A Story of Mice (and Men)

Picture a natural prairie, boasting an explosive diversity of grasses and flowers. Every year, at different times of the year, the grasses and flowers produce seeds. Some of these seeds, naturally, propagate their respective species so that the grasses and flowers will survive into the next year and the next.

But the plants are generous, generating more seeds than are necessary. Being the only form of life on the prairie capable of harvesting solar energy and turning it into food, they know they have sole responsibility for supporting their entire community. And why would they want to share their wealth? Well, they rely on insects for pollination, fungi for trading nutrients, worms for turning the soil, birds for spreading seeds far and wide, mice for planting their seeds and providing rich fertilizer, and on and on. Open-ended generosity pays back via other gifts in a spirit of reciprocity.

The mice in the prairie have done well for countless generations. While they are capable of explosive reproduction, they can’t expand willy nilly because food resources are limited: if they overgraze, fewer plants will survive into the following year. Meanwhile, hawks, owls, foxes and snakes are always looking for a snack. And so the prairie has settled on a roughly stable mouse population that works in concert with the rest of the ecological community. The population of mice (and of their predators) is not rock-solid: it fluctuates from year to year, but seldom strays very far before self-correcting. When mice are few, their predators diminish, seed abundance goes up, and the stage is set for a resurgence.

Then one day a foraging mouse notices a new hole at the base of an abandoned silo on the edge of the prairie that’s been dormant and irrelevant for all these years. Out of this hole some grains of wheat have spilled out. Tasty! Excited by her find, she brings her friends and they all have a feast. Within weeks, the mice are growing in number and exploiting this seemingly endless resource. All troubles would appear to be over.

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Our Ugly Magnificence

Image by 12019 from Pixabay

Several sources recently made me aware of a Techno-Optimist Manifesto clumsily assembled on social media by one of the world’s many billionaire nobodies. I didn’t get far before dismissing it as a delusional toddler tantrum. This impression was later reinforced via references to 50 billion people, space colonization, and thousand-fold increases in terrestrial energy. The part I did see told me almost all I needed to know, in the line: “We are told to denounce our birthright—our intelligence, our control over nature, our ability to build a better world.”

Birthright? Hmmm. Calls to mind blood and soil. It’s all there: destiny, rights, self-flattery, obsession with control, and the hubris that we build the world—and can do it better, in fact. This is textbook human supremacy, which I believe is what got us into this mess! Doubling down will only make the loss more severe and catastrophic, in my view.

I have pointed before to the excellent essay by Eileen Crist on the topic of—call it what you like—anthropocentrism, human exceptionalism, or human supremacy. Part of the essay walks us through a disconcerting thought experiment about techno-social success of the sort that many today preach and seek:

…assume for the sake of argument that social justice is achievable on a planet of resources—a planet used, managed, and engineered to be productive for human beings. Let’s posit, along these lines, that humanity recognizes the folly of the unequal distribution of resources and decides to share the so-called commonwealth […] fairly among all people. This thought experiment discloses the second reason that social justice is untenable without a radically new relationship between humanity and the more-than-human-world. Consider the following analogy: that Adolf Hitler had won the war and the Third Reich achieved global rule. People of Nordic descent established their dominion, while “inferior human stock” was exterminated, assimilated, or put to work; the Aryan race succeeded in founding its Golden Age, with its members enjoying, more or less equitably, all the amenities of the good life. Now map this thought experiment onto the achievement of a just world for all humans (regardless of race, ethnicity, class, caste, religion, gender, etc.), within a civilization built upon the subordination of the Earth’s nonhumans and the appropriation of their oecumene (a.k.a. the wild)—a human world that, in order “to raise all ships,” required the unavoidable side effects of (mass?) extinction, global ecological depredation, and techno-managerial planetary oversight; required, in a word, an occupied planet. Does this scenario not describe a victorious Human Reich—with all its members partaking equitably of the world’s resources?

Compelling. The brilliance is putting ideals that seem to be on opposite extremes—equity for all (humans) and its vile antithesis of Nazi racism—in the same basket as both being comparably exploitative of an underclass. The feeling of whiplash is similar to what one experiences when recognizing that the most extreme on the political left share some common ground with the most extreme on the political right on an issue like drug legalization.

It’s unfortunate that we need to reference the worst atrocities against humans in order for the larger-scale atrocities against life to even register as a thing. Extinction rates are up a thousand-fold, and huge fractions of life are disappearing under human domination, but collective outrage only seems to emerge when one human group embarks on elimination of a sub-group of other humans, regardless of the relative magnitude.

What I thought I might try is to express the underlying beliefs of techno-optimists (those stalwart heroes of modernity) in language that I perceive would get general nods from most members of our society. In what follows, I have thought carefully about each sentence, and will point out later why every one of them is wrong—and I’m not talking about spelling or grammar (at least I hope those are okay).

It might be fascinating to pass the next section (four paragraphs) to others in your circles and see if it raises objections. To facilitate that, here is a link to a separate page that contains the same text in isolation, with minimal context. I would want every sentence to raise objections. But I’m guessing that most statements will go down easy, swallowed as familiar and correct mythology.

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Cheaters!

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

No, the title does not refer to fast felines. I’m talking about the humans of modernity, who I characterized as “rule breakers” in the last post. The context was in considering an encounter between a speeding vehicle and a deer, concluding that the deer did nothing wrong by wandering onto a road, and does not deserve a death penalty. The road is in the wrong, by being there. The car is “wrong” by being—contextually speaking—an impossibly fast instrument of death. And, of course, the humans did something wrong by operating so far out of line with what the rest of the community of life is prepared to handle by the rules of evolution and of living on this planet.

Sometimes, an old-timer will say something like: If man was made to fly [or swim, etc.], God would have made him with wings [or gills, etc.]. Aha, the modern human will say: but God gave us big brains so we can engineer wings [scuba equipment, etc.]—never asking whether it will do net good or net harm to the community of life. This is what I mean by cheating.

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Deer in the Headlights

Too late to stop. Must hit deer or car. Pick a lane.

Do the Math readers have surely noticed a new bone I like to gnaw of late: human supremacy. For me, this started in early 2022 with a post that I called at the time Human Exceptionalism. Since then, I recognize that humans are indeed exceptional, as are other species—each in their own ways. In the 20 months since writing the “exceptionalism” post—bolstered by things I’ve read in the interim—my sense has only strengthened that the perception of separateness began in earnest when we started mastering land and beast via agriculture and herding, became far more pronounced during the Enlightenment, and now is the chief engine behind modernity and the meta-crisis. I recommend a magnificent book chapter by Eileen Crist from 2015 (republished at Resilience) that was missing from my life these past 8 years. At this point, I would far sooner try to address the root problem of human supremacy than engage in any talk of technology—which simply becomes a tool to effect human supremacist aims to the ultimate detriment of all..

If we could somehow stamp out human supremacy, I believe that humans would spontaneously organize differently, prioritize the more-than-human world, begin to place more value on the far future, set aside science/technology fetishism to focus on deeper values, and—in short—become wiser. Many of the ills caused by modernity would simply melt away under a new worldview, accompanied by a complete overhaul of how we think, know, and live. Many of the actions of today would seem unthinkable and repulsive under a non-supremacist worldview.

So how might we stamp out human supremacy? One step is to employ tools that help us recognize it in ourselves. Are you a human supremacist? I was. No doubt I still harbor aspects of the scurrilous affliction, embedded as I am within modernity. My apologies (and respect) if you happen to be the rare bird who has escaped the cage, but the safest assumption for now is that you are indeed a human supremacist—whether you recognize it or not—as that’s what our culture produces en masse. If you don’t like the suggestion that you’re a human supremacist, then good! That’s a great starting place, and I could hardly ask for more. Most racists bristle at being called racist, which is adorable in a contemptible sort of way.

This post proposes a crude test for deep-seated human supremacist attitudes. It has echoes of the classic “trolley problem,” and I hate myself for that. But the setup is not as hypothetical or unlikely. Also, rather than the intractable weighing of (sacred) human lives against action/inaction, I think this one has a clearer logical resolution.

The Scenario

Two cars rapidly approach each other on a two-lane road that for a short span has no shoulders (e.g., guard rails, steep bluffs). Shortly before the cars reach each other, a large deer suddenly pops out into one lane and freezes. It is too late to brake in time to avoid hitting the deer, so the only choice on the part of the unlucky driver is to plow into the massive deer at windshield height or swerve into the oncoming car for a destructive head-on collision and near-certain death of those in both cars. In order to bypass the effect of self-preservation, let us stipulate that the driver in the lane with the deer will die either way, and knows this. Which choice makes sense? Is it obvious to you?

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Are WE Lucky?

What if we ask a rough-skinned newt, assigning it greater importance than is customary?

To prevent the reader from wondering if they have the wrong blog, I will warn that this post starts in an unfamiliar voice. In some respects, it reflects a younger me. But mostly it channels views familiar to modernity, by no coincidence.  We start with a guy (of course) hogging the microphone.

Space is cool. Astronauts are badass. Maybe me too, someday.

What we’ve learned is amazing—we have tamed so much—our reach and control are ever-increasing.

Information and analysis are accelerating: we’re on our way to mastering everything.

We have learned to outmaneuver all limits. Nothing can stop us from having it all—even immortality may be in the cards soon.

We are so lucky to have pulled ourselves out of the muck—no longer mere animals.

We are so lucky to be as clever as we are: ingenious innovators.

We are so lucky (and brilliant) to have found the fossil fuels that powered our ascent—but that’s just the start.

What’s this you say? Growth can’t go forever on a finite planet?

Well, not to worry: did I mention that space is cool, and that it is in our nature to skirt past limits?

What’s that? Space colonization is a juvenile fantasy, you say?

No, I can’t prove that it’s destined to happen. But why would the burden of proof be on me, when it’s so obvious that’s where we’re heading? What relevance is it that we have no examples even remotely close to sustainable living in space over long durations?

What’s this? Fossil fuels are finite and likely to decline this century?

No matter. Renewable energy: solar, wind, nuclear!

Don’t be a pest. It’s beside the point that nuclear is not renewable—you know what I mean: unlimited energy awaits. Fusion, then.

Wait: too many things at once:

  1. Of course unlimited energy is a great thing—why the hell wouldn’t it be?
  2. Why should it be relevant that we’ve never built solar panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels?
  3. What does it even matter if these technologies use ten times the mined resources as fossil fuels? Earth is enormous.
  4. Surely, you jest that we don’t have ways to make concrete and steel, carry on our mining practices, support air travel and global shipping without fossil fuels. I can probably find a cute demonstration blasting each of these, or at least imagine them—which is theoretically enough.
  5. I don’t understand the relevance of your point that most of our 8 billion people are fed by the fruits of fossil fuels for fertilizer and mechanization: we’ll just do something different/better!

So don’t get hung up on fossil fuels! Yes, they are causing climate change, but that’s just another hiccup that we’ll master and tame in the usual heroic fashion: just look at the explosion of solar and wind and electric cars (now roaring up to a few percent penetration!). We’re lucky, remember! Fossil fuels are just a stepping stone to an even richer future. Failure is not an option, say I: we’re increasingly capable and increasingly in control. Our destiny is clear: just look at how far we’ve come! This trajectory must continue. To think otherwise ludicrously ignores a centuries-long trend—even if you do claim to rest your argument on biophysical reality and not on an inheritance-spending extrapolation lasting only a handful of human lifetimes. It’s only your toxic (lack of?) imagination and lack of faith that threatens our greatness: we have to believe in order to mold reality to our dreams.

Hey—how dare you! Give. Me. (grunt) Back. That. MICRoph…

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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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Married to an Axe Murderer

The day you met your spouse, it was love at first sight. They were charming, witty, warm and affectionate, good-looking, complimentary, showered you with gifts, devoted time to you, pledged to look after you into your old age and even to help take care of your aging parents. They impressed you with their big dreams: raising a family, buying a big house, owning expensive cars, traveling the world, and they were inexplicably adept at putting meat on the table.

It goes without saying that you got married. What a lucky catch!

It didn’t take long before suspicions arose: unaccountable nocturnal absences; waking to the sound of laundry being done at 4 AM; an odd reluctance to move the axe out of the car trunk and into the garage with the other tools. But why spoil a good thing with awkward questions? Life for you is going great, so better not to rock the boat with silly notions of some monstrous secret. Plus, you’re in love!

But the cops finally caught up and your yard turned into a media-infested nightmare. It took ages to even accept the possibility that this was real—not a case of mistaken identity or wrongful framing. How could such a generous and loving partner really be a violent menace?

So here’s the thing: Modernity is an axe murderer, and we’re—unfortunately—married to it. It isn’t hard to see modernity’s fatal flaw of being constitutionally unsustainable, and that it’s on a violent rampage. Turns out it’s been out at nights murdering the planet.

So how do we react? What does this mean for us?

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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.

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Call Me, Ishmael!

To many, the name Ishmael brings to mind the narrator of the classic novel Moby Dick. To others, Ishmael is the eldest son of Abraham—of biblical fame—cast aside for the favored son Isaac. To me and to a cadre of others, Ishmael is a wise teacher in the form of a gorilla.

A 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn, titled Ishmael, burst out of the gate already graced with a half-million-dollar prize. A few friends over the years recommended the book to me, but not having much bandwidth for books at the time, the recommendations failed to percolate up the priority list for a while.

I finally read the book last summer (2022), and…wow; yeah. What he said… I think I was particularly struck by the resonance with many of the conclusions I had reached on my own, as was sketched in the last post. But the novel framed these realizations in an elegant way that I never could have done, added a healthy dose of ideas I had not considered, and on the whole brought me to a state of newfound clarity.

In this post, I synthesize a set of ten principles that capture my current thinking, unambiguously fortified and sharpened by the teachings in Ishmael. I want to encourage others to read the book, so will only relay a sense of the content here. My best recommendation is to set this post aside until you’ve had a chance to read it yourself. Perhaps the quickest route runs through your library, rather then FedEx.

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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.

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