Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Next Ten Billion Years

Earlier this week, I was trying to think of ways to talk about the gap between notions about the future we’ve all absorbed from the last three hundred years of fossil-fueled progress, on the one hand, and the ways of thinking about what’s ahead that might actually help us make sense of our predicament and the postpetroleum, post-progress world ahead, on the other. While I was in the middle of these reflections, a correspondent reminded me of a post from last year by peak oil blogger Ugo Bardi, which set out to place the crises of our time in the context of the next ten billion years.

It’s an ambitious project, and by no means badly carried out. The only criticism that comes to mind is that it only makes sense if you happen to be a true believer in the civil religion of progress, the faith whose rise and impending fall has been a central theme here in recent months. As a sermon delivered to the faithful of that religion, it’s hard to beat; it’s even got the classic structure of evangelical rhetoric—the awful fate that will soon fall upon those who won’t change their wicked ways, the glorious salvation awaiting those who get right with Progress, and all the rest of it.

Of course the implied comparison with Christianity can only be taken so far. Christians are generally expected to humble themselves before their God, while believers in progress like to imagine that humanity will become God or, as in this case, be able to pat God fondly on the head and say, “That’s my kid.” More broadly, those of my readers who were paying attention last week will notice that the horrible fate that awaits the sinful is simply that nature will be allowed to go her own way, while the salvation awaiting the righteous is more or less the ability to browbeat nature into doing what they think she ought to do—or rather, what Bardi’s hypothesized New Intelligence, whose interests are assumed to be compatible with those of humanity, thinks she ought to do.

There’s plenty that could be said about the biophobia—the stark shivering dread of life’s normal and healthy ripening toward death—that pervades this kind of thinking, but that’s a subject for another post. Here I’d like to take another path.  Once the notions of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse are seen as industrial society’s traditional folk mythologies, rather than meaningful resources for making predictions about the future, and known details about ecology, evolution, and astrophysics are used in their place to fill out the story, the next ten billion years looks very different from either of Bardi’s scenarios. Here’s my version or, if you will, my vision.

Ten years from now:

Business as usual continues; the human population peaks at 8.5 billion, liquid fuels production remains more or less level by the simple expedient of consuming an ever larger fraction of the world’s total energy output, and the annual cost of weather-related disasters continues to rise. Politicians and the media insist loudly that better times are just around the corner, as times get steadily worse. Among those who recognize that something’s wrong, one widely accepted viewpoint holds that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will shortly solve all our problems, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live.  Another, equally popular, insists that total human extinction is scarcely a decade away, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Most people who worry about the future accept one or the other claim, while the last chance for meaningful systemic change slips silently away.

A hundred years from now:

It has been a difficult century. After more than a dozen major wars, three bad pandemics, widespread famines, and steep worldwide declines in public health and civil order, human population is down to 3 billion and falling. Sea level is up ten meters and rising fast as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps disintegrate; fossil fuel production ground to a halt decades earlier as the last economically producible reserves were exhausted, and most proposed alternatives turned out to be unaffordable in the absence of the sort of cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy only fossil fuels can provide. Cornucopians still insist that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will save us any day now, and their opponents still insist that human extinction is imminent, but most people are too busy trying to survive to listen to either group.

A thousand years from now:

The Earth is without ice caps and glaciers for the first time in twenty million years or so, and sea level has gone up more than a hundred meters worldwide; much of the world has a tropical climate, as it did 50 million years earlier. Human population is 100 million, up from half that figure at the bottom of the bitter dark age now passing into memory. Only a few scholars have any idea what the words “fusion power,” “artificial intelligence,” and “interstellar migration” once meant, and though there are still people insisting that the end of the world will arrive any day now, their arguments now generally rely more overtly on theology than before. New civilizations are rising in various corners of the world, combining legacy technologies with their own unique cultural forms. The one thing they all have in common is that the technological society of a millennium before is their idea of evil incarnate.

Ten thousand years from now:

The rise in global temperature has shut down the thermohaline circulation and launched an oceanic anoxic event, the planet’s normal negative feedback process when carbon dioxide levels get out of hand. Today’s industrial civilization is a dim memory from the mostly forgotten past, as far removed from this time as the Neolithic Revolution is from ours; believers in most traditional religions declare piously that the climate changes of the last ten millennia are the results of human misbehavior, while rationalists insist that this is all superstition and the climate changes have perfectly natural causes. As the anoxic oceans draw carbon out of the biosphere and entomb it in sediments on the sea floor, the climate begins a gradual cooling—a process which helps push humanity’s sixth global civilization into its terminal decline.

A hundred thousand years from now: 

Carbon dioxide levels drop below preindustrial levels as the oceanic anoxic event finishes its work, and the complex feedback loops that govern Earth’s climate shift again: the thermohaline circulation restarts, triggering another round of climatic changes. Humanity’s seventy-ninth global civilization flourishes and begins its slow decline as the disruptions set in motion by a long-forgotten industrial age are drowned out by an older climatic cycle. The scholars of that civilization are thrilled by the notions of fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration; they have no idea that we dreamed the same dreams before them, being further in our future than the Neanderthals are in our past, but they will have no more luck achieving those dreams than we did.

A million years from now:

The Earth is in an ice age; great ice sheets cover much of the northern hemisphere and spread from mountain ranges all over the world, and sea level is 150 meters lower than today. To the people living at this time, who have never known anything else, this seems perfectly normal. Metals have become rare geological specimens—for millennia now, most human societies have used renewable ceramic-bioplastic composites instead—and the very existence of fossil fuels has long since been forgotten. The 664th global human civilization is at its peak, lofting aerostat towns into the skies and building great floating cities on the seas; its long afternoon will eventually draw to an end after scores of generations, and when it falls, other civilizations will rise in its place.

Ten million years from now: 

The long glacial epoch that began in the Pleistocene has finally ended, and the Earth is returning to its more usual status as a steamy jungle planet. This latest set of changes proves to be just that little bit too much for humanity. No fewer than 8,639 global civilizations have risen and fallen over the last ten million years, each with its own unique sciences, technologies, arts, literatures, philosophies, and ways of thinking about the cosmos; the shortest-lived lasted for less than a century before blowing itself to smithereens, while the longest-lasting endured for eight millennia before finally winding down.

All that is over now. There are still relict populations of human beings in Antarctica and a few island chains, and another million years will pass before cascading climatic and ecological changes finally push the last of them over the brink into extinction. Meanwhile, in the tropical forests of what is now southern Siberia, the descendants of raccoons who crossed the Bering land bridge during the last great ice age are proliferating rapidly, expanding into empty ecological niches once filled by the larger primates. In another thirty million years or so, their descendants will come down from the trees.

One hundred million years from now:

Retro-rockets fire and fall silent as the ungainly craft settles down on the surface of the Moon. After feverish final checks, the hatch is opened, and two figures descend onto the lunar surface. They are bipeds, but not even remotely human; instead, they belong to Earth’s third intelligent species. They are distantly descended from the crows of our time, though they look no more like crows than you look like the tree shrews of the middle Cretaceous. Since you have a larynx rather than a syrinx, you can’t even begin to pronounce what they call themselves, so we’ll call them corvins.

Earth’s second intelligent species, whom we’ll call cyons after their raccoon ancestors, are long gone. They lasted a little more than eight million years before the changes of an unstable planet sent them down the long road to extinction; they never got that deeply into technology, though their political institutions made the most sophisticated human equivalents look embarrassingly crude. The corvins are another matter. Some twist of inherited psychology left them with a passion for heights and upward movement; they worked out the basic principles of the hot air balloon before they got around to inventing the wheel, and balloons, gliders, and corvin-carrying kites play much the same roles in their earliest epic literature that horses and chariots play in ours. 

As corvin societies evolved more complex technologies, eyes gazed upwards from soaring tower-cities at the moon, the perch of perches set high above the world. All that was needed to make those dreams a reality was petroleum, and a hundred million years is more than enough time for the Earth to restock her petroleum reserves—especially if that period starts off with an oceanic anoxic event that stashes gigatons of carbon in marine sediments. Thus it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the strongest of the great corvin kith-assemblies would devote its talents and wealth to the task of reaching the moon.

The universe has a surprise in store for the corvins, though. Their first moon landing included among its goals the investigation of some odd surface features, too small to be seen clearly by Earth-based equipment. That first lander thus set down on a flat lunar plain that, a very long time ago, was called the Sea of Tranquillity, and so it was that the stunned corvin astronauts found themselves facing the unmistakable remains of a spacecraft that arrived on the moon in the unimaginably distant past.

A few equivocal traces buried in terrestrial sediments had suggested already to corvin loremasters that another intelligent species might have lived on the Earth before them, though the theory was dismissed by most as wild speculation. The scattered remnants on the Moon confirmed them, and made it hard for even the most optimistic corvins to embrace the notion that some providence guaranteed the survival of intelligent species. The curious markings on some of the remains, which some loremasters suggested might be a mode of visual communication, resisted all attempts at decipherment, and very little was ever learnt for certain about the enigmatic ancient species that left its mark on the Moon.

Even so, it will be suggested long afterwards that the stark warning embodied in those long-abandoned spacecraft played an important role in convincing corvin societies to rein in the extravagant use of petroleum and other nonrenewable resources, though it also inspired hugely expensive and ultimately futile attempts to achieve interstellar migration—for some reason the corbins never got into the quest for fusion power or artificial intelligence. One way or another, though, the corvins turned out to be the most enduring of Earth’s intelligent species, and more than 28 million years passed before their day finally ended.

One billion years from now:

The Earth is old and mostly desert, and a significant fraction of its total crust is made up of the remains of bygone civilizations. The increasing heat of the Sun as it proceeds through its own life cycle, and the ongoing loss of volatile molecules from the upper atmosphere into space, have reduced the seas to scattered, salty basins amid great sandy wastes. Only near the north and south poles does vegetation flourish, and with it the corbicules, Earth’s eleventh and last intelligent species. Their ancestors in our time are an invasive species of freshwater clam. (Don’t laugh; a billion years ago your ancestors were still trying to work out the details of multicellularity.)

The corbicules have the same highly practical limb structure as the rest of their subphylum: six stumpy podicles for walking, two muscular dorsal tentacles for gross manipulations and two slender buccal tentacles by the mouth for fine manipulations. They spend most of their time in sprawling underground city-complexes, venturing to the surface to harvest vegetation to feed the subterranean metafungal gardens that provide them with nourishment. By some combination of luck and a broad general tendency toward cephalization common to many evolutionary lineages, Earth’s last intelligent species is also its most intellectually gifted; hatchlings barely out of creche are given fun little logic problems such as Fermat’s last theorem for their amusement, and a large majority of adult corbicules are involved in one or another field of intellectual endeavor. Being patient, long-lived, and not greatly addicted to collective stupidities, they have gone very far indeed.

Some eight thousand years back, a circle of radical young corbicule thinkers proposed the project of working out all the physical laws of the cosmos, starting from first principles. So unprecedented a suggestion sparked countless debates, publications, ceremonial dances, and professional duels in which elderly scholars killed themselves in order to cast unbearable opprobrium on their rivals. Still, it was far too delectable an intellectual challenge to be left unanswered, and the work has proceeded ever since. In the course of their researches, without placing any great importance on the fact, the best minds among the corbicules have proved conclusively that nuclear fusion, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration were never practical options in the first place.

Being patient, long-lived, and not greatly addicted to collective stupidities, the corbicules have long since understood and accepted their eventual fate.  In another six million years, as the Sun expands and the Earth’s surface temperature rises, the last surface vegetation will perish and the corbicules will go extinct; in another ninety million years, the last multicellular life forms will die out; in another two hundred million years, the last seas will boil, and Earth’s biosphere, nearing the end of its long, long life, will nestle down into the deepest crevices of its ancient, rocky world and drift into a final sleep.

Ten billion years from now:

Earth is gone. It had a splendid funeral; its body plunged into stellar fire as the Sun reached its red giant stage and expanded out to the orbit of Mars, and its ashes were flung outwards into interstellar space with the first great helium flash that marked the beginning of the Sun’s descent toward its destiny. Two billion years later, the gas- and dust-rich shockwave from that flash plowed into a mass of interstellar dust dozens of light-years away from the Sun’s pale corpse, and kickstarted one of the great transformative processes of the cosmos.

Billions more years have passed since that collision. A yellow-orange K-2 star burns cheerily in the midst of six planets and two asteroid belts. The second planet has a surface temperature between the freezing and boiling points of water, and a sufficiently rich assortment of elements to set another of the great transformative processes of the cosmos into motion. Now, in one spot on the surface of this world, rising up past bulbous purplish things that don’t look anything like trees but fill the same broad ecological function, there is a crag of black rock. On top of that crag, a creature sits looking at the stars, fanning its lunules with its sagittal crest and waving its pedipalps meditatively back and forth. It is one of the first members of its world’s first intelligent species, and it is—for the first time ever on that world—considering the stars and wondering if other beings might live out there among them.

The creature’s biochemistry, structure, and life cycle have nothing in common with yours, dear reader. Its world, its sensory organs, its mind and its feelings would be utterly alien to you, even if ten billion years didn’t separate you. Nonetheless, it so happens that a few atoms that are currently part of your brain, as you read these words, will also be part of the brain-analogue of the creature on the crag on that distant, not-yet-existing world. Does that fact horrify you, intrigue you, console you, leave you cold? We’ll discuss the implications of that choice next week.


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PhysicsDoc said...


GuRan said...


I might suggest adjusting some of the mathematics though, as 828,639 global civilisations in 10 million years is almost one every 10 years...


Tom Bannister said...

Wow JMG! I know it sounds corney but there's no other word to describe this post- Epic! No wait, beyond epic... ah darn I can't think of a word to encapsulate this post. Maybe humans or a species of the future will have one :-) (or even just another culture of earth today with a more evolved/advanced language system than English)

I'm also just wondering (and please correct me if I'm off here) if your hinting at some kind of intelligent species existing on earth before humans? Cheers

wall0159 said...


Little nitpick, I'd doubt that any human artefacts would remain on the moon after 100 million years, due to asteroid bombardment. One never knows though!

I find the reuse of matter quite a lovely thought (ashes to ashes), but I think this kind of big-picture approach might drive some people to nihilism. That is a pity.

Andy Brown said...

Thanks for that very corbicular tale! It puts me in mind of Olaf Stapleton's First and Last Men - which (if I remember correctly) violated all sense of proper narrative and sense by actually imagining a future where people had evolved into things alien to us - and then kept evolving. I know from experience that to me it was fascinating and disturbing proof that the rest of even the most ambitious of "speculative fiction" was keeping to a very narrow track. It was my first introduction to the fact that even though we could imagine innumerable possible futures - we only choose to think about those few that carry our precious stories forward.

Jo said...

I love the idea that my atoms will be flung broadcast around the universe. It makes me want to be a better person so I leave a superior type of atom!
As a student of history I see why your projected civilisations are cyclical in their stupidity for a very long time. Humans seem to find it so very hard to learn from what has gone before, or even to remember what happened a generation ago.
I have been experimenting recently with making the perfect cup of tea. In a teapot, with loose-leaf tea, just like granny did. But granny used teabags from her middle years, and now is gone, and everyone else I know uses teabags too.
I read all the tea making guides, but could not get it right, until with the help of the internet a properly brought up Brit informed me that you have to STIR THE POT before you pour. Now that tiny but significant detail was left out of all the written instructions I could find.
It's only a cup of tea, but it has only taken one and a half generations for that knowledge to be lost in my family.
It kills me to think of how much really important human knowledge has been lost over the millenia due to wars, technological 'advances', plague, famine, pestilence, genocide, and human beings just plain not paying attention.
I loved your story, and the thought of wonderful 'others' finding traces of us in the far future, but I could just kick humankind right now.

John Michael Greer said...

PhysicsDoc, thank you.

GuRan, of course you're quite correct -- should have been 8,639, of course.

Tom, thank you. In this version of the future, though, we're the first of the eleven intelligent species of Earth. Mind you, if pressed, I'd suggest that we're only the first of the technological species of Earth; there's no particular necessity for sentience always to coexist with tool use, and there's at least some evidence that dolphins are as smart as we are.

Wall, the side of the moon facing Earth has had very limited impacts for the last couple of billion years, thus the survival of very ancient features such as maria; that was the basis for my assumption that at least some human artifacts would still be around.

Andy, yes, I had Stapleton in mind while writing this! Still, I was mostly thinking of Star Maker, and this is in some ways composed in opposition to the theogenesis theme of that book.

Thijs Goverde said...

Always fun, this kind of thing. The only thing that bothers me about your exercise is the enormous amount of intelligent species in it - as if intelligence is inevitable in evolution!

I sort of prefer Kurt Vonnegut's idea of an island population of humans remaining (in the Galapagos islands, no less!), and quietly evolving into a far less intelligent species (a kind of seal) because they have no further need for intelligence.

Of course, I'm aware the peculiar evolutionary coincidence we call 'intelligence' may arise more than once - I'm not arrogant enough to think we're that unique a species - but three times in a hundred million years? When we took over 60 million to get there, from a kind of squirrely little critter? Having intelligence come that thick and fast seems only possible if one postulates that evolution tends to lead to intelligence - a notion I consider rather hubristic (if that's a word(which it isn't)).

As for the choice in the closing paragraph - I'm firmly in the 'leaves me cold' camp. I'll certainly tune in next week, to find out the implications of that choice!

Enrique said...

Another fascinating essay. I always look forward to your postings, in part because they challenge so many of our commonplace assumptions about the world.

Your future scenario reminds me somewhat of early 20th century pulp fiction writers like HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, who seemed to take it for granted that we are not the first intelligent species to walk (or swim) the Earth, and almost certainly not the last. In fact, I remember not all that long ago that you had commented that you strongly suspected that we are not the first sentient species to have existed on planet Earth and that we might not be the only sentient species living on Earth right now.

Likewise, it’s very likely that the early civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Peru, China, India and so on were not the first civilizations either. There is pretty good circumstantial evidence that there were lost civilizations during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, and that legends such as those about Atlantis are probably based on dim memories of such long-dead cultures. Such civilizations would have been destroyed during the global ecological crisis, seismic disasters, floods and climate shifts that accompanied the end of the last glaciation. I read your book on Atlantis and I think you made a very good case that at least one such civilization existed long before the earliest documented civilizations.

There has also been some very interesting speculation about possible pre-human civilizations as well. One of the more interesting and controversial scenarios has been sketched out by Mike Magee, a retired British civil servant. He believes there was a species of intelligent dinosaurs that existed during the late Cretaceous. I might add that he is not the first to suggest this idea either. I have some serious doubts about his arguments and the evidence that he claims to have found, but it does make for a very interesting “what if”. On the other hand, what traces will our civilization leave after 65 million years, and how will such traces be interpreted if any remain?

JR Mooneyham has also had some interesting speculations about pre-human and early human civilizations as well, although unlike Magee, he labels his strictly as speculative and makes no assertions that he believes these civilizations actually existed.

John Michael Greer said...

Jo, humanity could use the occasional good swift kick, though I'm afraid that we may have to wait for the corbicules to deliver it. As for tea, good for you! I grew up with Japanese stepfamily and so learned the rather different craft of brewing loose leaf Asian teas, and you're right on two counts: first, there's a lot of subtlety to it, and second, it beats the stuffing out of what you get from tea bags.

Andy Brown said...

Maybe I should thumb through my copy of Stapleton's novels just to remind myself of what exactly he was up to. I suppose he was holding on to a long-view of Progress, (as Civilization ratcheted upward with the rise and fall of civilizations and species), but his future humans became too alien for me to care about. I was young, and if I was going to read science fiction, the sweep of space opera was much more interesting!

. josé . said...


And looking forward to next week's interpretation. :)

GuRan said...

Jo, not just any stirring will do!

You must stir the pot by rotating it three times clockwise (anti-clockwise if you're in the southern hemisphere ;-)

. josé . said...

And I'm with you and Jo with the loose-leaf tea. I usually start the morning with a cup of Fukamushi, which has a perfect flavor for waking up. In the afternoon, I'll brew a silver needle, quan yin oolong, or Yunnan gold, depending on how much of a kick I'm looking for.

onething said...

We do not use teabags in this house! My husband is convinced that world tea producers sweep up the bits of detritus from the floor at the end of the day, put it in tea bags, and sell it to Americans.
By the way, bee balm flowers make a lovely additive to tea.

BrightSpark said...

Why am I reminded of three rather different things - Asimov's Last Question, Battlestar Galactica's "all of this has happened before, and will happen again", and a particularly freaky piece of filming at the end of a movie called Men In Black featuring an endless zoom on the universe that wound up with this universe being just a marble being played with by some odd creature on another dimension.

I guess what way you take a revelation such as this - and yes it's a revelation, even if most people knew it already and could have worked it out given the right inspiration.

The way I take this is as a direct relevation of impermanence, but even then, there's probably a consciousness and process at the core of it, represented by that distant atom transfer. Something survives, transfers, and has a physical connection, even beyond a galaxy. That might be the only form of interstellar transfer that actually works, who knows...

What would be interesting to that is to take it further to either the heat death of the universe or any great contraction and subsequent big bang, given known physics and cosmology, and then to see what survives, or at what connects on a physical level. No doubt something as well!

Tom, I'd add the kea - the mountain parrot of New Zealand to that list, along with dolphins and whales too.

Ray Wharton said...

I have long thought about the long future of the Earth, often playing through the Fibonacci years for little trends. In the long run it plays out the same in essence. I am fond of a twist where from maybe 1346269 to about 39088169 years from now (again sticking to my personal habit of using the Fibonacci pattern rather than base ten) there are multiple species descended from modern humanity. Some quite mentally capable (memories of great richness and depth of feeling), some only barely capable of what we today would likely call abstract thought, and (from time to time) a few aware of the sophigenic (think "sophistry" to approximate their sense of this Earthlore) climate change so well recorded in the strata. Over all the genus is fairly successful, and often finds a keystone niche, especially in temperate and polar climates. "Civilization" as a particular social form for several species remains common for millions of years, tending toward more regional and k selected forms. Eventually a civilization (or a series of civilizations, depending on how our concepts would be projected forward) manages to maintain a degree of historical continuity with dates spanning 514229 years, though its final collapse was quite tragic, as its very adaptations toward long stability leaves it with inadequate and inflexible defenses against encroachment from a more quick lived creative species with a tendency toward what we might call cruel humor.

There are biological decedents of humanity for 102334155 years, but the larger share of that is as the rather less mindful side of a symbiosis with a decedent of the humble oyster mushroom. The massive multi-generational fungi have minds of extreme sophistication and patience, but their day to day life consists mostly of excreting protein rich mater and breeding harvest-apes to gather carbohydrate rich foods from a wide variety of regional ecosystems. War is common, but rarely lethal (to the fungi). A deep aesthetic sense of [untranslatable, but it involves the appreciation of the relationships between complex arrangements of organic chemicals, the shape of foot paths made by harvest-apes, and the songs of trees.]. This phase ends after a crisis emerges from consequences of "over domestication" of the mushroom's artisan ecosystems is exploited by a parasitic fungi-phage fern.

John Michael Greer said...

Thijs, good! As referenced in the scenario, though, there's been a broad general trend in the direction of increased cephalization in quite a range of evolutionary lineages. Vertebrates now by and large have bigger brains than vertebrates did a hundred million years ago, presumably because it's a survival advantage. That doesn't mean that evolution moves teleologically toward intelligence, of course, but it does suggest that the basic precondition of intelligence -- a sufficiently complex central nervous system -- is becoming more common over geological time frames, and thus the chances of further intelligent species are likely to increase over the next billion years or so.

Enrique, fascinating -- I hadn't heard about the "anthroposaurus" hypothesis. As for high human cultures in the late Ice Age, granted, but I didn't want to get the point of the scenario tangled up with that incendiary issue...

Andy, oh, granted. I wasn't a great fan of Stapleton myself, back in the day.

Jose, stay tuned! As for tea, no argument there -- I tend toward white teas before breakfast, but after that, depends on what the very pleasant local tea shop has gotten in most recently, and never in a bag.

Onething, your husband is quite correct; I think they throw in the occasional dead cockroach to add flavor.

BrightSpark, granted! Still, I remain an agnostic when it comes to the big bang and other far-end cosmological theories. I can't shake the suspicion that five hundred years from now, they'll have about the same status that Ptolemaic epicycles have now.

John Michael Greer said...

Ray, excellent. There's nothing particularly sacred about base 10, of course -- I simply used it as a nod to the Ugo Bardi post that inspired this little flight of fancy. As for the fungi, do I sense a reference to Brian Aldiss' Hothouse in there somewhere?

Cherokee Organics said...


You have the knack of storytelling. I was enthralled.

By the way, your story indicates to me that we do achieve interstellar migration, but perhaps not as we know it (sorry about the really dodgy Star Trek pun).

I accept my ultimate fate and also the uncertainty about not knowing when it will occur. It motivates me to work and enjoy today, but also to keep an eye on the future.

Top work.


Avery said...

For those wondering about other stories like this, I would like to suggest Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights by Ryu Mitsuse, which is one of Japan's most famous sci-fi novels. It interjects a lot of philosophy into the unimaginable timespans.

Ray Wharton said...

I have never heard of Brian Aldiss' Hothouse, the fungus idea is inspired by conversations I had with a friend of mine who may have read it, but I think my friend was mostly interested in the concept of what the word 'intelligence' could mean in the context of a non-animal which still is able to process and compare lots of experience.

As for base systems, the Fibonacci sequence is a bit sacred in my thinking, if for no better reason than it is a tool I deliberately use to distinguish my thinking, though from it I have also learned alot about how picking scales for a story (of time or space) has a powerful effect on how the ideas are approached.

On another note, at first blush I thought your 10 year and 100 year time lines seemed a bit... on the uneventful side. Upon a little bit more reflection I thought that maybe it was because on a global scale the next chunk of time will not be as dramatic as it will seem from inside the perspective of some countries' decline.

Thomas Daulton said...

Color me tickled! In answer to your final paragraph, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy and excited to know that "my" atoms once participated in a spectacular supernova, a gorgeous yet lifeless dust nebula, and in the past or the future they may once more participate in these things and also in the great pageantry of life on some alien orb. I dunno why, but I just love thinking about that.

Months ago, I linked the Ugo Bardi essay in one of my comments here, but your reply indicated you were already familiar with it. I've been wondering for months if you would ever get back to responding to the Bardi article, and you didn't disappoint. I love the idea of other human civilizations that are so alien from us that they might as well be extraterrestrials, and also I love the idea of animals evolving into intelligent species (One of my favorite books is David Brin's _Startide Rising_, about intelligent spacefaring dolphins, although in that case the Uplift to intelligence was the result of human genetic engineering. Yeah, yeah, Brin's arrogance to imagine that dolphins aren't already as intelligent as they need to be, I'm sure you'll reply. I liked the book anyway, the dolphin characters were memorable.)

Reading speculations like these always makes me wonder how many human and non-human civilizations might have arisen in prehistory that we simply can't know about. 4.5 Billion years is a long time, it's impossible to prove that humans or non-humans _didn't_ have some sort of civilization before the history that we know.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out the Star Trek Voyager episode, "Distant Origin". Star Trek Voyager was probably the weakest of all the Star Trek series, but this episode was certainly one of its best. It postulates that intelligent Hadrosaurs achieved a technological civilization and managed to migrate off the Earth just before the Chicxulub meteor doomed the rest of their kin. The characters postulate that geological subduction erased all trace of the dinosaur civilization before Man even evolved. The Hadrosaurs have a basically humanlike (Star Trek type) civilization, but they're steeped in repressive religious dogma which bears some resemblance to the civil religions you've been discussing here. It's rare that Star Trek even mentions religion, so this was an interesting twist. I know you've said you don't care much for Star Trek, but if you were going to watch one episode, that'd be one you might actually like.

It opens with the wonderful conceit of watching dinosaur archaeologists excavate a _human_ skeleton which the Star Trek crew had left behind on a desert planet in a prior episode...! ;)

Repent said...

Evolution works tit for tat. A faster lion leads to a swifter gazelle. The swifter gazelle leads to a more cunning lion. Ect, forever.

I've often thought that human intellegence will push other animals towards intellegence, simply to compete and adapt to survive. In fact, we ARE selecting for intellegence. There are already two compelling examples; racoons (as you suggested):

And octopuses, (similar to your clam statement):

(Excellent post as always!

Stuart Jeffery said...

I am immortal and I'm going to be a star too...

Thank you for a really great piece JMG.

Stonymeadow said...

your story reminded me of a quote i read. your story has the alien universes displaced in time rather than occurring at the same time as in the quote below, but they are still just as alien to one another.

While I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Cecropia moth swept past from light to light over the posturings of the actors. “He doesn’t know,” my friend whispered excitedly. “He’s passing through an alien universe brightly lit but invisible to him. He’s in another play; he doesn’t see us. He doesn’t know. Maybe it’s happening right now to us.

Loren Eiseley (1907 - 1977)


Somewhatstunned said...

I've only one, non-verbal, comment about this:


k-dog said...

Part one of two:

You inspired me to make my own reading of the tea leaves. I enjoyed yours thouroghly.

Ten years from now:

A true doom and gloomer would take serious issue with your ten years from now business as usual continues scenario. You are close to what could happen but the nexus of fate could spin in other directions enrtirely, Black Swan style. I say close because somebody familiar with the twentieth century environmental movements has to be surprised at how little progress has been made changing attitudes and lifestyles and how committed leaders are to preventing any change in the status-quo. Extrapolating the existing scenario into the future is very reasonable except that the last chance for meaningful systemic change is slipping silently away right now.

A hundred years from now:

"Cornucopians still insist that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will save us any day now, and their opponents still insist that human extinction is imminent."

I share your despair over the lack of human social evolution but I'll disagree. Sea level up ten meters and human population down to 3 billion will leave any remaining cornucopians hanging from trees. People a hundred years from now will have entirely new ways of misperceiving the world. Perhaps looking at the condition of the American Indian or other not so lucky minorities can hint at what the future may bring.

A thousand years from now:

Men in a thousand years will not think the technological society of a millennium before is their idea of evil incarnate. If human memory were that good we'd not have the problems we do now. A thousand years in the future is impossible to predict. I fear it may come down to who has the good King and who suffers under the despot. A religion or cult may exist dedicated to the mindless unquestioned acceptance of ignorance and the rejection of all manner of intellectual activity. Science literature and learning will be blamed for man's fall and not man's misuse of them. Agriculture plantations and an aristocracy carry civilization on as if the serfdom of 17th century Russia had carried through the ages unchanged. Human population is 100 million.

Ten thousand years from now:

The complex feedback loops that govern Earth’s climate have returned the climate to normal. Humanity may have progressed to a utopia after seven thousand years of stable social evolution. Another possibility is that agriculture plantations and an aristocracy carry civilization on as if the serfdom of 17th century Russia had carried through the ages. Human population is 300 million.

k-dog said...

Part two:

A hundred thousand years from now:

Evolution has restored some of the diversity lost by twentieth and twenty-first century species extinction. Humans have evolved into two sub-species both of whom are inferior in mental capability to that of present man. One species descends from the aristocracy and are known for exceptional cruelty. Another branch of man descendants from the serf and is exceptionally docile. Rulers all of whom are tall stand a full foot taller than slaves of whom all are short. Offspring produced from mixing the two subspecies are killed at birth.

A million years from now:

Man is extinct. Separation into two evolutionary paths ruined the ability of society to adapt to catastrophic events. Humans evolved into a society that was suitable to specific climatic conditions and like many species which seal their doom by overspecialisation so has the overspecialisation into two subspecies doomed man.

Ten million years from now:

A species of ground squirrel has learned a primitive form of agriculture and their brains are getting bigger as the generations pass.

One hundred million years from now:

The ground squirrels have evolved a stable society and are intelligent. They have literature and art but no science. They have the intelligence for science but lack the temperament. Their emotions desires and drive are nothing like what humans were like and have made a stable sustainable society possible but they have also prevented further social or intellectual development. Intellectual activity slowly evolves but never goes beyond refinement of what has already been achieved. A characteristic of this sustainability is that the social standing of the ground squirrels is based on the equality of all members in their society.

One billion years from now:

The inevitable change to a red giant has enlarged the still yellow sun so that all life on earth is in decline. Intelligent life has left. The ground squirrels became extinct but not before the decline began. The squirrels filled the earth's intelligent niche and prevented the evolution of other species into becoming sentient beings.

Life on earth never reached the stars.

And after all this how can I not put down a link to my own blog.

kollapsnik said...

Reminiscent of The Last Men by Olaf Stapledon, which has a similar sweep of post-human history.

Robin Datta said...

That was great, ArchDruid! Synthesising a narrative on the framework of current science, without reference to "spirituality", yet without excluding a substratum of consciousness: it takes one who has plumbed the depths beyond all sense-perception.

There are narratives of cyclical manifesting, manifest and de-manifesting including the one about Pralaya, the longest of the cycles being 311 trillion years.

Matchstick Warrior said...

Good ending there JMG. I think anyone with just a high school understanding of the laws of conservation of matter, energy, and so on, should find it completely normal that components from the cells from our bodies could end up in the bodies of some future beings on another world, even exciting. There's a certain joy in observing and speculating on the resilience of nature as it cycles from one stage to the next.
Nature continues to move at its own pace, cycling and recycling, and it is our fossil fuel addiction that has messed about slightly with that delicately balanced cycle, which will be to our cost.

Matt said...

Beautiful! Brilliant! :-D

Spanish fly said...

Tears came to my macho eyes!

Oh my god!
I am a very tough man, but this post has made me a mood of cosmic sadness and greatness.
It's no the typical mental masturbation about apocalptical end of humans (or technological perpetuation), but it's also a thrilling topic: our own extinction and new self-conscious animals in a far future; and of course the end of this planet.
Vanity of vanities!

Robo said...

The long view. Very comforting, really.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

The corvids will have a longer trip to the Moon one hundred million years from now. I guess once you reach escape velocity, that's of no great importance.

As the Moon's orbit enlarges, the stabilizing effect of lunar gravitation on the Earth's axial tilt will weaken. A likely result will be more frequent and more extreme climate change, which will shorten the life span of future civilizations and species.

I'm glad you left space for the cephalopods to have a go at being the smart ones. Lizards, especially crocodilians and the descendents of monitor lizards, might have one more chance in the next long warm period.

Matthew Lindquist said...

Well. That was an epic extolling of differing worldviews. You're right, as sermons to the faithful go that other blog is about as good as it gets- complete with wholly unrealistic extinction scenarios!

What interests me the most about your take on this, however, is the extinction you posited. Do you really think that we'll go the way of the wooly mammoth(or polar bear?), hopelessly hyper-adapted to a particular ecosystem and washed out with it? I had a thought recently that humanity might diverge into multiple species, as an outgrowth of cultural adaptation to regional ecologies, similar to how we evolved darker/lighter skin for hotter/cooler climates, etc. Do you think that's possible too? While I understand that no species lasts forever, I would love to hear your model for how you chose that particular scenario for extinction.

Also, sorry if I blundered through some terrible misunderstandings of ecology or evolution/extinction- I am somewhat new to this!

Great read, again. Many thanks!

Martin Larner said...

JMG - in the absence of any viable petroleum sources for the first 10 million years, where are these Global Civilisations getting their energy from to for instance create aerostat towns?

As I understood it, the basis for a lot of your work is that a Global Civilisation would not be possible in the absence of a cheap and abundant source of concentrated energy, so it would be unlikely that such a civilisation could exist once those sources have depleted.

I'd envisage a more medieval type of civilisation or those of earlier ones such as the Romans, Mongols or Babylonians once the memory of todays technology, along with the energy to produce it have become myths or forgotten entirely. I'd expect such civilisations to be much more localised and develop at different rates, unaware of each others existence.

During this period before petroleum sources are replenished by the Earths own processes, we would be forced to live off our energy 'income' rather than 'inheritance' as I believe you have previously stated.

Phil Harris said...

Even in my mother's day there were those who could make a good cup of tea, and those who couldn't. ;)
Phil H
PS Ugo does get our attention; mine as well as yours. His imagination recently seems to look back from a post-Dark Age point of view (as in your guess this post) Ugo: "Evil walks the Earth "
Quote "The wanton destruction of everything - human and non human - under a pervasive blanket of indifference can only be described as evil walking the Earth."

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

May your New Year be round and sweet.

I've been rereading some of the comments on past chapters of Stars Reach. That led me to a few thoughts that it is late to post over there, and I didn't expect them to ever be on topic here. But this week they sort of are.

Thought number one is about the various attempts to calculate the likelihood of earthlike intelligent life evolving elsewhere in the galaxy. Usually they define "earthlike planet" as rocky, similar mass to Earth, orbiting within a similar temperature range. Sometimes they specify watery oceans.

None of these formulae take into account that life didn't evolve just on planet Earth, or by getting a start on Mars and arriving here on meteorites. Local life evolved in a binary system of Earth-plus-Moon.

The gravitational field of our unusually massive satellite produces ocean tides, which are useful. Even more important, (according to a documentary I watched on TV; correct me if I'm misinformed), the Moon's gravity keeps the Earth's axis of rotation at IIRC an angle of roughly 23 degrees to the ecliptic. The exact angle isn't important, but the stability is. Axial tilt is a major factor determining seasonal changes in temperature. Whatever temperature range an organism evolved to live in is the range it needs. Abrupt changes are lethal.

Our massive satellite was torn out of the planet by a cosmic hit-and-run. What are the odds of that happening to earthlike planets in other solar systems, and happening at the right time in the planet's geological development? With all the earth-sized planets we think are out there, it is likely to have happened more than once, but it must be fairly rare. Calculations for frequency of earthlike planets that don't take the Moon into account are orders of magnitude too large.

Some folk traditions and pagan religions see the Moon as the source or the governor of earthly fertility. Though we know it to be an airless barren rock, that may well be true.

Tripp said...

There was a lively discussion about raising meat chickens in the comments thread last week, and I am certainly part of that effort. But even more appropriate to an energy descent context is raising meat rabbits, and doing it on the lawn is even better. Interested?

Forgive me for pimping my blog so brazenly in your space, JMG. And wonderful piece this week!

ChemEng said...


Your comment reminded me of my father’s experience with tea bags. He was English of the WWII generation so had drunk tea all his life. On his first trip to the United States he came across tea bags for the first time. He tried to make a pot of tea but put the whole tea bag, paper wrapping and all, into the pot. Having said which, loose tea leaves are a nuisance. Many’s the time that I have drunk too deeply of a cup of tea and swallowed the leaves. (But I do remember by grandmother swirling the tea before pouring it — I never knew why.)

Regarding learning from previous generations, I am doing serious vegetable gardening this year. It has generally gone well (although I descend into the use of bad language when the topic of squirrels comes up). Rather than trying to learn from others this year I have followed the approach of that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, who said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Based on my hands-on experience I will be more ready to read books and carry out Internet research next year.

Regarding the overall post, I wonder if future intelligent species will have a sense of ethics — if they will distinguish right from wrong.

Yupped said...

Lovely, thanks. I'm starting to spread the fall compost now so this adds a certain resonance. Eight millennia for the longest-lasting intelligent civilization - quite impressive and puts Ind Civ to shame. As for "my" atoms, I'm guessing many of them will end up in the soils and fossil fuel that feed some of those new civilizations. Seems appropriate in a way.

I read it while drinking my morning cup of Tulsi/Lavender tea, with a little honey. My current favorite. A one-cup tea infuser makes it easy to brew in small quantities.

Ugo Bardi said...

Hello, JMG. Nice post - hugely interesting. Your conclusions are rather different than mine but, yes, there is a lot of fascination in imagining the next ten billion years. And, as a commenter said, we are not the only ones - I think it was Asimov who started this idea.

Maybe we'll have a chance to discuss billion years long scenario more in detail at some moment

marlena13 said...

Wow. Gave me chills, and brought tears to my eyes. Looking at such a big picture, I felt the oneness of reality, and how many things lots humans think are so important are really totally meaningless. Extremely poetic. Thank you

Liquid Paradigm said...

Well, this certainly pulled back the curtain on a dusty corner of my brain which still held some notions about the special uniqueness of homo sapiens. I'm back in there now with some micro-fiber cloths and a trash bag. Work ahead!

This also makes me step back from a certain desperate rage about our collective choices that I've not been able to shake loose (it's done me no good, personally). While I still feel somewhat frustrated and sad about our current state, a distinct tone of, pity?, asserts itself in the background, as if once free of the assumption that We Are The Universe's Last, Best Hope For Greatness (As We Define It), I can relax a bit and stop taking myself quite so seriously.

As to my final reaction? There's a certain small and natural dread at the prospect of death, but I mostly found myself feeling relief and a bit of excitement. The "work on myself" issue suddenly becomes a great deal more than a self-indulgent, existentially isolated and pointless exercise. This dovetails nicely with a talk on death I recently heard from Kristoffer Hughes. Appropriate to the coming of Autumn.

Which itself suddenly leads to a bunch of other realisations as I type. Okay, I'll quit blathering via keyboard and go let my mind blow some more.

Many thanks. :)

Simon Pieman said...

Very well written but I have to admit I found this version of evolution pretty depressing.

The repetitive amnesia of the cosmos - that after 10 billion years it hasn't managed to do anything other than create a few variations on humans no matter how different their central nervous systems may be. And even when this planet is over, evolution will continue to carry out the same autopilot script somewhere else with more superficial variations...until maybe this entire universe contracts and then the whole thing starts up again with more blind variations in nervous systems and deluded dreams of cold fusion and interstellar travel dreamt of by other creatures with different sets of ligaments. Occasionally one of them wises up - just around the time their entire planet is vaporised.

The total lack of any species that manages to foster intelligence beyond just fancy tool making. None that discover ways to expand into the multidimensionality of the universe (don't ask me how they'd do that or what it really means I'm just clutching at anything here..)

10 billion years and not even the hint of a fundamentally different template from marginally self aware nervous systems?? Humans are possibly the first technological intelligence to appear on the planet. No other types of unfathomable intelligences to come after that??

Yes Dolphins are a good start but they still seem to mostly use their intelligence to kill fish. I was romantically hoping for..more.

Its probably just my repressed devotion to the religion of progress manifesting in a cosmological guise though!

Dagnarus said...

I think another concept in addition to the doctrine of continual progress is at work in the Ugo Bardi post. That is the idea that the universe has an obligation to be fair (fairness is of course a subjective concept). You'll notice that in the good scenario that if humanity does the right thing that nothing can stand in the way of humanity, or it's successor the "galactic intelligence"'s way, not even the heat death of the universe. On the other hand if humanity does the wrong thing we go extinct, and so does the universe (presumably humans are the only creatures capable of creating galactic intelligences). If you believe in a fair universe, this is a lot more comforting than the idea that we might go out into that long dark night not because of the mistakes we made, but because of planetary climate cycles which were ultimately outside of our control. A refutation of this was also what I got from your excellent post.

As to your final question. I am conflicted. In the end, at this time I feel like I must answer "all of the above".

YJV said...

I find hints of similarity between your views and that of Hindu Cosmology (which I believe in). As I have heard you mention, you know about the large cosmological cycles of birth and death of planets and the continual creation and extinction of human (or in your view, just intelligent organism) civilisation.

This essay was a very interesting and relatable insight.


Daniel Banker said...

"The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses. Since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation – every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

Trin Tragula – for that was his name – was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. She would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex, just to show her. Into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she haw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot have is a sense of proportion."

Kevin May said...

Wow! A humdinger of a post. I do enjoy a good story.

Your question at the end of the post, "Does it leave you cold?"... yes it does. And I would suggest it leaves many people cold because it's such a reasonable narrative. In fact it's riddled with reason. And reason is a cold faculty. Here it allows us to project far into the future, to imagine not only future generations of us but future intelligent species. What a ride! But how can we possibly have an emotional relationship with these future kin?

How strange that we are both emotional and reasonable beings. The two don't always work very well together do they?

I'm not saying I want a warm fuzzy story next (although I do enjoy those too), but I am interested on how we can go from nihilism to caring.

William Hunter Duncan said...

I love it! JMG to the rescue. what practical thing can I do, since I can't seem to muster any more energy to support the civil religion of Progress or the monotheistic kind, so I don't starve to death in exile?


Renaissance Man said...

I wonder how reincarnation would work with this scenario?

Justin Patrick Moore said...

A delight to read...

What forms of magic do you think these future species will be involved in? I know that's not the main theme of this blog... but sometimes I wish it were.

Joy said...

Wow. 10 billion years. It's hard enough just trying to wrap my mind around such a concept; which I suppose is why they call it "deep time". Isn't that close to the present estimated age of the universe?

Also...(this isn't directly related to this week's topic, but it fits in with your thoughts on the Myth of Progress, and I'd best post it before I forget about it or lose the link); in 1978 eight "respected intellectuals", including Isaac Asimov, Ram Dass, James Michener, and Ashley Montegu, were asked for their ideas on a Utopian society.

The People’s Almanac’s Symposium on Utopias: Eight Respected Intellectuals Describe Their Ultimate Utopias, and Sound Like Humiliating Caricatures of Themselves.

jim said...

I do like to think about the history of the atoms that have been / are part of my body. I am pretty sure that if it was possible to trace the history of all of the atoms that have been part of me I would find that I have been a part of every type of living being that has ever lived on earth (and this essay reminds me that I will be a part of every species yet to come.) This is the vision of my before-life and after-life I find deeply comforting. No heaven no hell, my ego (my self) is just a temporary manifestation in a large, long lasting, wondrous process.

Maria said...

Another great essay, JMG!

In answer to your question, I found the idea of bits of my brain matter making up part of the brain matter of a creature on a distant planet utterly consoling. As if the cells that at the moment make up "me" are on some grand adventure that I can' begin to comprehend and that isn't even halfway through yet. I'm picturing the creature saying "I have been a drop in a shower; I have been a sword in the hand; I have been a middle-aged woman with and encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes..." ;)

Of course, I'm a dreamy, myth- and literature-loving sort, so I don't know how representative a sample I am.

Ian said...

Thanks--this was a delightful read!

Science fiction is well-used for this sort of intellectual magnification. This is definitely one of the more cheerful go rounds the prickly pear I have read :-).

con-science said...

Great post. At first I was a bit outraged at the audacity of your predictions, but have to admit, the end almost made me cry.
I just have one piece of criticism - in your story, you equate human with civilization, intelligence with civilization. Don't forget that humans inhabited this planet for 3 million years before they started reaching for the stars and building pyramids. The story of their lives is reduced by our cultural mythology (what you describe as the religion of progress) to nothing happening. Maybe they were enacting a different story, not one about conquest, but one about belonging to the world.
Another point about civilization is that most civilizations on this planet have been simply abandoned by its people. We will be the first that will end because we run out of resources (one was destroyed by us) So the societal organization of a future intelligent species may be nothing like a civilization.

trippticket said...

Five years ago I was a devout acolyte in the church of progress, a consummate atheistic rationalist/empiricist, and would have never considered asking a question like this. At least not with a straight face! See my straight face?

I'm just curious as to whether you've perhaps gotten any first-hand glimpses of the future, maybe even the distant future, through dreams, revelation, vision quest, etc?

You could answer this (and not post it) offline if you prefer! Especially if the answer is juicy... I'm open to some pretty off-beat knowledge gathering techniques these days.

To reach me you can go to my blog link that I included in my first comment and scroll down to my contact information.


david k said...

Goosebumps! Best. Post. Ever.

William Church said...

Honestly the question you posed doesn't horrify me or leave me cold... the thought of our beautiful world and my beloved mountains turned to a chaotic dust cloud in space? Yeah that makes me sad. The thought of the world as I know it being extinguished and everything mankind did or thought being reduced to cosmic rubble is not something I care to embrace.

But as to sapience? Maybe I read Brin's Startide Rising and Uplift War at too tender of an age. I am open to the thought of other species attaining intelligence and sapience but am far from sure that evolution can do so with regularity. We may very well be the only self aware and intelligent species in the universe. We may be the only one that has ever existed. Anywhere.

Humbling and ironic at the same time considering the issues we now face.


ganv said...

"Their ancestors in our time are an invasive species of freshwater clam. (Don’t laugh; a billion years ago your ancestors were still trying to work out the details of multicellularity.)" Your admonition not to laugh by reminding me of my ancestry was no use. The image of zebra mussels working on mathematics was too wonderful for me to keep from laughing...wonderful in exactly that kind of 'I had never thought of that possibility before' kind of way.

This is a wonderful, creative, and thought provoking essay. One of the great mysteries is how 'progressive' evolution really is. It is very hard to know if intelligence with any similarity to ours is somehow nearly as much complexity as our environmental niche (solar system) can support. Or whether the development of the first (known) intelligence capable of figuring out the basic principles of how the universe works will lead to much more powerful intelligence. The question of whether we ever figure out intelligence to the level of being able to significantly modify or 'improve' it is really one of the great unknowns of the future. I suspect the evolution of new kinds of intelligence from our machines is more likely than your predictions suggest. It is easy to debunk 'singularity' eschatological ideas, but the possibility of machines becoming able to do practical problem solving is harder to dismiss. I fully agree that Bardi's intelligence is unreasonably attached to utopian human values. The future of intelligence is fraught with unpredictable peril.

Nano said...

What wonderful tales we atoms make up.

It's such a wonderful dance.

Forever and ever been part of whatever.

Because there is no end of time.

Dance the dance of Maya chacha CHA!

I wonder what their magick will look like

peacegarden said...

First of all...awesome! Good show!

The question leaves me halfway between intrigued and consoled.


Mike R said...

Really beautiful post.

What are your beliefs (or lack thereof) about reincarnation, if you're willing to share them with your audience? I'm agnostic about it myself, but this post got me thinking about the concept.

Zach said...

John Michael,

I won't contribute to the continuing abuse of the word "epic," so I'll instead say that that was lyrical. :) Nicely done.

It seems to me this is what a scientific account of the future minus "Grand Destiny of Mankind" myth should look like.

As for the dinosaurs, I confess to having similar thoughts myself. If there had been high-energy, technological civilization 65 million years ago, how could we tell? And what will the paleontologists of the deep future conclude about our age? Given the way we use fossils to document continental drift, the Columbian Exchange ought to give some future scholars quite the headache!


Richard Larson said...



Now that is worth considering; a tiny part of my brain matter will exsist in a creature 10 Billion Years from now.

Eduard Florinescu said...

Dolphins could be next to have a civilisation. Do you think they will be eaten entirely?

Garden Lady said...

Thank you. Your vision is comforting and bracing, trailing the spark of life to even beyond the passing of this earth. "Intelligence" per se is a moving target, so I would be just as happy to hear a postulate that projects complex life, "intelligent" or not, existing on this planet for one billion years into its future. I would be satisfied with just that. Kickstarting another evolutionary process on another planet would be icing on the cake. I look forward to next week's post.

Tyler August said...


Excellent as always, but I must comment on your comment. Why do you think we will have made great progress in Cosmology in the next 500 years? The 500 years after Ptolemy were relatively static, after all; refined observations added more epicycles, at best. I don't see the Long Decline as being terribly conductive to that sort of Science, especially when you need such astoundingly expensive instruments to make observations of what the current model considers the Early Universe.

That said, regardless the larger cosmological model... well, stellar nucleosynthesis is a one-way street. Someday, the hydrogen will be gone, and the last dwarfs will burn out. Helium burning? I wouldn't rule it out. Then lithium, and so on and so on... but eventually, it has to end. The skies will go dark, and leave a graveyard of cold iron. (iron, too, is not forever: eventually, every mass finds itself in a black hole, and the black holes evaporate for want of food. Nothing remains but a uniform soup of photons. This is the modern version of Victorian Heat Death.) I cannot see any cosmology that obeys simple conservation laws going any other way.

Telling that to just about anyone, however, is akin to telling a medieval peasant that God and all His angels have absconded from Heaven. I wrote a post on my own blog:

The oddest response I got was that someone told me I was not a poet after reading that. I'd have quoted the appropriate line of Keats, but what the devil does it say that we must think of a momento mori as the opposite of poetry?

stevenstrange said...

When it comes to the idea of some future alien creature on another world possessing a few of my atoms, I am intrigued. Just as I am intrigued by the idea that a few of my atoms may be on loan from an intelligent life form from a different world in the deep distant past. The whole thing can leave one in awe.

Twilight said...

Quite simply the cyclic view of history/future vs. the linear view.

A net population loss of 5.5billion in 90 years would be a horror on a scale orders of magnitude beyond anything the human race has ever experienced. This illustrates that the long decent and catabolic collapse need not mean some sort of easy, painless future, as it sometimes seems to be painted by the proponents of near term extinction.

SLClaire said...

Back in elementary school, I read a book in the elementary school library titled The Next 50 Billion Years. I don't recall much of it now (that was 45 years ago) but the part that gave me nightmares was the part about the Earth being swallowed up by the red-giant Sun and then the eventual heat-death of the universe. I was much too young to get change and death on that level. It was too far removed from the mainstream Presbyterian religious viewpoint I was being brought up in and I had no way to think about the clashes of viewpoint. Nor could I bring it up with any of the adults in my life.

At this point, it's the near-term, 10 to 100 year scale, that gives me nightmares if anything does. Or at least keeps me up some nights. All along in reading your blog I have been challenging myself to get the emotional, social, political, and cultural aspects of decline while doing what I can in the physical world to prepare for it. Seeing it laid out this way builds on that process and reminds me of the need to do psychological preparation as well as physical preparation.

As I age and start to really get tragedy, seeing it affect people I'm close to and seeing my own decline and death sometime in the near-term of this civilization's decline, thinking of the larger-scale tragedies in store for human civilizations that you've laid out is especially poignant. At the same time, though, pulling myself out of my human-centrism for a moment, it's fascinating to think of intelligent descendants of raccoons, crows, clams, and whatever other species manage it. The example of the corbicules is particularly intriguing as they are wise enough to both know and fully accept their fate. And in contrast with the heat-death idea, I prefer the idea that the universe goes on, the great cycle endlessly turning. So call me a combination of unsettled and intrigued. That's been true of this whole series of posts. Looking forward to the weeks to come!

Ursachi Alexandru said...

Sir, I must say, after a full day of walking around town and drinking beer, reading this was quite entertaining. :) I salute your creativity!

But.. 10 meters of sea level rise in just 100 years?

ChemEng said...

Mr Greer:

I very much enjoyed your vignette, and the final paragraphs were vivid. I do have one area of pushback. All of your future is confined to Plant Earth and the Moon (and eventually the new Earth). Yet it was only in 1887 that Michelson-Morley discovered that the speed of light is fixed. Hence space travel, at least outside the solar system, becomes impractical (if we want to return in our own lifetimes, if you know what I mean).

But you are talking millions and billions of years. You state, “In the course of their researches . . . the best minds among the corbicules have proved conclusively that nuclear fusion, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration were never practical options in the first place.” I love the gentle irony of that statement. But isn’t it likely that someone, whatever their genetic heritage, will do an end run around the speed of light limitation and that inter-stellar travel or time-travel or some other type of travel will happen? Indeed, the New York Times recently reported that NASA scientists are developing experiments to do this. Will they succeed? Probably not, but we’re talking only a hundred years from the starting point. Indeed, in the time frames you are talking about I expect that someone will successfully tackle a much more difficult challenge: how to get around the Second Law.

I am currently struggling through a book that “explains” modern physics. It does seem that information at the quantum level can travel instantaneously. It’s fascinating, if puzzling. In the words of J.B.S. Haldance, “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we cansuppose”.

Your recent discussions to do with the ending of “progress” in the sense of material advance such as we experienced in the last two generations do not, in my view, prohibit a much different kind of progress — or maybe “understanding” is a better word. Maybe not in the next few hundred years, but eventually.

Ken Boak said...


Another excellent, thought provoking post. I always look forward to Wednesdays, for your unique interpretation of the world we currently live in.

It reminded me of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Woodstock",

"We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon...."

Whilst I enjoyed your narrative, looking ahead into the far future, where biologically anything is possible, I felt that it is crucial that we get the next 10 - 100 years correct. At least that will provide a stable footing for our children and grandchildren.

As a UK citizen, I was pleased to hear that we are not going to blindly drift into another surgical air-strike of the Middle East. Perhaps rather than letting off $1million Tomahawks like fireworks over Damascus, we could offer some real humanitarian aid to the 2 million+ Syrian refugees, living in tents and camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and all.

Obama and Putin & Co need to talk this one through, over a meal in St Petersburg, and spare us all from yet another pointless resource war.

Marcello said...

I am not sure I would buy into the possibility of a future human based technical civilization, even 100000 years from now. Bar sudden collapse we are going to pick the earth clean of most of the high quality mineral ores, coal reserves and so on which are easily accessible and even a large proportion of the stuff which is not high grade and/or within easy reach; I would not be surprised if even national parks were mined in desperation.
We will leave behind some deposit which are currently in warzones or otherwise escaped notice, a few waste heaps that could be combed for leftovers and probably some lignite and such whose exploitation was not completed. That might be enough to help footing the heating bill and perhaps a handful of steam engines to pump water out of some mines, military drydocks and similar select tasks. But nowhere near enough to propel a civilization to the point when things like fusion power can be entertained. And whoever comes after those guys will have even less to work with.
While water and wind will remain available modern wind turbines and dams rely on stack of technologies and industrial infrastructures that will not be available. Most likely our descendents will go no further than harnessing them to perform mechanical work (mills, bellows, hammers etc.) as it has been done in the past.
Perhaps some future species, many millions of years from now, might get a shot at a high tech society on the back of regenerated fossil fuels reserves. But for humans there will not be an other ride.

sgage said...

Repent said...

"Evolution works tit for tat. A faster lion leads to a swifter gazelle. The swifter gazelle leads to a more cunning lion. Ect, forever."

Not so much tit for tat, but utterly continuously. As an ecologist who has done some work in population genetics, I don't think about lions and gazelles, rather, lion/gazelle. Deer/wolf. They have shaped and continually reshape each other.

It's called coevolution.

On another, but related note, a tiger in a cage at the zoo isn't really a tiger. Sure, it has all the right DNA, but it's not out there 'tigering'.

Species are verbs more than nouns. What we identify as 'species' are really snapshots...

Joseph Nemeth said...


Somewhatstunned said...

ps. after leaving my previous micro-comment this morning, I then walked off to work. On the way, I saw a couple of proto-corvins. They laughed at me ...

Myriad said...

Honest contemplation of future deep time is a challenge -- perhaps even more so in recent times, since paleontology and other sciences have given us a map, however sketchy, of the deep past; the deep future seems all the more inscrutable by contrast. Even the scale of a few millennia (as the Long Now Foundation enjoys chewing on) is daunting. So overall, an excellent essay, with richly layered meaning. I'd suggest looking beneath the specific predictions, toward the methods of thought that went into them.

My understanding of what I am -- a transient phenomenon generated moment by moment by the operation of a complex machine (via a process of narrative construction, out of memory patterns in my brain created in the course of interaction with the world; that machine and its mode of operation themselves having been generated by the operation of a vastly larger complex machine, the earth's biosphere, via the algorithm of evolution) -- also tells me that there's nothing supernatural about intelligence or self-awareness, nothing that is impossible or impractical to re-create, either in a future earth species, in an alien species, or artificially.

(Just imagine a hyper-intelligent AI saying, "after a thorough analysis, I conclude that we're screwed" as a way of reconciling AI as a real possibility with the absurdity of the Singularitarian idea that it can "save us" from anything.)

A few of my atoms becoming parts of new patterns in the distant future is better than any alternatives, but of no great importance. There's greater comfort elsewhere. What's important is the patterns themselves. My nature is to want to preserve and pass along the patterns that created me and the patterns I create -- whether that's a reasonable expectation or not. (Of course those atoms are themselves patterns, as is the mathematical structure of the vacuum upon which they assert themselves, but those patterns existed long before me; they're not "mine" in the same sense as my genes or my memories or my letters in the sand are.)

The good news is, many of those patterns I cherish came from the world around me, which includes crows and clams and stars and crags of black rock. So I don't think I'd find that pedipalped creature as alien as JMG suggests. Different, yes, but not incomprehensibly so. It may contain some of my atoms, but it matters more that it will contemplate the same kinds of atoms and stars that I do.

. josé . said...

Archdruid Greer, have you heard of The Great Bay by Dale Pendell?

He starts out with a deus ex machina in the form of a pandemic that kills 99% of the planet's population, and then moves on to tell the story of the next few years, decades, centuries, ending about 20,000 years from now. The "Great Bay" in the title is the California Central Valley, which becomes a wonderful sheltered bay for most of that period.

It's a novel-length book, written as a series of time frames. Each begins with a narrative, not unlike your text here, and then proceeds to a short story, with some limited character development to give you a sense of the times. Here's a short quote from the narrative for the period of 5,000 to 10,000 years from now: "As the green belt in the Sahara expanded and the lakes filled, a dynasty of matrilineal kings emerged in Chad and Libya ... For three hundred years there were great bazaars on the Yenisey River in Siberia, caravans coming from as far as the rich uplands of Tibet. Cities seemed to rise and fall in Mexico on a thousand-year cycle."

His projections differ from yours in detail, but it's interesting and an easy read.

It's funny: I've learned to steel myself before reading the week's episode of TAR, usually waiting until Thursday morning to avoid messing up my sleep. Your posts always trigger a lot of thinking. This one did too, but I'm glad I read it Wednesday night, because overall it left me much calmer, like an intellectual version of the SoP effect.

Brian Bundy said...

Hello JMG, I very much enjoy your thoughts on this blog and I'm currently reading The Long Descent as well. The one question that keeps coming up for me is the issue of our cultures nuclear legacy. How do you think that will be dealt with in the face of The Long Descent? If it will not be dealt with, doesn't that reduce the chance of our species survival? I know little about nuclear technology other than the fact that the waste is highly dangerous to life and persistent over millions of years. My understanding is that the storage solutions we're using for it are effective for decades at the most. We can assume that we will not show the wisdom to develop longer term solutions, so what happens when containment fails? Is there anything we can do about this now?

trippticket said...

This post seems to be on a record-breaking pace for comments, and far and away they line up behind JMG's predictions. Generally. Which gives me pause...

Now JMG is not known for his deep love of permaculture, but allow me if you will to offer up a game-changer for the climate change scenario. For a few decades now, permacultural ranchers have been employing a grazing tactic known as "mob grazing," or "MIG grazing," or "mob-stocking." It's designed to mimic the once-great herds of grazing hooved animals moving around open rangeland, pushed by predators and self-soiled salad bars. And the results are nothing short of astounding.

Where ecologists talk about 1000 years to build one inch of topsoil, mob-grazers are doing it in one year. In fact it's not unheard of to increase soil organic carbon by 3% in one season! Do you have any idea how much atmospheric carbon that represents, now safely sequestered in the soil where it's useful?

I do. There's a white African biologist named Allan Savory who tells the story better than I do, and he's now the editor of Stockman Grass Farmer (among other things).

Check out his TED talk if you don't mind feeling incredibly hopeful for a shot at reversing climate change.

"If we could get half of the grassland acreage on Earth switched to mob-grazing management we could return atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial levels in a decade."

Glenn said...

I find myself somewhere between intrigued and cold. Your projection is, for the most part, a useful perspective. "In the end, we all die" would be a very crude summary. One conclusion I might draw is the more important thing, then, is how we live.

I am most interested in the next decade and century, since I and my children will be dealing with them. Of course, that is the place one might expect the least accuracy, given the nature of the variables. Still, the over all pattern seems quite reasonable.
Since we're in the middle of the current interglacial period, the possibility of the next glaciation coming on schedule depends on how soon the current crop of CO2 can be flushed from the atmosphere. Your essay seems to indicate either complete burning of all the remaining coal, or a very long lag time of atmospheric CO2.


Marrowstone Island

Steve in Colorado said...

I enjoyed reading this more than any science fiction I've encountered in the last year.

"Does that fact horrify you, intrigue you, console you, leave you cold?"

I'm going to go with "console."

If we suppose materialism, then I'm matter, and that's all. And that's not so bad, because it means that I am immortal, that I've been every sort of life on the Earth, and that one day I'll be that strange creature on a remote world a billion years hence.

It also means that, five or ten billion years ago or so, I ("I") may have been floating around in the brain of an equally strange being on an equally remote world, a world which was destroyed long ago.

I wonder if it might be a useful exercise to spend time visualizing the creatures, terrestrial and otherwise, that we each may have "been" in both the past and the future, extending outward in either direction 10, 100, 1,000, onward to a billion years. That's of course what you have done here very effectively. But I mean, I wonder if just this sort of exercise adopted as a regular personal practice might not be a very useful component for a spiritual system that's able to deal with the future. As a variation, one could meditate on being each of the creatures (chickens, cows, apple trees, carrots, streams, rivers, worms) that make up one's material body in the present. I think this whole thing might help cultivate the kind of temporal and ecological awareness that we need right about now.

Something to think about.

Also, I find it odd that a number of folks here seem to think that "intelligence" and "self-awareness" are so extraordinarily rare across time and space, when there are a number of very intelligent and obviously self-aware creatures sharing this planet with us right now.

Juhana said...

Actually quite conforming piece of writing, this one. It is good to watch events unfolding around us from bird percpective from time to time. Of course actual day to day living is done from frog percpective, and concerns about future are very real on that level of reality for many. Well-strucured global exchange network, using complicated financial tokens to represent actual wealth, is sliding into mood of paranoia and distrust slowly but certainly. Upfront payments or bank-to-bank securities are demanded more frequently, before largesse is sailed into it's destination.

It is funny that someone mentioned Atlantis in this thread. I used to attribute that branch of "knowledge" to tin hat brigade without hesitation, but south of Malta, Haqar Qim and all that stuff... It is quite impressive feat in Western part of Mediterranean, supposed to have been practically empty during so early time period. No hunter-gatherer or small-scale farmer gives that much energy to such a grandiose project, it takes logistics for food and shelter... Advanced logistics.

As prevailing current, inflow, from Straits follows the coast of Africa all the way to Aegean, floating INTO Great Sea roughly between Maltese islands in the north and Libyan coast in the south has been no problem, if you are positioned just outside the Straits... The getting out part has been the hard one with old school rigging... Especially because mistral of winter is nasty in that region, before blessings of diesel freighters took victory over seasonal winds :).

Advanced sailing skills during that period are maybe unlikely, but not infeasible. If old shellbacks (of course not literally sailing, sails are obsolete technology right now) have many unspoken tricks of the trade even in this world of GPS, who knows, maybe there has been some way... Trade from Western to Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea has always been lucrative, even during TRUE Dark Ages, as that hilarious geographer Cosmas illustrates... Maybe it was lucrative enough for Neolithic "nations" also. And maybe there was island with impractically low topography.

David Brin said...

A very entertaining… if fundamentally tendentious and rather silly… just-so story. Oh, I urge the blogger, or his readers, to have fun writing adventures in the dark and gloomy world he provided -- many will be fun!

Moreover it is wholly in keeping with the mood of today's American public: sourpuss, grouchy, complaining-gloomy ingrates who think they invented dystopias and apocalypses. (Amateurs!) In other words… same-old, same-old. Put it down to boomers who are all-cranky about impending senior-senility. The nation and world will be better off when the Boomers go away.

Seriously, is "arch-druid" for real? Has he even looked at the curves for solar power? Which have been arcing toward competitive with fossil fuels at a spectacular rate? Even if the curve slows, our ability to make vast acreage of solar collectors will only expand through every up-or-down phase of civilization. If they are durable, one generation adds to the acreage and how long before Druid's scenario looks laughable?

Algae farming will suck in industrial CO2 and put out food and fuel. Vatgrown meat will eliminate the 70% of agricultural land used for grazing. Does he seriously plan to coax you all into ignoring this, and a myriad other trends? Great! He is part of the reason these things have been slowed down, during the Cynical Decade.
Moreover, if even once humans set up space industry (as Planetary Resources now intends to attempt) every arch-druid "calculation" goes into the trash. The amount of available power in just near Earth orbit makes Saudi Arabia seem like a finger nail clipping.

I am not claiming all is roses. So long as grouches of both left and right have hijacked the national and international discussion of the future, hobbling pragmatists and problem-solvers while mocking every hint of a can-do spirit, we certainly do face critical times. Tellingly, in their grouchy nostalgia, the trogs of the left are in many ways almost identical to those on the right. A similar meanness of spirit and cynicism that boils down to one thing --

"Don't try to get me to lift a finger to actually help solve problems. My laziness is sheltered and armored by cynicism. My torpor is protected by shrugs of disdain toward those who try. I am the playground bully who mocked and sneered at your enthusiasms in elementary school. And when you vigorous folks save the world, I will have a win-win. I will wallow in tech pleasures while continuing to call you do-ers fools."

David Bri, author of the (very post-apocalyptic) novel THE POSTMAN. Also the future eco-challenge novel EARTH.

Nano said...

For those of you that enjoy theoretical physics.

A vorticitating hypersphere takes care of all the issue a big bang theory creates in regards to the "end" of the universe.

A fun read here

Ben said...

Enjoyed this post quite a bit. I was chatting with a co-worker just the other day bout the possiblity that 'intellegent' life may have existed before on Earth. If it had, would we even know how to recognize the signs, or would we scratch our heads and label the passing of a previous sentient species a K-T boundary?

One question though, in 10,000 years you speculate that the 6th global civilization will be passing into it's 'Winter' stage (in the Spengler-ian sense). Do you envision that civilization as being global in the current sense? ie; literally being a globe-spanning civilization as the West is today?
By Toynbee's count Earth has hosted some 23 (or 27) civilizations in the last 10,000 years but only the West became a 'global' civilization. Do you think there will be a similar ratio of 'global' civilizations to 'regional' civilizations moving forward?

Again, enjoyed this post!

Enrique said...

I know this is off topic, but it looks like the scenario you outlined last October in “How It Could Happen” might be playing out in real time in the Middle East as we speak, with Barack Obama playing the role of Jameson Weed. Scary times indeed. The following is from a leading naval warfare blog.

Kyoto Motors said...

Thank you Mr. Greer,
I too, enjoyed this post immensely, and am enjoying this thread of comments (though as usual, am having little time to spend on it). My first reaction is that, well, the time frame is sufficiently enormous that it almost feels moot - but for a sense of wonder, like gazing into the stars on a dark country night. It brings me squarely back to the here and now, again, with a sense of awe... And the reminder, that for all its enormity, every one of us reading this (and all those who are not) alive today, will be dead and gone after the second "chapter" you've outlined has even begun -okay, with a few babies excepted... it makes the present somehow particular, to say the least.

Jim R said...

I find it ... amusing.

Let me be the first, or perhaps only the most recent, to wave my pedipalps in approval.

I was looking through old posts the other day, trying to figure out when I first commented on the ADR. I think it was something about H. Floresiensis, in an essay on the future of humanity. I was posting under a different moniker then. Of course, that would merely cover the tens- or hundreds- of thousand years category.

Good one about the clams. Molluscan intelligence already exists, in the cuttlefish, and it is indeed an alien intelligence.

John Michael Greer said...

Well, this one seems to have stirred up more interest than usual! I'd like to extend thanks first of all to all who expressed their appreciation; please consider yourself thanked individually.

Cherokee, well, at least our component atoms will...

Avery, thanks for the tip! I'll put in on the to-read list.

Ray, one of the characters in Aldiss' novel is an intelligent morel; you might enjoy it. As for the "uneventful" next century, er, I think a cascading series of catastrophes that wipe out 5.5 billion people is eventful enough for one century!

Thomas, funny. I'll pass on the Star Trek -- I found the original series so-so, and was less impressed by each spinoff -- but enjoyed Brin's novels, too (which makes it all the more funny that Brin himself posted a denunciatory diatribe further down the comments.)

Repent, that probably has a fair amount to do with the broad general trend toward cephalization I mentioned!

Stonymeadow, excellent! Eiseley is always worth quoting.

K-dog, your squirrels were remarkably long-lived as a species -- very few large species on this planet make it for more than a few tens of millions of years at most. Still, your future history, your call...

Dmitry, that's high praise!

Robin, the Hindus are pretty much the only people I know of before modern times to have gotten the concept of deep time down cold. I suspect you could map a lot of this material onto traditional Hindu cosmology and get a decent fit...

Matchstick, that's the thing about the laws of nature: you can't break them. You can use them to your advantage, or you can get clobbered by them, but either way, they win.

Unknown Deborah, there are seven other intelligent species I didn't name, so there's room for the cuttlefish and the lizards both.

josh keiler said...

Reminds me of being a young kid and seeing War Games:

Professor Falken bet on bees rather than clams...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Credit Joni Mitchell for the Woodstock song quote.

I'd like to dispute the assumption that nonhuman advanced technological civilizations are likely to be interested in space travel. This idea shows the pitfalls of extrapolating from a sample of one.

A species is unlikely to develop advanced tech unless it is a social species and its members are curious and given to manipulating their environment. Marine mammals are social and curious but interact with their environment without manipulating it much. So, no dolphin tech. Human beings wander around. However, an intelligent species can do a good deal of local exploration without traveling.

One adaptive strategy for a social species or one with a group mind is to stay put, modify its immediate environment intensively and propagate itself by releasing genetic material to spread on the winds or the air, carried as seeds or pollen by other species that do travel, or be borne by individual species members who are in an unintelligent larval phase of development. The resulting colonies would not possess the cultural information of their progenitors and would have to develop their own culture and tech from scratch. Little or no communication between groups; no common language beyond instinctive signaling; no travel; no intraspecies warfare. Such a species would be intensely inward looking, but could still be technologically sophisticated in some of its colonies.

(continued next post)

MawKernewek said...

I shouldn't think that after a collapse of civilisation after peak energy (beyond maybe 1000 years or so - though I suppose recycling can extend this a good deal) there will be any global or even continental civilisations, because after the salvage era, availability of most metals will be a severe constraint, at least of the concentrated and accessible ores that could be mined by the pre-fossil fuel civilisations of history.

Though I believe the Sumerians made agricultural tools out of clay, and perhaps there are other examples of settled agriculture existing without much access to metals?

There is no reason why intelligence cannot persist long term, knowledge of landscape, language, tool making and use for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle are all things conferring advantages even without settled agriculture and urbanised civilisation.

As far as the really long term goes:
there are stars that do fuse Helium-4 into carbon and oxygen, in fact the majority of stars do at some phase of their life cycle, including the Sun. The thing to remember is that helium burning requires much higher temperatures and pressures than hydrogen burning, and when it does happen, it goes quickly and for a shorter time, and produces less energy per unit mass of fusion fuel than hydrogen-->helium. There are certain massive stars more than 8 solar masses, that can go further and produce elements up to iron in a series of reactions.

It is not possible to release more binding energy after iron, since further fusion would actually absorb energy. So what happens is that the iron core starts to collapse, then rebounds due to neutron degeneracy pressure (a quantum effect) and blows the star apart in a supernova. This burst of energy can actually perform the fusion reactions beyond iron.

In fact when the sun reaches the end of its life, most of the material that is expelled is still hydrogen, that is the outer layers of the Sun, with some extra helium that had been produced in the Sun, because only in the core, and in the red giant phase, in a shell surrounding it, did fusion actually take place.

Very long term, what will happen to the Galaxy, is that an increasing fraction of mass becomes tied up in stellar remnants such as white dwarves (the core of a Sun-like star), neutron stars and black holes (collapsed cores of very massive stars), so eventually less and less is available to make new stars.

The odd thing about stars, is that the more massive they are, the shorter they live. This is because the core temperature and pressure is higher the more massive the star. The physics works out with the luminosity being proportional to the cube of the mass. So a 10 solar mass star shines 1000 times brighter, but has 10 times as much material, so instead of lasting 10 billion years like the sun does, it lives for only 100 million years, before exploding as a supernova.

It's a cosmic irony that the stars that live fast, die young, and are profligate with resources are the important ones for creating terrestrial planets and complex chemistry.

The galaxy has been around for about 12 billion years. Since the massive stars that perform the heavy element enrichment die young, several generations of these could have created enough heavy elements for terrestrial planets early on enough in solar systems born say, 10 billion years ago, giving them a 5 billion year headstart on us.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender) (interest in interstellar travel, continued)

Another part of this widespread assumption is that many or most intelligent species with advanced technology will be deeply interested in the stars. I doubt it.

Almost any species with advanced tech will know that stars exist, but for many extraterrestrial species and some on Earth, it will be the kind of awareness that human beings have of the existence of atoms and subatomic particles.

The human race evolved for hundreds of thousands of years looking up at the night sky in wonder. Until a couple of centuries ago when industrial air pollution and outdoor lighting dimmed the stars, people in most places had many opportunities to gaze at that magnificent sea of lights.

In order to look up at the night sky in wonder, you have to have a night sky (no binary washing them out most of the time); clear or partly clear skies; nothing opaque overhead like a jungle canopy, roof of your burrow or den, or thirty meters of water; and you must be equipped with a sense organ capable of receiving some portion of the spectrum which stars radiate. The conditions that allow this are specific to this planet and the sort of animal we are.

The use of stars for navigation and keeping a calendar requires regular observation. The stars have been very important in the development of human religions and sciences, but this is largely an accident of circumstance and would not necessarily be true for other intelligent species.

As to how I feel about the long view, I'm with Myriad.

Captcha tacedur = be quiet about the hardness/difficulty

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, extinction doesn't always happen as a result of hyperspecialization. Any number of factors can cause it; I decided, for the sake of this scenario, to use the very common phenomenon of major environmental changes over a period of several million years to put just that little bit too much stress on a vulnerable species. Of course I could have taken things in different directions; evolution certainly appears to be contingent -- that is, it could always have taken a different twist.

Martin, I've argued at some length in my book The Ecotechnic Future that industrial society is merely the first, and the most cluelessly wasteful, of a potential range of technic societies, defined as societies that use a significant amount of energy from sources other than human and animal muscle. There are plenty of things that can still be done with the more modest energy flows that can be obtained from renewable sources, and I expect that a future society that plays its cards right could certainly manage aerostats and a global civilization without having to waste energy as freely as we have.

Phil, of course. You might be amused to know that one of the old British Druid orders whose rituals I've inherited had an official position for the person who was supposed to make tea after each ritual!

Unknown Deborah, I tend to be suspicious of any claim that makes some detail of our terrestrial environment an unavoidable necessity for life. My guess is that on other worlds with other conditions, other kinds of life have found things perfectly satisfactory for them, thanks.

Tripp, not a problem -- anything that encourages people to get part of their food supply under their own control is welcome here.

ChemEng, I suspect any social species will have some distinction between those actions that are considered appropriate and those that aren't. How exactly that gets expressed, and what those actions are, is another matter -- there isn't even much consensus across different cultural traditions of humanity about what's moral and what's not -- consider sexual customs just for starters. With entirely different species, I'd guess, all bets are off.

Yupped, it's our destiny to become compost!

Ugo, thank you for taking this little jeu d'esprit in the spirit it was meant! Of course our visions are different -- start from different presuppositions, you're going to have different results. As for talking about billions of years, perhaps over a couple of beers? I'd welcome that.

Liquid, excellent! It's exactly this notion that humanity is the last best hope of the universe that I plan to discuss, and dissect, as we proceed.

Simon, thanks for responding. The differences between people who react as you do, seeing the scenario as depressing, and those who see it as enticing, comforting and consoling, is central to the theme I'll be developing over the next few posts. The question I'd like to encourage you to reflect on is this: what is this "more" that you're wanting, and why do you want it?

sgage said...

If that post by "David Brin" was from the real David Brin, I am both very surprised and very disappointed, and my opinion of him as an SF author just plummeted. I did not take him for a rank technocornucopian.

"Algae farming will suck in industrial CO2 and put out food and fuel. Vatgrown meat will eliminate the 70% of agricultural land used for grazing. Does he seriously plan to coax you all into ignoring this, and a myriad other trends? "

Trends my a@@. If you are the real David Brin, I am shocked that you can't do math. Algae farming? That's going to "suck in" the result of burning millions of years' worth of organic production? Listen, you can grow one year's worth of algae in one year. Capiche?

Vatgrown meat? Where does that come from?

Etc., etc. I have to believe the comment was a fake.

latheChuck said...

I can't resist reacting to the claim from "David Brin" that vat-grown meat will eliminate 70% of the land used for grazing. While the vat-grown hamburger was in the news lately, it was not as widely reported that the vat was stocked with (highly-refined) slaugherhouse waste and antibiotics (among other things). It took meat to make meat. See

"Oh, but that's the research program." someone is bound to say. To which I ask: "then what, ultimately, do you imagine stocking the meat-growing vat with instead?" Sand? That's cheap, but absurd. Nuclear waste? It would be good to find something to do with it, but no. Grass clippings, maybe? Hmmm. It has approximately the right chemical composition, and we could gather it from a million suburban lawns with soot-spewing trucks to carry it to the vat-works, where (nuclear-powered) electric choppers and mixers blend it with a variety of "digestive" chemicals...

OK, seriously. What's the thermodynamic argument that says there could ever be a better way to grow meat than mob-grazing on marginal crop land?

Shining Hector said...

80% of this is probably just general contrariness to the wow brigade, but I don't know that it even leaves me cold. Maybe mildly annoyed if anything. If ultimate wisdom consists of a supremely intelligent descendent of a zebra mussel proclaiming: "Welp, that's it I guess, we figured it all out, no point in wasting any effort trying anymore, folks," folly looks mighty appealing, heroic even.

And a sense of wonder is fun and all, but pretty easy if you let your imagination wander. Right now, I can visualize a chunk of rock out there in interstellar space, and for 10 billion years it's not done anything. I mean absolutely nothing. It's exactly the same rock it was 10 billion years ago. It's just sat there, chilling, untouched by entropy. Maybe some cosmic rays dented the surface a little, but we'll ignore that. The sheer lack of significance to anything anywhere of this rock borders on the sublime. Woohoo. This rock probably represents the ideal of the ascended zebra mussel society. It just sits there being all smugly wise in its utter lack of purpose or utility.

And somewhere right now in my left toe is an atom from a steak Hitler ate in 1933. I get chills thinking about it. Another atom residing in the gut flora of a crow that feasted on a Gaul whose head was hoisted on a stake by the orders of Julius Caesar now resides in the drive belt of my Toyota, ain't the cycle of life grand? I guess we can get ourselves worked up and excited about just about anything, but pretty much all that I would consider the significant stuff about my identity can't be reduced to CHNOPS and trace elements.

John Michael Greer said...

Dagnarus, good. You're catching the basically Judeo-Christian underpinnings of the mythology of progress -- the notion that if we're good, we get to go to heaven, and if we're bad, it's Beelzebub's back yard instead.

YJV, well, yes -- cyclical cosmologies do tend to resemble one another!

Daniel, is that yours, or somebody else's? Either way it's good.

Kevin, notice the number of other readers who feel consoled and comforted by the story. The gap between their reaction and yours bids fair to become of central importance in the decades ahead of us.

William, well, I've got a new book out that has plenty of ideas to get you started. ;-)

Renaissance, depends on the details of your theory of reincarnation. I see no reason why you might not be eligible for rebirth as a cyon, a corvin, or a corbicule, though!

Justin, heck of a good question, to which only the cyons, corvins, corbicules, etc. know the answers!

Joy, last I heard the current estimate for the age of the universe is around 13 billion, so its close. Thanks for the link, also -- a good example of how utopian notions bring out the idiot even in very bright people.

Jim, thank you. I'll be talking about that perception at some length as we proceed.

Maria, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for teaching an alien life form ten billion years in the future to quote Taliesin.

Con-science, er, I'd be interested in your sources for the claim that the people of most previous civilizations just walked away. That conflicts flatly with what I've learned about the subject.

Trippticket, like most people who practice the sort of stuff I do, I've had various visionary experiences about the future. Some of them were sufficiently near-term that I had the chance to test them, and they turned out to be false, as visionary material often does when applied directly to the material world. That's why I base my predictions these days on less chancy sources!

Doctor Westchester said...


Unfortunately, another issue that faces us is not only that most people only think in the utopia/catastrophe binary, but they can see things in those terms. I don't think a large percentage of population can distinguish between Bardi's first scenario and yours. The differences don't matter to them, it is still catastrophe/extinction.

John Michael Greer said...

Will, so noted -- and I appreciate hearing from people on both sides of the distinction I'm drawing.

Ganv, granted! I'll be talking a bit in a future post about why I doubt the claims of the artificial-intelligence types -- well, other than the fact that they've been wrong about as often as fusion power promoters.

Nano and Peacegarden, thanks for stating your positions!

Mike, that's a much bigger question than I'm prepared to discuss in a brief comment. I'll consider a post down the road, though it may leave everybody more or less baffled!

Zach, thank you! That's exactly what I was trying to do.

Eduard, I'd be amazed if dolphins weren't already fully intelligent, but they don't have the capacity to make or use tools, thus belong in a different category (not a lesser one, to be sure, but different). I suspect there may have been anything up to dozens of fully sentient species already that just didn't happen to have the body structure, or the drive, to get into toolmaking, and so we've missed them entirely.

Garden Lady, stay tuned!

Tyler, I didn't say I thought we would make great progress; I said I thought people would dismiss the Big Bang the way they now dismiss Ptolemaic epicycles. Have you read Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions? If not, might be worth a look.

Steven, one more for the awed and intrigued category.


Thank. You. For. Getting. It.

I end up pulling what's left of my hair out sometimes when true believers in imminent apocalypse insist that the only alternative to total cataclysm is Utopia. Life can get very, very, very hard without getting anywhere close to the end of life on earth.

SLClaire, I remember that book! The thing that I disliked about it, once I got some perspective on it, is that it made 50 billion years sound like a fairly short time...and it isn't. It's not only more than we can imagine, it's unimaginably more than we can imagine -- and there's plenty of room in that unthinkable vastness for any number of wonders.

Ursachi, I wondered how many people would catch that! I was assuming, for the sake of the story, a black swan event -- the complete collapse of either the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets over the course of the century. That's less unlikely than it seems, given the evidence of paleoclimatology.

Darren Urquhart said...

Intrigued and strangely consoled.

@Ken Boak "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell actually...

JMG - what is the criteria for a "fully sentient being"?

David Brin - more please. It is useful to have a vocal counter on here. Sometimes I feel I am falling under the Archdruid's spell and don't trust myself to be smart enough to recognize it.

trippticket said...

"I had a thought recently that humanity might diverge into multiple species, as an outgrowth of cultural adaptation to regional ecologies, similar to how we evolved darker/lighter skin for hotter/cooler climates, etc"

This comment is from Matthew Lindquist, but I'm not responding to him, just using it to jump off on a comment of my own.

The interesting thing about human polymorphism is that there ISN'T much rhyme or reason to it. There are fair complexions at high latitudes, yes, but dark ones at even higher. And body hair coverage shows no climatic reason whatsoever. Jared Diamond proposes the idea that our highly variable traits are due almost exclusively to sexual selection, which helps to explain why people have "types" that they are attracted to.

Me? I like slim women with reddish-brown hair, fair skin, light freckling, small to moderate breasts, and, oh yeah, a great brain. (With the latter not being nearly the afterthought I suggest with my list!)

In a relocalizing future - and with energy descent how could it not be? - I imagine our population, now thoroughly braced by hybrid vigor, will take sexual selection to new extremes. Green hair and red eyes perhaps, yes; pot-bellied like the chick in Pulp Fiction suggests is sexy; naturally-occurring tattoos; and so forth, may all be highly prized by certain human populations.

The idea that our species might become two, three, or even several seems to me like a foregone conclusion. Which would just be a reverse of the run-up to the present, as Homo sapiens emerged from Africa to swallow up Neanderthal populations, and now, according to National Geographic, the eastern offshoot of Homo habilis's offspring, the Devisovans.

During their time, which really wasn't that long ago, resource availability was almost always on the rise. From now on, ours will probably be in decline. Seems silly to think that those trends might not work in reverse.

Carl said...

I have a question concerning your ten year time frame. I'm planning on moving from California for all the various reasons you've discussed in past posts, but at the earliest it would be eight years away mostly because of kids in school. I'm thinking of moving to a rust belt state and in to a town like yours. Do you think this will still be a possibility in eight years from now, or am I pushing it with trying to get across the country, buying a house, etc.? I don't think I could convince my family to move with me now, but maybe in eight years, and if they don't want to go, at least they'd be out of high school, and I could set-up home in a more stable region and if CA becomes unlivable they'd have a fall-back region to move to.
Thanks for you thoughts and time, Carl

Heretic Physicist said...

Dear JMG,

Very nice post! I've never thought of the next intelligent species emerging of human extinction, but of course that makes sense.

The succession of human civilization reminds me of a not very well known novel written by Jules Verne in his last years, titled "Le Nouvel Adam". I was quite shocked the first time I read it when I was a teenager, and I understand much better now why. It describes the discovery by a scientist from a future global civilization of a text telling the disaster (sudden sea level rise) which, 8000 years ago erases most of our own civilization, and the life of the few people remaining, reverting quite fast to hunter-gatherer way of life...
There is probably an english translation; here is the original French text:

So Jules Verne himself thought and wrote, during his last years, that "progress" was just temporary and that each human technical civilization will believe that progress is eternal until it collapses and disappears...

Ray Wharton said...

"Uneventful" was not the choice of word I meant, in a state of tiredness I generalized from the fact that a particular theme (more so than event) I anticipated was not mentioned.

Picturing a hundred years where events as destructive as the first two world wars combined average out as yearly occurrences makes it hard to imagine there being cornucopians insisting "that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will save us any day now" would exist outside the inner worlds of a few mentally ill slum dwellers. Various promises of Salvation of some breed will be earning bread for any number of preachers of such things I have little doubt. But the particular stories salvation stories of our people I don't think will have much traction in a world where very few people have seen a computer; lived during a space launch of anything other than a couple experimental late 21st century weapons systems; or seen the power of the Atom-on-Earth manifest in anything but a few mid century nuclear skirmishes and a sizable number of no mans lands dotting the landscape.

kleymo said...

All right. Now we know what is going to happen. What are we going to do about it?!

LL Pete said...

There was a beautiful essay years ago in by Christopher Cokinos entitled, The Consolations of Extinction. Your wonderful and sobering post this week brought that essay to mind. It also brought to mind the Buddhist middle path between eternalism and nihilism. We have to find meaning in our lives with full knowledge that, even this will pass away.

k-dog said...

"K-dog, your squirrels were remarkably long-lived as a species -- very few large species on this planet make it for more than a few tens of millions of years at most. Still, your future history, your call..."

Very long lived indeed and essentially unchanged once they became tool using agrarians with culture. I mentioned two things about their society which caused them to be as long lived and as unchanged as a species as our crocodile or coelacanth are now. My human scenario presented one of the opposite of these two traits which sealed their doom.

I suggest the relationships between humans absolutely must change for humans to have any hope of a sustainable future that is not a horrible black dystopia. The changes needed are social and are already part of the human repertoire.

Our society is but one of many possible and it is not one to get through the rough times which are ahead. We are sick puppies. But I won't go further into those weeds now. It is a bone which requires much thought to chew.

Your choice of Raccoons was excellent. I saw Raccoon Nation several weeks ago. I recall it saying that humans have caused more genetic changes in Raccoon behavior in just seventy years than nature did in ten thousand. Something to that effect was said in the documentary.

There have been Raccoons in Germany since the 1930's and the Raccoon Nation showed the German population clearly adapting more successfully to city life as each generation passes. City Raccoons in Toronto have learned to consider cars as predators and control their movements appropriately to avoid them. So far they are not waiting for red robots to change, they tend instead to avoid danger altogether. With enough time they may learn to press walk buttons but city Raccoons shall become country Raccoons again very soon if cities fall apart.

That is, until they take over.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Many, many billion years from now:

Far outside our galaxy, immaterial beings formed on a vast scale judge a promising mid-level student's project for a local science-fair:

"You made good use of gravity-wells combined with well-scaled distance to contain the various organisms within the apparatus you designed for your experiment on the limits of the rare and puzzling phenomenon called "biological intelligence." None of the biological forms that you used escaped and contaminated the outside world. This was not a light accomplishment.

We particularly like two additional safety features that you invented and built into the design of your experiment, namely, a speed-of-light limit on possible motion within the apparatus so as to reinforce the constraint of distance, and an effective self-destruct cycle built into each of your galaxy's internal energy-sources [stars] to sterilize and recycle each successive part of your apparatus as soon as that part of your experiment was completed.

On the other hand, biological intelligence is itself nothing more than a minor scientific curiosity. It might have been better had you spent the hundred billion years of this semester on a more productive project.

We award your science-fair project an Honorable Mention. Congratulations."

John Michael Greer said...

ChemEng, well, tell me this. Do you think that it's possible that sooner or later somebody will do an end run around the laws of thermodynamics and make a working perpetual motion machine? I don't. The most parsimonious solution of Fermi's paradox is that perpetual progress leading to interstellar migration isn't an option; like people considering perpetual motion machines before the discovery of the law of the conservation of energy, we don't yet know why, but that does seem to be the most likely shape of things.

Ken, of course the next decade to century are the critical ones for you and me. The point of the scenario wasn't to fret about events ten billion years in the future; it was specifically to point out a difference in attitudes that we'll be discussing next week.

Marcello, you might want to look up bog iron sometime -- iron concentrated into usable ores by chemosynthetic bacteria; it's very common. Of course an industrial society along present lines won't be an option again for many millions of years, but I'd like to suggest that industrialism is not the only way to have a technologically advanced society -- in fact, that it's a remarkably crude and wasteful way to do the thing, and that the potential for less clumsy ways exist.

Somewhatstunned, that's one of the things that inspired my corvins. I've seen crows who acted as though they know who's going to be landing on the Moon in a hundred million years.

Myriad, I'm certainly not claiming that there's necessarily something supernatural about intelligence. My guess here is based on Stephen Wolfram's principle of computational equivalence, which suggests that the computations necessary to figure out how to build an intelligent mind would be of the same order of complexity as the two billion year long evolutionary process that created the ones we've got now. Strictly speaking, it's not impossible, but I don't recommend trying to do it, much less betting the farm on it!

Jose, I'd heard of it, but haven't read that. Clearly I'll want to remedy that at some point.

Brian, I've discussed that repeatedly here. For the next quarter of a million years, unless a lot of money is invested very soon in nuclear waste storage, there are going to be dead zones surrounded by cow skulls on stakes or something similar, and the locals will warn you solemnly that if you go there, you die. They'll be right, too, because each of those zones will have a dead nuclear reactor and/or abandoned fuel rod storage pools toward the center, and a zone surrounding it in which radionuclides with varying half-lives have been spread by a variety of processes. Just one of those little gifts we're saving up for our descendants...

Trippticket, sure, and if half the people who own cars on the planet were to discard them, we could accomplish a lot, too. Are you, personally, doing anything to make either of these grand plans happen? If not, it's just a lullaby -- a way not to think about the future our own actions are creating for us.

Glenn, my scenario assumes that all economically extractable fossil fuels will be extracted and burnt, and that methane releases triggered by the resulting warming will add to the mess and prolong the process of recovery. That's a hypothesis, of course, but it seemed like a fairly reasonable one.

Steve, that would be a very solid series of meditations. I may write that up sometime for Druid use -- if so, I'll credit you with the idea!

Juhana, there's evidence that high-quality stone for tools was traded all over the Mediterranean basin in the Neolithic, quite probably by water, thus your suggestion stands.

John Michael Greer said...

David, a fine spluttering diatribe! Mind you, if you'd taken the time to check out the blog more generally, you'd have found out that I started work on solar and wind energy about the time you were doing page proofs for Sundiver -- I enjoyed that one greatly, by the way -- and that one of the central themes of this blog is the need to get up off our rumps, individually and collectively, and take constructive action to deal with the converging crises that are being brought on by the blind faith in vaporware you've promoted here. Still, I'm sure you're a very busy man.

I appreciate your contribution, though, because the difference between your reaction to the scenario I sketched out and the reaction of many of my other readers points up the issue I want to discuss in the next few posts. You dismissed the scenario as pure gloomy negativity; quite a few other readers found it intriguing and even consoling. That gap shows the emergence of a sensibility that is likely to have a significant impact on events in the decades and centuries to come. More on this in upcoming posts.

Nano, "vorticitating hypersphere" is one of those phrases that ought to be repeated three times very fast while drunk.

Ben, I'm guessing that global civilizations will be more common in the future, as certain technologies -- notably sailing ships and radio communication -- that are quite workable under nonindustrial conditions, will make it much easier for civilizations to spread. Still, it's a guess.

Enrique, I've been watching that. It'll be interesting to see what happens if Obama gets even more clueless than usual.

Kyoto, excellent! The sense of wonder was something I was shooting for -- though I did my best to write it so that people with one set of beliefs would get that, and those with another definitely wouldn't.

Jim, waving pedipalps noted!

Josh, I wouldn't put it past social insects to make a shot at it someday.

Unknown Deborah, you'll notice that I only had one of my other intelligent species, the corvins, get into space travel. It may well be a minority interest at best.

MawKernewek, please look up bog iron, and also keep in mind how long people will be able to mine metals out of our ruins.

Sgage, have you seen his blog? It's full of exactly that sort of cheerleading about vaporware of various kinds. The whole thing reminded me of the harsh but not inaccurate comment of a professor I know: "Expecting science fiction writers to predict the future we'll actually inhabit is like expecting romance novel writers to be good at marriage counseling."

LatheChuck, good. I've noticed in general that the laws of thermodynamics seem to be very unpopular with cornucopians.

Kutamun said...

Like The Fourth Doctor Who story ,"Full Circle",

i am a bright ,quick thinking being, 
quite capable of allowing itself 
 to be changed while a 
new set of conditions 
is hammered out, 
gradually circling into view. 

Cheers Mate

John Michael Greer said...

Hector, good heavens -- did you have a bad day or something? The sort of futilitarianism you've outlined is nowhere implied by my scenario. You yourself are going to die someday; so am I; so is everyone else; does that mean that all we can do is lay down and die right now? Of course not -- and in fact, for most people, the unflinching contemplation of the reality of death is a sharp reminder of the value of life, and inspires a great many people to get out there and accomplish things while they can.

With regard to your dead planet, I'd like to take that example and reframe it. Here are two empty beds. One of them has never had anyone in it. In the other one, you spent an hour and a half last night having the best sex of your life with a partner you care about profoundly. Does the fact that the beds are currently empty mean that what happened in each of them over the last twenty-four hours has equal value?

Doctor W., I wonder if they'd notice the difference between dying tonight of gunshot and dying of old age at the end of their normal lifespans...

Darren, I don't have a strict definition, purely an ostensive one -- a fully sentient being is one that can do the same kinds of things human beings can, in terms of thinking, manipulation of the environment, etc.

Trippticket, to my mind a great deal depends on whether long-distance transport remains an option. Long-distance sailing vessels can be maintained on wholly renewable resources, you know.

Carl, heck of a good question, to which I don't claim to know the answer. I'd encourage you to take whatever steps you can to prepare to survive in place, and later on, if an opportunity to relocate presents itself, make that judgment call based on what's happening at the time.

Heretic, thanks for the tip and the link! That's not one that I've read, and I'll want to fix that.

Ray, of course you may be right. I simply chose to arrange my scenario otherwise, to make a point.

Kleymo, funny! The answer, of course, is to do what you can with what you have, where you are, right now.

LL Pete, I'll have to look that one up. Thanks for the tip.

K-dog, no argument about the raccoons. They're extraordinarily intelligent already, and given a few tens of millions of years to expand into new ecological niches and develop even more complex nervous systems and social structures, they've got as good a shot as anything does.

Robert, funny! Thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

Kutamun, er, that one went zipping right over my head.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I'd like to thank everyone who's chipped in something to the tip jar -- it's much appreciated.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

RE: Does that fact horrify you, intrigue you, console you, leave you cold?

Meh. (pop culture lingo from The Simpsons cartoons: expressing a lack of interest or enthusiasm)

Explaining what might appear as a rather trite dismissal of your whole post requires a somewhat lengthy digression.

First, Daniel Banker's Total Perspective Vortex is from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But he does have a point. Total perspective is a crippling liability. Limited perspective is required for meaningful existence. More on this below.

Second, my favorite line (of all time), from one of my favorite songs, from one of my favorite bands:

What a beautiful face
I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
What a beautiful dream
That could flash on the screen
In a blink of an eye and be gone from me
Soft and sweet
Let me hold it close and keep it here with me

And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see...

...And when we meet on a cloud
I'll be laughing out loud
I'll be laughing with everyone I see
Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all

Third, I once had a limited perspective that I felt was solid. I had a working relationship with the universe. I knew what it was all about. I had a good bead on things. I was happy. A friend of mine broke it for me. The jist of it is that he required an infallible proof for every little thing, and every argument or bit of evidence I wished to enter required its own subordinate proofs. I realized later that this argument was an infinite regress that basically amounted to 'I refuse to take anything seriously' which is both infallible and useless. He was quite right but he also had nothing to say.

Of course, that line of thought leaves one nowhere; adrift on an aerostat home with the tether cut. But life goes on even when one's foundations are ripped away. Which brings us back to the present narrative.

There are two things to consider. One, one's belief's and two, the serious consideration of our present circumstances. The problem is the interplay between serious and belief.

Not done... But bed calls to me

Thomas Daulton said...

Wow, speak of the Devil as the saying goes! Perhaps my comment brought Mr. David Brin over to this humble space. Maybe he Googled himself right after I made the comment, or has some sort of daemon that checks when people mention his name...

Mr. Brin, I've greatly enjoyed a lot of your books, and attended a couple of your lectures in person. But I think the polite way to phrase our disagreement here would be, we are not seeing eye-to-eye about the definition of the problem(s). I won't go into more detail because I'm up too late as it is and no doubt plenty of other people here want to get your attention too. But I'd encourage you to consider whether the practical problems about how to get the common people-on-the-ground through the hard times we're obviously facing, with efficiency and grace -- which is what Mr. Greer typically writes about -- are or are not as legitimate a way to ponder our future challenges, as the grandiose technological projects you describe. The sorts of technologies that you and other sci-fi writers envision (by the way I consider myself an amateur sci-fi writer, I'm not exempting myself) will always have side effects, risks and unintended consequences. The consequences of trying to live in harmony with the Earth and to take care of hearth and home with minimal demands, are well known.

Despite having read Mr. Brin's blog for several years, I'm still a bit taken aback by the vehemence of the response to what I consider a rather innocuous science fantasy piece. Why the ad-hominems about everyone else's "laziness" and the "ingrates" from a simple spec-fic piece about the evolution of life thousands and billions of years from now? Would you Mr. Brin expect people to impugn your personal character by twisting the best qualities of your futuristic novels into some sort of invective in return? It brings to mind Jim Hightower's remark that "If you're taking a lot of flak, you must be right over the target." I think the target here is indeed mankind's competence at replacing the natural environment with something ersatz. Underneath the shrill denunciations that techno-utopians make about Peak Oil people, is a gut-level understanding that mankind has already irretrievably wrecked the environment that sustains us -- so if we _can't_ replace the natural environment with controlled technology that will provide for our needs instead, then we're all well and truly f*****. In such dire circumstances, it's a pretty common reaction to denounce as a traitor anyone whose strategy differs even slightly from yours. I'd also encourage everyone to remember something which during the second Iraq war was dubbed "The Tinkerbell Strategy".

I'm further reminded of Mr. Freeman Dyson -- gawd, I'm almost afraid to mention his name here, for fear he's gonna show up and lambaste us too -- another groundbreaking intellectual, who was a vociferous opponent of climate change. Not that he denied for an instant that burning carbon was changing the Earth's weather, oh no, that was a given. Mr. Dyson, however, insisted that any tiny efforts to curb carbon or mitigate climate change were a foolish waste of time and money. Why? Because, he said, "within twenty years" [from 2008] we will have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees," his words, that will presumably drop piles of diamonds instead of leaves for you to rake up from your yard. OK Mr. Dyson, if you're watching, the hurricanes, the heat waves, and the melting ice caps have arrived. Where are your trees?

billhicksmostfunny said...

Intrigues and consoles. But what doesn't intrigue and console me? Well heck, actually quite a lot intrigues me but not a lot consoles. That is b/c there is a lot I do not know. There follows intrigue. Not too sure much is meant to console me or that I have any right to be consoled in the first place and therefore it is harder to come by.

Good questions all around, tough too answer though. As good questions should be......

roland said...

@David Brin:
On the off chance that you read this and assuming that you are THE David Brin indeed, i'd like to express my deep disappointment.
It would have been lovely to see an intelligent cornucopian lock horns with the archdruid, and i was just about ready to get the popcorn out and watch the show and then this poignant let down.
Locking horns you certainly did not.
Somebody once said "Criticism is the only known antidote to error".
And that was what i was hoping for. Well thought out criticism. In the absence of that, not well thought out criticism would have been acceptable, but what we got was a random rambling rant.
Do try to be a bit to the point, will you?
Your technical errors have been eloquently addressed by previous posters. No need to revisit.
Of course it is a just-so-story. Why do you consider this worth mentioning?
If you would have read a few of the replies, you might have noticed that a lot of the readers of this blog are not americans.

@John Michel Greer
Daniel Baker's quote was from "The hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy" by Douglas Adams.
I am sure you would have read it at some stage, if not, it is well worth doing so.
The first three books of the series anyway. The wheels started to come loose a bit in the fourth, and fell off well and truly after that.

Marlow Charles said...

Humbling and consoling. Left me strongly contemplating consciousness too.

A kind of concertinaing of time and space. Read, in what felt like, a single breath...

Your short story would move most anyone with an open mind. Give pause to reflect. To question our specialness.

trippticket said...

"Trippticket, sure, and if half the people who own cars on the planet were to discard them, we could accomplish a lot, too. Are you, personally, doing anything to make either of these grand plans happen? If not, it's just a lullaby -- a way not to think about the future our own actions are creating for us."

As a matter of fact, we just moved from our "campstead" 7 miles out of town to an 88 acre farm half that far away to develop just such an operation for the farm owners. My "rabbit-powered lawn" blog post that I dropped a link to (thank you btw), our pastured chicken operation getting off (on?) the ground this month, and then mob-grazing as many cattle as we can stock on our pasture, and probably leasing the pasture land adjacent to us as well. I'm very excited about that part!

We should be selling 6 species of gourmet mushrooms by this fall, all of which are speeding up carbon cycling on both properties and fetching respectable prices. Our first small primocane raspberry crop is ripening as I type, and in the process of expanding by 15 fold. A Celeste fig crop just went in the ground, with half a dozen more varieties to be added soon. A big blueberry patch and unusual superfruit hugelkultur are on the short list.

The electrician who wired the farmhouse has offered his services to our cause pro-bono, for setting up micro-hydro systems on the creek adjacent to the house and barn. We're in the research stages of an aquaponics setup (not sold on that one yet). Most of the materials for a passive solar batch water heater are lying around waiting for me to find some time (and waiting for the sun to come back out!), as well as a solar oven for the back deck. We hang our laundry out and don't use HVAC, haven't for 5 years now actually, even in the south Georgia heat 2 summers ago. I sat up last night watching YouTube videos on rocket mass heaters until I had to force myself to get some sleep, and then right back at it by 6:00 this morning.

The new farm is on a busy road that leads from our little Appalachian town to a grass-based farm several miles farther out than we are, so an on-farm sales customer base almost seems like a foregone conclusion. Dumping the car (a 1996 Toyota Camry with 250k+ on the odometer) is a big dream of mine, but for the moment we still make the bulk of our income from selling herbal health and household products of our own invention on the farmers market circuit.

more to follow...

trippticket said...

In our spare time;) we'll continue developing our little forest plot farther out of town for chestnuts and pecans (as perennial staples), apples, blueberries, tea, herbs, and mushrooms. A modest cob cottage is on the drawingboard, as well as converting our old wall tent (where the 4 of us spent the last 16 months living without electricity or running water) to a hard-topped workshop with roundwood poles from onsite. Not sure whether we'll "retire" there or stay here near town in the action and sell the other place as a turnkey permaculture operation. I guess we'll just have to see how things look at that point.

But there are no billion dollar ecovillages anywhere on our list, and I don't personally think that removing half the cars on the road is anything like sequestering all the excess carbon from our atmosphere back into the topsoil. It helps, yes, but what we're talking about feeds humans in the process of healing the planet. And, just like rising interest in your blog and books might indicate, humans ARE capable of making radical changes in their lives. Your blog title's off-putting, your posts are too long, and yet, here we are. Six years ago I was just another ecologist sitting in a cubicle (in one of those weird mazes made of flimsy metal, foam and cloth) feeling pious about the Florida wetlands I was protecting.

So no, my posts aren't just pleasant lullabies, and I think they have a much better chance of reaching a proactive audience here than they ever did in the 3 years I wasted at Jim Kunstler's place.

Thijs Goverde said...

I haven't read all the comments (whew! So many!) so I don't know if anyone already mentioned it, but Daniel's piece about the Total Perspective Vortex comes from the 5-part SF trilogy "The hitch-hiker's guide to the Galaxy" which is, hands down, the most hilarious SF story ever written.

For 'hilarious', please do not read 'superficial'. (Not that I thought you were going to...)

trippticket said...


I liked your Dr. Who reference! And it kind of supports the closing paragraph in my argument above.

Joshua said...

I like the thought experiment, but I wish you had included sections for "Twenty Years From Now" and maybe "Forty Years From Now" to bring it all a bit closer to home.

Phil Knight said...

I took this essay as an exercise to encourage thinking about the future that uses ecological principles to engender a sense of humility with regard to Man's position in the cosmos.

i.e. it's not a genuine set of predictions.

Kurt Vonnegut's "Galapagos" is quite an amusing take on the future of mankind under ecological stress. We evolve into seals that are endlessly amused by our own farts.

ando said...

JMG wrote:

"William, well, I've got a new book out that has plenty of ideas to get you started."

I just finished it and I can recommend it!


Hal said...

This may be a duplicate:

I'm just checking in here for the record with my reaction, as requested. While I thought the telling was masterful, and was thoroughly entertained and informed by the whole narrative, my emotional reaction was pretty close to Hector's. Basically... Meh.

It's like my reaction to reincarnation. I really don't care if some entity is going to survive my life that isn't in any useful sense, me. As a practicing, but I hope, rationally-based Christian, I feel the same way about the hereafter, though I won't go into that here.

It doesn't mean that I'm going to throw up my hands on this life, now. How I live and what I leave to others is of great importance to me. And though I struggle with a certain amount of depression over the whole thing, it's just an indulgence I allow myself sometimes when the whole thing gets overwhelming.

I'm much more interested in the first two chapters, especially the first and following years, as I'll be far down my own slope (as long as I'm not hit by a truck first) and my children and other loved ones will be living through those hard times. I'd love for something more significant to survive further along, but have pretty much reconciled myself to the facts of temporal existence.

onething said...


Seems to me Americans have become addicted to extreme levels of convenience. If one does not like tea leaves in one's mouth, a strainer can be used, but I just eat them.

My answer to the last question I suppose is that it is comforting and fascinating, but I am more concerned with my consciousness than my molecules.

Bill Pulliam said...

Biophobia... I found Bardi's "good" scenario to be an utter nightmare. The biosphere utterly enslaved to the New TechnoWorld Order and not allowed to go its own way in at all? Our Robot Nannies relieving us of the horrible obligation to actually do or make anything? Though he doesn't mention it, I imagine that sex has been replaced with brain implants and test tube babies, and the desire for physical challenge and competition has been deleted from our genomes because it is too inconvenient for the machines. And of course it had to be justified by vastly exaggerating the alternative -- humans can no longer live in the tropics because they are 5C warmer than at present? Huh? We are tropical animals biologically. Move uphill ferkrissakes. The tropics are full of mountains. Global desertification is hard to bring about unless you somehow stop water from evaporating from the oceans. And I have never understood how the catastrophic release of methane hydrates is supposed to heat the planet for millennia when methane is broken down in the atmosphere by photochemical reactions on a scale of years, not centuries.

I've always felt that one of the prime motivations for technoutopian thinking (and other transcendent religions promising an escape from our earthly prisons) is a strong distaste for one's own physical being. Which I find very sad.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Hector touched on it. From the past, I've read, that we have an atom or two from (pick your favorite historical personage) rolling around somewhere inside of us. Cleopatra or Julius Caesar, say. Still, I don't feel like conquering Gaul or sailing up the Nile. If such atoms did impact us, a few from a subsistence farmer would be more useful. So, having some of my atoms rolling around inside some being way in the future doesn't really catch my interest.

What does catch my interest is the ten year and 100 year time frame. I think there was a similar speculation in you're "The Long Descent" with a shorter time frame. That I find interesting.

Thunderstorms and rain yesterday and last night. So fierce the cat hid in the bathtub all afternoon. Lost my power and my water. Not a problem. Plenty of stored water to make my tea. Read by candlelight and called it an early night. But, I can see much room for improvement for longer outages.

If I can leave something behind for any who come after me (a plant, a method of doing something, a useful book) I'll be happy. Speaking of books, you're latest should arrive, today. Looking forward to it.

simon.dc3 said...

omg JMG!! Thank you!

This one is close to my heart by way of very different childhood programming.

Pls follow me for a bit if you have the time, it'll be lengthy: I was raised Pentecostal (of the fundamentalist strain maybe?), the first book I remember reading is --the only one at the ready for many childhood yrs was-- the KJV Bible. One habit was reading it together on a yearly basis as a family.
Of course, being a product of my kiith and, like all, with a need to belong, I soon was doing it on my own.

This is when the cognitive dissonance started.
The more I assembled my thoughts into coherent logical patterns, the more I questioned the biblical mythology. The answers I got sent me on tautological loops that discouraged me from critical and systems thinking for far too long.

But gave me a strong "doubting-Thomas" streak and apprehensiveness about anything I don't understand or can't follow logically to its origins on my own terms. This makes me suspicious of anything posing as unquestionable truth and forces me to read a lot.

Anyways, one of the passages that always stayed with me since about 8yrs old is Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after."

Read that passage a few times, take away the supernatural, with the idea the bible is a compilation of ancient lore & understandings of ancients --who generation after generation, collapse after collapse, re-applied their own Scientific Method to surviving lore until only essential truths remained-- and is perplexing that it could be true.
You then naturally ask, what of fossil-fuel-guzzling jet engines, have they been invented before? What of Saturn V rockets able to take 45tons of payload to Trans-Lunar Injection?

So, for some years now I've created my own version of "The Next 3.5Million Million Years" that follows very much the one you describe here. It goes like this (of course these are very much rounded figures which I haven't taken the time to update in a while):

A) 3.5 Million Million Years ago --oldest signs of bio signs on Terra.

B) 20MY yrs --taking hominid evolution as a yardstick, avg time for a phylum to evolve to enough sentience to cause global changes.

C) 1MY --avg time for evolution to neutralize/recycle the longest-lasting radioactive waste.

D) 2MY --after C above, avg time for evolution to bring ecological balance + fill every nook and cranny with myriad fauna.

E) 25MY total --sum of B+C+D which I take as avg time for a sentient species to evolve, grow/dominate/overshoot/decline/collapse, then evolution to clean up + replenish for the next one to come around.

F) 5 Cataclysms --verified times Terra's fauna has been nearly wiped out, double it to 10 for ones we're not sure of nor have a record of.

A/E is 3.5MMY / 25MY = 140.
140 / 10 = 14.

14 times: likelihood that in the distant past creatures evolved with similar attributes to us capable of global impact, capable of vicious cycles of exponential growth + use of finite resources + pollution creation on the environs it depends for survival.

As we are not evolution's end product, and that Terra will likely go on for another 3.5MMYs before Sol expands and engulfs it, it is likely that another 14 species will to come to sentience with capability of global impact to their own detriment.

Somehow, of the things that give me fitful sleep worry and restlessness, that one gives me a sense of…tranquility (?) …calmness (?). For some reason, it steadies my perspectives.

Martin said...

As a sometimes avid corvid-watcher, I like it. I like clams too - preferably steamed with lots of melted butter to dip them in.

As for my brain-bits ultimately ending up in the brain-bits of some faraway future creature, it has always been so....

simon.dc3 said...

Don't take it to mean that other phylums will evolve and commit our same errors that gives me peace JMG.

Is that some may yet...break the cycle (?) and choose with live within limits? And we don't have to wait for the next phylum to evolve. We can choose it here and now individually, knowing it won't change one iota of where we're headed or save us from the bottleneck but as individual gives us a connection to Terra that all species and the longest lived ones seem to collectively grasp: live, at ease, comfortably and contented whenever possible, doing no wantonly (?) harm, Shangri-La is a journey, however brief, however ephemeral, is worth acquiescing (?) to get a glimpse of it.

Hal said...

Oh, and I can't resist a comment on the Brin rant: It's perplexing to me that he blames "grouches of both left and right" (Nice binary, I wonder where he places you? Methinks it would tell us more about him than anyone else.) for "hobbling pragmatists and problem-solvers." Yeah, those all-powerful grouches who have so totally dominated the discussion that one just never hears a word of optimism or salesmanship in the national media of any kind. Why, if we only had a television network or two continuously cranking out stories such as he does. I for one had never heard of algae energy or meat-in-a-vat before. Or solar arrays in space. Or cellulosic ethanol. Or hydrogen fuel cells. Or the next step in genetic engineering. Ad nauseum. Never heard of 'em.

Those poor investors out there are just so eager to put their capital into all of these wonderful technologies, and get rich in the process, but are overwhelmed with the negativity of such as YOU, Mr. Unreal Arch-Druid.

And oh, we owe so much to our pragmatists and problem-solvers who gave us cheap, safe, reliable nuclear energy and are just now only 50 years away from limitless fusion power!

Seriously, the point about the curves on solar is real, and a bright thread in the whole unfolding of our times. With some luck, they just might help keep some vital core capabilities going for another generation or so, and who's to knock that? But one or two promising developments don't happen in a vacuum, and the sheer massive scale of the transition needed must give us to caution.

Maybe I'll change my handle to "Cautious Grouch."

Note: Again, may be a dup. I seem to be having technical problems, but I'm sure THEY will solve it.

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, and that's also a relevant reaction.

Thomas, oh man. Don't even get me started about Dyson.

Bill, the fact that you feel consolation from the story is the relevant point; we'll talk next week about the quake of which that's one of the foreshocks.

Roland, thanks for the details! I did read the first three books, but it was a very long while ago.

Marlow, and yet you'll notice that a significant number of people found it horribly depressing, or just responded "Meh." That's the division that fascinates me.

Trippticket, fair enough; you have every right to talk about mob-grazing here, since you're doing it. I just get so tired of the many people who want to talk about exciting new blah blah blah that they aren't doing anything about themselves!

Thijs, many thanks.

Joshua, well, I was trying to match the structure of Bardi's post, thus the decimal time divisions.

Phil, I don't think anybody has the smarts to predict what's actually going to happen over the course of the next ten billion years -- but I tried my level best to make it the sort of thing that could happen.

Ando, thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Hal, no, it wasn't a duplicate. Thanks for the feedback!

Bill, I'm with you -- it sounded like a hideous future, especially when you factor in the gap between the shiny image from a distance and what things would actually likely be like on the ground. Of course the alternative had to be exaggerated -- the myth demands Heaven and Hell, and nothing in between. As for the body-directed biophobia, square i' the clout; I'll be talking about that as we proceed.

Lewis, so noted -- and I hope you enjoy the book!

Simon, that sense of tranquility and calmness is the thing I was hoping to evoke, among the fraction of readers who see things in a certain way. As you've no doubt noticed, you're not alone in that; more on this next week.

Martin, agreed about crows and clams -- though I wonder if some distant, predatory relative of the corbicules, a hundred million years earlier, might have spent its time catching the last distant descendants of hominids, steaming them, and dipping them in melted butter...

sgage said...

@ Bill Pulliam,

"I've always felt that one of the prime motivations for technoutopian thinking (and other transcendent religions promising an escape from our earthly prisons) is a strong distaste for one's own physical being. Which I find very sad. "

Excellent post. Distaste, indeed resentment for one's biological physicality, with a side of rank control-freakery.

onething said...

Mention of the long term consequences of rotting nuclear power plants prompts me to once again mention that it might be useful to humanity to have a general awareness of sociopathy. To be sure, most people are on something of a sliding scale of greed, selfishness and short-sightedness, but sociopaths are constitutionally different, unable to be bothered with remorse and compassion. If you think about what that would mean, it would mean that such a personality has several traits that naturally accompany such a psyche - they lack the deep inner life that appreciates beauty and life, they being shallow seek short term rewards and are almost as incapable of thinking long-term as they are of remorse. Being cunning, manipulative and attracted to power, it seems likely that sociopaths have had a lot to do with the incredibly poor planning and short sighted greed that has allowed this nuclear mess to exist.

The reason I think this is important is because I see a lot of hand wringing laments that "we" have got to improve as a species. Sure, it is really true that we do, but if we are looking at the wrong target we might miss the predator at our tails. Yes, "we" are not saints and it causes many problems, but if we ignore the well heeled predators that are taking advantage of us and care not for the future of life itself, well, it might be compared to (as JMG laments) the way apocalypse and utopian scenarios promote laziness and a do-nothing attitude.

For example, it is certainly known that the great majority of all burglaries, muggings, murders and rapes are committed by a very small number of repeat offenders. But what about the well-heeled, the non personally violent who merely foment wars and despoil the earth while lying and manipulating to get what they want?

I found it very interesting when I once read of at least one Native American tribe that they think in terms of 7 generations when making decisions. Because in small populations I think it would be rare for people to allow the unfit to be their leaders and decision makers.

Marcello said...

"but I'd like to suggest that industrialism is not the only way to have a technologically advanced society -- in fact, that it's a remarkably crude and wasteful way to do the thing, and that the potential for less clumsy ways exist."

Try as I can I am unable to guess how such technology would be developed and powered however. Several societies came up with fairly sophisticated technologies in the past but they were either instruments such as Antikythera mechanism and others chinese devices or moderate practical improvements, like a lot of roman technologies (say, using concrete instead of stone for a lot of applications).
That is not surprising, an agricultural society relying on renewable resources (and liable to find itself with its back to the resource wall on short notice) will yield only so much surplus: some scholars toying with a mechanical computer may be affordable but how do you go much beyond that?
High technology requires advanced tools which in turn require advanced tools to be made and so on. It is a substantial investment that must be justified.
Industrialism may be wasteful but it provided obvious near term benefits that compelled people to funnel scarce resources into it and technological development: cheaper cloth, more/better cannons, mass production of warships parts and so on.
Do you have some historical example that might provide a clue for what you propose?

JP said...

"My answer to the last question I suppose is that it is comforting and fascinating, but I am more concerned with my consciousness than my molecules."

What's fascinating to me is that the technotopians always seem to steer clear of what I call the dark sciences.

They seem to play around the edges, but they completely miss the point.

Consciousness uploading and whatnot.

It's kind of funny when I watch them do their tricks, like the recent body control with someone else's mind.

JP said...


"It's like my reaction to reincarnation. I really don't care if some entity is going to survive my life that isn't in any useful sense, me. As a practicing, but I hope, rationally-based Christian, I feel the same way about the hereafter, though I won't go into that here."

I've essentially died and been reborn many times within my own life of a mere 40 years.

This is, in fact, what i like least about modern civilization.

The discontinuity.

The fascinating thing about identity is that it's partially stored in the environment.

So in a sense, memories are stored both within and without.

The question is how you access your memories.

The river Lethe is quite valuable if you want or need to forget.


What's funny about your mini-story here is that the same thing happens with each high culture.

Winter and the waves of unknowing always come, the present is buried, and forgotten until all that is left of the living culture of the past is only left in the pages of books.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG, that was entertaining, and I was reminded of a scene from a Woody Allen movie (forgot which one) in which he was contemplating our sun going supernova and being depressed about it, and his mom saying something to the effect of "eat your supper". It is nice to be able to contemplate the future, even the far future though.

Which ties into what DeAnander said a while back about contrasting the veneer economy with a real economy, but he didn't mention writers among the contributors to the real economy as far as I can recall. Or other providers of "soul" food, like priests or druids, or musicians, dancers, storytellers, artists. Man does not live by bread alone. It is great when we are able to contribute our gifts to our community. Someday maybe I can trade you some General Relativity computation ;-). Or maybe a screen or a beer. I wish I had some extra money though in case you don't want any of those other gifts. Which is a long-winded way of saying: thanks!

Jeff BKLYN said...

Looking deeply into the past is looking deeply into the future.

Mark Luterra said...

Wonderful story! I may not fully agree with your vision of the future over the next few centuries, but I like the vision over deep time. I believe that some aspect of our consciousness is everlasting (reincarnation, etc.), and I find linear, progress-based visions of time to be fairly boring and silly. As I see it, life is about fully experiencing where you are, not getting somewhere. Just as every turning of the seasons is as exciting as the last, so too can I imagine filling different roles in future civilizations and even in new sentient forms, forever exploring the grand diversity of physical experience.

As for the next few hundred years, I can imagine a couple of scenarios that would bring an ecotechnic future into being sooner with less of a global collapse. One is that particular regions - Scandinavia seems like one good bet - with a stable population and a relative abundance of resources will manage to get enough of their loops closed with renewables (e.g. using wind, solar, and biomass power to build more wind turbines) that their technological culture will survive the end of fossil fuels. These regions could then act as a seed to build out into the rest of the world.

The second possibility is that one catastrophe (e.g. plague-level pandemic on a global scale) will be large enough in terms of population destruction that it creates a temporary surplus of resources (metals in uninhabited buildings, surplus electrical generation capacity, unused land) that can be applied to ecotechnic technologies. The assumption being that by that point we will be convinced that a lower-energy, renewable-based world is the better choice, if only we had enough resources to move in that direction.

Perhaps these scenarios are less probable than your vision of slow global collapse, but I do see them as possibilities.

Ing said...

My love wants to learn to play the uilleann pipes. As I understand it, one might expect to be a beginner for seven years, learning for seven more and spend another seven in perfecting their art. I'm studying herbalism, the same process applies, although I'm not sure claims to perfection or mastery can be made. My utility-minded self and my futility-minded self ask why bother with so little time to enjoy the fruits of our labor once the labor is complete. But, to my more lyrical self, that response overlooks the joy of the journey, doing something for its own sake and the unutterable relationship and seems naive in thinking the labor should ever end. When it comes right down to it, once the food is on the table, the animals tended and the roof is strong, what else have we to do with our time on earth but learn to make music and talk with plants? And look up into the stars and out into the future? And express our love in awe and wonder for the matter and spirit and time that surround us and are us?

k-dog said...

Stardust to Stardust, as it was, as it shall be.

wall0159 said...

One thing I don't like about this post is your assertion about the impossibility of faster-than-light travel. It may indeed be impossible, and you're certainly within your rights to say it is, but I wouldn't be so hasty. Remember, only 120 years ago people were saying that human flight was impossible.

Also, I find your vision of human extinction resulting from gradual climatic change a bit forced. It made humans sound (to me, I don't know if this was your intention) like an old worn-out machine that had run out of puff -- clearly not an accurate way to view things. This contrasts your repeated insistence that humanity will not be extinct in the near term, despite (in your tale) our population plummeting to 50M. In my opinion, such an event would be much more likely to cause human extinction. (for the record, I don't think NTE likely)

Having said that, I realise the world's a big place, and we're talking a lot of time here, and anything's possible. I also understand that you're writing this as an "educational piece". But that just didn't ring true for me. Having said this, I completely accept your point that humans are just another animal.

Elections in Australia today -- looks like we'll be scrapping our carbon pricing scheme.

@trippticket, I watched your video and thought it was amazing. It doesn't make me feel complacent, but does give me some hope.

wall0159 said...

@Bill Pulliam,
I think your comment about people hating their physicality is really true -- particularly when it comes to the more "animal" aspects of ourselves.

I think it relates to the conversation about other sentient creatures and that we're looking at it the wrong way around:
It's not that a few other creatures have reached the great intellectual heights that we have. It's just that we're just not that much smarter than (eg.) other primates. What I think has happened is that we got smart enough to develop language, which allowed the network-effects of our collective intelligence and imagination to kick-in. Couple this with tool-use and writing, and I think a lot can be explained with only a modest increase in inherent intelligence.

MawKernewek said...

@Iuval the sun will never go supernova. It is only the stars above 8 solar masses that go that way.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

No matter how bad things get, "artificial intelligence", could still save us from ourselves. ;)

trippticket said...

"Trippticket, fair enough; you have every right to talk about mob-grazing here, since you're doing it. I just get so tired of the many people who want to talk about exciting new blah blah blah that they aren't doing anything about themselves!"

I would too.

trippticket said...

"@trippticket, I watched your video and thought it was amazing. It doesn't make me feel complacent, but does give me some hope."

It shouldn't make you feel complacent. Mob-grazing requires daily involvement with your animals and a whole lot of thought. And it's going to require a LOT of people doing it. Turning cows out to pasture is much simpler, but it damages land. That's obviously not what we're after here.

This is maybe the most exciting technology for a shot at a better future that we have, perhaps because it's less of a technology than a biomimicry. Energy descent will continue with or without mob-grazing, and our civilization will still probably come to an end, but this is for humanity, not for civilization.

And I'm glad that it makes you feel hopeful. We could all use a shot of genuine hopeful.

Myriad said...

JMG: "My guess here is based on Stephen Wolfram's principle of computational equivalence, which suggests that the computations necessary to figure out how to build an intelligent mind would be of the same order of complexity as the two billion year long evolutionary process that created the ones we've got now."

All right, I'm impressed. I've been pointing out the computational nature of evolution, sometimes with very smart people, for years ("evolution is intelligent design, dammit!") and you're the first to entertain the idea sufficiently to respond in kind.

As for Wolfram's principles of computational equivalence and computational irreducibility (both could apply here), that's a worst case boundary. I can't rule out the hypothesis that replication of evolution's computation is the only way to arrive at AI. (Would it even still be "artificial" if it were achieved that way?) However, we didn't have to recompute the evolution of insects or birds in order to achieve powered flight, nor the evolution of aerobic metabolic pathways to achieve motive power from the oxidation of cellulose. Also, we have the present results of evolution's computations to work from. (Analogously, rule 110 being computationally irreducible doesn't stop me from looking on page 38 of Wolfram's book to see the 3200th generation starting from a single black cell already computed.)

Progress in the field also appears genuine. A computer science course on AI programming that I took 30 years ago started with a list of the field's characteristic problems on the blackboard (speech recognition, route planning, scene recognition, text recognition, language translation, etc.), some of which were considered pipe dreams at the time. All of them now have commercially and socially useful, if imperfect, realizations.

If progress towards "real intelligence" seems slow, it's partly because "intelligence" or "sentience" per se is never, outside of some corners of academia, the goal at hand, while the actual immediate goals keep advancing. In other words, if HAL is a few decades late, it may be because most cyberneticists have focused on developing features like "able to steer the spacecraft and keep the antenna pointed the right way" instead of "able to re-evaluate the mission and decide to murder the crew."

The visual perception puzzle I'll soon have to solve to "prove I'm not a robot" to submit this post will likely give me some difficulty. We no longer think playing good chess is one of the most amazing accomplishments of human intelligence, largely because AI found the problem so tractable. Other capabilities that we take for granted have proven far more challenging to imitate, a finding whose philosophical implications alone are worth the price of admission. (Who would have thought, back when TV newscasters were still calling computers "electronic brains," that playing chess would be orders of magnitude easier to encompass than identifying the chess board in a picture of a room? Who, even today, appreciates that in terms of demand for raw neural data processing power, an athlete exceeds a mathematician and a talented socialite probably exceeds them both?)

In any case, I didn't go into that field, so I won't be trying to do it. And I don't pin any great hope on AIs fixing anything, any more than I'd expect better weather from having a better weather forecaster. My interest is that, succeed or fail, there's a lot to be learned from the attempt.

Jim R said...

Cephalopods are probably worth a little more discussion here.

Just the name of the group means "head-foot" ... we know them from the fossil record. Four or five hundred million years is a pretty respectable history (I had to look it up just now).

Modern cephalopods include the nautilus (which Wikipedia says is not closely related), the octopus, the squid, and the cuttlefish.

If you've seen the nature show footage of cuttlefish, you'll know that they are remarkably intelligent. And they aren't too far removed from your clams, you know. Have you seen a cuttlefish putting on a visual show to dazzle its prey?

Another interesting fact about them is that many species are quite short-lived for such smart critters. (They don't have a written language, although they are capable of making ink.) Sex is fatal for many of the short-lived species (there are some species, including the nautiloids, that breed multiple times). They never get to know their offspring, so no grandmothers and no storytelling.

But in spite of the lack of a cephalopod kindergarten, these little shell-less critters do pretty well around the reef. If not for their brains, they'd be a delicious snack for most of the other phyla there. Whether it amounts to a 'civilization' depends on your definition of civilization, I suppose.

I am inclined to speculate that the short-lived species have a sort of 'racial memory', in which things that are learned by an individual can be somehow encoded into genomic imprinting and passed to the next generation. Something like "watch out for those fish with the big purple spots"...

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear MawKerneweck, thanks for the correction. What is it called when it gets much bigger and burns up the earth? Maybe just "nova"?

sgage said...


"Remember, only 120 years ago people were saying that human flight was impossible."

Please try to think critically, try some logic. Here's what you are essentially saying: People once said that something was impossible, but it turned out to be possible. Therefore, anything is possible.

They laughed at Einstein, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

sgage said...


"When it comes right down to it, once the food is on the table, the animals tended and the roof is strong, what else have we to do with our time on earth but learn to make music and talk with plants? And look up into the stars and out into the future? And express our love in awe and wonder for the matter and spirit and time that surround us and are us?"

Well said.

Thanks for that - as a music maker and keeper of animals it rang so right and true. I would only add "and the loft is full of hay, and the woodshed full of wood as we head into another Winter".

As I get older, it seems to me that the key word is "love".

Richard Larson said...

I might have been overly exhuberant with my first comment, so I will add: I can't wait! :-)

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I was wondering if you had any thoughts about interstellar communication? I understand that you probably left it out because it doesn't help your narrative in this post the way it does in Star's Reach. Speaking of communication between intelligent tool users, I was kinda surprised that the corvins didn't leave some archives on the surface of the moon for their successors to find.


jean-vivien said...

Hi John Michael,

I can see that a lot of people commenting on this blog have come to terms with the religion of progress.
This is probably a good thing if it helps people focus on pragmatic actions.
You are the one to insist that the scientific method should not be thrown away along with that civil religion, and therefore adapted to fit into
some more viable spiritual belief systems in order to preserve it.
But don't you think that the scientific method is just a natural derivative of the will to understand ?
And that for some people, that very will is in itself a spiritual response to the existential paradoxes of the human condition ?
I see that you put a lot of emphasis on understanding the world on its own terms, even in your spiritual vision of Druidism.
What do you think of the possibility of a form of spirituality based upon the Quest for understanding ?
Of course that is pretty meaningless since it leaves one with the burden of defining what to try to understand.
And I guess many forms of spirituality do emphasize understanding God(s) and the other mystic phenomenae. Pure love of understanding for its own sake might be a myth of the religion of progress.

On another topic, you quote Artificial Intelligence as an example of the pursuits which might be regarded as useless in the future.
My personal belief is that in that area, just as in the search for ET life, we tend to be very anthropocentric.
Just as we tend to seek life on other planets based upon what we know of life on Earth, I believe we also tend to look for an artificial recreation of intelligence as we know it in the physical world, and expect to recreate a physical phenomenon using algorithms.
I think the emphasis on practical results is one of the reasons behind the failure of the AI pursuers. I've never read of experiments trying to create algorithms acting in total freedom and random innovations, for example, in order to study the myriads of ways information can exist in a system designed to create complexity... Probably because this would be redundant with Systems Theory, which didn't need algorithms to understand the basics of complex systems ? But it could lead to new philosophical, if not practical, insights.
And usually great discoveries happen because some people act on pure desire of understanding for itself, the practical results coming as side effects of the conceptual discoveries...
I still do believe that we have a lot of discoveries to be born out of pure love of understanding, for example in animal behaviour or natural science.

You are still right that we need to integrate the pure, unrewarded love of understanding into a broader, more rewarding, spiritual system ! We are humans, we do need our rewards (even spiritual rewards...).

onething said...

Not only not off putting, but the title of this blog intrigued me so that I came to check it out.

What recent body control with someone else's mind? Did I miss something?

Bill Pulliam -

I fully agree with you. Savor it!

Space Seeder said...

Well, I have no doubt how I feel about the idea that other life might exist after the end of the Earth: I think that'd be great! Like it or not, life on Earth will be of finite duration anyway. Of course it will last until very nearly the end (or freezing) of the physical planet itself - when I hear about life in deep ocean vents living on geothermal energy, I find it hard to believe that anything humans might do will wipe out all other life.

That being said, I've thought about deep time in both directions for some years now, and the fact that there's been no confirmation of extraterrestrial life makes me uneasy in view of the fact that interstellar migration is impossible. (Sliding down Hubbart's curve, just starting to see potential planets now, no idea how to get there.) The idea that the Earth could possibly be the only life bearing world is just awful to me, seeing as it is of finite duration.

A few years ago I wrote (and, uh, promptly forgot about) a piece advocating an attempt to seed other worlds with life. I was going to put it in this comment, but I found it to be way too wordy when I dug it out of it's well-buried backup. So I posted it here:

I didn't understand peak oil when I wrote that, and I'm not sure I still wish to see resources used towards that given how few are left, but it sure points to how I feel about post-Earth life elsewhere in the universe: Very much in favor of it. I think the actual question, though, was "how would we feel?". For me, if I could know that there would still be life after the end of the Earth, regardless of where it's atoms came from, a place inside me would feel extra warmth and happiness for the rest of my days.

Andrew said...

"Does that fact horrify you, intrigue you, console you, leave you cold?"

To quote Dawkins, "some people find that thought disturbing, I find the reality thrilling"

Quote is in the video titled 'Our Place in the Cosmos'-third from the bottom. The other videos are great too.


John Michael Greer said...

Simon, no, I didn't take it that way at all.

Hal, well, of course there's that. It's always amusing to hear somebody who's spouting the conventional wisdom trying to portraying himself as the lone visionary heroically contending against the conventional wisdom.

Onething, and I'll reiterate that it's very convenient and comforting to insist that the world's problems are the product of some minority of bad people, but it's not helpful. The people whose decisions concern me are the ordinary, everyday people who are dragging the world to ruin because they don't grasp the implications of their choices.

Marcello, I've spent a good fraction of the last seven years discussing exactly these points, and covered them in some detail in the book of mine I cited in response to your last comment. The short form is that there are plenty of ways to generate modest amounts of electricity and heat using renewable sources, and many of them would have been well within the reach of an ordinarily enterprising medieval alchemist if somebody had given him the plans. Add those to an agricultural society using the improved organic methods that have been devised over the last century, and you've got the basis for something that isn't an industrial society, but isn't medieval either -- and that likely has potentials for further development that nobody raised in a more wasteful society, such as ours, is likely to be able to spot.

JP, good -- and if that suggests to you that an intelligent species, a high civilization, and (say) an artistic or intellectual movement can be seen as parallel systems that follow similar patterns on different time scales, why, yes, that's what it suggests to me, too.

Iuval, poets do remarkably well during dark ages, and so do literate monks and nuns; crafts such as theirs may not belong to the veneer after all. If I ever need some relativity calculations, I'll take you up on that, thanks! ;-)

Jeff, well, in a sense...

Mark, it's certainly possible to imagine scenarios that would bring about an ecotechnic society more quickly than will otherwise happen; it's equally possible to imagine scenarios that would delay things substantially. I'd be more interested by your scenarios if they involved you, personally, doing something to make things happen, and if you then went out and pursued that goal, rather than daydreaming about circumstances handing you the outcome you'd prefer.

Ing, to my mind, it's less a matter of "what is there to do?" and more one of "what do you, yourself, choose to do?" Choosing to play the pipes, to learn the ways of herbs, or (to bring in one of the things that's getting a chunk of my spare time these days) to get some basic working knowledge of amateur radio, is an exercise of that most challenging of human attributes, freedom.

K-dog, on the other hand, there's a sense in which stardust is simply an intermediate stage between a corbicule and a nameless critter on a black crag, waving its pedipalps...

Wall0159, 120 years ago balloons were commonplace, so no, nobody was saying that human flight was impossible. (Heavier-than-air flight is a different matter.) I'd remind you, though, that 120 years ago people said that perpetual motion machines were impossible, and they were right. Believers in the mythology of progress constantly forget that many of the laws of nature tell you "no, you can't do that."

As for extinction, I modeled the fate of humanity on the fate of a great many other species. Large animals like us are highly vulnerable to ecological shifts, and a cascade of changes caused by a million years or so of changes in climate and ecology is very often the kind of thing that does in large land vertebrate species like ours.

John Michael Greer said...

Zed, too funny. I'd consider your namesake more likely, though!

Myriad, if I may borrow another of Wolfram's points, there are some things that can be simplified to the point that they can be modeled mathematically or logically -- for example, flight and fire -- and other things that don't seem to be susceptible to that treatment. It's always possible that intelligence might be able to be understood by means of a simplified model, but so far the results don't look good -- and it's worth noting that the brute force methods used by current computers to do quasi-intelligent tasks (such as playing chess) are radically different from the methods used by actual intelligent beings. That said, of course, my story is a story, and the discoveries of the corbicules are purely a work of fiction; what actually happens over the next billion years is quite a different matter.

Jim, I suspect that the vast octopi civilizations of the future will have to wait for evolutionary incentives toward longer lifespans!

Richard, well, the corbicules are evolving as fast as they can... ;-)

Tim, the corvins did, but no one ever went to the Moon after them. It didn't happen to be of interest to the Earth's other intelligent beings. As for interstellar communication, I consider that quite possible, but -- to borrow one of the themes from Star's Reach -- I suspect that if we ever do hear from other intelligent species, we'll be in for a massive shock, when we discover that a lot of what we think we know about the cosmos is simply a reflection of our own senses and nervous systems...

Jean-Vivien, that's a huge issue, and one that I was planning on discussing as we go. There are immense possibilities in the intersection between science and the new religious sensibility that's beginning to take shape, but understanding those possibilities is going to take a lot of careful discussion. More on this as we proceed!

Space Seeder, we have no reason to think that life is unique to Earth -- especially given how common planets are turning out to be in the nearby star systems. I'd be more interested in letting the universe come up with its own infinitely diverse varieties of life than in imposing our own notions of life on the rest of space!

John Michael Greer said...

Andrew, thanks for the links!

wall0159 said...

Hi sgage,

As I wrote before, 'It may indeed be impossible ... but I wouldn't be so hasty.'

I'm saying, maybe, maybe not, we're not in a position to know. But, I'm not one of those people who thinks that nothing is beyond the reach of human ingenuity.

Paul said...

10 billions will be an unimaginable sum for common folks, but not so for billionaires and trillionaires. That's probably why philosophers are usually poor...and unhappy!!

Sleisz Ádám said...

Great post! For me, one of the most lovely parts was the role of nice, finite numbers (8639, 664, 11, etc.). One can feel that this kind of unspectacular, discrete values are really things of this world.

Perhaps it's just me, I have a little crush on math and numbers. :) Thanks for the story again!

Ing said...

sgage, oh yes, hay and wood! I very much appreciate a full shed. There are probably other things that could go on that list as well, but I'll leave it for now. In regard to love being key, I still have to watch out for my f/utility mind taking too much is wonderful for that!

JMG, freedom is a challenging attribute! That's not really how it's marketed today though. Some choices seem to be less of a choice than a requirement of a sort, in that not pursuing them is painful. Whether that's longing or calling it seems to me that to answer is an act of love in the broader sense. I suppose at the end of the day, it's still a matter of our choosing how and if we respond. I've long thought that while you have your own reasons for writing this blog, that the backdrop is love. And while there are a lot of other things that are true about your blog and the quality of your writing, I think that's a part of why you have the readership you do.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi David Brin,

I'm basically disappointed in your comment.

Why? Well, because no good cornucopian rant should end without mentioning the singularity (whatever that is).

Seriously, I expect better next time.

PS: I'm only kidding around, he can say whatever he likes as long as it doesn't offend people. However, his rant still doesn't change the facts on the ground in the here and now of the real world.

PPS: He should also try living with solar PV energy 100% off the grid for a year before commenting on the future of solar. It's good, but it's not that good. I'm at 37.5 degrees latitude south and he's (I'm assuming San Diego) at about 33 degrees north. He ain't getting that much more sunlight on average over winter than here.

PPPS: Also he may want to consider the impacts of a good ol fashioned Martian dust storm on solar PV panels before heading off into space. Good for publicity, but generally considered bad for your health.



Lord of the Barnyard said...

Put me in the Meh bucket please!

I enjoyed Brin's (I hope it was him) appearance.

One request: I'm fairly new to excitedly waiting for the next installment.
I don't know if I will ever have the time to wade through the entire backlog (esp with the comment threads as long as they can get).
JMG, you often chastise someone for missing the point that wasn't spelled out in your current missive (Brin) because it was spelled out and hashed out long ago on this very blog.
I'm taking a roundabout way to ask for a post that sums up the most basic tenants. Maybe a meta-post with links to the appropriate post in the backlog, maybe a wiki.
Is that viable? Appealing at all? Clearly I'm making a wish to make my life as convenient for me as possible, but I'm a slow reader and if I try to catch completely up most of your timeline here will have taken place before I do.

Andrew Butt said...

Thank you. I'm sharing with my teenaged children to open up their perspectives.

Yuri Kuzyk said...


I think it is quite interesting how closely you first 100 years match the output of the "Limits to Growth: a 30 Year Update" scenario of "more abundant resources".

The odd comments from Brin as well as your lead-up regarding attitudes raises a very interesting tangent.

Living beings are 'anticipatory systems' to borrow a term from Robert Rosen's work. To use his definition:
"A system containing a predictive model of itself and/or its environment, which allows it to change state at an instant in accord with the model's predictions pertaining to a later instant."

The reactions and comments to many of your posts indicate serious troubles with current predictive models the majority of folks are relying on for making decisions.

One would theorize that creatures with faulty models are eliminated from the biosphere. So the question is whether H. sapiens "OS 1.0" is really optimal?

I think the evidence implies a resounding "No!" this question...So how many here are actively working on upgrading their OS?

take care...

onething said...

JMG said--
Onething, and I'll reiterate that it's very convenient and comforting to insist that the world's problems are the product of some minority of bad people, but it's not helpful. The people whose decisions concern me are the ordinary, everyday people who are dragging the world to ruin because they don't grasp the implications of their choices. "

How about a both/and. I would never say that the world's problems are caused by a certain group, and I fully concur that the majority are a contributing cause in their own manipulation, but I think it also makes sense to be a little wiser, to be on guard against criminals who do not behave in blunt and obvious ways like grabbing you in a back alley. Most people are quite careful about that type.
As to your specific example of the way people are dragging the world to ruin, doesn't that show how very used we are to lousy leaders who do their best to keep situations from being understood, from being openly discussed?
You see, I don't really disagree with you that the leaders are a reflection of the developmental level of the people, but if the people are to improve, losing some naivete is a necessary step. It is a matter of being gullible or not gullible.
If we had halfway decent leaders, most people would understand the implications of their choices and be willing to make changes as a society. Is it a chicken and egg problem?

peacegarden said...

That was beautiful! As well as talking with the plants and learning their ways, I hope to pass on the knowledge and experiences to those "coming up".

The simplest task can be transcendental...much depends on your point of view.


LewisLucanBooks said...

Hmm. All this talk about stardust reminded me of Joni Mitchell's song, "Woodstock."

"We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil's bargain, And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."

There's also another couple of lines referring to us as "billion year old carbon."

It's a beautiful day. Out to the garden I go!

MawKernewek said...

It is the Sun leaving the "main sequence" and entering the red giant phase of its life.

The truth is a little more complex with several different phases, the first Red Giant Branch being the burning of hydrogen in a shell around the core, after the central core is depleted.

Then comes helium core burning, after that an inert C/O core and helium and hydrogen burning shells. This is actually quite an unstable configuration (due to the different fusion reactions having different temperature dependencies) and the star loses most of its mass in strong stellar winds resulting in loss of outer layers.

There is some additional complexities in more massive stars. Generally what is going on is the star maintaining equilbrium somehow. What happens is the outer layers do the opposite of what is happening at the core. The core contracts after its energy from hydrogen burning runs out, at the same time, as a result, the energy from the loss of gravitational potential enery has to go somewhere, leading the outer layers to become enormously inflated.

A nova is typically the result in mass transfer in a binary system, perhaps from an inflated giant star towards a compact white dwarf, the layer of hydrogen accreted onto the white dwarf eventually igniting in a thermonuclear explosion.

jeffinwa said...

John Michael I can't thank you enough for your efforts.
Life goes on.
A few atoms of my brain....I am honored.
Consoles me.

Unknown said...

Another couple of nitpicks. The corvins have access to extravagant amounts of fossil fuel. I recall reading, but cannot now recall where, that the reason the carbon was able to be sequestered was because, for some multiple millions of years after the evolution of trees, there were no organisms to break them down. If there were, the vegetation that produced our fossil fuels would not have lain around stacking up and not rotting for millennia until it could be buried in sufficient quantities to produce our energy legacy. Those organisms now exist and as long as there is biomass to break down and recycle, that is what will happen. The one-time inheritance of fossil fuels was really that, One Time.

The second is that you make no mention of the decay of the geological cycle as the earth's core loses heat and the magma slows down. I don't know what the effect might be in a billion years, but I'm guessing it will not be zero. That too will have an effect on the renewal of mineral resources on which the descendants of our life forms will depend.

Myriad said...

Archrduid Greer, thank you for your thoughtful responses. I'll note that nature makes ample and effective use of brute force herself (such as hundreds of billions of cells with millions of moving parts each). But much as I'd enjoy a continued discussion, this doesn't seem to be the place for it.

Regarding Dr. David Brin's post: since no one else seems to be bothering to, allow me to put on record my vehement objection to Dr. Brin's presumptuous characterization of Archdruid Greer as an "amateur." Archdruid Greer makes his living deriving and evaluating future scenarios, to at least a comparable extent to Dr. Brin. Even if that were not the case, and even if Archdruid Greer were somehow demonstrably wrong in his vision of the future, his scholarship and reasoning ability, as well as his literary accomplishments, are worthy of far more professional respect than Dr. Brin showed.

Dr. Brin, when Archdruid Greer starts doing astrophysics, then you can call him an amateur without looking a bit silly.

(Sorry if all the titles above read awkwardly; just using them to help make a point.)

Brother Nihil said...

John Michael, incredible post this week!

My question for you is very broad, and is suggested by your comment to Mark about letting the universe come up with its own infinitely diverse varieties of life than in imposing our own notions of life on the rest of space.

Why must we be so deferential to nature, when our minds clearly have the power to imagine and invent things which nature hasn’t? Much of the modern world is the product of human invention, yet people seem to like it. It seems to me that the essence of your disagreement with people like David Brin is their willingness to “disturb the universe” (as Freeman Dyson put it), and their lack of any sense of the sacred. In occult terms, it sounds like you are a white magician who follows a druidic right hand path, while people like Brin and Dyson are more like black magicians who follow a scientific left hand path. Indeed, I think of you and David Brin as archmages of opposing magical schools, and have long wanted to see you clash.

Anyway, I would be interested to hear more about how you think about this matter. Thank you.

Joel said...

On the topic of re-learning the knowledge of tea, camellias are a very common ornamental plant in my part of the world. Not the exact species from which most tea is made, but close enough to work.

It's been fun to make my own tea from scratch. Even though the leaves are not bred for it, I can be very choosy when picking from a whole plant worth of young shoots, and of course there's a lot of value in brewing immediately after roasting. In some ways it's a mediocre tea, but in other ways it's the best I've tasted.

It makes me feel a lot more confident about continued supply of caffeine, and it really makes me appreciate how much work goes into tea. Well worth trying next spring, for those of you who already have appropriate plants growing in your neighborhood.

mallow said...

I think I get where Hector's coming from. Assuming that misery and suffering isn't going anywhere for all those other forms of life, contemplating endless cycles of it makes me feel like Nietzsche watching the horse being flogged. I couldn't care less about humanity, or me, not being special and ending someday. Contemplating my death doesn't make me value life any more or less. I don't care what happens. I just want to know why.

Maybe that's one reason why a story about what happens, however fascinating it is, rather than why it happens, leaves some of us feeling a bit 'meh'. The Stoics had beliefs about the soul and an eventual moving on from physical existence to get them through their bad days. I don't know how anyone really deals with the concept of eternal cycles without some faith like that.

About artificial intelligence, coincidentally a friend of mine just published a piece on his blog about it that people may find interesting:

Lord of the Barnyard, a quick google of whatever you're about to comment on plus "Archdruid Report" solves that problem easily enough.

Ing said...

Hi Gail, good to see your comment! I also hope to be such a bridge. And I agree about perspective, subtle shifts can often do wonders.

John Michael Greer said...

Paul, I wonder if billionaires and trillionaires can actually comprehend the amount of money that, in theory, they own.

Sleisz, that's one of those basic science fiction and fantasy tricks -- the illusion of reality is easiest to catch with plain, ordinary-seeming details.

Ing, precisely -- whether and how we choose to respond isn't random; it reflects the whole self, or (to use an old-fashioned and crashingly unpopular word) the whole character of the one who chooses.

Barnyard, no, I criticized Brin because he jumped to a bunch of inaccurate and ill-tempered conclusions in his bit of drive-by trolling. As for putting the whole thing into a single post, if I could have done that I'd only have made one post, ever! The closest equivalent is probably to be found in my books -- I'd recommend The Ecotechnic Future as the best one-volume guide; even a slow reader should be able to get through it in well under ten billion years. ;-)

Andrew, I'd be very interested in their reaction to it.

Yuri, yes, that was basically the model I was using! You get today's gold star for paying attention. As for upgrading our OS, well, that's what I was talking about back a while in my posts about theurgy and thaumaturgy.

Onething, I tend to think that people get exactly the government they deserve; the actions of those in power in the US, for example, are simply the actions of the average American projected onto the larger screen of world power. Still, I've discussed that here many times and I don't expect to get any more agreement this time.

Lewis, I spent a chunk of today in mine, so by all means.

MawKernewek, I may be out of date, but last I read the Sun was expected to let loose with a series of helium flashes in its post-red giant phase; while those aren't novas, they're pretty spectacular explosions nonetheless. Do you happen to know if this is current science, or have those rascally astrophysicists changed their minds again?

Jeffinwa, thank you!

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, you're confusing coal with petroleum. The Earth's coal reserves were indeed put there during a phase in evolution when cellulose-eating decay organisms hadn't yet evolved, but petroleum comes from a different source -- it's what comes of marine organisms buried in sediments during oceanic anoxic events. That's why I specified that the corvins have petroleum, rather than coal. As for the cooling of the Earth's core, that's a complex issue, since the decay of long-lived radioisotopes provides much of the current heat; no doubt that'll cool off in deep time, but I figured 100 million years was close enough that it wouldn't be a big issue.

Myriad, nah, it's standard for people on Brin's side of our current culture wars to insist that nobody on my side can have any valid credentials at all. I got used to that a long time ago.

Brother Nihil, that's one way of putting it, I suppose.

Joel, fascinating -- I'd be very interested in learning more about this, as tea is one of my favorite vices.

Mallow, that's an interesting response -- thank you!

jeffinwa said...

@JMG said...though I wonder if some distant, predatory relative of the corbicules, a hundred million years earlier, might have spent its time catching the last distant descendants of hominids, steaming them, and dipping them in melted butter...

mmmm long pig

Now to clean off my monitor; you sir have a wonderful way with words, full of surprises:)

geovermont said...

Getting back to JMG's question at the end of the current post, I find his tale of the future most intriguing. I'm a scientist (geologist) and it's true that my study of the deep history of the planet and the evolution of life on it has helped prepare me to take the long view of our future, but in the end, it's not so much science that helps me accept this future.

There's only so much that science can really tell us about the future (and I'm thinking that JMG used most of that in the current post). In the end, science is hopelessly inadequate for this particular task as science deals with the analysis of testable facts and ideas. Instead of hard science, we need imagination, and where better to find that than in a poet--someone who can take the facts of daily existence, come up with new insights, and who can then express them in a compact and memorable form. I suggest Robinson Jeffers, once a rising start in the literary pantheon of the 1920s and 30s, now almost forgotten and barely in print.

I was re-introduced to Jeffers through JMG's essay "An Inhumanist Vision" at the Dark Mountain Project. I'm finding that Jeffers' remarkable poems are indeed powerful tools to use to understand our real place in this vast cosmos. Go to a library, dig out an old copy of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers from the stacks, and dig into poems such as "Rock and Hawk", "Rearmament", "The Purse-Seine", "Flight of Swans", or "The Answer". As a start, try this one on for size:


A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will go down to the lovely Sur Rivers
And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,
The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks
So that they cannot strike, hardly can fly.
Things are the hawk's food and noble is the mountain, Oh noble
Pico Blanco, steep sea wave of marble.

Originally Published in "Solstice", 1938

Jeffers is trying to set us on a path to see that this world is beautiful even in the death throes of an animal or in the fall of a civilization or even in the extinction of humanity or of all life on the whole planet. He steps out beyond the anthropocentrism that Aldo Leopold helped to wean us from and keeps right on marching, on out past even the biocentrism of seeing the living parts of the world as the most important. It's a scary journey that very few people in any place and any time seem to attempt.

Jeffords clearly saw that something was seriously wrong about the way our civilization was trending. He saw us moving toward decline, and not just because of the rise of Fascism and the Great Depression. Now it appears that we have wasted decades without making much progress toward a more sustainable life on the planet and that the decades ahead will see the unraveling of much that we had once thought was permanent and secure.

It's a great "what if" to ask if Jeffers could have written a poem that would have envisioned the next 10 billion years. If his poems The Beaks of Eagles and Shiva are any indication, then I'd say he could have done it masterfully.

P.S. Thank you JMG for getting me to read or re-read authors such as Hesiod, Homer, De Tocqueville, and now Jeffers. I will admit that I found E.P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class" (discussed in the comments a while back) pretty tedious, but even in that overly long work there were gems.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- excellent post. Similar to one I wrote some time back, I stopped at 250,000 years.

I found the exchange between you and David Brin amusing, since both of you are full-time authors bickering about people getting off their duffs as "doing" something. I'm one of the guys out here "doing" something, more in Brin's high-tech model than your post-peak model, and I think BOTH of you are working at something far more important than what I do. Pen mightier than the sword and all that.

I just read your book The Ecotechnic Future (Kindle). It put in one place a lot of material I had to search around on the Archdruid Report to figure out, and resolved most of my disagreements with your point of view, which were based on an incomplete understanding. Seeing it all in one place made a huge difference. Thanks!

For anyone who wants to quibble with JMG, I'd recommend reading this book first.

Twilight said...

@Enrique - Thank you for the anthroposaur references! I'm really having a ball with that.

Stacy said...

Regarding the growing of tea plants, I have been told that if you can grow ornamental camellias, that tea camellias will grow, as well. We have a nursery locally that offers them and we are planning a tea hedge next spring. I'm looking forward to it, as tea is one of my vices too.

Dagnarus said...

Your comment brought to mind some of the rhetoric which came out of the anti-theist movement. Namely people who suggested that even if they knew with absolute certainty that God existed they wouldn't worship him (To be clear I do not believe in the Christian god), based upon the fact that his behaviour ran counter to their sensibilities. Personally I can't help but feel that the idea that it would be better to burn in hell for all eternity rather than to engage with the universe on its own terms in this hypothetical scenario, is very much related to the idea that people would rather strip mine the planet to the point where even even a decent standard of life is difficult to come by rather than accept that the current levels of extravagance are impossible to maintain.

As to the matter of our leadership leading people astray. One of the things which I noticed in the left wing alternative media was that it was possible to hear about things like water depletion, the horrible effects of hydraulic fracturing, global warming, and the fact that currently the world's population consumes something like 2 planets a year, even while the majority of the world's population lives in poverty. What I wouldn't hear was things like, we really need to consume less, we have to have a lower standard of living. No in terms of economics they would always be advocating that standards of living had to increase and that we had to get back to "growth". These were not people who were lap dogs of the democratic party. They didn't particularly like Obama. To the best of my knowledge they weren't being financed by shadowy oligarchs. They had all the information they needed to see the direness of the worlds situation, but they still weren't willing to face up to it.

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