What Future for Civilization?

Are we headed for the caves or the stars?

Radio telescopes scanning deep space looking for an answer. Image credit: Donald Giannatti via Unsplash

Humanity has arrived at a turning point in its long saga. Not only in relation to the recorded history of the past five to eight thousand years, but something akin to the agricultural revolution — both in scale and in its long term effect on our future. It’s time to think big. Both in scale and time. If humanity is indeed in its infancy, or even better: ready to hatch and leave the chips of its shell behind, then we better have a plan for the many millennia to come.

The cognitive revolution — the event that gave birth to speech and abstract thinking — took place around seventy thousand years ago. If we are saying that this time period was our infancy, then we need to look ahead tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years from now. “How the hell I’m about to think that big?” — one might ask — “I cannot even tell, what I’m about to do next week!” Well, let’s keep it simple. We will need to eat something. We will need clothes and shelter. We will also need electricity (or some other not yet invented source of energy) to power our technologies. In other words: we will still need energy and material resources. (If you’re convinced that we are headed for a version of Singularity, you will still need power and a hardware to run the metaverse on.)

How do we get there from here then? — the question presents itself. This is where things start to turn interesting: where science fiction authors scratch their heads and come up with something really original. I leave fantasy to more talented writers than myself though… Instead, let’s do a reality check on our future — which in my opinion is at least as interesting to ponder (and certainly more relevant) as the next episode of Star Trek.

Now, back to the basics. I hope it is not a question, that we will need raw materials to have a future as a civilization. We will need them to build places to live in, to make our clothes from, and of course to tap into, and channel power through, the technology we are hoping to utilize. Should we think of something new? I would say no, we are already using the entire periodic table — even at this “embryonic” techno-industrial stage we are having today. All the elements the Universe has to offer is in use somewhere. Just look up what’s your smartphone made of. It is hard to think of any material which cannot be found or made on Earth. Doubtful? Just read on.

Let’s start with some very basic stuff: iron and steel. It is an indispensable structural material used in many forms, and can be found in almost every machine we can think of. And it is super-abundant on Earth, which itself is a giant metal ball orbiting the Sun. The question of accessibility is a whole different story however. We have more than 80 billion metric tons of pure iron waiting to be extracted in accessible locations (forget drilling the core of the Earth, or mining asteroids for a moment — we will address these topics later). I haven’t found any relevant data on how much did we recover and put into use so far, so I had to make an assumption here. I estimated that we have already extracted a similar amount, and most of it has been turned into buildings, bridges, machines etc.

Let us also assume that as our technologies evolve we become really prudent, and mine, then circulate this huge amount of iron (160 billion metric tons) in our economy with an annual efficiency rate of 99.5%. Actually, it would be quite a feat to lose only half a percent of any material a year, and recycling the rest indefinitely… Personally, I do not know of any recycling process this effective over a long period of time (except for perhaps the natural cycle of nutrients — but even there you have some processes creating a deposit called soil). Anyway, let’s shoot for the stars! So, assuming we eventually mine, then circulate all of this metal in our economy indefinitely, keeping 99.5% of it in circulation every year and wasting only .5% of it annually, then how much iron would be in use, say, ten thousand years from now?

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets! 50%? 25%?

The answer is… practically nothing: a mere 0.027 grams, or less than a thousandth of an ounce (1). Globally. The rest? Wasted and evenly scattered across the surface of the globe. Actually, 900 years into this endless recycling process would leave us with less than a percent of the total amount ever mined on Earth. And this is iron, the most abundant metal on this planet — what about less abundant, yet similarly critical minerals…?

Clearly, something has to be done here. We cannot have a civilization without mineral resources, or metals in particular. That would mean no complex machines, no computers, no power plants, no solar panels, no nothing. How could even thorium, or anything last that long…? Even the much hyped fusion reactors would be impossible to make without very special metal casings keeping the hot plasma inside. Let’s take a Tokamak for example which is requiring a set of six Poloidal Field Coils, where each set contains 500 metric tons of Niobium-Titan (Nb-Ti) wires spanning a whopping 100 000 km-s in length. Does it sound scalable…? Or sustainable…?

It is a fact of life that metal parts wear and tear, then break or deteriorate. Then they have to be remade. Reaching 99.5% efficiency in recycling them is just a dream however — today it is somewhere between 50% and 90%, but nowhere close to 99.5%. Some even more critical metals fare much worse. Here is a study for your reference.

According to this report, recycling rates of metals are in many cases far lower than their potential for reuse. Less than one-third of some 60 metals studied have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50 per cent and 34 elements are below 1 per cent recycling, yet many of them are crucial to clean technologies such as batteries for hybrid cars to the magnets in wind turbines, says the study.

“In spite of significant efforts in a number of countries and regions, many metal recycling rates are discouragingly low, and a ‘recycling society’ appears no more than a distant hope,” states the Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report, compiled by UNEP’s International Resource Panel.

Even if we were able to fend off climate chaos, overcome every issue with the energy transition, and headed for a bright green future, we would still deplete all of our resources within a couple of hundred years, then waste what we have accumulated in another few hundred years. One or two millennia from now — at best — we would be practically out of all the metals we need.

“Then space travel will surely save us!” — comes the usual retort. We’ve sent people to the Moon more then half a century ago, and retrieved them (plus a lot of rocks) safely from there. Yet, mining asteroids is still something waiting to happen... Why? The answer is: energy economics. It is much easier to mine Earth first: it takes much less energy, time and money at a much lower risk. The irony of this situation is, that by the time we will need these materials the most, we will also run out of cheap, high EROEI energy. In fact we would need an exponentially growing energy return on investment just to maintain the current level of complexity, while in fact what is happening to surplus energy is quite the opposite. In other words: if someone doesn’t invent an anti-gravity engine requiring minimal energy and resource inputs soon (I mean really soon: within 10 years), then we would be slowly losing the chance of mining anything else than waste dumps for a pretty long time... Perhaps forever (2).

Now, a few words on agriculture, as growing food is even more important than using metals. Lacking iron, you could still use a digging stick to plant crops, but lacking food, iron is of no use to you. Unless you return to hunting.

Despite it’s utmost importance, we are not treating our soils well. In fact we are mining them: we use crops to suck up the minerals our bodies need, then give back nothing, but artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. We are turning living soil into lifeless dust and put all our hopes in continued fossil fuel use (for fertilizer production, and powering machinery). To add insult to injury we till our lands multiple times a year, exposing them to the heat of the sun, killing the microorganisms which make plant nutrients… Finally let the wind and rain carry our precious soil away…

If we were not treating our soils as bad as we do today, and implement cover cropping, minimum or no-till farming systems and contour cultivation wherever possible, we could help our lands a lot to sustain us. Even in this optimistic scenario, we would still lose a significant portion of our agriculture: more then 60% in the coming 10 000 years (assuming that every consecutive generation would treat the land the best they can). A long term major downscale in the human enterprise seems inevitable — for the health of this planet, and ours.

It is important to remember, that humanity (especially white males) have spent the past couple of millennia expanding into the furthest reaches of the globe and colonizing everything and everybody in their way. Now the world is full. We are already using 50% of all habitable land for agriculture (the rest is forests and shrubs — which is badly needed if we are to stay alive). Today there is nowhere left to expand to. Browse this map, to see how much we have altered the planet already, and what would need to be sacrificed to expand the human enterprise even further. As for a techno-fix: vertical or indoor farming, an often touted “solution” is an energy sink and does not even save space. Not to mention that it is wholly unscalable, fully dependent on non-renewable resources and thus unable to replace traditional farming.

Finally, factor in climate change: the way it makes places uninhabitable via desertification, or disrupting the stable weather patterns much needed for agriculture. Add fossil fuel and mineral depletion (3) into the mix, and you have a rapidly deteriorating food production as a result in the decades and centuries ahead. We cannot say that we were not warned:

Limits to growth. Standard run.

Our future as a species will be a mix of small scale agriculture (gardening with very simple tools) combined or interspersed with hunting and gathering. Just like a mere ten millennia ago. We will return to Mother Nature — this time, it won’t be our choice though. Mineral depletion, the loss of fossil fuels then metals, and as a result: modern technology, will force us to take a more sustainable path. A new neolithic age awaits.

As Tom Murphy et al wrote in their study of modernity’s long term prospects:

…young children, independent of the circumstances of their birth — whether impoverished or extravagant — have no perspective other than to view their environment as normal. Only through adult eyes can they start to see how skewed their world may have been. Likewise, when generation after generation in modern societies have only known this brief, explosive period of human history, it becomes easy to appreciate how difficult it is to step back and entertain a broader view — especially when the content may not be pleasing.

Humanity had a spoiled childhood. We have spent our massive, albeit one time mineral inheritance in a fossil fuel powered bonanza. Our prospects today are radically different than that of those living at the dawn of the agricultural — or even the industrial — revolution. Today we are in the process of losing arable land, and have probably already lost all the cheap and easily extractable metals and energy resources, which have made previous leaps and bounds of human civilization possible. A radical reorganization of the human enterprise has now become inevitable.

On the other hand, we cannot jump right into the future and start hunting and gathering tomorrow. We have to muddle through the changes ahead using whatever resources we have left. This is our journey. Just look at this graph below:

Image credit: Population Matters

Becoming hunters in the near future is thus neither possible nor desirable.

The final, and probably the longest stage of human history seems to be rather clear though: we will have to learn how to live as part of nature again — as this is the only proven way of living sustainably on a finite planet (4).

Until next time,

B

Notes:

(1) In order to calculate this you have to raise 99.5% or 0.995 to the power of 10000, which is 1,7014E-22 — that is the power of the exponential function over a long period of time.

(2) Were global economy and supply chains slowly cease to work because of the lack of energy to maintain them (and fend off the adverse effects of climate change), humanity would have a very hard time restarting the industrial revolution. Even if we had all the necessary knowledge, we would still lack the cheap energy and accessible resource reserves to build back an industrial society. I suspect that once the fossil fuel era is gone, we would have to revert to appropriate technologies and kiss good-bye to high energy, high complexity solutions.

(3) Minerals, especially phosphorus needs to be added to artificial fertilizers to compensate soil fertility loss. Depending on a finite mineral source for agriculture puts current practices at a high risk.

(4) Indigenous Australian peoples are a prime example: they have learnt how to live sustainably for more than 60 000 years in an otherwise very though environment. Every other form of human social experiment has went awry within a mere couple of centuries or couple of millennia at best, with one reason in common: spending a one time inheritance in an explosive boom and bust cycle.

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