Why is Civilization Unsustainable?

 




Top picture: Civilization; Pikeville, Kentucky

Bottom picture: Nature; Birch Knob, Virginia 



So, what is it about civilization being unsustainable that people do not understand? I often wonder why this is and have come up with the idea that it is mostly cultural programming and indoctrination by industry that technology is good and more of it is better. Perhaps a lack of critical thought by most of society as to what is required for technology to exist and what is required in order for technology to continue to be used is to blame for the reasons as to why people simply most often do not realize that civilization is unsustainable. Another distinct possibility is the power of the denial of reality that humans frequently use when faced with uncomfortable truths which don't fit into a person's worldview. 

Before I continue, I want to make mention that I was rather surprised by some of the comments on my last article which I published on Wednesday. My first recommendation is to visit the very first article I posted here a year ago and read this part, quote: 

"We often see people bring out certain ideas that they claim are some sort of "solution" or that "they work" and I want to try to explain why (once again) these ideas are nothing more than ideas and not "solutions" of any sort. One of the things I most would like to get others to see is the bigger picture. Many people focus on reductionist ideas such as non-renewable "renewable" energy, or alternative energy ideas such as hydrogen, or technological ideas; but fail to see how those ideas don't really change anything and only allow for continued environmental destruction (and consolidate capital in the hands of the elite) instead."


My next recommendation (regarding the bigger picture) is to visit the Climate Change and Collapse, the Agriculture & Food and Water Security, the Drought, the Flooding, and the Extreme Weather Events files. Once a person has read through these articles, he or she will not have any fantasies about greening deserts or permaculture or regenerative agriculture. Arguing about unsustainable practices seems rather pointless here; it is a false dichotomy no different in my mind than arguing over fossil fuels versus fossil fuel-created technological devices. Regenerative agriculture will become the only possibility once we no longer have the energy and resources provided by fossil fuels to help us out, but even that will become a risky enterprise, as many farmers are finding out nowadays already (regardless of type of agriculture they are using). Once one realizes that agriculture is technology and that both agriculture AND technology are unsustainable, it becomes hilarious that anyone would suggest that I "change my views," as if changing my views will somehow change the laws of science. The established facts will only change when the laws of science change. My "views" are irrelevant; when I post these facts, they are not going to change just because someone doesn't like them (including me!). 

OK, back to my article. If one runs through the technology section of many magazines (or just go through these articles), one can find countless articles about all kinds of new ideas on how technology can use energy to do things for us. Of course, it is this very energy use which itself is often causing the very predicaments that this technology is attempting to solve. Few people have taken the time to look very far down the road to come to the realization that all these ideas are only possible today and that as time moves forward, fewer and fewer of these ideas will be possible (keep reading to find out why).

Once one comprehends that civilization is made possible by technology use and that the bedrock technology of agriculture has allowed civilization to exist and that today's civilization is industrial and operates from the energy provided by fossil fuels supplied by the fossil fuel platform, it becomes far easier to see how and why civilization is unsustainable (also, see my article about infrastructure to learn more about infrastructural platforms). Another article which will help explain why civilization is unsustainable which I have also posted in several of my articles is here. Beware that the implications may be unsettling.

A video from 2017 explains a global collapsing system - collapse of ecosystems, collapse of civilization, collapse of the cryosphere, collapse of resilience, and so on.

What I see as the worst part about seeking ways to reduce the overall harm our species is doing to the biosphere we live in is the constant search for different forms of energy to power civilization. This is nothing more than bargaining with the predicament of ecological overshoot. What needs to happen is for society to ACCEPT the predicament rather than bargain with it. It does not matter one ounce HOW civilization is powered - it is UNSUSTAINABLE, meaning that it cannot be sustained no matter WHAT is powering it. Did the Romans have solar panels? No, they did not. Did the Romans have cars? No, they did not. Did the Romans have batteries? No, they did not. Did the Romans have computers or AI (Artificial Intelligence)? No, they did not. Did the Mayans have any of those items? Nope. They both collapsed all the same because they overshot the capacity of their landbase to supply their needs, no differently than the same scenario we face today. The trouble now is that our civilization is global and not limited to just one part of the world; there is literally nowhere pristine for people to run to in order to get their needs met because we are despoiling the entire planet.

My question is this: what is wrong with the energy supplied by trees, crops, animals, and phytoplankton? Did we and our ancestors not survive just fine on this energy for hundreds of thousands of years? I realize that this (surviving on only current renewable energy inputs [non-electrical]) would require bringing the global population down to the carrying capacity of the planet, and that this level is now far lower than what it was BEFORE the industrial revolution. But the global population is going to come down one way or another REGARDLESS of what we do at this point because 8 billion people CANNOT be sustained the way we live today. Is it not ironic that we have survived just fine off of photosynthesis provided by solar energy up until the last 2 centuries and all of a sudden we feel that we must have more energy? This level of energy use is precisely what has brought us to this level of ecological overshoot; using more or different energy won't change anything in a positive direction.  

George Tsakraklides wrote this recently about our current rendition of civilization, explaining how increasing complexity beyond a certain point brings decreasing resilience and diminishing returns on the investment required for said complexity. This is pointed out by the existence of Jevons Paradox, which I point to time and again and have written about in terms of civilizational inertia here. While I included comprehensive written material from Joseph Tainter including sources regarding complexity and collapse, here is a video presentation of him explaining and describing both, and the effects these will bring (keep in mind that this particular video was recorded in 2005; quite a few conditions have changed since then). One item of note that I disagree with is his claim that we need more energy to offset the decline from fossil fuels. This entirely discounts the fact that what is causing the decline in fossil fuels is the same one causing climate change and all the other predicaments - ecological overshoot. By attempting to obtain more energy, we do nothing but INCREASE ecological overshoot rather than reduce it. Another video of Tainter making a presentation includes many slides, although the sound quality leaves quite a bit to be desired. Many facts brought forth in these two videos can now be seen in real life through the chaos created by energy decline and the supply chain backlog, making it more "real" to the casual observer.

Another article about civilization and technology contains a quote from famed anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan about his new book:

"When Zerzan refers to technology, he doesn’t mean only computers and smartphones. Throughout the book When We Are Human, he points to the role that factories have had in forcing people away from natural routines, that art is a distraction, and that communicating through symbols — such as text messages and political messages — separates us. “We are in grave danger of being completely dominated and domesticated by technology, the wellspring of a world lacking in both meaning and value,” Zerzan writes in the book."


We are so quick to desire escape from uncomfortable circumstances that we often fail to see how said attempts to escape often put us in an even more dire situation than had we done nothing. This may not always be the case, of course, but it is something to think about with regard to the predicament of ecological overshoot.

The ironic thing about civilization and many people not comprehending it being unsustainable might be due to its complexity, as pointed out by Tom Murphy here, quote: 

"But I still try to understand why so few of my colleagues have reached similar conclusions. The easy answer is that I’m just plain wrong. But believe me, I have tormented myself to try to discover the missing piece and go back to being a happy human bumping along in this race to who-knows-where. It’s not that my unconcerned colleagues have thought more deeply about the issues and can help a rookie out, in my experience.

In this post, I venture some guesses about the disconnect—some of which may even be on target. I will loosely frame the discussion in the context of academia, but much of the logic also applies beyond this scope. The basic idea is: complexity makes it hard to differentiate between
REAL and ARTIFICIAL worlds."


Murphy brings up many relevant questions and it is comforting to know that I'm not the only one asking these questions. One other important aspect to this which just crossed my path last week appears right here, quote: 

"Another common focus of how we might fix many of the world’s ills is redistributing the wealth of billionaires. But perversely, perhaps locking up the wealth without physical expression is doing more good than harm, in Earth’s eyes. If a multi-billionaire released, say, $30k each to 1 million people, we might expect 1 million car purchases, or the equivalent. Yet billionaires don’t have million-car garages. In general, because only a tiny sliver of energy and material resources go to the few billionaires (disproportionately small compared to their wealth), I would expect redistribution to result in a substantial increase in energy and material resource consumption: more fossil fuels; more CO2; more deforestation; more mining; more Amazon and back to billionaires! It’s a large part of what drives the appeal of redistribution: more access to “stuff” for the masses. What would the forests and animal kingdom want? Prioritizing people and their wants over ecosystems is a losing strategy, in the end."


In fact, many people focus on capitalism or the economy as a means to "solve" our predicaments. But does this actually reduce ecological overshoot? No, as demonstrated, it actually INCREASES it. As Murphy points out in the linked "losing strategy" article, we must see reducing ecological overshoot as returning to using only sustainable activities in the course of our lives. I mentioned a similar quote from Rex Weyler in Why is Promoting Technology NOT good? which is very short and concise:

"All paths out of overshoot (genuine solutions) involve a contraction of the species and a decline of material/energy throughput. There are no exceptions.

Furthermore, the contraction of humanity is inevitable, so all genuine options exist within this framework, whether we respond appropriately or not. And finally, every day that we ignore this reality, the deeper humanity falls into the overshoot rut, the faster the feedbacks take over (forest fires, methane from melting permafrost), and the less chance we have of mitigation.
"


Those who regularly read my articles will see this as repeating the same message over and over; however, I'm trying to break down these concepts into smaller packages (so to speak) in an effort to make them more understandable to the general public despite my knowledge that the general public will have little if any interest in such information. One never knows when a message will get through and there does seem to be some awakening to precisely what ecological overshoot is, how it is affecting us, and the fact that technological products cannot and will not solve it.

An article written by Andrew Nikiforuk explains in great detail how the technosphere has more or less taken control of our lives, made us entirely dependent upon it, and replaced the natural biosphere around us and the way we previously lived within it with devices and ways of communicating completely divorced from natural reality. One question he wrote about which really struck a nerve with me was this one, quote: 

"Last but not least many listeners asked how do we maintain hope in the face of so many emergencies, abuses and appalling political leadership?

“How do you get up in the morning?” typically asked one.

This frequent question confounds and puzzles me. My humble job as a journalist is not to peddle soft soap or cheerlead for ideologies and futurists. My job is not to manufacture hope let alone consent. I have achieved something small if I can help readers differentiate between what matters and what doesn’t and highlight the power implications in between.

Yet in a technological society most everyone seeks an easy, canned message pointing to a bright future. I cannot in good conscience tell anyone, let alone my own children, that the days ahead will be happy or bright ones. To everything there is a season and our civilization has now, step by step, entered a season of discord and chaos. History moves like life itself in a cycle of birth, life, death and renewal."


"How do you get up in the morning?" or "How do you live with yourself?" I have been asked those two questions a considerable number of times myself - as if my disclosing of the facts I have compiled somehow make me a bad guy. Nikiforuk answers it perfectly! I attempted to bring this reality into focus with my article, The Cycle of Life.

I will leave you with one last short article written by a friend who is better with words than I am, quote:

"When it comes to our understanding of the unfolding global crisis, each of us seems to fit somewhere along a continuum of awareness that can be roughly divided into five stages:

1. Dead asleep. At this stage there seem to be no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings in human organization, behavior, and morality that can be fixed with the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage tend to live their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around election times or the quarterly corporate earnings seasons.

2. Awareness of one fundamental problem. Whether it's climate change, overpopulation, peak oil, chemical pollution, oceanic over-fishing, biodiversity loss, corporatism, economic instability, or sociopolitical injustice, one problem seems to engage the attention completely. People at this stage tend to become ardent activists for their chosen cause. They tend to be very vocal about their personal issue, and blind to any others.

3. Awareness of many problems. As people let in more evidence from different domains, the awareness of complexity begins to grow. At this point a person worries about the prioritization of problems in terms of their immediacy and degree of impact. People at this stage may become reluctant to acknowledge new problems - for example, someone who is committed to fighting for social justice and against climate change may not recognize the problem of resource depletion. They may feel that the problem space is already complex enough, and the addition of any new concerns will only dilute the effort that needs to be focused on solving the "highest priority" problem.

4. Awareness of the interconnections between the many problems. The realization that a solution in one domain may worsen a problem in another marks the beginning of large-scale system-level thinking. It also marks the transition from thinking of the situation in terms of a set of problems to thinking of it in terms of a predicament. At this point the possibility that there may not be a solution begins to raise its head.

People who arrive at this stage tend to withdraw into tight circles of like-minded individuals in order to trade insights and deepen their understanding of what's going on. These circles are necessarily small, both because personal dialogue is essential for this depth of exploration, and because there just aren't very many people who have arrived at this level of understanding.

5. Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life. This includes everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and the physical planet. With this realization, the floodgates open, and no problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept of a "Solution" is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort.

For those who arrive at Stage 5 there is a real risk that depression will set in. After all, we've learned throughout our lives that our hope for tomorrow lies in our ability to solve problems today. When no amount of human cleverness appears able to solve our predicament, the possibility of hope can vanish like the light of a candle flame, to be replaced by the suffocating darkness of despair.

How people cope with despair is of course deeply personal, but it seems to me there are two general routes people take to reconcile themselves with the situation. These are not mutually exclusive, and most of us will operate out of some mix of the two. I identify them here as general tendencies, because people seem to be drawn more to one or the other. I call them the outer path and the inner path.

If one is inclined to choose the outer path, concerns about adaptation and local resilience move into the foreground, as exemplified by the Transition Network and Permaculture Movement. To those on the outer path, community-building and local sustainability initiatives will have great appeal. Organized party politics seems to be less attractive to people at this stage, however. Perhaps politics is seen as part of the problem, or perhaps it's just seen as a waste of effort when the real action will take place at the local level.

If one is disinclined to choose the outer path either because of temperament or circumstance, the inner path offers its own set of attractions.

Choosing the inner path involves re-framing the whole thing in terms of consciousness, self-awareness and/or some form of transcendent perception. For someone on this path it is seen as an attempt to manifest Gandhi's message, "Become the change you wish to see in the world," on the most profoundly personal level. This message is similarly expressed in the ancient Hermetic saying, "As above, so below." Or in plain language, "In order to heal the world, first begin by healing yourself."

However, the inner path does not imply a "retreat into religion". Most of the people I've met who have chosen an inner path have as little use for traditional religion as their counterparts on the outer path have for traditional politics. Organized religion is usually seen as part of the predicament rather than a valid response to it. Those who have arrived at this point have no interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth, rather they wish to create a coherent personal context for it. Personal spirituality of one sort or another often works for this, but organized religion rarely does.

It's worth mentioning that there is also the possibility of a serious personal difficulty at this point. If someone cannot choose an outer path for whatever reasons, and is also resistant to the idea of inner growth or spirituality as a response the the crisis of an entire planet, then they are truly in a bind. There are few other doorways out of this depth of despair. If one remains stuck here for an extended period of time, life can begin to seem awfully bleak, and violence against either the world or oneself may begin to seem like a reasonable option. Keep a watchful eye on your own progress, and if you encounter someone else who may be in this state, please offer them a supportive ear.

From my observations, each successive stage contains roughly a tenth of the number people as the one before it. So while perhaps 90% of humanity is in Stage 1, less than one person in ten thousand will be at Stage 5 (and none of them are likely to be politicians). The number of those who have chosen the inner path in Stage 5 also seems to be an order of magnitude smaller than the number who are on the outer path.

I happen to have chosen an inner path as my response to a Stage 5 awareness. It works well for me, but navigating this imminent (transition, shift, metamorphosis - call it what you will), will require all of us - no matter what our chosen paths - to cooperate on making wise decisions in difficult times.

Best wishes for a long, exciting, and fulfilling journey.
"  ~Bodhi Paul Chefurka

 Live Now!

Comments

  1. Vaclav Havel said of "hope": "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out". And one way 'it can turn out' is the rather dismal and depressing way that "overshoot" will lead. The evidence is all around us now, if we but listen and look. Tornadoes in the middle of December [Excited States]! Flooding next door to drought [Iraq and Iran]! And worst of all, the numbers of people dying whose deaths are not at all connected to the devastation of where they live {or use to live} [Kenya, South Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Honduras, etc.]! Or, as Antonio Gramsci said, " The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear".

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  2. Erik,
    Perhaps one of the best summations of most of the pertinent information out there.
    Life living in the final stages of industrial civilization is hard - it's living on Mt. Improbable (to paraphrase Dawkins) . I empathize with you as a fellow traveler on the inner path of Stage 5. As depressed as I get about the loneliness and hopelessness of our time and condition I still marvel that we are inanimate matter risen to the level of consciousness and understanding of some of where we came from (13 billion years after the Big Bang) and where we are going (ultimate thermodynamic equilibrium of the cosmos). 'We' being as a species, you and I came from the void and will return to it to sleep forever - no hopium no woo.
    Keep up the good work - you are a Candle in the Dark (Sagen).
    You might also try reading some of Pray for Calamity - he stopped writing a few years ago but some of his last posts were some of the best writing on the net about our predicament.: http://web.archive.org/web/20211001111443/https://prayforcalamity.com/
    AJ

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    1. This is meant to be addressed to Erik but I don’t see a link to write a response other than to reply to someone else. Great work Erik! I love this stuff. How so? I love being part of this fellowship, to be connected to others who truly grok our predicament. I’m not alone.

      I could add a third way of dealing with any stress or sadness that this knowledge may bring. Actually I don’t feel sad, no more than knowing that I and those I love will die soon regardless. And I feel fortunate to have no grandchildren. I find that in taking a geological perspective—well beyond a mere anthropological perspective—I see our predicament of ecological overshoot as simply another phase of several geological eras in the earth’s history. Do we view it as sad that the dinosaurs went extinct? Not generally. In the same way I need not feel sad that our species will go extinct. Nothing ever stays the same. Nothing. Life itself is impermanent. There’s can be no life without death. Fact.

      It helps I suppose to clearly see the hubris of humanity, to see our false sense of superiority. There’s a sense in which I’m not fond of our species at all, not generally speaking. As I said to Gail, Homo sapiens are an evolutionary faux pas. If it’s life’s goal to perpetuate itself, life made a big mistake in evolving human beings. Sure we can love and enjoy life and each other, but we can’t help ourselves from inadvertently despoiling the planet and destroying it all.

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  3. While agreeing with your basic ideas, I think it would be great if you could use some other word than ‘civilization’.
    “ A civilization is a complex society that is characterized by urban development, social stratification, a form of government, and symbolic systems of communication.”
    A remote rainforest tribe might be defined as civilized using this definition (except for ‘urban development’); what we describe when we look at ecological overshoot are technologically dependent or consumer-driven populations.

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  4. Erik you are carving out a leading edge in this dichotomy, I'm very grateful of your studious cross referencing.
    Respect
    K

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  5. To those that would say "how do you live with yourself?" etc, I would say that knowing the truth hurts less than living the lie that this civilisation is the only option available to us.

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  6. A wonderful essay, thank you, Erik. I would only add a stage 6, to which even fewer people arrive - negligibly few really. That's the stage where you realize that it's not civilization, or capitalism, or agriculture, or any particular culture that creates and perpetuates our predicament of overshoot - rather, it is simply evolutionary biology. It's a very unsettling conclusion which is why most people reflexively repudiate it. Humans are a classic invasive species who *like* to think they have self control but, who really don't any more than my dog can stop himself chasing squirrels. And we have developed the "intelligence" and tools to conquer virtually any habitat until, that is, we destroy it. This has always been true of us since we climbed out of trees and learned to run and throw. Following is a revealing link which is followed by a short film that is spot on, which you've probably seen. https://www.eurasiareview.com/19012020-human-caused-biodiversity-decline-started-millions-of-years-ago/ https://youtu.be/WfGMYdalClU

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    1. Spot on Gail, although I think of that as my stage 5.
      William Catton's book Overshoot is fundamental to understanding this, and Sid Smith's All the Bunnies in the Meadow Die:
      https://bsidneysmith.com/writings/essays/all-the-bunnies-in-the-meadow-die

      All species go through cycles of growth-overshoot-collapse in varying degrees, it is an evolutionary process. As Michael Dowd says, collapse is a feature, not a bug.
      The current collapse that is underway is pretty much biologically programmed. The difference this time is our fossil fuel burn over the last 270 years has created a situation where we take down all the other species with us.

      And the only question that remains is it is growth-overshoot-collapse or growth-overshoot-collapse-extinction for humans?

      Most of the time this process is not noticed because other species are working in some kind of harmonic balance with each other. As one population species increases, their predator species then increase, which also affects other species in various ways; the former then overshoots it's environment and declines, leading to declines in their predator species, which then alters the balance of other species, and so on.

      This time however, humans with their colossal brains, which I reckon were evolved to learn how to live sustainably within an environment, to perhaps break that cycle, have instead just amplified the process to an unimagineable and unredeemable scale.

      Even without fossil fuels, we would have at some point reached a collapse point, but it would have been over thousands of years. We have crammed perhaps 10,000 years of extinction and overshoot into a mere 270 years, I can't imagine that working out well, and a lot of the science confirms this.


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    2. Thanks, Gail. Yes, I actually have that study listed in the Species and Biodiversity Loss file [https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/2020/12/species-and-biodiversity-loss.html] and I have seen many of Steve's videos which are all excellent. Yep, I wrote about who and what we are as a species in my article about denial and even included the maximum power principle: https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/2020/12/denial-of-reality.html

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    3. Well said Gail. As for “evolutionary biology” I like to say that Homo sapiens are an evolutionary faux pas. The combination of hands and large brains that evolved in us has made us too smart for our britches. We are a clever species but not a wise one. To call us sapient is a misnomer. We’re just smart enough to inadvertently destroy our entire habitat. Of course there is no wisdom in that. Of course we are a far greater scourge and plague upon the planet than is the little novel coronavirus. It isn’t capable of approaching our level of death and destruction.

      I love stumbling upon fellow humans in stage 5, or your stage 6 of understanding, to find others who see what I see.

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  7. Hi Eric – Two years ago Australia had catastrophic bushfires across the whole continent. Almost nobody talks about population and overshoot. And there are no technological fixes.
    Yet, if there were sufficient public will, we could at least stop making things worse. ‘Flatten the curve’ as we descend to a steady state economy. Evolve a life-affirming culture that, like aboriginal cultures, cares for people and the planet.

    Or so I imagine. Putting my effort where my mouth is, I have set up Inspiring Transition as a platform to support citizen educators communicating about the systemic changes necessary to pull out of our ecological nosedive to the extent still possible. The foundational essay is Catalysing mass commitment to transformational change (https://app.box.com/s/3lcz1tpgb3tqtv67zwxavw7jromrh2qu).

    If this is of interest to you, I would be happy to talk.

    Andrew Gaines
    Inspiring Transition
    andrew.gaines@InspiringTransition.net
    www.InspiringTransition.net
    Greta Thunberg will have reason to hope when she sees that mainstream society is committed to turning things around.

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    1. It seems to me that Greta Thunberg is at Stage Two. She gives the impression that she believes in a singular cause as well as a solution, which is simply to stop using fossil fuels and transition to “sustainable” energy sources. I admire the kid very much but she’s living on pie-in-the-sky.

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  8. Yes, Andrew, I am well aware of the extreme wildfires In Australia and many other areas of the world, and have included countless articles and peer-reviewed studies along with lots of other media in the Wildfire file [https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/2020/12/wildfire.html]. I took some time to take a look at your idea, but I don't see where it does away with civilization. Fine-tuning a few things here and there while leaving civilization intact is nothing more than setting society up to fail all over again. Something that is unsustainable CAN NOT BE SUSTAINED, period. Your idea also promotes technology, another thing which should NOT be done [https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/2021/09/why-is-promoting-technology-not-good.html].

    I have looked at countless ideas just like yours, and they all suffer from two fatal flaws. They all want to continue civlization; something which will become nearly impossible due to climate change, and they are all anthropocentric in their ideas, leaving out all the other species we rely upon for their ecosystem services. For more analysis on a similar idea, please see this article: https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/2021/02/what-would-it-take-for-humanity-to.html

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