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?
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.
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?
As a rejoinder to my piece a couple weeks ago (not really), the New York Times published an article on population growth, and why we need not worry. The problem—and solution—is all in our head. The bottom line was that we have always transformed our ecosystem to provide what we need, and in so doing have pushed the carrying capacity along with our growing population. In fact, the author says, “there really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.” And he goes on to ask, “why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this?”
Clearly there is a misunderstanding, but I’ll side with the natural scientists, naturally. The succinct answer is that natural scientists are not comfortable with ruthless extrapolation of past trends.
We humans owe much of our success to our ability to recognize patterns and extrapolate trends to anticipate a future state. My cats, on the other hand, will watch a tossed toy mouse travel toward them across the room—getting ever-bigger—all the way until it smacks them between the eyes (no, they’re not strapped down—I’m not that sort of scientist). But far beyond an ability to avoid projectiles, our ancestors were able to perceive and react to changes in local food and water supplies, herd movements, seasonal cues, etc. Yet this fine tool can be over-used, and I see a lot of what I call ruthless extrapolation. In almost every case, extrapolation works until it doesn’t. When the fundamental rules of the game change, watch out!
As with many aspects of human behavior, some of the finest commentary on the matter is served up by The Simpsons. In one episode, Lisa Simpson is taken to the orthodontist to evaluate whether or not she needs braces. The “doctor” runs a simulation based on current growth rates, producing an alarming graphic of teeth gone wild.
Marge shrieks and is ready to do whatever it takes to protect her daughter against this cruel fate. Extrapolation can, of course, be used to argue both for impending doom or future prosperity—sometimes based on the same data. I started this blog with an extrapolative foil to demonstrate the insanity of continued physical growth, in fact. A tangential follow-up illustrated the hopelessness of differentiating a steady-state energy future from an energy crash using current data (although a continued exponential rise is already a poor fit).
When I first approached the topic of societal energy in 2004, I became aware for the first time that our energy future was not in the bag, and proceeded to explore alternative after alternative to judge the viability and potential pitfalls of various options. I have retraced my steps in Do the Math posts, exposing the scales at which different energy sources might contribute, and the practical complexities involved. My spooky campfire version of the story, a la Tolkien: The Way is Shut.
Alright, I’m overstating things a bit. The good news is that there do exist energy flows and sources that qualify as abundant or at least potent. However, many of the alternatives represent ways to produce electricity, which applies only to about one-third of our current energy demand. The immediate threat is therefore the short term liquid fuels crunch we will see when the global petroleum decline commences within the decade.
In this post, I will reflect on the lessons we learn after having characterized the various alternatives to fossil fuels. There will still be some tidying-up to do on energy alternatives not treated thus far, but by and large the nature of content on Do the Math is about to pivot toward addressing the question “What can we do now?” In some sense, a common thread so far has been: “easier said than done,” or “don’t count on that technology saving our bacon.” I’ve closed all the exits to get your attention. We’re boxed in. Okay, the exits aren’t really closed: they’re just not as wide open as they would need to be for me to be complacent. So now we’ll start looking at ways to nose out of our box in a safe and satisfying way.
Having looked at the major alternatives to fossil fuel energy production (summarized here), we come away with the general sentiment that the easy days of cheap energy are not evidently carried forward into a future without fossil fuels. That’s right, fossil fuels will be dead and gone. Is it time to pile them on the cart to be hauled away?
In the slapdash scoring scheme I employed in the alternative energy matrix, the best performers racked up 5 points, whereas by the same criteria, our traditional fossil fuels typically achieved the near-perfect score of 8/10. The only consistent failing is in the abundance measure, which is ultimately what brings us all together here at Do the Math. Fossil fuels are presently used in abundance—85% of current energy use—but this is a short-term prospect, ending within the century. The first effects of decline may be close at hand. Do I hear talk of nursing homes?
The gulf between fossil fuels and their alternatives tends to be rather large in terms of utility, energy density, practicality, ease of use, versatility, energy return on energy invested, etc. In other words, we do not merrily step off the fossil fuel ride onto the next one by “just” allowing the transition to happen. The alternatives come at a cost, and we will miss the golden days of fossil fuels. But wait…what’s that murmur? Not dead yet?