Tom Murphy of Do the Math offers some consolations of the pastoral life of the hunter-gatherer in the absence of modernity.

As an abstraction, I have little quarrel with him. But it's only an abstraction. Short of a collapse leaving humanity on the very edge of extinction, modernity, with all its flaws, is going to survive.

It's likely, almost to a near certainty, that this civilization, as a dynamic system, is in overshoot. It can't go on as it has. It's operating beyond the constraints of its environment. It will collapse. The machine stops. All human civilizations before have, why should ours be any different?

There may be some deus ex machina, in the form of an unanticipated technological breakthrough (like the Green Revolution, which perhaps only delayed the inevitable and made it worse in terms of scale) and unprecedented efforts in global cooperation; but that seems as unlikely as the return to Eden Murphy describes. For whatever comfort or hope that offers, I welcome you to it.

I think the best we can hope for is that we avoid a significant nuclear exchange, though I'm not optimistic about that. If there is a significant nuclear exchange, modernity will probably still survive if human beings do.

The 8 billion people currently living on this planet are supported by an advanced technological civilization, based on an economic system that is in overshoot. When the system fails, billions will die.

Not all at once, but fairly rapidly. Many violently, most through deprivation. Lack of food, clean drinking water, disease. The descent will be episodic though, punctuated catastrophe. The system will attempt to adapt after each episode, breaking up into smaller and smaller units, regional in nature.

My guess is that we'll bottom out in some form of feudal agrarian existence. Some elements of "high technology" will continue to function in ways that afford advantages to some groups over others as we near the bottom, which is how the feudal structure will return. Even when the utility power stops working, the guns run out of ammunition, oil and gas are no longer widely distributed commodities, knowledge will still be in books, and there will still be those who can read. And modernity will survive, and likely return.

Not anytime soon and likely in a diminished form as a lot of the low hanging fruit has already been plundered with regard to energy in the form of fossil fuels. Agriculture will survive. All the "-isms" will survive along with literacy. It won't be a hunter-gatherer existence. Hopefully knowledge of complexity and dynamic systems survives too.

Who knows? Maybe without the "advantage" of all that fossil fueled energy, modernity will evolve slowly, in a way compatible with planetary constraints.

But we'll never return to Eden.

Originally posted at Notes From the Underground 05:28 Wednesday, 9 August 2023