We are still screwed: the coming climate disaster


I love that game.

Sorry, one last grim thought that occurred to me later…

I think what happens in Yemen over the next year is a sneak peak of the fate that waits for all of us if things don’t totally go to shit from stressors before then. (And by stressors I mean things like the effects of the Syrian Civil War on politics in Europe growing exponentially worse as the environment goes to shit in the most unstable regions of the planet.)


First of all, the oceans aren’t going to “die”. It’s an ecosystem. If it changes drastically, things living there now will die, and be replaced by something else. Life tends to fill any open space.

Humans are basically at the point where we can turn energy into a habitat to live in. Some great ecological catastrophy would result in the death of most humans, but almost certainly not all of us.


We can’t turn energy into food.


Microbial life is probably ubiquitous, but complex life I think is far rarer.

A series of highly improbable events had to occur to sow the environment for sentient life:

  1. Jupiter forms early and starts migrating in towards the Sun. Had it continued the inner planets would have been flung into space.

  2. This migration leads to the late heavy bombardment, seeding Earth with its water.

  3. But Saturn forms shortly after Jupiter and yanks Jupiter back to its current location (gravity is weird!)

  4. In the meantime, a mars-sized object hits Earth at precisely the right angle to eject enough Earth material to form the Moon but not enough to obliterate it (Venus OTOH apparently got hit with something that nearly stopped its rotation, leading in part to the hellscape it is now.)

  5. The moon stabilizes the earth’s wobble, leading to predictable seasons that allow life to evolve over long timescales.

All that just to get going.

On top of the this, we don’t have a binary star system, we’re isolated from the violent universe (supernovas, hypernovas, pulsars, gamma ray bursts.) It may well be that Earth is the first planet, certainly in the galaxy, to evolve sentient life (homo sapiens nearly didn’t make it either, reduced at one point to a population of 6,000 in East Africa.)

That’s why what is happening now is all the more tragic. People can have cavalier (and I submit, shitty) attitudes that so what species go extinct, new ones will come along, but none of this had to come to pass. Human beings have made a conscious choice to shit on the planet and all the other living beings on it for short term comfort.

As for ‘enjoy life now’, I find that difficult. It’s akin to saying too bad my partner has cancer, I’m just gonna go ahead and ignore that and simply have fun. IOW, easier said than done.


I don’t doubt that, but the question is on what timescale?


Seriously. I don’t really care that a few humans might live eeking out a living by eating lichen and cockroaches millions of years from now vs actual extinction. Collapse of society and the death of billions is bad enough, so I’m not sure why @Timex always wants to point out that someone somewhere will live. Probably. :)


This has been my expectation for what is coming for a long time…

A Boy and His Dog


On a cosmic scale, who cares? Humanity will almost certainly go extinct no matter what we do.

On human scales… well, I expect that in a couple of decades there will be pogroms against the elderly (i.e. my generation) because of how we didn’t try to prevent the catastrophe we knew was coming. I think boomers will just slip the net, getting to enjoy all of the best fruits of fossil-fuel-driven economic expansion, while dying off too early to pay the piper for it.


Interestingly there are like three periods of life really on Earth, from a time/development point of view.

Single Cellular Life ~ a billion years
Photosynthetic life ~ another billion years
Multi-cellular Life ~ a billion years after that

All the “life” people think of on earth has only happened in the last 600M years or so. Flowering plants weren’t around until 160M years ago.

In other words, the filter to just get multi-cellular, complex life was at least 3 billion years of cooking. The 65 million year difference between Dinosaurs and Mammals is a drop in the bucket by comparison. It seems like once there is a complex enough self reproducing thing, that complexity tends to be preserved, ie, you see something like “runaway complexity and differentiation” once multi-cellular life exists in complex forms.

I used to read quite a lot of about gene theory but I’ve come to the conclusion that actually there is a preference for complexity in evolution. Sure, complexity leaves niches behind that simple, non-complex life can fill, but the very nature of evolution implies increasing efficiency, and increasing efficiency invariably means increased complexity.


Yeah, we pretty much can. Aside from actual constructing nutritional materials through chemical processing, we can create controlled habitats where we can do things like grow crops and stuff.

Hell, we are currently improving the ability to grow crops in space. If we can grow plants in the space station, we can sure as hell do it anywhere on Earth.

Again, these aren’t things that would keep our current society alive, but the species will certainly continue to exist. We are almost infinitely adaptable at this point.


Eh, i think it’s important that the species continues.


I’m not sure that evolution actually favours complexity. I think it wants things to be as simple as possible and still fill their niche. On the other hand, you can’t have complex stuff without having simpler stuff first, so the frontiers of complexity tend to expand outwards.


There’s a good case to be made that the principle bottleneck proceeding to multicellularity was the development of eukaryotes. Eukaryotic cells are vastly bigger and more complex than prokaryotic ones. It’s like the difference between a paper airplane and a jetliner.

I don’t think anyone questions that evolution tends toward greater specialization. It’s like a ratchet. The more specific an adaptation becomes, the more difficult it is to co-opt it for other purposes later. “Complexity” is a vague term. There’s an amoeba that has a genome 200x larger than our own. How do you measure complexity?

I don’t think that “intelligence” as we conceive it–abstract reasoning, facility for complex communication, advanced number sense–is necessarily all that adaptive. Just using the info we’ve got, there aren’t that many creatures on Earth who possess these characteristics. No plants or fungi possess them. And even among animals, only a few species of megafauna in the last couple of million years have had them. Life persisted for a long time without them and did just fine. I don’t think intelligence is inevitable for evolutionary systems. And then, even if you have intelligence, a technological civilization seems like a long shot. Fully modern humans did their thing for 200,000 years without it.


I’d disagree, if you consider “intelligence” more broadly as “receiving information from the environment and acting on it.”
The more information a self reproducing molecule can receive, process, and act on, all things being equal, will result in an increase in fitness.

Actual Intelligence as is normally understood in just the end point of a long line of organisms become ever better processors of environmental information. IMO!

It’s a lot like pornography - you know it when you see it! But, actually that amoeba’s genetic complexity is completely valid complexity, since that, in my estimation, is the “reservoir” out of which later, macro-scale complexity arose. Just like you don’t jump from self reproducing organic molecules straight to trilobytes. There had to be billions of years of increasing complexity in single cellular organisms just to get to the next big leap. In fact that is almost certainly far more impressive an increase in “complexity” than, say the difference between Triassic animals to modern animals. Maybe there’s some kind of measure of genetic entropy.


I actually stumbled across something very useful for navigating the issues we’re discussing here.

The professor that Watt references as predicting societal collapse within 10 years is Jem Bendell. He clarifies that 10 years is not a hard and fast prediction but rather a consciously chosen time scale that conveys the idea of inevitable societal collapse in the near future. Could be more than 10 years or less but it’s a short enough time scale that we need to think of it as something Immanent rather than the traditional ways of framing this conversation which (a pet peeve of mine) use the year 2100 (or more recently I’ve been seeing 2040), dates so far in the future than they are essentially denials of what’s happening right now and what will happen in the coming years.

Anyway, he has a paper and accompanying blog on the subject of deep adaptation — The idea that if we accept the inevitability of near term societal collapse, we have to start discussing things that people have been afraid to discuss, throwing out our existing paradigms and conceptions of how the world of humankind is organized and start thinking about how we will deal with an entirely new context.

The blog includes some really good resources on starting to think about how to process this knowledge once you accept what’s happening. I’ve only started reading the paper and accompanying posts but I’m finding it very helpful. This post in particular frames a range of responses and feels like a really good starting point:

Oddly enough, my initial impression is that Bendell might be a bit of an optimistic in that he seems to believe in the possibility of positive outcomes on a local level. Maybe not though, I’ve only started scratching the surface.


Yes, though I would contend that there are reasons based on physical laws that things unfolded the way they did and as those laws are universal, I would expect to see the same pattern unfolding repeatedly. The initial research into exo planets seems to be revealing categories of solar systems depending on how things fell out during there formation and that makes perfect sense.

After that it’s just probability. If most stars have solar systems and some categories of solar systems are capable of sustaining life, the sheer numbers suggest that given all of these systems are bound by the same physical laws suggests that life is a thing that happens and evolution is a part of that process as well


It looks like recovery started about 4-6 million years after the Permian Exctinction and was “complete” within 30 million years.


Well, that’s all right then. Sure, we’ll all lose a little weight, and I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed, but help is coming.


Given (pre-)historical extinction rates for mammals, only about 5% of extant species remain after 5 million years. (The other 95% have gone extinct, supplanted by other species.) After 15 million years, there will be virtually zero extant species of mammals remaining. That’s without considering the effects of humanity (already an epoch-defining extinction event) or some other catastrophe.


We’ll sure, I agree that life tends to find a way. During the Permian Extiinction only 96% of all marine life died. The link between our oceans and the atmosphere is profound though so you don’t need the ocean to be 100% dead for the atmospheric makeup to become highly unpleasant. Hypoxia? Fatal levels of CO2 or methane? I don’t know.

As a civilization? Sure. As individuals? Not so much. Strip away civilization, economies and the conditions necessary for the development, production, operation and maintenance of technology and the survivors are left in a primitive state. Primitive people have shown an incredible ability to survive in extreme climates but, again, the restriction is that that climate has to be compatible with human physiology. Go ask the people of Raqqa or Hodeida to get cracking on developing habitats capable of sustaining human life in the face of a fatal climate. I’m curious to see what they come up with.

All of that having been said, sure, it’s possible the human race doesn’t go extinct. We’re tenacious and no one can say for sure. I’m just saying that it could be a long shot. It’s not a case of surviving one specific threat. It’s death by a million cuts.