A matter of perspectives

Your perspective of time defines how do you think about events in the past, the present and the future. It helps you build a story in which you place yourself as a protagonist and gives you a map to your future. It matters more than you think.

So, what is your perspective of time? Is it an upward arrow from the stone age to Star Trek? Or maybe it is interrupted by small setbacks…? Education systems all around the world teach this version of history and thus provide us a common ground to think about the shape of time. They give us the perspective of endless progress only interrupted by big wars, the plague and maybe the fall of Rome. But the message stays the same: in the beginning we were “brutish” and “fierce” cave man fighting for survival, then “invented” agriculture and civilization and through many struggles and wars we ended up as “enlightened” modern citizens entitled for even more growth (owing to “our ingenuity” of course). Thus it is (or was at least a few years ago) easy to imagine Humanity’s future among the stars… Colonizing the Moon and Mars, building space factories, mining asteroids… Building the USS Enterprise, traveling through Space bringing the enlightened spirit of the United States (ahem, sorry: Humanity) to the dark corners of the Universe.

There is one small problem with this perspective. One that is startling to contemplate on but in order to have a better understanding on who we are, we must not avoid it.

“Where is everyone?” — asked Enrico Fermi a renowned physicist at the dawn of the nuclear age in 1950. There are billions of stars in our galaxy similar to our Sun most of which have planets just like in our solar system. Why haven’t we found firm evidence of alien species? (Accepted by the entire population, not just some shaky footage of flying specks of light—or even better: why haven’t we made direct contact with them?) Most of us shake this question off by answering “we haven’t found them yet” or “they are not interested in us”. But there is a deeper implication — one that is better explained in a story. Our story.

A couple of years ago (although I found it just recently) there was an interesting “duel” between two of my favorite authors about the next 10 billion years (you can find them here and here). Now let me place the question of time perspectives and the Fermi paradox into this ultra-wide lens view. So, here is my take on this challenge:

10 billion years ago: the universe is still relatively young (at circa 4 billion years) but old enough to have stars with planets (probably gas giants, but who knows maybe some hard rock planets as well).

1 billion years ago: the universe and the Milky Way in it is teeming with life. There are millions of planets with different life forms: some has only bacterial life, some have already developed complex life while others have already completed their life cycle and ended up as interstellar dust after their star has exploded. Many of the planets with complex life forms have developed intelligent species who learned how to craft tools with their tentacles and communicate their thoughts. Perhaps some of them built cities, maybe one or two thousand of these intelligent species managed to figure out low orbit space travel and visited their neighboring planets. Meanwhile, life on Earth is still in its infancy (single cells floating in the vast ocean).

100 million years ago: the universe is still teeming with life, extraterrestrial civilizations come and go. Some wrecking their planet by turning it into nuclear waste dumps, some heating up theirs to boiling temperatures. But most of them managed to find a balance between their resources and population. Most probably none of them managed to leave their solar system alive. Alien space probes drift aimlessly around dead planets or into the cold and empty interstellar space — until they are hit by an aimless rock and explode into tiny pieces. Meanwhile our miniature hairy four-legged ancestors try to avoid the steps of multi-ton dinosaurs.

10 million years ago: life goes on as usual in our galaxy: the hundred millionth alien civilization has just ended and another hundred million is still climbing its ladder of “progress”. Back on Earth: an asteroid got rid of dinosaurs and our predecessors got bigger, stronger and somewhat smarter.

1 million years ago: our ancestors Homo habilis and Homo erectus (along with many other now extinct Homo species) learned how to use fire and make stone tools. One of the extraterrestrial intelligent species goes extinct after destroying their own habitat. Many more continue using up the resources of their planets.

100 thousand years ago: we are almost there! We’ve got Homo neanderthalis in Europe and Homo sapiens in Africa. By the way did you know that sapiens means wise? Anyway these two species soon start their epic battle for survival (or so we have learnt in school) and soon there will be one human species on the planet. According to more recent studies we most probably mixed and traded with other Homo species while driving others to extinction with our lifestyle and habits (hunting their pray for example).

10 thousand years ago: due to the dramatic changes in climate (the end of the ice age) sea levels rose by a hundred meters and many species went extinct — pushing our species (Homo sapiens) to the brink of its own extinction too. We have lost the mega-fauna (mammoths, giant sloths, mastodons etc.) partly due to climatic changes and partly due to us over-hunting them. Once lively trade routes along the shores of once joined continents went under water. At one point — according to genetic studies — our numbers went down as low as a couple thousand individuals… Globally. We had to find new food sources and started to eat the grains of grass species around the world. Agriculture appeared in many parts of the planet independent from each other. This was not as a hard shift as it appears in history books. It rather happened gradually: first by starting a garden in the woods. Then planting the seeds near a camp site and harvesting them upon the next return. Back then people were still wandering around following annual cycles. The sense or perspective of time was rather different for them: there was no arrow of progress, rather an endless circle of creation and destruction. The past looked no different than the present or the future. Eventually, as our agricultural skills evolved throughout the millennia (it seems quite possible that we have experimented with planting and harvesting food many thousand years before: switching back and forth from hunting and gathering and horticulture) and due to the climate becoming exceptionally stable large scale agriculture became possible. Grains (mainly wheat) became the “crude oil” of these ages: it made building cities and empires possible by providing cheap, easy to transport, dense sources of energy. The caloric (heat) engine of these times was the human body itself and the surplus energy provided by the annual surplus harvest made building pyramids and stone walled cities possible.

1000 years ago: many things happened since our last visit, empires rose and fall after going through their usual life-cycle, but perhaps the situation is best described by Francois-Rene Chateaubriand a French writer, politician, diplomat and historian:

“Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them”

100 years ago: the vast forests of Europe are gone. They either went up the chimney or ended up at the bottom of the sea (as shipwrecks on top of our best soils). Europe had to find a solution to its energy crisis; with no more wood to burn they resorted to the second best option: coal. This resource was known since the middle ages but was neglected due to its impurities (mainly sulfur) which made its smoke choking and iron heated over its fire brittle and useless. Again — as with the agricultural “revolution” — it was necessity what made its use inevitable. But — again — human ingenuity came to the rescue! Coke (not the fizzy sugary water but the fuel) was invented by heating coal in the absence of oxygen. The process removed impurities and the obstacles to further growth in energy consumption with it. But — and I’m sorry to remind you again — coal was (and still is) a finite resource. The energy needed to go further, deeper and for worse and worse quality of the black rock rose relentlessly. First, all you needed for coal mining was a pick-axe and a basket. Then — as the easy to reach deposits were depleted — you had to dig deeper, even below the ground water level. In order to continue working you needed a pump to remove the water, and this pump had to be powered by steam (by burning coal). Then the mines near the cities and factories started to deplete — even the deepest ones. You had to go further and bring back coal with a steam locomotive (burning even more of it in the process). Then by the early 20th century you had to use power drills to be more productive and to keep up with the surging demand (again using even more energy in addition to pumps and locomotives). The very same process was underway in North America — but at least 10 times faster. Such is the nature of exponential growth. By this time it was clear that coal will not last long… But — again — human ingenuity came to the rescue! We’ve found oil! And there is a ‘helluva-lot’ of it in Pennsylvania! Again — as with the industrial “revolution” — it was necessity what made its use inevitable (oil was well known in the Middle East for a millennia as lamp oil). It was a double (triple, quadruple etc.) hit: first it solved the whale oil crisis (which substance was used for lamps — oh, did anyone thought that whales are a finite resource too?), then solved our transportation problem (with internal combustion engines) and made previously inaccessible resources (coal and other minerals) available with the power of huge machinery (think of mountain top removal or large open pit mines).

10 years ago: by this time this should have been glaringly obvious to “humanity” that oil is finite resource too (contrary to ultra-conservative people’s magical thinking). The world production of traditional (easy to access) crude oil topped in 2005 and ever more expensive and dangerous methods (do you remember ‘Deepwater Horizon’?) had to be deployed to keep up with the surging global demand. It wasn’t enough though. With China’s entry to the World Trade Organization oil demand soared (along with coal burning and the use of many more resources) and sent oil’s (and with it other resource’s) price through the roof. This was the last nail in the coffin of the over leveraged, indebted world economy — thus 2008 became inevitable. The magic bullet (sic!) to shoot the problem was called quantitative easing (QE) — in more simplistic terms: money printing (and giving it to banks to prevent another collapse like the GFC (Great Financial Crisis)). And it worked! Human ingenuity — again — came to the rescue! With this easy “money” and sustained high oil prices fracking (hydraulic fracturing for oil) became “financially viable” (nevertheless the method was known already in the 1940’s — it just didn’t worth to pursue it). Another oil boom came and it went so well that it managed to crash oil prices in 2014. (This will be a topic in another post, explaining why traditional economics of supply and demand fail so spectacularly with finite resources). The world economy carried on with a very sluggish growth — most of it produced by financialization and not “real” growth. (Basically the net energy remaining after extraction has started to fall below sustainable levels around 2000 in the developed world — simply there was not enough energy left for all economic activities.)

Today: the COVID-19 crisis has started to ease in the US and Europe and the hopes of returning growth are higher than ever. If you have read carefully so far you should also have a slight “aw, not so…” feeling. The planet did not replenish its ores oil and coal deposits, forests did not regrow in a mere 1.5 years and natural gas (yes, that is a finite resource too) did not replace the aging energy infrastructure (not to mention renewables)… In fact there are now shortages of almost everything: from computer chips to lumber — you name it. One resource seems to be inexhaustible though: magical thinking. “Net zero and renewable projects are everywhere, we are saving the planet, hurray!” Aw… Not so fast. I encourage you to do some research in this topic: watch a video on YouTube how a wind turbine is erected… How did that immense amount of material got there? What was the energy source used to manufacture those materials (especially concrete and steel)? Check out the latest IEA report on the resource needs to make this transition — and behold the exceptional amount of magical thinking needed to believe in this — in the light of our resource problem. Most the people and all of the politicians firmly believe that we can live without fossil fuels and continue with growth based entirely on renewables. This is the point in the movie when the dolphins jump out of the sea and sing: “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish”.

10 years from now: resource scarcity has not been resolved and now everything is in back-order or just simply unavailable and deemed “unnecessary”. Air travel became a luxury item again as well as owning an own house or flat / condo. There are much less vehicles on the road though: some of them are electric, but not nearly as much as forecasted — the infrastructure lacks the capacity in many ways. Economic stagnation is the norm interrupted by smaller (or bigger) setbacks, but nothing like the 1930 widespread collapse. There was a crash (ahem, “correction”) of the stock market around the world in the early twenties, and after a minor setback world GDP is still growing again! (But only on paper.) Back in the real economy of goods and services firms go bankrupt one after another or kept on a government lifeline. Your friends lose their job and never manage to find a new (stable) one. Life goes on but it gets increasingly difficult. World energy consumption is less than in 2019: oil supply (ahem, “demand”) gradually fell lower and lower never to recover above its maximum in 2018. On the positive side news headlines go like this: “Renewable energy production is soaring worldwide” “The hydrogen economy is just around the corner” — we will have safe thorium (nuclear) reactors in 10 years and fusion power is just 30 years away! In the meantime the planet silently passed the 1.5 degrees warming (measured since the dawn of the industrial age). Weird weather is the new normal.
World population: 9 000 000 000 and peaking soon.

100 years from now: world energy use is not much higher than in 1920, but actually no one cares. Everybody — even in the former developed nations — are just too busy getting enough food on the table and to have drinkable water. When humanity stopped burning coal (earlier in the 21st century) and when oil extraction fell to almost 0 most of these resources (quantitatively) remained underground (qualitatively these were the dirtiest, hardest to obtain, economically impossible to process excrement of mother Earth). The greens announced their victory over the evil oil and coal companies — never to realize that it was economic depletion which has caused those firms to go bankrupt. Boarder control, high-tech healthcare along with industrial agriculture (and many other things) went down the drain a long ago together with the oil companies. Nation states were dissolved and city councils took the power where civilization remained strong. Where democracy was never more than couple of elections… well, look at Syria or Libya today. On the positive side: the air got a lot cleaner! In fact so much so, that the pollution which used to block at least a portion of the sun’s rays are now gone — kicking global warming to a higher gear. The Amazon rain forest by now has turned into a hot and dry savanna, the permafrost has melted and released enough carbon into the atmosphere that it completely replaced human sources. Humanity is no longer a contributor — or in any ways in control of — the global events (geoengineering was tried, but was given up in a couple of years due to the lack of energy needed to keep it going). Global population is near one billion: take note, this was a slow lingering process and it will not stop here. There were no major global events you would traditionally identify as collapse (OK, the dissolution of the States was quite a sight, but it was a walking corpse already by then. This is life on the long way down the other side of the growth curve. (Mental exercise: calculate the effect of just 2% population decrease over 100 years.)
World population: 1 000 000 000 and falling.

1000 years from now: several smaller civilizations arise on the ashes of the global industrial experiment, mostly in the northern parts of America and Eurasia. India, Africa, Central- (and most of) South-America as well as Australia have became too hot and dry for human survival let alone starting new civilizations. Scattered tribes roam these continents and hunt what’s left of wildlife for food. The now year-round ice-free Arctic Ocean is full of wooden sailing ships carrying grains and hand made items (made of wood clay and leather). Metal objects of any sort are valuable and rare. Most of Greenland’s and Antarctica’s ice has melted raising sea levels by several tens of meters. Most of our knowledge is lost too. No one can really explain what an iPhone was or what was quantum mechanics used for.
World population: <100 000 000

10 thousand years from now: life is not so much different than at the dawn of agriculture. Most of the soils of the world are either depleted or “under the sea” by now. Small areas — where permaculture and regenerative farming was possible — still give home to little villages. Large cities are nowhere to be found. There is simply not enough surplus energy and raw materials to support them. On a positive note: farmers and hunter gatherers now live in peace next to each other (soils in hunting grounds are so depleted that it is not worth fighting for.) The memory of our age lives in sagas and songs of once mighty people playing with fire and who got burned. The images and knowledge of today are long lost… It would be impossible to explain them anyway.
World population: <1 000 000 people

100 thousand years from now: the effects of the carbon pulse is over. World weather starts to recover together with the flora and fauna. New species start to appear (mostly small creatures). A new normal sets in. Humanity at last became fully in balance with natural resources. Just like the millions of extraterrestrial intelligent creatures before and after our time. The mineral resources are still many millions of years away from recovering — this is the final (and longest stage) in the life the species we call Homo sapiens. There is absolutely no chance of starting a new industrial civilization, since all of the accessible mineral and soil deposits were depleted long ago, and the manufactured (and several times recycled) goods have long rusted away in the sediment. Only wood and leather remains. Maybe some good stones or clay. Maybe not. This is how intelligent species end their cycle of creation and destruction: materially poor but culturally rich and wealthy.
World population: <1 000 000 people

1 million years from now: a new branch of humans evolve from Homo sapiens better adapted to the changed environment. Maybe similar to a casual observer yet different in many ways. The original Homo sapiens (our species) moves aside mixing with the newcomers then finally going extinct.

10 million years from now: the last hominids (Homo species) are gone. The world goes on without intelligent species for a while. Continents have drifted considerably providing habitat for new plant and animal species. Among them is an unusually smart lizard like creature.

100 million years from now: Earth is now a hothouse again (due to the relentlessly increasing solar radiation). This is an ideal place for lizard-like creatures who now multiply in numbers not seen a very long time ago. Some of them discovers the use of tools and fire. Later agriculture is “invented” along with mining some of the finite (but by now somewhat replenished) mineral resources. They gain knowledge first slowly then faster and faster. One day one of them discovers a thin (circa 1 mm thick) dark layer in every rock dated roughly 100 million years back in time. This layer is somewhat radioactive and contains strange chemical substances… and a lot of carbon. Maybe a sign of an asteroid? Maybe something hit the planet and burned all the forests? They are not sure but it clearly marks the 6th mass extinction of Earth’s history… Anyway, they put the strange dark layer theory away and continue mining Earth’s resources. What could possibly go wrong?

1 billion years from now: a couple of intelligent species came and went in our planet’s history all leaving their thinner or wider marks in the rocks. It does not matter now. What a folly it was to call humanity’s spike in population / energy / material use / pollution the Anthropocene… As it turned out later it was not a geological epoch, but an event. An impactful event for sure — yet it left only a thin layer of radioactive carboniferous dust. By this time Earth slowly became too hot to bear complex life — the Sun is now a huge orange blob on the afternoon sky. Life returns to the crevices of rocks under the dried up ocean floor.

10 billion years from now: Earth and the solar system are now gone, but our galaxy still has some planets with intelligent life on them. On one of the planets after sunset one of the intelligent creature looks upon the stars and wonders: Where is everyone?

What do you think about the shape of time? Is it still an arrow pointing towards inter-galactic civilizations? If yes… why? Or is it a circle — much like an image of a snake biting its own tail? In my next post I will explore the topic of sustainability and the possibility of techno-fix solutions to our predicament adding more details to the picture painted above. In the meantime I encourage you to take a walk, or talk to a friend about this topic. What is your / their take on the topic? Ask them / yourself what life will be like in a hundred years and why.

If you’ve got hooked on the topic — which I hope you have — and you are interested why haven’t anyone warned us about the future, I have a book recommendation for you from 1972. Yes, it was written half a century ago and it was not the first nor the last warning. It is available in pdf format, download it and read it. It is an excellent example of unbiased pure scientific thinking and sheds some light on why I came to conclusions above.

With that let me bid you farewell with a quote from Aristotle:

“The goal of action is always contemplation — knowing and being rather than seeking and becoming.”

B

A critique of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.