By Ronald Wright: A Short History of Progress Revisited

Ronald Wright - A Short History of Progress

Ronald Wright presented his book “A Short History of Progress” in 2004 via the Massey Lectures that were broadcast by CBC Radio.

It’s my all time favorite lecture series and I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times. You can listen to it here.

Last month Wright launched the 15th anniversary edition of his book and was interviewed by CBC Radio which you can listen to here.

“I almost don’t want to say what I really think.”

Wright also wrote an essay last month updating our “progress” in the 15 years since his book was published.

Wright’s understanding of the gravity and historical precedents of our predicament is excellent. What to do about it, not so much, as he is an archeologist and not an engineer or physicist. Nevertheless, Wright is a brilliant writer with a superb command of history.

https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2019/09/20/Ronald-Wright-Can-We-Dodge-Progress-Trap/

h/t Apneaman

Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?

In the 2004 Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, I wrote about the fall of past civilizations and what we might learn from them to avoid a similar fate. Societies that failed were seduced and undone by what I called a progress trap: a chain of successes which, upon reaching a certain scale, leads to disaster. The dangers are seldom seen before it’s too late. The jaws of a trap open slowly and invitingly, then snap closed fast.

The first trap was hunting, the main way of life for about two million years in Palaeolithic times. As Stone Age people perfected the art of hunting, they began to kill the game more quickly than it could breed. They lived high for a while, then starved.

Most survivors of that progress trap became farmers — a largely unconscious revolution during which all the staple foods we eat today were developed from wild roots and seeds (yes, all: no new staples have been produced from scratch since prehistoric times). Farming brought dense human populations and centralized control, the defining ingredients of full-blown civilization for the last five thousand years. Yet there were still many traps along the way. In what is now Iraq, the Sumerian civilization (one of the world’s first) withered and died as the irrigation systems it invented turned the fields into salty desert. Some two thousand years later, in the Mediterranean basin, chronic soil erosion steadily undermined the Classical World: first the Greeks, then the Romans at the height of their power. And a few centuries after Rome’s fall, the Classic Maya, one of only two high civilizations to thrive in tropical rainforest (the other being the Khmer), eventually wore out nature’s welcome at the heart of Central America.

In the deep past these setbacks were local. The overall experiment of civilization kept going, often by moving from an exhausted ecology to one with untapped potential. Human numbers were still quite small. At the height of the Roman Empire there are thought to have been only 200 million people on Earth. Compare that with the height of the British Empire a century ago, when there were two billion. And with today, when there are nearly eight. Clearly, things have moved very quickly since the Industrial Revolution took hold around the world. In A Short History of Progress, I suggested that worldwide civilization was our greatest experiment; and I asked whether this might also prove to be the greatest progress trap. That was 15 years ago.

What has happened — and not happened — since then to alarm or reassure us?

First, our numbers have risen by 1.4 billion, nearly a hundred million per year. In other words, we’ve added another China or 40 more Canadas to the world. The growth rate has fallen slightly, but consumption of resources — from fossil fuel to water, from rare earths to good earth — has risen twice as steeply, roughly doubling our impact on nature. This outrunning of population by economic growth has lifted perhaps a billion of the poorest into the outskirts of the working class, mainly in China and India. Yet those in extreme poverty and hunger still number at least a billion.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest billion — to which most North Americans and Europeans and many Asians now belong — devour an ever-growing share of natural capital. The commanding heights of this group, the billionaires’ club, has more than 2,200 members with a combined known worth nearing $10 trillion; this super-elite not only consumes at a rate never seen before but also deploys its wealth to influence government policy, media content, and key elections. Such, in a few words, is the shape of the human pyramid today.

The 2008 crash triggered by banking fraud was staved off by money-printing and record debt. This primed a short-run recovery, which has in turn revived illusions we can borrow from nature and the future indefinitely — illusions fed by corporate think-tanks, irresponsible politicians, and Panglossian cherrypickers such as Steven Pinker. But what about the long run? In 1923 the great economist John Maynard Keynes famously answered, “In the long run we are all dead.” By that he meant, let’s deal with the problems we see now and leave the unforeseeable to those who come later. Fair enough in the 1920s, when there was only one person on Earth for every four today and the future seemed to have room for endless outcomes, good or bad. Nearly a century later, Keynes’s quip sounds more like dire prophecy, as short-term thinking lures us ever deeper into very difficult problems that science can not only observe but foresee. Predicted consequences of global warming — blighted coral reefs, melting glaciers, spreading deserts, and extreme weather — are already upon us.

One of the sad ironies of our time is that we have become very good at studying nature just as it begins to sicken and die under our weight. “Weight” is no mere metaphor: of all land mammals and birds alive today, humans and their livestock make up 96 per cent of the biomass; wildlife has dwindled to four per cent. This has no precedent. Not so far back in history the proportions were the other way round. As recently as 1970, humans were only half and wildlife more than twice their present numbers. These closely linked figures are milestones along our rush towards a trashed and looted planet, stripped of diversity, wildness, and resilience; strewn with waste. Such is the measure of our success.

The archaeologists who dig us up will need to wear hazmat suits. Humankind will leave a telltale layer in the fossil record composed of everything we produce, from mounds of chicken bones, wet-wipes, tires, mattresses and other household waste, to metals, concrete, plastics, industrial chemicals, and the nuclear residue of power plants and weaponry. We are cheating our children, handing them tawdry luxuries and addictive gadgets while we take away what’s left of the wealth, wonder, and possibility of the pristine Earth.

Calculations of humanity’s footprint suggest we have been in “ecological deficit,” taking more than Earth’s biological systems can withstand, for at least 30 years. Topsoil is being lost far faster than nature can replenish it; 30 per cent of arable land has been exhausted since the mid-20th century.

We have financed this monstrous debt by colonizing both past and future, drawing energy, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides from the planet’s fossil carbon, and throwing the consequences onto coming generations of our species and all others. Some of those species have already been bankrupted: they are extinct.

Others will follow. Whether we are triggering an extinction as severe as that which killed the dinosaurs, when three-quarters of all species were wiped out, is still to be seen. By the time the answer is clear, there could be nobody left to know it. The lesson of fallen societies is that civilization is a vulnerable organism, especially when it seems almighty. We are the world’s top predator, and predators crash suddenly when they outgrow their prey. If the resulting chaos unleashes nuclear war, it could bring mass extinction in a heartbeat, with Homo sapiens among the noted dead.

Awareness of our predicament is spreading, if slowly and with mixed results. The warnings of science are growing more urgent and precise, gaining wider attention and sparking grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the schoolchildren’s strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. People are beginning to see the world dying before their eyes. The dwindling of birdlife in their gardens and bugs on their windshields backs up the scientists’ alarm that falling insect numbers threaten a “catastrophic collapse” of natural systems.

Effective reform will take political will at world level. Yet the very idea of international cooperation is under attack — just when it is needed most. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in its October 2018 report, keeping global warming below 1.5 C “is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics” but will require “unprecedented changes” before 2030.

Conservation and environmentalism have had some success, a few species have been pulled back from the brink, a few Green politicians have been elected, a few promising fixes (renewable energy, electric cars, etc.) are being developed. Yet at this writing, the momentum of extraction, consumption, and destruction is still gathering speed, driven by the delusion of endless growth, and the willingness of corporations to set financial profit above life itself. Even if fossil energy were replaced at once by clean sources, our other problems — overpopulation, overconsumption, erosion, deforestation, and accumulating waste — would still persist.

The failure of democratic governments to stand up for the greater good over the long run is fuelling disillusionment with democracy itself. There is something badly wrong with an economic regime in which 26 individuals own as much as half the world’s population. Such extreme disparity has never been seen before. Inequality is the main driver behind rising population and consumption. The highest birthrates are in the poorest places, mainly Africa and the Indian subcontinent. At the other end of the seesaw, obscene wealth — the kind which owns mansions around the world and gigantic yachts with helicopter pads — has a colossal footprint, while its undue influence amounts to a dark tyranny.

Back in Classical Greece, Plato suggested that in a just society there should be no more than a 5:1 spread in income between richest and poorest. That was a hard sell then, and still would be. But what might be reasonable today? Where should the balance be struck to help the weakest while still rewarding effort and achievement? Given the seriousness of what we face, this is a conversation we must have. The wealth already wrenched from nature might just be enough to buy us a lasting future if it were shared, managed, and ploughed into solutions.

Of one thing we can be sure: if we fail to act, nature will do so with the rough justice she has always served on those who are too many and who take too much.

 

Ronald Wright Quote (Studious Fox)

By Gail Zawacki: Diva of Doom Interview

I’m a long-time admirer of the intellect and work of Gail Zawacki, the self-described Diva of Doom. You can find some of my favorites by Gail that I’ve posted here, and all of Gail’s work at her blog Wit’s End.

Here in a new 60 minute interview with Sam Mitchell, Gail provides an articulate description of the what and why of our overshoot predicament, and concludes with some wise advice on what to do about it:

Enjoy every good day that remains.

 

New Badass in Town: Jean-Marc Jancovici (Radio Ecoshock interview)

Jean-Marc Jancovici

Step aside all you established peak oil and climate change pontificators. There’s a new badass in town and he’s an engineer who specializes in energy and climate which means you don’t stand a chance. 🙂

It’s very rare to find someone who can articulately explain in one hour, without hyperbole or bullshit, everything important going on in the world, including the underlying causes, what the future holds, and what we should do in response. Jean-Marc Jancovici is one of those rare gems.

Jancovici’s native language is French so English works by him are scarce. I’ve already posted the only other recent English talk that I’m aware of here.

Today’s interview with Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock is a treat. After investing an hour here you will understand much more about the issues that matter than 99% of the people in the world.

Alex Smith wrote a very nice summary of his interview here:

https://www.ecoshock.org/2018/10/jean-marc-jancovici-whistling-past-the-graveyard.html

 

 

Following are a few quotes from the interview that I thought were noteworthy. Notice how close Jancovici comes to discussing denial of reality on several occasions.

 

Tell me how much energy you use and I will tell you how you live.

 

Governments are not guided by [wise] advisors. They respond to external pressure.

 

The present standard of living cannot be sustained without the help of fossil fuels for physical reasons.

 

Two centuries ago the world was fully renewable and consisted of 1 billion peasants with a life expectancy of 30 years. [We therefore] know of at least one option available to us.

 

Every time you hear the words “energy consumption”, replace them with “fleet of machines” .

 

A future with no growth is considered unthinkable by so many people, including Nobel prize-winning economists, that nobody thinks about what to do if it happens for real.

 

Q: What do you think is the greatest soonest threat: peak oil or climate change?

A: I place my bets on the likelihood that nobody will understand what is happening with either of these threats.

 

No government understands that energy equals machines, and if machines work less, GDP goes down.

No political leader understands that climate change is already putting refugees on the road.

 

Think of peak oil and climate change as opposing scissor blades squeezing your finger. Asking which is worse does not make any sense.

 

You must wait over 10,000 years for surplus CO2 to evacuate from the atmosphere. There is no such thing as a reset button for climate change. The only thing we are sure of is the day that consequences become unbearable, it will become worse later on.

 

A huge misunderstanding is that energy is a sector of the economy rather than the blood of the economy.

On Sexual Selection and Extinction

Peacock

Here is a very interesting interview of biologist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Prum by Rob Reid on sexual selection and the evolution of beauty.

One of the fundamental reasons birds are so beautiful is that most of them do not have penises and this creates an opportunity for female freedom of choice.

After-On Podcast Episode 33: Richard Prum – The Evolution of Beauty

Bird of Paradise

Sexual selection is not a form of natural selection as most biologists currently believe.

Sexual selection and natural selection are distinct evolutionary forces, as originally envisioned by Charles Darwin.

It’s possible for sexual selection to work in the opposite direction of natural selection which can lead to the extinction of a species. Some interesting examples are given for birds.

I’m thinking about how human females tend to be indifferent to male IQ, but strongly prefer high status males that contribute the most to overshoot and CO2 via mansions, yachts, long distance vacations, and Veblan goods.

Human male preferences tend to be benign as it’s unlikely extinction will be caused by big boobs, which Prum points out, are not an honest signal of fertility.

Donald and Melania Trump

By Sam Harris & Bart Ehrman: What Is Christianity?

 

Fascinating discussion, especially when viewed through the lens of Varki’s MORT theory which says the uniquely powerful human brain exists because it evolved an ability to deny mortality.

https://samharris.org/podcasts/what-is-christianity/

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks to Bart Ehrman about his experience of being a born-again Christian, his academic training in New Testament scholarship, his loss of faith, the most convincing argument in defense of Christianity, the status of miracles, the composition of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, the nature of heaven and hell, the book of Revelation, the End Times, self-contradictions in the Bible, the concept of a messiah, whether Jesus actually existed, Christianity as a cult of human sacrifice, the conversion of Constantine, and other topics.

Bart D. Ehrman is the author or editor of more than thirty books, including the New York Times bestsellers Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity. He has been featured in Time, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, and has appeared on NBC, CNN, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The History Channel, National Geographic, BBC, major NPR shows, and other top print and broadcast media outlets. His most recent book is The Triumph of Christianity.

 

By Jack Alpert: Unwinding the Human Predicament

Jack Alpert

I’ve been following Jack Alpert for many years. He’s an intelligent clear thinking engineer that was apparently born without any denial of reality genes.

I’ve posted other work by Alpert herehere, and here.

Alpert’s devoted much of his life to diagnosing and prescribing remedies for the human overshoot predicament.

This interview by James Howard Kunstler provides a nice summary of Alpert’s work and includes a “solution” that would minimize suffering as fossil energy depletes and that would create a sustainable civilization of about 50 million people with comfortable lives that could continue to make progress in science, technology, and the arts.

The catch is that 3 billion people have to understand the nature of our predicament and vote to drastically constrain personal freedoms, especially the right to breed. We of course would be lucky to find 3 hundred such people, let alone 3 billion.

As a consequence, Alpert concludes that the best case scenario we can hope for over the next 75 years is a painful involuntary reduction of population, mostly due to starvation,  from 7.6 billion to about 600 million subsistence farmers, with little preservation of science, technology, and the arts.

That’s a pretty big price to pay for personal “freedom”, and a tragedy given how rare intelligent life probably is in the universe.

So sad.

Play Audio

Kunstler’s site with an introduction to the interview:

http://kunstler.com/podcast/kunstlercast-303-jack-albert-unwinding-human-predicament/

On Apollo: The Most Impressive Human Achievement

How Apollo Flew to the Moon

I’m an electrical engineer that specialized in operating system design. I built my first computer in 1981 before the IBM PC was available. I designed an integrated circuit in 1983 for my Masters thesis. I managed large R&D groups for most of my 25 year career. I continue to be a technology geek in my personal life. As a consequence, I have a pretty good sense of what is impressive, and what is not, from an engineering perspective.

As readers probably know, I think net energy constraints have placed us at, or passed, the peak of all forms of complexity, including technology. I see evidence everywhere of peak technology.

The highlights of human engineering accomplishments for me include: steel, concrete, glass, Haber-Bosch fertilizer, diesel engines, turbine engines, turbine electricity generators, electric motors, electromagnetic communications, hydraulics, heat pumps, Panama canal, Golden Gate bridge, Chunnel, Concorde, Apollo, Hubble, Voyager, nuclear submarines, skyscrapers, deep-sea oil rigs, integrated circuits, microprocessors, magnetic storage, lasers, LED lights, internet, lithium-ion batteries, robotics, and DNA sequencing.

Notice that everything on this list is over 20 years old.  I can’t think of anything of equal importance that was invented in the last 20 years.

Gasoline and turbine engine efficiency gains have stalled. Diesel engine efficiency is going backwards due to new pollution regulations. Air travel speed plateaued many years ago.  The promise of too cheap to meter nuclear electricity appears certain to remain a dream. Battery performance barely creeps forward despite a hundred years of promises. My 3 year old smart phone works fine with no compelling reason to upgrade. Cameras were good enough many years ago. Household appliances are getting smarter, but their core functions are not improving, and they don’t last as long due to cost reduction pressures. TV resolution is increasing but few need it. LED lights are getting cheaper, but the technology was invented many years ago. Popular Mechanics magazine no longer writes about jet packs and flying cars.

It’s been 6 years since I built my current desktop computer. There’s still no compelling reason to upgrade it. If I spend the thousand dollars required to upgrade it, I will gain 25% performance. That’s nothing compared to the gains we saw 20 years ago.

I can see how a non-engineer might think otherwise. A computer in your pocket with a wireless connection to the internet feels like magic, but advances in the technologies used to build smart phones began to level off years ago. It’s not advances in fundamental technology that’s creating today’s magic. It’s thousands of small innovative apps, plus a few monster apps that leverage a 25 year old internet to connect us with friends and businesses, that creates the illusion of magic. Apps are software, and software is not new. There’s just a lot more software variety available to supply a much larger market created by everyone having a networked computer camera in their pocket.

For a long time I’ve felt our most impressive technology accomplishment occurred 50 years ago when we visited the moon. I vividly remember as an 11 year boy going outside at night and looking up in awe at Armstrong on the moon.

Over the years I’ve read and watched much about the Apollo program but never encountered anything that got into the details of Apollo’s engineering. I intuitively suspected there was a lot of impressive technology depth to Apollo, but never had the facts to back up my intuition.

I’ve just finished the book How Apollo Flew to the Moon by W. David Woods and now I have the facts to confirm my intuition. The book covers all of the technical details for every phase of the mission from launch to splashdown. I love the clear, concise, and engaging writing style of the author.

What those 400,000 people 50 years ago accomplished over 10 years is breath-taking. Every step of the mission involved staggering engineering challenges and trade-offs.  Lives were at stake on prime time television. The scale is hard to fathom. For example, the power produced by the Saturn V first stage was equivalent to the entire electricity consumption of the UK. More recent engineering accomplishments are not even in the same league.

Wood’s book answered all of my questions plus many I had not thought of:

  • how did the engines work?
  • how did they navigate?
  • how did they steer?
  • how did the stages separate?
  • how do you move from an earth orbit to a lunar orbit and back?
  • how did the lunar module land?
  • how did the lunar module take off, find, and rendezvous with the command module?
  • how did mission control track location and monitor systems?
  • what did the computers do?
  • what were the emergency contingency plans?

If you prefer to listen than read, here are some excellent podcasts with W. David Woods discussing the Apollo program:

Omega Tau 083 – How Apollo Flew to the Moon (December 15, 2011)

Omega Tau 097 – How Apollo Explored the Moon (June 18, 2012)

Omega Tau 176 – The Gemini Programme (July 18, 2015)

Omega Tau 239 – The Saturn V Launch Vehicle (March 12, 2017)

If you prefer to watch than read, here is a video presentation by W. David Woods in which the production quality is mediocre, but the content is strong.

 

If you are wondering why we have not accomplished anything even close to the Apollo program in the intervening 50 years, it’s because per capita net energy peaked around 1970, and has been declining ever since. In other words, our most complex achievement coincided with the peak of per capita net energy, as students of thermodynamics should expect.

I predict that the Apollo program will remain in perpetuity the most impressive achievement of the human species.

 

Per Capita Net Energy

http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2013/09/what-might-the-dynamics-of-net-energy-per-capita-look-like.html