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.
Recent reflections on the long-term trajectory of the human enterprise have somewhat transformed the way I look at most activities. Specifically, I refer to the dual realizations that on 10,000 year timescales ultimate success is effectively synonymous with true sustainability, and that the human race stands in blatant breach of contract with evolution and ecosystem parameters—fueled by a mad grab of one-time finite resources. The net effect is that most human activities today promote ultimate failure rather than ultimate success.
As such, when evaluating a proposed or ongoing effort, I ask myself the question:
To what end?
This post will examine some of the activities of current society, and evaluate how much sense they make in the context of a post-party future.
ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
No, life has not yet been found on Mars, but imagine waking up to that headline. How would you react? The headline’s font would be huge on print newspapers—maybe one word per page, occupying the first four pages. Some bold papers might even put one letter per page and go so far as to have blank pages for the spaces. The point is, it would be big news.
So I ask again, what would this stir for you?
For me, the swirl would be thick with competing thoughts and feelings, tripping over themselves to get out. First would be the raft of questions stemming from pure curiosity. Is it DNA-based? Is it a separate start, or do we share some ancient microbial ancestor—possibly shuttled from one body to the other following a meteoric impact? What lessons can we learn about how life forms? Can we get the discovered lifeforms to call us Mama or Dada? Will they make good pets?
One can imagine the discovery team, whether at NASA or elsewhere, ecstatic with joy. The entire exploration establishment around the planet would likely be giddy. SETI folks would probably be unable to chew for a while, wearing fixed grins.
I would share many of these same reactions, for the pure joy of discovery and the novel opportunity to re-examine what it means to be a part of life on Earth. But then it dawns on me just how devastating the news might actually be for the human race.
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?
A 2018 paper by Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo in PNAS contains a fascinating figure (Figure 1) that bears staring at for some time. It shows the dry carbon biomass distribution of various forms of life on Earth. Plants account for 450 Gt (giga-ton; 1012 kg) of mass, while the sum of all animals adds to 2.5 Gt. Humans comprise only 2.4% of animal mass on the planet, but that’s almost ten times as large as wild mammal mass. Add human livestock (outweighing human mass) and wild mammals are only 4% of the human-livestock-mammal trio.
But this post is heading somewhere else: lament about the un-wilding of the planet on your own time (kidding aside, please do!). Let’s start by considering the following question. Which do you think is more valuable: the web of living animals on this planet, or all the gold accessible in the ground? If given a choice to eliminate one and preserve the other, which would you choose? Gold, among Earth’s mineral stocks, is used for this question because it has served as a physically-based monetary standard for many cultures throughout time.
What follows has absurd elements to it, but hopefully in forgivable service of a larger point about the value of life on this planet and in shining a glaring spotlight on current human values.
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.
Ask a random sampling of people if they think we will have colonized space in 500 years, and I expect it will be a while before you run into someone who says it’s unlikely. Our migration from this planet is a seductive vision of the future that has been given almost tangible reality by our entertainment industry. We are attracted to the narrative that our primitive progenitors crawled out of the ocean, just as we’ll crawl off our home planet (en masse) some day.
I’m not going to claim that this vision is false: how could I know that? But I will point out a few of the unappreciated difficulties with this view. The subtext is that space fantasies can prevent us from tackling mundane problems whose denial could result in a backward slide. When driving, fixing your gaze on the gleaming horizon is likely to result in your crashing into a stopped car ahead of you, so that your car is no longer capable of reaching the promised land ahead. We have to pay attention to the stupid stuff right in front of us, as it might well stand between us and a smart future.