Our Impending Impasse and Sid Smith's New Series

Keowee Toxaway State Park, South Carolina

I have a backlog of articles I have started but haven't yet finished, so I'm starting with this one which has to do with our impending impasse. I think William Catton, Jr. worded that very well. It actually comes from his book, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, in which a review is available here. For those unfamiliar with Catton, he wrote (among other books), Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, and along with other pioneering giants such as Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) and Dennis and Donella Meadows (The Limits to Growth), he brought awareness to the simple fact that society was breaching planetary limits and beginning to reach tipping points in planetary systems. 

Nowadays, it seems that everyone is getting in on some predicament; whether it is climate change, population growth, energy and resource decline (peak oil), pollution loading, or many others, these are all symptom predicaments of ecological overshoot, the master predicament. While I think it is great to have goals and to work towards those goals, I also think it is important to have goals that are not incongruent to what one is working towards. In other words, if one is working towards solving a particular issue, making the issue worse instead of better is senseless. Yet most people have little if any awareness that their favorite goal when it comes to the environment (often climate change) is getting further and further away rather than closer. As long as ecological overshoot is allowed to continue increasing, ANY environmental goal along with most other goals will continue fading into the distance. 

Inevitably, this means that ONLY reducing ecological overshoot will result in reducing the severity of each and every symptom predicament such as climate change, energy and resource decline, pollution loading, biodiversity loss, the ongoing mass extinction, disease, and so on. Some things are already baked in to our future due to not tackling these sets of circumstances before. There are some who think that tackling these circumstances were never really possible to begin with due to our lack of agency. I used to be one of many people who thought that we could have "solved" these issues if only we had done [list of could haves, would haves, and should haves here; aka "X" or "fill in the blank"]. Now I realize that such thoughts are really nothing more than romantic ideas that don't hold up under scrutiny, no differently than almost every idea out there listed as a "solution" to any predicament.

Sid Smith (Dr. Becker Sidney Smith) has a new series dedicated to explaining the scenario outlined above, aptly titled, "How to Enjoy the End of the World," the title to one of his talks given three years ago which I have previously highlighted here in my blog. In this series, Sid points out how collapse is unavoidable which means that it is baked in. No amount of technology or other ideas will stop or reverse collapse. The absolute best that can be achieved is to soften the fall; only society does not seem to be doing this. Society instead appears to be stamping on the accelerator pedal. After this initial episode, Sid presents episode 2 here, episode 3 here, episode 4 here, and (update) episode 5 here. In an essay that Sid wrote, he uses an analogy about rabbits to explain the situation we find ourselves in and uses coyotes to represent negative feedback, which keeps most species' numbers in check. Our use of technology has reduced or removed these negative feedbacks, allowing our species to proliferate not only to our own demise, but to many other species as well.

While I have highlighted numerous studies, papers, videos, and other media pointing out our collapse and impending extinction, there is another paper available  from Philip Garnett here adding more evidence to the growing pile. This paper is from 2018, and the situation has only grown worse since then, unfortunately.

I probably should just stop there, but something many people obviously are leaving out of the mix is a new self-reinforcing feedback loop highlighted in this study which I first posted in my article about flooding closures a couple weeks ago. I find the title of the study particularly jolting: How close are we to the temperature tipping point of the terrestrial biosphere? 

One more study points to us not being able to endure temperatures and humidity as high as previously thought. Most of us know that a wet bulb temperature of 35C or 95F for 6 hours results in death, but this study shows how those numbers were actually more optimistic than reality. Combining these two studies together paints a rather grim picture, especially for tropical regions.

OK, I could go on listing links for quite a bit longer, but I'll stop now and instead provide part of a conversation I had last week:

A thread I have been involved with recently starts out with this as the OP (original post), quote: 

"Global problems need global solutions. No authorized global governance mechanisms exist to address global problems of Earth."

I replied with this comment, quote:

"What about global predicaments? Since predicaments are dilemmas and don't have solutions, what do they need?"

Of course, I was being a smart aleck, since I have constantly been trying to get through to people for years that most of the so-called "problems" that people focus on today are actually predicaments. Unlike problems, which by definition have solutions or answers, predicaments only have outcomes.

A long way down the thread after I had posted multiple links, studies, and other articles, a brilliant comment from Andrew Beck was posted (republished with permission), quote:

"So - I tend to agree with Erik (Michaels) on this - we're in predicament territory, not problem territory. Just not seeing practical, scaleable solutions out there that do much more than put band-aids on the issues, or push them around the environment to somewhere else, or are cheap enough to scale up. Almost nothing clears all 3 of those bunkers if you look closely. And I wonder if we are yet at the point of our evolution where we can really 'think globally', let alone act that way. Our species history is largely of small, tribal groupings, not transnational ones. Where we are now is already a stretch of our capacity as social mammals. And modern humans are so deeply embedded in industrial society that any action on our part is akin to a group of rebel Borg trying to leave Unimatrix One.

Many solutions doing the rounds now were doing the rounds when I was a kid, and I'm no spring chicken anymore. None are any closer to fruition, and most are just the same scraping of the same barrel bottom as before. Especially on energy. Then there are all the 'can-do' optimists citing the post-WW2 Marshall Plan as a precedent for global action - it's as if an astronaut planned to circle Betelgeuse by using the dimensions of the Sun as an estimate. We're literally 3-4 times more densely populated as we were at WW2 and our resource use and waste products dwarf that of our predecessors, even those from the early-mid C20th. The bulk of GHG emissions were produced in the last 25 years, not the last 100 or 250. This fact also demonstrates something else rather unfortunate - since the 1st Earth Day, when we started paying attention on a global scale - we have not only not made progress, we've made our situation much, much worse on almost every single metric you care to measure.

And the plan is to keep on keeping on with the same mentality that got us into this fix in the first place (and didn't Einstein have something to say about that)? We are living the nursery rhyme of the old woman who swallowed a shoe, then sent half the animal kingdom down after it, each animal causing a new problem which must be solved by the next one. For e.g. - remember the Green Revolution? It helped cause our population and land use issues. Yet this was considered a 'success' by most modern thinkers, and anyone who disagrees is still a 'Malthusian', and oh, while we're at it, can we just get some smug economist from the WEF to debunk limits to growth one more time for the newbies out there? (Yes we can!)

This is what you are up against. Almost limitless supplies of unwarranted optimism. If that optimism could be harnessed as energy we would at least solve our energy problem!

I reckon human population will resolve itself in time (illnesses, viruses, pollution, heat and humidity, dropping sperm counts, increasing infertility, harvest failures, wars, etc). This will take care of at least some of the issues. We won't plan it, it will plan us. The optimist in me reckons CO2 might level out in due course (maybe - unless we've pushed heat-forcing too fast) - just not quick enough for humans. After the PETM, it took about 800,000 years to stabilise CO2 down to levels suitable for complex ecosystems to re-emerge. For perspective, upright man has only been around about a quarter or maybe half that time, so that's a long wait for natural equilibrium to do its thang. And GHG removal at the scale needed is not economically feasible, even if its technically possible, as James Hansen and others have pointed out.

Ecology may have more answers than climate Orgs [organizations] do, who are generally fixated on technical solutions for GHGs. Good ecology would at least go some way towards fixing the hydrology cycle and make a decent dent in the reactive nitrogen cascade, which Vaclav Smil calls 'the greatest problem no-one knows about'. At least some of our nitrogen pollution is from farming and this is comparatively easy and cheap to fix compared to atmospheric CO2, and the knock-on effects help solve many issues with climate, soil and water quality. Yet those of us banging on about it have been in the wilderness for years. When people can't even rally around and solve the cheaper and simpler problems, what hope is there for the more complex and expensive ones?

So, for those who want a solution that includes human survival or rallying together as one big family, may I suggest you pursue your answers through spiritual paradigms rather than scientific or political ones; because the more rational, left-brain-inspired solutions out there don't cut it. And if you're not into that, start looking for friendly advanced aliens instead. Those seem to be the remaining options as far as 'solutions' go. Personally I've gone beyond solutions. Yes, I'd like to believe we can all become sustainable or indigenous, but with 8 billion people its not at all clear how. It would require something utterly new and unforeseen in human history to happen. I'll certainly drink to that, but I'm not about to bet the house on it or pin all my hopes on it.

Maybe the Earth can recover from this, maybe not. As for us, I have my opinions but I'm tired of debating human extinction, because really I'm more worried about the extinction of the human spirit. It's my opinion that we are so consumed with our survival - or our extinction - that we forgot about the living part inbetween. We're caught on a treadmill chasing down problems and it seems most people will be on that treadmill until they die. So what was their life all about? I've met enough activists who never even get out into the natural world they are trying to save for saving it.

Which is why I often wonder if it wouldn't be better to simply relax, stop panicking and just do what comes naturally - assuming any of us CAN settle into ourselves long enough to actually find out what 'natural' really is. Because if we are a part of nature (and not apart from nature, as we appear to think) then something more useful may emerge from that process than yet more COP conferences, think tanks, TED talks, school strikes, and Extinction Rebellion protests.

It has to beat what we're currently trying to do - spending an utter fortune we don't have and resources Earth can ill afford to lose on building literally millions of giant carbunkles in deserts, along coastlines and under oceans to suck up CO2, provide energy, and keep the thermohaline cycles going like those heart pacemakers old people get. That's a Borg dream for the future, not a recognisably human one. Count me out. I want to live among trees, corals, annoying insects and noisy birds, not giant steel monstrosities designed to 'save the planet' (and for what, exactly - so we can shop at Target for another 10 years and keep the global economee going for Tesla, Google, Amazon, and the Rockefeller Foundation? Yeah, nah, I'm good - extinction please!

And I'd like to know what 8 billion mofos trudging to dead-end jobs every day actually want from life other than an upgraded version of the present? Because if there is no dream beyond 'more of the same', or beyond the reactionary fight against all the bad things, then there is no human life worth saving anyway. As Al Pacino says in Scent of a Woman: 'there is nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit - there's no prosthetic for that'. I concur. I see amputated spirits and 'hungry ghosts' everywhere, and it grieves me as much as the death of coral reefs or trees. If we don't address those issues alongside the technical and administrative/political ones, what are we? Humans? I doubt it.

I don't claim to know what it means to be a fully realised human, but I do believe our current trajectory isn't helping to facilitate that possibility. Nor are many of our 'answers' - I'm thinking the questions themselves are the really valid side of that equation, and we have to be willing to walk with those questions while resisting the temptation to come up with easy answers."

Hmmm, resisting the temptation to come up with easy answers. That's a great one! Too bad most of society is doing exactly just that, and it just so happens that doing that tends to INCREASE ecological overshoot rather than reduce it. In other words, these so-called easy answers or easy solutions are actually anything but. They actually propel us in the wrong direction, something we were already doing an excellent job of in the first place. 

Here's hoping your May is getting off to a great start! 


  1. Great post Erik.
    The denial of reality/overshoot and the techno/optimism of our fellow humans necessarily means we (humanity) will be approaching extinction kicking and screaming. My hope is that a few humans might survive into a future of hunting/gathering in a way similar to our ancient ancestors (except the planet will be exceptionally depleted). If not, such is the fate of sentient life in the universe?


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