By Bill Rees: On the Virtues of Self-Delusion—or maybe not!

Dr. Bill Rees, Professor Emeritus from the University of British Columbia, gave a presentation on our overshoot predicament earlier this month to a zoom meeting of the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome (CACOR).

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.

Summary

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.

Biography

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.

Varki explains his theory here:

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-030-25466-7_6

A nice video summary by Varki is here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqgYqW2Kgkg

My interpretations of the theory are here:
https://un-denial.com/denial-2/theory-short/

https://un-denial.com/2015/11/12/undenial-manifesto-energy-and-denial/

By Andrew Nikiforuk: Energy Dead-Ends: Green Lies, Climate Change and Chaotic Transitions

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;
    • hydrogen;
    • electric cars.”
  • “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:
    • Population
      • “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.
    • Energy Blindness
      • 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.
    • The Technosphere
      • 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
        • 76% steerage
  • 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:

https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2021/12/06/Andrew-Nikiforuk-Getting-Real-About-Our-Crises/

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.

Take us to DEFCON 1

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.

Reality Blind by Nate Hagens and DJ White

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:

https://read.realityblind.world/view/975731937/i/

In case you missed it, this year’s annual Earth Day talk by Nate is on the same topic and is a masterpiece.

Tom Murphy’s back, yay!

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:

Today Murphy announced that he has published a new textbook titled “Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet” which can be downloaded for free.

https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2021/03/textbook-debut/

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.

Abstract

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.

20.1 Awareness

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.

https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2021/03/textbook-tour/

Textbook Tour

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.

Big Stuff

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)

By Jean-Marc Jancovici: Will technology save us from Climate Change?

Brilliant new talk by my favorite alien engineer, Jean-Marc Jancovici.

If you only have 90 minutes to spare, and you want to understand everything that matters about how the world works, and the nature of our overshoot predicament, and what we need to do to minimize future suffering, then this talk is the best use of your time.

spoiler alert: the answer is no

https://www.media.mit.edu/events/will-technology-save-us-from-climate-change/

Bio: 

Jean-Marc Jancovici is an advisor to the French government on climate change and energy as part of the French High Council for Climate. He is a founding partner of Carbon 4, a Paris-based data consultancy specializing in low carbon transition and the physical risks of climate change (www.carbone4.com). He is also the founder and president of The Shift Project, a Paris-based think tank advocating for a low carbon economy (www.theshiftproject.org). Jean-Marc Jancovici also serves as an associate professor at Mines ParisTech.

Abstract:

The thermo-industrial development of our society has been possible due to resource extraction and the transformation of our environment. Unfortunately, it has led to severe environmental consequences that humanity is experiencing around the globe: shifting and unpredictable climate, extreme weather events, and biodiversity collapse. Humanity is paying the consequences for technical and technological progress. Thus, can technology still save us from climate change?

Jean-Marc Jancovici will address this question through the paradigm of energy. He will first detail how modern society is structured around thermal and nuclear energies, and will then discuss the impact of this structure on global climate and society. Finally, Jean-Marc Jancovici will conclude by exploring the trade-offs between economic growth and sustainable climate stewardship.

Slides: https://fr.slideshare.net/JoelleLeconte/jancovici-mit-media-lab-23022021/1

By William Rees – Climate change isn’t the problem, so what is?

Thanks to friend and retired blogger Gail Zawacki at Wit’s End for bringing this excellent new talk by professor William Rees to my attention.

Rees discusses our severe state of ecological overshoot and the behaviors that prevent us from taking any useful action to make the future less bad.

Rees thinks there are two key behaviors responsible for our predicament:

  1. Base nature, which we share with all other species, to use all available resources. Most people call this the Maximum Power Principle.
  2. Creative nurture. Our learned culture defines our reality and we live this constructed reality as if it were real. “When faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information” – Wexler.

I don’t disagree with Rees on the existence or role of these behaviors, but we also need Varki’s MORT theory to explain how denial of unpleasant realties evolved and is symbiotic with our uniquely powerful intelligence, and other unique human behaviors, such as our belief in gods and life after death.

Some interesting points made by Rees:

  • The 2017 human eco-footprint exceeds biocapacity by 73%.
  • Half the fossil fuels and many other resources ever used by humans have been consumed in just the past 30 years.
  • Efficiency enables more consumption.
  • The past 7 years are the warmest 7 years on record.
  • Wild populations of birds, fish, mammals, and amphibians have declined 60% since 1970. Populations of many insects are down about 50%.
  • The biomass of humans and their livestock make up 95-99% of all vertebrate biomass on the planet.
  • Human population planning has declined from being the dominant policy lever in 1969 to the least researched in 2018.
  • The annual growth in wind and solar energy is about half the total annual growth in energy. In others words, “renewable” energy is not replacing fossil energy, it’s not even keeping up.
  • The recent expansion of the human enterprise resembles the “plague phase” of a one-off boom/bust population cycle.
  • 50 years, 34 climate conferences, a half dozen major international climate agreements, and various scientists’ warnings have not reduced atmospheric carbon concentrations.
  • We are tracking to the Limit to Growth study’s standard model and should expect major systemic crashes in the next 40 to 50 years.
  • This is the new “age of unreason”: science denial and magical thinking.
  • Climate change is a serious problem but a mere symptom of the greater disease.

P.S. Stay for the Q&A session, it’s very good.

Is Covid-19 providing cover for Jay Hanson’s Society of Sloth?

Gail Tverberg made a comment today that rings true and motivated me to write about something I’ve been mulling for a while…

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2020/12/23/2020-the-year-things-started-going-badly-wrong/comment-page-24/#comment-274042

I think the reaction to COVID-19 is part of how a self-organizing system works. People were looking for a reason to cut back/shut down. The illness provided this.

I do not believe in most conspiracy theories, but I do believe that crises are frequently used to implement plans that would be impossible without a crisis. The responses to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, 9/11, and the 2008 GFC are good modern examples.

Perhaps the virus has provided (mostly subconscious) cover for:

  • citizens tired of commuting 2 hours a day to a stressful job so they could keep up with their neighbor’s latest unnecessary status symbol purchase
  • citizens who intuited they should reduce discretionary spending and pay down credit card debt, which interestingly declined in 2020, rather than increasing as it did during the 2008 GFC
  • leaders that sensed we should voluntarily throttle back, because we’d soon be forced by limits to growth
  • leaders that understood we needed to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions, and the only way to achieve this is by contracting the economy
  • leaders that needed an excuse to restrict freedoms to maintain civil order in preparation for a significant contraction of our energy/economic system
  • central banks that understood we had hit limits to growth and that needed an excuse for massive corporate bailouts to prevent a catastrophic economic collapse, and for MMT to keep citizens fed

Perhaps this helps to explain why our responses to the virus have not been intelligent or optimal:

  • effective means of containing the spread were ignored or procrastinated in the crucial early days
  • existing cheap and effective preventative measures are ignored and not promoted; new preventative measures are not researched
  • promising cheap and effective treatments are ignored and/or aggressively undermined
  • some lock-down measures lack logic or good judgement
  • the source of the virus is not being aggressively investigated to better understand appropriate responses, and to prevent a reoccurrence

To be clear, I am not suggesting a conspiracy to release a virus. I think the most probable explanation is that the virus was engineered in a lab with good intentions, and that it escaped by accident, as explained here:

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/article/coronavirus-lab-escape-theory.html

I am suggesting that people at all levels of our society appear to be using the virus as an excuse to make changes that were impossible to make prior to the crisis. Some of these plans may have been well thought out and sitting on a shelf waiting for the right circumstances, like for example MMT, and other responses, like for example citizens paying down credit card debt, may be an instinctual response to anticipated scarcity.

Jay Hanson, who died in 2018, was one of the greatest thinkers about human overshoot. I wrote more about Hanson here:

https://un-denial.com/2018/03/26/by-jay-hanson-reality-report-interview-november-3-2008/

Hanson concluded that civilization was doomed due to genetic human behaviors that were unlikely to change, and that it would probably end with a nuclear war, as discussed in this 2008 interview with Jason Bradford:

right click save as to download

Hanson did however describe one path that was thermodynamically feasible, and that might avoid some of the worst suffering.

Perhaps we have (mostly subconsciously) decided to implement some of Jay Hanson’s ideas.

https://dieoff.com/page168.htm

<begin extract from Hanson’s essay>

SOCIETY OF SLOTH

In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.
— Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762

(What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive description of a new society, but only presents some conceptual ideas for consideration.)

MY KEY DEFINITIONS

  • GLOBAL PROBLEMATIC (after The Club of Rome, 1972): Global tragedy of the commons because people are genetically programmed to more-than-reproduce themselves and make the best use of their environments.
  • COMMONS: “A commons is any resource treated as though it belongs to all. When anyone can claim a resource simply on the grounds that he wants or needs to use it, one has a commons.” [32]
  • NEEDS: Human “needs” have a scientific basis which is defined by human biology. 35,000 years ago, three million hunter-gatherers “needed” community, shelter, health care, clean water, clean air, and about 3,000 calories a day of nutritious food. Today, people still “need” the same things that hunter-gatherers “needed” then (except fewer calories).
  • eMergy: [33] eMergy (with an “M”) is the solar energy used directly and indirectly to make a service or product. In other words, eMergy is the “cost” of a service or a product in units of solar energy.
        Why eMergy? In reality, the economy is nothing but a monstrous, energy-gulping Rube Goldberg machine to deliver “needs” to people. But each of those three million hunter-gatherers was the energy-using counterpart of a common dolphin, whereas each of today’s 280 million Americans matches the energy use of a sperm whale. Obviously, the “economy” is incredibly inefficient at delivering “needs” to people.
        No doubt my statement will stick in the economist’s craw, because after all, isn’t “efficiency” what economics is all about? The problem with “economic efficiency” is that “money” is not a measure of anything in the real world (like, say, BTUs). Money is power because money “empowers” people to buy and do the things they want — including buying and doing other people (politics). Thus, “economic efficiency” is properly seen as a “political” concept that was designed to preserve political power for those who have it.
        For over a century, theorists have sought ways of integrating economics and environmental accounting, often using energy as a common measure. But these efforts met with limited success because different kinds of available energy are not equivalent. The measure of “eMergy” allows us to compare commodities, services and environmental work of different types. “Transformity” – the eMergy per unit energy – allows us to compare different kinds of available of energy.
        So we need to totally junk the present economic system and replace it with a new one that minimizes eMergy costs (not money costs ) and delivers basic needs (not Cadillacs) to everyone in a sustainable way.
  • SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Sustainable development both improves quality of life and retains continuity with physical conditions; it requires that social systems be equitable and physical systems circular (industrial outputs become industrial inputs).
  • AUTHORITY: Goals (or ideals) are not produced by a consensus of the governed, rather a qualified authority determines goals. For example, physical goals for sustainable development must come from “scientific” authority — because no one else knows what they must be. All contemporary political systems are “authoritarian” with the moneyed class ruling the pseudo democracies.
  • COERCION (politics): To “coerce” is to compel one to act in a certain way — either by promise of reward or threat of punishment. Two obvious examples of coercion are our system of laws and paychecks.
  • THE ONE-AND-ONLY HUMANE SOLUTION: “Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” [34] A global system of coercion — laws, police, punishments and rewards. In principle, the global commons can only be managed at the global level by people who understand the physical systems involved: scientists. Global coercion can be seen in the worldwide reactions to ozone depletion and global warming. Remarkably, even economists find that authoritarian coercion can make them “better off”:

A group of economists had gathered at my house for dinner. While we were waiting for the food in the oven to finish cooking, I brought a large bowl of cashew nuts into the living room where people were having cocktails. In a few minutes, half the bowl of nuts was gone, and I could see that our appetites were in danger. Quickly, I seized the bowl of nuts and put it back in the kitchen (eating a few more nuts along the way, of course). When I returned, my fellow economists generally applauded my quick action, but then we followed our natural inclinations which was to try to analyze the situation to death. The burning question was: how could removing an option possibly have made us better off? After all, if we wanted to stop eating cashews, we could have done that at any time. [35]

Besides laws and paychecks, coercion can take many forms:

It is not necessary to construct a theory of intentional cultural control. In truth, the strength of the control process rests in its apparent absence. The desired systemic result is achieved ordinarily by a loose though effective institutional process. It utilizes the education of journalists and other media professionals, built-in penalties and rewards for doing what is expected, norms presented as objective rules, and the occasional but telling direct intrusion from above. The main lever is the internalization of values. [36]

Step one would be to establish a global government of some sort with the authority to protect the global commons — our life-support system — as well as protecting universal human rights. This government would also oversee the “clean” manufacturing of “repairable” and “reusable” energy-efficient appliances and transportation systems. It would also insure the sustainable production of staples like wheat, rice, oats, and fish.

Does this new global government sound repressive or restrictive? Not at all. A great deal of freedom is possible — in fact, far more than we have now.

eMERGY CERTIFICATES
Step two would be to replace the organizing principle of “avarice” with the principle of “sloth”; break out of the money-market-advertising-consumption death trap. The Society of Sloth would not be based on money because that would be inherently unsustainable. Instead, it would be based on “eMergy Certificates”. [37]

Global government would determine the “needs” of the public, set industrial production accordingly, and calculate the amount of eMergy used to meet these needs. Government would then distribute purchasing power in the form of eMergy certificates, the amount issued to each person being equivalent to his pro rata share of the eMergy cost of the consumer goods and services.

eMergy certificates bear the identification of the person to whom issued and are non-negotiable. They resemble a bank check in that they bear no face denomination, this being entered at the time of spending. They are surrendered upon the purchase of goods or services at any center of distribution and are permanently canceled, becoming entries in a uniform accounting system. Being non-negotiable they cannot be lost, stolen, gambled, or given away because they are invalid in the hands of any person other than the one to whom issued.

Lost eMergy certificates would be easily replaced. Certificates can not be saved because they become void at the termination of the two-year period for which they are issued. They can only be spent.

Insecurity of old age is abolished and both saving and insurance become unnecessary and impossible. eMergy Certificates would put absolute limits on consumption and provide people with a guaranteed stream of “needs” for life.

With modern technology, probably less than 5% of the population could produce all the goods we really “need”. A certain number of “producers” could be drafted and trained by society to produce for two years. The rest can stay home and sleep, sing, dance, paint, read, write, pray, play, do minor repairs, work in the garden, and practice birth control.

SELF-DETERMINATION
Any number of cultural, ethnic or religious communities could be established by popular vote. Religious communities could have public prayer in their schools, prohibit booze, allow no television to corrupt their kids, wear uniforms, whatever. Communities of writers or painters could be established in which bad taste would be against the law. Ethnic communities could be established to preserve language and customs. If someone didn’t like the rules in a particular community, they could move to another religious, cultural, or ethnic community of their choosing.

In short, the one big freedom that individuals would have to give up would be the freedom to destroy the commons (in its broadest sense) — the freedom to kill. And in return, they would be given a guaranteed income for life and the freedom to live almost any way they choose.”

<end extract from Hanson’s essay>

preptip: Save Your Sole

Bedwell Trail, Strathcona Park, British Columbia, July 2020

Walking in nature is one of the best things to do,

because our genetic memory makes it very enjoyable,

and it’s good for your body’s respiration and motility,

and it calms your soul in times of stress,

and it requires little money, fossil energy, or equipment,

except a good pair of boots,

and assuming your food and shelter needs are met,

you can continue to enjoy walking in nature,

long after SHTF,

and after you’re too old for other activities,

so you can depend on walking in nature,

provided you have a good pair of boots,

and in addition,

after fossil energy is scarce,

and when you need to earn a little money,

doing physical labor,

because that’s the only work that will pay,

or you need to grow a little food,

because you need to eat,

you can use those same boots to help,

and given the mind boggling complexity required,

to manufacture and deliver a pair of boots,

they will never be better quality or more available than today,

and given the trillions of dollars being printed,

to pretend and extend the impossible,

they will never be less expensive than today,

and given they don’t go bad,

and will be valuable to trade for other necessities,

there is no good reason not to have a few spares,

of my personal favorites,

sitting at the sweet spot of price, utility, comfort, and durability,

for everyday walking,

the Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX,

and for overnight hikes with heavy loads,

the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX,

both of which are among the most popular boots in Canada,

and which almost never go on sale,

except today,

perhaps because the virus is hurting suppliers,

and they need to juice their year-end revenue,

when I noticed they are 25% off at some retailers,

like Valhalla Pure Outfitters,

which is why I wrote this preptip.

Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX
Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX

The un-Denial Decision Tree

This post was inspired by a comment from reader Kira. She asked if denying climate change was the same as denying death. I answered as follows:

“I suspect there are 2 main groups of people:

One group is the 95% of the population that doesn’t really understand the science or the severity of the problem. They see bad things happening with the weather, but they also hear on the news that countries have signed an agreement to prevent the temperature from rising more than 2 degrees, and they see neighbors buying solar panels and electric cars, which they’re told by experts are solutions to climate change, so their optimism bias that comes from genetic reality denial leads them to conclude that the climate problem is being addressed, and they put it out of mind.

The other group is the 5% that does understand the science and the severity of climate change. These people have enough intelligence and education to conclude that we are already screwed regardless of what we do, and that any effective mitigation effort must involve a rapid decrease in population and/or per capita consumption. It is within this group that genetic denial of unpleasant realities is operating in full force. Most of these experts genuinely believe that climate change can be safely constrained, and economic growth can continue, by replacing fossil energy with solar/wind energy and by using machines to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. These beliefs are so absurd, and so contrary to basic high school level science, that there can be no other explanation than genetic realty denial. In this group, maybe it is death that is the main thing being denied.”

Kira said she agreed and then suggested it might be better to let people, and especially young people, remain in blissful ignorance so that they do not become depressed and lose a sense of purpose.

I thought about it and created the following decision tree of possible paths to answer her question.

  1. Humans are in serious trouble
    1. Disagree (I believe in God or Steven Pinker)
      • path: Carry on and oppose anything that threatens your beliefs and lifestyle
    2. Agree (I believe my eyes)
      1. It’s too late to do anything useful (nature’s forces now dominate human forces)
        1. Agree (a reasonable position given the data, but only if you think other species don’t matter, and 8 billion suffering humans is no worse than 8 billion minus 1 suffering humans)
          • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
        2. Disagree (there’s still time to make the future less bad, even if all we do is reduce harm to other species and/or total human suffering)
          1. Humans can’t or won’t change their behavior in time
            1. Agree (most of history says we only change when forced, and the coming debt/energy/climate collapse will be too severe for any good to come of it)
              • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
            2. Disagree (I believe Sapolsky that behavior is plastic and we have enough energy left to build a softer landing zone)
              1. Genetic reality denial blocks any useful change
                1. Disagree (I deny that I deny reality)
                  • path: Make yourself feel good by recycling your garbage, shopping with reusable bags, buying an electric car, and voting Green
                2. Agree (it’s not possible to act optimally without understanding reality)
                  1. Awareness of genetic realty denial will increase awareness of reality
                    1. Disagree (most people just want to pay their bills and watch TV)
                      • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
                    2. Agree (most people want to learn)
                      1. Awareness of reality will cause positive behavior changes
                        1. Disagree (if the majority understood reality it would be Mad Max)
                          • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
                        2. Agree (most people want to do the right thing, especially if pain is shared fairly)

This tree of (usually subconscious) decisions a person must make to decide which path to take about human overshoot results in 7 possible paths.

Six of the paths do not improve the outcome. One of the paths might improve the outcome, but has a very low probability of success because it’s currently occupied by a single old uncharismatic antisocial engineer.

Most people who really understand our overshoot predicament would probably discard my complicated decision tree and focus on a single issue: humans can’t or won’t change.

This view was recently voiced by reader Apneaman in a comment:

But can’t/wont. Have not.

Why? Like Sabine says…………

Now, some have tried to define free will by the “ability to have done otherwise”. But that’s just empty words. If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.

No plan, no matter how spiffy & technically feasible, or logical argument can convince me that the humans are capable of collective change. I’ll need to see it to believe it. Same as God. Only Jesus floating down from the firmament & performing 10 miracles that are so spectacular they would make illusionist David Copperfield blush could convince me of the supernatural.

While true that it’s difficult to cause people to collectively do things they find unpleasant, or that conflict with the MPP objectives of their genes, it’s not impossible and not without precedent. I gave the following examples:

When the Canadian government says to its citizens:

  • Everyone must pay about 50% of their income as tax to operate the country.
    • Most citizens comply, and those that don’t are usually caught and forced to pay an extra penalty.
  • Germany has attacked our friend and we need our young men to risk their lives by fighting a war on a different continent.
    • Most eligible young men volunteered.
  • A virus threatens to overrun our healthcare system and we need citizens to stay at home except for essential activities which must be conducted with a mask.
    • Most citizens will comply.

Now if the Canadian government said to its citizens the combined threats of climate change and diesel depletion threaten our food security within 10 years, so we are putting in place incentives to encourage local food production and processing, and to decrease food imports, I think most citizens would support the plan.

If then after a couple years of further study and communication on the threat, the government said we don’t think there will be enough food to support our population in 10 years so we are stopping immigration and requiring families to have no more than one child, I think most citizens would comply.

The issue of course is that the Canadian government is not going to acknowledge or act on our overshoot threat in this manner.

Why?

I think it’s due to our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities, whenever we can get away with it.

Taxes, war, and viruses are very unpleasant, but they’re in your face and impossible to deny.

Food shortages 10 years out are easy to deny.

How do we change this?

It has to start with discussing and trying to understand our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities. Hence the path I’ve personally chosen in the above tree.