The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Humans to Go Extinct in Three, Two—

So, a very conservative study on the rate of species going extinct has come up with the following:

Extinction Chart v06

One hundred and fourteen times faster than the normal background rate.

“If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico said…


This is the point where a sane species would be in a controlled panic.

Which brings us to Laudato Si. The obvious issue with Luadato Si is Pope Francis sticking to current church doctrine against birth control. It is incontrovertible that every person has a carrying load for the planet.

But Francis makes a great number of good points, starting with the fact that we are vastly wasteful. It is not that we have necessarily surpassed the Earth’s carrying capacity in theory (only in fact). Half the food in America, for example, is wasted. Suburbs are vastly wasteful. Lawns are idiocy. Most of our buildings use far more energy than they need to. Improved agricultural methods can produce up to ten times as much produce on the same amount of land, for less water. Urban indoor agriculture using LEDs is showing great promise. Centralized manufacturing, which requires concentrated power which cannot yet be provided by renewables could be decentralized even with out current tech, and within fifteen years or so we could radically decentralize it.

And so on.  There are more good ideas than one could possibly list. These ideas would allow us to support our current population on much less land and allow the environment to renew itself. We could massively reduce carbon output at the same time, stop overfishing the seas, and everyone would still be fed, have a place to live, and so on. Yes, most suburbs would be a thing of the past, but the question of “suburbs” vs. “human survival” shouldn’t be a hard one.

All of this would probably not be enough.

Yeah, sorry.

We’ve left it too late. The issue is the carbon and other hothouse gases already in the environment. They are so high that we will see release of methane from the arctic, both land and sea. This has already begun. It will continue. Even entirely stopping carbon tomorrow (which is impossible) likely wouldn’t be enough. Cutting carbon by half would definitely not be enough.

We needed to be acting back in the 1980s when climate change science first became overwhelmingly likely to be true.

We didn’t. An alien species studying our extinction, should it come to that, will only be able to conclude we did it to ourselves.

What I’m seeing is that we are on the wrong side of a self-reinforcing cycle.

We’re going to need geo-engineering. It’s messy and we’ll probably screw it up, but we don’t have much choice left.

Because there is a chance that even doing everything right, we’ll still go extinct (especially if we bork the oxygen cycle, a non-zero possibility), we need to be crashing biospheres. We’ve never made biospheres work before; we cannot create artificial environments cut off from the world which work. We need to.

That understanding will be very useful in any scenario–from cleanup of major, but not catastrophic, environmental damage, to triage on a crashing ecosystem, to saving a breeding population in a world which no longer supports humans.

A sane humanity, who self-governed in ways that made sense, and which was concerned with the welfare of their children, would have headed off most of this. A not-completely-insane humanity who had failed to take action before would now be making this the highest world priority.

We are doing neither.

Instead, our best and brightest are figuring out the best possible ways to serve ads, creating the most impressive mass-surveillance system the world has ever seen, and playing leveraged financial games which are resulting in austerity for much of the world. Destroying the human resources which we should be using to save ourselves (and so many other species, who have done nothing to “deserve” their extinction).

One can argue, and many will, that this is entirely the fault of our rulers. Maybe, maybe not, but it won’t matter when we’re all dead, and I’m not seeing widespread revolts because of mismanagement. And hey, if worse comes to worst, and enclaves are set up to save a small breeding population, remember, it’s the “leaders” who did most of the damage who will get into them.

You won’t. Your children won’t. You live or die with saving the Earth.

Probably you die.

But, then, most people probably figure they’ll die before the environmental collapse gets them. If they’re at least middle-aged, they’ll probably win that bet.

Their kids won’t. Too bad for them. Loved them enough to do everything except save their lives from a completely predictable threat.

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  1. Monster from the Id

    The perpetual problem with prophecies of inevitable doom:

    If we’re already screwed no matter what, then where’s the reason not to say “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”?

    I’m not saying necessarily that Ian is wrong–merely that if he’s right, then where’s the point in trying?

  2. Monster from the Id

    OTOH, if it’s not hopeless yet, then indeed let us start doing all those things he mentioned.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Mis-characterization of post. I said that even if we do everything right we MAY still be borked. MAY.

  4. subgenius

    I hold the position that the gases produced as emissions are actually the lesser issue – biodiversity loss is the (soon to be extinct) elephant in the room. If the planet had a strongly-functioning biosphere, including decent microbial communities in the soil (last seen in most of the west’s farms sometime mid-last-century…) there would be a reasonable possibility of transitioning to something sustainable.

    As it currently stands, we almost certainly need to compost 95-100% of the human population (at least in the developed nations) and add the resultant material to the soils to give the other species a chance to get through the extinction event we have been working so hard to create for the last couple of thousand years.

  5. Do worry, we have more billionaires.

  6. subgenius


    The reason people have been talking about this for so long is that a TINY percentage of humans are, in fact, intelligent and thinking. Malthus was wrong only because he identified the underlying dynamic at the same time others began to heavily exploit fossil fuels, resulting in the so-called “green revolution” about a century later (but based on trends beginning much earlier). An example of how prescient he was, and how recognized this was by other thinkers, is that he was a direct influence on Darwin’s theory of evolution.

    A devastated biosphere doesn’t support much in the way of complex life. The energy requirements for a complex life form require a lot of concentration of energy by lower-complexity lifeforms – photosynthesis won’t cut it, so you need a way of accumulating a LOT of photosynthesis (or equivalent – hydrothermal vents work as an energy source, too) – hence herbivores – and then apex predators that prey on those herbivores.

    Fuck with the biosphere and you lose the ongoing capability to exist as a complex organism. Guess where we are…

  7. We have throughout the last century consistently made the wrong choices = Highways or trains and trolleys? Factory farms or family farms? We are pack animals eagerly falling in behind the alpha male ( or female). Herd behavior well understood by the elites who have eliminated all competing groups and their leaders. Those Elites have no interest in change but lots of interest in obfuscation. The fact is quantity does change quality- hot water does disappear into air vapor- the end may be sooner or later than we can foresee but it does seem close.

  8. Monster from the Id

    Apologies if I misunderstood you, Ian. I never said I was bright. 😛

  9. “we” are doing fine, the slightly more prosperous of us menial types …. not so much.

  10. “We’re going to need geo-engineering.”

    Many experts really don’t think this will meet the needs to effect what we have put into the atmosphere at this point. I tend to agree. The money spent on geo-engineering needs to go towards pushing for greater progress for clean energy sources.

    Eric Rosten over at Bloomberg Business did a good piece on this here.

  11. Pluto

    I guessing this is a common pitfall on planets where sentient life begins to develop, only to delete itself and start again with a different sentient species. Conscious evolution obviously must develop a firm foothold before technology runs away in regressive and destructive directions. In the case of Homo Sapiens, why, they barely learned to wash their hands a mere hundred years ago, thus kicking off the towering hockey stick of massive population overgrowth. Until then, sepsis was manning the gateway to a critical mass of short-sighted humanity, grunting and bashing each other over the heads with clubs (or drones) to gain control over ever-diminishing resources. [“You have no more lives. Play again?”]

    For my part, I’m going step up my daily intake of probiotics, and become a planet for the flora within.

  12. Ghostwheel

    My thoughts keep returning to 1973. All the needed information was available. Ehrlich had warned us about population growth, the Limits To Growth report had come out, there were oil shocks to wake us all up, and Schumacher had written Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.

    In 1971, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen had published The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, a seminal work.

    All the pieces were in place. Surely, our elites, all those guys who go to Bilderberg and populate the Council on Foreign Relations with their lackeys—all those guys with all their various internationalist organizations and boards of directorships and stuff—surely they had access to all this information. Surely they knew. How could they not?

    So what happened? Instead of taking us in the “small is beautiful” direction, they went full bore into growth and globalism.

    TPP? “Yes, that too, please.”

    At this late stage in the game, we’re still going faster and faster, taking out more debt (change the money system already!) and converting more natural resources into more product, heat and waste than ever before, even when we know we’re well past the earth’s ability to reprocess heat and waste.

    So I find myself with the fantasy of going back to 1973 and placing little alien earwigs inside the brains of bankers and Bilderbergers, sort like Khan in Star Trek: Wrath Of Khan. “Okay, banker Bilderbergers, now that my little cockroach friends are crawling around inside your brains, here’s what you’re going to do….”

  13. subgenius

    Yeah geoengineering is a joke…bunch of academics with no real idea of natural biosphere interactions… Let those fools in and we are doomed.

    REAL geoengineering involves rebuilding the soil biome first, then working to improve biodiversity. We have a single working example…Earth BEFORE civilization fucked it up… Allthe academic shit suffers from a very small view of what is required. My whole life I have been shocked by the lack of deep understanding of the supposed experts.

  14. Dan Lynch

    Re: “These ideas would allow us to support our current population on much less land and allow the environment to renew itself. ”

    Assuming we want to support our current population. I don’t. I think the world would be better off with a much smaller population. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that we bring back Hitler’s gas chambers, but I do advocate national population planning and a one child policy. In fact, one child may be too generous — perhaps we should have lottery drawings for the right to bear a child? Of course there is no political will for that sort of thing so it’s not going to happen and climate change is a runaway train.

    The unstated assumption in Ian’s essay is that, above all, the human species should be saved. Why? What is so great about humans compared to say, grizzly bears, or bison? Would it be so bad if humans went extinct and the earth reverted to nature? Oh, I would prefer to keep a few million humans around, like America used to be before the European invasion, and there’s a good chance that a few tribes of humans may survive global warming and eek out a living in Antarctica, perhaps. But even if no humans survived, would that be so bad? Who would miss us ? Not the bison or grizzly bears, that’s for sure.

    Ian, I tend to share your pessimistic view of climate change and overpopulation, but you left out one possible solution that could kill two birds with one stone — a nuclear winter. Rest assured the Pentagon is studying that option.

  15. subgenius

    If you want a truly representational policy…the only way i can see would be to run it as a citizens lottery…anybody selected puts any wealth they have in a blind trust for the duration of their tenure. Any system of selection other than a lottery is gameable…but then i have issues with both personal wealth and nation states as what do i know

  16. Peter

    The human animal is an incredible species, fearless, adaptable and within a few tens of thousands of years of its appearance spread across the planet on foot. Until about ten thousand years ago we wandered the plains and forests, free, robust and lived a relatively long life for a mammal in the wilderness. Society was based on equality and mutual aid by necessity and spiritualism was based on feminine characteristics of nature, Mother Earth, fecundity and abundance. Life could be harsh and dangerous but humanity thrived and expanded limited by natural forces.

    About ten thousand years ago something strange happened, people on many different continents separately decided they were tired of wandering and developed the first science/technology, agriculture which doomed humanity to our familiar boom-bust economies, environmental depletion and degradation, male dominated religions and genocidal war.

    Most all of our science/technology developments since then have been needed to ameliorate the problems caused by this change of lifestyle and the civilization it created. The problem with science is that it always creates as many or more problems as it remedies and only delays the final reckoning.

    When I think about it ten thousand years was a pretty good run and we did burn brightly, it’s just a shame we had to foul our nest to reach our potential.

  17. subgenius

    @ peter

    Yeah…I grew up in a family of nuclear engineers and doctors…studied physics electronics AI and finally got around to ancient knowledge of medicine and environmental management. Strangely enough, having studied at 6 universities on 2 continents, i found the old stuff is way more interesting and has a wider application than the new tech. Unfortunately I have very few in my peer group 🙁

  18. guest

    Don’t forget we’ve got to keep an advanced civilization going for the next few hundred thousand years just to manage all the nuclear waste potential disasters we have laid like land mines across the globe.
    I’m with the crowd that says population control needs to be near the top of priorities. I was born in ’63, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to bring a child into this world 25 years ago (I had enough trouble supporting myself back then). And see all these young idiots having babies all around me, even some oldsters having babies in their 40s and beyond.
    I’m willing to do my part to save the planet, short of killing myself. But if the rest of the world is intent on dooming their kids and maybe us middleaged folks and oldsters, then so be it. That is the path we have chosen. I had a decent enough 52 years so far, I guess I’ve fared better than many, so I can’t complain too much.
    I’d say the path was chosen in 1980 with Reagan and the whole hearted rejection of Carter’s conservation pleas in favor of trickle down. With the fall of the Soviet bloc, it seemed like we doubled down on neoliberalism when we had the chance to redirect all that “defense” spending and maybe making an economy that was fair and sane. The 9/11 attacks were such a perfect metaphor for the rise of Bush/Cheney and company – like we are on a plane commandeer by pilots on a suicide mission wouldn’t know how to land a plane safely even if they came to their senses

  19. Monster from the Id

    If humans and their technological civilization survive, they will have been saved by those humans who refuse to accept the Kobayashi Maru scenarios of the Soylent Green Caucus.

  20. subgenius


    Kobayashi maru…never thought of it like that…but very appropriate….hopefully there is a kirk out there, because personally I don’t have such an answer 🙁

  21. Some Guy

    The question I struggle with is, do we (should we) want humanity to survive?

    If Hari Seldon was really so smart, maybe he would have been working to make sure that when the galactic empire went down, it stayed down, not got to it’s feet as fast as possible.

    Maybe humanity is just a mistake, a dead-end species that can’t help eating the apples it’s not supposed to eat and the world would be better off without it.

  22. Humanity is going to be fine, it is just that people are going to have to get by with less so that there billionaire lords and Masters need a little bit more room. in that way everything will be fine.

    then eventually the people will get uppity, and a new generation will start demanding a less equal share of the pie…

    the problem is that is not going to save you, what are you going to do about it about it? there have been productive ideas, but some of the things that will have to go are just beginning to reach consciousness, and a lot of the dumb ideas are bounding over the moon. for example replacing Marks with a radical form of Islam. remember, for every smart way of doing things, their are so many dumb ideas that people will try first. partially because the rich people convince the military class to do so.

  23. Everythings Jake

    You can’t fix the environmental problem unless you fix the economic inequality, social and racial injustice, and other problems, because what stake would you have if you aren’t a winner in the vast system of inequity. So, unless society is willing to rise up and severely punish if not outright murder its ruling sociopaths, then tick tock, tick tock…

  24. Monster from the Id

    @SG: Yeah, I don’t know either. I’m just hoping someone will know. 🙁

    I balk at murder and other brutal punishments, but EJ is correct the problems–if they can be fixed–won’t be fixed without somehow dethroning the reigning class of sociopaths.

  25. Monster from the Id

    To go to the specific case of my USA, the only reason we ever got the New Deal was that enough of the ruling class decided it was prudent to establish some degree of a welfare state for the common citizen, lest enough of the desperate masses turn to Communism or Fascism (though some of the wealthy parasites would have liked Fascism, to the point that they should have been prosecuted for aiding the Axis in WW2).

    Unfortunately, the ruling class figured out in the 1960s that they could hoodwink enough of the white working and middle classes of the USA into voting for the Right by manipulating their fear and hatred of their non-white and/or non-conformist fellow citizens, and it’s been a field day for the Malefactors Of Great Wealth ever since.

  26. Peter


    I envy your student career and wish I could have studied more. I did manage to investigate the wizardly sciences and studied lasers and optics and one class on pulse power (fusion) technology at Sandia Labs. My eldest brother is a nuke engineer ( General Atomics) and we have had years of heated debate about the problem/solution dichotomy of nuke power and technology in general.

    Studying ancient history and technology is certainly interesting but our problems are mostly caused by our civilization and can’t be addressed by old knowledge. One example is that the Mountain Men of the early 1800’s rarely got infections even when they suffered massive wounds because the bacteria was rare in the high mountain environment they inhabited, when they returned to civilization they suffered infection just as commonly as anyone else and now there is no safe place free of those pathogens. Read the account of the survival of the fur trapper Hugh Glass to see how weak we have become compared to someone as recent as the early 1800’s living in a pristine wilderness.

  27. zambonitony

    There’s much more complexity to geoengineering than technocrats can understand- I doubt it will work, most silver bullet solutions turn out to be far more optimistic.

    The left is no different from the right, in that they think growth is the solution to humanity’s problems and that we must maintain an infinite growth paradigm. Good luck with that, and have fun living on a planet where human biomass now greatly outweighs all other forms of biomass on Earth. 9 billion by 2040 with global temperatures rising, water running out, have fun with that.

  28. jetdillo

    MAY be borked. *chuckles*
    Please Ian, don’t hold out false hope. Don’t hedge. Just go ahead and say WILL be. You’ve gone 95% of the way in this article already. Just be honest and drop the other shoe.
    The gun’s already been fired. The bullet’s on its way. Physics will not be denied.
    The fall is all we have left.

  29. breed

    * human biomass does NOT outweigh other biomass. Termites, Corepods and Cattle all outweigh humans.
    * whats with all the schadenfreude. there’s absolutely no point in `composting` 95% of humans. not to say that wars won’t happen, they’re probably likely. most likely china vs us is inevitable.
    * climate warming has some benefits. Antartica will open up for colonization with a tropical climate. pull us out of the interglacial ice age. i’d MUCH rather have a warmer, balmy climate then another glacial ice age.
    * lack of biodiversity is worrying. some species are prospering tremendously (cattle, chickens, etc) but the ones not useful or competition to humans are not. as humans we have to realize we are all in this together, even the animals.

    We need a new idealogie, as Ian says, one that allows an escape to the feedback loop. De-emphasize consumerism, money hoarding, emphasize human well being as a group, flow of resources rather then hoarding. One adapatable to our current system, and oh, what opportunities! We have tons of resources to bring to bear, so much more then we can ever use.

  30. breed

    ` water running out` – where is the water going? Is something getting shipped off the planet. A planet that is almost all covered in.. water? what? not economically feasible to extract currently, maybe…

  31. Peter

    Breed, the crisis is not running out of water but access to clean fresh water to meet growing demand or even present consumption with increasing and more severe drought in critical areas. The rain that doesn’t fall in drought areas does fall somewhere but is wasted excess in most of those areas. Extracting fresh water from the oceans is already a huge industry but the energy used will only drive more Climate Change creating more drought besides the increased salinity problems where the sea water is processed.

    Capturing and transporting icebergs will probably be next now that the ice sheets are collapsing but this is just another attempt to treat symptoms of a diseased civilization destroying the ability of the planet to support life as we know it.

  32. Peter

    We are certainly not running out of ‘Water’ but we do face extreme shortages of clean fresh water available where it is needed, see California.

    Sea water is already a large source of fresh water through desalinization but that process only adds to Climate Change and alters the seas it comes from and again creates as many or more problems than it solves.

  33. Monster from the Id

    Hmmm…is there some way solar energy could be used to provide the energy needed for desalinization of seawater?

    I would prefer that my question be answered by someone who is not ideologically committed to the proposition that the vast majority of us talking apes should be dedicated as human sacrifices to the Green Goddess. :mrgreen:

  34. subgenius

    yes, solar desal is the ONLY sane option…but tptb don’t want to spend the money. In a sane world we would be building big solar desal systems in hot, sunny ocean areas like SoCal, the gulf, southern mediterranean etc, and piping water north….instead we have keystone XL and tarsands…

    A big problem with funding desal is it is VERY expensive infrastructure and then it rains and the investors don’t get paid (see Santa Barbara for an example….) – so wait for them to reprice water rsn…

  35. subgenius

    Let me add to that for clarity…

    I am talking about PASSIVE solar…essentially using sun to drive evapouration in partially-evacuated glass tubes surrounded with reflectors…not using pv to make electricity. Its a really simple infrastructure…can be made even more simple by essentially building greenhouses on a shore and a pool that floods with the tide. Although that is say less efficient.

    You can also capture mist…as has been demonstrated in tenerife – as that is already-evaporated water. That can be done with fabric or cardboard, but obviously you are limited to what is in the air.

    Massive population makes it a problem, though – especially when we use so much water for dumb shit like flushing toilets.

  36. Monster from the Id

    @SG–Are you saying we simply use too much water for flushing toilets, and so we need more efficient toilets–or do you know some way of sanitarily disposing of our personal wastes without using water at all?

    This is not meant as sarcasm.

  37. subgenius

    Compost toilets are the only sane option. If we had non-potable water supplies to buildings it would be hugely more efficient than using potable water (created at large energy cost) to flush, but black water is a stupid idea at any time – you want aerobic decomposition of wastes (composting) and we are throwing vast nutrient streams into the oceans that would be better captured and recycled into the landscape.

    Human waste can easily be safely composted – you just have to give it a few months so all the pathogens are extinct (they are evolved to exist in a GI tract, not outside – even the most hardy only manage about a month outside a GI tract…the problem with “night soil” in times-gone-by is that it was taken straight to the fields, not comprehensively composted first..)

  38. subgenius

    of course, composting means having a much more direct relationship with your shit, so “civilized” types are loathe to get involved!

  39. subgenius

    …and an addition to the passive solar thing – it is stupid to use pv and battery banks to run stoves – much more efficient to use solar direct. But then you have to make sure you cook during the day (the horror!)

  40. subgenius

    @ Peter way up-thread…

    old vs new tech:

    There is a saying re. madness being doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. I would posit new tech to solve problems of new tech is in this category. As far as dealing with nuke waste, est plan would be to STOP making more and just have the storage or reprocessing issues with what we have already. But everybody (mostly) wants the power so I guess that breeder reactors are the future, such as it is…

  41. subgenius

    The main problems are infrastructure rebuilds and the resources needed to make and maintain distribution networks. Electricity stored in batteries is a poor substitute for the ease of handling and energy density of fossil fuels – why there are no 18 wheeler e-trucks, and why electric trains rely on external power delivery, rather than batteries.

    It isn’t that it’s insurmountable – but the cost ($$$ and materials) of developing the new distribution network infrastructure is VAST. And currently we have a short (and ever-decreasing) window to achieve this build-out, and nobody is seriously offering to fund it.

    The average person has a VERY short-term outlook, what we need is a thinking on generational timescales.

  42. Tom

    Well there is one radical solution to global warming. It will work, but you won’t like it.

    It having a nuclear exchange with Russia. ~189,000,000 would die as a direct result of the exchange. ~4,000,000,000 of us would die from the knock on effects of the break down of the global trade network, loss of food areas, and other subsidiary effects.

    The amount of dust thrown into the air would cool the planet immensely, giving a nuclear fall as the oceans kick into gear giving up its carbon, instead of sucking it in.

    Told you, you wouldn’t like it.

    Space is another option, but we screwed the pooch by dumping our Saturn series heavy lift and getting involved in a pointless Cold War with the USSR and setting ourselves up for the current mess.

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