Category: <span>Eschatology</span>

Eschatological Frameworks

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I just finished reading the book Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. It’s an explicitly Christian book, and it sets out to discuss eight different modern belief systems—things like individualism, scientific naturalism, or consumerism—and then to demonstrate why these other worldviews are inferior to Christianity. I’ll have a review of it in my monthly round-up, but I found the structure to be very interesting: this idea of explicitly breaking down the different ways one might see the world. It gave me the idea of explicitly breaking down and examining the different ways people have come up with for envisioning the future, of exploring the various eschatological frameworks, some religious, but most of them secular.

As I mentioned in my very first post (which, coincidently, went up almost exactly six years ago) the future can really go in only one of two ways. We could achieve some sort of technological singularity, a development so radical that the world is unrecognizable. This term is most commonly used with AI, but there are other possibilities, for example the internet was a soft singularity. Alternatively, modern civilization could take a sharp downward turn into collapse and catastrophe. There is no middle ground. The world of 2122, or 2100, or even 2060  is going to be very, very different from the world of 2022. I am not the only one making this claim. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWall, has said that this is the most important century ever for humanity. Ian Morris, professor of Classics and author of such books as, War! What is it Good For? (see my discussion here) goes even further and says the same thing but claims it will all be taking place within the next 40 years

To be fair, basically everyone thinks the world of 2060 will be different than the world of 2020, the question is how different? Will it be surprisingly similar to today, just better? Or will it be unrecognizable? If so, will it be unrecognizable in a good way or in a bad way? Will it be an undreamt of utopia or a horrible post-apocalyptic wasteland?

I’m not sure, I have made some predictions, but revisiting those is not the point of this post. No, in this post I want to look at various frameworks people might use to make such predictions, examine the fundamental embedded assumptions within those frameworks and, most of all, discuss where each framework thinks salvation, or potential destruction, lies. Let’s start with the framework where the least is expected to happen:

Pinkerism/Neoliberalism/Fukuyama’s End of History  

Embedded assumptions: All of the statistics show that things are going great. Poverty is down and living standards are up. Everyone has more rights. Violence has dropped across the board, including that most important category: war, which hasn’t happened between Great Powers for 75 years. Beyond that, as long as we don’t sabotage ourselves, progress and technology will take care of problems like climate change and political discord as well.

What is the source of our salvation: We basically already are saved; people just don’t realize it because the process has been so gradual. But by any objective measure, the violence and want of the past have been left behind.

When Fukuyama declared an end to history in his book of the same name, he was making an eschatological claim. If you’re just going off the title, he appears to be declaring that we have already and permanently been saved. If his critics bothered to read the book they would discover that he is far more nuanced about how permanent things actually are. What he’s more arguing is that we have discovered all the tools necessary for salvation. Tools like science, market economies, free flow of migrants, etc. And there don’t appear to be any better tools out there. This is the end he’s talking about.

Steven Pinker goes even farther and claims in his book Enlightenment Now, that not only do we have the tools for salvation, but that they’re working great. We just need to keep using them, and not toss them away because they’re not working fast enough. That to the extent we have a problem it’s that we don’t have enough faith in these tools, and the minute they don’t work perfectly we immediately jump to the conclusion that they don’t work at all. 

Of course, speaking of faith, Pinker has been accused of having too much faith that these tools will continue to work in the future, despite whatever new problems arise. This is why this framework ends up with the least dramatic view of the future, because it asserts that even if something changes, and we have to transition to a new reality, that our current tools are more than capable of smoothing that transition. There will be no hard takeoff due to AI, nor a global catastrophe due to climate change. The scientific method and progress more broadly has everything necessary for success and salvation, we just need to not abandon them.

Transhumanism

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This allows us to change what it means to be human, making them better or develop powerful artificial intelligence, or other amazing things we can scarcely imagine.

What is the source of our salvation: Technology is going to allow us to get rid of all the bad parts of humanity, things like death, scarcity, and stupidity, but also violence and want. Once we’ve gotten rid of all of those things, and added lots of cool things besides, we will have essentially achieved a secular version of heaven.

Once again this framework is based on the tools of technology and progress, only in this case it’s focused not on the tools we already have, but on the tools that are being worked on. It is, of course, always possible that these tools won’t be able to do everything transhumanists imagine. As an example, some people still think that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will prove to be far more difficult to create than people imagine, but to be fair these people are rarely transhumanists. Rather transhumanists are those who believe that such developments are right around the corner. 

Robin Hanson, who doesn’t consider himself to be a transhumanist, and who also believes that AGI will be difficult to create, nevertheless wrote an entire book (see my discussion here) on uploading our brains to computers called The Age of Em. (Em is short for emulated person.) I bring this up both to demonstrate some of the debates within this ideology, but also because it’s one of the clearest examples of transhumanism’s eschatological bent. It combines immortality, a postmortal utopia, and a single salvific event. Hanson doesn’t imagine a day of judgment, the Age of Em will actually last two years in his opinion (the book is remarkably specific in its predictions) but during that time Em’s will experience a thousand years of subjective time. My religious readers may see a parallel between this and the concept of millennialism.

A few people, like our old friends the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA), who have not made an appearance in this space for a long time, but who have been on my mind a lot recently, explicitly link religion and transhumanism. Similar to Pinker they believe that technology has reduced violence and want, but they go beyond that to imagine that it will completely eliminate it, and allow resurrection and eternal life as well—that most of the things promised by Christianity (and specifically the Mormon version of it) will be brought to pass by technology.

Despite the foregoing, I don’t want to play up the religious angle of transhumanism too much, but it does rely on two kinds of faith. Faith that the miraculous technology envisioned will actually materialize, and faith that when it does it will be a good thing. For a group that doesn’t have that second form of faith we turn to a discussion of:

Existential Risk

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This acceleration will shortly outstrip our ability to manage the risks that inevitably accompany new technology. Not only will we be unable to keep ahead of the risks, but the more technology advances the bigger the risks get.

What is the source of our destruction: While the possibility exists that we might be destroyed by a comet or an asteroid. It’s far more likely we will be destroyed by the tools we’ve created, whether it be nukes, or bioweapons, or an aggressive AI. 

As you might be able to tell there is broad overlap between transhumanists and people who worry about existential risk. You might say that the former are technological optimists while the latter are technological pessimists. From my limited perspective, I think most of these people have been drifting towards the pessimistic side of things.

For an illustration of why people are pessimistic, and this eschatological framework in general, it’s best to turn to an analogy from Nick Bostrom, which has appeared a couple of times in this space:

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

Bostrom puts forward this analogy as a way of describing the potential benefits and harms of new technologies. Many, perhaps most will be beneficial, but some will be harmful, and it’s possible that one will end up causing the end of humanity. Unfortunately it’s probably impossible to stop the development of new technology, to stop drawing balls from the urn, but we can try and imagine what sorts of technology might be dangerous and take steps to mitigate it in advance.

For most people in this space the thing they worry about the most is AI Risk. The idea that we will develop AGI but be unable to control it. That we will create gods and they will turn out to be malevolent.

Speaking of God…

Christian Eschatology

Embedded assumptions: Christian eschatology comes in lots of flavors, but at the moment the discussion is dominated by the aforementioned millennialism, which assumes that things like the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ are right around the corner. 

What is the source of our salvation: God. 

It might seem strange to discuss Christian eschatology alongside things like transhumanism and neoliberalism. On the other hand, as it’s the OG eschatology, it would seem strange not to discuss it.

As the original eschatology, Christian beliefs and language are woven all through this discussion. This is what allows me to discuss Robin Hanson’s version of “heaven”. This is what enables the MTA to imagine that technology will be the means of bringing about the end of the world, but in a good way. This cross-pollination has also gone the other way.

To be a modern eschatological framework, you have to have something to say about progress and technology. For many, perhaps even most Christians the modern world is evidence that the end must be close, that we are essentially building the Tower of Babel. (As you might imagine the MTA disagrees with this.) In this sense Christians are somewhat related to the people who worry about existential risk, though in this case they have faith that while things are going to get bad, that eventually Jesus will return and everything will turn out okay. As I’ve said before, when considering the alternatives, I think this view has a lot to recommend it.

New Age Spiritualism

Embedded assumptions: That the world has passed into a new, more enlightened era. As a consequence, we have left behind much of the evil and selfishness that used to afflict humanity, and we are on our way to embracing universal acceptance, tolerance and love.

What is the source of our salvation: An underlying spirit of progress, paired with a greater awareness of the higher morality brought about by this spirit of progress. 

It is my impression that almost no one uses the term “New Age” any more, so if you have a better term for this framework let me know. However, if you followed the link in the section heading you’ll see that “New Age” beliefs are still very common, as such it seemed worth including.

Whatever you want to call it and whatever its current influence, this framework is far less “in your face” than preceding ones. In part this is because its adherents generally feel that it’s going to be eventually successful regardless of how people act. That love, tolerance, and kindness will eventually triumph. That the arc of history is long, but that it bends towards justice”.

That said, there does appear to be a lot of frustration—by people who have a vision of what progress entails and where we’re headed—with those who don’t share their vision. It might be too much to declare that “woke ideology” overlaps with modern New Age eschatology, but it does seem to borrow a lot of the same principles, albeit with a more militant twist. But both imagine that we’re progressing towards a utopia of tolerance and kindness, and that some people are dragging their feet. 

I confess that this is the framework I understand the least, but it does seem like the foundation of much that is happening currently. And overall it translates into an eschatology that doesn’t revolve around technology, but around human attitudes and behavior.

Catabolic Collapse

Embedded assumptions: That civilization is reaching the point of diminishing productivity, growth and innovation. As a consequence of this we can’t build new things, and shortly we won’t even be able to maintain what we already have. 

What is the source of our destruction: A slow cannibalism of existing infrastructure, government programs, and social capital. 

Here we have come full circle. This is yet another slow moving eschatology, similar to Pinkerism, but in this case we’re not already saved, we’re already damned. This particular eschatological framework was first suggested by John Michael Greer, who got his start as part of the peak oil movement and has gradually shifted to commenting on late capitalism from kind of an ecosocialist perspective. Which is to say he’s very concerned about the environment and he talks a lot about the discontent of the average blue collar worker.

As a formal framework, it’s pretty obscure, but as a generalized sense of where the country is, with gas at $5/gallon, inflation, all the after effects of the pandemic, and a divided country. I think there are a lot of people who believe this is what’s happening even if they don’t have a name for it. 

The point, as I have mentioned before, is that the apocalypse will not be as cool or as deadly as you hope. There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation and it’s going to take a long time for that ruin to manifest. Even if there’s a huge worldwide pandemic, even if there’s a nuclear war. Humans are tenacious. But absent divine intervention I don’t think permanent salvation is in the cards. And I think destruction is going to end up being long and painful. 

Conclusion

In 1939, Charles Kettering, a truly amazing inventor (He held 186 patents!), said:

I am not disturbed about the future. I think it is going to be a wonderful place. I don’t like people to talk about how bad it is going to be, because I expect to spend the rest of my life in the future.

You may have heard the shortened version, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.” But what form should that concern take? And will it be a “wonderful place”? These are incredibly important questions, and it is my hope that by going through the various frameworks I’ve helped you develop some answers. 

As to my own answers to these questions, first we should note that the years immediately following Kettering’s pronouncement ended up being anything but wonderful. Instead war broke out on a scale never before seen and never since equaled. And yet I strongly suspect that Ian Morris is right, that the next forty years will be more impactful than the forty years leading up to the end of World War II. Even though those years contained World War I. And more impactful than the 40 years which started at the beginning of World War II, even though we landed on the Moon.

Because of this I think we should have an enormous amount of concern for the future because there’s a significant chance that it won’t be a wonderful place. We’ve never before been in a situation where things are changing so fast on so many fronts. And the faster things change the harder it is for us to adapt and the less likely a “wonderful” future becomes. 

I certainly hope that Pinker’s right, and we have been saved, or we will soon be saved. And certainly that idea deserves a seat at the table, but as you can see there are several other ideologies also seated at the eschatological table. Some are scary, some are interesting, but they’re all dramatic. Which is to say hang on, the next few decades are going to be bumpy.


I considered putting in Marxism as a framework, but is that really still a going concern? If it is let me know. The best way to do that is to send me money, which is both a great idea anyway, but also, if I’m not mistaken, ideologically appropriate. 


All Eschatologies Are Both Secular and Religious

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As I look back over my posts, I notice that some of them are less about being interesting in and of themselves, and more part of building the foundation for this crazy house I’m trying to erect. Some posts are less paintings on a wall than the wall itself. Having recognized this tendency, I’m giving you advance warning that this looks to be one of those foundational posts. I do this in order that you might make an informed decision as to whether to continue. That said, I’m hoping that there will be some who find the process of wall construction interesting in and of itself, and will continue to stick around in hopes of seeing something well made. Though I offer no guarantee that such will be the case. Quality is always somewhat elusive.

With the insufficiently committed having been dispensed with, we can proceed to the meat of things.  

In 1999 the Matrix was released in theaters. Beyond being generally regarded as one of the better sci fi action movies of all time it was also most people’s introduction to the idea that, by using sufficiently advanced technology, we might be able to simulate reality with such a high degree of fidelity that an individual need not ever be aware they were in a simulation.

A few years later, In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom put forward the Simulation Hypothesis which took things even farther, going from being able to imagine we might be in a simulation to asserting that we almost certainly are in a simulation. As this is something of a bold claim, let’s walk through his logic.

  1. Assume that if computer power keeps improving, that computers will eventually be able to run simulations of reality indistinguishable from actual reality.
  2. Further assume that one sort of simulation that might get run on these superpowered computers are simulations of the past.
  3. If we assume that one simulation could be run, it seems further safe to assume that many simulations could and would be run. Meaning that the ratio of simulations to reality will always be much much greater than 1. 
  4. Given that simulations are indistinguishable from reality and outnumber reality, it’s highly probable that we are in a simulation, but unaware of it.

As you can see The Matrix only deals with step 1, it’s steps 2-4 that take it from a possibility to a near certainty, according to Bostrom. Also for those of you who read my last post you may be curious to know that Bostrom also offers up a trilemma:

  1. “The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”, or
  2. “The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running simulations of their evolutionary history, or variations thereof, is very close to zero”, or
  3. “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one”

Regardless of whether you think the probability that you live in a simulation is close to 100% or not, it’s almost certainly not 0%. But, you may be wondering, what does this have to do with eschatology? As it turns out everything. It means that there is some probability that the end of the world depends not merely on events outside of our control, but on events outside of our reality. And if Bostrom is correct that probability is nearly 100%. Furthermore, this is similar, if not nearly identical to how most religions imagine the end of the world as well. Making a strong connection between religion and the simulation hypothesis is probably an even harder pill to swallow than the idea that we’re in a simulation, so let’s walk through it.

To begin with, a simulation immediately admits the existence of the supernatural. If the simulation encompasses the whole of our perceived reality, and if we equate that reality with what’s considered “natural”, then the fact that there’s something outside of the simulation means there’s something outside of nature, and that something would be, by definition, supernatural. 

It would also mean that god(s) exists. It would not necessarily say anything about the sort of gods that exist, but someone or something would need to create and design the simulation, and whatever that someone or something is, they would be gods to us in most of the ways that mattered. 

Less certain, but worth mentioning, these designers would probably have some sort of plan for us, perhaps only at the level of the simulation, but possibly at the level of each individual. 

When you combine the supernatural with a supreme being and an overarching plan, qualities that all simulations must possess just by their very nature, you end up with something that has to be considered a theology. The fact that simulations have a theology doesn’t demand that there is also an associated religion, but it also doesn’t preclude it either. If you’re willing to accept the possibility that we’re living in a simulation, then it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that one or more of the religions within that simulation might espouse beliefs which happen to match up with some or all of the theology of that same simulation. In fact I would even venture to argue that it would be more surprising if they didn’t. Even if you want to argue that it might be strictly by chance.

To be clear, yes, I am saying that if you’re willing to grant the possibility that we are currently in a simulation, then you should also be willing to grant that some religion, be it Muslims, Mormons or Methodists, might have elements within their doctrine which map to the theology of the designers, either by chance or by supernatural inspiration. And one of those elements, possibly even the most likely element to have in common, is how things are going to end. If anything was going to “leak through”, how it all ends would be a very strong candidate.

I know some people are going to be tempted to dismiss this idea because when one imagines a simulation they imagine something involving silicon and electricity, something from a movie, or a video game. And when one imagines the supernatural and God they imagine clouds, angels, robed individuals and musty books of hidden lore. But in the end most religions come down to the idea of a body-spirit dualism, which asserts that there are things beyond what we can see and detect. As opposed to materialism which asserts that everything comes from interactions between things we can see and measure. A simulation is obviously dualistic, and definitionally, what criteria can we use to draw a sharp line between the dualism of religion and that of a simulation? Particularly when you consider that both must involve supernatural elements and gods? 

I understand that the religious view of the world is entirely traditional, and seems old and stuffy. While the idea that we’re in a simulation encompasses futurism and transhumanist philosophy. But that’s all at the surface. Underneath, they’re essentially identical.

To put it another way, if a Catholic were to say that they believe we live in a simulation and that furthermore Catholicism is the way that the designers of the simulation reveal their preferences for our behavior, what arguments could you marshall against this assertion? I’m sure you could come up with a lot of arguments, but how many of them would boil down to: “well, I don’t think that’s the way someone would run a simulation”? Some of them might even sound reasonably convincing, but is there any argument you could make that would indisputably separate Catholicism from Simulationism? Where knowledge about the character of the simulation couldn’t end up filtering into the simulation in the form of a religion?

For those who might still be unconvinced, allow me to offer one final way of envisioning things. Imagine everything I just said as the plot of a science fiction novel. Suppose the main character is a maverick researcher who has become convinced that we live in a simulation. Imagine that the novel opens with him puttering around, publishing the occasional paper, but largely being ignored by the mainstream until he discovers that designers of the simulation are about to end it. Fortunately, he also discovers that they have been dropping hints about how to prevent the end in the form of obscure religious prophecies. Is that plot solid enough to sustain a book? Or would you toss it aside for being completely impossible? (I think it’s a great plot, I may even have to write that book…)

If you happen to be one of those people who worries about x-risks, and other end of the world type scenarios. What I, at least, would call secular eschatologies. Then unless you’re also willing to completely rule out the idea that we might be in a simulation, it would seem obvious that as part of your studies you would want to pay at least some attention to religious eschatology. That, as I suggest in the title, all eschatologies might end up being both secular and religious.

You might think that this is the only reason for someone worried about x-risks to pay attention to religion, and it may seem a fairly tenuous reason at that, but as I’ve argued in the past there are other reasons as well. In particular religion is almost certainly a repository for antifragility. Or to put it another way religion is a storehouse of methods for avoiding risks below the level of actual x-risks. And even if we’re speaking of more dramatic, extinction threatening risks, I think religion has a role to play there as well. First, we might ask why is it that most religions have an eschatology? That is, why do most explicitly describe, through stories or doctrine, how the world will end? Why is this feature of religions nearly ubiquitous?

Additionally there’s a good argument to be made that as part of religion people preserve the memory of past calamities. You may have seen recently that scientists are saying some of the aboriginal Australians might have passed down a tale that’s 37,000 years old. And then of course there’s the ongoing speculation that Noah’s flood, which also appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, also preserves the memory of some ancient calamity.

Having made a connection from the religious to the secular, you might ask whether things go in the other direction as well. Indeed they do, and the connection is even easier to make. Imagine that you’re reading the Bible and you come across a passage like this one in Isaiah:

For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.

For by fire and by his sword will the Lord plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many.

If you believe that this sort of thing is going to come to pass, then it would appear that there are modern weapons (including nukes) that would fit this description nicely. More broadly while it’s somewhat more difficult to imagine how:

…the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

-Revelation 6:14

Such descriptions are the exception, rather than the rule. Most eschatological calamities included in the doctrines of the various religions, like plagues and wars, are likely to have secular causes, and the potential to be made worse by technology. (Note the rapid global spread of COVID-19/coronavirus.) And while I think many people overfit religious doctrine onto global trends, I certainly can’t imagine that it would be tenable to do the opposite. How someone interested in religious eschatology could ignore what’s going on in the larger world. 

In the end, as I said during my previous post on the topic, I’m very interested in expanding the definition and scope of the discipline of eschatology. And even if you don’t agree with everything I’ve done in service of that expansion, I think bringing in Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis opens up vast new areas for theorizing and discussion. Yes, the hypothesis itself is very speculative, but the most compelling argument against it is that there will never be humans capable of making such simulations, which argument, itself, represents a very strong eschatological position. One way or another you have to take a position on how the world is going to turn out. And given the enormous stakes represented by such a discussion, I think it’s best if we explore every possible nook and cranny. Because in the end there’s a tremendous amount we don’t know, and I for one don’t feel confident dismissing any possibility when it comes to saving the world.


If we are in a simulation I wonder how the designers feel about those people who are “on to them”? Do they react with pleasure at our cleverness? Or do they unleash all the plagues of Egypt? If it’s the latter I might soon find myself in need of some monetary assistance.


The Harvest is Past

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The theme of this blog comes from the book of Jeremiah, verse 20 of chapter 8, and though that verse is included conspicuously in numerous places, it doesn’t hurt for it to appear again.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

For this post I’d like to focus on that first phrase. What do I mean when I claim that the harvest is past?

We all basically understand harvesting, it’s when you take the food that has been grown and remove it from the plants where it grew, presumably storing it for later use. If we look a little deeper, the harvest is really the final step of turning energy from the Sun into something usable.

It’s not just food that is ultimately made by the Sun, with a few exceptions (nuclear, geothermal and tidal) all energy comes from the Sun. Fossil fuels included. I’m sure this won’t surprise any readers of this blog, but I think that many people are unaware of the fact that fossil fuels are just stored solar energy. Thus when we burn oil, and coal, and natural gas for power, we are withdrawing solar energy that was saved up millions of years ago.

Consequently, when we talk about the total energy available, if we exclude nuclear (geothermal and tidal power being not significant enough to matter) we’re limited to the amount of sunlight which reaches the Earth. We’ve been able to reach back and withdraw the energy of past sunlight, but at some point, as every family knows, you have to stop spending more than you bring in. When we say that all energy comes from the Sun we’re more or less saying that everything comes from the Sun. (I know what you’re thinking. I promise we’ll get back to nuclear power before the end.) Our economy, the conveniences of modern life, economic growth, employment, etc. are all intimately connected with energy usage. And all of these things have been supercharged by the extraction of additional energy. That is the harvest. That is the summer, and as I will show they can’t last forever, if in fact they haven’t ended already.

As we get into things, I’m hugely indebted to a couple of posts by Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego. If you want to really get into the math of things and if you’d like to see more charts and graphs, I would check out both articles:

Galactic-Scale Energy

Can Economic Growth Last?

Murphy begins by pointing out that since about 1650, a century before the Industrial Revolution, the United States (or what would become the US) has grown at a fairly steady rate of 2.9% per year, on average. This has continued down to the present day, though recently there are signs that it’s been slowing. (Average growth since 2001 has only been 1.8%.) One might usefully ask, what was the long term average growth rate before 1650, or in any case before the industrial revolution? As it turns out it was next to zero, perhaps a long term average of 0.1%. So hurrah for the industrial revolution, but how did we go from nearly zero to 2.9%? What changed?

Put simply, we did it by spending a million years worth of accumulated solar energy, in the space of a few centuries.

Now, when I say something like that, there’s a danger that you’re going to tune out, thinking, that this is going to be some kind of environmental rant. You may even be thinking that the next step is for me to start talking about Peak Oil. Certainly a discussion of environmental issues, or whether we’re about to run out of oil is interesting, but for the purposes of this illustration it’s beside the point, because it doesn’t matter if we’re about to run out of oil, or if oil is naturally produced deep in the earth and effectively unlimited (a theory with a surprising amount of traction in Russia) or if we’re going to destroy the earth with global warming, or if fusion will save the day. When you actually look at the numbers, in the long term none of those things matters.

Yes, I do think that for a variety of reasons that the enormous growth rate spike we’ve experienced over the last several centuries is nearing an end. That we have essentially had the biggest harvest ever, as we’ve extracted the accumulated solar energy of all the previous epochs. But even if we leave fossil fuels out of the equation we are still reaching the limits of growth. And that is what I found so interesting about Murphy’s posts, and why I decided to write about them.

As I said, let’s keep fossil fuels out of it and just focus on the solar energy we’re receiving at this moment. Also let’s follow Murphy’s lead and reduce the annual growth rate from 2.9% to 2.3%. This translates into an easy to remember 10x increase every 100 years. So if we’re currently using 12 terawatts of power every year then in 100 years we’ll be using 120 terawatts.

First the good news. We get more energy from the Sun every hour (174,000 terawatts) than we use all year. Of course only 70% of that energy reaches the surface (the rest is reflected back into space.) And only 28% of the earth is land, and thus currently eligible for solar collection, and of that land we’re using 50% for agriculture (which sounds high, but who am I to argue with National Geographic?) And finally our current solar panels are only 15% effective. Taking all of that together we end up with 2558 terawatts of currently usable solar power which still seems pretty good. It’s over 200 times what we’re using now.

The problem is when you have exponential growth, things that aren’t problems can quickly become problems. And they have a tendency to sneak up on you. In 100 years, at a growth rate of 2.3% as I said above, we’re still only using 120 terawatts. Still lots of room, but then 200 years from now we’re using 1200 terawatts (10x every 100 years remember). That’s still less than half, how bad could it be right? Well it only takes another 35 years and we’re out. So in 235 years, at the current rate, we’re using all of the sun’s available energy. Now I understand that 235 years seems like a long time. But it’s less time than the US has existed.

In other words if we expect the US to be around for at least as long as it’s already has been (if we don’t want to believe we’re past the mid-point) and further if we expect it to continue in roughly the same trajectory. Then we have to increase the efficiency of solar panels, start putting them onto the ocean and/or into space, or grow less food. The problem is, that because of exponential growth, none of that buys us very much time.

Let’s assume that we’re able to increase the efficiency of the solar panels to 100%. That buys us 319 years (an additional 84 years.) Or if we’re looking in reverse back to around 1700. Once again that seems like a long time, but we’ve had longer than that to become accustomed to 2.9% growth as a law of nature. Once again we’re looking at being past the midpoint of our growth, in a best case scenario that involves every square inch of land being covered by solar panels or used for farming, and which also involves a premise (100% efficiency) which is physically impossible.

Let’s then assume that we get rid of all the land being used for agriculture. I’m not sure how, perhaps we grow things underground. Doing that adds another 31 years and gets us to 350 years from now. Or looking back it gets us to around 1666, very close to the start of the big harvest. But now of course every square inch of land from Antarctica to the remotest part of Siberia is being used for solar collection.

As you can see once you start running up against the limits, then even doing something as radical as doubling the amount of land being used doesn’t buy you much time. And recall that we are talking about theoretical limits. This is as good as it’s possible to be. Practical limits are likely to be 10x more restrictive. In other words we might be bumping up against those limits a lot sooner than we think. But let’s continue with our thought experiment.

We can add in the oceans, which buys us another 55 years. 405 years into the future or back to about 1600 or when Shakespeare was alive. Historically we’re still talking about a time that was fairly recent. In fact as Murphy points out in order to continue on the same growth rate for 1200 years (so the Dark Ages if you’re looking back) we’d have to use all of the Sun’s energy. And I mean all of it, the Sun would have to be completely encircled by solar panels. And if we wanted our energy use to continue to grow at the same rate for 2500 years we’d need to use all of the solar energy produced by our entire galaxy. Which to put it bluntly, seems unlikely.

I know that some of you have been screaming, “But what about nuclear power? What about fusion?” Here we run into a different problem. Heat. I said above in 1200 years our energy requirements are going to be equal to the entire output of the Sun. What do you think happens if you’re generating as much energy as the Sun, through fusion, in a space much, much smaller than the Sun? The implacable laws of thermodynamics dictate that the Earth, because it’s much, much smaller, would end up, much, much hotter. As I said if you want to look at the math and see some graphs I refer you to Murphy’s paper, but according to his calculations, if terrestrial energy use continues at it’s current rate, the Earth gets hotter than the surface of the Sun in less than 1000 years.

I think you can see now that things are unsustainable. To steal Murphy’s key point:

Continued growth in energy use becomes physically impossible within conceivable timeframes.

Thus far I’ve been using something of a sleight of hand. I’ve mostly used growth and energy growth interchangeably. And in fact for most of human history they have basically been the same thing, though in the last 50 years or so we have started to see a divergence between economic growth and energy growth. This is good news, if we don’t need growth in energy use to get economic growth, then perhaps everything’s okay, and we won’t need to cover the entire Earth in solar panels, or heat the surface to the point where steel melts (730 years). It would be nice if it were true, but there are also insuperable problems with this line of thinking as well.

Basically if at some point we have to keep energy use flat, while the economy keeps growing then the percentage of the economy made up by things that don’t use any energy get’s bigger and bigger. What part of the economy doesn’t use energy? Stuff like fashion, certain innovations, education, and most of all financial transactions. Perhaps this sounds familiar? Perhaps it sounds like the world we already live in? And maybe you’re thinking hey this isn’t so bad. Is it that big of a deal that the UK’s GDP is 10% financial services, and that the economy of New York City is 35% financial services?

First I’m not sure that financial services are as divorced from energy use as even Murphy thinks. Secondly, yes it may be fine that 35% of New York City’s economy is financial services. (I actually think the housing crash proves the exact opposite, that it was not fine, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) Will it be fine when that number is 90%? What about when it’s 99%? Or 99.9%? Because at some point that’s what has to happen if we divorce energy growth from economic growth, and economic growth continues at the same rate.

And what happens to the people who are forced to work in the 0.01% of economy which still uses energy? For example we are presumably still going to have to eat, and presumably even if all of the food is planted and harvested by robots, that someone is going to have to be involved with food production on some level. How do these people get paid? In order for all this to happen, food, manufactured goods, new houses, etc. would all have to be virtually free.

Accordingly, it’s not just energy growth which has to stop at some point. In fact, at some point, all growth has to stop. The problem is, that’s not the way the modern world is set up. All of our assumptions, all of our institutions, all of our systems are built around the idea that growth will continue. Therefore transitioning to a system where growth is flat is not going to be pretty.

Perhaps you’re comforted by the fact that 235 years is a long way away. Long enough away that even your grandkids won’t have to deal with it. But I would argue that we’re already starting to see this world. I already mentioned the increasing percentage of the economy that’s made up by financial services. And of course there’s the giant share of the economy devoted to services (which is sort of halfway between in terms of energy use.) This is not to mention the persistent negative interest rates, not only with government bonds but now extending even to corporate bonds.  And of course I explicitly avoided talking in any great detail about global warming or any of the other potential catastrophes which may befall us before we even get to the point where we’re worried about covering the world with solar panels.

For a long time we have looked to progress and technology to save us. But if they can (and I would offer the opinion they can’t) then they’re running out of time.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.