climate, extinction 

humanity will go mostly extinct (climate change, etc) in:


What is your outlook on the future of human civilisation?

(Piggybacking off @cwebber's thread / poll)

@dredmorbius @cwebber

I'm most for "undermine capitalism to diminish damage."

@alienghic There are multiple mechanisms for that. Some more constructive, some more destructive.

Capitalism tends to react violently toward both, as I see it.


What is the present state of civilisation and challenges facing it?

(Piggybacking off @cwebber's thread / poll.)

Intent here is to focus on the relationship and scope of problems, not the specific problem(s) themselves, if any. Though I suspect some may wish to discuss that in comments....

Boosts to both my polls in this thread welcomed.

Usual poll caveats 

Self-selected polls are all but useless in judging sentiment. At best they're a tool for getting some very rough idea of sentiment ranges.

Discussion of why given answers were chosen tends to be more substantial than the answers themselves.

I'm trying to be as objective as possible in framing Qs and responding to As. Typically I'll try to limit any indication of agreement/disagreement whilst a poll is active. I'll ask for reasons, whether I agree or disagree with PoVs.

That said, the two frameworks here are ones that I wish I'd thought to incorporate as polls / questionnaires earlier. I've found both useful for years.


@dredmorbius I voted for 'Numerous systemically-interconnected problems' as correct, but I feel like some people interpret this in a sort of revolutionary fatalism where you have to burn it all down and rebuild.

Rather than (in my view) a potential for both addressing the large scale problems to make everyone better off in the shorter term while reconstructing the system while living inside it. (And in fact that this is really the only game in town, as people in a collapsed/collapsing world are not likely to think in a long-range, systematic way.)


@Azure The isuse may become clearer if we replace "problems" with "constraints" or "relationships".

An unconstrained system is easy to maximise: pedal to the metal, and find the global maximum or limit.

A system with a small number of constraints is a bit more complex, but there's still usually a clear direction and optimum.

With many interrelated constraints, even determining where or what the optimum is becomes complex, and addressing one constraint may render others stronger. Even Liebig's Law of the Minimum approaches of increasing some limiting factor may be only minimally effective.

Dennis Meadows defines a socially/politically hard problem as one in which everyone cannot be made better off. There's a price to pay for at least some group. That becomes all but unworkable in democratic governance.

You can't grow your way out of a growth problem.


@dredmorbius I think I might disagree on how large the groups that would be made worse off are and how worse off they would be. Part of that is based on my sense of JUST HOW MUCH waste there is in the current system, in terms of resources and labor that go into things that either give little to no return OR actively make life worse. As well as a dividend one gets from living in a more equal world. (If my material conditions fall in terms of what fraction of resources I can command, say, but the number of people with leisure time and nutritional sufficiency and education comes up, I'd expect to be overall better off in the long term, just because they'd be able to make, do, and discover interesting things.)


@Azure What's ... sobering ... about waste-oriented discussions is how persistent waste is, across places, times, systems, and attempts at managing, mitigating, or minimising it.

Food waste is one common example, and from my own explorations (somewhat informal), over the past 50 years, and quite probably 100--150, it's consistently been about 30--40% of all food production.

The mechanisms for waste vary. Much more food now is scrapped after intensive processing, transportation, and preservation, which actually increases the net impacts.

In other domains, "waste" is largely integral to specific modes of operation. Any heat engine will operate with a Carnot (or Rankine) efficiency, ranging from a low of about 20% to a high approaching 50% (combined motive + heat utilisation can raise this further, but the motive component remains limited). The critical factor is the difference in hot and cold sides of the engine.

You can eliminate this by replacing combustion motors with other forms (e.g., electric), but then you find inefficiencies elsewhere within the system.

And, even addressing all of this, there is the Jevons paradox. Making something more efficient means making it cheaper, and hence increasing induced demand.

Increasing efficiency to limit consumption is like fucking for virginity, to paraphrase a popular saying.

Distribution is a separate matter, though that too may be subject to a somewhat similar argument.


@dredmorbius I think the Jevons Paradox is more something to keep in mind when trying to build energy policy (e.g. we'd probably want to increase the gas tax if more fuel efficient engines come along.) Rather than a fundamental problem with efficiency.

@Azure Unless offset by some other price-increasing mechanism (taxes, accounting rules, depletion), that's simply not the case.

The problem in natural resources, or sinks, overlaps strongly with the utter failure of economics in concerns with having a proper and rational theory of natural resource cost acounting.

The existing theory simply doesn't match established behaviour or geological realities. It's based on Howard Hotelling, L.C. Grey, and David Ricardo's work.

Hotelling's paper itself is somewhat staggering in its failure to account for geological facts. It does draw heavily on cost accounting, see Alexander Hamilton Church (and yes, related to that A.H.).

Contrast the fact that humans consume petroleum at 5 million times its rate of formation ("Burning Buried Sunshine", Jeffrey S. Dukes, 2003: www-legacy.dge.carnegiescience). If formation time were a cost input, the price of petroleum would likely rise somewhat.

@dredmorbius I don't think we necessarily disagree in this case. The Steady State book you linked did remind me of the issues of pricing in overshoot, or otherwise having SOMETHING to try and limit it. (Pricing may not be ideal due to that whole inequality thing. And, you know, the whole short termism. And how to price it.)

@Azure This gets in to a larger question of markets, their biases, and capital/labour price trends.

TL;DR: Absent some explicit control, capital tends to extract economic rents (surplis value), labour tends to claim wages at or below sustenance value. These factors tend to compound. So you've got a built-in inequality issue.

Markets reflect highly-apparent ("manifest") characteristics, and short-term, clearly-articulable benefits or attractions. They discount long-term benefits, long-term risks, or complex interactions. (This holds for goods, services, and information, which is among the reasons the "marketplace of ideas" metaphor fails so badly.)

Sustainability and resilience are ipso facto long-term, complex, and non-apparent. Markets are blind to them.

(There are some exceptions. Insurance tries to price in risk. Even that works far better for spatially distributed rather than temporally distributed risks. E.g., if an event happens to few people but at scale across a population, it's generally reasonably well-handled. If it occurs infrequently in time, assessment, pricing, and payout tend to become more problematic.)

Present state of civilisation and challenges facing it poll

Again, looking at responses, I'm surprised that there were no takers for #2: "There is one major problem".

I'd really be interested in what the rationales for #1 are, and what might constitute a major problem in the views of such respondants, as well as why any of a set of issues in heavy play in recent times don't qualify.

"Other" explanations are also appreciated.

The general trend to #4 & #5 (87% of responses) is pretty strong unanimity on an underlying complexity. Again, self-selected polling is not a good guide to general sentiments, though it speaks to this crowd.

(Maybe I need to diversify my contacts more?)


Answering "What is the present state of civilisation and challenges facing it?"

I'm very solidly in the "The predicaments we face are fundamental to and concern all aspects of life" camp.

As I just noted answering the other poll in this set: humanity's challenges are endogenous, self-created, self-imposed, and largely emergent from our present conditiona and intrinsic behaviours.

This makes addressing them rather a challenge as solutions tend to go against "human nature".

Which I suspect extends well beyond humans, to fundamental dynamics of complex adaptive systems.


@dredmorbius @cwebber This is in line with what I was thinking about last night re: social limits to adaptation. Apparently it is a studied concept in climate change lit.

@vortex_egg William Ophuls (Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity and Plato's Revenge) looked at this question for 50 years. Thomas Homer-Dixon is probably the leading current investigator of it.

(There are numerous others, these two I can specifically recommend.)


@dredmorbius @cwebber
Other: some combinations of the community actions with lots of improvisations. No one answer.

@dredmorbius Most of humanity will be hit hard, with millions to billions of casualties; rich people – most in the global north – will be continue ignoring the problems, and succeed at least partially because of their wealth.

@jaranta Which problems do you see as being most significant / intractable?

@dredmorbius @cwebber
My "other" response: some combination of 5, 8. 10, and "I don't know".

@woozle Interesting. I'd long read you as more optimistic than that.

Unsatisfied with the present system, concerned, but ultimately hopeful.


@dredmorbius @cwebber

Well... "Together we will save ourselves" is in the mix, as is "Find / Rebuild communities / tribes on a scale that works".

I guess I just don't want to be complacent.

You'll note that "Hulk Smash System" was not in my mix :D

@dredmorbius @cwebber
Also -- the increasing degree to which some people are apparently willing to be led around nasally by someone who is so clearly and obviously not on their side is something I've found to be... kinda disturbing.

How much of humanity is even suffiently self-aware to grasp the necessity of introspection? Sometimes I wonder.

@woozle Excellent questions and points, though I'll leave my own discussion until after the poll closes.


@woozle Examples of the nasal-directors and/or directed?

Any insights as to why people might choose this?


@dredmorbius @cwebber

Examples of the nasal-directors and/or directed?

Directors: I was thinking of der Trumpsterfïhrer in particular, but take almost any GOP leader or right-wing TV personality (Shapiro, Carlson...)

Directed: people who agree with the above; participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection; self-identified "conservatives"; followers of fundamental religious sects; authoritarian followers.

Any insights as to why people might choose this?

My current theory is that it has to do with how the emotional need to escape fear (and seek comfort) conflicts with the use of higher reasoning.

It seems there's a range of ability when it comes to being able to reason in the face of fear. This is probably due to a mix of nature (wiring) and training (socialization, indoctrination) but I don't know the exact mix (research needed).

Some people are apparently emotionally triggered (amygdala hijack) by certain kinds of fears -- e.g. disorder, change, loss of authority/privilege -- to the point where their reactions to political ideas become primarily emotional, and they are much more willing to unskeptically believe someone who offers any kind of respite or escape from those fears.

Conversely, more factual information tends not to offer an escape, or at least not an escape that fits nicely into an emotionally-comforting narrative.

For example, it's much more comforting to believe

"poverty exists because some people are just lazy, and I'll be ok as long as I work hard"

than to believe

"poverty exists because the system requires and creates it in order to maintain the power of the powerful, and I could end up in poverty no matter how hard I work because of plain bad luck, and the way to be safe from poverty is going to require decades of coordinated action -- for which I will probably suffer, if I participate in it -- to effect systemic change."

In other words, the fair world fallacy is emotionally seductive, and some people are more seduceable than others -- some people are willing to listen to anyone who tells them they can be safe if they do X rather than experience the fear of understanding the reality that they are not safe.

In the event anyone wants an example of a case of "discussion trumps polling", see the above.

Woozle and I have gone back and forth on areas of agreement and disagreement for years. There's pretty much always food for thought even where we differ strongly.

@woozle @cwebber

@dredmorbius @woozle
So where do y'all disagree about those questions?

(But I see the difference between a poll and a discussion...)


@bhaugen Not a whole lot of daylight between us here, though I need to think and consider before replying.

@woozle @cwebber

Not necessary, I am not trying to manufacture an argument.
@woozle @cwebber

@bhaugen Manufacturing might be a stretch, but I could conceivably jury rig one from spare parts.

@woozle @cwebber

@dredmorbius @bhaugen @cwebber

Here at Hypertwin Manor, @Harena and I definitely prefer homebrew arguments over store-bought.

[insert joke which somehow analogizes starter yeast with sources of contention, don't ask me, I only work here, welcome to Argument Startbucks may I take your order]

@woozle On the nasally-directed:

I see times of uncertainty as points at which old frames and narratives are breaking and showing their holes. The problem is that even a bad world-model is useful in that it gives a way to rapidly discard excess information, cheaply (with little thought or regret), which when everything's going to hell, is useful, even if that information would have been useful.

There's also the obvious tribal-affiliation / affirmation element, including the idea that declaring a common allegiance to facts in opposition to observed evidence is a credible signal of group allegiance.

There's the us-vs-them mentality.

The left has its own forms of reality denial / following shibbolths, whether that's doctrinaire Marxism, some forms of minority ethnic identity, or neoliberal free-market fallacies. Their own tribes get sucked into these beliefs as well, though perhaps not quite so catastrophically as the extreme right seems to in most cases.

(Can anyone see how I manage to piss off everyone much of the time?)

Fears become operative, especially paranoia (again: information overload, no good models, black/white thinking & splitting).



@woozle The end-game seems to typically involve one or more of:

  • The in-group starts turning on itself (fears, jealousies, trust breakdown).
  • The out-group organises and attacks the in-group.
  • Actual true enemies or opponents recognise the fighting between factions and either join one side, attack both, or simply sieze effective control entirely. Divide-and-conquer.
  • Critical survival needs are neglected for too long and essentials of life / existence prove insufficient / disease & plague invade.
  • Some remote contender simply rises in significance and becomes a new centre of activity, development, progress, etc.



@dredmorbius @cwebber

[...] a way to rapidly discard excess information, cheaply (with little thought or regret), which when everything's going to hell, is useful [...]

"useful" in the broadest sense, I suppose -- like sanding down your tires for a smoother ride or removing your brake pedal so you become more unstoppable.

@woozle No, I mean genuinely useful.

In a situation in which an individual or group has too much infformation coming in, more than it can process, and enough that its decisionmaking cycle actively slows down or stops responding or processing, then what you must do is discard information.

And the best ways to do that are fast and cheap: they take little effort and leave no regrets.

Even bad methods can be useful *so long as they improve cycling times to the point that you arrive at justifiably-actionable decision points faster, so long as those decision points aren't themselves dead ends, e.g. you've boxed yourself into a corner.

A pursued fly or prey will often change directions at random. It's not informationally based behaviour, but it's useful in throwing off a pursuer.

There are many ritualistic actions which make no sense if they're considered as informed decisionmaking tools, but do if they're considered as unbiased ones --- that is, they produce an outcome without some inherent bias.

Mind that many of the group behaviours we're considering do have an obvious bias (and specifically counterfactual / reality-denying biases). That complicates the story, though broader explanations may fit.

The logic may be "just so" stories, though I suspect modeling and simulation could show where high-cost total-awareness information processing is inferior to cheap-discard / random selection methods. Note that in statistics, random sampling is exactly this technique, applied: discarding most information on an utterly random basis and exploring a small set of instances to form a general inference.


@dredmorbius @cwebber Not sure why all the above options look to a positive outcome.

@lydiaconwell NB: I've addressed this concern in my summary just posted.

@dredmorbius Forever?

Forever is a long time. There's that whole dying sun, heat death of the universe thing. I'm not going to rule out catastrophes. But I expect civilization to last a pretty long time. To have setbacks and dark ages but on average later ones being less dark than the ones before.

@dredmorbius If I'm honest 'rebuild tribes and communities' is the kind of thing that gives me a twinge of revulsion.

Perhaps it's because I was raised in a very conservative, very religious, and very dysfunctional family, but I have difficulty imagining it as anything but a system that might be nice if you 'fit' but is pretty horrible (and quite likely results in being driven out or shunned) if you don't.

I won't pretend the current 'secular sea' is GOOD for outliers, but it seems a lot less bad, and I'd rather move in a direction where the Freedom to Vary is universally distributed and, say, things like a community thinking it's allowed to police the relationships of its members is simply not acceptable to anyone.

@Azure I get that.

Pre-industrial life was very cloistered, few people travelled more than 50 miles from their place of birth, trips were measured in weeks, months, and years. Societies were highly constrained, often out of necessity.

I do suspect that some of today's conservative bastions are actually amplified by travel, in that misfits don't remain, but leave for the Big City or Blue Coasts (or other less-constrictive options). There's some interesting history of the Second Awakening most especially in upstate New York and what came to be known as the Burned-Over districts, where charismatic populist religious sects took over the land, in part due to US freedom of religion. Religion itself follows laws of evolution....

But community is also long-term thinking, human scale, and with some luck, wisdom. So that's at least partial promise.

Something like Renaissance / Reformation / Enlightenment era Europe where there were centres of more liberal thought and innovation might be one option.


> do suspect that some of today's conservative bastions are actually amplified by travel, in that misfits don't remain, but leave for the Big City or Blue Coasts (or other less-constrictive options).

In other contexts (informal sharing of interests, etc.) I think of 'evaporative cooling' as a negative trend that needs some countertrend against it (e.g. people don't /say/ something bothers them and leave and the group falls apart because the more bothersome segments concentrate, even if at the start everyone bothered could have cooperated to fix the problem if they'd spoken to each other about it.)

I'll have to mentally roll the idea around in this context, though I guess the most salient difference would be whether the overwhelming majority ACTUALLY prefers things the way they are.

@Azure "Evaporative cooling" is very much related. See also "brain drain".

I was travelling through a region an older friend had come from, was talking to a local there and mentioned the fact.

"So, what did they do here?"
"They left."

(The sentiment could be applied to a number of people from small towns / rural areas. And yes, a few do go back.)

But places which have to accomodate that diversity may find themselves at least slightly better adapted to do so. The evaporative cooling works both ways: the misfits leave, the majority ostracise them.

@dredmorbius That's part of my preference for what I've come to think of as the 'secular sea'. If being an economically isolated community isn't really an option most are going to perform, some baseline level of accepting diversity is pretty much mandatory.

@Azure Much of this depends on what level and type of culture follows our own time.

In pre-industrial time, there've been more and less open communities. The ones that seem to foster greater openness also seem typically to be centres of trade, learning, or often government. And they move around a lot with time.

I'm struck by how immensely persistent universities have been since their first formation, in the 12th century. Note that several of those (Oxford and Cambridge notably) were protected by royal charter as monopolies --- no other rival institutions were possible, a limit not lifted in the UK until the 19th century.

At other times, it's been remote outposts, often monastaries, which preserved the few books and knowledge that survived from antiquity,

Numerous cultures have condemned and burnt all ancient books, some several times (China notably, as did the Spanish of their Amerian conquests).

@Azure Forever can take a while. There's always the compromise position of meeting it half-way.

The wording was taken from a set of descriptions of points of view. There are numerous people who argue quite literally for no limits to growth or endurance.

Julian Simon is probably the best known instance. You'll find statments by others including Milton Friedman, Larry Summers, and M.A. Adelman.

I've compiled a few other examples over the years:

William Ophuls notes several in his (excellent) annotated bibliographic notes. Plato''s Revenge isn't the most appropriate for that, though it's the one I have handy:

The one in Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity is much more appropriate, though also dated (published ~1977). That really hasn't much changed the arguments though, which lean far more on rhetoric than fact or reason.


@Azure Looking through the Plato bibliography, there are no obvious cornucopians mentioned.

Ecology is online at the Internet Archive (a free account will give you access) and does have an excellent bibliography:


@dredmorbius @cwebber I have feelings about 7. but they're filed under impractical, because I think taking it all down fast and hard enough to do any theoretical good would in practice have knock-on effects driving the problem right back up, while undermining ability to adapt more than ability to continue down the harmful paths.

@dredmorbius @cwebber
My outlook is that one day people will look back on our time as a memory of the good old days, then they will look back on it as a tale of hubris, then they will look back on it as the deep and mysterious past, then they will not look back on it at all.

I view myself as part of the grand project of mathematics, which has survived multiple civilization-level collapses. My main responsibility is to keep the flame alive. Unlike 'saving civilization', that is something I can do.

@mithrandir "Bearing witness" is among the possible responses I've had in mind.

It might not be possible to change the direction at all. But preserving some record ... maybe. Influencing that narrative seems at least a reasonable possibility.

(I'd hope for more. But that's a baseline, and is more or less my fallback to the "but what could you possibly do" refutation / rejection. Though truth to tell I let that one bother me less with time.)


@dredmorbius @cwebber well I suppose if someone is observant they could bear witness, sure. And if someone had their pulse on the narrative they could maybe influence it. I am neither, so I do math.

outlook on the future of human civilisation poll results

Looking at result and with my earlier disclaimer in mind (

  • Optimism seems to skew low amongst those answering. Though a bare majority of respondants (51%) seem to be generally hopeful. I suspect that's low relative to, say, a US or OECD population sample poll. (I'd really like to see that performed.)

  • I'm most surprised at the absolute lack of faith in #3 "hard-nosed elites". I thought there might be some technotopian / technocratic advocates among followers.

  • The lack of representation from religious points of view #2 was somewhat expected. I think there was one response, and I'd like to hear rationalisation.

  • There was a criticism that all the options seemed to suggest solutions. My view is that #9 "know & prepare yourself" can reasonably be interpreted ominously, and 6, 7, 8, 10, and 11 all give serious consideration to failure.

  • For anyone answering "other" who's not already commented (or wants to comment additionally), I like to hear views.

I'd also be interested in seeing rationale or arguments behind #1, #4, #5, #7 (both pro and con), especially. I think other arguments are more self-explanatory, though again discussion is of interest.

(I'll share my own views shortly.)


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