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Context is everything

We often use the phrase "thinking outside the box" to describe attempts to take a different, fresh, unconventional look at some issue where a standard set of talking points has become deeply rooted in the public perception. But what does thinking outside the box really mean?

So let's examine a box. And inside the box I shall place: our biological environment, and the issue of whether or not we should preserve it.

I'm avoiding putting "environmentalism" in the box because that name is commonly applied to an ideology or doctrine that presupposes that the natural environment around us should be preserved. And like all ideologies it attracts semiotic fluff. What I want to examine is the context surrounding the whole idea that we ought to preserve our environment. (This is not the same thing at all, and commenters who try to derail this into a "save the whales"/"drill baby, drill!" fight will be unpublished and/or banned.)

Initial proposal:

We are human organisms. Our species coevolved on one particular planet with a whole bunch of other species. We predate on some of them; others predate on us. (The latter are now mostly numbered among the list of endangered species, because we're pretty bad-ass at collectively defending ourselves against, say, prides of lions. Lions don't make guns ...) We thrive in a range of climactic conditions that are to some extent modulated by the effects of life forms over geological time (for a huge, long range example of this, look no further than the great oxygen catastrophe which probably rendered 99% of the species alive on earth at the time extinct).

Anyway. The short version of the environmentalist value proposition is: don't shit in your own back yard. Ecosystems are complex and exhibit non-linear behaviour; it's a bad idea to disrupt the natural balance, lest we find ourselves suffering from crop failures due to pollinator die-offs, for example. And because this is a complex, knotty, gnarly field of interdependencies, the precautionary principle should be applied: take disruptive action only with extreme caution.

Opposed to the common environmentalist value proposition is of course self-interest: why should I wear a hair shirt, minimize my driving and energy consumption to reduce carbon emissions, spend tedious hours recycling stuff, and forgo consumer goodies? I don't personally benefit much from my small-scale personal environmentalist actions. It's like voting: your individual vote changes barely anything, so why bother?

The frame around the box:

Both of these positions make certain implicit assumptions. Starting with the idea that it is possible for us to "save" the environment.

Planet Earth To Shaved Apes: I've been here for 4.6 billion years. Biological life has been around on me for over 3.6 billion years. Oxygen-breathing vertebrates only colonized my land masses about 400MYa ago. Looking ahead, my hospitability to life has a shelf-life. As the sun ages on the Main Sequence it will brighten; the steadily increasing solar UV output will split water molecules high in the ionosphere, and the freed hydrogen radicals will escape into space increasingly fast. Some time between 200MYr and 2GYr from now, my surface will become depleted of water. Oceans will dry up. They will be buffered for a while by the hydrated rocks in my crust and outer mantle, but eventually all the water will go — and a runaway greenhouse effect (like that on Venus) will render my surface inhospitable to life. Long before the helium-burning giant star that was Sol expands and swallows me (in 5-6 billion years), I will be a dead and lifeless rock-ball swathed in an atmosphere of red-hot carbon dioxide.

So in the long run you can't save my biosphere. Not unless you learn to move planets about.

But that's not all. You've been around for only about 50-250,000 years. You've already triggered a mass extinction event and hopelessly disrupted most of my ecosystems (for example, by importing rabbits and cane toads into Australia, grey squirrels into England, raccoons into Bavaria, and shaved apes into just about everywhere from North Pole to South). The rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere suggest you're in for some very heavy weather in the next decades to centuries. Most species have a life expectancy on the order of 1MYr. Congratulations: if you make it to 0.5MYr you will have exceeded your species' lifespan to this date by an order of magnitude. Indeed, you'll have exceeded the whole of human recorded history to this date by a factor on the order of 100.

Individually this matters to none of you: you who read this today will be dead before the true weirdness of the Anthropocene can be experienced. Even the potential extinction of the human species — if we get it all disastrously wrong — doesn't affect you directly, because unless you are the last human living, you will die before the extinction event. We don't like to think about species extinction — it's like contemplating the death of your own children, and your own personal death, all rolled up into one ball of dread — but in truth, it's an irrelevant abstraction. How does the death of n people, (where n = everyone alive) differ qualitatively, other than infinitesimally, from the death of n-1 people?

Upshot: you can't save the human species. Indeed, the concept of humanity existing for even the paltry 135MYr of the dinosaurs is more than somewhat mind-boggling — there were thousands of species of dinosaurs, over a period a hundred times greater than the earthly duration of the hominins (who are on balance a spectacularly unsuccessful family of species — all but one of them are extinct!). In a mere hundred megayears we, too, will certainly be one with the oil shale.

Face it, Earth doesn't give a shit about us. Earth will still be here long after we're gone. We could scrape the surface clear of every species we can get our hands on, and life will survive in the form of archaea and bacteria in the lithosphere. But more likely we'll succumb, in a few centuries or millennia or — if we learn to become vastly more parsimonious in our use of non-renewable resources than we have been so far — a few million years: like everything else, a combination of factors (notably shrinking ecological niches and climate change) will do for our distant descendants.

Even if we thrive in the long term, it may not be on terms that are pleasant to contemplate. One particularly plausible nightmare is the Olduvai future; that the first technological civilization to arise consumes so many non-renewable resources and depletes so many accessible ore deposits that, if and when it collapses, recovery will be impossible, so that after a brief pulse of technology the species is thereafter forever trapped in the neolithic (or, if they're lucky, the pre-steam iron age). It's possible that humanity will last for millions of years on Earth ... but that our current technosphere is a beautiful but transient aberration that will be followed by megayears of hunter-gatherer tribalism or mediaeval serfdom.

So what are we proposing to save the environment for?

Inarguably, in the short term we can't live without it. Maintaining a stable biosphere is a prerequisite for avoiding human species extinction and, more intimately, personal starvation due to famine and plague. But in the long term, does it matter whether we preserve a biosphere adapted to serve our needs, or a human-free ecosystem? And do we need to concern ourselves with the state of the environment we leave to our successor species?

Outside the box: the answer to these question is, we're basing the entire discussion on a faulty platform. Implicit in the whole thing is the idea that we are of central importance to everything, that we are the pivot on which the state of the biosphere hinges. But we're not; the only issue to which we are of central importance is the question of our own survival.

Earth abides. We need to preserve the resilience and integrity of the biosphere we live in in order to enhance our own survival prospects.

We have no sane reason to pickle it in aspic — we are, after all, part of the natural world — nor any right to strip-mine it and fill its wild places with cadmium, mercury, and other pollutants (thus poisoning our own descendants, to whom we arguably owe the same duty of care that our ancestors owed to us).

But saving the Earth? Even if we could do that, Earth doesn't give a fuck. Our perspective on the whole vexatious issue of environmental planning is skewed by the context we bring to it — our shaved ape preoccupation with status and anthropocentricity, the idea that it's all about us. It isn't, and the sooner we internalize that, the sooner we can start behaving like adult members of a species not hell-bent on self-destruction.

216 Comments

1:

Yes! This is essentially the position I've adopted on this issue; I'm full on a pragmatist environmentalist (and quite an active one), but the whole idea that we have some "duty" to protect the natural world reflects an almost religious human chauvisnism -- while some environmentalists will say something about the human place in the "nature," they miss the real import of that statement -- namely, that if we're part of the nature, then whatever we do, whether it's living in harmony or dumping dioxins, is "natural."

That said, one of the adaptations which this one species among many evolved is the capacity for some degree of rational thought, self-examination, and long-term planning; as such, if preserving ecosystems and slowing our impact on them is something enough of us determine is in our best interests or the best interests of our progeny, we can choose to do whatever we want to do that. It's just not as simple as an artificial distinction between "natural" and "artificial" (wait, if the distinction is artificial, then it's also "natural" -- aagh, wrapped in a knot!), or as a moral imperative to "protect" or "give back" to the uncaring world.

2:

This reminded me of conversations I've seen when modern ecologists meet old-school gaian environmentalists.

When the former tell the latter that that their wonderful homeostatic self-regulating complex system doesn't appear to be... well... true odd things happen.

Especially when they're both hating on each other due to the ideological differences, despite wanting the same actual actions in RL.

How many different boxes are their around the issue?

3:

Actually, it is about us. As you pointed out, the ecosystem(s) are non-linear and we have almost no idea what something does and what is going to be detrimental to our survival. It's kinda like sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship and pushing buttons in hope of starting it. We might start the self-destruction sequence instead.

4:

"the idea that it's all about us"

Quite.

And this leads to another bugbear of mine about how "green" issues are framed in public debate.

Many public discussions of environmental policy end with someone asking the environmentalist "well what do *you* do to help the planet in your everyday lives?" If the environmentalist cannot identify how they've avoided flying or showering or whatever, they're labelled a hypocrite.

But the correct response to such questions is: "Environmental problems are macro problems and as such require macro solutions. Pretending that my lifestyle choices are relevant to this discussion is misguided egocentrism."

I think the focus on "green lifestyles" by environmentalists has been a massive strategic error, enabling right-wingers to portray greens as hair-shirt-wearing hippies, rather than (as many greens actually are) sensible people trying to solve a serious set of problems.

5:

I absolutely agree.
Pragmatism isn't the only reason not to pave over the ocean, though. Whether for cultural or instinctive reasons, most humans _like_ nature. We find areas of high species diversity interesting and beautiful, and so like any luxury good, environmental protection becomes more important the wealthier you (an individual or a society) becomes.

6:

Hm... discussion good as far as it goes... but what about the forthcoming climate wars? You know when one country hijacks the weather to make it nice for their own people while making other countries miserable?

Don't believe it's possible? Think again... my short story about to be published gives a good big hint at how it could be done and why there will be climate wars.

So in reality the greed of man will change our climate far more quickly than pollution or natural processes... think about it and enjoy the nightmares!

7:

I'm a breeder. (insert 12 step program here). And also a not very empathic nerd. So as I get older I have a very pragmatic view of this. I can just about feel empathy for my kids and for their kids, if and when they have some. And that's about as far as it goes. If that extended family is going to have a reasonably comfortable existence then there's a set of environmental choices to make to go along with the social and economic choices. One of those appears to be careful usage of the remaining, easily accessible petrochemicals. Genetic selfishness?

8:

The "Dark Mountain" mob are interesting - perhaps post-environmentalists building a culture of accepting that their parents and grandparents have changed the world, and they are getting what they are getting. Whatever that means...

9:

Microbes roll through most extinction events, birds, bees and fishes do not. After the Permo-Triassic Mass Extinction there was a 1-7 million year period of minimal complex life. Stromatolites returned because there was nothing to eat them. Apart from crops and pollinators, we don't need most other animals and plants - but a world without them would be immeasurably poorer.

After the news from Alpha Centauri some serious people have started to think about navigation, proximity operations and propulsion for a small interstellar probe. There is a surprising absence of showstoppers. A probe would require a Manhattan Project based on known physical principles, not a blue-sky research effort.

Earth is a box we need to be able to think out of if we're going to be rational environmentalists. Backing up our biosphere on other planets may or may not be the best option, but it is an option.

10:

Speaking of not being about us - we aren't the only life on this planet. Is there any place for a moral argument, that it's just plain wrong to ruin the party for everyone?

11:

What are your purposes?

Quibbling about terminology, e.g., "Save the Earth" has importance in sharpening your perspective, but it isn't going to change anybody's mind, only, perhaps, improve communication. Few people would disagree with anything you said (unless power or money depended on it), except for terminology.

Why do you not consider it reasonable for someone to consider the current biosphere a part of the Earth? It seems a reasonable definition to me.

OTOH, it is also clear that was CAN'T "Save the Earth", if we include the current biosphere, even with an all out effort. We've added too much CO2 to the atmosphere and we've warmed and acidified the oceans. The only way out through this is probably a glaciation event (which occurs after the excess CO2 is cleaned from the atmosphere and before the oceans cool again). But I'm *probably* talking in the area of thousands of years, even with and all out effort, which isn't going to happen. In the short term I see no way of avoiding larger dead zones, and probably the domination of the oceans by octopii and jellyfish. Some fish might make it through. Sharks might be able to, if we weren't eating them, so maybe some small varieties of shark will get through. And some fish...but not the ones that are currently common.

I'm talking here in the neighborhood of 100 years. It could be slightly faster is hungry people wipe out more fish. And I'm presuming that many species of photosynthesizing plankton will make it through. This seems probable, even if many of them go extinct. But until they adapt to the new climate we may find the oxygen level of the atmosphere dropping. OTOH, I'm not sure at what rate the Oxygen in the atmosphere turns over. They MIGHT adapt quickly enough that we don't notice much difference. (Just don't get too high above sea level...except that a warmer atmospher expands [enhancing the splitting of water by UV that you mentioned], which might counteract the lowering of Oxygen partial-pressure at higher altitudes.)

FWIW, I note that many of the more pessimistic climate forecasts were censored from the official government report. With the result that it's already looking much too optimistic. ONE of the current forecasts estimates a 5 meter sea level rise over the next century. It's one of the pessimistic ones, but so far the pessimistic forecasts have averaged more nearly correct than the optimistic ones. (If you don't include the extreme outliers, that is. I don't really expect all of Antarctica to melt by the end of the century, e.g.) I'm from the US so I had to translate 5 meters into about 2 inches/year, average, but 5 meters was the forecast. Most places can handle that kind of rise. In fact it may be possible to turn it into an advantage. Inland seas could help moderate the climate change, and ameliorate dry spells. (Local evaporation cools the local air, which increases the humidity directly as well as via evaporatioon. Large inland lakes and seas could thus mitigate some of the worst effects. But my suspicion is that the owners of the land that would be flooded would object to the prospect, and would instead demand a massive system of dikes. Relocation would be much better for society, but unless society properly compensates the individuals (HAH!) they will quite reasonably object. For some reason society seems much more willing to build and maintain dikes, even though it's a much worse solution. ... Which, of course, is the problem in a nutshell.

12:

Faffing about with "green" light bulbs and what have you is a futile, constant-factor attempt to solve an exponential problem...

... which is that we haven't invented the kind of society that won't breed to fill its available environment way past the point of equilibrium.

No matter what fuel your car is burning in ten years, there will be a whole lot more humans and a lot of them will be starving and the rest will be eating poisons like wheat and soy extracted from rapidly depleting soil.

Oh, we can still engage in conventional environmentalism as combined political entertainment/ARG, but someone out there is figuring out how to market giga-murder and forced sterilization when the inevitable comes.

13:

This is relevant:

http://www.treehugger.com/environmental-policy/river-new-zealand-granted-legal-rights-person.html

In a landmark case for the Rights of Nature, officials in New Zealand recently granted the Whanganui, the nation's third-longest river, with legal personhood "in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests". The decision follows a long court battle for the river's personhood initiated by the Whanganui River iwi, an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the waterway.

Under the settlement, the river is regarded as a protected entity, under an arrangement in which representatives from both the iwi and the national government will serve as legal custodians towards the Whanganui's best interests.

14:

Charlie,

actually I would suggest that it is important to look a bit further than the great oxygen catastrophe.

Photosynthesis as we know it, developed from a photosynthesis that didn't release oxygen. (There simply is no way for photosynthesis to evolve without such a step.) What it did release was Iron(III)-oxide, after oxidizing some of the huge quantities of iron(II) ions in the sea water.

Erm, wait, you mean iron(ii) is so scarce in seawater, that people want to use it as fertilizer? Exactly! Today, very little is left - iron was precipitated out of sea water on prodigious scales. Sediments were formed that are hundreds of meters, even kilometers thick!

Iron was abundant and sorely needed for photosynthesis, which became the most important way to get energy into the biosphere. Until they ran out of this vital resource. While some iron is being constantly washed into the sea from rivers, blown into it through duststorms or volcanic eruptions, the rate of replenishment was much to low to keep up with photosynthesis. Oh, and did I mention that iron is needed for all sorts of other functions in biological organisms as well?

So, what did those little critters do, having run out of limited resources and being unable to make do with renewable resources? They poisoned the environment, killed most of life on the planet, caused massive ice ages by reducing CO2 content of the atmosphere, eroded the continents by oxidizing rocks ... AND ... it turned out to be the best thing ever until the invention of digital watches or perhaps sliced bread.

15:

I think part of the problem with all the slogans you've used (e.g. Save the World) is that they are letting environmental debate into your box - simply because they are slogans and we have a whole host of associations with them.

If you present the concept of "We should attempt to understand the environment better, so that we can our grandchildren and theirs can live in a habitable, enjoyable world" then a fairly large majority are usually in favour of this. This could be, to some extent has been, incorporated into "Save the World." So have other things of course.

But even if you elect a government whose main platform is "Save the World!" as soon as they start trying to do it, they run into vested interests, special interest groups and so on. And although it's currently wrangling about the causes of the invasion of Iraq haven't you just had a thread about how insane the election process in at least one major so-called democracy is?

16:

When the biosphere collapses, someone will stand on the top of the pile of rubble, and it better be us! 8-)

17:

Actually, I've just been reading John Gibbin's "The Universe: A Biography".

He gives an easy and simple method for moving the Earth. No magic, present physics, present technology.

Bit of effort, we could do it now.

18:

NOTE: I just updated the original piece, fixing some typos and adding a shout-out on the subject of the Olduvai Future hypothesis.

19:

Sorry, but I don't get the theory behind Olduvia Future.

Car wrecks are better than any natural ore deposits you could think of. The limiting factor of the iron age were inaccessible and unknown ore deposits - and the energy requirements and processes necessary to turn ores into metals.

What would the romans have done if they had had access to 200 million car wrecks? Piles and piles of steel beams, railroad tracks, shipswrecks, containers, buildings etc. Copper cables, transformers, electric motors everywhere. Engine blocks and airplane frames made of aluminum.

For all we know they might hit upon a huge slab of mono-crystalline silicon and they will definitely find tons and tons of plutonium in otherwise barely radioactive spent fuel rods.

It is very conceivable that a post-apocalyptic iron-age population could use the (by then) vast forests on earth to regain our current technology - because we gave them the ruins of our civilisation, something much better than the ores we have to make do with.

Even phosphorus fertilizer won't be a problem - guano is renewable so long as birds keep shitting. And birds do shit a lot of shit in a couple tens of thousand years.

20:

Have you heard of Wild Law? All I know about it comes from a single talk at Occupy London, but it sounds very much like the kind of approach you're talking about in a legal context. The idea seems to be to create trying to a less anthropocentric relation by granting legal rights to nature rather than simply treating the natural world as property. (Vanzetti@13's case of legal rights granted to a river sounds like an example - I gather it's partly the product of various indigenous rights movements.) I'm not sure how practical the necessary law reforms would be given the way wealth, power, and property act on the legal system, but I find the idea very interesting.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_law

--
Sam Dodsworth

21:

The "outside the box" box doesn't make any sense either. It doesn't make any sense to reify abstract things such as the set of future states of life on the surface of the planet, or to anthropomorphise the planet itself, let alone to conflate one with the other. Earth doesn't abide. People abide. The earth exists. Species come and go. Organisms live and die. Time unfolds.

Having been there and done that, it now makes no sense to me to adopt a larger context than that of the future of the species. That just leads to fatalism, the idea that it doesn't matter what we do. I don't see how saying "it's not all about us" helps create maturity.

22:

I'm afraid I don't understand the whole article either, which is unusual for Charlies posts.


Perhaps in the interests of not boring people or depressing them too much you left off oceanic acidification which will help kill off much of the life in the ocean. The weather isn't going to be that much of a problem in the macro scale, it's the disruption to ecosystems caused by species loss, change in feeding patterns and times etc that will. E.g. if a bird coming back from Africa relies upon certain insects being born at the same time it arrives, only now the insects are born early so it has trouble feeding.

23:

"... which is that we haven't invented the kind of society that won't breed to fill its available environment way past the point of equilibrium."

Ecologists have been considering this point since Darwin, but it seems to be a natural result of evolution. The future is unpredictable and dangerous, so having as many offspring as possible is the best strategy for long-term survival. When everyone does this, the future gets even more dangerous from all the competition, until some rough equilibrium is reached. The equilibrium generally involves high infant mortality. In extreme cases (like oysters) you see millions of young per mature adult; humans are naturally far to the other end of the parental investment scale.

AFAIK, the idea that some species (other than humans) voluntarily restrict their own reproduction to avoid this fate has not been confirmed in nature. I can recall some experiments trying to get aphids to demonstrate this behavior, but the aphids ate each others' offspring instead.

24:

Excellent post, though I think the conclusion is better framed as it all being about us, rather than none of it being about us. From any kind of global perspective, you would be right – on the cosmic scale we are irrelevant. But on the human scale (and it is at the human scale we live), we are the measure that sets the scale. Preserving the environment is measured by our interests, our desires, or our dreams. Pragmatists could want to avoid the risk of medium term displacement. Longer-term oriented thinkers may feel personally uncomfortable about the (otherwise personally irrelevant) threat of premature extinction of the human race. Still others will be unhappy unless human-invented morality (and its formalisation into law) is applied as broadly as possible.

26:

Space the Final Frontier.

Reduce the pressure on the biosphere and spread our planets biological diversity across the cosmos (in a controlled and responsible way).

Move the focus from let's enjoy the end of days

Yes not going to happen in 10 or 100 years, but a 1,000 should be do-able. Particularly if us humans don't fight too many wars in the meantime.

Meanwhile waste less, use what we have smarter. Plan for a future.

That future opportunity in space would give everyone a reason not to be a self-centred dick, the resources to do whatever they want and a reason not to screw up here and now so they can take advantage of that opportunity.

With no prospective future beyond children or a building named after you, there is precious little incentive to do something besides strip mine our common heritage for $.

27:

"AFAIK, the idea that some species (other than humans) voluntarily restrict their own reproduction to avoid this fate has not been confirmed in nature."

I was referring to the idea that humans aren't subject to the same laws that limit other animals. If we don't take care to limit ourselves, Mother Nature will find a way to do it for us, in her typical rough fashion.

28:

The "developed" world is shrinking. The dominant political ideology/religion is such that every first world polity is busily importing populations with more... vigorous reproductive practices than the natives. It would be hubristic beyond measure to assume that those who will inherit the Earth will also inherit your culture.

29:

Well, as Steven Stirling pointed out, not all Green might be nice, at least as we think of nice:

It is Gwendolyn Ingolfsson who shows a Californian environmentalist she is trying, successfully, to recruit what the Draka Final Society, comprised of what Nietzsche might well have been happy to greet as his Supermen, has done with our world. First she asks him to "Imagine a world where the population of Earth is five hundred million and stable, not seven billion and rising. Where not an ounce of fossil fuel is burned. No mines, no factories, no fission reactors or coal-burning plants, no tankers full of oil. The sea and the skies and the land swarm with life, and whole continents re nature preserves…it’s possible, given the right technology and the right management."

30:

I just have a couple of different, rather scattered thoughts on this one.

First up, the whole of Charlie's post reminded me of this cartoon by Humon: Mother Gaia (at DeviantArt)

Second up, tomd22 @ 28 made the point that at the moment, our response to climate change is trying to change things back, rather than attempting to adapt to the changes as they happen. Which, yeah, I can see. My little corner of the world is a good example, really. I'm in south-west Western Australia, and we've been seeing the effects of climate change since about 1977.

Around 1976 - 1977, a change occurred in the weather patterns down here. We don't know what caused it, we don't know how it happened, and at first, we didn't really notice the effects. But what happened is that the rains came to our little corner of the world a little later each year, and lasted a little less. When I was a kid, back in the late 1970s, my birthday was usually a rainy day (it's in early April). These days, now I'm in my forties, it's usually a bright, sunny day. My birthday hasn't changed, but the weather patterns have.

One of the big consequences of this is that the city I live in is currently stretched for water. We started dealing with water restrictions back when I was in my mid-twenties, and they've never actually stopped since. We still don't get enough rainfall to fill the dams - at present, they're at about 25% capacity, and that's got to last us until about this time next year. Summer hasn't even started. We're making do by topping up our water supply from underground aquifers (which are also starting to run dry) and bringing online various desalination plants, so we can make use of seawater.

Of course, if you look at the whole-of-state graph, there's actually one water source which is doing just fine, thanks - the Lake Argyle dam up on the Ord River. Back when I was in high school there was a suggestion by one of the cabinet ministers of the day that water from these northern dams should be piped to the southern regions (which wasn't entirely out of the question - one of the big engineering feats of the 19th century here was the pipeline from Perth to Kalgoorlie). Nobody took it up (and unfortunately, I've no idea why).

So, what we have here is an interesting circumstance. On the one hand, we have a growing city in the south, which is likely to start drying out in a matter of years (I give it about a decade before we're regularly bottoming out most of the dams on a regular basis). We could mitigate this to a small extent by starting to move some of the major infrastructure (particularly the water-heavy stuff) up north. We could mitigate it to some extent by encouraging people to move to different areas of the state (but there are federal government policies which work against this, too - such as the ones which declare that if you're unemployed and you want to keep your benefit, the only acceptable move is from an area of low employment opportunity (i.e. anywhere outside the capital cities) to an area of high employment opportunity (one of the capital cities). So instead, I suspect what's going to happen is that the price of water is going to rise here, and it's going to start becoming a really nasty, divisive issue.

31:

Wrong. Here are the data:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

Depending on which projection you believe, we'll be growing until around 2045 (pop > 8 billion), until around 2100 (pop > 10 billion) or indefinitely.

32:

This general argument was one of the intros to degree-level geography. Serves as a nice way to make you think a bit beyond save-the-whales.

Basically there's a difference between *conservation* and *preservation*. The latter is Sierra Club-style, trying to maintain a perfect Edenic ideal (that didn't exist outside the minds of some white Christian colonists anyway) in a bubble of unchanging time. While the former is more practical: trying to maintain a working relationship with our ecosystem services and 'natural' (semi-managed) environments. Making national parks and saving the whales/polar bears/etc tends rather towards the preservation side of things.

Taking a pragmatic view, the the threat of climate change has grabbed our collective attention in a rather silly way - all about trying to preserve our tiny, short-lived bubble of what we view as normalcy (temperatures not fluctuating even a little outside a set range; having X extent of ice, Y extent of Sahel, Z m high sea level). The real issue is resilience to change, and that's a question of global inequality / social justice more than anything (plus, yes, genuinely unsustainable - in the 'this is a blindingly obviously silly way to do something' sense - resource consumption patterns.

Of course that would be a more meaningful argument if we were presently making genuine efforts to limit climate change, rather than expending a great deal of effort and money paying lip service to it (and I say that as a professional working in the field!). As it is we have the worst of both worlds... failing to ameliorate the impacts (and avoid costs / unpleasant consequences) and *also* failing to plan and start adapting.

But yeah. Taking even a medium term view, the message seems pretty simple to me. The Earth changes. It changes really quite dramatically on geological timescales, but big changes in human terms can occur in historical timescales too. Trying to freeze it in place and stop time, indeed even kidding ourselves for a minute that that's possible, is just crazy. Effort would be far better spent becoming a bit less inflexible. I mean, we seriously, honestly, expect something as vast as an ocean to obey the rules so precisely for ever that we can build 1 m above its usual level and expect that never to change? And then panic when it turns out that it might? It's crazy.

33:

Incidentally Charlie, is there any possibility with the platform your blog uses, to make comments editable? Who ever gets a draft right first time? And writing offline first is too much to remember!

There should have been fewer "It's crazy"s in my last paragraph :(

35:

Hi Malthus! But sorry, you're 200 yrs too late :p

Check the pop growth rates of the 'developed' world. We may or may not have overshot the sustainable mark in terms of pop numbers, but we're certainly not growing any more - despite, by virtue of wealth, being well able to.

36:

I find the Olduvai Theory completely impossible.

Yes, I can believe that in less than 100 years we could disappear from the face of the earth due to a bacteriological catastrophe, or some other similar catastrophe.

But revert to hunter-gatherer tribalism or medieval serfdom?

No, this kind of thing happens only in fantasy and science fiction.

Human industrial societies constantly build on their past. In fact we started to do so during the scientific revolution, one hundred years before the industrial revolution. The memory of that past can't disappear just like that. Human History is never cyclical.

Yes, we might possibly have a future of resource scarcity but the human societies existing in that future would be radically different from medieval societies and hunter-gatherer societies because they would already be conscious of the problems of those past societies and would gradually build something completely different.

Try as he might Damon Knight could never get Asimov to understand that history wasn't cyclical because Asimov didn't want to listen. He just didn't "get" the social nature of human history. He had the political side and the tech side under control, and that was enough for him. So, I find it interesting to see that Duncan is quoting Asimov!

37:

The moderate UN projections mostly say that we'll level off around 2100 at 9 or 10 billion, with all but a handful of countries with replacement rates below 3.0 (and the rest between 3.0 and 4.0). The "high fertility" future is unlikely, particularly with the increasing adoption of contraceptive use that we've seen worldwide, regardless of increases in income.

As for the Olduvai Theory, I think the biggest problem would be potential scarcity of coal available for mining. Great Britain really needed coal to industrialize, and it was crucial in industrialization in the 19th century. Without it, you're stuck with burning wood and using water power unless your civilization figures out how to burn natural oils.

If they've got that down, then they're not sitting badly. As others have mentioned, they'll have tons of available metal and plastic resources sitting near or at the surface in the form of various oxides (particularly iron oxides in the form of rusted steel bits and pieces).

38:

George Carlin said it first a long time ago. From memory:

"What do you mean, 'Save the planet?' When you say that, what you really mean is, 'Save the humans. It's a planet! It can shake us off like so many lice! The planet doesn't give a fuck about us."

Ecosystems are remarkably robust, once you remove human pollution and interference the ecology rebounds quite quickly.

I fully expect human populations to crash a lot faster and more nastily than people just choosing to have fewer babies. On the individual level, this is of course tragic, but on the larger scale it will be a good thing for the human race. The problem we as a species have is that we're victims of our own success; able to breed up past what can be sustained without massive use of finite oil resources.

Those that take the brunt of the population losses will be those in areas where food resources need to be imported to keep the population alive.

39:

I should have written:

Human industrial societies consciously build on their past.

Instead of:

Human industrial societies constantly build on their past.

40:

"The "high fertility" future is unlikely, particularly with the increasing adoption of contraceptive use that we've seen worldwide, regardless of increases in income."

Contraception is a novel thing, and how it stabilizes remains to be seen, but in the long run voluntarily limiting reproduction is not a stable solution. It only takes a few defectors to ruin the equilibrium.

41:

I wouldn't really call something that's been around and growing for decades (or centuries, if you want to go back further than the Pill) a "novel" thing.

Besides, a handful of defectors won't ruin the trend, at least not on a timescale where it might actually have a big negative effect. If human population grows extremely slowly over a period of centuries, then we have plenty of time to adjust.

And that's assuming that the rest of the world is at exactly the replacement level. More likely is that the number of defectors is eventually outweighed by the number of people who have one child or no children at all, causing a population decline over time.

More generally, I'm surprised at how many population doomsayers ignore the long history of the Demographic Transition (it actually started in the middle and upper class in Europe and America, in the late 19th century). It's like their views on population as an environmental issue froze in place in the 1970s, and they've just been recycling the same points since then.

It's more understandable with many SF authors. After all, if the overall human population is stagnant or declining, then where is the population pressure and growth that will fill all those awesome space colonies?

42:

Does our response change if there's another box with a biological environment?

Suppose we found an exosolar planet with absolutely convincing evidence of life, not necessarily intelligent life, but complex multicellular things.

Would that make our own planet more or less valuable?

43:

We already found stars made of diamond. Diamond prices of Earth were unimpressed...

44:

It's funny how many of the million/billionaires who like screwing up the planet also like collecting antiques while ignoring those who would preserve the species we have around us in a similar fashion.
Myself, I think it's worth 'saving'. By saving, I mean keeping enough of everything alive that it has a chance to go on a make its own outcome, whether to evolve into something else or be eaten by another wild critter.
The only standards we have on this are those set by ourselves. As Charlie said, the Earth doesn't give a fuck and it's not like in future millenia the Great Council of the Aves will collectively judge us for the demise of the Dodo. However, I think of the sailors who ate them and the people who let pigs run wild on those islands I feel like spanging the lot with with a frying pan. On a selfish level, I will never get to see a Dodo and on a slightly les selfish level, neither will anyone else. That to me is grossly unfair that bad decisions or willful ignorance has led to that state of affairs. Goes the same for any extinct species, whether Paradise Parrot or Steller's Sea-cow.
I know that if they all go - every bit of macro wildlife along with us, that something will repopulate and become as equally diverse and wonderful, but why do it? Why let that sort of thing happen on our shift? Fine if it's a big rock from space, or some non-spcific pathogen that kills anything bigger than woodlice, but if it's something that was our choice, then why do it? I know in the long run it might now matter, but we'll have a long, boring decline without the rest of nature to look at...

[Disclaimer: massive birdwatcher]
[And my 'e' key doesn't work properly, if you notice any missing]

45:

Well said!

Just one editorial nitpick: throughout this you refer to "GYa" and "MYa" for "gigayears" and "megayears". Shouldn't that be "Gyr" and "Myr"?

If I'm not mistaken, "GYa" and "MYa" stand for "Gigayears ago" and "Megayears ago".

Or is Wiktionary lying to me?

46:

A couple of thoughts on the Olduvai future.

1. Progress is not doing more with more, it is doing more with the same (or the same with less). Working harder to achieve more makes sense when one is cold, hungry, in pain, or miserable from other unmet physical needs, but beyond a certain point it is working more itself that starts to make us miserable. Energy expenditure, therefore, is not the best proxy – it's not how much we spend, it's how much we get out of it.

2. Knowledge is an accumulating and difficult to deplete asset. There would have to be significant and sudden destruction of knowledge for any 'collapsed' society to look like anything out of history.

47:

You need to read up on demographic transition and the history of population control.

The key issue isn't the availability of hormonal contraceptives, which are a red herring in population control debates: it's the availability of antibiotics and effective antisepsis for infection control. Once neonatal and childhood deaths drop from 50% to 0.05%, suddenly the pressure to have big families in order to support you in your old age goes away. Moreover, human females don't like being baby production lines; for many of them, once is more than enough, and some don't want to do it at all, ever. All the pill does is make it somewhat easier for some women (those who don't experience unpleasant side-effects) in settled situations to control their fertility while having a sex life. But you don't need the pill to avoid childbearing. All you need is a motive.

Quite a few countries underwent demographic transition from high birth/high death rate to low birth/low death rate before the availability of, or in the absence of, the contraceptive pill -- Japan, for example (the pill was only licensed for use in the late 1990s IIRC).

48:

Does our response change if there's another box with a biological environment?

That's a very good question. Unfortunately, how we'd study an exoplanetary biosphere directly (other than, say, inferring photosynthesis by detecting free oxygen in its atmosphere and chlorophyll absorption lines in its reflected light spectrum) is a, shall we say, expensive engineering proposition.

49:


(notably shrinking ecological niches and climate change) will do for our distant descendants.

I have a quibble here: unless are distant ancestors are non-sentient, shrinking ecological niches or climate change won't affect their survival. Numbers may change..

No other mammal is found in so many different ecological niches. All due to the brains, which are very unlikely to disappear due to evolution.

Even if the atomsphere turned poisonous for animal life, as during the Permian extinction.. but not plants, people would still survive, assuming they could make breathing gear...

Apart from that, I'm in agreement.


ONE of the current forecasts estimates a 5 meter sea level rise over the next century.

Where did you find that?
Worst here is 0.6 metre.

http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/spmsspm-projections-of.html

50:

Greg T here – ignore the “G” log-in …

"the idea that it's all about us"
& so-called “green” issues … well, now!
Unfortunately @ 4 … “…enabling right-wingers to portray greens as hair-shirt-wearing hippies” is all too often, correct, since they refuse, point-blank to ebcourage the route to necessary power-generation that will (at least) tide us over for 50-200 years, whilst not putting CO2 etc into the atmosphere – nuclear [ because it’s “evil” ]
Oh dear.

@ 12
More humans – yes that IS a problem isn’t it?
Assuming no environmental catastrophe, for a moment, it is clear that the human population will peak sometime in the next 50 years, then start to decline, anyway, as family sizes continue to shrink. Indeed, development “breeds” smaller families, and a population decline…
So, longer-term (2-3 lifetimes) population is NOT a problem. What is a problem is avoiding environmental “collapse” during that period, which is a difficult problem.
So, @ 23, I suggest you think again?

@ 28
WRONG.
The “imported” populations slow their breeding rates the moment they have access to clean water & decent medicine, as other less developed countries (overall development that is) are following the same trend.
Birth-rates in Pakistan & Iran are dropping very sharply – or were you not paying attention, there?
See also comment @ 31.
& Charlie @ 47.

Meg @ 30
You have shown up, all too clearly one of the real problems – the amazing short-sightedness & stupidity of politicians & people. A new dam & a pipe [ I mean, NOT difficult! ] would at least have postponed the crisis you are facing. Nothing was done.
Duh.

@ 40
“It only takes a few defectors to ruin the equilibrium.”
Sorry, no, it takes more than 25% of a population, breeding away for 2-3 generations to ruin the equilibrium - & do you think they’d be allowed to get away with that?
How to start a war in one easy lesson.
See also refutation @ 41.

Generally … fuel shortage?
WHAT fuel shortage?
Check THIS LOT [URL fixed by moderator -- Greg, try not to type smart quotes in URLs, they don't work!] 200 years after Stockton & Darlington, how ironic, how wonderful!
And, no, it isn’t pie-in-the sky or a scam, it really works – yes it requires an energy input, greater than the output, but that doesn’t matter in the long term. And they have serious backers, & have identified a select high-price market to capitalise (in both senses of the word) on their product(s) and thus get enough money to develop to full-scale process. [ the motor racing boys ]

Greg T, typing with a rumbling commensal curled on his lap.

51:

The worst effect of climate change so far, has been the delusional attempt to prevent climate change by turning food into fuel without any regard to global food supply.

To give you an example:
When there were severe droughts in Russia, Belarus and Australia in 2010, those countries experienced a shortfall of about 18mio tons in their combined wheat harvests. This was cited as an effect of climate change and as the cause of rising food prices on world markets that year.

In the same year, 140mio tons of maize were turned into ethanol in the USA. Of course, maize yields are higher than wheat, but only by about 25%. The impact on world markets of corn-ethanol alone was about 6 times worse than that of the droughts mentioned above.

Also in the same year, Germany was growing rape-seed on 1.5mio hectars. Back in the 1990ies, this was a neglible crop. Other biofuels covered another 1mio hectares or so.

The typical yield of wheat in Germany is 8 tons per hectare (7 tons this year, due to unfavorable weather). Had Germany grown wheat (or other food) on this area the harvest could have offset all the effects of some of the worst droughts in the last 100 years in Russia and Australia all by itself.

The world average yield of wheat is about 4tons per hectare - you may gather from this, that developing countries typically have yields just above 2 tons vs. 8 tons in developed countries. That's why developed countries have such a huge impact - we're the breadbasket of the world! When we decide to turn food into biofuels, it's the rest of the world that is feeling the effect, not us.

And that was just two countries. Even Germany isn't anywhere near self-sufficient in its biofuel consumption (and imports more from the rest of the world). And of course all of this has a large impact on countries that need to import food.

The result is that the number of malnutritioned people worldwide jumped up by about 100mio after 2006/2007 when biofuel use rose exponentially. (*Growth* has slowed down since then, but total use is higher than ever.) Typically, mortality rates by malnutrition are about 1-2% per year due to either starvation or weakened immune system. That's obviously not counting severe diseases like HIV, wars and other causes of death.

The yearly death toll of biofuels is thus on the order of 1-2 million people and tens of millions will suffer from developmental illnesses and problems due to being starved in childhood.

There is nothing so bad as the idea that you need to prevent the end of the world. Because that end justifies all means.

52:

That's a very important point! Yes, biofuels are a classic case of resource misallocation ... on a scale tantamount to genocide, in the worst case. Certainly with an outcome comparable to the Irish Potato Famine in terms of the death toll.

53:

Birth-rates in Pakistan & Iran are dropping very sharply – or were you not paying attention, there?

Indeed, over the last week or so, there's been a story in the news about a Pakistani schoolgirl who got shot in the head for, basically, participating in the demographic transition.

That's in a country town, not the capital, not even the capital of a province or a district.

Birth-rates are dropping everywhere. Plummeting, really — if it weren't for the fact that we welcome it, we'd be very very worried about it. (The final level seems to be somewhat below replacement, which is a little worrying, but that's a problem for another century.)

54:
AFAIK, the idea that some species (other than humans) voluntarily restrict their own reproduction to avoid this fate has not been confirmed in nature. I can recall some experiments trying to get aphids to demonstrate this behavior, but the aphids ate each others' offspring instead.

While it doesn't quite fit the definition of 'voluntarily' what you do find is that small island species often have much lower reproductive rates / number of children than mainland species.

One of the theories to explain this is that species that breed too rapidly in enclosed environments enter a chaotic boom/bust population pattern as they hit environment limits... and the population graph only gets to hit zero once...

So, over time, you tend to get species that have a sustainable re-population rate for the island.

(Geek points - first heard this theory in a talk by Douglas Adams at Sussex University a bit after Last Chance To See came out ;-)

55:

Saw this on hackernews this morning - and it seemed like it might be of interest

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrowth

56:

On a selfish level, I will never get to see a Dodo and on a slightly les selfish level, neither will anyone else

Cheer up. The way biotechnology is moving, you may see a pretty close approximation of INSERT_FAVORITE_EXTINCT_SPECIES within your lifetime...

57:

I remember being laughed off of a forum for suggesting such things would be possible within a few decades...
It'd be great if they could be re-introduced as they were a vital part of the ecosystem of Mauritius - the main species of tree depended on them to germinate, which they only found recently when all these 300-odd-year-old trees started dying off with no younger trees about.
Mind you, it might be impossible with some species - Passenger Pigeons needed populations in the thousands to start breeding and there probably isn't enough genetic diversity left to recreate those sorts of numbers.
On another note, if we did repopulate all the species we could that we topped off, would future civilisations even notice the 50-300 year gap in the fossil record of each species?

58:

This is brilliant, Charlie. This is why I come here daily.

59:

According to the number order of the comments, someone replied to my comment before I made it :S

60:

I think it depends on the scale of the disaster.

We're talking a world-wide catastrophic change - say 90%, 99%, 99.9% of the human population dying quickly. (Note, this isn't a disaster from the planet's perspective, but from a naked ape's perspective it's pretty bad.)

If 1% of the human population survives, scattered across the world, that leaves about 600,000 in the UK, 2.5M in the US - you can do the sums for everywhere else yourself. Lets say they manage, for whatever reasons, to gather into a single community, or a close patchwork of communities.

There's a decent chance, if they can do that, they can find enough gardeners to teach others and plant crops and keep going. They can probably find enough people with animal husbandry skills to raise goats (which are pretty hardy still), sheep too. Cows, pigs and horses are a hard proposition from where we are now - there's a fair degree of intensive farming and vet-support for them. Do we have enough vets? Do we have enough vets that can cope without drugs?

How about nurses and doctors. Let's assume it's not contagious and dangerous, this catastrophe, so there's about 1% of them alive too. (If it's a contagion that wipes us out, it's probably reasonable to assume that medical staff get hammered harder than the general population.) How many of them can cope without a pharmacy to back them up? OK, we can raid for drugs for a while, but they will run out. Suddenly you need a pretty big infrastructure or infant and adult mortality are both back towards third world levels.

And, of course, we have to repurpose surviving bankers, telesales operators, IT consultants and the like to the new reality. We probably have to repurpose refuse collectors, phone line repair people and the like too - but at least they're used to manual labour.

1% survival might just give us a big enough base to keep chunks of recognisable modern society although I rather suspect a lot won't make it. If we make it worse, to 0.1% survival, I rather suspect we're back to hunter-gatherer with possibly an early agrarian community or two. We just don't have the bodies to support the infrastructure to maintain modern life. And, equally, I rather suspect we don't have the skills or the animals to manage creating a useful plough, raising and training oxen and the like. I know someone who has used an ox-drawn plough. But there's a 0.1% chance they survive... Lets make the not-rash assumption they don't. How many hours are we going to spend trying to make a simple plough and learning how to use it without food on the table before we say "screw it!" and turn into hunter-gatherers I wonder?

61:

"I wouldn't really call something that's been around and growing for decades (or centuries, if you want to go back further than the Pill) a "novel" thing. "

I'm thinking on an evolutionary timescale here. It may take a few hundred generations for the full effects to be seen.

And Charlie, antibiotics are another example of recent innovation which is being undone by evolutionary forces. Polyresistant infections are no longer uncommon around here.

62:

Multidrug antibiotic resistance is indeed Very Bad News. Stuff like XDR-TB, TDR-TB, and the NDM-1 resistance gene spreading through gram-negative pathogen strains are all bad shit with the potential to kill lots of us in the short term.

But there's some light on the horizon, too. A new multidrug treatment for XDR-TB seems to actually work (if you believe the clinical results), and two of the three drugs are so new they don't have product licenses yet so they haven't been abused. And Chloroquine -- one of the old staples for malaria, and out of use for nearly 20 years due to the widespread emergence of resistance -- appears to be becoming effective again! It turns out that resistance traits are expensive for bacteria to maintain, and if we withdraw the challenge for a decade or two -- note, a bacterial generation is on the order of one hour, so we're talking about withdrawing it for on the order of 100-200,000 generations: in human evolutionary terms, the equivalent of a couple of million years -- the unused genes are discarded and the bacterial population becomes vulnerable again.

My guess is that, in the long term, what we need to do is to treat antibiotics as precious and exhaustible resources that need to be rotated in and out of use and strictly controlled. Idiocy like feeding antibiotics to cattle may in future cause as much head-scratching as the idea of keeping a field growing the same monoculture in perpetuity (in the pre-fertilizer, pre-crop-rotation era).

63:

Great display of ignorance above.

Since I work as one of those aforementioned environmentalists, I'd better speak up for the future.

Here's the deal: when you preserve an area, you're not preserving a museum diorama, even though that's what many ignoramuses think. What you're preserving is all the possibilities for the future that it contains.

The point about preservation vs. conservation is that conservation always seems to have an agenda, founded in the great idea that a) the manager knows what's going on, and b) the management activities will somehow improve the site.

Sometimes this is true. Getting rid of invasive weeds is generally an idea, just as getting rid of businesses that fail to follow local laws is generally good for the businesses in a locale.

In fact, Walmart vs. main street is an excellent way to understand the difference between a company that uses a weedy growth model (Walmart) and one that uses a less structured, organic model. Walmart works for a couple of reasons, including it was early into the importing cheap crap from China, and it has been very aggressive at shrugging off or co-opting any attempt to regulate it. I doubt it will even have the lifespan of Sears-Roebuck, but it will have destroyed many small towns by the time it fails. In this regard, it's business strategy is quite similar to reed canary grass or kudzu.

But just as often, that impulse to manage is destructive. Most of the life in a preserve isn't the birds and mammals or even the plants. It's the insects, fungi, and bacteria that form the essential "brown ecosystem" (that breaks stuff down and recycles it), and also pollinates the plants, feeds the animals, and so forth. These little guys are typically poorly known, barely studied, and absolutely vital. If these have to be managed at all, often the best way is to get rid of the weeds and otherwise leave the area alone as much as possible.

Again, if this doesn't make sense, think of Manhattan, and then scale up a typical forest so that the trees are the size of the buildings and the birds are the size of planes. The critters we are talking about are the size of the people, while the fungi and bacteria snaking through the ground are the size of all the infrastructural pipes. Got that picture? Good.

You're now Godzilla the Conservation Manager, to preserve the scale. Your job is to manage Manhattan, following the best principles of Godzilla conservation science, and to make sure that the Godzilla tourists who want to see New York don't trash it too badly.

Now, what most people see and want to conserve are the trees and the birds. Shift to Godzilla-conserving-Manhattan scale, Godzillas preserve buildings and planes. The people (the bugs) get trampled. Godzilla excavating the buildings and streets to better see and manage the human-scale infrastructure is a stupidly destructive thing to do, if you, the Godzilla manager, want Manhattan to stay the way it is. It's far better to uproot any Walmart that tries to take root in on the upper west side. Otherwise, the best course is to limit Godzilla tourism to the East River, Broadway, and Times Square, and let those pesky little human symbiotes swarm around their building hosts in peace everywhere else. Those silly little humans are most of the diversity in Manhattan, but most Godzilla tourists are too busy admiring the Empire State Building to notice the humans as anything other than nuisances that shriek annoyingly and leave stains when you step on them.

And also note that a smart Godzilla isn't trying to preserve Manhattan as a museum diorama for other visiting Godzillas. Instead, she knows enough about the city to realize that the puny humans really run the place and that they're always changing it. While this may mean that an iconic building or two falls every once in a while, others grow to replace them in a constant and unpredictable succession. Godzilla the expert conservation manager would probably end up fighting to preserve Manhattan from active management, just because she'd know quite well that she couldn't rebuild the place if she tried, even if all other Godzillas paid huge taxes for her to do so.

That's the problem we as humans face, to bring this back to human scale. Most of the essential infrastructure is stuff that most people don't want to touch, let alone understand. That doesn't mean it's not vital, but it does mean that appeals for everyone to get dirty and rationally manage stuff are likely to fall on deaf ears, especially when there's TV to be watched and politics to be played.

If we were serious about learning how to build wild ecosystems, we'd be absolutely focused on things like entomology, mycology, microbial ecology, phycology, soil science, and the study of soil crusts (something so new that it doesn't even have a distinct name). Instead, these are among the most marginalized fields in the life sciences, with only a few hundred active researchers in each one worldwide. Obviously, we're not serious, and so discussions of preservation and conservation usually spin quickly into ideology and conversations built largely on ignorance. But that's okay. Often just keeping people away from areas is the best preservation we can give them.

64:

"My guess is that, in the long term, what we need to do is to treat antibiotics as precious and exhaustible resources that need to be rotated in and out of use and strictly controlled."

I wholeheartedly support such an idea.

65:

I happen to work alongside a chap taking a very different line in antibiotic research and one with startling results. It's based on a metal-containing compound trialled in the 1950s which narrowly lost out to a beefed-up penicillin during a 'Golden staph' outbreak. He's made it considerably more powerful and it's got equal effectiveness against antibiotic-resistant strins as non-resistant. The route into cells maks it incredibly hard for the bacteria to defend against, so resistance should be a long time coming against this.
An agency over here is taking it up and with any luck it'll make it through clinical testing (although I know the vast majority of things fall over at that stage).

66:

Greg T here again, without the cat, this time ……

Sorry about the broken URL – it looked OK in “preview” …..

@56 & Charlie @ 57
Indeed – Passenger Pigeons? I’m not so sure, there are several specimens left, you just need to “breed” say 500 – 100 of the buggers, & you’re off, especially if underneath so much pigeon-poo!
Even a Dodo (I believe there is a tiny bit of one left(?)
“All” you need is a genetic insertion into a viaible “egg” cell, of a related species, & away you go …
But, we can only re-create species of which there are tissue samples – so could we re-create the Thylacine, for instance?

@ 60 …
1% survival – possible, but the really important bit is the survival of the support-information we need, and with that few people, the power-supplies & networks will surely go down.
So – back to printed books, & you’d better make sure you’ve got handy copies of the
Rubber Bible as well as multiple copies of 5-figure log tables, as well as many of the essential “How-to” manuals that you can find.

Heteromeles @ 63
Indeed – in fact wasn’t this sort of thing one of the (many) reasons that the “spaceship Earth” project failed? Apart from the curing concrete “eating” all the Oxygen that is?

Antibiotics
IIRC it’s only the loonies in the USSA who are into loading up their cattle with antibiotics, or am I misinformed? Trouble is, being the aforementioned state, there is no way at all to get them to stop until they poison themselves, & a lot of us, with a really bad resistant-disease outbreak.
There are also the Artemesins for fighting malaria, based on old & working Chinese medicine, which, as the name implies, are extracted from Wormwood & Tarragon relatives.
As for “old” drugs, the precursors of modern antibiotics, the Sulphonamides are making a come-back I understand. Anyone else got information on these routes?

GT

67:

Greg: antibiotic misuse in cattle is a global problem -- relatively few countries, most of them in the developed world, have a handle on it. And it's not just antibiotics. See for example the Asian vulture crisis (caused by dosing cattle with diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory that just happens to be incredibly toxic to birds: it brought three species to the brink of extinction before the cause was identified).

68:

Charlie @ 67
Thanks for that info - I was obviously steaming in circles, there ...
However, that is really wierd.
I take Diclofenac daily for my gout - keeps it well under control & pain-free)
Next question, is diclofenac harmless to cats, I wonder, since I've been looking for something which will poison pigeons, but not hurt any cats that happen to jump a "poisoned" pigeon.
Ah - I've just read the link you've posted. Very, very interesting. I knew about the dangerous decline of Vultures in India, which is not good news, as their scavenging activities are a vital part of the ecosystem there.
I remember the "Adjutant Crane" (Greater Marabou) of Kipling's tale "The Undertakers" ... wherin this is said:
"The Adjutant, being a first-class scavenger, is allowed to go
where he pleases, and so this one never flinched."

Long live Tom Lehrer!

Greg T.

69:

Limiting offspring to control population (i.e., no more than you can support) has been seen among several animals in natural environments. Most of the ones I heard of have been birds. The usual approach is some variant of infanticide. But people put a lot of investment into their kids before they are even born, and the kids require a continuing investment for several years into the future, so one good year doesn't forecast that you will succeed in raising a large brood of kids

Most animals raise their kids to independence within one year, so they don't need a long term estimate. People do, and did back in the days before language (though less so). So people have long investigated various approaches to controlling population growth rates. (Sometimes to encourage them, sometimes to discourage them.) For a classical example, see Oedipus Rex. (Yes, it's heavily fictionalized. But the social custom was there.)

70:

You are right that historic cycles don't repeat, but the do rhyme. Similar circumstances bring forth similar responses. Saying it will be a medieval serfdom isn't precisely correct, since it will be different. But if the circumstances are similar, it will be as similar as the lot of Chinese peasants owned by a local war lord. And saying "medieval serfdom" lets people understand the *kind* of society you are talking about.

Please note that the steam engine had been around since shortly after Alexander, but the societies that existed didn't value it. Labor saving doesn't benefit the powerful in slave-holding or serf-based societies. After it became beneficial, then it still took a bit of work to make it practical, but that happened fairly quickly. (200 years? 500? The boundaries are fuzzy here.)

OTOH, there WILL be differences. Gunpowder won't be easily lost, which means that good metal working skills will be valuable to the powerful. So SOME steam engines are likely to be built. Some workers will labor in the "dark Satanic mills" to weave cloth. But probably 90% of the population will be rural, poor, and property of some lord. (And possibly considered less valuable than his sheep.) It's not direct medieval serfdom, but it's close enough to describe that way unless you're being verbose.

Please note: The circumstance here is loss of central control, and local -- armies or gangs, take your pick -- that have remained in control for long enough that leadership has become hereditary. (Usualy 2-3 generations. Say 40-60 years.) Another requirement is slow transportation, and limited communication among the populace. The armies may have radios (tubes aren't THAT difficult) or telegraph. The citizenry don't. And they also don't have motorized transport, though again, the armies may. (Maintaining that transport and communication, though, is likely to be sufficiently expensive that it tends to get dropped.)

71:

Greg: I don't know about diclofenac specifically, but some other NSAIDs (aspirin, notably) are deadly-poisonous to cats. Avoid. Or ask a vet.

72:

"On another note, if we did repopulate all the species we could that we topped off, would future civilisations even notice the 50-300 year gap in the fossil record of each species?"

Interesting idea. If we really get into the swing of resuscitating extinct species instead of being a great extinction the anthropocene will instead be a second evolutionary explosion. It almost makes one wish the human race then go extinct or civilization collapse just to see* the confusion of future scientist examining the fossil record.

IIRC both Horner and Dawkins believe it possible to recover extinct species through the DNA of existing ones. I think the former has a TED talk about recovering T Rex from chickens or something along those lines.

* Well, imagine.

73:

A few commenters referred to human nature and the fact that humans didn't evolve to think beyond certain timeframes and so on.

I suggest a big box, to put besides the box labeled "Nature" (with all the earth and universe and bees and plants and fossiles and resources and laws of thermodynamics and so on).

Let's call this box "Nurture" or maybe "Society". I'd say we can't blame our lizard brain or certain biologically determined cognitive biases for the way we perceive and treat the world. Our human environment is first and foremost society. We interpret the natural world we see in the way we are trained to do.
The great thing is that we have (intellectual) tools like logical thought at our disposal, with which we can analyse our surrounding. The sad thing is that we have no model (yet?) of a society that exists on a long enough timescale on a level of productivity or technological ability comparable to the 1st world today.

But all the "big questions" and fallacies surrounding thought about climate change and environmental protection arise from the ways our society works. A vastly different society would come up with different fallacies.

74:

Tylenol is deadly-poisonous to cats; aspirin is just easy to over-dose on.

(After reading a heart-wrenching story about a guy who forced a pair of tylenol into his cat after a minor accident, I'm completely and utterly paranoid about any pill dropping on the floor, or anything dripping into their water dish.)

75:

You wrote:
"Please note that the steam engine had been around since shortly after Alexander, but the societies that existed didn't value it. Labor saving doesn't benefit the powerful in slave-holding or serf-based societies. After it became beneficial, then it still took a bit of work to make it practical, but that happened fairly quickly. (200 years? 500? The boundaries are fuzzy here.)"

It would be far more accurate to say the water mill, rather than the steam engine. Hero's device was never anything more than an entertaining novelty; refering to it in this context is like saying that the Sinclair C5 was ignored because it wasn't valued, rather than any of the other reasons why you wouldn't want one.
A replica of it was made by J. G. Landels, and he found many issues with it. A compromise has to be reached between the joints being tight enough to keep all the steam in the sphere, and loose enough to allow the sphere to revolve. Moreover it rotated very fast and would have required a lot of gears to bring it down to a usable rotation speed, which would of course have reduced its efficiency. Which was already pathetic anyway, because of the amount of fuel needed to keep it going.
On the other hand the ROmans had watermilles, yet it took until the 9th century or so onwards for them to spread across Europe and be used for everything from grinding wheat to working trip hammers and bellows for industry. (see also previous posts on this blog by various people)
I would go with the 200 years to get steam power practical, or even less. I don't see why 500 years is in the offing since I know of no such experiments in the late medieva/ Tudor period.


76:

Greg here ...
Tylenol as used in "TCP" - had it in the house for years, with several generations of fluffies - until we found out it was deadly.
Threw it out immediately, fortunately without losing any cats.
Didn't know about "Aspirin" though - thanks for that, though if either of us want a painkiller, as opposed to an anti-inflammatory, we'll go for Paracetamol, anyway (I don't think we have any aspirin in the house).

Steam engines.
First working, useful steam engines ... Thomas Newcomen (condensing engines for mill pumping, very low pressure operation & slow, 1712.
"High Pressure" steam engines, stationary - Boulton & Watt 1763-75-84, with the middle year marking the introduction of a separate condenser & the last date that of the parallel motion.
Mobile engines/ locomotives dates are ...
first: Trevithick, 1805/7
Colliery types 1815 (Middleton Railway, etc)
Public railway (Stephenson) 1825
First "main line" 1930 Liverpool & Manchester (both the Stephensons).
Note the "downhill bicycle race" accelerating rate of improvements.
Another singularity, in fact. After 1830, the world had changed, permanently.

77:

TYPO
That should be "1830" for the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester, obviously!

Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer'd STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.
Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move
Or warrior bands alarm the gaping crowd
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.

And, of course, steam still drives the world - from power stations.

GT

78:

Should we preserve our environment was the question... and maybe
looking outside the box. I think this was a very interesting question.
Everyone seem to talk about specifics... I am more interested in the
philosophical questions of "why?" that Charlie asked.

Personally I often feel that the idea to save the environment, on all
levels, are an effect of multiple things; Fear for the unknown, an
innate conservatism where any change is considered with scepticism,
and some idea that we as humans "have no right" to change
anything. I am here avoiding involving theology, but I see the same
ideas in most people, religious or not.
Also of course the continous scare of everything falling apart.

There is also a kind of sentimentality being part of the conservatism;
The wealthier a culture gets, the fonder they also get of preserving
things that are "old" for no other reason than that they are old. In the
industrialized countries the money used for preserving the "heritage" (like
preserving old buildings, or preserving old unused farmland by keeping
trees away) could have saved many lives if spent differently, but is
considered extremely important. Preservation of everything is
important in many cultures.

I think that these things are related to part of why so many want to
"preserve" the environment even on the global scale. The same idea
that "we have no right" makes the discussion harder. The arguments get
loaded with emotions and ideas that are most often never discussed or
understood.

This said, I do not say that it isn't right to save the environment,
or old buildings for that matter. There are many many good arguments
for that. I just wanted to say that I think that it is often done
without reasoning about why, and often for possibly the wrong
reasons. They are often even not possible to challenge.

So do we have a "right" to change the environment on a global scale,
if we overcome sentimentality and fear?
An interesting philosophical debate in itself... Do we have any right
to decide for any other living entity? Flowers as well as other
primates. They MIGHT evolve into something entirely different if we
stay away.
Rights are in essense a social construct (unless there is a god-being
somewhere, defining reality, but god-beings usually are more into
rules than rights), so only humans can decide if we have a right.

Another question is; If we want to save or preserve, how much must we
save or preserve? The modern human response is usually "must save
everyone", but that part usually breaks down as soon as resources gets
scarce or catastrophes are imminent.

So lets go outside the box... Lets assume we do decide that we do have
a right. We only care about saving the parts that amuse as, and do not
care about Mother Nature. What can we or should we do?

Geo-engineering comes to mind here... If we have given up on preserving
a status quo, or feel it is hopeless, geo-engineering might prove
interesting. Spewing out steam in hugre quantities to reflect the sun
and other similar wild schemes. It will dramatically change the
environment, but hopefully to OUR advantage.

To me the question is then; What administrative body on earth would
ever be able to get anything like that going, and prepared in a
coherent way? The possibility of fatal mistakes gets huge, and
... with the way politicians have been managing any kind of scientific
knowledge since... ever, makes me shudder to think about it.

Building old SF style bio-domes, huge Asimov-style Cities or other old
ideas could also be a way of changing the environment or adapting to
it. It is definitly a way of saving some of the environment. It
probably won't save all of it, but might save humanity for a while.

Moving to another planet after the last big party when we exhaust the
last of this one is another approach. Has the potential to save
humanity if it was possible.

Of course we also have the singularity style upload, where we just
scrap the whole planet and give it up. Why preserve anything but
consciences?

Lets look at it from another point of view; If we do not do anything,
or do not succeed... Will humanity survive? I would assume that there
would be many people dying if we continue this, but then all people
will die sooner or later, but some children would survive for a while. Maybe
thousands of years. They would not have our standard of living or our
fancy toys, and wouldn't be as many. Is that wrong?

Also; Why do we even want to bother? The obvious reason is just that
it is built into humans to try to survive, and to preserve.
Preservation has probably been a good thing while evolving,
to keep things steady.

Maybe time to start a new existentialistic philosophy for global
environmental catastrophes.

79:

As a Proud New Parent, I wanted to comment briefly on some of the Malthusian/neo-Malthusian/anti-Malthusian comments above, at the risk of derailing things back to an anthropocentric viewpoint again.

Specifically: there is a qualitative difference in societies with low infant mortality and good nutrition. There are about a zillion ways for a live-birth child to die, and a majority of them happen in the first few months, let alone the first year. If disease or malnutrition didn't kill you, had a damn good chance of leaving you with a short miserable life, with substantial physical or mental disabilities - think polio, pellagra, rickets, iodine-deficiency retardation, etc.

Not to mention "Hemorrhagic Disease of the Newborn," which proceeds from nothing more than a Vitamin K deficiency.

Even Afghanistan, which tops current infant mortality rankings with around 121 per 100 live births, still beats London in the 1880s, where infant mortality had FALLEN to only around 180-200 per 1000.

My point (and I do have one) is that a healthy human population, however large, is going to require much fewer resources than a frail one; vitamin supplements and immunizations are cheap compared to hospitals and epidemics. There's a remote edge case that a large human population could be maintained on unexciting vat-grown food spiked with the right amount of iodine, et alia, even if the world outside the arcology continues going straight to hell.

Maybe the future of humanity on earth really is going to involve some sort of Manhattan Project of navel-gazing: what are the bare requirements of human life? Can we pull it off before the atmosphere goes Venusian?

80:

"Limiting offspring to control population (i.e., no more than you can support) has been seen among several animals in natural environments. Most of the ones I heard of have been birds. The usual approach is some variant of infanticide."

Infanticide typically shows up when famine is already here and the parents are doing triage to save as many as they can. It's less a sign of wise planning than a sign of its lack.

Let's put it with lethal intraspecies violence (i.e. war) on the list of population control measures that are known to work but that really, really suck.

81:
1% survival might just give us a big enough base to keep chunks of recognisable modern society although I rather suspect a lot won't make it. If we make it worse, to 0.1% survival, I rather suspect we're back to hunter-gatherer with possibly an early agrarian community or two. We just don't have the bodies to support the infrastructure to maintain modern life.

How do you ensure the survival of key skills over long periods of time? Knowing that you have to plan for the worst and assume that key personal will be dead or missing and taking vital knowledge and skills with them? In fact, isn't this an awful lot like the classic generation starship scenario with the crew MIA, key systems shot or slowly failing, the ship either plunging into the Sun (quick death) or never making planet-fall (slow death), and the lower decks so ignorant they don't even know they're on a ship, let alone one that absolutely has to make port if they want to live past the next few generations?

And wasn't this very topic threshed out here a few months back, with the eventual consensus that it's doable with a population in the tens of millions? I know that we're on Earth and not a science fiction scenario and so maybe that discussion doesn't apply . . . wait. We are on board a honking huge generation ship on and it is on a flight to no where with absolutely no hope reprovisioning, ever. Somebody get Stewart Brand on the horn.

In any event, I don't see how on the one can say a high tech culture is possible with just a few tens of millions of people working with strictly limited resources and on the other hand say it's impossible for a group with much greater assets.

82:
Limiting offspring to control population (i.e., no more than you can support) has been seen among several animals in natural environments. Most of the ones I heard of have been birds. The usual approach is some variant of infanticide.

Ah - another oldie that's aged with uneven success: You're talking about wretched plight of the Moties from, of course, the Mote in God's Eye. Despite their millions of years of existence, they never manage to make it out of the system either (though at least they did get their Asteroid civilization and Moties in Space). Instead, all the lower orders got was to be bred into specialized subspecies useful to the heredity upper class. An upper class that was very good at keeping the numbers of the lower orders in check but not so good in enforcing this wise husbandry on their peers, with resulting predictable, periodic and horrific die-backs.

So, short term Homo drakensis, long term Moties? Offhand, I don't see how this is this any better than the Olduvai future and arguably much worse. I know, everyone thinks they're going to be of the ruling class, or at the very least a brown-and-white (like most people here consider themselves, amiright). But as Asimov famously pointed out, the numbers are against them ;-)

83:
2. Knowledge is an accumulating and difficult to deplete asset. There would have to be significant and sudden destruction of knowledge for any 'collapsed' society to look like anything out of history.

Indeed. One forgets how little we knew at the beginning of the twentieth century and how much we knew at the end of it. And practically speaking, at a fundamental level, we've pretty much everything there is to know about how the world works.

Bear with me. Let me quote Feynman from Six Easy Pieces:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied...

It took us some thousands of years to get that far (or tens or hundreds of thousands of years, if you like). But once we've got hold of that fact, I don't see how we can unlearn it, ever. And as Feynman points out, with that fact (along with a relatively few other facts I don't think we'll be unlearning any time soon) you can relatively easy reconstruct what you need to know, even if vast chunks of the knowledge base has failed to be transmitted into the future. That little fact has really helped clear up my bookmarks and disk space, btw. I'm sure I'm not unique in sometimes finding it quicker to go back and do what I did the first time around to acquire the information rather than poke around through several thousand files. Even if I know that what I'm looking for is in there. Somewhere.

One tends to forget how hard those facts were to acquire, and how much easier everything became once they were. So, no, we don't have to recapitulate ten thousand years intellectual and technical history if we are suddenly thrown back into the stone age by circumstance.

84:

Wrt. medication in general: doses are established initially as mg/Kg of body weight, then scaled up to a nominal adult human of around 60-80Kg, then tablets/capsules formulated with this recipient in mind. Obviously, a Tylenol tablet sized for a 60Kg human being contains about 20 times as much of the drug as would be appropriate for a 3Kg cat, and as Tylenol™ is acetaminophen (or paracetamol) and is rather toxic in overdose, that's your problem.

Many human meds are useful in animals -- in doses scaled down (or up) according to the recipient's body mass. But you should never use a human-sized dose on a small animal like a cat or dog.

85:

The reason that romans didn't use steam engines wasn't slaves or serfdom. It was the lack of a crucial technology and knowledge needed to make it useful. Namely the ability to bore smooth cylinders, otherwise you can't build steam engines with any reasonable efficiency. (And steam turbines are a whole 'nother can of worms.) And you should also have some kind of theoretical understanding of what steam is.

This was perfected only when people started to build cannons, which didn't happen for another 1000 years. (Unless you count Constantinople as part of "the romans".)

As it is, the steam engine was developed from the steam digester (pressure cooker), which had its 333rd birthday this year!

Next year, the safety valve will be 333 years old ... there must be an untold story involving things going BOOM in there somewhere.

86:

Greg, Tylenol™ is paracetamol (American brand-name formulation thereof). TCP is nothing to do with paracetamol; and in any case the original antiseptic in TCP™ (Trichlorophenylmethyliodosalicyl) was replaced by phenol and halogenated phenols in the 1950s. It's an antiseptic. Like all such, it's not a good idea to drink it, and this goes for humans as well as cats.

87:

To be fair to the post-western-Roman-Empire Europeans, they probably just didn't have the population density or agricultural productivity to make water mills useful until the 9th century, especially not on the scale of the Barbegal and Janiculum Mills. Once they did, though, they not only built water mills, but they developed wind mills as well.

Tp1024 beat me to the point about all the support technology needed to make steam power useful, such as smooth cylinders and pistons. Those needed machine tools and good iron-casting, which only developed as part of a gradual process relating to the casting of better and better cannons and artillery over centuries. I have no idea if there are alternative paths to that.

@scentofviolets #83

I wonder if impressing upon people the concept of "disease comes from tiny creatures that get into your blood" would save a post-collapse civilization a ton of time in the development of medicine. At the very least, they might grasp the significance and means of proper sanitation much earlier on, helping to reduce the "sinkhole of sewage and garbage" factor that you got with many big European cities.

Back on the main topic-

Reading The Rambunctious Garden, plus Charles Mann's writings on the pre-Columbian indigenous population of the Americas and how they affected the biosphere there, has me convinced that we can probably create highly productive habitats for life that can also double as very useful areas for human beings in terms of agriculture and other uses.

88:

I was under the impression those things you mention about material technology being too poor to make use of steam power were implicit in the critique of the Aeolipile that I typed out. Moreover you didn't take into account the watermill, which technology the Romans had, and used, yet never as fully as it was used by later civilisations. Thus the social/ cultural explanation regarding slaves is still quite useful.
I certainly don't see the links with cannon, which were an interesting development themselves.
A cite would also be nice for the relationship between pressure cookers and steam engines.

89:

Gunmar @ 78
Preservation is also part of continuity – which is why it is felt to be & indeed is, important.

@ 79
“…London in the 1880s, where infant mortality had FALLEN to only around 180-200 per 1000”
Yes – my Grandmother was born in 1872, & had eight children – she was often asked “how many?” followed by “ALL living?” – which they were, & two sons survived WWI (lied about their ages) & the younger of those two survived capture & torture by the IJA in Burma….

Charlie @ 86
Thanks – though I realised that I’d screwed something up with “TCP” when my failing memory cut in, about 60 seconds after I’d posted.
Your other point about scaling (for body-mass) goes very well, of course. Fortunately all our medicaments are in secure containers.

@ 87
But … the “pre-Columbian population of the “Americas” did a very thorough job of exterminating the megafauna there, as did the Maori when they got to NZ ….

@ 88
Pressure cooker: Denis Papin, 1679, & design for steam “engine” 1690/1705.
Newcomen’s engine was based on Papin’s work, but Papin had gone broke, & was not able to get development support, IIRC.

There is also the “appropriate” bit about any technology.
Gun-barrels are often very thick, whereas, for a boiler, you want it thick enough not to burst + safety-margin, but no thicker, as it will then be too heavy, cumbersome & expensive.
The same general application is true about strategies & methods for preserving/conserving/restoring “the environment” – see the much earlier post on Godzilla preserving/conserving Manhattan Island!

Greg T.

90:

Forget any talk of warlord for North America or Australia and New Zealand or for Europe. The memory, the myth of democratic assemblies is too deeply woven in society. Even if 99% of the population dies the myth will still be there in those countries. Also, the myth of the labour union as a saviour will also be there so forget about a full return to the dark satanic mills too.

91:

Guthrie:
I certainly don't see the links with cannon, which were an interesting development themselves. A cite would also be nice for the relationship between pressure cookers and steam engines.

It's in the technology to produce smooth cylinders and pistons for the steam engines.

The Romans had Lathes - those date back further than that - but powered them by hand with hand bows, and used them mostly for woodworking.

Line power for serious metalwork ( water, later steam or electrical ) and boring bar technology were needed. Boring bars supported on both ends, etc. the basic boring tech came from cannons, cast with rough holes you then bored out smooth. But the final practical steam engines needed even better technology, due to larger diameters and smoother fit requirements.

92:

Actually, it is all about us for a number of reasons.
First, as you point out, nothing and nobody else gives a shit. Second, questions of "meaning" and "importance" exist only in our heads. No meter can be built to measure either of those in the wider universe.

93:

It doesn't happen as behavior, but there is such a thing as food based fertility adjustment, where as food becomes scarcer fertility drops.

94:

I seem to recall reading that the people doing calorie restricted dieting with the hope of extending lifespan have found it massively reduces the male sex drive.

95:

Greg T here:
Back to the original subject, assuming that it IS “about us”.
What real threats do we face, & what can be done. Probably more importantly, who will be responsible for the actions that will “save” or ameliorate or condemn our (& coming generations) futures?

The big one, in this discussion is climate change, accelerated by humanity’s activities, leading to unwonted droughts, floods, sea-level rise, food shortages & water wars.
Which means, in present structures of societies across the planet – the politicians.
NOT a good prospect, then is it?
If half the USSA’s politicos are denying that there is anything wrong at all, & the other really big economy (PRC) is still putting out huge amounts of pollution & worsening the warming trends, what can be done?
Admittedly a sea-level rise could be very bad for China, since a huge amount of their population lives remarkably close to sea-level.
Indeed, this has happened before.
There are almost no signs of early proto-agriculture in the far East – because they are all underwater, drowned with the glacial melting 12 000 years back. Look at the average depth of the S China Sea, and the waters around Vietnam ……
The only solution I can see for this is a “dash to nuclear” + geothermal, for the next 50-100 years until we get both fusion & artificial photosynthesis going properly.
Have I missed something, have we all missed something?
This is the point about Charlie’s original question re “the box” isn’t it.
Now, can we get the politicos to do it, and how many so-called “green” nutters will have to be killed, so that we can actually build the nuke power-stations?
[ Note: By “killed” I mean through their own stupidity, & without allowing these morons to be classed as “martyrs”. But it will happen. ]
The answer to these problems is money, of course, properly directed, in itself a tricky problem, given human nature & the huge sums involved.


Population is emphatically not a long-term problem, since, provided we can survive well enough for another 50-75 years the number of humans will slowly drop back. I wonder at what sort of number it might stabilise at, eventually? 5 “billion”? 2? Any predictions?

The wild card is political/religious instability, leading to major destructive war(s), especially of based on ideology, whether “dominionist” or islamicist, or some other, as yet unseen trope.

GT

96:

According to its government, Iceland has an untapped geothermal potential of 20TWh per year - that's several times of what the 300,000 Icelanders need ...

... but only 3% of what 80mio Germans need (600TWh). And Iceland is one of the most prolific hotspots on earth.

Geothermal doesn't work. The total amount of geothermal energy released from the interior of the earth may be about 50TW, but the availablity of this energy is rather poor. 90% of the energy is released on the ocean floor (oceanic crust is much thinner than continental crust, which is a much better thermal isolator).

5TW sounds like its still a great amount, but typical conversion efficiencies are around 10%, so you're left with 500GW. But that's a purely theoretical value, as you'd have to put water lines through the whole of the continental crust - all 150 mio km^2 of it - to use it. Sorry, that's not going to fly.

All other geothermal energy schemes don't use geothermal energy, but fossil heat resources. And those are replenished (as per the previous calculation) at an average rate of 0.03W per squaremeter. The average amount of sunlight in Central Europe is on the order of 100W per squaremeter.

97:

Forget any talk of warlord for North America or Australia and New Zealand or for Europe. The memory, the myth of democratic assemblies is too deeply woven in society.

Our society's roots only go back a few dozen centuries. In terms of paleontology, that's nothing: folk memory maybe goes back to Roman times but has been horribly garbled and corrupted, and in general accurate depictions of social history fade into the mist once they get more than two lifetimes out of living memory.

In terms of the deep future, a collapse of the techosphere that lost us the printing press for more than about a century would probably do the job. There'd be a tendency to turn the mythology of the past golden age when men could fly and every baby born survived to adulthood and there were no lords into a lapsarian account of history -- or even religion. At which point, it's like the Garden of Eden myth. Did mediaeval peasants really want to re-build the Garden of Eden? Or, if they did, view it as a practical project?

98:

There'd be a tendency to turn the mythology of the past golden age when men could fly and every baby born survived to adulthood and there were no lords into a lapsarian account of history -- or even religion.

It would be interesting to look at societies in which there was an actual Golden Age (as opposed to an invented Garden of Eden) during which absolute quality of life in their past was materially better than in their present. Would Medieval Rome or Athens (or Cairo) qualify? If yes, is anyone here an expert on how those transitions were experienced/handled by the societies of the time?

99:

'the availablity of this energy is rather poor. 90% of the energy is released on the ocean floor'

Drilling deep holes in the bottom of the sea is something we're getting pretty good at, and the bottom of the sea at least gets you an infinite water supply and an infinite 4C heatsink. HVDC from the mid-Atlantic ridge to west Ireland is the same distance as Iceland to north Scotland.

But probably operating 600MW steam turbines at the bottom of the sea is unusably more expensive than even legally-opposed fission or PV in shady forests in Germany. I imagine there are things looking a bit like turbines running at the bottom of the sea to pump oil and gas, but at much lower power levels and operated with electricity from sure.

100:

the idea that it's all about us. It isn't, and the sooner we internalize that, the sooner we can start behaving like adult members of a species not hell-bent on self-destruction.

Of course it's all about us. Who would tell our stories if there weren't any humans?

But I share your view that saving the earth is a misnomer (at least as it applies to present day).

On the other hand mankind has the potential to save the earth and its biosphere in the future:


  • deploying a defense system against planet destroying asteroids (that would be good to have within 100 years time)
  • terraforming Mars or some of Jupiter's moons to become habitable in case the Earth isn't habitable any more
    (as long as we don't destroy Earth's biosphere ourselves, mankind probably has a million years before evacuation becomes necessary)
  • space travel to neighboring systems in case our system isn't habitable any more (quoting your numbers on the Main Sequence that's something mankind should learn in the next 200 million years.

Keeping that in mind we should concentrate on the immediate problem of preserving a biosphere that supports human culture. The biggest problem I see is that the current economy of scarcity may lead to an end-run on resources with devastating resource wars.

Someone above said that knowledge can't be destroyed, but that's wrong. Mankind already lost a lot of knowledge; some murderous cult even started to systematically destroy knowledge some 2000 years ago.
It's easy to destroy knowledge when you kill the persons which have it and keep people from telling it.
Looking at a contemporary example, after one generation of child soldiers you shouldn't hope for much remaining oral tradition in such a society.

Yes, some humans will most likely survive most imaginable catastrophes of the near future. But what knowledge will remain? And what stories will they tell to their children? "We had it all, we could once feed billions of people, but then we squandered it, went to war and killed everybody" -- that's not the story I want to be told in the future.

101:

@87:
good iron-casting, which only developed as part of a gradual process relating to the casting of better and better cannons and artillery over centuries.
--

If you play the Connections game, many of the technological paths of the Industrial Revolution trace back to January 10, 1709 when Abraham Darby fired up his blast furnace at Coalbrookdale.

People knew *how* to build giant cannon, railroad tracks, boilers, and ironclads before Darby, but commercial implementation of those technologies depended on iron and steel of known and reproducible quality, which made them expensive. Darby started turning the stuff out by the ton for cheap, kickstarting dozens of other techologies.

102:

"So, short term Homo drakensis, long term Moties? Offhand, I don't see how this is this any better than the Olduvai future and arguably much worse. I know, everyone thinks they're going to be of the ruling class, or at the very least a brown-and-white (like most people here consider themselves, amiright). But as Asimov famously pointed out, the numbers are against them ;-)"

After the passage of so many generations, a modern person will be the ancestor of everyone in all social positions (unless he has no surviving descendants). At these timescales genealogy looks less like a tree and more like a braid; no human couple is truly unrelated to each other.

103:

deploying a defense system against planet destroying asteroids (that would be good to have within 100 years time)
terraforming Mars or some of Jupiter's moons to become habitable in case the Earth isn't habitable any more
(as long as we don't destroy Earth's biosphere ourselves, mankind probably has a million years before evacuation becomes necessary)
space travel to neighboring systems in case our system isn't habitable any more (quoting your numbers on the Main Sequence that's something mankind should learn in the next 200 million years.

If you want all this shiny stuff, what you should concentrate on is Life Extension. Otherwise your grandiose projects are completely pointless for an individual with an average life span of 80 years.

104:

One thing to remember is that progress as the organizing myth of our culture is only a few centuries old, and really took off outside the US and Europe only in the last 50 years. The myth of growth as necessary for a functioning economy is similarly young.

The reason I point it out, aside from the fact that I'm basically trolling for progressive zealots, is that this mythology hasn't run into any of the truly enormous problems that kill societies. Things like mega-Ninos, supervolcanoes, or even a decent, century-long drought.

As an environmentalist, I'll throw out that the very idea of progress is the fruit of a uniquely benign time in history, one that we're currently coming to the end of through our own profligacy. Philosophies like fatalism (the idea that bigger forces control your life, and the best you can do is to cope with what they throw at you) may actually be more practical in the normal course of living on this planet.

If that sounds too big, we can scope it down to how those of white American and European descent see the world as about to end, because most of us don't have it as good as our parents did. Compare that with those who grew up in the Third World and emigrated to the US or Europe. They mostly think things are wonderful and getting better. We do have to be to be careful about mistaking our personal luck (being of or after the white baby boom from WWII) for a global apocalypse of surging brownness.

105:

What makes you think I'd want to live for a couple of hundred years, let alone millions of years?

Those are long term projects that should be pursued by mankind as a whole.

And looking at who gets stuff done in this world it's not the guys over 80, anyway.

/AVox

106:

I should also point out (again as an environmentalist) that conservation and preservation have a bunch of benefits.

Aside from the small problem that we can't rebuild most wild systems if destroy them, there's the other problem: which is, of course, evolution.

Anyone who thinks that biological evolution has stopped really needs to hang around a hospital until they pick up a nice MRSA infection. In fact, evolution is cranking hard all over the place. We see it in weeds, pests, pathogens, and parasites. For one big example, the tamarisks in the western US no longer really fall into the species groups of their Eurasian ancestors: they're hybridizing like crazy, and producing new types well-suited for American conditions. We similar things happening with other weeds, too, as well as insect pests and microorganisms.

In general, we're creating the huge, depauperate, highly productive ecosystems called farms and cities, and everything that can get into them is trying to get a piece of the action, often to our detriment. We no longer need to save coyotes, raccoons, or even peregrine falcons. They're living with us just fine at the moment. So are cockroaches and fire ants.

The idea behind conservation is that we've got a choice: we can spend some effort conserving ecosystems that we can easily destroy, or we can destroy them out of laziness (or some notion of progress and improvement), and within a few decades deal with an ecosystem that we can't destroy, one which takes advantage of us.

Given that the real cost of conservation is readily affordable by most estimates, it seems that (as conservationists have been saying for decades) the problem is more one of will than one of feasibility. Ultimately, it's a matter of deciding that it's better to camp in a field of wild flowers than one of weeds, and because of that, it's worth spending a few days per year weeding. Spread that out, and help out those who need things like cookstove fuel and clean water, and we can do this. Of course, we won't, but that's because the real problem is politics and will, not the science.

People have been living with ecosystems for most of the duration of our species. Until the last century or two, we've thought we had no choice. Now, we've got this illusion of a choice, and like suckers, we're opting for the idea that we can and should to build our own space to suit, never mind the cost.

Ultimately, we are the next frontier, and certainly the only one that is expanding. Unfortunately, we're not the colonists of that frontier, and that may not be a good thing.

107:

One thing that truly impressed me on my last trip to France was looking at the remains of the Roman water distribution systems at the museum at the Pont du Gard. The Romans had some seriously sophisticated pump/valve/pressure relief assemblies, mostly forged with lead and often encased in stone or concrete for strength.
Cold water was mostly gravity fed, but hot water was medium pressure.

With the amount of hydraulic and heating engineering they were familiar with, I'm sure it wasn't outside the realms of possibility to create low pressure steam engines. I suspect that with a slave economy though there wasn't a driver to reduce human costs, which is what really triggered automation in the 18th century.

108:

"With the amount of hydraulic and heating engineering they were familiar with, I'm sure it wasn't outside the realms of possibility to create low pressure steam engines."

If you have to feed them with collected firewood, I'm not sure that steam engines are all that labor-saving. That may be the reason nobody in Europe cared about them until coal was in use (starting sometime between 1000 and 1300 AD).

109:

Wow, blink and you miss it! 100+ comments before I ever read the post.

I'm put to mind about Carlin's save the planet rant.

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/251836-we-re-so-self-important-everybody-s-going-to-save-something-now-save

From a personal perspective, I understand that the environment is in a continuing state of flux and that extinction is the fate of every species, just like death is the fate of everything that has ever or will ever live. Beauty is fleeting. Some may say that transitory fragility and pending loss enhances the moment of beholding it. I wouldn't know about that. As a matter of personal aesthetics, I don't want to be the one making it happen. Same as with a redwood that's taken a thousand years to grow. It will still die in time. I just don't want to be the cause of it. Take it to the other extreme.

"You just knifed that guy in the neck! What the hell!"

"So what? We're all dying one second at a time, all I did was advance his clock by a few decades at most."

As for pickling the Earth, that's certainly a deep time project for a far more advanced species than our own. I like the idea of a high-fidelity sampling and simulation. The aliens introduce themselves. "Hi, we're life-spotters. Got a thing for studying emerging ecosystems. Had our probes here since the first cells formed. We had high hopes for Earth's potential and you guys certainly didn't disappoint. Bit of a bummer about Mars but it didn't have a magnetosphere and couldn't hold onto its atmosphere. Lovely creatures, though. You can walk through the simulation, it's breathtaking.

"Why are we making ourselves known now? Well, I have to confess -- this is more of a personal project. Your species died out and you're a historical simulation. I have a theory that things might have turned out differently if we'd actually intervened, help guide you. Strictly against policy but I don't entirely agree with it. If you can be turned around in simulation, it might make us do things differently with the next species we encounter. So can you be sports and go along with this? It would mean so much to me."

110:

Greg T here ....

@ 98
“…societies in which there was an actual Golden Age”
Well, late-classical Athens qualified, in terms of life expectancy & general health, which is one reason why it was so admired…..

@ 104
Define “growth” first?
Because a rise in living standards, coupled with low mortality rates & longevity means growth, even with a supposedly static economy. And that is happening almost everywhere – the only places it is not happening are either totally failed states or those with religious death-cults in control, or both.
And, people have noticed this, & view it as a desireable outcome, which leads to politics.

@ 106
Yes. Some of the foxes down our allotments are almost hand-tame – they will come within less than 2 metres of a human, in broad daylight, especially if they think said human has a dog-biscuit. I expect that next year, or real soon now, we might be running our unofficial version of the Russian Arctic Fox tameness evolution path.
[ note: the foxes make sure we have no rats, & they also eat pigeons ... ]

111:

What makes you think I'd want to live for a couple of hundred years, let alone millions of years?

What makes you think I think what you think I think?

What I said is most people won't care about projects longer than their lives.

Those are long term projects that should be pursued by mankind as a whole.

There is no such thing as "mankind as a whole".

And looking at who gets stuff done in this world it's not the guys over 80, anyway.

Guys over 80 are mostly dead. But you might have notices that people who get stuff done - politicians - are a pretty old bunch, overall. And they don't have a good record with millennia-long projects. Nobody have.

112:

"And they don't have a good record with millennia-long projects. Nobody have."

The Catholic Church probably comes closest.

113:

"The Catholic Church probably comes closest."

Arguably not. Pluck various popes out of history and show them them each other's policies, beliefs, role in the world etc and in many cases I'd think they'd feel it wasn't really the Catholic church.

Also there's multigeneration projects and there's multigeneration projects. Spreading religious beliefs are one thing, maintaining a biosphere is quite another.

114:
One thing to remember is that progress as the organizing myth of our culture is only a few centuries old, and really took off outside the US and Europe only in the last 50 years. The myth of growth as necessary for a functioning economy is similarly young.

The actual belief may be young, but growth and progress were not. Economic growth did happen during the agrarian societies before industralization, although it could be set back. Technology slowly advanced and spread outwards (sometimes quickly - guns spread from one end of Eurasia to the other in less than 50 years).

I also question whether we'll see a return to fatalism, at least before technology and scientific knowledge reach the limits of what is socially acceptable to pay for and do. There's always something more to discover, and that in itself fuels the idea of progress.

People have been living with ecosystems for most of the duration of our species. Until the last century or two, we've thought we had no choice. Now, we've got this illusion of a choice, and like suckers, we're opting for the idea that we can and should to build our own space to suit, never mind the cost.

It would be more accurate to say that we've been shaping the ecosystems we live in for most of the duration of our species. You can see that in the mass extinctions of mega fauna that seemed to show up whenever humans did, as well as the ways that humans changed the ecosystems of their environment en masse (including in places like the Americas, where they basically took over the role that mega fauna used to play in creating a "parkland" environment by the use of fire).

At this point, finding an "untouched" ecosystem and preserving it is nearly impossible. What we ought to be doing is working towards shaping ecosystems into ones that meet human needs while also creating as much biomass and biodiversity as possible.

@Jay #108

If you have to feed them with collected firewood, I'm not sure that steam engines are all that labor-saving. That may be the reason nobody in Europe cared about them until coal was in use (starting sometime between 1000 and 1300 AD).

I think it's one thing to shape lead, another to forge much more precise steel and iron components. Lead is a much more malleable metal than most iron alloys (although pure iron isn't that hard). There's also issues with having enough iron - the Romans produced a fair amount of iron at their peak (more than the Chinese did at the time), but it was still an expensive material to mine and use.

115:

There's no shortage of iron and steel for any post-collapse civilisation to use. In fact, we have refined billions of tonnes of it and made it easily available just about everywhere.

116:

I also question whether we'll see a return to fatalism, at least before technology and scientific knowledge reach the limits of what is socially acceptable to pay for and do. There's always something more to discover, and that in itself fuels the idea of progress.

People have been living with ecosystems for most of the duration of our species...

It would be more accurate to say that we've been shaping the ecosystems we live in for most of the duration of our species. You can see that in the mass extinctions of mega fauna that seemed to show up whenever humans did, as well as the ways that humans changed the ecosystems of their environment en masse (including in places like the Americas, where they basically took over the role that mega fauna used to play in creating a "parkland" environment by the use of fire).

Golly gee, I guess you haven't been in grad school recently, if you don't think there's a lot of fatalism out there. Even when I was in school a decade ago, the question among grad students who had married each other was whether they would a) divorce on graduation, because their postdocs were in different time zones, b) decide who was the academic and who got to find another career, or c) somehow find a dual position, no matter how much that sucked. So many careers now are take-what's-offered-or-get-out that fatalism is certainly rampaging all over the place.

As for living with ecosystems, apparently that simple phrase inspires some BS thoughts about living in harmony with nature. That's not what "living with" means, any more than living with a spouse means she stays they way you married her forever. I've got news for you: *EVERYTHING* changes its local environment. Humans are not unique in this regard. Elephants and ants structure forests, and if it weren't for the pervasive pollution of the atmosphere by cyanobacterial oxygen farts, we wouldn't even exist.

We have been unique in having this cutesy little recent idea that we are separate from the biosphere. To repeat, that's a pretty damn new idea in the history of humans, and it's already intellectually bankrupt, even if it still has an emotional appeal to those for whom the intertwined myths of progress and growth are inviolable truths. I suspect that all of these myths will fail, as most myths do, when they get in the way of making a living.

117:

Heteromeles, a sample of graduate students isn't representative of anything except, well, a population of graduate students.

118:

Plus, they're grad students. You expect existential despair.

@Heteromeles #116

I've got news for you: *EVERYTHING* changes its local environment. Humans are not unique in this regard. Elephants and ants structure forests, and if it weren't for the pervasive pollution of the atmosphere by cyanobacterial oxygen farts, we wouldn't even exist.

Which is . . exactly what I said. Humans have been changing their ecosystems for tens of thousands of years in a significant way, so there's really no example out there of any sort of environment that's "pristine" from human influence.

119:

Sorry for thinking to know what you think I think.


There is no such thing as "mankind as a whole".

What I meant is that some people should (and probably will) tackle these projects for the benefit of all.

And I resist do believe that people only do things they personally profit from. That's an illusion being promoted by market ideologists. In the end promoting self-esteem is the main reason why people get things done; unfortunately, in these days too many people reduce their self-esteem to having money. Once we live in a post-scarcity society that will go away.

120:

So, the last bit of Charlie's proposal has been bugging me, the

"our shaved ape preoccupation with status and anthropocentricity, the idea that it's all about us. It isn't, ..."

bit, because I'm wondering just what "it" is going to be.

If not us, and I am a vain and foolish creature for thinking exactly that (though I like to think I'm not beyond reproach), then perhaps the "it" is for us to get out of the way?

Given the limited time span the biosphere has been available for cranking out biots in relation to the probable time-span of the planet itself, it seems likely there's only enough room for one particular species to come out on top at a time, as it were, fending off all the others until it develops a sense of self powerful enough to ask "Hey, what exactly am I doing here..." and pausing for a bit of reflection.

Could we not solve Fermi's Paradox, at least in part and quite locally, by situating ourselves so that some other species can gain a toe-hold on the universe? And then have the guts to not act like a bunch of old testament heavenly hosts around them?

121:

In terms of the deep future, a collapse of the techosphere that lost us the printing press for more than about a century would probably do the job. There'd be a tendency to turn the mythology of the past golden age when men could fly and every baby born survived to adulthood and there were no lords into a lapsarian account of history -- or even religion. At which point, it's like the Garden of Eden myth. Did mediaeval peasants really want to re-build the Garden of Eden? Or, if they did, view it as a practical project?

I can't find the source (drat) but a mythographer said that there had been a fairly rugged patch of civilization collapse in Hellas for a few centuries and the myths that we know so well were the fabled memories of the earlier civilized epoch.

Now as to whether this is a just so theory or something with actual truth behind it I can't say.

122:

What I meant is that some people should (and probably will) tackle these projects for the benefit of all.

But there is no benefit in protection from 1-in-a-1,000,000 years event to an individual with a lifespan of 80 years. The probability that it will be useful to a given person is microscopically small.

Of course, if you'll ask a random person "do you want humanity to be protected from an asteroid that will strike a million years from now?", the answer will be "yes, sure".

What you should ask instead is "how much are you willing to pay, out of your monthly income, to fund a project that will protect humanity a million years from now?". Then you'll know what budget your project is going to have. My guess is it won't be large at all...

123:

Why so earth centric? If humans do populate the solar system, we could potentially create any number of ecosystems. [ I rather like KSM's 2312 as a scenario ]. Let's leave aside the "how" and accept that it is one possible avenue, even if the majority of the human population stay on earth.

I think we might also should think more in terms of "life centric" rather than "preserve the Holocene". It might be quite possible to evolve/engineer any number of life forms that could thrive on a very different earth (or off it). We may well do this to ourselves in order to adapt to new conditions or expand to new environments.

"Preserve or not preserve" seems like a very small box to think outside of, to me.

124:

But there is no benefit in protection from 1-in-a-1,000,000 years event to an individual with a lifespan of 80 years.

The problem with 1-in-a-million-years events is that they can still happen tomorrow.
The probability that it will be useful to a given person is microscopically small.

Of course, if you'll ask a random person "do you want humanity to be protected from an asteroid that will strike a million years from now?", the answer will be "yes, sure".

What you should ask instead is "how much are you willing to pay, out of your monthly income, to fund a project that will protect humanity a million years from now?". Then you'll know what budget your project is going to have. My guess is it won't be large at all...

Money, what's money?
I was talking about a post-scarcity society. After reading "Debt - the first 5000 years" by David Graeber and "Sacred Economy" by Charles Eisenstein I don't think the current money system is viable in the medium to long run; nor do I feel that a society using that system needs preservation. Right now we create artificial scarcity to promote senseless economic growth and great inequalities. If we keep on doing that for another 50 years, there won't be any resources left, we'll be in a global state of war and human culture will break apart along clan borders.
In that case a planet killing asteroid would be a mercy, tbh.

125:

Probably not quite true. The deepest dark age Europe experienced probably was the Bronze Age Collapse, not the Medieval dark age. The old Bronze Age civilizations were quite cosmopolitan, in that artifacts and memes from the Middle East turned up in Sweden, and material from Afghanistan turned up in the Levant, and Cornish tin got to Crete. The prime mover there was bronze. Except for a small area around Turkey (AFAIK), tin deposits and copper deposits were not close to each other. Therefore, metallurgy depended on international trade, and ideas traveled with the traders. Artwork and artifacts from the period spread much further than they did until the age of Empires (e.g. Rome) a thousand years later.

Thing is, the mythic symbolism of Bronze Age Europe were pretty strange. We don't know much, but we know they (Bronze Age Europe and the Levant) went in for twin god symbolism in a big way. Apparently the Gemini Twins were major gods with their sister the sun, and the Olympian pantheon was a later invention or introduction. Most of the Bronze Age mythology we do have comes from Europe and Mesopotamia, and it's different still.

What we think of as classical mythology appears to be more of an iron age phenomenon (as is Judaism).

Incidentally, iron was one of the first big disruptive technologies. Iron deposits are more common than copper or tin. The problem is that they require hotter temperatures for smelting and working. As knowledge of iron spread, there was less need for the international copper/tin trade, and that may have helped break down the international cultures of the old Bronze Age. I'm pretty sure iron wasn't the cause of the Bronze Age collapse, but it probably contributed.

For those who are fond of the old sword and sorcery genre, I will point out that it's high time for someone to dive into the Bronze Age again. The last effort was de Camps Pusadian chronicles, and that was about 50 years ago. The archeology has advanced enormously since then...

126:

What you should ask instead is "how much are you willing to pay, out of your monthly income, to fund a project that will protect humanity a million years from now?". Then you'll know what budget your project is going to have. My guess is it won't be large at all...

Hey look! there are already people working on my first project! ;-)

The Impact Imperative: Laser Ablation for Deflecting Asteroids, Meteoroids, and Comets from Impacting the Earth (AIP Conf. Proc. 664, pp. 509-522)

127:

Umm no, I'm saying that the shibboleth of the pristine environment is irrelevant. Yes, I know a number of environmentalists still use it, especially when they came of age in the 60s and 70s. The current generation of conservation scientists know better.

As I pointed out above, preservationists preserve possible futures in wildlife refuges. We don't preserve wild areas as museum dioramas. Wild ecosystems are too complex for us to assemble (even assuming we lived at the proper scale to do the assembly), so we're trying to make sure the organisms are around so that they can find places to live as the world changes. The future won't look like the past, but then again, the present doesn't look like the past either.

Plus, they're grad students. You expect existential despair.

@Heteromeles #116

I've got news for you: *EVERYTHING* changes its local environment. Humans are not unique in this regard. Elephants and ants structure forests, and if it weren't for the pervasive pollution of the atmosphere by cyanobacterial oxygen farts, we wouldn't even exist.

Which is . . exactly what I said. Humans have been changing their ecosystems for tens of thousands of years in a significant way, so there's really no example out there of any sort of environment that's "pristine" from human influence.

128:

Money, what's money?

The best value signal we currently have.

I was talking about a post-scarcity society.

I think we will have life extension before we have post-scarcity society.

Right now we create artificial scarcity to promote senseless economic growth and great inequalities.

We also have hundreds of millions of people with no sufficient food, water, medicine, infrastructure, housing and education. None of those scarcities are artificial, people really need all that stuff.

129:

Erm, what about the countless other species that will become extinct as a consequence of ACC?

They may be not sapient or tool-using, but do they actually deserve so much suffering imposed on their personal existence by making their population decline a death march?

And besides, our duty to try and mitigate ACC isn't so much "religion" (now there's some semiotic fluff in this statement), but more the "you broke it, you pay for it" principle.

130:

We also have hundreds of millions of people with no sufficient food, water, medicine, infrastructure, housing and education. None of those scarcities are artificial, people really need all that stuff.

The need is real, the scarcity not. People don't have access to food / water / medicine / etc. because your "best value signal" says they shouldn't get it. For example in US + Europe people throw enough food away to feed the world. Medicine isn't produced and distributed to poor countries because there's not enough profit in it for the pharma companies. If the poor countries use cheaper generica instead, they get patent / IPO trouble from the same companies. Governments of many African countries neglect the needs their people because they take bribes from foreign companies so those companies get cheap access to natural resources; instead they only invest in weapons and police. There's a lot more complexity behind it, but the bottom line is the same: the poor starve because the rich try to get richer.

131:

People don't have access to food / water / medicine / etc. because your "best value signal" says they shouldn't get it.

Signal can't say anything by itself. Signal is a mean by which people say things. Honest things like "I value starving Africans less than my eating habits". Almost nobody utters that with their mouth, but they sure say it with their wallets.

And that's why money is the "best value signal ". It allows the cleanest expression of value.

There's a lot more complexity behind it, but the bottom line is the same: the poor starve because the rich try to get richer.

You know, you really shouldn't, in the same sentence, write that a certain issue is complex and immediately try to sum it up with a maxim. :-)

Also, I don't agree.

"The poor starve because almost everybody try to get richer, but try to get richer in a very unefficient manner".

But that I mean that most people are both self-interested and bad at planning ahead. Helping starving African can have enormous benefits - just think of the additional scientific output that billion people can produce once that are not occupied with daily survival - but only if enough people understand that and cooperate. Which we don't.

132:

"I was talking about a post-scarcity society."

I consider the concept of "post-scarcity society" to be about as plausible as "TARDIS full of spellcasting vampire brontosaurs". People will always want things they can't have.

133:

@Brett_:87
> I wonder if impressing upon people the concept of "disease
> comes from tiny creatures that get into your blood" would
> save a post-collapse civilization a ton of time in the
> development of medicine. At the very least, they might
> grasp the significance and means of proper sanitation much
> earlier on, helping to reduce the "sinkhole of sewage and
> garbage" factor that you got with many big European cities.

Yes!

A little knowledge of antisepsis can go a long way. Simply knowing that much like we like to live indoors, so do mice, stuff likes to live inside of us and it can make us sick helps a lot.

You can drop childbirth mortality substantially by using antisepsis provided by distilled spirits (and I can guarantee you that making booze will survive any apocalypse that the human species does) and cleaning/boiling.

If you understand that the same thing applies to intestinal parasites, you can treat water so as to be safer to drink. If you understand the basic fecal-oral route for distribution, the principles of waste sequestration make sense. Towns just need septic systems (or chemical treatment plants at more advanced tech levels) and you've managed to get nearly the same lifespan as we have today, and comparable mortality and morbidity up until age 40 or so. Sadly, most of this could be accomplished with bronze-age technology, but required fairly modern knowledge to put it all together.

134:

"We have no sane reason to pickle it in aspic ..."

Apart from the arguments centered on biology, economics and history, i.e., "sane" reasons all, there are also emotion-based reasons. Our emotional reactions to our environment individually and as societies are often pretty good indicators of what things are beneficial to us (humans). So - based entirely on emotional (and as it turns out, physiological) self-interest I'm for 'saving' the planet, i.e., keeping it green, reducing pollutants, etc. A pickled planet would be a dead planet, so I'd prefer to leave as much of it alone as possible.

135:

We already live in a post scarcity society. To have no clothing, shelter or food in our society you really need to work hard at it. It's all available for the asking.

136:

"I was talking about a post-scarcity society."

I consider the concept of "post-scarcity society" to be about as plausible as "TARDIS full of spellcasting vampire brontosaurs". People will always want things they can't have.

That's not what a post-scarcity society is about. It's about a society that doesn't need scarcity to keep going. Today, interest on debt keeps money scarce, to make money you need production, which in turn uses resources and adds to the scarcity of those resources. The urge to make profit will always take resources from less powerful people and that makes them poor. The mechanism is well described in "Sacred Economy".

I also don't buy into "People will always want things they can't have." Do you mean everyone behaves that way? I don't think so, most people try to achieve things where they have a reasonable chance to succeed. Frustration usually quickly adjust one's goals (think of "sour grapes")

A post-scarcity society would motivate people in other ways than with profit and threat of starvation if someone refuses to work.

137:

We already live in a post scarcity society. To have no clothing, shelter or food in our society you really need to work hard at it. It's all available for the asking.

While mankind has the means to a post-scarcity society, it's not true that we already live in one. Even in rich countries there are homeless people, or people who don't know where to get food or heating. Just look out for news about old people who will freeze to death this winter.

And in poorer countries you'll find slums and famine. That's not what I'd call post-scarcity.

138:

I should point out that societies collapse unevenly. The Dark Ages had some perfectly good chain mail and steel swords, albeit they used the armor for centuries because it was so hard to produce them on a craft basis.

Generalizing from the crash of the western Roman Empire, the things that get lost are what we consider infrastructure (roads, aqueducts, etc), anything that takes a high level of organization to produce. Products that can be produced by an individual or a craft shop survived the crash much better.

In the modern context, that means we can expect to lose electrical and oil infrastructure, as well as solar photovoltaic, giant wind, and nuclear. We can expect to retain power from small hydroelectic, solar thermal, small wind, biogas, and so on, because people have proved adept at creating generators from scrounged material.

We'll lose most planes, but we might retain drones, and we'll certainly retain kites and balloons.

A few months ago, I asked what kind of computer could be produced by a city, and the rough consensus was that 80s-level PCs could be built by a post-collapse city (while modern computers need a global supply network for construction). We might retain CCD cameras (apparently the CIA was producing them in the 70s), but we'll certainly lose the cloud and probably much of the internet as it currently exists. I suspect people will be making more books, but I think we'll fall at worst to a 1950s level of information technology, and certainly not a 1700 or 1000 BC level.

In medicine, we'll lose much of our current big pharma, organ transplants, MRIs and other diagnostics, nuclear medicine, fancy chemotherapy, and so forth. We'll definitely retain public health, medicine up to 1940s levels (probably without antibiotics, sadly), and anything that people can quickly learn an implement without massive amounts of high tech. Oddly, people might be healthier, because they'll have less to eat and get more exercise than we do now.

In agriculture, we'll certainly see the end of industrial agriculture as it currently exists, which means food prices will skyrocket. We've been through this before, and I'm not too worried. People may well get healthier (less food, more exercise), but they won't enjoy it. Some people have suggested that the modern organic garden is possibly our civilization's greatest invention, because it allows skilled gardeners to produce most of their food on a relatively small amount of land. It's possible.

As for guns and warfare, think more snipers and fewer machine guns. Industrial warfare will go away, but we've already got a lot of really nasty flavors of guerrilla warfare already around to replace it.

TL;DR: collapses are uneven. If we have a slow collapse, things won't be so bad. Fast crashes are what we need to avoid, if possible.

139:

Dirk Bruere:
We already live in a post scarcity society. To have no clothing, shelter or food in our society you really need to work hard at it. It's all available for the asking.

Andreas Vox:
While mankind has the means to a post-scarcity society, it's not true that we already live in one. Even in rich countries there are homeless people, or people who don't know where to get food or heating. Just look out for news about old people who will freeze to death this winter. And in poorer countries you'll find slums and famine. That's not what I'd call post-scarcity.

In western countries most of the people in danger of freezing or starving are working hard at in, usually because they are mentally ill and for some reason unable to be institutionalized. Often that's because they do not like the drugs they get there and make use of the law to get themselves out, where they then get worse again and are in danger of freezing or starving.

We made a societal decision to allow them that choice in the 1970s in the US; I have long felt that was morally a mistake, but it's entrenched in law and social expectations now.

140:

"We already live in a post scarcity society. To have no clothing, shelter or food in our society you really need to work hard at it. It's all available for the asking."

That's not what the word "scarcity" means in the context of economics. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarcity

As I've said earlier in this thread (starting with post #23), I don't expect the conditions you call a "post scarcity society" to continue indefinitely, either.

141:

To summarize for those too lazy to go to the wiki link, Scarcity in economic terms means the finite resources available to meet the theoretically infinite wants of a population. Scarcity doesn't stop just because certain goods and services are cheap and require little work to get them.

142:

But we're not; the only issue to which we are of central importance is the question of our own survival.

Precisely not.

A myriad of other species is endangered (if not already rendered extinct) by human-made global warming. It has the potential to decrease Earth's hospitality to somewhere between that of Mars and Venus.

Wouldn't you say it's a moral/ethical imperative to not only try to safeguard Earth's ability to sustain human, but also complex life in general?

143:

Signal can't say anything by itself. Signal is a mean by which people say things. Honest things like "I value starving Africans less than my eating habits". Almost nobody utters that with their mouth, but they sure say it with their wallets.

And that's why money is the "best value signal ". It allows the cleanest expression of value.

Politely: that's garbage.

Especially when you consider that the surplus agricultural production in North America that is devoted to [state subsidized] biofuel production is roughly equal to the shortfall in food for human beings. And that the biofuel production is mandated by and subsidized by law. And someone paid the election campaign costs (and some juicy back-handers) to buy the lawmakers.

The value signal in question has been hopelessly corrupted, because the "value signal" of a couple of billion dollars emitted by starving folks in poor parts of Africa is swamped by the "value signal" of rent-seeking would-be biofuel manufacturers. Who can leverage their future profits to borrow money in the here-and-now to secure legal backing for their sub-optimal strategy.

This is the crisis of capitalism in a nutshell: if you have access to capital you can leverage it to buy regulatory/legal access to future sources of capital, even when this is antithetical to both the commonweal and to your own long-term best interests (not being lynched by an angry mob of starving poor people).

144:

We made a societal decision to allow them that choice in the 1970s in the US; I have long felt that was morally a mistake, but it's entrenched in law and social expectations now.

You're unfamiliar with the level of abuse the categorized-as-disabled suffered in the 1970s and earlier? Seriously, we're talking sexual violence (including gang rape), bullying, beatings, work practices that would qualify as slavery, and so on. Most of the abuses of the US prison system were prefigured in the mental "health" system back then.

Asylums were also used as dumping grounds for "undesirables" -- Asperger's cases, Down's Syndrome cases, unmarried teen mothers, anyone society didn't want to face. These days those are mostly capable of functioning successfuly in broader society, with some extra assistance: I've heard of folks with Down's Syndrome graduating from university, whereas prior to the 1960s they were considered incapable of even learning to read. Their life expectancy has also risen from 30-40 years to 60+.

So you think ditching that system was a moral mistake? I disagree. I think the moral mistake was in using the closure of the metal hospitals as an excuse to save money, thus depriving the formerly-confined with real mental health problems of the resources and support they needed to have a chance of living outside the walls while unemployable.

145:

Wouldn't you say it's a moral/ethical imperative to not only try to safeguard Earth's ability to sustain human, but also complex life in general?

Nope.

Because we're living through the golden age of exoplanetography and I lean towards the opinion that the frequency of new planetary discoveries makes it almost a dead certainty that there are thousands, if not millions, of planets with complex life in this galaxy alone.

146:

Maybe not a moral imperative, at least for you. Not everyone's "moral imperatives" are the same, nor quite often can one be justified over another. Eventually it comes down to who has the power to have their "moral imperative" enforced.
Apart from that, every genome lost represents a fortune in lost information the like of which the universe will not see again.

147:

Hm, interesting notion. On the one hand, the presence of extraterrestrial biospheres is as relevant to earth's as the diamond star is to the market prices of engagement rings.

But if the next generation of space telescopes starts pinging active biospheres and we figure out they're common as muck through the galaxy it might make us feel like there are plenty of virgin ecosystems out there and this one is ours to play with. At least as far as conservation for conservation's sake goes...

148:

Politely: that's garbage.

Huh? If people cared about Africans, wouldn't they elect politicians who promised to help Africans? And wouldn't politicians wanting more votes add "help Africans" to their agendas?

This is the crisis of capitalism in a nutshell: if you have access to capital you can leverage it to buy regulatory/legal access to future sources of capital, even when this is antithetical to both the commonweal and to your own long-term best interests (not being lynched by an angry mob of starving poor people).

This is not a crisis of capitalism. This is a crisis of people being stupid.

Also, I'd like to see you suggest a better value signal than money. No, seriously, you could overturn human civilization overnight if you come up with something better.

149:

Also, I'd like to see you suggest a better value signal than money. No, seriously, you could overturn human civilization overnight if you come up with something better.

Money isn't just a value signal. First of all, "value" is a very subjective term, so it's not clear if everything should have a single "value" or price anyway.
Second, this system gives value only to things that can be traded, but has difficulty to handle things like "clean environment", "love" or "happiness".

Finally, money doesn't exist alone but is part of a system of beliefs, rules and conventions. This system gives power to people who have a lot of money and forces poor people to do things they don't want to do and which can go against their best interest. That's a property of the system, not the effect of "people being stupid".

150:

...the frequency of new planetary discoveries makes it almost a dead certainty that there are thousands, if not millions, of planets with complex life in this galaxy alone.

It certainly is an opinion, but completely unsubstantiated. Hopefully we will have some evidence within a decade whether there are some exoplanets with possible bio-signatures, but at this point we have no evidence that life exists anywhere else, including our neighbor planet, Mars. Life could be common or even unique to Earth. We have no evidence to decide which.

151:

Scarcity in economic terms means the finite resources available to meet the theoretically infinite wants of a population.

Which shows another fallacy of the mainstream economic theory: "infinite wants of a population" is bullshit.

This is a mathematical reduction of human motivations that's just there to make the economists nice formulas work. In reality, noone has infinite needs: there is just so much food you can eat, houses you can inhabit, books you can read or clothes you can wear. If you have too much of anything, there are costs involved that stop you from wanting more. The only thing that is wanted without limits is money, which only shows what a broken concept money is in the first place.

The other dogma of mainstream economics is that humans act rationally and only out of self-interest. That's also wrong on both accounts.

152:

@143:
the surplus agricultural production in North America that is devoted to [state subsidized] biofuel production is roughly equal to the shortfall in food for human beings.
--
I'm contemplating the purchase of one of these for auxiliary heating this winter:
http://www.northerntool.com/shop/tools/products_corn-stoves

Resources, like the future, are unevenly distributed.

153:

Money isn't just a value signal. First of all, "value" is a very subjective term, so it's not clear if everything should have a single "value" or price anyway.

Of course it is subjective. Money is used as a signal of personal value.

Finally, money doesn't exist alone but is part of a system of beliefs, rules and conventions. This system gives power to people who have a lot of money and forces poor people to do things they don't want to do and which can go against their best interest. That's a property of the system, not the effect of "people being stupid".

The system is the way it is because people are stupid (regardless of their wealth). You can't make people less stupid by changing a value signal.

154:

You have a good supply of burnables?

155:

Greg T here ...
My comments keep getting either eaten or "held by blog owner for approval" & I have no idea why ... no links, in them recently for instance ....
Oh & I prefigured Andreas @ 151... the "infinite" wants of a population is, indeed a complete crock.

Agree wholeheartedly with Vanzetti @ 148
A BETTER value-singnal than money?
GO for it!
However "he" (or she) also makes a true, but seriously incomplete statement, namely ...
That this is a crisis of stupidity.
Yes, but those stupid people have lots of the present value-counter, money, & are determined to use their leverage to perpetuate their stupidity & power, of course.

I hope I have re-stated the problem correctly?

GT

[[ mod: You do actually have a Movable Type account under the name gtingey. Using that (assuming you still have your password) may be more effective ]]

156:

I could suggest democracy as a better value system than money, that's at least a possibility.

I could also wonder which system of money is run - might a totally public list of purchases have quite different purchasing habits than a system where all purchases are private?

157:

Industrial Ag is going nowhere, for the very simple reason that without mechanization, agriculture moves from requiring 2-3 % of the population to requiring 90%.

What that means is that if you have to dedicate 50% of *the entire workforce* to keeping tractors, fertilizers and combines in existence, doing so means you come out way ahead economically compared to giving up on this particular part of the techno-sphere. If it becomes necessary to make every part by hand and turn the sever system into a gigantic bio-gas plant to get fuel? Then that will get done. Industrial agriculture only ends if everybody *dies*. Or, alternatively, stop eating plants.

158:

Figures circa 1900 suggest one third of the population would be required if there was no modern mechanization.

159:

However "he" (or she) also makes a true, but seriously incomplete statement, namely ...
That this is a crisis of stupidity.
Yes, but those stupid people have lots of the present value-counter, money, & are determined to use their leverage to perpetuate their stupidity & power, of course.
I hope I have re-stated the problem correctly?

He. 8-)

What I mean is, humanity has a "crisis" of stupidity, that is as old as humanity itself. People are bad at planning ahead, in other words.

There always were people with power. And they always were as stupid as people without power.

160:

I could suggest democracy as a better value system than money, that's at least a possibility.

We already use it.

I could also wonder which system of money is run - might a totally public list of purchases have quite different purchasing habits than a system where all purchases are private?

Really big purchases are already public, aren't they?

161:

Really big purchases are subject to quite a bit of scrutiny, to help prevent serious errors.

162:

Charlie:
You're unfamiliar with the level of abuse the categorized-as-disabled suffered in the 1970s and earlier? Seriously, we're talking sexual violence (including gang rape), bullying, beatings, work practices that would qualify as slavery, and so on. Most of the abuses of the US prison system were prefigured in the mental "health" system back then.

Asylums were also used as dumping grounds for "undesirables" -- Asperger's cases, Down's Syndrome cases, unmarried teen mothers, anyone society didn't want to face. These days those are mostly capable of functioning successfuly in broader society, with some extra assistance: I've heard of folks with Down's Syndrome graduating from university, whereas prior to the 1960s they were considered incapable of even learning to read. Their life expectancy has also risen from 30-40 years to 60+.

So you think ditching that system was a moral mistake? I disagree. I think the moral mistake was in using the closure of the metal hospitals as an excuse to save money, thus depriving the formerly-confined with real mental health problems of the resources and support they needed to have a chance of living outside the walls while unemployable.

No, I'm not unfamiliar with it. The old "institutionalize everything" approach was clearly wrong. But we swung too far away, where people who are mentally ill and mainfestly unwilling or unable to take aid are unable to be institutionalized if they object to it. Cities that DO pay sufficient amounts, have beds in shelters, have food and treatment available still have people on the streets who won't take the aid (though, and I do want to be clear, there are lots of places that don't have that much aid).

There's a great gap between "mentally ill homeless street person who can't care for themselves can be institutionalized against their will" and "...and everyone with downs syndrome or autism or aspergers or mildly mentally ill the families find challenging should be institutionalized". I understand why the swing in the 70s, but it went too far, and it's not clear if we haven't inflicted 40+ years of horrors on the ones who ended up on the streets that equal the 1970s and before institutionalization horrors.

A middle ground is possible and desirable and should minimize human suffering.

163:

Same logic applies. The problem is I keep seeing people just assume that any major disruption of the industrial economy - oil scarcity, international trade, whatever, would inevitably take industrial ag with it, as if it was some fragile hothouse plant that society is just going to let slide - which is completely ass-backwards. Industrial ag is the root of the entire industrial economy, and it will go last. If keeping the tractors running means there is no fuel for lights, people will go to bed early. Any society that falls apart so bad that they are forced to resort to horse drawn machinery and muscle power for farm work is so completely disrupted that everybody is going to die.

164:

In short, any nation that cannot feed its entire population locally is going to fall apart in nasty genocidal ways.

165:

"Industrial agriculture is going nowhere...."

Actually, we will be using more people in agriculture. It's primarily a question of how we get there.

The logic that it's more efficient to use 2-3% of the population to make all the food is true only if you measure money and assume food is carbohydrates, protein, and sugar.

We've got a system that's unsustainable in virtually every other way:
--industrial ag requires >1 calorie of energy in to get energy out, even though we're using plants that take in sunlight. The reason is that there's a massive fossil fuel subsidy in the form of fertilizers, mechanization, and transport. We WILL run out of fossil fuels at some point, period. It's a question of whether we go for the 1000 Gigatonne carbon emission scenario, or the 5000 Gigatonne carbon emission scenario (neither of which will turn this place into Mars or Venus, but that's another thread).
--industrial ag wastes tremendous amounts of fixed nitrogen. This decreases the ability of oceans to hold life (which is amazingly stupid), AND it also wastes a tremendous amount of nitrogen. Those who say that we have industrial ag to disguise the fact that our fertilizer factories could readily be turned into explosives manufacturing have a major point.
--we're running out of phosphorus to feed our fields.
--Our definition of food (sufficient carbs, protein, and sugar) has resulted in an epidemic of diseases (diabetes, obesity, and vitamin deficiencies) caused by this diet.
--The farm subsidies are such that many farmers make $20,000 or less per year, and have to take a second job to pay the >>$100,000 in loans they took out to scale up. It's a mugs game under the current rules, which is the major reason why farmers are leaving the land.

So basically, it's a dead certainty that, in the future, more people will be producing more of their food. The only question is whether we get there the fast, catastrophic, and starvation-prone way, or whether we take a longer glide path down. Either way, I agree it sucks, but the numbers don't support industrial ag lasting all that much longer.
--

166:

Test - it works - using "moveable type" - thank-you the moderator(s)!
& my picture/avatar [ My hand holding a Pint! ] has re-appeared, even better.

heteromeles @ 165 ..
I'll repeat & expand my eaten post:
A "10-rod" allotment [ approx 10x30 metres ] will keep a couple fed all year with vegetables.
Ours does, and we are giving stuff away - not nearly as much as usual, this shitty year, but even so, we have a surplus.
Assuming you still have enough electrical power available to power freezers, it's even easier.
Britain would need to drastically re-arrange it's working patterns - (almost) everyone would go over to split part-time working, and all the parks would be turned into allotments, & transport would have to be re-jigged, but the total area required would be bigger than Suffolk, but smaller than Norfolk.
The rest of the remaining agricultural land would be used for non-allotment crops & livestock.
E.G. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, wheat, barley oats, rye.

Dispute the point about fossil fuels, given the air-fuels people's programme - though this requires power to run it, of course.
I would suggets putting their plants, post 2025, right next to new coal-fired stations, where they scrub the CO2 (& the other nasties) out of the stacks, compress it, and run it through their fuel-air processes, whilst selling the surplus electricity on to the grid.

167:

...


FFS. Keeping runoff-nitrogen out of the oceans is a solved problem - And it was solved not by not fertilizing, but by computer controlled fertilizing machinery, waterway restoration, and green field borders. To the extent agricultural nitrogen still winds up in the sea, it is because those techniques have not become quite universal as yet.

As for the consumption of energy in industrial ag, energy is cheap. Renewable energy is cheap. Much cheaper than labor. Also cheaper than conventional energy was back in the dark, energy conserving days of.. 1960. Find an inflation adjusted table of electricity costs. It is eyeopening reading.

More importantly, agriculture just does not use all that much of it. Even with conversion losses, keeping agriculture in ammonia for both fuel and fertilizer could easily be done with a smallish fraction of existing conventional hydro power, let alone any of the gazillion alternatives to people going back to being peasants.
Which is what you are predicting. And that is not going to happen. People will bite the bullet and live with whatever has to be built to keep that from happening. View spoiled by windmills? Who cares! Mountain sized chunks of granite are floating on hydraulic pistons and cause sizable earthquakes when they fail? "Eh, whatever". The district heating system is hooked up to a fast reactor built right smack in the city center? "Better to die glowing at 50 than a peasant at 32!".

168:

Ok, step back.

The "Industrial Revolution" is noted for large assembly-line factories but less notably by most in that there were finally enough non-farmer people to staff up those factories.

What was remarkable and enabling was that the percentage of the population required to farm to support the rest dropped significantly over the last 300 years. Modern progress really has more to do with surplus labor not doing subsistence farming than anything else, in a real sense.

If we revert that then the losses are significant.

169:

So, on the off chance that there's some metabolizing snot on a rock some bazillions of kilometers away, you want to say "fuck it" and close your eyes to the decrease in life quality both humans and animals experience in the here and now, the near as well as the far future due to natural disaster and the the disruption of the food web, respectively?

Do you know how insane that sounds for us normal people?

I thought you had outgrown that whole Transcientologist delusional complex, but I see you're still in the clutches of the same old reductionist, technocratic and nihilist conviction.

170:

Barkeron:
So, on the off chance that there's some metabolizing snot on a rock some bazillions of kilometers away, you want to say "fuck it" and close your eyes to the decrease in life quality both humans and animals experience in the here and now, the near as well as the far future due to natural disaster and the the disruption of the food web, respectively?

Do you know how insane that sounds for us normal people?

I thought you had outgrown that whole Transcientologist delusional complex, but I see you're still in the clutches of the same old reductionist, technocratic and nihilist conviction.

I think you are taking Charlie's response to one aspect of your question out of context and ignoring the main post and all his other replies here. And being insufferably rude and confrontational for no good reason.

Perhaps you should rethink and rephrase?

171:

According to reality, nitrogen runoff is not a solved problem, because the anoxic zones caused by excess nitrogen runoff are still growing worldwide.

Thing is, it's theoretically simple to limit your nitrogen inputs onto a field--I was taught the technique in a lower-division soil science class a long time ago. In practice, though, it's obviously harder. Soil tests cost money, fertilizer is cheap (since we're paying in part to keep a bit of our military-industrial complex available, just in case we need it against, um, someone), and most governments aren't stringent enough about keeping watersheds clean through oh-so-expensive water testing (it's expensive due to sample numbers and the politics of yelling at non-complaint farmers, more than anything else).

There's a fundamental difference between solved in theory and solved in practice. Nitrogen runoff is not solved in practice.

To be sarcastic, I should point out that climate change is a solved problem too. Except for the politics, and who pays for what. That's all we're really hung up on right now, and I do mean this seriously. The place we most desperately need innovation isn't in science, it's in political problem solving.


172:

@Greg: Ummm, not quite, and I suspect you may not be thinking about the two climate change scenarios I mentioned.

The 1000GT and 5000GT emissions are the two carbon release protocols considered by the UN. We've currently released 300-400GT AFAIK as background. The 1000 GT release is what we get if we aim for 350 ppm CO2 (it assumes we'll miss), while the 5000 GT assumes we take every bit of known fossil fuel and put that carbon into the atmosphere over the next few centuries. Compare 5000 GT to 400 GT, and you can see that this scenario assumes we're going to burn quite a lot. Currently, I think we're headed for a 3000-4000 GT release with current trends, but it will occur over the next few centuries.

At that point, we're headed into a late Paleocene climate superimposed on a bunch of continents configured to produce ice ages. What will happen in practice is that over the next 40,000-400,000 or so years, the carbon we release will get reabsorbed into the sediments, and we'll get back to having ice ages. We've already released enough carbon that we'll likely miss the next Ice Age about 50,000 years out (as predicted by planetary wobble and such), but about 500,000 years from now or so, another Ice Age will almost certainly occur, even assuming a 5000 GT release of all available fossil fuels into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, if we're so stupid as to blow all our fossil fuels now, our distant descendents will have absolutely no fossil fuels with which to stop the next ice age. Oh well.

The other point hidden in there is that our descendents will most likely be around to see that ice age.

If we somehow get innovative in our political problem solving, we face a much more benign future after a 1000 GT carbon release. Notice that "more benign" is relative, because the weather's going to be 2-3 times weirder than it is now, as opposed to 10-15 times weirder, as it would be under the 5000 GT mega-belch.

ref: Deep Future, by Curt Stager.

173:

Umm. Don't we at the very least have some ethical duty toward non-technological sapient species that have to rely on the biosphere? Elephants, chimps, etc.? Even ignoring that, there is stuff we can learn from all manner of organisms that makes them work keeping around.

(And I think it's safe to assume preserving a virtual copy of said biosphere will be impractical for a long, long time.)

Mind, the idea of ditching the biosphere just rubs me the wrong way. Probably for about the same set of reasons that burning books does.

174:

heteromeles @ 172
I agree with almost everything you are saying, just that the time-context is different.
I was "only" looking forward for the next 50-200 years, to get us "over the hump" so to speak.
Once those little lcoal difficulties have been overcome, only then we can afford to take the longer view.
Swamps & alligators come to mind!

175:

Remember - it's OK to kill people because there are plenty of them about, mostly in other countries.

176:

Have you read Pournelle's A Step Farther Out? http://www.amazon.com/A-Step-Farther-Out-ebook/dp/B004XTKFWW/

He covers how to make sure we survive in style and save the planet's resources at the same time. The short answer is space and asteroids. It is worth reading.

177:

It seems that the food production arguments talk/present only extreme strategies: either we rely entirely on massive ag farms or we completely abandon them in favor of single-family plots. This doesn't make sense because people/systems tend to get more diverse and complex over time -- less homogenous. This hasn't happened because - so far - the major players have been able to keep it so. Further, as an industry ag/food production has been positioned as really uncool and messy (not sexy, unlike say, running your own tattoo parlor -- another old industry.)

Further, I don't see anything wrong with a larger percentage of the population returning to food production -- again, vs. running a tattoo parlor. Small scale ag doesn't have to mean scrabbling in the dirt with a stick to plant a couple of beans. Like every other old technology 'small-scale ag' can be updated with new tools and techniques to make it even more efficient and even enjoyable.

The current perception of the ag industry is similar to the expert view once held regarding computers: that, as per Watson/IBM I think, worldwide fewer than 100 orgs actually need/can afford them so it's silly to even consider home-use computers. Well, Watson was wrong and IBM suffered some staggering losses when the PC came out. The timing is ready for an 'ag industry' Gates/Jobs. And, like IBM, large ag because it does serve a purpose will continue but changed. (I'm hoping that large-ag gets into the business of exo-planetary food production partnering with commercial satellite/space station operators.)

178:

Yes, I read it years ago. And the sequel. He glosses over a fuckton of life support and medical problems (most of which, to be fair, weren't known at the time) and seems to have a hard-on for laser launchers which would make a great ABM defense (if you could power and aim the bloody things) but are somewhat less optimal, as it turns out, than LOX/kerosene when it's built to meet transport industry specs rather than ICBM requirements.

179:
Signal can't say anything by itself. Signal is a mean by which people say things. Honest things like "I value starving Africans less than my eating habits". Almost nobody utters that with their mouth, but they sure say it with their wallets.

And that's why money is the "best value signal ". It allows the cleanest expression of value.

I'm not singling you out for an object lesson, but this sort of nonsense pushes what's probably the biggest of my hot buttons - ironically, the same one which would have made me enthusiastically agree with you thirty-odd years ago.

Money? The 'best' value signal? Really? Your 32-year-old slacker living in his parents basement added more value to the economy in 2008 by delivering pizzas than Dicky Fuld or Angelo Mozilo. Yet that canonical slacker earned maybe on the order of $20 K that year to their hundreds of millions. Where was that value signal when this massive misallocation was going on? You will possibly reply (and this is a popular retort) that they deserved their compensation by simple virtue of the fact that this is what people were willing to pay them. But then your statement isn't something that's been established as an observed fact; it's something asserted as a definition you others to accept by fiat if they want to talk about economics and money.

In short, since what you're saying apparently has no possibility of being empirically and independently verified, it can't be of any utility to scientific investigation; indeed, it can't be considered any sort of science at all. But it sure sounds sciencey, don't it? If it's any consolation, the key roll price-signalling plays in the theory of demand economies certainly sounds plausible. The fact that it's also aesthetically pleasing doesn't hurt it's standing either.

180:

Unstandable, but "hump time" unfortunately gets tied up with how much carbon we throw off.

If we can somehow keep total emissions down to 1000GT, then we do appear to hit the thermal and high water maximum within a century or so. It just takes another 40,000 years or so after that to what we currently consider normal.

If we go for the 5000 GT megabelch scenario, then seas keep rising for another 1000 years or so, give or take, and it takes upwards of a half million years for things to return to where they are now.

That's mostly due to lags caused by things like melting ice, thermal expansion of the ocean as different bits of the ocean finally get warmed up (this takes a while), and so forth. There are some impressive lag times built into our planet.

I do, in fact, get the idea that people want to worry about what's going to happen within the lifespans of people they know and care about, and assume that any descendent after that can look after herself. I'd rather give everyone after that a few more possibilities to work with, is all. Fortunately or unfortunately, what we do now will determine how long things keep changing, before we get to that long, slow rebound phase that will truly be the new normal. The reason I'm not thrilled with the idea of blowing through 5000 gigatonnes of fossil fuels in the next few hundred years is that things will keep changing fairly rapidly after that for another 1000 years. Unfortunately, after such a binge, there won't be any fossil fuels around to power the (re)building that will need to happen to accompany those changes, like rebuilding all the waterfront cities as the oceans continue to rise at 10 cm per year, or after yet another fall hurricane. Oh well.

Speaking of the new normal, I'm hoping my cousin in the New York is doing okay. I haven't heard from him yet.

181:

What dense energy sources would be available in this sort of world, if any? Here's a thought, motivated by James Nicoll's recent posts on Asimov's Foundation: How about good old nuclear fission? This is one of those bits of knowledge I was talking about earlier where there doesn't have to be a lot said to convey a great deal of utility.

And certainly there's not a whole lot to refining the raw ore into useable product, modulo the initial bootstrapping - think Victorian-style steam centrifuges fired by wood :-) So ten-thousand years from now you get the reactor-powered Lords on the Hill enjoying air-conditioning, electric lighting, modern communications, etc. while most of humanity limps by on whatever dribbles of energy they can harvest from low-density renewables and having a hot shower maybe once a week.[1] Asimov's Foundation keeping the lights on with nuclear power, iow, while the rest of the Empire slips back into barbarity.

[1]These luxuries are provided, of course by our gracious job-creating betters to those willing to moil and toil in the plutonium mines or in the radioactive company towns where the stuff is refined. Pottersville is Jumpin!

182:

Money? The 'best' value signal? Really? Your 32-year-old slacker living in his parents basement added more value to the economy in 2008 by delivering pizzas than Dicky Fuld or Angelo Mozilo. Yet that canonical slacker earned maybe on the order of $20 K that year to their hundreds of millions.

And then you have the chutzpah to talk empiricality to me? Really? Well, show me the metric by which you determine that the pizza deliverer added more value to the economy. A metric that can be independently verified, mind you, not your gut feeling.

Also, maybe you misunderstood my. I'm talking about a subjective value, a value of something to a specific person. Alice will buy an iPhone for 200$, Bob will not. So we can determine that for Bob the value of iPhone is less than 200$. Bob will by a kilo of beef instead of using the money to save a starving African. So for Bob, kilo of beef have more value than this hypothetical African's life.

And anyway, I'm not claiming that money is the best possible value signal. Just like democracy, it's the best we have.

183:

If we can somehow keep total emissions down to 1000GT, then we do appear to hit the thermal and high water maximum within a century or so. It just takes another 40,000 years or so after that to what we currently consider normal.

Here's a more optimistic scenario. If we can transit to solar/fusion energy, we will have enough power to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Sequester CO2 from air, separate oxygen and carbon, release the oxygen, bury the carbon. Or make artificial diamond and build castles out of it...

184:

re: Vanzetti 182 "A metric that can be independently verified, mind you, not your gut feeling."

That's a real problem because money which originally was tied directly to real goods and services is now being created electronically, i.e., stock transactions. Stocks now change hands within picoseconds thereby creating 'wealth' (money) without any human involvement. For this reason alone, I think it'd be a good idea to look at different ways of valuating human in/outputs.

185:

That's the 1000 GT scenario you're describing, I'm afraid, with alternative energy, nuclear, and (dare I say it?) fusion taking up the slack.

As for fusion, it's still 30 years away. Maybe. The news from the US National Ignition Facility isn't good. The news for solar is somewhat better, although those who think solar is benign and for rooftops are getting a little depressed.

The general assumption behind the 1000 GT release is that's what will actually happen if we get serious about trying to keep atmospheric CO2 levels to their current levels. I find their cynicism refreshing, really. They're assuming we're going to miss our goal of 350 ppm, which given our current track record is a pretty good assumption. And do remember, that's the best case scenario that they're currently analyzing. The natural gas industry (and the coal industry) is pushing hard for the 5000 GT scenario, and apparently there's all sorts of Great Game-style silliness going on around the Arctic Ocean right now, in preparation for when the ice comes off, the environmentalists go home to cry, and all those presumably luscious minerals and whatnot become available to whoever can claim them.

186:

Don't trust anything Pournelle ever writes about astronautics. Sometimes he puffs up and tells you how he used to work for Boeing, but at other times he does admit that he worked there as a psychologist only doing studies on things tail gunner stations on B-52s. He is absolutely clueless on anything having to do with the reality of getting a payload in orbit, and he really, really wants to stay that way. Materials science? Not important, since somebody will always be inventing new molecules. Aerodynamics? Not important since somebody will always be inventing new shapes.

187:

Here's a more optimistic scenario. If we can transit to solar/fusion energy, we will have enough power to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Although if we keep letting popular media simplify climatology into 'atmospheric CO2,' we're really going to be in trouble...

188:

"Stocks now change hands within picoseconds ..."

Just a bit of pedantry, but light takes about 3 picoseconds to go one millimeter. Even at computer speeds, hardly anything happens in a picosecond.

189:

Jay wrote:
Just a bit of pedantry, but light takes about 3 picoseconds to go one millimeter. Even at computer speeds, hardly anything happens in a picosecond.

As a point of information - a 4 ghz CPU is usually 20-45 transistor flips in the pipeline stages and say 10-15 stages deep. So transistors would be 40-180 ghz (25 to 5.5 ps) and latency from an instruction going into the pipeline to exiting the pipeline is 400-600 mhz (2500 to 1600 ps).

Some things happen in a few ps, but not a whole stock transaction.
Automated trading started becoming scary in millisecond scales 100s down to individual ms) and now is operating in microsecond scales (but not one microsecond by any means).

190:

As for fusion, it's still 30 years away. Maybe. The news from the US National Ignition Facility isn't good.

Meh. NIF was never meant to produce energy. Even if they achieve fusion, and I wish them luck in that endeavor, it will still take a few generations of "NIFs" to reach something commercial.

I'm waiting to see what happens when ITER is online.

The news for solar is somewhat better, although those who think solar is benign and for rooftops are getting a little depressed.

Well, you need to cover a lot of territory with PVs to power Earth with solar alone.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Solar_land_area.png

Still, not much compared to the territory used for agriculture (40-50%).

191:

Plus, the land used for solar does not generally take land away from agriculture. PV is already cheaper than using diesel for electricity generation in India, and the price is falling continually. That cost, along with wind, sets a maximum price for future energy costs. And in other news, China is increasing its investment in wind generation to 100GW by 2020.

192:

Here's a more optimistic scenario. If we can transit to solar/fusion energy, we will have enough power to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Using energy to remove CO2 from the atmosphere? I doubt that will happen. If you really want to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, better build a lot of seaweed farms, carbonize seaweed to charcoal and bury that.

193:

Using energy to remove CO2 from the atmosphere? I doubt that will happen. If you really want to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, better build a lot of seaweed farms, carbonize seaweed to charcoal and bury that.

You need energy to grow and carbonize seaweed, so it's the same thing essentially. If energy is cheap enough, artificial photosynthesis may be easier. And why not remove CO2 from the atmosphere? It is not different from any other environmental clean-up, just on a bigger power scale.

194:

You need energy to grow and carbonize seaweed, so it's the same thing essentially. If energy is cheap enough, artificial photosynthesis may be easier.

No, carbonization is usually exotherm, and the byproducts or a small fraction of the produced charcoal should provide enough energy for the process. It would just need a lot of work.

It would also mean that the global kelp production would have to multiply by an order of 1000000 or so to make an impact on the atmosphere.

195:

Actually, a fair amount of solar *is* going in on agricultural land, and that's probably a good thing.

Let me explain.

First off, the best acreage for many solar plants is on top of city roofs powered by the panels. If you fly in to San Diego, Los Angeles, or Phoenix, you'll notice a lot of barren rooftops that could hold PV. Unfortunately, with rooftops, there are questions of who pays. One city (I think Gainesville, FL?) is experimenting with a municipal solar facility, where people allow municipal solar panels on their roofs in return for some electricity. The law and politics around this are fascinating, because participants appear to be giving up some property rights in return for a community enterprise, and I hope it works. I do know that my local utility doesn't like rooftop solar, for various and contradictory reasons that apparently come down to the fact that they don't know how to crowd-source energy. They'd rather buy from single-owner facilities.

Deep desert solar has turned into an unholy mess. Multinationals immediately went for the cheapest land, which was wilderness far from roads, and proposed to drain the underlying aquifers to keep the facilities clean enough to work. These areas were poorly explored scientifically, and it turned out most of them were crawling with endangered species and important archeological remains (especially for tribes with casino money), and draining the few desert springs to keep the plants working would doom most of the animals in the area, along with perhaps a few human towns.

The environmentalists responded by mapping lots of degraded desert lands near existing roads and power lines and giving that data away free. Unfortunately, such lands are ironically more expensive, due to quirks of US law (bulldozing wilderness "improves" it, raising its inherent value, plus there have been a lot of land speculators in the deserts for a long time, and they're still trying to get rich). Some companies (like Google) have built PV facilities on these lands, and I hope more go in.

Fortunately, the agencies are starting to get less clueless about issues with desert solar, so there's some vague hope that, when more plants get built, they won't be as destructive as this generation. If the dudes who put the electrostatic dust shedders on the Mars Rovers can scale that technology up cheaply for mainline PV panels, that would be even better.

Then there's farmland. A lot of farmland is marginal, due to some combination of water shortages, falling crop prices, and/or soil salinity. Plus solar panels act as shade structures. And farmland is privately owned, so the politics are simpler. As a result, a number of farmers are turning crops to solar facilities, just to see if they make more money that way than they do in crops.

Stupid? From some viewpoints, yes. Then again, a lot of the best farmland in the world is currently entombed under cities and suburbs all over the US. Farming generally proves less profitable than selling the land for some other use, at least until we all start starving.

196:

The natural long-term sink for atmospheric CO2 is the weathering of silicates to stable magnesium and calcium carbonates. The thermodynamics of weathering are generally favorable or neutral but the kinetics of weathering bulk rock are terrible. In a temperate climate, a mature basalt surface is weathered inward by maybe 0.5 micron per year. Silicate weathering consumes about 100-300 million tonnes of CO2 per year, e.g. about 0.3% to 1% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

As a rule of thumb, fully weathered basalt will consume 1/3 of its own mass in carbon dioxide, and basalt has a specific gravity of about 3. 1 cubic meter of basalt can capture about 1 tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere.

In areas with heavy precipitation or in bodies of water, basalt weathering rates are controlled by temperature, pH, and exposed surface area. It has been proposed to use artificial production of acids to accelerate weathering ("Electrochemical Acceleration of Chemical Weathering as an Energetically Feasible Approach to Mitigating Anthropogenic Climate Change," Environmental Science and Technology 2007). But this is a very expensive approach in terms of energy consumption and capital investment.

Slower, but far more energetically efficient and somewhat less capital intensive, would be to crush/grind basalt and allow it to weather naturally in wet (preferably warm too) regions. Turning massive basalt, as from a large igneous province, into 100 micron powder consumes about 20 kilowatt hours per tonne, mostly for the grinding phase. Blasting, transport, and initial rough crushing account for less than 25% of energy consumption. Total energy consumption, and speed of weathering, are both roughly proportional to total surface area created (inversely proportional to particle size).

By way of comparison, the electrochemical weathering process would sequester 0.8 tonnes of CO2 for every megawatt hour of electricity consumed in the baseline scenario. Grinding basalt to 100 microns followed by natural weathering would sequester about 17 tonnes of CO2 for every megawatt hour of electricity consumed. Both ground-basalt and electrochemical weathering have advantages over generating stations combined with carbon capture and storage in that they can be sited anywhere and deal with historical accumulations as well as new emissions.

If the ground basalt were placed in warm shallow waters, individual particles could be expected to fully weather within a century. This is much slower than electrochemical weathering but very fast compared with natural weathering of bulk rock. The Red Sea seems like a particularly promising location: Ethiopia and Yemen contain large igneous provinces of basalt, and the sea has large regions of shallow, warm water that will ensure fast weathering. There are also good near-shore wind resources and very high insolation values should renewable energy be used for the process. Unlike typical industrial processes, this is also a case where intermittent operation at the whims of sun/wind pose no great challenges.

Despite these promising numbers, keep in mind that restoring atmospheric CO2 to pre-industrial levels would be a multi-decade, probably multi-century project, with volumes of rock processing dwarfing all previous human mining activities. Acquisition/repair/maintenance of machinery will probably cost about as much as the energy input. But it appears technically feasible and the cost amounts to only a modest fraction of what is currently spent on energy from fossil fuels. Whether or not it might be possible in the future depends on whether you expect "mere" fossil fuel depletion over the next decades or if you expect those stresses to birth (e.g.) a spasm of war followed by barbarism and prolonged loss of institutions and knowledge. That will determine whether humanity is fated to live with high CO2 for tens of thousands of years or if it could reverse things in mere centuries.

As for warding off future ice ages, if humans are out of fossil fuels but still have industry with nuclear or renewable energy, they can always pump sulfur hexafluoride into the atmosphere. One kilogram is equivalent to nearly 23 tonnes of CO2 in terms of global warming potential, and it can be made with late 19th century technology.

197:

So here's our geo-engineering plan for climate change remediation:

1. Grind up Scotland. Specifically, use its wind and wave power to grind up the Cairngorms and the other granite intrusions in the highlands.

2. Ship them to the southern mediterranean.

???

3. Ice age!

198:

I still think that producing a GT of kelp is more attractive than grinding a GT of basalt to micron-sized dust, especially since charcoal (biochar) has other uses like improving soil or substituting fossil fuels.

One ton of char is the equivalent of 3.6 tons of CO2. It's long-term stabile and buffers water and other chemicals. When created by pyrolysis the by-products are tar (bio-oil) and syngas.

While any biomass could be used to produce biochar, kelp has several advantages: it doesn't need irrigation, doesn't compete with food production (well, except sushi, but you can't use sushi to feed the world anyway), grows very fast, and sea habitats are virtually unlimited if you manage to grow kelp in the open sea.

199:

I think it's becoming clear the next stage in ecological awareness is to accept we are in the driver's seat of this here global ecosystem, whether we like it or not. A "natural" ice age is no more desirable than a runaway greenhouse effect. We better figure out how to drive this jalopy because we're on the freeway and no one else is going to step up to the wheel.

200:

There's probably a neat ratio out there, of atmospheric carbon captured/amount of carbon used for that capture. The ratio has to be bigger than 1.0 for it to work, and I'm not sure that grinding up Scotland and Hawaii are all that great. The natural loss of carbon from the atmosphere through weathering will work eventually, anyway.

As for "we're in the driver's seat of the biosphere, aside from using a car-based model on climate change (which is caused, in small part, by cars), the problem is that people tend to model their "driver's seat" behavior on The Dukes of Hazzard, with attendant stupidity, short attention spans, appetite for risky stunts, and willingness to be distracted.

If anything, we're more like the drug gang blighting a community, where the desire for fast money and fleeting power are okay, so long as we pass the damage on to everyone else, drug ourselves to not feel, espouse an ethic of living fast and dying young, and work hard to silence those who say there's a better way.

The better approach, of course, is to realize we're part of a global community, most of which isn't human and doesn't particularly care about us, but which we need for our very lives, however much we try to deny that fact. Not a lot of glamor there, but there is a lot of sanity.

201:

The better approach, of course, is to realize we're part of a global community, most of which isn't human and doesn't particularly care about us, but which we need for our very lives, however much we try to deny that fact.

Since they don't care, and indeed unable to care about us, the logical thing to do is minimize our dependence on them.

Solar power, BTW, will be a huge step in that direction, as we will step over natural photosynthesis and draw energy directly from the sun. Nuclear power too, you don't need the biosphere for that.

202:

Hm. So you don't want to admit that you're part of a system that's evolved for ~4 billion years to exist on this planet, and rather than do the cheap-and-lazy thing of keeping the system going because it feeds you fresh air, water, and food, and recycles your biological wastes into things you can use.

Instead, you'd rather spend a huge effort walling yourself off, making yourself dependent on some unknown new technology, and spend a huge and continuous effort supporting that technology, all because you don't want to be dependent on something that doesn't particularly care about you?

Weird. I'm lazy, so I'd rather maintain the system we've got. To each their own, I suppose.

203:

Almost!

But don't bother with granite. It will wear on the machinery even worse and it has only about half the carbon-sink power of basalt.

And don't bother with long distance transport. There aren't enough ships in existence. If you make rock dust in Scotland just accept that it will need to weather (correspondingly slower) under Scottish conditions.

An enormous 5000 GT of carbon, as in heteromeles' "burn everything" worst case, is 20000 GT CO2. That would be captured by weathering 20000 cubic kilometers of basalt, 60 trillion tonnes. That amounts to nearly 1/8 of the Columbia River Basalt Group in the USA. It would take 54 years to powder all that rock if present world electrical output were solely dedicated to it.

I don't expect anything like this to happen as preemptive mitigation. It's too slow-acting for that (though much faster than nature) and if people had the will to do something like this in advance, it would be far better to prevent emissions before they happen. No, this is the Plan C after humanity blows past its emissions targets and has buyer's remorse about the carboniferous new world.

For a more plausible near-term geoengineering approach, I do like sinking carbon in soil as biochar. But at most it can capture a modest fraction of current-rate emissions, and the sink isn't stable over geological time like weathered silicates.

204:

Instead, you'd rather spend a huge effort walling yourself off, making yourself dependent on some unknown new technology, and spend a huge and continuous effort supporting that technology, all because you don't want to be dependent on something that doesn't particularly care about you?

Weird. I'm lazy, so I'd rather maintain the system we've got. To each their own, I suppose.

My god, a genuine hunter-gatherer. First time I meet one... wait, how did you get internet connection?

Humanity to heteromeles: our entire history is about inventing tools to protect ourselves from the uncaring world around us (which includes the biosphere). It worked pretty good so far.

205:

That's okay bubble boy, I'll happily lift a glass of nice, yeasty beer to your health. Not that the yeast cares that it's about to be consumed, or that it would care if I died. That's just life, after all. We spend our lives eating, and unless we're cremated or pay someone a lot to inject us with embalming fluid, our bacteria get to eat us at the end.

As you may notice, I'm an ecologist, not a hunter gatherer. I'd simply point out that 99.999% of the biosphere isn't human, and 90% of your cells are bacteria, not human. Without them, you're toast, just as you're toast if the indifferent cyanobacteria stop photosynthesizing, the indifferent nitrogen-fixing bacteria stop pulling nitrogen out of their air for our proteins, or the indifferent fungi stop converting all that very resistant wood into stuff the rest of us can utilize.

But that's the way the world actually works, Vanzetti. It depends on organisms that are indifferent to your continued existence, just as some of them depend on you, even though you obviously have no clue they exist. Obviously this frightens you so horribly that you think that tools are supposed to protect you from it, rather than help you live with it. Most people know better. So very, very sad.

206:

Without them, you're toast, just as you're toast if the indifferent cyanobacteria stop photosynthesizing

We are also toast without planet's surface to stand on, but that doesn't stops us from reshaping it to serve our needs, with artificial channels, islands and so on.

But that's the way the world actually works, Vanzetti. It depends on organisms that are indifferent to your continued existence, just as some of them depend on you, even though you obviously have no clue they exist.

I'm halfway through Master's in Biology, so please turn off the condescension machine.

Obviously this frightens you so horribly that you think that tools are supposed to protect you from it, rather than help you live with it.

Hmm. I think we are talking about almost the same concepts, just using different words.

For example: a rifle helps me live with a lion, by protecting me from being eaten by it. Agriculture helps me live through winter, by protecting me from starvation. Antibiotics help me live with microbes, by protecting me from them.

That's what technology does, helps you live with the uncaring world, by protecting you from the parts that can kill you.

207:

please turn off the condescension machine

Both of you please do so. We're all very impressed with both of you, but if you can't make any more of an argument other than by insulting the other, you've probably said all you need to.

208:

For a more plausible near-term geoengineering approach, I do like sinking carbon in soil as biochar. But at most it can capture a modest fraction of current-rate emissions, and the sink isn't stable over geological time like weathered silicates.

Well, it's supposedly stable for a couple of thousands of years, and by then we'll probably worrying about ice age anyway.

BTW, is the 5000 GT for carbon or for CO2? I thought CO2. And the weight ratio between carbon and CO2 is closer to 3.6 than 4, so for 1000 GT of CO2 you need to bury just 277 GT of carbon.

209:

I've got no problem with this idea. the ocean taught me that I'm too small to be noticed if I let it kill me. Species-wide. the math is little different.

Where I see the trouble arising, is this idea that humans are intrinsically different from other animals. That because language exists, that makes this species immune to all these bad things that we're doing to every other species.

Humans are animals. The same laws of ecology and physics apply to us as apply to every other critter. If we guess wrong at what those laws are, we die.

It's just that the people who die the most tend not to be the ones doing the guessing. Cloud Atlas puts it succinctly, 'The weak are meat, the strong do eat.'

When a rich person is able to buy and implant the organs of a poor person, how is that not cannibalism?

210:

It may surprise you to learn that I'm with Heteromeles on this. I think you vastly underestimate the complexity of biological systems -- including the fact that around 2-5% of your body weight, when you weigh yourself bare-ass naked, is composed of invisible passengers without whom you will sicken and die.

No, seriously, this shit is hard. Do you think NASA run those monthly supply ships up to the ISS for giggles? If they could build a closed-cycle ecosystem to support the astronauts there it would cut a huge chunk out of their maintenance costs.

You may take that as a hint ...

211:

The next ice age was reckoned to start more like 5,000 years in the future, but the expected greenhouse gas emissions will blow us past that without any ice age and mean the next one will be 50,000 years or more into the future.
The whol "Earth cooling into next ice age" panic in the 70's was caused by shoddy journalism rather than actual science.

212:

Well, it's supposedly stable for a couple of thousands of years, and by then we'll probably worrying about ice age anyway.

BTW, is the 5000 GT for carbon or for CO2? I thought CO2. And the weight ratio between carbon and CO2 is closer to 3.6 than 4, so for 1000 GT of CO2 you need to bury just 277 GT of carbon.

Biochar stability varies depending on particle size and soil conditions, but you are right that it can be reasonably stable for thousands of years. In some cases the half-life is on the order of a couple decades and won't do much at all as a CO2 sink, though it can still improve soil fertility.

Turning the sharp anthropogenic CO2 spike into a millennia-wide bulge would be almost as good as silicate weathering. The ocean contains enough alkalinity to absorb most of humanity's CO2 with only a very small pH change, but it takes thousands of years for surface waters to fully mix with the deeps. Right now our consumption is going so fast that the last lump of coal would be burned before the emissions from the earliest years of the Industrial Revolution mix into the abyssal zone.

I'm pretty sure the 5000 GT figure is for carbon, not CO2. You're right about the C:CO2 mass ratio; I rounded up to the nearest whole number to err on the conservative side. Likewise I rounded to a single significant figure when I said it takes 20 kilowatt hours to powder a tonne of basalt.

213:

I'm not disagreeing with your base point, but I thought that the ISS was at least an order of magnitude short of having the real estate to grow crops (not a full closed ecosystem, just the physical space for plants) of being able to grow sufficient veg to feed the base crew?

214:

I think you vastly underestimate the complexity of biological systems -- including the fact that around 2-5% of your body weight, when you weigh yourself bare-ass naked, is composed of invisible passengers without whom you will sicken and die.

And I think you sacralize* the complexity of biological systems. They are machines with finite number of parts, and one day we will run out of parts we don't understand.

If they could build a closed-cycle ecosystem to support the astronauts there it would cut a huge chunk out of their maintenance costs.

I don't know how much money was spend on developing closed-cycle ecosystems. Compared, say, to the price of bringing a new drug to the market.

Anyway, what are we arguing about? I agree that we can't live without biosphere right now, but we are much less dependent on it then before agriculture. Or before antibiotics. Also, I like the biosphere. It's aesthetically pleasing. I just don't want to depend on it.

*apparently, "sacralize" is a real word

215:

And I think you sacralize* the complexity of biological systems. They are machines with finite number of parts, and one day we will run out of parts we don't understand.

That's an interesting opinion from someone who is halfway through his master of biology. Organisms are not finite machines in the common sense, they are dynamical systems with an infinite number of possible states. The number of parts isn't the problem, the number of possible states is. Plus, biology has the pesky habit of not following a sound systems engineering approach of modular design but creating obscure dependencies from one corner of the system to another unlikely spot. I'm afraid that day when we understand everything will never come.

216:

Nature doesn't build the level of biological complexity -- "services" -- that are capable of supporting space-craft-builders except from the bottom up.

Look at Mir, or the ISS -- they grow a film of microorganisms, and start working up through mildew and probably mushrooms and slime molds, depending on how much housecleaning got done.

A mature long-duration spacecraft is going to be lined with dirt and at least simple plants -- because that's what the surfaces want to be covered by.

We _interpenetrate_.

Local populations of various microbiological species are unique to each larger organism.

Cut the complexity back -- lose some chunk of the life out there -- and nature starts building back up to that amount of complexity.

But not with quite the same pieces.

And the results may not be copacetic.

I'm a proponent of our having had an anthropogenic ecology.
I think we were damn lucky to have happened.
Conditions were right and stayed right for ten thousand years.

I have no confidence that conditions supporting our continued existence will persist -- we'll have to get smarter soon.

Nor confidence anything as habitable as the present world would emerge again from a resimplified living world.

It ain't "pieces" we will understand eventually.
It's way too wiggly for that. From proteins up at least, everything flows all the time. Not lock and key. Blur and blur that happen to work well together favor more cooperation. Something will emerge.

Something different, next time. This ain't a kit with numbered pieces that only fit together the same way so you can lose some without losing the whole thing.

Something interesting would. .
But
It's a long way from Amphioxus.

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