Is Humanity Screwed?

I have some problems with CNN. Not all of them involve Morning Express with Robin Meade. But many of them do. Her show is insipid and juvenile and irrelevant. I am willing to entertain the notion that there is a sort of cosmic radiation that alters our chemical processes at around the dawn hour which makes it impossible for a morning news show to be intelligent but also makes viewers continue to watch them despite this fact.

Anyway, the world is coming to an end. Update your twitter feeds accordingly.

I want to look at the state of the world in very general terms. Let me know if I’m missing some crucial detail (I may or may not tell you to piss of, but it’s worth a try). The conclusion is, of course, that we are fucked. Or maybe not.

What I want to do is lay out, in as simple a matter as possible, some of the problems that the world is facing. I will not defend any particular claim with any sort of argumentation. Instead, I am going to assume that at least the majority of them are actual, real problems and then explore the possible ramifications. To do this, I will adjust my normal paragraph chunking into a more direct, list-like form of communication. Behold, my bullet points of doom!

Shit that’s wrong with the world:

  • Economic turmoil
  • High unemployment
  • Loss of public safety net (by and large)
  • Political upheaval on huge scale
  • Human rights and social justice compromised daily
  • Environmental catastrophe
  • Slow degradation of ecosystems reaching critical point
  • Carbon levels at historic high (in human reckoning)
  • Record corporate profits
  • Corporate ethics is an oxymoron
  • Massive corruption in the highest places
  • Compromised political elite
  • Looney toons taking over congress
  • Peak oil looming
  • Peak water looming
  • Massive food shortages
  • Droughts and famine causing widespread food shortage
  • Food already in short supply
  • Disturbingly high rates of natural disaster
  • Extreme weather no longer extreme
  • Diseases cropping up faster than cures can be discovered
  • Pollution causing a whole slew of problems
  • Bees going extinct
  • Population skyrocketing, exacerbating all of the above
  • Blindness and apathy to all of the above on the part of huge portions of the electorate

Any one of these items would not be such a big deal. Humans are highly intelligent, resourceful, and generally reasonable and the problem would likely be like a fun little puzzle in one of the first few levels of a video game. Instead, we have a situation akin to playing Civilization V on the highest difficulty level.

Notice that I did not include global warming, opting instead for the more general term “pollution.” I must reiterate that I am making no real attempt to justify any particular point on the list. I’m not writing a goddamned book here. I am merely trying to make it next to impossible to dismiss the list outright without considerable difficulty. I am trying, as it were, to make the whole of the situation that humanity is facing, as undeniable as possible.

And so let’s assume that, in general, the list is correct. What does it mean for humanity? Are we, as I prematurely concluded, basically done? Have we screwed things up beyond recognition? Well, that depends. There are a couple of things yet to consider.

There is this whole idea amongst liberals like myself that we are in really deep trouble but if we act now, there is a chance that we can turn this supertanker around. We’ve been saying this for years. Basically, the idea that the situation (the environment, the economy, the state of social justice in this country, etc) can be fixed if people start doing something now. We are always talking about how much better the world could be if only we could get our acts together. NOW! And so, how strong is the force of social inertia? This is a question that may already have been answered and it is somewhere in the vicinity of very strong. Maybe not black-hole-gravity strong, but still really quite strong. Liberals must always hold fast to the notion that immediate action will yield results or else we are prone to fantastic bouts of depression, or worse, throwing up our hands and changing sides.

But let’s assume that our social inertia is too great and cannot be overcome (which is very possibly true). Our society is the Titanic, and we are about the collide with a glacier of our own creation. What are the consequences? Well, each item on the list becomes considerably worse. What does that mean?

Let’s just assume that it means the end of our civilization. Does that mean the end of the world? Hell no. The planet is fine. Cockroaches and lichens will survive the apocalypse with little trouble. Life as a thing is not in danger. The risk of our planet being sterilized is inconceivable. What about humans? Are we an endangered species? I don’t think so. Humans as a species will most likely survive the apocalypse as well. How many rungs down the socio/technological ladder we fall is a matter of some debate.

Is my family in danger? I should think almost certainly. You see, the only reason there are so many humans on this planet is the fact that we have a huge global support system which (more or less) feeds them all and keeps them alive just long enough to reproduce. When that collapses, there will be a brief (somewhere between months and a couple of years) period of complete and utter chaos. Disease will spike. Massive famine. Starvation. Cities will likely be hit the hardest. Rural communities will not be unaffected, however. They have largely forgotten how to perform subsistence farming to feed themselves through winter, relying mostly on the high-tech infrastructure which gives them iceberg lettuce in January.

So, there will be a massive die-off. Perhaps the world population of humans might level off at about a billion. I only say that because the thought of five billion humans dying in a short period of time is almost too much for me to comprehend. Hell, it might even be far worse than that. But it seems reasonable. The turn of the twentieth century saw a population of about 1.4 billion and best case scenario is a return to about a Victorian level of technology.

And so literally, five sixths of the world’s human population is likely to die if things get any worse. Since we are living in the middle of the greatest extinction event the world has ever seen I think it’s safe to say that there are many animal and plant species the will also suffer.

Indeed, the loss of the honeybee would likely drive humanity down to fewer than a million people (if not completely extinct), though I’d like to think that the bees will bounce back if humans die back a bit.

My dad tells me that I complain a lot. That I point out problems but never offer up solutions. Perhaps this is true. It’s a lot easier to spot a problem than to fix it. Anyone can tell you a radio is broken. Few could actually tell you how to fix it beyond buying a new one. But we can’t buy a new planet, can we? Can we?

But there are solutions to this problem. And most of them are not pretty, because most of them are necessary to turn the supertanker:

  • End our dependence on fossil fuels
  • End the drive toward nuclear power (beyond pure research)
  • Dramatically ramp public funding for renewable energy
  • Stop having so damned many babies
  • Stop destroying biodiversity in our food supply
  • Stop letting corporations determine public policy
  • Stop the “buy a new one” culture
  • End intolerance and bigotry
  • Embrace a socially liberal ideology

Granted, I am deliberately going for a utopian vision of the future here. I would even settle for, say, half of these things coming to pass. But what are the odds of even that happening? If we are completely honest with ourselves, what chance does our current civilization really have? In the long term? Zero. None at all.

But what about now? What about the near future? What about the next century? Is it still statistically different from zero? I really need someone out there to say yes and convince me that it’s true.

quelq’un m’a dit

Can the solar system become polluted?

The image is not of the Vesta asteroid. There weren’t any good false-color images of Vesta, so I used Eros instead.

So, the Dawn spacecraft is going through its warm-up routine on its way to Vesta and then on to Ceres. I am pretty excited to see the images that it sends back. The asteroid belt is one of the least studied regions of our solar system and there’s really no telling what might be there.

One can only imagine what could possibly be harvested from them. Both in knowledge and resources. So the question is, assuming the technology can be developed to exploit natural resources in asteroids and on other planets (say, Mars) what would our responsibility be with respect to environmental concerns. Certainly the safety and health of workers would be vital. Space is pretty harsh and unforgiving. But what about, say, emissions? Is there any concern whatsoever that venting noxious fumes into space could ever become a problem?

The reason I wonder is the fact that in the early twentieth century, when gasoline was pennies for the gallon and largely unregulated (they put lead in the stuff), we had no idea what the possible ramifications that massive use of fossil fuels might be. And of course, there are still holdouts. The thing of it is, it still took a long time before people realized the possible problems associated with it. 1975 was the first year that catalytic converters were installed in motor vehicles on a regular basis. And it wasn’t until the nineties before the trend of global warming was even noticed.

And so the question: what are our environmental responsibilities when it comes to outer space? I use the Koch Brothers as a prime example of environmental irresponsibility, but they are not the only major offenders. The first consideration would be size. Space is a hell of a lot bigger than our atmosphere. If we were to pump out billions of tons of CO2 directly into the the deep of space, it would disperse pretty quickly and become nearly undetectable in very short order. But does this fact absolve us of responsibility?

We know that the immediate area around our planet has become pretty crowded with like a bajillion satellites and the odd space station. Indeed, it is increasingly becoming a problem.

But when it comes to space as a whole? I mean, the Earth itself (and the space around it) could fit inside the sun about a million times. The distance between the Earth and the sun is like 198 million miles. We are talking about unimaginably vast distances just in our own stellar neighborhood. At first glance, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that our insignificant species cannot possibly fill that up with pollution.

However, the universe being what it is, it is nearly impossible to predict the future. We cannot predict with any reasonable amount of certainty what sorts of technology might be developed. What sorts of knowledge we might uncover. Let’s say, for instance, that a real warp drive technology were developed. It’s not that far-fetched. Indeed, it’s theoretically possible. Developments are being made all the time when it comes to methods of warping space. At least for very small particles.

But what if the theory could be made reality on a larger scale. We have no idea what the result of common usage of such technology might be. Space is elastic, we know, but the elastic bands on any pair of boxer shorts eventually wears out. We don’t know if the same is true of space’s elasticity.

And then, perhaps we might consider the remote possibility that humans manage to harness a realistic and affordable form of faster-than-light travel and begin to colonize solar systems other than our own. Let’s say we find earth-like, habitable planets out there and begin to build cities on them. These planets would not be our home and we would, for all intents and purposes, be defined as an invasive species. What are our responsibilities when it comes to environmental concerns on extraterrestrial colonies where there is actually an ecosystem.

Space might be too big for us to affect in any real way, but we have shown that we are very good at changing the face of a single planet. What sorts of aliens are we likely to be? Are we the peaceful aliens who expand and inhabit but do not destroy, like in Star Trek? Or are we the destroyers, using resources and casting entire worlds aside as soon as they are spent, like in Independence Day?

Guten Tag.

Two Billion Years From Now

You know, climate change is a problem. I once heard an argument against the burning of fossil fuels on the grounds that Earth would become like Venus. And we all know what sort of place Venus is. It’s interesting to think that Mars and Venus are completely opposite in terms of climate and atmospheric conditions, though an article in this month’s Scientific American points out that it’s possible that Mars’s rarefied atmosphere and Venus’s CO2 insulated greenhouse might have been created by some very similar processes. At the very least, they are both the result of a net loss of gases from their respective atmospheres. The crazy thing the article points out is that eventually Earth is more likely to end up like Venus than Mars. A scorching desert with rivers of molten lead.

Did you know that our atmosphere leaks three kilograms of hydrogen each second? It’s the lightest gas and so it concentrates in the upper atmosphere and just sort of evaporates off, disappearing into space. I did some further research and discovered that all atmospheres are constantly evaporating. Even the Sun is losing mass constantly. Ever consider what the solar wind might consist of? It’s material that’s being ejected off the surface of the sun. Our sun will lose probably .01 percent of its mass from evaporation throughout its main sequence, but there are larger suns that slough off some forty percent of their mass just from generating solar wind.

What I mean to say is, the universe is always in a constant state of flux. Everything is changing constantly. It’s the only thing that’s constant. In accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, that flux always tends towards a greater state of disorder or less potential energy.

Let’s say we stopped belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What would happen? Slowly, over time–about a billion years–the sun is going to get brighter as its main sequence continues. This means that water vapor will not condense and rain back to the Earth’s surface as readily. This will allow that water vapor to decay into hydrogen and oxygen under the force of a brighter sun’s ultraviolet radiation. After another billion years, our oceans will have all dried up and our atmosphere will have a much higher concentration carbon dioxide as hydrogen and oxygen leach off into the ether. Earth becomes another Venus. And that’s it. Earth is finished. Two billion years.

This came as something of a shock to me. I’ve always thought that life on Earth was dependent on the sun continuing to give off energy, feeding our biological economy. I never considered the possibility that the sun itself might be our undoing. I had never thought about our own atmosphere backfiring on us. The sun’s main sequence will last another seven billion years. That’s a lot of time. But if Earth is only habitable for another two, we’ve essentially got a third of that to…what?

I always thought it would be possible that humans might still exist on Earth in three billion years when the Milky Way crashes into Andromeda. I always thought there was a remote possibility (depending, of course, on our own ability to wise up). But there is no such possibility. Two billion years is a very small amount of time, cosmically speaking. But even beyond that event, what is there? Perhaps we find other habitable planets and generate the necessary technology to colonize them?

If the universe is expanding–which may or may not be the case–the second law of thermodynamics means that eventually the entire universe will be cold, lifeless, and dark. When? In a trillion years, our local galaxy cluster will have merged into one huge galaxy. Another trillion years later (again, continuing to assume the existence of dark energy), all other galaxies will have red shifted to the such an extent that they will no longer be detectable.

Star formation ceases at around 100 trillion years.

Slowly, all matter in the universe will be absorbed into black holes. But even black holes do not last forever. Slowly they decay. 10100 years from now, the last of the black holes will have evaporated to nothing, the tiny particles that they kicked off having dispersed throughout the eternity of space. Then comes the Dark Era.

And this is the thing that gets me. There is going to be crazy shit happening in the universe so long after our two billion years is up, and Earth won’t be here. At least, there won’t be anything worth calling life on Earth to experience it. All we have is these two billion years. So what do we do? It would be nice if we could do as much in that two billion years as possible.

I could turn this into a stump speech for renewable resources, etc. But you’ve heard it all before. I just wanted to put some shit into perspective.

Further reading: Humans Hell Bent on Mass Suicide




The purpose of the above image is not necessarily to draw attention to any specific comments by the eminent republican. In fact, I wanted an image of just some average dude purchasing some carbon offsets and then being confused about their purpose. But when I spotted this image, it was just begging to be further photoshopped. C’est la vie.

I live in Minnesota. We have beautiful summers and hellish winters. But that’s not all. We also happen to have perhaps the best public radio station in the country. Minnesota Public Radio is about all I listen to. This is due to two reasons:

  1. Every other radio station in my town is terrible.
  2. MPR is actually very, very good.

So it’s not usually a complicated process to find anything to listen to. That said, they are currently running their member drive. I don’t know how much you know about PBS or NPR or any other public service like this, but since they are not commercial, but are instead a sort of consumer co-operative, the vast majority of their funding comes from donations. And twice a year, they spend a week begging for money. It’s pretty obnoxious, but it’s just something you have to get through. The plus side, of course, is that if you do decide to donate money they often send you some pretty neat stuff. Books, mugs, duffel bags, that sort of thing. Sometimes CDs of past quality programming.

Tonight as I was listening to the radio, they offered a free gift with a donation that I hadn’t expected. They are offering a carbon offset with every donation. This immediately struck me as weird because I had assumed that carbon offsets were stupid. I’m still not convinced that they’re not, but since MPR was endorsing them, I decided to do some further research. The folks begging for money were telling me that one of these offsets was the same (as in equal to or identical to) as not driving your car for ninety miles or not throwing away six hundred aluminum cans.

This is what always struck me as strange about carbon offsets because wouldn’t it be easier to just not drive for ninety miles? In my experience, it’s always easier to not do something than to do it. Entire corporations have managed to be supposedly carbon neutral through the practice of purchasing these carbon offsets.

My understanding of how this works is that when you purchase carbon offsets, that money goes into a pool of cash that goes towards the planting of trees, retrofitting power plants, and a whole slew of other things that reduce carbon emissions. The idea is that despite the fact that a huge corporation that is not actually carbon neutral can pretend to be carbon neutral because they are funding a bunch of carbon-sequestering activities that would not have been performed otherwise. Supposedly, this earns them the right to belch out more greenhouse gases.

Perhaps it’s better than nothing, but it presupposes the notion that there’s already a ton of CO2 in the atmosphere. What I mean is, they are not being penalized for all the CO2 that’s already there. That’s nobody’s fault because we didn’t know better forty years ago (that’s a lie, but let’s roll with it). So by selling these carbon offsets (by planting a few trees) these companies or people–in the case of members of MPR–get to burn petro-chemicals and drive their cars guilt free for a period of time. Does this strike you as odd?

Wouldn’t it be better to buy these offsets and drive your car less?

It’s hard to be carbon-neutral. We all realize that. But the real challenge and the thing that we actually ought to do is be carbon-negative. You think that’s crazy? Well, at least I tried. Now it’s on your head.