To What End?

May 5, 2021

Recent reflections on the long-term trajectory of the human enterprise have somewhat transformed the way I look at most activities. Specifically, I refer to the dual realizations that on 10,000 year timescales ultimate success is effectively synonymous with true sustainability, and that the human race stands in blatant breach of contract with evolution and ecosystem parameters—fueled by a mad grab of one-time finite resources. The net effect is that most human activities today promote ultimate failure rather than ultimate success.

As such, when evaluating a proposed or ongoing effort, I ask myself the question:

To what end?

This post will examine some of the activities of current society, and evaluate how much sense they make in the context of a post-party future.

I’ve had enough of the human tendency to “follow our noses” based on near-term advantages at the disastrous expense of long-term success. Humans have acquired the power to radically change the world. Great power should ideally be wielded only by those capable of great responsibility. But we cheated somehow, and grabbed power because we could, without first demonstrating responsibility. No higher or wiser authority was present to tell us not to.

The result is even worse than doing things willy-nilly, like an unconstrained firehose. Because even that firehose will sometimes by random chance throw water on the fire. Our actions are more systematically directed at accelerating destruction by eroding ecosystems that ultimately constitute our own life support on this planet.

A core problem is that most people lack the tools of math and science to inform thought, relying instead on history and experience as their bedrock. Even those adept at math and science generally have not directed their skills toward critical inspection of society’s prevailing narratives. In fact, the magnitude and complexity of the problem are overwhelming to the point that it might seem futile to even try to wrap one’s head around it. So it is easy enough to “buy in” to unexamined narratives and go with the flow, focusing attention on whatever small corner of unexplored territory presents itself. We’re wasting a lot of talent.

Once these tools are brought to bear on the big-picture long-term prospects for humanity, the unavoidable conclusion is that our present mode of growth and mounting ecosystem damage is highly abnormal and cannot persist much longer. Yet, here we are without a plan.

On civilization timescales of 10,000 years, successful inhabitation of this planet will necessitate embracing steady-state principles and living off annual flows provided by nature—no longer able to rely on “inherited” one-time resources or on depletion far outstripping replacement rates. 10,000 years hence, fossil fuels will be long gone. Accessible deposits of metals will be depleted. Recycling will have sputtered out after hundreds or thousands of cycles due to corrosion, wear, and dispersal. Aquifer extraction rates will no longer be able to exceed replacement rates. Steady deforestation will no longer be possible.

Lacking this level of awareness, our society plows ahead only asking what we can do right now. But to what end?

Money has displaced critical thought, by conveniently expressing a sloppy version of societal values in a flawed system that fails to appreciate the value of Earth (see Box 19.1 in the textbook): failing to place proper value on its irreplaceable biology and one-time resources. Indeed, the future is formally devoid of worth in our economic schemes via the construct of the discount rate, or opportunity cost. How can we possibly expect responsible behaviors to result from such a backwards system? Surely the future is worth more than the present. For one thing, there’s a lot more of it! And even the present would seem to lose value if the future is reduced to a nihilistic void. Why bother doing anything at all of enduring value?

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Recasting Assumptions

Once we substitute physics, math, and logic for current monetary policy in guiding long-term prospects, the picture changes dramatically. For what follows, I will assume that Earth’s resources are finite, and that we exploit the low-hanging fruit first, blowing through a sizable fraction of accessible one-time resources in a few centuries. I will assume that any successful long-term future has found its footing in true sustainable principles utilizing Earth’s annual flows of energy and regenerated resources. I will assume that growth is long gone, perhaps leaving a smaller human population on the planet and scaled-down resource utilization per person. In other words, I will assume that the present unsustainable modes are unsustainable, and that Star Trek is not our future—merely a fantasy of entertainment far beyond our means.

Under this set of assumptions, most present activities cease to make sense. We can build additional factories, cargo ships, and distribution centers, but to what end? The result only speeds up the exploitation of finite resources and hastens ultimate failure. This would be tolerable if those precious resources were devoted to creating a world that could step off the materially-intense treadmill into sustainability, but very little of the current global effort is in that direction.

Most jobs are driven by financial gain, implicitly embracing the woefully flawed value system provided by current markets and economic thinking. This makes most jobs worse than pointless, driving us faster toward failure. Does a new toothbrush design help restore ailing ecosystems—beginning the march toward success—or does it translate to more material extraction and waste? We can develop any number of new gizmos, but to what end? How will they help us reverse the exploitation of the planet and set us up for a more likely successful path? New products usually only dig the hole deeper toward failure. So why pursue them?

The operational answer that “it makes money” ceases to provide appropriate justification in light of the fact that financial interests are often directed diametrically opposite to the actions that promote ultimate success. Traditional economists excel at optimizing our speed toward failure, setting us up for elegantly maximized suffering in the “worthless” long-term future.

Even something as seemingly altruistic as health care selfishly focuses on human health, to the exclusion and often direct detriment of ecosystem health. Are we really doing ourselves favors in the long term by making the destructive human enterprise healthier, more populous, longer-living, and therefore better able to carry out its damaging activities? If this sounds abhorrently anti-human, it’s because the human enterprise is currently relentlessly anti-planet. Anything that is anti-planet will dismantle ecosystems that serve as critical life support for humans, spelling failure for the human enterprise. So it’s really the human enterprise that is anti-human by way of being anti-planet. Sorry if I lost you, but it makes sense to me, somehow. The best way to assure long-term prosperity is to forge a non-human-centric partnership with nature that does not always put short-term human interests above those of non-human elements of nature. Even “good” activities like health care therefore miss the boat in terms of building a better tomorrow.

We can pursue fusion research, but to what end? Electricity is not hard to make from alternative, renewable energy sources. Solar plus storage seems at least as good as fusion, and works today, affordably. Do we need fusion to feel special? Is it ego? Do we see it as a necessary stepping stone to warp drive or replicators or some other nonsense that won’t come to pass? I think of fusion as being like a light saber: an alluring fantasy future technology that we just wants, precious (Gollum voiced that last part). But since fusion would ultimately only boil water for steam, it’s like learning that the only practical use for a light saber is as a letter opener. I also worry that giving humans more power at this point would only accelerate resource depletion and ecosystem devastation: what, exactly, would stop us if every jackass on the planet had access to all the power they wanted?

We can cosplay our way to Mars as a stunt, but to what end? I immensely enjoyed an article by Shannon Stirone in  titled Mars is a Hellhole, accurately describing why Mars ambitions are juvenile. We’re not solving our predicament that way, people. I would say “knock yourselves out” to those who eagerly pursue such goals, but for the fact that propagating the fantasy is itself harmful to our eventual success by shifting focus and promoting a form of denialist escapism.

And What am I Doing, Exactly?

I even ask “the question” about the kind of research I have done for most of my career, and by extension that of my colleagues as well: to what end? I have great respect and warmth toward many of my colleagues, but wonder what good their pursuits serve in the context of our current trajectory. Most of them likely make the same assumption I did for most of my life: that every incremental scientific advance acts like a ratchet: securing another irreversible gain in our climb up the hill, whatever that hill might be. Who cares if we don’t have an accurate map of the hill or a potential precipice waiting a the top of the climb: just keep stepping “up.” Blindfolds become comfortable, after getting used to them.

But now, recognizing that current institutions are urging us toward ultimate unwitting collapse—in that they are not embracing elements necessary for long-term success—the risk of wiping out most of those gains stands as a legitimate potential outcome. Shouldn’t I therefore direct my efforts toward encouraging others to peek out from the blindfold so that we might avoid this regrettable fate, and even help salvage the survival of my colleagues’ work? Would my colleagues pursue their current research if aware of a substantial chance that everything they’ve accomplished will be flushed and forgotten within a few hundred years? How important is the notion of posterity to them, deep down? At what percentage chance are they willing to make the gamble? I would bet that, being fundamentally conservative in the dictionary sense of the word, even a 10% chance of collapse would cause many to turn attention to establishing a long-term-viable human existence, increasing the probability that their own contributions and those of so many others would be preserved for the long haul.

Reason to Worry

The first sentence in the preceding paragraph may lose many of my colleagues, though, sounding alarmist and kooky. I struggle with this, and as such have re-evaluated my position countless times—digging deep in an attempt to understand the foundations of the predicament. I will dedicate an upcoming post to summarizing the logic. For now, I would recommend following the new textbook (free PDF). At least read the introductory paragraphs for each chapter, and the short Upshot sections at the end of each for a brief tour of the emergent message. To compactify it even more, the arc is:

  1. Physics says continued growth at familiar rates is impossible beyond a few centuries (Chapter 1).
  2. Economic and population growth must also end, perhaps even overshooting due to the ubiquitous presence of delayed negative feedback (Chapters 2 and 3).
  3. Space is a marvelous stage for exploration, but does not offer a tangible, realistic solution to the problems above (Chapter 4).
  4. Fossil fuels have many amazing attributes that are hard to replace. They made explosive growth possible, but will necessarily fade away and perhaps trigger destructive resource wars in the decline phase (Chapter 8).
  5. Climate change, as a consequence of fossil fuels, is a serious threat, but just one of a long list of ills inflicted on ecosystems and finite resources (Chapter 9).
  6. Alternative energy technologies have trouble preserving expectations, so that not only is growth destined to stop: we may very well face a decline in available energy (Chapters 10 through 17).
  7. Human psychology and political/economic institutions turn a technically difficult predicament into a nearly hopeless trap. Incentives are staggeringly biased toward short term reward in explicit ignorance of future peril. Prevailing optimism is based on backward-looking assessment (history) and sentiments like “so far so good,” “humans are amazing and will solve any problem,” and “things always get better” rather than on an objective assessment using tools of math and science to elucidate the unavoidable consequences of continued growth and resource use (Chapters 1819, and Epilogue).
  8. We are lamentably ill-equipped to appreciate the abnormality of our time and assess a more accurate picture of what long-term “normal” must look like. Failure to do so leads to uncontrolled…failure. Evolution may well have discovered by its usual blind experimentation a limit to how smart a successful species may be (EpilogueD.6).

In summary, we can ignore the warning signs and insist on continuing the current trajectory, only tolerating minor tweaks as long as we experience little or no inconvenience. But to what end? If that approach leads to failure of civilization, is it still the right choice? We’re smart enough to have dug an impressive hole for ourselves. Are we wise enough to look past our shovels to understand where this ends, and change behaviors enough to avoid the worst fate? I am eternally and perhaps irrationally hopeful that we are, but still yearn for reassuring evidence.


Image by naturfreund_pics from Pixabay

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom:

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization, Future Scenarios, powering down