Most of us have seen it happen. An exhausted school teacher, sometimes suffering from what we recognize in hindsight as a hangover, announces to the class that instead of the usual lesson plan, we’re all going to watch a video.
That’s what I’m doing today, in effect. Last week’s post about factors facilitating collapse was of beastly proportions. This week, I’m taking a breather and pointing you to a five-minute video and a write-up of an interview relating to my recent book.
The pieces were put together by the UC San Diego Division of Physical Sciences (Mario Aguilera and Sherry Seethaler coordinating the interview and Debbie Meyer constructing a quality video). I’m sporting the outgrown late-COVID haircut that lopped off my ponytail of 28 years (performed by my terrified wife). It also appears that I failed to prioritize shaving for the interview day, which was scheduled weeks in advance, so did not exactly catch me by surprise. Oh well. Appearances only count for so much.
And since this video is short, I would hate for you to feel ripped off. I might, therefore, recommend another recent video by Nate Hagens that has a slightly longer run time (approaching three hours; I suggest taking it in doses). In an approach somewhat similar to the collapse post, Nate has put together a long list of factors, cast as societal myths, that contribute to our collective miscalibration about how we might expect the future to go. Many of the themes will be familiar to and resonant with Do the Math readers, but from a usefully alternate angle.
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.
I had planned to drop a rather large post today on the thorny topic of collapse. But it’s important enough that I should not rush it and make sure it has all the key pieces I want to convey, and that no sloppiness on my part results in misinterpretations that I later regret.
So what shall we do instead? Hey, I know! Have I mentioned the free textbook I wrote? A few times? Are you getting tired of my plugs? Apologies if so, but what feedback I have received thus far encourages me to believe that it’s a valuable contribution to the world and not intrinsically a flop. People are loving the margin notes, somewhat to my surprise.
However, in order to have a meaningful impact, I would want to do substantially better than the (currently) 7,000 site visits and 3,000 PDF downloads. Sure, many textbook authors might jump for joy at such numbers in less than two months. But millions of people would likely appreciate the message and have enough background to get something out of reading it. From the statistics, it is clear that even most Do the Math visitors have themselves not checked it out yet. I get that it’s a textbook, so: ugh. Who wants to take on that kind of chore? But A) it’s free, B) people report being surprised at how readable it is, and C) the intro provides a graphic (below) that offers a few reading paths that may make it less daunting.
Also, no one has yet submitted a review on Lulu. Even if you have not ordered a print copy, the free PDF material is the same so that a review on Lulu based on the electronic version would be perfectly appropriate. Here is the corresponding to-do list to help encourage a larger readership:
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.
In this post, I take a bit more time to introduce new elements in the book that Do the Math readers have not seen represented in some form in earlier posts. In other words: what new insights or calculations lurk within the book?
The following is organized into three sections. The first takes a brief tour of the book, pointing out large, new blocks that are not already covered by Do the Math in some form. The second highlights the results of new calculations or figures that bring new context to our understanding. Finally, I summarize some of the new big-picture framing that emerges in the book.
Rather than laboriously inserting associated graphics into this post, my intent is that you treat this as a companion to be used side-by-side with the downloadable PDF of the book. References are to sections, figures, boxes, etc. rather than page numbers, which vary between electronic and print forms. So go ahead and get a version of the PDF up, and let’s jump in…
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.