In May of this year, I had the opportunity to give a talk to my department on the matters that concern me. What would I say? How could I pack 20 years of learning, Do the Math writing, and recent perspectives into a one-hour talk for my physics/astrophysics colleagues and for students just beginning their professional journeys? How could I have the biggest impact without coming off as being nuts?
As with many things we do in life, I have mixed feelings about the result: things I should have said; things I could have said differently/better; answers to questions that could have been less clumsy. But overall it seems to have worked. While people were not beating down my door to have further conversations, almost anyone I ran into from the department in the weeks that followed would bring it up—indicating that they had been ruminating on the content and expressing further curiosity. It helps that these are people who have known me for years in another context, but it was still a relief to not simply be dismissed as having veered from the one important path: physics research.
Below is a video capture of the event over a zoom channel. The slides are shown well, but the audio quality varies depending on my movements (could be worse). Questions from the audience are hard to make out. Zoom does amazing things for noise suppression, which also applies to audience reactions (applause, laughter). But hey, you get what you pay for.
The theme of the talk is very similar to that of the shorter video I shared recently. It is also reflected in an article featured in a special sustainability issue of The Physics Teacher in September (below is a PDF of the final paper). So I’m “making a lot of hay” out of this approach, of late.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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?
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.
People rarely recognize or admit that they have been brainwashed. Perhaps the term brainwashed is too extreme, in which case manipulated or fooled may be substituted.
An insightful quote from Mark Twain says:
It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.
What often happens, in fact, is that people on opposite sides of an issue suspect (or are convinced) that the other side has been brainwashed. Sometimes one side is more justified in the charge than the other, in which case the brainwashed victims effectively assert a sort of projected symmetry that rings false.
Bi-directional allegations of brainwashing show up in the context of COVID: masks provide a clear means of identifying either those (masked individuals) who have been fooled into controlled submission to believe that the pandemic is real and deadly vs. those (unmasked fighters for freedom) who have been sadly misled to think it’s all a hoax and in so doing endanger us all. Each side may feel anger or pity toward the other. Climate change is similar: its denial has become an article of faith for the brainwashed non-believers, who accuse the gullible believers of being brainwashed by self-serving scientists vying for funding, power, or something (cake, maybe?).
To either side, it seems inconceivable that someone could deny the truths that are so obvious to them. For me, an uptick in total deaths closely matching reports of COVID deaths is pretty convincing, and it is hard for me to make out why anyone in power would want to wreck the economy and could somehow convince countries around the world to overlook a competitive advantage and follow suit. It boggles the mind. Likewise, I can see how climate change threatens powerful interests like the fossil fuel industry and even perhaps capitalism writ large—via the imposition of unwelcome limits on what we can do. But I have a much harder time understanding the bizarre allegations of scientists rolling in dough by hopping on the climate change bandwagon. That’s not how it works, people.
In this post, I will provide an example of how I evaluate the question of whether I have been brainwashed in the case of climate change, contrasting the way my knowledge is “received” to that of the opposition.
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.
Purveyors of unpopular messages are often scrutinized for any inconsistent, seemingly hypocritical behavior that might give lie to their preachings and be used to discredit the unwelcome perspective. A famous example is Al Gore’s heavy air travel schedule to spread the word and take action against climate change, resulting in an enormous CO2 footprint. If we all behaved that way, the very problem at hand would be substantially exacerbated.
Such accusations either knowingly or pathetically miss the obvious point that the net effect of Al Gore’s efforts may be positive owing to the simple idea of a lever: a little expenditure here can counteract vast expenditures elsewhere for an overall gain on the problem. For many, the glaring superficial contradiction is enough ammunition to discredit the entire enterprise.
But identifying possible hypocrisy in those who warn of future perils, as I have done, has a dark edge: if even those cognizant individuals cannot get away from behaviors they know to be damaging, doesn’t that only amplify the severity of the warning?
Growth has been our close companion for centuries, and we love it to pieces. It makes politicians swoon, economists dance, investors giggle, and community planners smile.
The only problem is that this friend is about to turn into our greatest enemy. Pursuit of growth—in money and resource exploitation—has a flip side on Earth’s ecosystems. Up until now, we mostly saw the good side of growth: conveniences, technology, health care, security. Becoming apparent is the toll this misguided focus is taking on our irreplaceable home. No amount of money (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men) can restore lost species and destroyed ecosystems. So maybe money is a bad metric for what really matters, yeah?
I have struggled to come up with a good analogy for growth that will help us process what it means. The best I have come up with (and only recently) is that growth is like Old Yeller. If you’re not familiar with the 1957 film, it’s a real tear jerker. I remember bawling in concert with my sister when the amazing dog—dearly loved by the family for getting them out of many a pickle—contracted rabies, became aggressive toward the family, and had to be shot. That’s right: a kid’s movie ended with the beloved central character being shot dead. Those were different times. What you really wanted in a kid’s movie was for your children to emerge wrecked. (I also saw Jaws at age 6 and have been scarred since.)
Growth has likewise been this fantastic friend: all upside, upside, upside. But the rabid side is beginning to show, and our ultimate success depends on killing it. There will be tears. Many will bargain, unable to accept the necessity of ending growth. But it’s no use. The physics is clear.
Please use the comment forum to suggest other (better) analogies. Not straying too far, it may be like raising a lion: awfully adorable as a cub, but ultimately a mortal threat to have in the house. It’s possible that better analogies can be conjured.
P.S. I wrote this in 24 minutes, so please excuse the shortness and sloppiness.