Buried in the comments of the last post we discussed human overshoot and what should be done about it. I proposed our goal should be to minimize suffering and that the best path to achieving this goal is awareness of Ajit Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.
My view, in summary, is that when fully aware of the reality and implications of human overshoot, our best personal and collective responses become self-evident and require no coercion to implement. Conversely, when overshoot is denied, all of our best personal and collective responses are vehemently rejected as assaults on our rights and entitlements.
Unfortunately, our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities, as explained by MORT, blocks overshoot awareness. Therefore any progress in a good direction requires an understanding of MORT.
Put more bluntly, all environmental activists, climate changers, peak oilers, Gaia lovers, population reducers, etc. should be focused with Zen-like precision on MORT, and any other activity is a complete waste of time, as demonstrated by our zero progress on any substantive issue over the last 50 years since Limits to Growth was published.
Reader Gaia Gardener responded with some beautiful prose that I thought was a good reason to clear the decks and create this new post.
For useful background, the comment thread that motivated the following essay by Gaia Gardener begins here.
Upon gazing up at the starry night sky thoughts like these come to my mind–there must be some sentient life form and civilization somewhere in this vast universe that broke through this barrier of denial that causes suffering to self, other life forms, and their ultimate destruction of their planetary home. Just being able to internalize this gives me much peace and acceptance of my infinitesimally small but still conscious being. If I keep gazing, sometimes I can lose sense of self completely and just melt into a time/space/no and every mind. Fermi’s paradox may be the most probable explanation for our seemingly unique manifestation but in a near infinite cosmos, there is still a chance that we may not understand everything!
If we are not here, or even if we were never here, the vastness of the universe continues to be, the ultimate laws of physical construct still stand as foundational building blocks to all matter and life, and life forms will continue to evolve even if given the most minute opportunity. In light of these critical truths, our knowledge of it is an ego awareness and recognition of what always was and will be and which has been already recognized by eons of cultures in their own way of expression. From creation myths to quantum equations, it is all a finger pointing at the moon, a way of reaching the untouchable but the real mystery and awe lies in the experience of just being. I suppose what is most tragic to our species is that we may lose our own consciousness to reflect back on our understandings of our world, in a word, annihilation. But can we take solace in the knowledge that we are elemental stardust to begin with and will return to that state, and since our guiding laws tell us matter and energy are constantly changing form, that is what we must be also, moment by moment, if even there is something called time. Then it is not a far reach for me to accept death, but suffering is another matter. Our ability to experience suffering ourselves is the prerequisite of consciousness and to be aware of suffering in others and make a choice for relief is the core of our humanity.
I have of late, at this crossroad of our civilization, find myself asking “Has it all been worth the suffering?” The knowledge gained, the art expressed, the structures erected, the technology exploded, has it been worth what we have also wrought with the same force and energy, the destruction and injustice to our planet and other life forms, starting with our own species, closer kin than any other stardust in this vastness of space. For example, for JS Bach to be born and for us to experience the incomparable beauty of his music, was it worth whatever else had to pass for our civilization to bring forth such genius? Can another member of our Homo sapiens family, in destitution and hunger for generations oppressed, can they say our enjoyment of our highest pinnacle achievements was worth their suffering and their ancestors suffering and their children’s suffering at the hands of our dominant culture? What of their choice to relieve suffering if only we had used our energy in a different way that may have allowed them to reach their own developmental potential? I cannot lie to a deepest truth that it is only my judgment that deems one being more worthy than another, the universe has none. If we are uberconscious, then we will also know that the universe has no judgment on our beingness or existence, it is only us looking at and contemplating ourselves in the mirror for this briefest of constructs called space and time. But since we have developed this mind and we have created our microuniverse within the macro, it is our responsibility to finish what we began, on every level. Overshoot and its repercussions is the stage set for our generations, we cannot shirk from finishing the show we have written, directed, and acted in. But there is also more to our human existence, and from the earliest times our inner desire has been to find our meaning and place in this cosmos. The present is the only time we ever have to continually seek and refine for ourselves what resonates, only now it seems of greatest urgency, at least to me. Maybe being born in the age of overshoot collapse has refocussed this for all of us here. And I do agree that reduction of suffering is a noblest goal and can manifest in myriad ways; kindness is always our choice.
It’s rare to encounter a new and constructive idea for addressing human overshoot that is not fatally flawed by a lack of understanding of either thermodynamic and geophysical constraints, or the strong genetic behavior to deny unpleasant realities that enabled the human species to emerge and dominate the planet.
For anyone still looking for technically feasible solutions that have a non-zero probability of success for reducing harms from human overshoot I recommend the most recent Planet: Critical podcast in which Rachel Donald interviews Joseph Merz.
There are no easy solutions to the climate crisis—most governments admit their hope lies in technology which doesn’t even exist yet. Science and “visionaries” propose increasingly mad ideas, like refreezing the Arctic, or sending humans to live in Space. But given the urgency of the situation, would we be mad not to consider these mad ideas?
Joseph Merz thinks we’ve run out of time to ask questions. He founded the Merz Institute to combat the climate crisis, gathering some of the world’s best scientists to establish what is going wrong and how to fix it. He says the answer is behavioural change—and they’re developing a programme that would manipulate mass behaviour on a subconscious level.
How? Well, using the same techniques as the advertising industry.
Key points made include:
It is too late to avoid suffering caused by human overshoot.
There may still be time to make the future less bad.
All actions we might take to reduce future suffering require changes in human behavior to consume less and have fewer children.
Information and education to date have proven completely ineffective at changing human behavior in a positive direction, and we are out of time to try new methods of education.
The advertising industry has developed technologies that are very effective at manipulating people to desire and acquire things they do not need to be happy, and in many cases cannot afford.
Merz proposes to redeploy these proven marketing technologies to manipulate people to desire happiness associated with lower consumption and fewer children.
Neither Rachel Donald or Joseph Merz appear aware of Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory but I’m thinking that Merz’s proposal might sidestep the fatal flaw in most other overshoot harm reduction proposals that require humans to first acknowledge the reality of their predicament, which appears to be impossible because of MORT.
The beauty of Merz’s plan is that it does not require reality awareness because it will manipulate humans at a subconscious level.
It will be interesting to see if the marketing technologies are powerful enough to override the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) which is another powerful genetic behavior that pushes us in an overshoot direction. I’m thinking (without any evidence or data) that it might be possible to override the MPP because we are such a strong social species.
Godspeed to Merz and screw the ethics.
P.S. I doubt it is true, but I observe that if you assume the WEF Great Reset has good intentions grounded in overshoot awareness, it is possible they are thinking along the same lines as Merz with their “you will own nothing and be happy” campaign. The WEF campaign does seem rather clumsy compared to say associating happiness with a Corona beer on a high-carbon long distance vacation. I think it is more likely the WEF is trying to prepare citizens for a Minsky moment in which much asset ownership will transfer to the state.
P.P.S. It’s fascinating that so many overshoot aware people are active in the small country of New Zealand.
I’m a longtime fan of Dr. Rees and consider him to be one of the most aware and knowledgeable people on the planet.
This is, I believe, the best talk I’ve seen by Dr. Rees and he covers all of the important issues, including topics like overpopulation that most of his peers avoid.
Presentations like this will probably not change our trajectory but nevertheless I find some comfort knowing there are a few other people thinking about the same issues. This can be a very lonely space.
The Q&A is also very good. I found it interesting to hear how much effort Dr. Rees has made to educate our leaders about what we should be doing to reduce future suffering. He was frank that no one to date, including the Green party, is open to his message. Not surprising, but sad. Also inspiring that someone of his stature is at least trying.
Climate-change and other environmental organizations urge governments to act decisively/rapidly to decarbonize the economy and halt further development of fossil fuel reserves. These demands arguably betray:
– ignorance of the role of energy in the modern economy;
– ill-justified confidence in society’s ability to transition to 100% green renewable energy;
– no appreciation of the ecological consequences of attempting to do so and;
– little understanding of the social implications.
Without questioning the need to abandon fossil fuels, I will argue that the dream of a smooth energy transition is little more than a comforting shared illusion. Moreover, even if it were possible it would not solve climate change and would exacerbate the real existential threat facing society, namely overshoot.
I then explore some of the consequences and implications of (the necessary) abandonment of fossil fuels in the absence of adequate substitutes, and how governments and MTI society should be responding to these unspoken biophysical realities.
Dr. William Rees is a population ecologist, ecological economist, Professor Emeritus, and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning.
His academic research focuses on the biophysical prerequisites for sustainability. This focus led to co-development (with his graduate students) of ecological footprint analysis, a quantitative tool that shows definitively that the human enterprise is in dysfunctional overshoot. (We would need five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population sustainably with existing technologies at North American material standards.)
Frustrated by political unresponsiveness to worsening indicators, Dr. Rees also studies the biological and psycho-cognitive barriers to environmentally rational behavior and policies. He has authored hundreds of peer reviewed and popular articles on these topics. Dr. Rees is a Fellow of Royal Society of Canada and also a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute; a founding member and former President of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics; a founding Director of the OneEarth Initiative; and a Director of The Real Green New Deal. He was a full member of the Club of Rome from 2013 until 2018. His international awards include the Boulding Memorial Award in Ecological Economics, the Herman Daly Award in Ecological Economics and a Blue Planet Prize (jointly with his former student, Dr. Mathis Wackernagel).
I left the following comment on YouTube:
I’m a fellow British Columbian and longtime admirer of Dr. Rees. Thank you for the excellent presentation.
I agree with Dr. Rees’ prescription for what needs to be done but I think there’s a step that must precede his first step of acknowledging our overshoot predicament.
Given the magnitude and many dimensions of our predicament an obvious question is why do so few people see it?
I found a theory by Dr. Ajit Varki that provides a plausible explanation, and answers other important questions about our unique species.
The Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory posits that the human species with its uniquely powerful intelligence exists because it evolved to deny unpleasant realities.
If true, this implies that the first step to any positive meaningful change must be to acknowledge our tendency to deny unpleasant realities.
Canadian author and journalist Andrew Nikiforuk addressed our overshoot reality on November 17, 2021 at the University of Victoria.
It’s a brilliant must watch talk that touches on every important issue, except unfortunately Ajit Varki’s MORT theory and our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities. Nikiforuk does acknowledge that denial is an important force in our predicament.
It’s refreshing to find a journalist that understands what’s going on and that speaks plainly about what we must do.
Nikiforuk introduced a new idea (for me), the “technological imperium”:
…our biggest problem is a self-augmenting, ever-expanding technosphere, which has but one rule: to grow at any cost and build technological artifacts that efficiently dominate human affairs and the biosphere. The technological imperium consumes energy and materials in order to replace all natural systems with artificial ones dependent on high energy inputs and unmanageable complexity.
Nikiforuk seems to be implying that technology is the core problem and is driving the bus. Maybe. I think more likely advanced technology emerges as a consequence of unique intelligence (explained by MORT) coupled with fortuitous buried fossil energy, driven by a desire for infinite economic growth that arises from evolved behaviors expressing the Maximum Power Principle (MPP), all enabled by our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities, which causes us to ignore the costs of growth and technology. Regardless of which is the chicken and which is the egg, Nikiforuk is correct that technology has made our society very fragile, and is harming our social fabric.
An example Nikiforuk provided of the technological imperium is British Columbia’s trend of replacing sustainable natural salmon runs in rivers with fish farms that are totally dependent on non-renewable fossil energy and advanced technology. I’ve witnessed this first hand on the coast of Vancouver Island and it makes me sick to my stomach. I also witnessed how hard it is to oppose the technological imperium when a political party here was elected on a promise to close fish farms and then reneged after being elected.
As an aside, the technological imperium idea gave me a new insight into the covid mass psychosis of most rich countries and their obsession with a single high tech “solution” to covid while aggressively opposing all other less energy intensive, less risky, and lower tech responses.
Nikiforuk began his talk with a quote I like from C.S. Lewis:
If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
I observe sadly that this must watch video has only 160 views, 3 of which are mine. 😦
Here are a few other ideas and quotes I captured while watching the talk:
“We have all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life support system in fewer than 200 years mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels.” – Kurt Vonnegut
“Our political class is in a complete state of denial and will not act until things get much worse. You can expect more blah blah blah.”
“Energy spending determines greenhouse gas emissions. We only want to talk about emissions, we need to talk about energy spending.”
“We must contract the global economy by at least 40%.”
“We can choose a managed energy decent, something few civilizations have ever achieved, or we can face collapse.”
“People who do not face the truth turn themselves into monsters”. – James Baldwin
“In sum, expect extreme volatility and political unrest in the years ahead along with atmospheric rivers, heat domes, and burning forests.”
“We are now at revolutionary levels of inequality everywhere.”
“We are being fed 5 green lies because we do not want to discuss economic growth and population:
dematerialize the economy;
direct air capture;
carbon capture and storage;
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert
Conversations we avoid or deny:
“There is no problem on earth that does not become easier to manage with fewer people. We don’t want to admit this, we don’t want to talk about this.”
We are currently using up the renewable resources of 1.7 earths and unless things change we’ll need 3 earths by 2050.
Our energy is so cheap and convenient it has blinded us to its true ecological, political, and social costs.
“Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be.” – Joseph Tainter
A single tomato today requires 10 tablespoons of diesel to grow it.
An energy dissipating superorganism that destroys natural systems and replaces them with artificial systems dependent on high energy technologies.
Wild salmon running in rivers are replaced with fish farms.
Wetlands are replaced with water filtration projects.
Old growth forests are replaced with tree plantations.
Technology is to this civilization what the catholic church was to 14th century France, the dominant institution that controls every aspect of your life.
“A major fact of our present civilization is that more and more sin becomes collective, and the individual is forced to participate in collective sin.” – Jacques Ellul
“A low energy policy allows for a wide choice of lifestyles and cultures. If on the other hand a society opts for high energy spending its social relations must be dictated by technocracy and will be equally degrading whether labelled capitalist or socialist.” – Ivan Illich
Civilizations Do Collapse
Life is a cycle, it is not a linear path.
We have peaked and are now entering a phase of incredible volatility.
Every citizen needs to know the consequences of bad policy. Percent death on the Titanic by class was:
39% first class
58% second class
What should you do with this awareness?
Withdraw from the fray of the Technosphere.
Do something to help preserve the natural world.
Get your hands dirty doing real work in nature.
Insist that creation has a value beyond utility.
“Think, less” – Wendell Berry
Build refuges and prepare for the storms ahead.
Wake each morning and ask yourself what you can give to this world rather than what you can take.
Comments and answers from the Q&A:
“The worst thing about the pandemic was that so many people and so many children were forced to spend so much time with colonizing machines.”
“We have to get a political conversation going about contracting the economy.” This won’t happen at the central government level but might happen within individual communities.
“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
“The only way we can get out of this mess without sacrificing millions and millions of people is to power down.”
Two weeks later, Nikiforuk reflected on his talk and responded to questions:
Two weeks ago, I gave a talk at the University of Victoria arguing that our morally bankrupt civilization is chasing dead ends when it comes to climate change and energy spending.
I argued that by focusing on emissions, we have failed to acknowledge economic and population growth as the primary driver of those emissions along with the unrestrained consumption of natural systems that support all life.
I added that people plus affluence plus technology make a deadly algorithm that is now paving our road to collective ruin.
As Ronald Wright noted in his book A Short History of Progress, civilization is a pyramid scheme that depends on cancerous rates of growth.
I also explained that many so-called green technologies including renewables, hydrogen and carbon capture and storage are not big solutions. Because they require rare earth minerals and fossil fuels for their production and maintenance, these technologies shift problems around.
In addition these green technologies cannot be scaled up in time to cut emissions or require too much energy to make any difference at all.
I also emphasized that our biggest problem is a self-augmenting, ever-expanding technosphere, which has but one rule: to grow at any cost and build technological artifacts that efficiently dominate human affairs and the biosphere. The technological imperium consumes energy and materials in order to replace all natural systems with artificial ones dependent on high energy inputs and unmanageable complexity.
This technological assault on the biosphere and our consciousness has greatly weakened our capacity to pay attention to what matters, let alone how to think. The result is a highly polarized and anxious society that can’t imagine its own collapse let alone the hazards of its own destructive thinking.
The best response to this constellation of emergencies is to actively shrink the technosphere and radically reduce economic growth and energy spending. Our political class can’t imagine such a conversation.
At the same time, communities and families must re-localize their lives, disconnect from the global machine and actively work to restore degraded ecosystems such as old-growth forests. Anyone who expects an “easy fix” or convenient set of solutions has spent too much time being conditioned by digital machines.
My cheerful talk generated scores of questions. There wasn’t time to answer them, so I selected five representative queries submitted via Zoom in the interest of keeping this heretical conversation going.
Growth in population tied to consumption is a big problem
Many listeners expressed disquiet about population growth being an essential part of the problem. “I am disappointed that once again Malthus has entered the room when the difference between per capita emissions for GHGs between the Global North and Global South are significant. Isn’t it how we live not how many of us there are?” asked one.
The real answer is uncomfortable. How we live and consume matters just as much as the growing density of our numbers combined with the proliferation of our machines that devour energy on our behalf. (Roads and cell phones all consume energy and materials too.) All three demographic issues are increasing at unsustainable rates and feed each other to propel more economic growth, more emissions and more fragility.
The world’s current population is 7.9 billion and grows by 80 million a year. It has slowed down in recent years because the affluent don’t need the energy of children as much as the poor. Even so civilization will add another billion to the planet every dozen years. Redistributing energy wealth (and emissions) from the rich to the poor will not avert disaster if human populations don’t overall decline.
Our numbers also reflect a demographic anomaly that began with fossil fuels, a cheap energy source that served as Viagra for the species. Prior to our discovery of fossil fuels, the population of the planet never exceeded one billion. Our excessive numbers are purely a temporary artifact of cheap energy spending and all that it entails — everything from fertilizer to modern medicine.
Isn’t capitalism the real threat?
Many questions revolved around the nature of capitalism. “Wouldn’t it be more accurate to denounce the capitalist organization of technology rather than technology as such for problems like polarization and fragmentation?”
No, it would not. Technology emphasizes growth and concentrates power regardless of the ideology.
Capitalism, like socialism and communism, is simply a way to use energy to create technologies that structure society in homogeneous ways. Removing capitalism from the equation would not change the totalitarian nature of technology itself. Or the ability of technologies to colonize local cultures anywhere.
Every ideology on Earth, to date, has used technologies to strengthen their grip on power by enmeshing their citizens in complexity and reducing humanity to a series of efficiencies. All have supported digital infrastructure to monitor and survey their citizens. As the sociologist Jacques Ellul noted long ago ideologies don’t count in the face of technological imperative.
What comes next?
Many listeners asked if “there is a sequel to the energy-rich market economy?” I have no crystal ball but here is my response.
There will always be some kind of sequel and it is not written. But there is no replacement for cheap fossil fuels and their density and portability. They made our complex civilization what it is. As fossil fuel resources become ever more expensive and difficult to extract (a reality the media ignores), the “rich market economy” will experience more volatility, inequality, disruptions, corruption and inflation. It is rare for any civilization to manage an energy descent without violence let alone grace.
“Can you say more about the connection between the technosphere and totalitarian societies?” asked one listener. “How do you see connections between dictatorships and the technosphere?”
This is a subject for a much longer essay. The technosphere, by definition, offers only one system of thinking and operating (triumph of technique over all endeavors) and has been eroding human freedoms for decades. It simply creates dependents or inmates. Social influencers now tell its residents what to buy and how to behave. As such the technosphere has become an all-encompassing environment for citizens whether they be so-called democracies or totalitarian societies.
The major difference between the two is simply the degree to which techniques have been applied to give the state more total control over its citizens. In both democratic societies and totalitarian ones, technical elites actively mine citizens for data so that information can be used to engineer, monitor and survey the behavior of their anxious and unhappy citizens in a technological society. (You can’t live in a technological society without becoming an abstraction.) The Chinese state does not hide its intentions; the West still clings to its illusions of freedom.
The technosphere corrupts language
One listener wanted to know “more about the empty language” employed by the technosphere as I mentioned in my talk.
Just as the technosphere has replaced bird song with digital beeps, the technological imperium has increasingly replaced meaningful language with techno-speak.
A world dominated by reductionist and mechanistic thinking has produced its own Lego-like language completely divorced from natural reality. Decades ago the German linguist Uwe Poerksen called this new evolving language “plastic words.”
They include words like environment, process, organization, structure, development, identity and care. All can be effortlessly combined to convey bullshit: “the development of the environment with care is a process.” This modular language creates its own tyranny of meaningless expression.
Experts, technicians, politicians and futurists employ this plastic language to baffle, confuse and obfuscate. Poerksen notes these words are pregnant with money, lack historical dimension and refer to no local or special place. This language, divorced from all context, does to thinking what a bulldozer does to a forest. It flattens it.
Hope is not a pill you take in the morning or a crumb left at the table
Last but not least many listeners asked how do we maintain hope in the face of so many emergencies, abuses and appalling political leadership?
“How do you get up in the morning?” typically asked one.
This frequent question confounds and puzzles me. My humble job as a journalist is not to peddle soft soap or cheerlead for ideologies and futurists. My job is not to manufacture hope let alone consent. I have achieved something small if I can help readers differentiate between what matters and what doesn’t and highlight the power implications in between.
Yet in a technological society most everyone seeks an easy, canned message pointing to a bright future. I cannot in good conscience tell anyone, let alone my own children, that the days ahead will be happy or bright ones. To everything there is a season and our civilization has now, step by step, entered a season of discord and chaos. History moves like life itself in a cycle of birth, life, death and renewal.
Jacques Ellul, who wrote prophetically about the inherent dangers of technological society, also addressed the need for authentic hope because it does not reside in the technosphere. The technosphere, a sterile prison, may promise to design your future with plastic words, but what it really offers is the antithesis of hope.
Ellul, a radical Christian, wrote deeply much about hope and freedom. He noted that hope never abandons people who care about a place and are rooted outside the technosphere for they will always know what to do by their real connection to real things. He adds that hope cannot be divorced from the virtues of faith and love. Like all virtues they must be quietly lived, not daily signalled.
For Ellul, hope was a combination of vigilant expectation, prayer and realism. “Freedom is the ethical expression of the person who hopes,” he once wrote.
Hope is living fully in a place you care about and acting against the abuse of power every day. Hope, in other words, is using every initiative “to restore the possibility of people making their own decisions.”
P.S. This talk inspired me to make my first donation to a news source, The Tyee, for which in 2010 Nikiforuk became its first writer in residence.
Ecologists Eric R. Pianka (University of Texas) and Laurie J. Vitt (University of Oklahoma) provide a scientific summary of the overpopulation crisis facing humanity and itemize its many consequences, including climate change (global warming), conservation biology, economic systems, energy and resource shortages, human instincts, immigration conflicts, politics, pollution, poverty, technological problems, and solutions needed. Their underlying thesis is that denial and delusion work synergistically to undermine our ability to confront these serious issues, and unless we undertake proactive measures now, overpopulation and its impact on resource competition and climate change will ultimately lead to the collapse of civilization.
In Road to Survival 70 years ago, William Vogt tried to call attention to the human overpopulation crisis, but failed. Paul Ehrlich raised this issue again 20 years later but was also widely ignored. We wish to re-open this long overdue and much needed discussion about population, a toxic topic that politicians globally avoid. We have written a book “Our One and Only Spaceship:Denial, Delusion and the Population Crisis.” We are two well-known ecologists Eric R. Pianka (University of Texas) and Laurie J. Vitt (University of Oklahoma).
We have edited and written books together, both scientific and semi-popular. Using fact-based analyses, we make the case that human population size and growth is the greatest threat to human survival, and that most if not every major global problem (including spread of AIDS and other communicable diseases, wars and other conflicts, climate change and in particular global warming, food water and energy shortages, poverty, political unrest, pollution, extinctions, etc.) are all direct results of overpopulation. Our birth rate far exceeds our death rate and the current global population of 7.7 billion in itself is unsustainable even without additional growth. This has put us on a collision course with disaster. It is perilous to remain in denial about all of the threats emanating from overpopulation.
As we become ever more and more desperate in trying to provide resources necessary to meet critical demands, our environmental problems will only worsen as we continue to deregulate thus allowing increased exploitation of dwindling natural resources. The thin skin of life on our planet is seriously threatened by the actions of a single species, Homo sapiens. Remarkably, even with our putative high intelligence, we don’t seem to be able to even admit that the problem is population such that discussions can begin on how to stop population growth. One thing is certain, it must and will stop—either we can do it through a series of logical steps (educating the public, coming up with a global plan, implementing the plan), or it will occur as the result of a combination of wars over resources, spread of infectious disease, or even famine. Such a discussion will have a greater impact on human survival than any of the many news stories currently dominating our media.
Overpopulation has only one outcome, and we have all seen it when mold takes over an orange—unlike mold growing on an orange, we do not have another “orange” to which we can send our offspring (There is no planet B). We are fully aware that discussions on population are “politically incorrect” and will be extremely sensitive to many people (especially religious groups) who take up arms in response to any discussion to limit reproduction. The ultimate biological reason for this response is simply that our genes control much of what we do, and reproduction is the currency of future generations. A more proximate reason is simply that our hormonal systems kick in when we reach puberty and all reason is washed away in the maelstrom of hormonal activity pushing us to reproduce. We must do something — ignoring our pressing problem and expecting it to go away is like hoping in vain to win the mega-lottery.
This is my brief review of the book, “Our One and Only Spaceship” subtitled “Denial, Delusion and the Population Crisis” written by Drs. Eric Pianka and Laurie Vitt. Copyright 2019.
I came across this book through one of the comments on your website. Since it was one of the few books that concerned population (in the title) I decided to buy it and read it.
The authors are ecologists. Dr. Eric Pianka is a Professor at UT Austin and Dr. Laurie Vitt is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Oklahoma, Norman. The forward was by Paul & Anne Ehrlich.
I overall liked the book. My feeling is that it is somewhat like Tom Murphy’s book and was intended for an intro college course in ecology/sustainability (without the math). That said I never had the impression that the authors were talking down to the reader.
There is some hope in this book. “This generation will be the last with decision-making powers to save our spaceship for all future earth-lings, including human beings.” But as the authors state in the Prologue, “The problem can be easily framed in three words, population, population, and population.” Human civilization is in overshoot and that we in the west are living far beyond the carrying capacity of the planet is covered in detail. So, the problem is both overshoot and population.
There is an acknowledgement that denial and optimism bias are part of our problem. But, I think that the authors are also in a little denial, “If humans are to survive into the next century, we need to reduce population growth, convert to renewable energy sources, use much less energy overall, and develop a plan for the future this is based on fact and not on fiction.” Their opinion is that we can maintain much of our technology (through “green” tech transition) and slowly reduce population with education and enlightenment. I don’t know if they really believe this or like Tom Murphy need to give students something positive to live for in the face of a depressing predicament.
Don’t get me wrong. This book touched all the right notes and I only disagreed with a tiny bit of it. I thought that the preface/into to the last chapter was perhaps the best quote I have seen on our place in the universe (other than Rob’s quote):
“Man did not have forever to harness the forces of the sun and stars. The Sun was an elderly light, long past the turbulent heat of youth, and would some day join the senile class of once-luminiferous bodies. In some incredibly remote time a chance collision might blow it up again into incandescent gas and start a new local cosmic cycle, but of man there would be no trace. In Balfours’s terms, he “will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. ‘Imperishable monuments’ and ‘immortal deeds,’ death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been. Nor will anything that IS be better or worse for all that labour, genius, devotion and suffering of man have striven through countless generation to effect.” –Homer Smith (1952) “Man and His Gods” and Earl Balfour (1895) “Foundations of Belief”
The US military defines its Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) levels as follows:
DEFCON 5 is normal readiness.
DEFCON 4 is above normal readiness.
DEFCON 3 is the air force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.
DEFCON 2 is all forces ready to fight in 6 hours.
DEFCON 1 is the maximum state of readiness and means nuclear war is imminent or has already started.
I have my own definitions that I use for my personal life.
I spent the first 50 years of my life at DEFCON level 5. That would be as a normal, fully in denial, culturally conforming, dopamine & status seeking, energy maximizing, member of a superorganism.
Then I had a stress related meltdown and while recovering stumbled on peak oil. After seeking and failing to find a good path forward other than population reduction, I wondered what else I was in denial about, and widened my field of view to include climate change, pollution, species extinction, unsustainable debt, etc., all of which I eventually came to understand are related and fall under the umbrella of human overshoot.
Now at DEFCON level 4, a realty based state of awareness, I began to think about making changes to my life, took a 6 month course on small scale farming, and did some volunteer work on a small organic farm.
Then the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) occurred and I went to DEFCON level 3.
Confident that a collapse would occur within 10 years, I changed everything in my life. A new location where I’d be happy finishing my life, a simpler slower lifestyle, satisfying physical work, improved health, and thank goodness, Varki’s MORT theory to keep me sane with an explanation for the insanity all around me.
I also began to methodically plan and implement some preparations for a different world that I expected would arrive soon. The basic idea was to convert some retirement savings into things needed to survive and/or that might provide some joy in a harsher simpler world, and that won’t go bad, will never be cheaper, or better quality, or more available than today.
In hindsight I didn’t have a powerful enough imagination to predict that our leaders would loan into existence many trillions of dollars that can never possibly be repaid, to avoid having to acknowledge overshoot, and to extend and pretend business as usual a few extra years, at the expense of making our destination worse, but they did.
Then early in 2020 I saw the Chinese panicking over a virus before anyone here was discussing it, and I went to DEFCON level 2.
Now I got serious about completing most of my preps, which was an easy low stress exercise, because I already had a plan and simply had to execute it.
By the time the majority was scrambling, I was done, and completely calm and confident.
Today, two years into the pandemic, I’m seeing threats that have caused me to go to DEFCON level 1:
Many supply chains are broken and are getting worse, not better. This is a strong signal that our complex civilization is simplifying in unpredictable ways, as predicted by David Korowicz.
Energy shortages have emerged simultaneously in multiple strategically important regions. This is a big deal because fossil energy underpins everything our species depends on to survive. Net energy peaked a few years ago and we have been on a plateau made wider by unprecedented money printing, but once we fall over the edge I believe the decline will be much faster than the few percent per year that an unstressed geology and monetary system would deliver. I do not know if we’ve already fallen off the plateau, but I do know it will happen soon, and when it does, the changes will be profound, rapid, and painful. Regardless if the current energy problems prove to be temporary, they are a serious threat to an already fragile economy, civil society, and war-free world.
The Chinese economy is showing signs of stress from excess debt similar to the west’s 2008 GFC. Our vulnerability to a sick China is much greater than most assume because everything we depend on is dependent on Asian manufacturing, and a functioning global shipping system, and a functioning global banking system. This time I doubt more debt will fix an excess debt problem.
There are worrying signals that our vaccination policy is failing with health risks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated increasing, and that the boosters everyone is counting on may not work.
The leaders of the majority of countries seem incapable of absorbing and integrating evidence to improve their Covid strategy. If they are incapable of effectively managing Covid, we can be confident they will not be capable of managing the much more complex and profound implications of declining energy and the economic contraction it will cause.
All paths lead to food and we are 3 missed meals away from civil disorder. The climate seems to have shifted a gear this year and I expect this will negatively impact agricultural yields soon. Energy shortages will also negatively impact food production and distribution. As will supply chain problems. As will more Covid problems. As will a global economic depression.
DEFCON level 1 does not mean I’m expecting the end of the world, but it does mean I intend to complete everything I can think of to prepare for what I think is coming, on the assumption that we are near the end zone, and that by the time our arrival is confirmed, it will probably be too late to do anything.
There’s nothing wrong with being prepared a little early. Especially when being late means it may be impossible to prepare.
Chris Martenson is thinking along the same lines and recently produced an excellent video explaining what’s happening around the world with energy.
I think our society is going mad because there are so many overshoot related problems converging at once that our inherited denial mechanism is overloaded, with no leaders who understand what’s going on, few experts willing to speak publicly, and no honest discussion about what’s happening, nor what we should do.
I expect something will snap soon in a bad way.
Symptoms I see include:
We talk about everything except what matters. For example, our climate has shifted a gear, and peak oil is behind us, yet there is zero discussion about food security or the need for population reduction.
We’ve polarized into tribes that are unable to contemplate or respect or discuss the beliefs of another tribe. We attack or ignore opponents rather than engage in respectful debate. We’ve always tended to do this, but it’s getting worse.
Facts are irrelevant to beliefs. When facts are unsure or complex we are unable to admit uncertainty. While common throughout history, this phenomenon is getting worse, and is now pervasive in our intellectual leaders.
We’re totally dependent for everything we need to survive from other countries that we now view as enemies, yet we never discuss the need for more resilience.
We embrace solutions that have zero probability of improving a problem. Think green new deal.
Our response to problems often worsens the outcome. For example, printing trillions to further inflate a bubble that when it pops will do additional damage to that which we’re trying to protect.
We embrace leaders who created a problem to fix a problem, and there are no longer consequences for illegal or unethical behavior. Think Fauci.
This excellent new video has many useful insights despite the producers not being aware of Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.
MASS PSYCHOSIS – How an Entire Population Becomes MENTALLY ILL
A mass psychosis is an epidemic of madness and it occurs when a large portion of the society loses touch with reality and descends into delusions.
Nate Hagens has published a new book on the predicament that fossil energy consumption and depletion, and our denial of this reality, have created for life on this planet.
A skim suggests the book will be excellent and I hope to write a review after reading it.
I observe there is no mention of Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory which is sad because MORT provides an evolutionary foundation for the denial that Nate discusses, and explains why only one species has emerged with the intelligence to exploit fossil energy.
Denial of our genetic tendency to deny reality is apparently the strongest form of denial, even among the few of us that are aware of the human predicament.
You can read Nate’s book for free and purchase a copy here:
Thanks to Sam Hopkins for bringing my attention to the work of Chris Clugston.
I’m pretty well read in the overshoot space and I thought I knew all the important contributors. Somehow I missed Chris Clugston.
Clugston has written two books: Scarcity in 2012, and Blip in 2019.
His unique contribution is to research our consumption of depleting non-renewable resources. All 100+ of them, not just fossil energy.
For many people, fossil energy depletion is a fuzzy threat because it’s complicated and there are so many cheerleaders of false beliefs. Ditto for the climate change threat with its promoters of green growth and carbon capture machines.
Clugston presents so many tangible non-negotiable threats to modern civilization that after absorbing his work there is no room for doubt and no where to hide.
His conclusion is bleak. Clugston calculates modern civilization will be done by 2050, with or without climate change, with or without peak oil, and with or without any green new deal idea.
Harsh yes, but real, and honest, and helpful for those still trying to make the future less bad, because his work shows that the best path is democratically supported rapid population reduction policies.
Clugston’s visibility on the internet is low. I don’t know it that’s by choice, or because of the unpleasantness of his message. I’d like to see that fixed so the people working to make the future less bad can use his work as ammunition.
What we do to enable our existence simultaneously undermines our existence…
Our enormous and ever-increasing utilization of NNRs (nonrenewable natural resources) – the finite and non-replenishing fossil fuels, metals, and nonmetallic minerals that enable our industrial existence – is causing:
– Increasingly pervasive global NNR scarcity, which is causing
– Faltering global human prosperity, which is causing
– Increasing global political instability, economic fragility, and societal unrest.
This scenario will intensify during the coming decades and culminate in humanity’s permanent global societal collapse, almost certainly by the year 2050.
Since 2005, Chris Clugston has conducted extensive research into human “sustainability”, with a focus on non-renewable natural resources (NNR) scarcity. His goal has been to articulate and quantify the causes, implications, and consequences associated with industrial humanity’s “predicament” – our self-inflicted, self-terminating human/Earth relationship.
Here is the companion video to his book Blip:
Here is a 2012 presentation by Clugston in support of his book Scarcity:
Here is a summary of Clugston’s 2012 book Scarcity:
Here is a 2014 paper titled “Whatever Happened to the Good Old Days?
Physicist Tom Murphy is one of the brightest and most articulate people in the overshoot awareness space.
A decade ago Murphy wrote frequently for a few years on his blog “Do the Math” where he explored the energy opportunities and constraints for powering our civilization. Then, having said what he wanted to say, he went silent.
Here is some of Murphy’s work that I’ve posted in the past which includes my all time favorite talk on limits to growth:
After a long hiatus from teaching the general education energy course at UCSD—due mostly to a heavy administrative role for five years—I picked it up again for Winter quarter 2020. I had always been discontented when it came to textbook choices: my sense was that they tended to play it safe to avoid the risk of being provocative. But provocative may be what our situation calls for! I had been inspired by David MacKay’s fabulous and quantitatively rich Sustainability: Without the Hot Air, but its focus on the UK and not-quite-textbook format kept me from adopting it for the classroom.
So I set out to capture key elements of Do the Math in a textbook for the Winter 2020 class, following a somewhat similar trajectory: growth limits; fossil fuels and climate change; alternative energy capabilities and pros/cons; concluding with a dose of human factors and personal adaptation strategies.
Where is humanity going? How realistic is a future of fusion and space colonies? What constraints are imposed by physics, by resource availability, and by human psychology? Are default expectations grounded in reality?
This textbook, written for a general-education audience, aims to address these questions without either the hype or the indifference typical of many books. The message throughout is that humanity faces a broad sweep of foundational problems as we inevitably transition away from fossil fuels and confront planetary limits in a host of unprecedented ways—a shift whose scale and probable rapidity offers little historical guidance.
Salvaging a decent future requires keen awareness, quantitative assessment, deliberate preventive action, and—above all—recognition that prevailing assumptions about human identity and destiny have been cruelly misshapen by the profoundly unsustainable trajectory of the last 150 years. The goal is to shake off unfounded and unexamined expectations, while elucidating the relevant physics and encouraging greater facility in quantitative reasoning.
After addressing limits to growth, population dynamics, uncooperative space environments, and the current fossil underpinnings of modern civilization, various sources of alternative energy are considered in detail— assessing how they stack up against each other, and which show the greatest potential. Following this is an exploration of systemic human impediments to effective and timely responses, capped by guidelines for individual adaptations resulting in reduced energy and material demands on the planet’s groaning capacity. Appendices provide refreshers on math and chemistry, as well as supplementary material of potential interest relating to cosmology, electric transportation, and an evolutionary perspective on humanity’s place in nature.
I skimmed the book to assess its tone. Murphy is trying to strike a balance between being honest about the difficulties we face, while not saying that civilization collapse is a certainty, and offers some constructive suggestions for how his young students might respond. It’s a similar (and understandable) strategy that Nate Hagens, another well known overshoot teacher has taken.
Here are a few excerpts filled with wise words from Murphy’s book:
19.1 No Master Plan
The “adults” of this world have not established a global plan for peace and prosperity. This has perhaps worked okay so far: a plan hasn’t been necessary. But as the world changes from an “empty” state in which humans were a small part of the planet with little influence to a new “full” regime where human impacts are many and global in scale, perhaps the “no plan” approach is the wrong framework going forward.
19.2 No Prospects for a Plan
Not only do we lack a plan for how to live within planetary limits, we may not even have the capacity to arrive at a consensus long-term plan. Even within a country, it can be hard to converge on a plan for alternative energy, a different economic model, a conservation plan for natural resources, and possibly even different political structures. These can represent extremely big changes. Political polarization leaves little room for united political action. The powerful and wealthy have little interest in substantial structural changes that may imperil their current status. And given peoples’ reluctance to embrace austerity and take personal responsibility for their actions, it is hard to understand why a politician in a democracy would feel much political pressure to make long-term decisions that may result in short-term hardship—real or perceived.
Globally, the prospects may be even worse: competition between countries stymies collective decision-making. The leaders of a country are charged with optimizing the prosperity of their own country—not that of the whole world, and even less Earth’s ecosystems. If a number of countries did act in the global interest, perhaps by voluntarily reducing their fossil fuel purchases in an effort to reduce global fossil fuel use, it stands to reason that other countries may take advantage of the resulting price drops to acquire more fossil fuels than they would have otherwise—defeating the original purpose. Then the participating countries will feel that they self-penalized for no good reason. Unless all relevant nations are on board and execute a plan, it will be hard to succeed at global initiatives. The great human experiment has never before faced this daunting a set of global, inter-related problems. The lack of a global authority to whom countries must answer may make global challenges almost impossible to mitigate. Right now, it is a free-for-all, sort-of like 200 kids lacking any adult supervision.
How many people do you know who are concerned about a legitimate threat of collapse of our civilization? It is an extreme outcome, and one without modern precedent. It seems like a fringe, alarmist position that is uncomfortable to even talk about in respectable company. Yet the evidence on the ground points to many real concerns:
1. The earth has never had to accommodate 8 billion people at this level of resource demand;
2. Humankind has never run out of a resource as vital as fossil fuels;
3. Humans have never until now altered the atmosphere to the point of changing the planet’s thermal equilibrium;
4. We have never before witnessed species extinction at this rate, or seen such dramatic changes to wild spaces and to the ocean.
20.3.1 Overall Framing
In the absence of a major shift in public attitudes toward energy and resource usage, motivated individuals can control their own footprints via personal decisions. This can be a fraught landscape, as some people may try to out-woke each other and others will resist any notion of giving up freedoms or comforts—only exacerbated by a sense of righteous alienation from the “do-gooders.”
Some basic guidelines on effective adaptation:
1. Choose actions based on some analysis of impact: don’t bother with superficial stuff, even if it’s trendy.
2. Don’t simply follow a list of actions or impart a list on others: choose a more personalized adventure based on quantitative assessment.
3. Avoid showing off. It is almost better to treat personal actions as secrets. Others may simply notice those choices and ask about them, rather than you bringing them up.
4. Resist the impulse to ask: “what should I buy to signal that I’m environmentally responsible?” Consumerism and conspicuous consumption are a large part of the problem. Buying new stuff is perhaps counterproductive and may not be the best path.
5. Be flexible. Allow deviations. Rigid adherence makes life more difficult and might inconvenience others, which can be an unwelcome imposition. Such behavior makes your choices less palatable to others, and therefore less likely to be adopted or replicated.
6. Somewhat related to the last point, chill out a bit. Every corner of your life does not have to be perfect. We live in a deeply imperfect world, so that exercising a 30% footprint compared to average is pretty darned good, and not that much different than a “more perfect” 25%. Doing a few big things means more than doing a lot of little things that may drive you (and others) crazy.
7. In the end, it has to matter to you what you’re doing and why. It’s not for the benefit of others.
20.4 Values Shifts
In the end, a bold reformulation of the human approach to living on this planet will only succeed if societal values change from where they are now. Imagine if the following activities were frowned upon—found distasteful and against social norms:
1. keeping a house warm enough in winter to wear shorts inside;
2. keeping a house so cool in summer that people’s feet get cold;
3. having 5 cars in an oversized garage;
4. accumulating enough air miles to be in a special “elite” club;
5. taking frequent, long, hot showers;
6. using a clothes dryer during a non-rainy period;
7. having a constant stream of delivery vehicles arrive at the door;
8. a full waste bin each week marking high consumption;
9. having a high-energy-demand diet (frequent meat consumption);
10. upgrading a serviceable appliance, disposing of the old;
11. wasteful lighting.
At present, many of these activities connote success and are part of a culture of “conspicuous consumption.” If such things ran counter to the sensibilities of the community, the behaviors would no longer carry social value and would be abandoned. The social norms in some Scandinavian countries praise egalitarianism and find public displays of being “better” or of having more money/stuff to be in poor taste. Abandonment of consumerist norms could possibly work, but only if it stems from a genuine understanding of the negative consequences. If curtailment of resource-heavy activities is imposed by some authority or is otherwise reluctantly adopted, it will not be as likely to transform societal values.
20.6 Upshot on Strategies
No one can know what fate awaits us, or control the timing of whatever unfolds. But individuals can take matters into their own hands and adopt practices that are more likely to be compatible with a future defined by reduced resource availability. We can learn to communicate future concerns constructively, with out being required to paint an artificial picture of hope. Our actions and choices, even if not showcased, can serve as inspiration for others—or at least can be personally rewarding as an impactful adventure. Quantitative assessment of energy and resource demands empowers individuals to make personal choices carrying large impacts. Reductions of factors of 2 and 3 and 4 are not out of reach. Maybe the world does not need 18 TW to be happy. Maybe we don’t have to work so hard to maintain a peaceful and rewarding lifestyle once growth is not the driver. Maybe we can re-learn how to adapt to the seasons and be fulfilled by a more intimate connection with nature. The value of psychological preparedness should not underestimated. By staring unblinking into the abyss, we are ready to cope with disruption, should it come. And if it never does in our lifetimes, what loss do we really suffer if we have chosen our adventure and lived our personal values?
In this sense, the best adaptation comes in the form of a mental shift. Letting go of humanity’s self-image as a growth juggernaut, and finding an “off-ramp” to a more rewarding lifestyle in close partnership with nature is the main goal. Continuing the freeway metaphor, the current path has us hurtling forward to certain involuntary termination of growth (a dead end, or cliff, or brick wall), very probably resulting in overshoot and/or crash.
The guidelines provided in this chapter for quantifying and reducing resource demands then simply become the initial outward expressions of this fresh vision. Ignore the potentially counterproductive allure of fusion, teleportation, and warp drive. Embrace instead a humbler, slower, more feasible future that stresses natural harmony over conquest and celebrates life in all forms—while preserving and advancing the knowledge and understanding of the universe we have worked so hard to achieve. Picture a future citizen of this happier world looking back at the present age as embarrassingly misguided and inexplicably delusional. Earth is a partner, not a possession to be exploited. Figuratively throwing Earth under the bus precludes our own chances for long-term success. A common phrasing of this sentiment is that humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Let’s not lose the path in a flight of fossil-fueled fantasy.
March 22, 2021 Update: Tom Murphy wrote a post highlighting the ideas from his book that will be new for Do the Math readers, and asking for our help to promote his free book.
Last week, in the first Do the Math post in years, I kept the post brief, only pointing out the new textbook: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, and giving a brief account of the backstory.
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…
Brief Tour of New Content
The Preface may be worth reading for overall framing and motivation. The middle part about student learning and approach to mathematics/problems might not be as worthwhile, but the beginning and end are likely of interest.
The first four chapters attempt to lay out constraints on growth, initially hewing closely to the first two Do the Math posts on Galactic Scale Energy and Can Economic Growth Last. Chapter 3 on population echoes some points in The Real Population Problem, but adds substantial analysis of the demographic transition. I felt this was an important addition because many academics look to this mechanism to “solve” the population problem. What I point out is that the transition is a double-whammy for planetary resources: even though the result is zero-growth, the road to that point involves a population surge and increasing resource usage per capita. More people multiplied by a higher per-capita resource use is bad news for resource constraints. The dream, therefore, has a nightmarish element that might be neglected by many because demographic transitions of the past were not constrained in this way and seemed to be very positive, on balance. A recurring message: the highly abnormal recent past offers poor guidance to the future. Finally, Chapter 4 echoes the popular Why Not Space post, closing off this exit—or at least prompting the invested believers to cast the book aside and waste their time in a manner more to their liking.
Chapter 5 is a dry one on units, and does not exist on Do the Math except in a static page called Useful Energy Relations. Chapter 6 consolidates several posts on thermal energy and heat pumps. Chapter 7 is basically new, as a snapshot of U.S. and global energy and plots of recent trends.
Elements of Chapter 8 on fossil fuels can be found among the Do the Math posts—especially those on peak oil. But no overview of fossil fuels really existed on the blog. Chapter 9 on climate change is similar to the Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps, but is considerably expanded to detail the expected impact on temperature, explore limiting-case scenarios for the future, and delve into the thermal requirements for heating the ocean and melting ice.
Chapter 10 provides an overview of Earth’s energy budget and introduces the alternative and renewable energy options. This short chapter has no direct analog in Do the Math.
The heart of the book covers topics that do not change much over time: technologies for harnessing alternative energy. Prices might change, but the fundamentals tend not to. Thus, Chapters 11 through 16 largely echo Do the Math content. Note that the writing itself is new, and has benefited from extensive student feedback to improve clarity and accessibility. So it’s not a cut-and-paste job, but the overall take-aways are going to be familiar to Do the Math readers. Chapter 17 is the book’s version of The Alternative Energy Matrix, and is the closest thing to cut-and-paste in the book, being billed as a slightly edited reproduction of an existing chapter in the State of the World 2013 book.
The two main changes in the alternative energy chapters have to do with solar prices going down (now at under $3/Watt for residential and $1/Watt for utility-scale installations; the panels themselves being $0.50/Watt) and new recommendations for wind-farm turbine spacing, lowering the estimated power per land area available. I also added state-by-state maps for hydroelectricity, wind, and solar photovoltaic utilization in the U.S., for four different attributes (total power, power per area, power per person, and capacity factor).
The last three chapters depart the most from Do the Math content, although containing familiar elements like an exploration of personality types and a description of the Energy Trap. Chapter 20 bears some resemblance to posts on household energy and dietary choices. But the packaging may be different enough that it does not feel like repetition of Do the Math.
The Epilogue is completely new, and likely of interest to Do the Math readers.
Appendix D is the most thoughtful Appendix. Of greatest interest will be D.3 on electric transportation, D.5 on the long view of human success, and D.6 on an evolutionary perspective regarding human intelligence and how that may or may not mesh well in the natural world.
Highlights of New Results
The following tidbits are arranged in chronological order, and for the sake of brevity only represent the more thought-provoking additions.
In Chapter 2, Figure 2.3 on lighting efficiency progress surprised me in that the same 2.3% growth rate adopted for Chapters 1 and 2 on growth of energy fits the lighting history rather well. If the trend continues, we reach theoretical limits well before century’s end.
Chapter 3 has one new development and one new presentation of interest. The development is the recognition that the population surge associated with a demographic transition is proportional to the exponential of the change in birth/death rate times the lag between declining death rate and declining birth rate (Figure 3.16). The factor can easily more than double the pre-transition population. The new presentation is in Figure 3.17, exposing how preposterous the “dream” scenario looks of advancing a growing population to “western” energy standards by the year 2100. Substances that facilitate such delusions are usually illegal.
The only thing I’ll say about Chapter 4 here is that I planted an (accurate) Easter egg in Figure 4.2—only applicable to the electronic version.
I was surprised by Figure 7.9, showing the U.S. as a literal super-power (as measured in Watts) in the mid-twentieth century—using more than 80% of global natural gas and over 70% of global petroleum. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some Americans long to return to these “glory” years (not at all glorious for less privileged individuals, it should be noted). The mistake is thinking that it’s a matter of choice. America’s dominant role in the world had a resource foundation, and that ship has sailed. It’s not a matter of politics: it’s physics, and anger won’t solve it.
Figure 8.8 made an impression on me as well. A simple calculation based on discovery and consumption of conventional oil, as presented in Figure 8.7, provides a measure of how many years appear to remain in the resource. Simply dividing unconsumed reserves by current consumption gives a timescale, and this can be tracked as a function of time as new discoveries accumulate and consumption rate increases. The startling result is that the predicted endpoint has not budged from around the year 2050 for about four decades! I caution readers not to take this literally to mean that oil runs out in 2050. First, the plot only applies to conventional oil reserves. Second, reduced consumption rate due to scarcity, prices, policy directives, or suitable substitutes will mean a tapering beyond 2050 rather than abrupt termination. Still, it’s a relevant and alarming data point: conventional oil is unlikely to persist in its present dominance for even three more decades! I think that’s big news, people. How many decades old are you?
A number of new results accompany Chapter 9 on climate change. Most rewardingly, I “took it up a notch” from the previous calculations of annual and cumulative CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and used annual data on fossil fuel use to produce a graphs of emissions from the three fossil fuels across time (Figure 9.3). Doing so shows coal’s prominence as the king of CO2 emitters—now and throughout the past. Since we still have more coal than any other fossil fuel, it may just be the gift that keeps on giving. But most remarkable was the exercise of plotting the predicted emission on top of measurements in Figure 9.4. Prior to this, I was satisfied by getting the annual and cumulative emission numbers to match measurements. But to see it graphically: faithfully following the curvature and lying right atop the measurements brought a smile of despair to my face. The same approach lends itself well to exploring CO2 emissions scenarios for fossil fuel expenditures going forward: what happens if we cease growth in consumption; if we replace all coal with natural gas; or if we taper off entirely by 2100 or 2050. Only the last, draconian option limits the ultimate temperature rise to 2.0°C, according to my math.
I also had some “fun” in Chapter 9 stepping through the process by which a radiative imbalance equilibrates (Figure 9.15), and computing the timescales for melting ice and heating up the ocean (section 9.4.2).
Box 13.3 in Chapter 13 looks at solar-powered transportation. Why had I never before computed that a Boeing 737 could only get 4% of its cruise power from direct solar power? It’s an important demonstration of physical limitations.
Box 14.3 computes the thickness of all life on the planet, if squashed to a uniform layer surrounding the globe. It’s 4 mm thick! Or should I say 4 mm thin? That’s precious thin: a fragile wafer. It’s what makes this planet special, and our own lives possible. That’s the ultimate treasure of the planet, and deserves every protection we can offer.
Figures 15.14 and 15.15 are my attempt to explain the origin of nuclear waste, and why the neutron-rich daughter nuclei are radioactive hazards. This resurfaces in Figure 15.19 on nuclear waste radiated power, which I derived from probabilities and decay energies found in the Chart of the Nuclides. On another front, a quick-and-dirty financial assessment for both fission and fusion does not put them in a favorable light against (also expensive) solar, while solar is much safer.
The only good part about Chapter 16 is the fish duo in Figure 16.2.
Box 17.1 is a bit of a follow-up to Box 13.3 on solar transportation, exploring electric (battery-powered) passenger airplanes, concluding that for the same “fuel” load, range would be cut by a factor of 20 (to about 200 km), making them sort-of useless.
Chapter 17 also introduces an alternative scoring of the Matrix, based on student weights for the ten attributes of each source. I was interested to see if the fossil fuel gap persists (it does), and if the rankings change (mostly, they don’t).
Box 19.1 takes a stab at quantifying the dollar value of Earth. It’s a crude approach, and not entirely defensible. But even under dubious assumptions, the resulting price is so preposterously large that the point is fairly robust: Earth is far more valuable than our global annual economy, by as much as a factor of a million. Decisions based on money (i.e., most decisions) are therefore woefully misguided. Earth and its ecosystems should come first in societal decisions. Sorry if capitalism gets hurt in the process. Money ceases to have meaning without a life-bearing planet. Priorities!
Chapter 20 works to frame individual adaptation and quantitative assessment of energy footprints. The biggest new piece is the quantitative toolset developed in Section 20.3.4 for assessing dietary energy impact. I think this kind of analysis has the potential to meaningfully reshape our habits and expectations around food choices.
Section D.3 in the Appendices represents a first attempt on my part to nail down the implications of electrified transport for shipping as well as personal transport. Part of the work was already done for Box 17.1 (airplanes), but I had never put pencil to paper on cargo ships or long-haul trucking. The results address the “why can’t we just…” musings on electrifying all transportation. It’s hard. Table D.2 is still new enough to me that I need to study it more and internalize it.
Okay—that takes care of the nuts-and-bolts additions. What larger messages might emerge from the textbook that may not have been apparent in previous Do the Math content?
Life is Precious
Much of the focus of this blog, and of the textbook, is on energy and resources. But a consistent undercurrent advocates prioritizing nature above ourselves. See, for instance, the reference to Box 14.3 in the section above. Also, Box 19.1—in computing the monetary value of the planet—stresses the backwards way we assess value. We put the flea (economy) in charge of the dog (Earth), ignoring the important fact that the flea can’t live without the dog. An upcoming post will illustrate this theme in an absurd yet compelling manner.
In the end, as the Epilogue wraps up, I try to encapsulate this in a message to the future (but not too soon to adopt the message now!!): Treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves. It’s a partnership, and the health of the former is a prerequisite to the health of the latter.
Focus on the Long Term
Chapters 18 and 19 discuss the limitations of short-term focus in the face of our challenges. Democracy and business interests tend to have a very short focus, making us vulnerable to the Energy Trap.
But Section D.5 in the Appendix takes this to an expansive vista. It starts with the observation that civilization (cities, agriculture) began roughly 10,000 years ago. Lest we be nearer our end than the beginning, we should be thinking about practices consistent with another 10,000 years on this planet, at least. Maintaining uninterrupted civilization (preserving knowledge without a catastrophic reset) for this long is what we will call successful. Failure to do so is, well, failure.
What would it take to achieve success? As spelled out in section D.5, almost nothing we do today contributes to ultimate success. Therefore most of our actions today only make failure more likely. To me, that is sad to contemplate. Each passing day that we do not prioritize the natural world makes ultimate success a more distant prospect.
Section D.6 follows this up with musings on the role of human intelligence in an evolutionary context. My conclusion is that evolution tinkers, and is capable of producing a being that is too smart to succeed. We have the power to create our own failure, and take many species down with us. It’s time to “ask not” what we can do with our power, but what we should do to best ensure a long, rewarding existence in partnership with the rest of nature.
This Moment is Abnormal
Perhaps the most important message the new textbook can convey is that the abnormality of the last few centuries has turned us into the worst judges of future possibilities. Several times in the book, I compare the present era to a fireworks show: dazzling, awe inspiring, and a short-lived exception to “normal” activity. At least we can appreciate the aberration that a fireworks display represents by comparing it to a longer baseline: we have a broader context. Yet for those born and raised entirely within the fireworks show, it is easy to understand how their world view would be badly distorted.
Margin note 12 in Chapter 2 and the one below it points out our tendency to extrapolate, and think that just because we got “lucky” once (finding and learning to exploit fossil fuels) does not mean the trend will continue indefinitely. People often process the abnormality of our time in a dangerous way: because people 200 years ago could not possibly have predicted the amazing life of today, we are equally ill-equipped to fathom the miracles of tomorrow. I appreciate the bigness of thought that it takes to conceive of this. It’s a fair and alluring point. But it also ignores data and context: physical limits; a “full” earth; exhaustion of one-time resources; climate change perils; systemic collapses in ecosystems around the globe. Please work harder to incorporate these “wrinkles” into an otherwise grand notion.
Somewhat relatedly, margin note 24 in Chapter 2 and note 11 in the Epilogue make reference to the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” parable. This is a story told by adults to caution kids against raising false alarms, as setting up a reflexive dismissal of “fake news” can have damaging consequences. But consider two overlooked aspects of this story: first, a wolf did eventually appear and wreak havoc; and second, shouldn’t the adults bear responsibility for not protecting the town? Is the child really to blame? What idiots would put the responsibility of town protection on a child? I say that the failure rests mostly on the adults. They should recognize that children are prone to false alarms, and admonish them for knowingly creating disruption—after checking on the possibility of a real threat, for goodness sake! They utterly dropped the ball, and paid the price.
I came to think as I put finishing touches on the textbook that if asked to pick one message to communicate with this book it would be that the recent highly anomalous past has cruelly misshapen our perception of future possibilities. I put this into the abstract (and the back cover of the paperback), and sprinkled it into the text as an afterthought (search the word fireworks for some instances). As important as this point is, its presence throughout is implicit. I will likely try to more directly integrate the thought into a future edition.
A grounded understanding that our time is grossly abnormal in the long view is, I think, a necessary first step in snapping out of our current mindset, shaking off fantastical dreams, and getting to work defining and implementing a future that can actually work. It’s time to break the spell.
HELP SPREAD THE WORD
I am too close/biased to judge whether this book has enough intrinsic merit and appeal to “catch on” and reach a broad audience. But people will not give it a chance and instructors won’t adopt it for classrooms if too few people even know about it. Because I intentionally bypassed a for-profit publisher to make the book freely available, I lose the benefit of any publicity apparatus a publishing company might provide. So it’s down to “the people” to let others know of its existence. Fortunately, social media channels are well suited to this. Please consider sharing this book with others (reference the link to the book, not this “inside baseball” post). I hope the book is written in a way that can draw people in and then inspire them to keep turning pages. If recommending to friends and family, perhaps think about targeting a section or two to avoid their feeling overwhelmed by a textbook-sized reading assignment. If you can think of a personal connection to make it more directly relevant to them, all the better.
I don’t think I have ever asked for this sort of favor, and am not wholly comfortable with the appearance that I am shamelessly self-promoting here. But since I receive no financial benefit (even from the printed book) or prospect of job promotion as a result, I can convince myself that it’s out of a hope that the book might have some power to change minds and play some small role in setting us onto a more successful path. Call it optimism, bias, over-confidence, or whatever, but if the book can gain significant traction, then perhaps it deserves every chance and advantage. If months or years go by, this “old news” textbook will no longer have the shiny luster of newness, and will be less likely to spark a flame equal to the task ahead of us. The book may flop on its own (lack of) merits; then it flops—so be it. But let’s at least be able to say that it wasn’t for lack of trying to make people aware of its presence.
Apneaman wrote a song to celebrate the return of Tom Murphy:
Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back
He went away and hopium hung around And bothered me, every night And when I wouldn’t buy into it You said things that weren’t very nice My Physicist’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) You see him comin’ better SHUT UP on the double (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) You been spreading lies that collapse was untrue (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) So look out now ’cause his math foretells doom He’s been gone for such a long time (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) Now he’s back to prove we’re out of time (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) We’ll all be sorry we were ever born (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) ‘Cause his brain’s kinda big and his math’s da bomb (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) (You’re a Green dreamer now but he’ll cut you down to size (Wait and see) My Physicist’s back he’s gonna prove our damnation (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) If I were you I’d pray for endtimes salvation (Hey-la, hey-la, my Physicist’s back) Yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Look out now, yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) I could see him comin’ so you better get a runnin’ alright now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) My Physicist’s back now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Know he’s comin’ after you because he knows I’ve been true to doom (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)