Can Modernity Last?

Image by Daniel Borker from Pixabay

Do the Math started out with a pair of posts about limits to growth. Galactic-Scale Energy pointed out the nonsense that results from continued growth in energy use, and Can Economic Growth Last? turned to the economic implications of stalled physical growth. This combination of topics later appeared in a dinner conversation between myself and an economist. The same pairing also evolved into chapters 1 and 2 of the textbook I wrote in 2021. And if that wasn’t enough, I published a paper in Nature Physics called Limits to Economic Growth based on the same theme. When I do podcast interviews, the hosts often want to step through this (powerful) logic.

Perhaps the result has me sounding like a broken record. It feels to me like the song “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fans will not allow the band to perform a concert without playing this classic hit. There’d be riots. I’ve had a lot to say following those two posts in 2011, and have especially taken a profound turn in the last few years. But the point remains central to our modern predicament, and until we all have it firmly planted in our heads that growth is a very temporary phase that must end, I guess I could do worse than repeating myself to new audiences—and to veterans holding up lighters.

In this post, I echo the bedrock question of whether economic growth can last with the question of whether modernity can last (see the previous post for definition and possible inevitability). Okay, nothing lasts. The whole universe is only 13.8 billion years old. The sun and the earth are only about 4.5 billion years old, and will be around in recognizable form for a comparable time into the future. Species typically hang around for millions of years. Homo sapiens is a few hundred-thousand years old. Depending on definitions, modernity has been around for at least a century or as long as 10,000 years—brief in either case, in the scheme of things. Nothing is forever, but how long might modernity last?

Whether modernity can last is perhaps a more important question than whether growth can last. The fact that growth can’t last is shocking enough for many. But it still allows mental space for maintaining our current way of life—just no longer growing. But is that even possible? I can’t be as confident in my answer as I am for growth, since the question of growth comes down to incontrovertible concepts and, well, math. Still, I strongly suspect the answer to this new question is “no” as well, and in this post I’ll expound on my misgivings.

[Note: I had another post in 2021 enumerating reasons to worry about collapse, which is a relevant but—I would say—less enlightened precursor to this piece. Since then, I have become aware of the important role of human supremacy, the materials difficulties associated with renewable energy, the crushing numbers on loss of biodiversity, and have released my anxious grasp on modernity—having better appreciated the more-than-human world and our role within the greater community of life.]

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Was Modernity Inevitable?

I seem to love asking questions that can’t be answered definitively. Yet, attempting to do so can yield useful insights. I am gearing up to post a sizable piece about whether we can expect modernity to last, but realized that it would probably be a good idea to first take a stab at defining modernity, and to explore whether this phase in human history basically had to happen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I lean toward the conclusion that modernity was inevitable. My position is reasonably strengthened by the observation that we are, in fact, where we are. It would be much harder to argue the counterfactual that modernity was unlikely, and simply wrong to say that it could not have happened.

I am finding that a number of people reject any application of determinism to human affairs—the insulting notion that we might be subject to dynamics beyond our awareness or control. As with many things these days, I tend to suspect such reactions as stemming from a sense of human supremacy: “surely we humans have transcended base forces and bring full agency to all that we do…” I, however, am perfectly comfortable seeing humans and cultures caught in a current, so will proceed on those grounds.

In its broadest sense, we might say that the biggest discontinuity in human ways is between hunter-gatherer mode and agricultural mode, as permanent settlements, cities, and nations only become possible in an agricultural context. From this high perch, “modernity” might be interchanged with “civilization,” and therefore extend to earlier times, while those on lower branches might conceive that modernity started with televisions or smart phones. You can’t please everyone. One thing I have noticed is that people seem to be somewhat willing to accept the notion of modernity’s end, but react more strongly to the notion of civilization’s end. So some distinction lurks in the minds of people between these two—probably in how far back we would have to set the clock upon modernity’s failure (1980 isn’t so bad, but 10,000 years back?  Eeek!).  I will use the term modernity throughout, but personally am willing to substitute civilization much of the time.

The term “anthropocene” is often used to describe the modern age. This is meant to delineate a new geological era dominated by the presence of humans on the planet. The idea has definite merit, given the overflowing presence of humans on the planet and our devastating impact on climate and biodiversity. My main beef with the anthropocentric term is that I wonder if it makes sense to give an era (or epoch) name to something that may be over as quickly as it started.  We don’t have a name for the era between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic marked by the chaotic period in the aftermath of the comet impact 66 million years ago.  Likewise, this disruptive moment may simply delineate two eras, while the disruption itself is brief enough to appear like the thin black layer in the rock between two periods.  In any case, this post will partly lean on this human-dominance aspect in assessing inevitability.

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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.

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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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A Climate Love Story

From Pixabay (Kranic17/535 images)

The year is 2050. Things are unimaginably better than anyone in 2022 might have predicted. Such turnarounds are not without precedent. After all, the boom time in the 1950s came on the heels of the Great Depression and a crippling world war against ominously dark forces.  From the depths of those hard years, it would have been hard to foresee the glory days around the bend.

In our imagined 2050, climate change has been tamed by a spectacular suite of technological feats: fossil fuels are all but obsolete except in a few backwater places, replaced by an impressive profusion of solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, thorium reactors, deep geothermal installations, and a nascent fusion industry on the verge of commercialization. Electric transport handles most domestic needs, while a bounty of biofuels powers air travel and long-haul shipping.

Breakthroughs in battery technology have resulted in large banks of lithium storage everywhere you look to smooth out the irregularities in renewable production. Seasonal-scale storage is around the corner, so that even places like Alaska will be able to satisfy demand year-round based on a massive energy haul from long summer days.

Freed from the constraints of obtaining energy from petro-states, countries are able to source all of their energy needs within their borders and in fact have more available energy than they did when dependent on primitive fossil fuels. Economies are thriving: global trade is more vigorous than it has ever been because energy is cheap and abundant.

Continued revolutions in computing power and device technology has us swimming in cool gadgets—putting something akin to Star Trek tri-corders in our hands, in contrast to the smart phones we fawn over today (mere walkie-talkies by comparison).

Abundant energy has transformed energy-intensive practices of food production and mining, so that everyone’s dietary and material needs are met, finally ameliorating hunger and gross inequity globally. Based on rising standards of living, birth rates are predicted to stabilize by century’s end so that we are on track to cruise toward a stable, peaceful, sated global regime.

In short, we’re total rock stars for having achieved a whole new phase of prosperity and amazingness. Martian colonies? Why not? While we’re fantasizing, let’s throw those in too! So yes, we are on our way to exporting our conquest to the stars and all is as it should be.

Part of me feels really crummy doing this to you. My motivation is not to be mean, really. Rather, I think it is incredibly important that we approach our future prospects realistically and understand fundamental planetary limits. So I’m afraid this is where I pull the rug out from under you. But see, I’m warning you and apologizing in advance rather than gleefully anticipating your bruising fall. Feel free to step off the fantasy on your own, if you have not already done so. Three. Two. One.

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The Ride of Our Lives

Courtesy Pixabay/fraugun

How much time do we spend fretting over the course we take as a human species? Granted, perhaps too few are focused on ultimate success, which I define as long-term sustainable living as a subordinate partner to all of life on Planet Earth. Even for those who do concern themselves with the intermediate and far future, attention tends to focus on what adjustments we can make to steer a safer course. Yet, when have we ever truly steered our path as a species? Are we actually in control at all? I’ll argue that we’ve never really been in the driver’s seat on the decisions that have mattered most. Our path has been more like an amusement park ride equipped with an ornamental steering wheel, giving the adorable tykes an intoxicating but illusory sense of control.

The central idea is that any development conferring a short-term competitive advantage will come to dominate the landscape, so that failure to adopt it means losing the race and dropping out of the future. It’s a meta-evolution selecting for something other than our best interests. And it’s winning, as it must.

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Shedding our Fossil Fuel Suit

iron man-esque graphic

From Pixabay (Ramdlon)

Fossil fuels have leveraged human power and ingenuity to a remarkable degree. Their discovery and accelerating utilization utterly transformed lifestyles, achievements, and even how we perceive ourselves as a species.

Yet, one thing we know for certain about fossil fuels is that they are a finite resource on this planet—slowly developed in select locations over hundreds of millions of years and being used about a million times faster than the rate of production. We know that we have already consumed a sizable fraction of the initial inheritance: perhaps now halfway through the irreplaceable allotment of oil. So we know that this phase of the human adventure is a temporary one.

The quintessential graphic for conveying this idea is one I have used many times, because I believe it is the most important plot modern humans could possibly absorb. Human energy use has shot up in the last 150 years, and in the context of fossil fuels will plummet on a similar timescale, leaving—what, exactly?

fossil fuel usage is recent, fast, and will be over soon

The fossil fuel energy explosion that powers our current fireworks show is a momentary phenomenon that will be over in a historically short time.

Over timescales relevant to civilization (which began 10,000 years ago with agriculture and cities), plots of almost anything relating to human activity look like hockey sticks: population, agricultural output, industrial output, mined materials, deforestation, species extinctions, and so on [see this later post]. Many of these certainly correlate to population growth, but the per capita impacts also have shot up, compounding the human footprint to a frightening degree. At this point, humans and their livestock account for 96% of mammal mass on the planet, leaving a mere 4% for all wild animals (half of this from massive whales and other marine mammals). It’s not just a footprint any more: it’s a boot on the throat of the planet, leaving non-human life gasping and silently begging for even a little mercy. Is anybody getting video of this?

Almost all of this explosive impact can be traced to fossil fuels, which I have started visualizing as a suit donned by humans that has given us literal superpowers. What would we be without our fancy suit?

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Why Worry About Collapse?

Nothing lasts forever.

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.

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Sir David Nails It

David Attenborough for A life on Our Planet

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.

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