Thinking more than a couple of days ahead is not one of humankind’s greatest strengths, especially not beyond the scale and scope of our immediate surroundings. In the rare occasion when thinking of this type does happen, however, it usually takes two directions: the future will either be just like the past, perhaps even better, or an immediate and inevitable catastrophe will remove us all from existence, one day to another of course. Funny, but both visions have equal merit, and are equally true. There is a great caveat though: timescale.
Common wisdom suggests that tomorrow will most probably not be tremendously different from today, unless a sudden disaster hits. Based on this pattern of thinking, reinforced again and again by past experience, and by the myth that we have „defused” so many catastrophes in the past, many of us think that things will go on as usual forever, and human progress will march on inevitably. Indeed, it seems, at least on the short run, the optimists have the upper hand. On the long run, though, we see a thousand potential disasters still waiting to happen from climate change to novel viruses, or from AI to nuclear war… and the list goes on. Is it possible that our world is headed towards a sudden apocalypse after all?
Perhaps one reason why we think only in these two terms is that we often find it hard to reunite our personal perspective with the grand scheme of things, and to think on a much broader scale than our selves. We act like yeast cells: atomized and individualized, not only on a social but also on a mental level. As a result we see ourselves as independent actors, carrying out the whims of our “free will” as we navigate through life. The problem is, that this independence and free will are nothing less but a delusion, in favor of which we have traded our imagination and critical thinking skills, together with any sense of being part of something much bigger than ourselves.
We are lost in the tactical minutia of our day-to-day lives and cannot see the overall trajectory of our travel.
Longtermists — despite their claims to the contrary — are also stalled in front of this mental barrier. They too remain stuck in the false dichotomy of progress marching on unstoppably or something entirely preventable (see the list above) driving us all extinct all at once. They too see themselves as rational individual beings, responsible and independent actors, and thus fail to see humanity as an organism itself, embedded within an even larger entity: life itself.
It should not come as a surprise then, that longtermists, cornucopians, techno-utopians (which pretty much describes our ruling class) cannot comprehend that what we see and call technology in the sense of tools, machines, electronics, infrastructure or industrial civilization itself is not something independent from Nature and a result of our unparalleled ingenuity, but something which is actively destroying life itself, as well as its very basis of existence.
We are on an unsustainable path, and technology is not a solution to any of our problems. It is the problem itself.
The reason is very simple: all of our high tech is built from and powered by finite stocks of minerals. All the claims to the contrary, though, and no matter how ingenious or prudent we are, some energy and material will always be irretrievably lost to us during its use. Even doing something as simple as recycling aluminum cans comes with its own losses of energy from transporting waste to heat escaping the furnace, or a tiny fraction of metal lost in the process. Things deteriorate with time, and clean ordered material like pure aluminum get contaminated, oxidized, chipped off, scattered and finally lost.
There is nothing personal in this: this is a natural law, called the second law of thermodynamics. And since we and our technology are both ultimately bound by physics, it is unreasonable to expect that just because we think we are „ingenious” we can endlessly recycle stuff once we run out of minerals to mine. After seeing this basic fact of life for what it is, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that no matter what we do, we will eventually use up all the non-renewable raw materials available to us, and ultimately turn all of them into scraps, pollution and waste heat. All our new and yet to be developed technologies can do then is to turn even more raw materials to waste even faster, and thus create even more pollution and destroying even more ecosystems in the process. Just take a look at the technical history of the last couple of centuries.
An as we gradually run out of things to mine, starting with oil, which has enabled all our rather destructive habits thus far, we will be all forced to return gradually to using truly renewable materials and energy only. Think: wood and biomass. (For a reference how that could look like, take a glimpse at how people lived before the widespread use of fossil fuels.) Sorry to be this blunt, but it cannot possibly happen any other way. This is not some hyperbole, a wild guess or a “prediction”: this is what awaits. There is no choice to be made, or human ingenuity to call upon either: you can’t build solar panels or nuclear reactors from cow dung and twigs. (I mean you can try, but don’t tell me that you were not warned.) And while gradually returning to a subsistence level of living over the decades and centuries ahead might sound chilling to some, actually it is the best case scenario.
After setting the basic physics of our future straight, let’s take an even broader look on the eons ahead. Irrespective of what happens to our high tech civilization in the coming decades (whether it keeps slowly disintegrating as it encounters even more shortages, collapses, or turns itself into a grove of mushroom clouds) one thing is for sure: it will not, it cannot continue. Not unlike climate change and the sixth mass extinction, eventually turning much of the planet into a desert lined with savannas and some sparsely wooded areas far up north. Today’s level of carbon in the atmosphere is unprecedented in the past 3 million years, when there were no ice caps and a planet was a lot hotter. If this radical shift in climate indeed turns out to be that severe as suggested by paleo-climatology, much of humanity will simply lose its food and freshwater sources by 2100.
A 3 to 4°C world, scheduled to arrive in the second half of this century, will simply be unable to feed more than a billion people. If (or rather when) feedback loops from methane, an ice free arctic, the loss of the Amazon rainforest and the melting in Antarctica kick in though, we can finally wave goodbye to the illusion of us being in control and “tackling” climate change. These four molten horseman could easily turn planet Earth into a hothouse over the course of the centuries ahead, further reducing our chances of survival. Again, this is no joke, hyperbole or “prediction”: such sudden shifts in climate have already happened in the deep past. Many times. Ignoring this is widely irresponsible and frankly, unscientific. I know this might sound unflattering, but causing abrupt climate change of this kind is not a unique feature to our species.
A future of material deprivation (including fuels, machines, metal tools and of course fertilizers) and the loss of a stable climate of course would leave little to no chance for agriculture — and thus permanent settlements — to thrive. Survivors would be forced to wander around searching for food, just like 10000 years ago. Now, if you factor in pollution (chemical, nuclear, biological etc) and its negative effects on birth rates, life expectancy and illnesses, the loss of pollinators, the collapse of ocean and land food chains, it will be a wonder on its own if we would not be driven extinct within a century.
It increasingly looks like that the coming decades will see the myth of human progress replayed in fast rewind, leaving nothing but rubble behind.
I know it’s hard to accept this, but don’t fret, this is perfectly normal. For a reference, see what has happened to Rome or the Mayans, and the countless other civilizations who all thought that they have cracked the nut of eternal prosperity — only to go missing shortly thereafter. Yes, our species are not immune to extinction, and while in the past collapse has affected only local communities, this massive pile of hot mess, we the industrial generation are leaving behind, threatens to put all our descendants on the ropes.
At this point allow me to return to the library analogy I’ve introduced a couple of posts ago. I want you to imagine an alien natural historian writing a book series again, covering a million years of history in each one-thousand page volume, and thus dedicating only a single page to each millennia. If the series were started at the beginning of life on Earth some 4.2 billion years ago, then now you would be reading the first page in volume 4201, starting with the events of the early 2000s. If my assumptions based on physics and the latest science are correct, by the time you finish the very first page at year 3000, there would be only small tribes, if any, of humans left; wandering around foraging the northern shores of what was once called Eurasia and North America. The rest of the planet would be largely uninhabited and remarkably devoid of large mammalian life.
The chances of restarting high tech civilization would be practically down to zero by then. Having used up all the easily accessible minerals, copper, iron, oil and gas, and having burnt the remaining coal to maintain at least a semblance of modern life here and there, it would be technically impossible for our descendants to start a new industrial revolution. Shoveling the last remaining low grade ores found high up in the Andes by hand and trying to smelt metals on charcoal will not do it this time. In our delusion of grandeur we forgot how much easily accessible fossil energy and high grade ores have contributed in kick-starting industrial revolution. Without these vital inputs we would be back to our dilemma of building nuclear reactors from cow dung again. Sorry, there is no technology without accessible raw materials and energy.
The vast amount of metals, glass and other resources tied up in our built environment on the other hand would also be lost rather quickly. Due to a decline in oil and consequently diesel production (still powering and enabling all of our technologies, including microchips, “renewables”, nuclear, as well as transportation) our cities would quickly become uninhabitable. Without the energy to power it industrial civilization will have gone down many times faster than it could’ve used up all the built in materials. Buildings, abandoned machines and infrastructure would be left for the wind and rain to do their decaying work, turning all our once valuable products into an indiscernible pile of rubble.
Climate change would also do its part. All of our cities would be either under hundred feet of water by the year 3000, or covered in sand and dust. Or just left in ruins. Vegetation of whatever invasive hardy species surviving this upcoming abrupt climate change would cover the remnants of our once magnificent architecture like Kudzu, with only an few sturdy pylons and a few other broken structures standing out from the lush greens.
Let’s flip a few pages… say 10. It is now 12000 AD, although nobody counts years anymore. By now even the very existence, let alone the exact location, of our once flourishing cities would be shrouded in mystery. All ruins would now lie flat buried under a mountain of dust (or sea sediment). All of our famous buildings from the past few centuries will have crumbled thousands of years ago already, and now enjoying the process of being compacted into a mixture of brown rust, concrete, asphalt, glass and plastic. A toxic (and possibly radioactive) rock formation is now in the process of making. If we had the means — which we surely won’t — to dig hundreds of feet down at these locations we wouldn’t find anything even remotely recognizable though. All of our buildings, products, cell phones, solar panels, cars and computers will have long disintegrated by then, perhaps with the exception of a few barely readable granite tombstones with names of people long dead, written in a script no one could ever read… (Ugh, um, what is ‘reading’ by the way?)
Flip another hundred pages into the book and you would barely find any mention of our species. A hundred-thousand years from now we would either be completely extinct, or radically downgraded to a more resource efficient variety of our species. Lacking abundant food sources (as opposed to how things were a hundred thousand years ago) our descendants would become a lot shorter, with their skulls housing much smaller brains than ours. It would take a lot of energy, fats and protein to build and maintain such a complex structure as the one between your ears, and in a world emerging from a mass extinction event, and devoid of any opportunity for agriculture, everything will be abundant but high fat, high protein food. We would see lots of small critters burrowing in the ground, but no mammoths, giant birds and the like, the hunting of which made our species what we are today. Eventually even the last of our dumbed down descendants would go extinct, leaving space for another species to emerge.
If you thought the Anthropocene was a truly geological epoch, I have to disappoint you. From a geological perspective this steaming pile of hot mess we have created by tapping into ancient carbon and other mineral resources, as well as the ecological disaster we have unleashed with them, will be seen as nothing more but a dramatic, albeit rather short lived event. Like an asteroid hitting Earth, or an eruption of some super-volcano. Bang. Death. Restart.
Even our everlasting ‘forever chemicals’, radioactive waste, plastics and all the rest would be buried under miles of sediment, or completely adopted into the fabric of life, in the millions of years ahead. Ironically the great dying of the oceans unleashed by a sudden influx of carbon into the atmosphere and a nutrient run-off from agriculture would result in a massive bloom and then burial of organic matter. This graveyard of dead algae covered in sediment would eventually become the source rock of future petroleum deposits for unlucky intelligent creatures to find far, far down the road…
How far? Well let’s close volume 4201, telling the story of us leaving center stage, and put it back on the shelf. Let’s browse a little… It took 65 million years for an intelligent species to appear after the last mass die-off putting an end to the reign of dinosaurs. If it would take a similar timeframe for another intelligent species to appear, then volume 4265 would fit the bill just fine. (It could be much less, or more, but who knows?) One thing seems to be sure though: 65 million years into the future even the sturdiest of our remains would be compressed into a sliver of rock strata, perhaps a few millimeters thin. That is what a future alien historian would find of us. A few fossilized bones, and perhaps an odd, strange rock… That’s all.
According to the Silurian hypothesis at least since the Carboniferous (300–350 million years ago), there has been sufficient fossil carbon to fuel an industrial civilization comparable with our own. This means, that all what I’ve described above might had have already happened once. Or twice. Or many more times… We very well might be just another attempt made at building an industrial society by an intelligent species. The Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum (an abrupt climate change 55.8 million years ago) for example could’ve easily been a result of a super intelligent mammal (or bird) species going through their industrial revolution smashing through all limits, only to end up in overshoot. Just like we did.
The fact that it is so hard to tell shows how little a chance the remnants of this iteration of an industrial civilization has against the tides of time. By studying the deep past, and understanding the basic rules of physics you can easily grasp why this super duper, high-tech, busy, intermingled world we have right now is but a mere blip in time. The single biggest anomaly in the past 55 million years. But it might not even be the first, nor the last of its kind. One thing is for sure though: it cannot last forever, and together with our species it is destined to meet its fate.
Its high time that we grow up and stop pretending that we will be the first species which will be able to dodge its own downfall and eventual extinction.
Now, close this shit and take a long walk in the woods. Smell the scent of plants. Listen to birds singing. And while at it, imagine that the atoms, now forming your body and doing the thinking for you, were the very same ones which once used to build up mammoths, dinosaurs or ancient fish; and very well could have ended up in that bird singing on that tree. All these creatures are you, and you, Dear Reader, are them. You, they, we, are one. Nothing is separate. Reconnect yourself with them through space and time, whether through bark, skin, bone or stone. It doesn’t matter. We share the same fate. And just because we have arrived closer to the end than the beginning, it doesn’t mean that we are more, or less important. We just happened to see the peak of our species reign and the havoc it brought about. And it is fine. There is no moral lesson to be learned, no grand meaning to all this. It’s just what it is.
Until next time,