Six years ago David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and American writer, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization’. I got the urge to review his advice and critique how well we have followed it. Below are his abbreviated steps along with my commentary on each one:
[1.] “Try not to cough on one another.”
Over the course of numerous microbe generations amounting to a small fraction of a single human lifetime, pathogens have mutated and adapted faster than the antibiotic defenses human’s have built. Through a combination of factors—medical, social and economic—our war on pathogens is being lost, and these superbugs could be the next global pandemic. The danger grows with mankind’s expanding ecological footprint: a rising world population, the widespread use of antibacterial drugs in humans and agriculture, the speed and intensity of an international transport system, and so on. As history has shown, pandemics have always been a consequence of humans breaking down the interface between man and Earth’s wilderness. A recent study highlights this fact:
Tackling antibiotic resistance on only one front is a waste of time because resistant genes are freely crossing environmental, agricultural and clinical boundaries, new research has shown.
Analysis of historic soil archives dating back to 1923 has revealed a clear parallel between the appearance of antibiotic resistance in medicine and similar antibiotic resistant genes detected over time in agricultural soils treated with animal manure…
…”Unless we reduce use and improve stewardship across all sectors — environmental, clinical and agricultural — we don’t stand a chance of reducing antibiotic resistance in the future.”
As of yet, humans are not heeding this advice in any coordinated manner as another new study reveals that antibiotic use and resistance is increasing globally while new antibiotics discoveries have nearly halted. China and India, for instance, have poor regulatory and environmental enforcement:
The NHS is buying drugs from pharmaceutical companies in India whose dirty production methods are fueling the rise of superbugs, write Andrew Wasley & Madlen Davies. There are no checks or regulations in place to stop this happening – even though the rapid growth in antibiotic resistant bacteria in India is spreading across the world, including to the UK and NHS hospitals… government-commissioned study found superbugs would kill more people than cancer by 2050 if no action is taken, and cited pollution in pharmaceutical supply chains as a major problem. – Link
“If you want to see where resistance is occurring in animals, look across the pond to China. They play by a whole different set of rules,” he[Dr. Larry Hollis] says. “Whenever a new antibiotic is developed, the Chinese see the patent filings, figure out how to make it, and without any regulatory structure, it goes straight to animals. By the time it’s available here, the antibiotic is already showing resistance.” – Link
India is a global center of antibiotic manufacture. 80% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used by pharmaceutical companies worldwide, including the United States and Europe, are made in China. Following their manufacture, most of these ingredients are exported to India for processing and subsequent worldwide sale. The good manufacturing practices in China and India do not include environmental safeguards. “Unfortunately, environmental regulations are currently left up to national regulators, who are not inclined to do much. In India, the effluent discharge load of ciprofloxacin in 2007 was 45 kg per day – the amount consumed in Sweden, which has a population of 9 million, over 5 days,” said Dr. Gandra. – Link
Our hospitals can’t even keep track of how many people are dying from these superbugs. So it seems disease-carrying bacteria shall inherit the Earth, but truth be told, they have always been the dominant forms of life. A population of eight billion people provides a rich substrate for them to colonize and feed upon.
[2.] “Don’t lose things.”
In modern times there has been a large decline in hard-copy forms of record-keeping with ever more material being transferred onto digital formats, especially news reports and visual/auditory records, but the ephemeral nature of our digital media makes it prone to disappearing. Virtually all of the most useful and important artifacts of our time are digital and very little of it is intended to survive. Much of the 20th Century and beyond will be a vast gaping historical black hole except for the plastics, radiation and soot entering the geological record:
Digital information itself has all kinds of advantages. It can be read by machines, sorted and analyzed in massive quantities, and disseminated instantaneously. “Except when it goes, it really goes,” said Jason Scott, an archivist and historian for the Internet Archive. “It’s gone gone. A piece of paper can burn and you can still kind of get something from it. With a hard drive or a URL, when it’s gone, there is just zero recourse.”…
…If a sprawling Pulitzer Prize-nominated feature in one of the nation’s oldest newspapers can disappear from the web, anything can. “There are now no passive means of preserving digital information,” said Abby Rumsey, a writer and digital historian. In other words if you want to save something online, you have to decide to save it. Ephemerality is built into the very architecture of the web, which was intended to be a messaging system, not a library… – Link
The slow creep of technological obsolescence or a sudden cosmic disaster like a Carrington Event could usher in a ‘Digital Dark Age’, making any historical electronic documents unreadable. Google’s Vint Cerf says we’ve grown complacent in how media is stored. He warns that we may find ourselves lost in a bit-rot future unable to access important media documents, scientific data, etc., but leaving behind any kind of record on an overheated world could be a moot point if there’s no one left to read it.
[3.] “Tell each other faster.”
Communication speed has increased exponentially with technology but the infrastructure that supports it is very vulnerable. Aside from the growing threat of cyber-attack, it’s been documented that the most common cause of communication failure is due to the destruction of physical infrastructures. Roughly 200 undersea fiber optic cables link the world’s telecommunications, but they are “poorly armored, rarely patrolled and only occasionally monitored.” The possibility of human saboteurs is ever-present for landlines as well. These systems are usually the first sites to be targeted in wars and crackdowns by authoritarian governments.
Telecommunication infrastructure is also threatened by natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and severe weather which can sever cables and flood underground equipment. A study from a couple of years ago found an increase in severe weather has led to a doubling of major power outages across the country in the past decade.
Telling each other faster has not made one iota of a difference in preventing the unmitigated disaster of global warming and climate change. If after decades of climate conferences, libraries filled to the brim with studies and data, and now the imminent death of the largest organism on the planet—the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, we still cannot collectively take this existential threat seriously, then failure and death will be our just deserts.
[4.] “Mitigate tyranny.”
Hyper-nationalist movements are on the rise around the world, and they can be a precursor to authoritarianism. A country by country guide and analysis of fascism and the far right in Europe can be found here. Hyper-nationalism can lead to racism, vicious cycles of revenge, and genocide in which a segment of the population is scapegoated for society’s failures. With the appointment of Steven Bannon to Trumps’s presidential inner circle, the darkness of Trump’s worldview should be evident to most. Trump will soon have America’s militarized police forces at his behest and the world’s surveillance network at his fingertips, enabling him to act on his penchant for vindictiveness in far-reaching ways.
Trump won’t bring back coal because it would mean destroying the natural gas industry which has grown to displace the use of coal in recent years. Trump is going to learn how hard it is to change the dynamics of our energy system. Previous presidents have hit that same wall. Besides, automation is taking over all the blue-collar jobs of Trump’s supporters. All those “big league jobs” promised by Trump just went up in smoke:
…research shows that the automation of U.S. factories is a much bigger factor than foreign trade in the loss of factory jobs. A study at Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research last year found that trade accounted for just 13 percent of America’s lost factory jobs. The vast majority of the lost jobs — 88 percent — were taken by robots and other homegrown factors that reduce factories’ need for human labor. – Link
[5.] “Get more brains involved in solving problems.”
Physicist Jonathan Huebner says in his study that rates of global innovations judged significant to human beings have been declining in recent decades, in fact it’s halved in the past hundred years. Joseph Tainter in his own study has come to a similar conclusion:
Over the last 40 years, the number of patents per inventor has decreased by 20% and the number of inventors per patent has increased by almost 50%. Although the quality of patents is unknown (it can not be measured quantitatively), it seems we nowadays get less bang for the buck compared to half a century ago. Larger, interdisciplinary research teams cost a lot more money as they need the support of administrative personnel and formal institutions. This decrease in productivity has been masked by the fact that the whole enterprise (research & development) has grown in absolute terms (i.e. more scientists and more money being poured into R&D). – Link
This decline in innovation is directly related to diminishing EROI of our energy resources and the limits of complexity. As Jonathan Miles said in Want Not, “This is our condition. We do not solve problems. We replace them with other problems.” The myriad of crises bearing down on us defies comprehension and certainly won’t be solved by applying more of the same techno-fix thinking.
[6.] “Try not to run out of energy.”
The EROI of fossil fuels, the master resource of industrial civilization, has been in decline for some time and a recent report sheds light on this:
A new peer-reviewed study led by the Institute of Physics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico has undertaken a comparative review of the EROI of all the major sources of energy that currently underpin industrial civilization—namely oil, gas, coal, and uranium.
Published in the journal Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, the scientists note that the EROI for fossil fuels has inexorably declined over a relatively short period of time: “Nowadays, the world average value EROI for hydrocarbons in the world has gone from a value of 35 to a value of 15 between 1960 and 1980.”
In other words, in just two decades, the total value of the energy being produced via fossil fuel extraction has plummeted by more than half. And it continues to decline… – Link
No other energy source has the energy density of fossil fuels and the existing alternative or “renewable” energy sources won’t power our current set of living arrangements. Although technology is extending the Fossil Fuel Age, running out of economically recoverable fossil fuels means a radical change in society, if such a thing as ‘society’ can persist in the aftermath of biospheric collapse. I suppose a seventh bullet point is in order and would say something along the lines of, “It’s an ill bird that fouls its own nest.”