resource-heavy activities. Part of this tendency may have been shaped by the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie, where characters Indiana Jones and Marion are tied to a post in the rear of a crowd waiting to see the marvels inside the Ark of the Covenant. Indy had the instinct to shut his eyes, and advised Marion to do the same, which spared them and only them. Just because everybody else is doing it is not reason enough.

In this light, I am practically ashamed to admit to using AI for image creation. It’s not like me. On the text-generation side (chat-bots), while I think it’s a pretty neat stunt they’ve pulled off, I am deeply unimpressed by the milquetoast blather that comes out of ChatGPT and its ilk when asked hard questions. When students tried to use AI to submit answers to questions, I could spot the style from across the room (based on simple formatting). It is not too surprising that nothing remarkable comes out, since the chat-bots are designed to construct sentences very much in the style of what it’s parsed in all its input data. They aren’t producing original thoughts, but function more as an averaging content generator.

But images: I’m more impressed—in that it’s more mysterious to me how it works. The parameter space is much larger than for regimented language. Even so, I think it’s actually somewhat similar to language in that images also have structure, and certain things tend to be close to certain other things, as is true for words as well.

When selecting a copyright-free header image for a Do the Math post, I usually have an idea for what I want it to show, and first look for pre-made content. If I can’t find something via a few channels, I now turn to AI, using the Bing interface to Dall-E. Admittedly, I’m no expert at speaking AI, but I still marvel at how inept it can be in forming an image that a 4-year-old would have little trouble picturing if using the same prompt language.

I was planning to do a post illustrating my failures over time, but was dismayed to learn that my past creations have disappeared on the Bing platform (not unique to me). What’s worse, I no longer have prompt language for the ones I kept. The EXIF information in the JPEG files lack any such prompt text. Why is it that the world is still being designed by unpaid interns?

So, this post isn’t all that I hoped it would be, given that loss. But, as with many things in life, I’ll work with what I have.

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The Game of Life

Step 400 of the acorn methuselah.  Gliders exit at 12:30 and 5:00.

Despite a lifetime of overlap, and many opportunities to cross paths, I am only now learning of the Game of Life, introduced by John Conway in 1970—the same year that I was introduced to the world. After a few exploratory hours, I knew I’d have to share the insights I gained from it relating to how we react to the present predicament.

What is it that I mean by The Game of Life? Aren’t we all caught up in it? I refer, here, to a zero-player “game” taking place on a two-dimensional grid of square cells (pixels) that can either be alive (on; black) or dead (off; white). Only two simple rules govern whether a cell will live or die in the next time step of the game:

  1. Only “live” squares having two or three adjacent live neighbors (out of 8 possible) survive to the next step.
  2. An empty (“dead”) square having exactly three live neighbors will be “born” into living status on the next step.

The first rule captures a sense of balanced population density: too sparse and survival is hard; too dense and overshoot kills. The second rule is a sexy three-way approach to procreation. Settle down, people.

A surprising degree of complexity emerges from these simple rules, whose deterministic prescription nonetheless leads to essentially unpredictable outcomes. The lessons and parallels to real life—and even breakdowns in the comparison—are highly instructive, I find.

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Let's Make a Deal!

Several posts of mine have sought to put the value of Earth’s biodiversity in context. The first of these leveraged the cute coincidence that all the animals on the planet are about the same weight as all the gold within 5 km of the land’s surface to make the case that animals are worth more than their weight in gold.

The next installment made a similar case for insects (arthropods, more generally), placing a premium economic value of at least $10,000 per kilogram of bug mass.

In this post, I ask: what would you be willing to trade for all animal life on this planet? It may seem like a forced and false choice, as nobody is proposing to eliminate all animal life on the planet. Despite this, we’re doing a dazzlingly good job of marching toward that very goal, whether explicitly intending to or not. Typical decline rates among vertebrates and insects are in the 1–2% per year ballpark; average decline in vertebrate populations is 70% since 1970; and a sixth mass extinction appears to have kicked off with extinction rates about 1,000 times the background rate. So, the prospect of losing Earth’s biodiversity is not purely hypothetical, thus deserving serious attention. I’ll have more to say about the validity of this approach at the end.

Meanwhile, are you ready to play the game?

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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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Mysterious Materialism

Image by Kerstin Herrmann from Pixabay

My recent posts have suggested that our world, in all its magnificence, needs nothing beyond physics and emergent complexity to still be mysterious and inspiring, which in turn can lead to being better, humble ecological partners in the community of life. While many human cultures have gravitated toward beliefs in gods, human transcendence, or a higher purpose, I point out that the billion-year timescales of evolution offer plenty of room for unfathomable results that defy our cognitive capacities to grasp. What if all it takes is physics (particles in uncountable relationships) and lots of time for amazingness to emerge? Are you not entertained?

Such a view might predictably be denigrated as reductionist, materialist, and lacking imagination. It’s ironic, because from my point of view it seems to require a super-human amount of imagination: so much that I don’t possess nearly enough on my own—nor has any other human been able to put it all together for us. The very same “failure” of complete end-to-end explanation that causes many to reject the premise leaves me in awe, wonder, and appreciation. One might say that it’s a more challenging concept than the alternatives.

Our recent trajectory has been one of serial demotions, each perhaps more insulting than the last. Earth is not at the center of creation. Nor is the sun at the center of the galaxy. Our galaxy is not at the center of the universe. Our universe may indeed be one among countless others (we can probably never know). Closer to home, we learn that humans evolved from apes, tracing back to slime in our distant lineage. As a corollary, humans are not, in the end, exempt from the laws of life: we are physical beings still subject to—and dependent on—biological and ecological constraints. The proposal I discuss takes the demotion series another step: removing imagined transcendent properties of free will (mind, or soul) and divine favor—instead establishing us as compulsory actors in an extravagant production of physics. It all makes for a rough day, unless your expectations are unusually low.

What could be more humbling than to accept ourselves as piles of atoms executing the interactions of physics? Note that we could use heaps and heaps more humility in our world. Perhaps this is one route to get there: a principle that also more closely binds us to all other life—to our collective benefit.

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