Readers of this blog will know that I have come to some big-picture conclusions about success and failure that are unsettling. I don’t like them myself. Not only do they create an inner sadness about where I think the human endeavor is heading, but they result in a sort of isolation that I would rather not suffer—introvert though I am. Among other academics at my institution, it is rare for me to find kindred spirits, even among groups self-selected to care about environmental issues. Most don’t seem to see very far beyond climate change in the lineup of existential threats, increasingly focusing on inequities within the human population that stem from climate and environmental disturbances. I am glad that climate change awareness is high (a genuine threat), but even if climate change had never arisen, I think we would still be in grave trouble from the more fundamental flaws in our explosive approach to living on Earth.
This is a large part of the impetus behind PLAN, which I announced in the last post. Already, I am gratified that people joining the network from vastly different fields and experiences have formed similar conclusions at the highest level. So I’m not crazy, unless we all are. In any case, I am less lonely. [I will say that crazy is usually easy to spot in conversation: a little too insistent/enthusiastic/one-track. The PLAN folks feel really solid, broad, and even perhaps subdued to me: not the type you want to back away from at a party.]
But I still try to understand why so few of my colleagues have reached similar conclusions. The easy answer is that I’m just plain wrong. But believe me, I have tormented myself to try to discover the missing piece and go back to being a happy human bumping along in this race to who-knows-where. It’s not that my unconcerned colleagues have thought more deeply about the issues and can help a rookie out, in my experience.
In this post, I venture some guesses about the disconnect—some of which may even be on target. I will loosely frame the discussion in the context of academia, but much of the logic also applies beyond this scope. The basic idea is: complexity makes it hard to differentiate between real and artificial worlds.
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.
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?
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.
Hello, all, and welcome (me) back! After years of radio silence, I am popping back up and have more to say in the coming months as I re-engage on topics relevant to this blog.
The first thing is to announce the launch of a textbook at eScholarship that is free to access electronically (can download PDF), or is available in paperback form for the cost of printing (royalty-free; at Lulu). Over the years, I received a number of encouragements to write a book collecting the ideas and analysis from Do the Math posts. I appreciated the sentiment, but given the substantial effort required to produce something that was already available for free on this site never rose to a high priority in the competition for limited time.
One of the prevailing narratives of our time is that we are innovating our way into the future at break-neck speed. It’s just dizzying how quickly the world around us is changing. Technology is this juggernaut that gets ever bigger, ever faster, and all we need to do is hold on for the wild ride into the infinitely cool. Problems get solved faster than we can blink.
But I’m going to claim that this is an old, outdated narrative. I think we have a tendency to latch onto a story of humanity that we find appealing or flattering, and stick with it long past its expiration date. Many readers at this point, in fact, may think that it’s sheer lunacy for me to challenge such an obvious truth about the world we live in. Perhaps this will encourage said souls to read on—eager to witness a spectacular failure as I attempt to pull off this seemingly impossible stunt.
The (slightly overstated) claim is that no major new inventions have come to bear in my 45-year lifespan. The 45 years prior, however, were chock-full of monumental breakthroughs.
I was also asked to contribute some short text for the write-up (same as first link above), but apparently Theo was unable to get contributions from all participants, so wrote the piece himself. But here is what I sent him. I was asked to answer the question:
Can the World Get Richer Forever?
Shame on you for even asking. Of course not. At present population levels, we are putting unprecedented pressure on finite resources. We are conducting a grand-scale, unauthorized experiment on the 4.5 billion-year-old planet. The fact that we have not hit the bounds in a few generations of outrageous growth should not be taken as evidence for our long-haul prospects. We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power). Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels. But even under solar power, we can’t continue our track record of 3% energy growth per year for even several hundred years! Global physical limits—thermodynamic, energy return on energy invested, finite arable land, water, fisheries, climate change, etc.—are all asserting themselves to remind us that nature doesn’t care about our dreams. The other point to make is that even if we capped physical growth due to finite resources, we cannot expect to continue getting richer indefinitely. This would necessarily take the form of non-physical exchanges of utility/worth, but to keep growing these activities would have to eventually utterly dominate the economy—rendering the finite and essential resources effectively free. And tell me how that makes sense.
I’ve been maintaining “radio silence” for a while—mostly on account of an overflowing plate and several new new hats I wear. All the while, I have received a steady stream of e-mail thanking me for Do the Math, asking if I’m still alive, and if so: what do I make of the changing oil situation? Do I still think peak oil is a thing?
Let’s start with the big picture view.
I was wrong about everything. Oil is not a finite resource: never was and never will be. We will employ new technologies and innovate our way into essentially perpetual fossil energy. We’ve only scratched the surface in exploration: there are giant deposits (countless new Saudi-Arabia-scale fields) yet to be discovered). The shale oil tells us so—and it won’t stop there. Shale first, then slate, marble, granite: just squeeze the frack out of rocks and we’ll get oil. Meanwhile, whole new continents are being discovered, rich with resources. The most recent was hiding behind Australia. And naturally it doesn’t stop there. We have now discovered thousands of planets just a hop away, most of which are likely to contain fossil fuels of their own. So game over for the resource limits crowd, yeah?
People can be individually smart and collectively dumb. Or some may argue that people can be individually dumb yet collectively smart. When it comes to plotting a future path, I think we often get the worst of both worlds. In this post, I’ll look at the role that mental horsepower plays in our societal narratives, for better or for worse. We’ll explore two aspects to the problem: people who are so smart that they have dumb ideas; and smart people who are held captive by the manufactured “dumb” of society.
A word of warning: “smart” and “dumb” are loaded words, and even impolite. We place so much value on intelligence in our society that being called smart can make a person’s day, while being called dumb can cut to the core. We’re very sensitive to people’s perceptions of our intellectual standing, and some of the choicest insecurities are laid upon this foundation. I use “smart” and “dumb” as blunt instruments in this post, so if you’re particularly touchy on the topic, either steel yourself or skip the post and call it the smartest thing you did all day.
Let me preface what I am about to say by the disclaimer that most of this is conjecture. I have little data, relying instead on hunches about what makes people tick based on personal observations.
One other disclaimer: this isn’t a post whose veiled message is how smart I am. I might once have thought so, but then I met bona-fide geniuses when I was in grad school at Caltech. Fortunately, I was mature enough at that point for it not to cause a crisis of confidence or identity, and rather enjoyed the window I had into the off-scale brilliance of some individuals. So let’s go ahead and put me in the dumb box so we can move on to what I want to say.