Alpert explains why on our current default trajectory most of the global population that lives after 2050 will experience starvation and that by about 2100 our 8 billion will be reduced to about 600 million serfs leading a medieval lifestyle on a sick planet.
Alpert then describes an alternate trajectory via voluntary rapid population reduction that avoids unnecessary suffering and preserves a modern human civilization of 50 million living on a healthy planet.
Alpert remains the only person that I’m aware of with a thermodynamically feasible plan for maintaining a modern human civilization as fossil energy depletes.
I watch for evidence that supports or contradicts Varki’s MORT theory.
With average citizens it’s hard to distinguish ignorance from denial. The only way to know for sure is to explain the facts and associated evidence about human overshoot to someone and then observe if they still deny our predicament and what needs to be done about it.
It’s much easier to detect denial in polymaths because almost always fossil energy driven overshoot is the only important topic they are completely blind to.
I’m therefore on the lookout for smart polymaths, especially those with physics degrees, because with a physics background it is impossible to be blind to energy overshoot without denial of reality being in play.
I recently discovered Eric Weinstein via an interview on the Joe Rogan podcast. Weinstein has a PhD in physics from Harvard and hosts a podcast called The Portal in which he discusses big picture problems facing society.
Weinstein has been quietly working for a couple decades on a theory to unite general relativity with quantum mechanics. There’s no consensus yet on whether he’s onto something promising, but he’s clearly a really smart guy, as this recent unveiling of his theory demonstrates.
I’ve listened to several of Weinstein’s Portal podcasts and he demonstrates an impressive command of many disciplines. This one is a good representative sample covering a wide range of topics:
Weinstein is thus the perfect polymath poster child for testing Varki’s MORT theory.
On the important issues facing our species, this is what I think Weinstein is saying:
Economic growth and scientific advancement slowed in the late 70’s which is a big problem, but he doesn’t know the cause. He thinks we should invest more in physics research, we should make higher education more effective, and we should encourage innovation. He’s apparently blind to the effect of rising energy costs. I wrote about our stagnation after the 70’s here.
Economic growth today is faked with debt which is a big problem that threatens democracy. He doesn’t know the cause and makes up crap like all the other pundits. He’s apparently blind to the relationships between energy, wealth, debt, and growth.
He thinks that we need to return to 3+% economic growth to avoid a zero sum game and the human violence this will unleash. He’s apparently blind to the implications of 3% exponential growth on a finite planet.
One of the new technologies he thinks has promise is radical lifetime extension in which people will live many more years before dying. He’s apparently blind to human overshoot and the need to get our population down quickly.
He thinks non-carbon energy is a feasible solution to climate change, and is thus just as wrong as all the other famous polymaths.
In summary, Weinstein understands everything except what matters. Given his impressive intelligence and education this is impossible without strong reality denial.
I just finished the book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel L. Everett. Thank you to Perran for recommending it.
A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.
Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977–with his wife and three young children–intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding: The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live–so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them.
Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.
I read the book hoping to find some evidence either supporting or contradicting Ajit Varki’s MORT theory. It was an enjoyable and very interesting read. The author is smart, articulate, and an engaging expert on languages and anthropology.
Everett describes in detail the Pirahã (pronounced Pita-hah) which is (was?) a rare tribe whose culture has (had?) not yet been significantly modified or subsumed by contact with modern industrial civilization.
The Pirahã are unusual in that they have no origin myths or well defined religion, although they do believe in spirits, but Everett was very vague on how these spirits influence their culture. The Pirahã have no interest in, and resist conversion to, other religions like Christianity.
I was most interested to learn whether the Pirahã believe in life after death because this is central to Varki’s MORT theory. I found it very odd that the author, a former Christian missionary, would discuss almost everything about their culture except their belief, or lack thereof, in life after death. Everett did say the Pirahã bury their dead with the few valuable items they own, which to me suggests they do believe in life after death, otherwise why not keep the wealth for the living?
I found it difficult to identify Pirahã behaviors that suggested they do or do not deny unpleasant realities. Perhaps this is a side effect of them living in the moment and therefore having many fewer unpleasant things to deny.
In summary then, with respect to support for or against Varki’s MORT theory, I’d say there was evidence for denial of death, but not much else.
The book offered, as a pleasant surprise, some genuine inspiration on how to lead a happier and more sustainable life.
The behavior of the Pirahã suggests that the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) may not be a primary driver in all human cultures, as I had previously assumed. The Pirahã work hard to acquire enough resources to survive, and will fight to protect those resources if necessary, but do not acquire nor desire more resources than required to survive.
The Pirahã live in and enjoy the moment. They do not obsess about bad events in the past. They do not worry about the future. They forgive quickly. They laugh, tell stories, and dance. They are proud of their way of life. Everyone is expected and does contribute to the tribe, unless they are physically unable, in which case the tribe looks after them.
I very much like stories with happy endings and this book delivered. Everett began his work as a devout missionary trying to convert the Pirahã to Christianity. Over time his scientific training that required evidence based reasoning, and the obvious fact that the Pirahã led happy fulfilling lives without Jesus, caused Everett to abandon Christianity and become an atheist. Hallelujah!
I wish the Pirahã would turn the table and send out missionaries to convert the 8 billion lost souls that need salvation.
P.S. Everett did a nice take-down of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, which I enjoyed, because Chomsky irritates me as yet another famous polymath who knows a lot about everything, except what matters.
Every year Nate Hagens gives a talk on Earth Day. I missed the announcement of his talk a month ago, perhaps because I killed my social media accounts, but better late than never.
Nate’s presentation as usual is excellent, and this year he provides thoughts on how the virus may influence our overshoot predicament.
Here are a few of Nate’s predictions and ideas I thought were noteworthy:
The virus gave our economy a heart attack, although it was already sick.
The Great Simplification has begun: a GDP decline of 12-20% is likely this year.
Global peak oil was, with no uncertainty, October 2018.
Diesel availability is at risk because of surplus gasoline (my note: big problem because diesel powers everything we need to survive: tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships).
The financial system has been nationalized: central banks are now both the lender AND buyer of last resort.
Global debt/GDP, which was before the virus already unsustainable at 350%, will now rocket to 450+%, which sets us up for another more acute crisis in the not too distant future.
Poverty will increase in all countries.
Renewable energy is in trouble.
25+% of higher education institutions will go bankrupt.
The experts don’t have answers: they do not understand energy or how our system works.
We need humans to have better bullshit filters: if we don’t use science to help us going forward we have no hope.
We should nationalize the oil industry and drain America last.
Nate concludes with many constructive and positive ideas on how we might respond to our predicament.
Unfortunately Nate did not mention the most important response needed: rapid population reduction. Yes I know that reality denial and the Maximum Power Principle, which govern our behavior, make voluntary population reduction highly improbable, but so do they make improbable all of Nate’s suggestions.
I’m thinking that since it’s unlikely we’ll do anything except react to crises as they unfold we might as well focus on the one and only action that would improve everything: population reduction. It simplifies the conversation, and makes it (theoretically) effective. Much better than talking about many things that we also probably won’t do, but even if we did wouldn’t address the core issue: overshoot.
Imagine this political platform: “We only need to do one thing, and there’s only one thing we need to do, don’t have children unless you win the lottery, so there can be future generations.”
You can find other excellent work by Nate that I’ve posted in the past here.
This type of movie, with extreme fantasy super heroes and over the top special effects, is not my cup of tea, but I decided to watch them to get some insight into what our culture is thinking.
The bad guy, Thanos, understands that the universe is in overshoot which will soon cause extreme suffering from wars and starvation, so he acquires a technology to humanely vaporize 50% of life, without causing any suffering, so that the remaining 50% can live in peace and plenty, with new found awareness to constrain their populations going forward.
The good guys, played by the largest and most expensive collection of movie stars ever assembled, think Thanos’ plan is evil, and spend the next 5 hours of multi-million dollar special effects to thwart his plan.
In the end the good guys “win” by vaporizing Thanos and his thousands (millions?) of evil helpers. The outcome for civilization is vague but it seems technology solved the overshoot problem by providing more stuff so everyone had plenty. There was no tying up of loose ends to explain why Thanos’ all powerful technology could not have done the same.
Sadly, two of the heroes are killed in the final fight, but we are promptly and explicitly informed that their spirits live on, and that they know their sacrifices were not in vain.
I skimmed a few fan forums that debate the plot and motives of Thanos. As you might expect there was lots of heat and noise.
Fortunately, one of our most respected and well known scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, stepped up with a tweet to comfort the world that brilliant physicists think we’ll be just fine as long as we push on to Mars:
Sure, Thanos is singularly evil. But I bet he flunked Astro 101.
He wants to kill half of all living things to save the other half — due to limited resources.
But the universe has vastly more resources than can possibly be consumed by civilizations that have access to space.
In a similar vein, a top grossing movie of 2014, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is a Tarantino’ish version of James Bond whose bad guy understands that the only way to address climate change is to rapidly reduce the population. The wrong guys win again in this movie.
The 2013 TV show Utopia, was cancelled after only 2 seasons, perhaps because it had a little too much reality.
So if we ever decide to do something effective about climate change (assuming it’s not already too late due to self-reinforcing feedback loops) then that solution must include some combination of a lower standard of living and a lower population.
When was the last time you heard a leader or climate scientist speak with such clarity?
Probably never because most are in denial as explained by Ajit Varki’s theory:
And you reading and understanding this essay is a miracle, but we don’t need God to explain this miracle, just physics and biology, plus billions of years and trillions of planets to enable several low probability events to occur:
To sum all of this up, if you have the rare ability to break through the human tendency to deny reality, then you should be in awe of being alive to witness and understand this rare event in the universe, and you should be grateful for the good food and other comforts we enjoy.
Today’s global consumption of fossil fuels now stands at roughly five times what it was in the 1950s, and one-and-half times that of the 1980s when the science of global warming had already been confirmed and accepted by governments with the implication that there was an urgent need to act. Tomes of scientific studies have been logged in the last several decades documenting the deteriorating biospheric health, yet nothing substantive has been done to curtail it. More CO2 has been emitted since the inception of the UN Climate Change Convention in 1992 than in all of human history. CO2 emissions are 55% higher today than in 1990. Despite 20 international conferences on fossil fuel use reduction and an international treaty that entered into force in 1994, manmade greenhouse gases have risen inexorably. If it has not dawned on you by now, our economic and political systems are ill-equipped to deal with this existential threat. Existing international agreements are toothless because they have no verification or enforcement and do not require anything remotely close to what is needed to avoid catastrophe. The 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, with the top four in the past four years, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Ice loss from Antarctica has sextupled since the 1970s and Greenland’s pace of ice loss has increased fourfold since 2003. The Arctic ocean has lost 95% of its old ice and total volume of ice in September, the lowest ice month of the year, has declined by 78% between 1979 and 2012. With grim implications for the future, Earth’s air conditioner —the cryosphere— is melting away.
Douglas Theobald, in his study at Brandeis University, calculated that there is less than a 1 in 102,860 chance that all life did not arise from a common ancestor. In other words, humans are related to all life on Earth and share much of their DNA with other organisms. Despite earning the title of ‘superpredator‘, humans are dependent on intact and functioning ecosystems. Our chances for long-term survival are ultimately tied to the health of the planet, yet we are carrying out ecocide on a planetary scale. Being a mere 0.01% of all life on Earth, humans have managed to destroy 50% of wild animals in just the last fifty years and 83% since the dawn of civilization around 3,000 B.C.. Who knows how many plant species have gone extinct:
Hawaii is losing plant species at the rate of one per year, when it should be roughly one every 10,000 years. “We have a term called ‘plant-blindness’… People simply don’t see them; they view greenery as an indistinguishable mass, rather than as thousands of genetically separate and fragile individuals…”
The bedrock of our food, clean water and energy is biodiversity, but its loss now rivals the impacts of climate change. Without biodiversity, our food sources, both plants and animals, will succumb to diseases. Microbes and hundreds of different life forms interact to make soils fertile. Without them, soils will be barren and unable to support life. Monocultures can only be held together through artificial means(fossil fuels, inorganic fertilizer and toxic pesticides) and are highly vulnerable to diseases, yet industrial monoculture farming continues to dominate the globe. Most Worrisome are the recent studies indicating that biodiversity loss raises the risk of ‘extinction cascades’. Insect numbers, the base of the terrestrial food chain, are in steep decline and starfish, a common keystone species in coastal ecosystems, are facing extinction due to some sort of wasting disease likely caused by climate change:
“Many of these outbreaks are heat sensitive. In the lab, sea stars got sick sooner and died faster in warmer water… A warming ocean could increase the impact of infectious diseases like this one…We could be watching the extinction of what was a common species just 5 years ago.”
These disturbing headlines indicate to me that the Sixth Mass Extinction is gathering pace and the real stock market underlying our very existence and survival is crashing before our eyes!!!
Humans recognized decades ago the threats they are now facing, yet nothing was done due to political inaction and industry malfeasance which continues to this very day. The scientists who wrote The Limits to Growth decades ago were expecting our political institutions to take action back in the 1970s, but they were met with ridicule and now we stand at the doorstep of modern civilization’s collapse. Political inaction and regulatory capture by the fossil fuel industry appear to be intractable barriers that have condemned the human race to a hellish future. Anyone waiting for some sort of seminal climate change event that is going to galvanize the world’s leaders into action will be tragically disappointed. If seeing the world’s coral reefs dying, its glaciers disappearing, permafrost melting, and the steady uptick in extreme weather events does not spur them to action, it is much too late to hope that any single event will ever do so. The time to act would have been before we were seeing all these environmental degradations and tipping points, not afterward. There is no way to put the CO2 genie back in the bottle. A myth that many uninformed people hold is that biospheric health will quickly bounce back after we humans get our act together. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the damage we are already seeing is irreversible on human time scales. Positive feedbacks were already occurring at less than 1°C of warming. Many carbon sinks are on the verge of becoming or have already become carbon sources. As we race toward a nightmarish future with no realistic way to stop, we leave behind a “forever legacy” that will haunt mankind for the rest of eternity.
I’ve watched a lot of nature/science documentaries in my life, and I’ve probably seen most of the good ones, but I say without hesitation that One Strange Rock is the best.
The producers and writers found a magical blend of spectacular settings on and off the planet, fabulous photography, inspirational multi-cultural stories, solid yet easy to understand science, and an important ecological message that is neither depressing nor ignorant of our peril.
With regard to the history and science of Earth’s life, they hit most of the important points everyone should know, got none of them wrong, and missed only a few key points (not least of which the significance of reality denial 🙂 ).
The only segment I did not like was the bit on why we must and will colonize other planets. That’s wishful thinking (aka denial) and is not going to happen, but understandable because that’s their gig. Otherwise very well done!
With regard to beauty and inspiration, they hit a home run, without being sickly sweet. If you don’t feel some joyous emotion watching this, you’re not alive.
This should be mandatory viewing for every student on the planet.
If I ever meet someone in the future who doesn’t understand why they should care, I will point them to One Strange Rock.
If anyone would like to view this documentary but can’t find it, send me a message on Facebook and I will help you.
From award-winning filmmaker Darren Aronofsky comes a mind-bending, thrilling journey that explores the fragility and wonder of planet Earth—one of the most peculiar, unique places in the universe.
One Strange Rock is the extraordinary story of Earth – our curiously calibrated, interconnected planet – and why it is special and uniquely brimming with life among a largely unknown but harsh cosmic arena. Anchoring the series is an elite group of astronauts who see Earth’s bigger picture; they provide unique perspectives and relate personal memoirs of our planet seen from space.
Hosted by Will Smith, One Strange Rock reveals the twists of fate that allow life to thrive on Earth.
Part 1: Gasp
For those privileged few who have seen Earth from space, the very first thing they notice is the thin blue line of atmosphere that clings to our planet and sustains life. How our planet creates and regulates that oxygen is a mind-blowing story involving a flying river, a global dust storm, collapsing glaciers and the most important creature you’ve never heard of. It’s an incredible chain of connections that reveal just how truly wondrous our home is. Everything connects, so life and planet breathe together. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield
Part 2: Storm
Ever wonder how our planet got here? It was born in a cosmic storm and shaped by violence. Earth is a very lucky planet. We’re only here because of random collisions in a dangerous cosmos. They could have destroyed us, but instead, that violence constructed a planet from the rubble of the early solar system; gave us oceans in a bombardment from the heavens; and brought order to our world. Astronaut host – Nicole Stott.
Part 3: Shield
It’s a David and Goliath story — Earth’s relationship with its greatest threat: our seemingly benign sun. Hurling devastating particles and deadly radiation at us, the sun is the big violent boss of the solar system. Without several shields, one generated by our unique planetary core, another by our atmosphere, and a third by our interconnected weather systems, life on Earth never would have survived. Astronaut host – Jeff Hoffman.
Part 4: Genesis
Our rock is special; it’s alive. Though the building blocks of life are common across the universe, life is rare. What is it about Earth that sets it apart? This is the story of dynamic forces and crazy coincidences that took a bunch of dead ingredients and transformed them into something as wondrously intricate as life. And if it happened here, could it happen elsewhere? Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.
Part 5: Survival
Without the cycle of death and sacrifice, from cellular to planetary, life would not be here. From the deaths of stars to planetary scale mass extinctions and the sacrifice of individuals for a greater genetic good, this is the story of how life evolved hand in hand with death. Death drives evolution. It’s hardwired; from our cells to our landscapes, our colorful living planet is only possible thanks to it. Death leads to opportunity and biodiversity, which ironically ensures life on the planet is never wiped out. It’s not enough for our planet to be habitable; it also has to be lethal. Astronaut host – Jerry Linenger.
Part 6: Escape
Is it possible for intelligent life to escape destruction either from the planet or ourselves? Or are we destined for extinction like 99.9 percent of all species before us? Our best chance of survival may be to escape Earth and build another colony somewhere else. But there are real barriers: space radiation, microgravity and the bacteria inside us. And our DNA is coded for the conditions here on Earth, so if we ever manage to colonize another planet, those who are born there might evolve into another species. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield.
Part 7: Terraform
Ever since life emerged, microbes, plants and animals have all sculpted the planet’s surface and atmosphere in the strangest of ways: fish poop creates islands; dead animals create mountains; and plants help create continents. From rocks to rivers, life has crafted everything that makes our planet so special. But this power of change brings with it profound dangers. Life doesn’t just create. It can also destroy. Astronaut host – Mike Massimino.
Part 8: Alien
All life on Earth started as single-cell bacteria and stayed like that for two billion years. So even if we do find alien life out there, what are the chances of that life being complex like us? On our strange rock, it’s all down to a freak event, which accidentally happened when one cell ate another to create a kind of power pack for life. This almost miraculous event transforms Earth into a complex interconnected web based on a competition for food. And at the top of the pyramid sit we humans. Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.
Part 9: Awakening
Of all life on Earth, how come we’re the only ones with the smarts to leave our planet? For three billion years, nothing had a brain. Even today, over 90 percent of life doesn’t need a brain to survive. So, what happened? How did our planet set in motion the chain of nearly impossible events that gave us our unique intelligence? The greatest mystery of all may be right between your ears. Astronaut host – Leland Melvin.
Part 10: Home
After 665 weightless days in space, NASA’s most experienced astronaut, Peggy Whitson, smashes through the atmosphere on her last journey home to planet Earth. With unprecedented filming on board the ISS during Peggy’s final mission and with the support of our other featured astronauts, we reveal how their time in space transforms their understanding of our planet’s wonders, insights that will change our perspective, too. There is no place like home. Or is there? Just how strange is our rock, and is it really unique in the universe? Astronaut host – Peggy Whitson.
Tad Patzek, a professor of petroleum engineering and physicist, gave a talk on January 16, 2019 at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.
His talk is titled “How Can We Salvage Our Global Civilization?” however Patzek does not answer his own question. Instead he reviews the brief history of humans and shows that we are in a severe state of overshoot with a population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet by about 30 times thanks to fossil energy, which he predicts will soon rapidly decline due to depletion. In the Q&A that follows the talk, Patzek advocates for population reduction policies. Also in the Q&A, Patzek gets quite aggressive with audience members who argue that technology will save us. He concludes that we will probably use nuclear war to correct overshoot. I wonder if he’ll be invited back next year? 🙂
You can find other work I’ve posted by Patzek here.
Thanks to Nate Hagens for bringing this talk to my attention.
Here are some notes I took while viewing the talk:
Continued exponential growth of human population is suicidal and will stop one way or another.
Humans have only one chance of survival by drastically limiting population and consumption.
Patzek quotes from Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, my all-time favorite lecture series, to make the point that humans, the fire apes, have been setting fires continuously from our origin until today when many of the world’s tropical forests are being burned to make way for agriculture and plantations.
Patzek does a nice job of explaining that humans have existed for an extremely short period in the context of geologic time. For example, if we call January 1 the start of the Silurian period 444 million years ago when multicellular life first appeared on land, then behaviorally modern humans emerged 70 minutes before midnight on December 31, our first civilization began 9 minutes before midnight, and the industrial civilization we currently enjoy began 20 seconds before midnight. The explosion of human population to 8 billion began 7 seconds before midnight on December 31, and was enabled by the Haber Bosch industrial process that converts natural gas into nitrogen fertilizer.
At 3 seconds before midnight on December 31, half of the US’s top soil had been washed into the sea, having taken only 9 seconds to accomplish this feat.
For an example of what 10,000 years of agriculture does to the earth, look at Iraq with its complete environmental devastation.
We only have one shot at the global civilization, and it shall never be repeated again.
Sending colonies to Mars is complete nonsense because there are not enough resources to send them.
None of our overshoot issues are captured by our economic models.
Our planet can support a maximum of 8 million humans making a living as hunter gatherers.
The earth might support 2.5 billion people assuming an 1800’s equivalent life expectancy (32 years) , lifestyle, slavery, and conflict. If we assume today’s life expectancy (71 years) the maximum drops to 1.1 billion people. Adjusting for our increased standard of living decreases the maximum to 500 million people. If we assume a peaceful life without wars the maximum sustainable population drops to 250 million people. This means we have overshot by the 30 times the carrying capacity of the planet by using fossil fuel subsidies.
Later in the Q&A, Patzek clarifies that if we assume an American or German lifestyle, the maximum sustainable population is 90 million without fossil energy.
I note that Patzek’s estimate of the maximum sustainable population aligns nicely with Jack Alpert’s plan to preserve our modern civilization with rapid population reduction.
Patzek shows that population is proportional to power production. Recall that Tim Garrett has also shown that wealth is proportional to power production. Energy is therefore central to our predicament as Nate Hagens elaborates in his video course.