Several Short Sentences About Earth’s Distant Future

image: earth during the eocene epoch, the last time the average surface temperature was 25C, via bbc nature

image: depiction of eocene rainforest in the antarctic, from this site, original source uncredited


image: from the documentary film baraka

Imagine this:

  1. Imagine that, a few millennia from now, down the steep slope that followed Peak Everything, the sixth Great Extinction is finally winding down. The pace of species extinction is slowing, and landscapes, while still often showing the signs of many recent ecological catastrophes due to ongoing tumultuous climate change, are beginning to show more patterns of succession. Our lovely planet has been through this kind of change many times before: At least twice it’s been choked in dust after meteorites or volcanoes that produced a global night that lasted a year and soaked the planet in a deluge of rain with the pH of battery acid. At least once it’s been totally encased, pole to pole, in a sheet of ice miles thick.
  2. Imagine that this Future Earth looks about as different from the way it did in the 21st century as it did the last time the average surface temperature was 25C rather than 15C — during the early Eocene epoch about 50 million years ago. Imagine that more than half of the planet is therefore now desert, including the Western US, Southern Europe, the Western 2/3 of all tropical areas, and all of the areas that were already desert in the 21st century. Much of the rest of the planet is now rainforest, subject to torrential and relentless monsoons, including former Arctic and Antarctic areas. There are no ice sheets or glaciers now. Rising sea levels have engulfed the formal coastal areas and reduced overall planetary land mass by about 20%, and coasts are now mostly steep and mountainous.
  3. Imagine that human population has declined to about 50 million, and is still declining, though much more slowly than during the earlier stages of the Great Extinction. The remaining humans have abandoned all technologies, in part because there is no cheap accessible energy to power them, and in part because with population now so small and declining, there is no real need for technologies for a full and healthy life. Population is still declining because humans are just not naturally well-adapted to very hot or changeable climates, whereas many of the succession species that now feed on humans (jaguars and crocodiles, for example) are much better adapted to prevailing climates. Nuclear radiation from abandoned 21st century power plants has also created ongoing birth rate and illness problems for humans and other species.
  4. Imagine that humans have readapted to living in the trees (because it’s safer and more comfortable), to gathering rather than growing food (because it’s more reliable and easier), and to a vegetarian and insect diet (because it’s better suited to our digestive system and more accessible in post-tool-use societies). Humans still look much like they did in the 21st century (and, for that matter, much like they have for the past million years), but they behave much differently. They have given up abstract languages because such languages are no longer of value or use, though they can communicate essential messages very accurately through vocalizations (whistles, calls and songs) and gestures. They retain a passion for art and music and practice these extensively. They live in small, autonomous tribal cultures, each with a territory large enough to provide abundant food even when catastrophic climate events occur, and little or no contact with adjacent human cultures, which are, as a result, very diverse.
  5. Imagine that such humans have given up their sense of time, again because they have no need for it. They live entirely (except for brief periods when under attack by predators) in the present, joyfully, in the moment. They have, of course, memories (so do most creatures) but their minds, without clocks, calendars and abstract language, now evolve differently from the way they did in the old “civilization” times, so they cannot and do not dwell on the past, nor fear nor long for the future. They live lives of great joy, leisure and abundance, and are unaware of the trajectory that will inevitably lead, many millennia hence, to their ecologically maladapted species’ slow and final extinction. And they are unaware of how humans live/lived in other places and times. It doesn’t concern them. They do not fear death; they accept it. Their curiosity is focused on here, and now.
  6. Imagine that such humans have begun to evolve cultural and coping characteristics more aligned with their forest-dwelling bonobo cousins than their savannah-dwelling chimp cousins. Their best-adapted societies are peaceful, gentle, matriarchal, affectionate, and egalitarian, and resolve internal conflicts and stress through embrace, caress, and sexual calming methods rather than through the expression of violence.
  7. Imagine that, despite the apparent similarities between these post-civilization humans and prehistoric tree-dwelling humans, there are a number of qualities that clearly distinguish them. These differences are not physical but behavioural, due to differences in selected genetics, learned behaviours passed between generations, and differences in environment. Post-civilization humans are still not as intuitive as prehistoric humans, but they are more imaginative and hence more playful. They are more empathetic, because they still pass on the embodied grief of having experienced massive suffering and hardship just a few hundred generations ago. They still retain vestiges of skill at abstraction and capacity to synergize, that comes through in and is practiced in their art and music composition. They also ironically retain vestiges of competitiveness, even though this no longer serves a useful purpose.

Imagine that.

If you can imagine that, perhaps you can understand why some of us are no longer working to save or reform this sad, damaged, unsustainable, juggernaut civilization culture, or even to try to make a “transition” from it to some other large-scale, high-technology, global-scope culture. Perhaps you can understand why I say “It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine.”

If you can, perhaps you can help me imagine how we can make it to this strange and wonderful future Earth, from where we are now, with the minimal amount of intervening suffering of human and other creatures, and the minimal amount of damage to this planet we call home. What could we do, now, and in stages over the coming few decades as the ragged flywheel of our civilization comes violently and shudderingly apart, that would prepare us to cope better, to be hurt less, to do less harm?

I’m trying to imagine that.

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22 Responses to Several Short Sentences About Earth’s Distant Future

  1. Sandwichman says:

    “The remaining humans have abandoned all technologies, in part because there is no cheap accessible energy to power them, and in part because with population now so small and declining, there is no real need for technologies for a full and healthy life.”

    I can imagine that easily. What I find hard to imagine is now. Today. I look out the window and see a car gliding by on the street with its occupants no doubt assuming that they are “going somewhere” in ease and comfort. It’s one car among hundreds of millions and only one technology among hundreds of thousands and yet the idea that machines are intrinsic productive is no more than an article of faith. Add up the labour, the depleted resources, the social costs and the environmental damage and its hard to imagine that the technology has added anything but a veneer of respectability to slavery and pillage. Even that veneer is based on nothing more than an article of faith that machines are “intrinsically productive.” Show me the data! Wait… there is no data. The economists and the technological snake oil salesmen have no data. They don’t need any data. They don’t have to show us any stinking data because anyone who questions the assumption is a heretic and a Luddite and a fool.

  2. bruce campbell says:

    Lovelock proposed such a future, didn’t he? And I have to say, this does resemble half of the far distant future framed by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. My big concern is that the Morlocks might just be something that is also sustainable, as with a certain rabbit colony in Watership Down.

    Hopefully that’s not too Danny Downer, but I do spend a lot of time, more so in the past, contemplating various -topias, U & Dys.


  3. bart raguso says:

    Hi, I am trying hard to not go the way of Albert Peterson, who thought the world was coming to an end with the election of Barack Obama, and decided to kill his two sons, his wife, and himself, a gigantic act of narcissum and mans self-absortion. I am trying hard to keep faith in a sense of what is holy and enduring in spite of everything man does to sully the planet. Mans’ world has always been imperfect and we are all flawed but that does not mean God’s world is fowled up. On the contrary, God’s world has always been perfect and His Creation has always terrified us. We see nature as malevolent because we do not understand His spirit in us and how benevolent nature is. Our time-sense has always been so short sighted that we have consistently undermined the basis of our vitality by raping the earth-clear cutting our forests, overgrazing our holy soil, putting shit in our holy water, and generally desecrating the virgin nature of our world. The inherrent beauty of the world will not end. Only man, who has strutted his brief moment on the boards, will. So maybe a few will survive to try to get it right the next time. Maybe what we should try to remember is our mortality is a given, and ultimately, the play goes on with perhaps one actor playing a smaller, less destructive role. It is all part of a bigger picture that we cannot hope to wrap our mind around, no matter how much we try. If there is nothing to do to prevent your worst case senario from playing out, then that leaves us only to show the best part of us to each other; our faith in the divinity of life and the beauty of this rare world, our love for what is sweet and good in humans,( our God-given spirit ), and gratitude in our hearts for our opportunity to witness, however briefly, the wonder of God,s Creation. Peace and Love

  4. Hi Dave,

    Your imagination is quite vivid but I don’t think that it would play out like this. No matter how chaotic the period of destruction, the survivors will still have a lot of knowledge and culture among them and they’d be likely to carry that forward. Languages won’t disappear. We might let go of most modern technology but clearly we’ll retain some technology. For example we won’t just forget about the wheel and fire. And basic tools and spears and bow and arrow. We’ll be reduced to small tribes but we’ll clearly still have culture. It might get disfigured but we’d still have it. Are you suggesting devolution of our species? I think we have a bigger chance of leaving no survivors than of slowly devolving and then becoming extinct.

    I think we’ll survive and we’ll save a lot of our knowledge along with us and we’ll get another chance to grow our civilization. My only fear is that we’ll do it the same way again. That’s what we have to make sure doesn’t happen. That when we start rebuilding we don’t do it in the same greedy materialistic way. We need to build a more spiritual civilization the next time around which knows that it is best to survive in harmony with nature and not to take more than we need.

    And that’s what we should be doing right now. I like your idea of living in the moment and enjoying your life because there is no hope. I don’t ask you to start trying to save the environment again. I agree with you that that is hopeless now. But I ask you to not lose all hope. Let’s work towards building a spiritual world. Let’s make people realize that this attitude of wanting more and more stuff is not right. Let’s tell them that we can be happier if we let go of wants and just focus on the needs. (No, iPhone5 is not a need!) Let’s do all this so that when the time for rebuilding comes these ideas will be present among the survivors. What say?

  5. I’m with you Dave. Took me many years but I get what you are saying deeply in my bones.

    Like Dory says in Finding Nemo: just keep swimming.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Cheryl Long wrote (offline): It all rings true, and illustrates why you are having trouble being present.
    It’s one thing to cast your mind forward and have a bit of a peek at the future, but to dwell there is something else.
    In my humble opinion, you have rushed ahead and pegged out your camping spot and are dwelling there, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
    I’m not presuming to tell you anything that you don’t already know, I’m just voicing my own observation. You are an imaginer, a thinker, a visionary so I guess your mind is always going to be somewhere else.

    My response to which was: Very profound observation. Thanks. I guess my response would be that my purpose for this exercise is actually to help me (and perhaps others) let go of my/our preoccupation with the future and what we should be doing about it, by convincing myself/others that the future will be what it will be, and that we’ll be, eventually, fine, regardless of what we do to try to change it. As with any ‘visioning’ exercise the point is that it’s hard to decide what to do if you don’t have a sense of the endpoint/purpose of your actions. The difference with this one is that the lesson is that it doesn’t much matter what we do, that perhaps we should do less, and just be present, and that by so doing we will live better and more thoughtfully and consciously today and hence possibly make decisions and take actions that, in the long run, will be more helpful than just the current helter-skelter “well, we have to do *something, *anything is better than doing* nothing*” approach. If I can convince myself of that, then perhaps my mind will cease being somewhere else all the time, and be simply present.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Mushin wrote (offline):
    What an imagination you have and it is valid. Recently I have been reflecting on the Buffalo of the Great Plains that endures harsh climatic changes and as a living intelligent mammal is much better stewards of caring, feeding and nurturing connectivity to the earth. You ask “what could we do?” I am committed to a clearing for learning of our mutual liberation in the web of life. Extinction is the unintended consequences for the technological growth without restraint that is still chanting “Drill Baby Drill.” Yet, there is another old song you point to of our indigenousness rooted in compassionate learning and breathing the beauty of adorning the wonder in every moment. Our problems are small indeed compared to the big breakdowns in future generations. What we can do is collectively gather our trust and harness our human commitments to design a child centric future and like the Buffalo in the plains start over growing the deep generative grasses in our shared humanness. You are courageous in embracing the hopelessness and despair in our disappearance and retreat from current unconscious human behaviors. I intend to learn from the Buffalo and gather the wisdom and strength for future generations. I pray you have a robe, hearth and circle of friends to sit with in the clearing for learning and are camps share a new vision in the midst of deep predatory chaos surrounding us. Thank you for the post! Mushin

    My response to which was: Love the idea of a “child-centric future”, one where every decision would reflect on its potential impact (as indigenous peoples do) seven generations hence, and which favours the precautionary principal over innovation and technology even when that is a difficult, reluctant trade-off.

  8. A visionary glimpse into the possibly not too distant future and beyond, based on some quite reasonable extrapolations of current trends and humanity’s apparent collective inability to accept such concepts or unwillingness to alter behaviour patterns and to abandon those ‘perceived rights’ which just might have some effect on the outcome. I have no argument with any of your thought pictures Dave.

    Problem is, and this is something that really annoys me, there always has to be someone who wants to continue peddling and giving away their own personal power to that outdated, misguided, delusional, self-deprecating concept of god, with a big ‘G’. Something to which North Americans in general seem grossly intent in clinging, as if there was no other hope in the world. I don’t care what their ‘experience’ is, what they ‘feel’ about their relationship with ‘God’, their willingness to ‘leave it to God’ to sort out, after all ‘He’ is in control. Don’t they see that they are completely missing the point? Don’t they realise that these ideas are incompatible with the future that faces us? Don’t they understand that the only god that matters is them, you and me. If they did, then they would know that the decisions are theirs to make. Decisions that cannot be delegated to some invisible, fictional figure of their imagination.

    Anyway, if these people really thought they were on the right track, they would be looking for some sort of ‘rapture’ event not a post civilisation, energy, population, collapse situation. Their god would surely not allow them to live through that sort of process. They would be long gone, and good riddance.

  9. Hi David:

    Coincidentally I just made a final edit to an article that could have been written in answer to your closing question. It is a sequel to my Cyclemas article, which associated the down feelings that many get while the days are getting shorter and colder and the relief that comes when the daylight is clearly growing again to the malaise you express and the prospect that we will amend our ways, if even after a great catastrophe.

    I’ve imagined similar outcomes to those you write here, tho I don’t picture humans becoming extinct. We may have blown the great opportunity of this civilization, but there are a number of factors that will enable us to endure over the long run. The new article, soon to be posted on our update list
    follows below.

    I hope this helps you picture how we can “cope better, to be hurt less, to do less harm.”

    Yours, Mike Nickerson

    “It’s Never Too Late”

    Almost daily people share with me the heart-ache they feel around the state of the world. Some are immobilized by what they sense and humanity’s potential comes up short by at least the difference they can make.

    We all need reason to carry on. Something to hold our spirits up so that we can continue to act and thereby make the best of what we face. Human beings are easily clever enough to succeed on this planet for as long as the Sun is a viable star. Where can we find enough strength of heart to recreate the human project in a way that accommodates our species’ new grown-up state?

    It is important to feel and to express pain, sorrow and shame when they arise. Blocking or hiding such feelings only turns them into invisible forces that can trip us up.  There is much for humans to answer for in our treatment of the Earth and of each other. If one isn’t upset to some extent, one isn’t paying attention.  Feeling the troubles is a first step toward moving forward to deal with the challenges.  While some of the issues have been unresolved for ages, the changes that are coming about presently provide new opportunities for transformation.

    Once we accept, as a species, that we cannot grow forever on this wonderful but finite planet, we will have reached emotional maturity.  At that point we can apply our vast collective knowledge, skills and ingenuity toward stabilizing the human presence on Earth.

    Individuals who have been fortunate enough, in formative years, to live in the presence of nature will have an innate sense of a strong order, beyond the human realm. There is a robustness to the life that thrives everywhere that water is found. Look to the clouds, streams, rivers, lakes and oceans to realize that the cycling of water is powerful and forever. Look at trees, rooted firmly in the ground, capturing sunshine and growing strong and at smaller plants growing up through pavement and in every corner where there is any soil. Though time wears down all living things, the miracle of reproduction constantly renews each form. Look at tiny insects and animals moving about and realize that they have lived for hundreds of thousands, sometimes hundreds of millions of years. Ancient beyond imagining, the matrix of nature has rebounded from catastrophes far more serious than what humans can muster.

    We humans are also amazing individually and ten thousand times more so as societies. Picture your skull. That iconic complex of bones that houses your senses, your ability to talk – your brain, that remarkable tool that we are gifted with by virtue of being human. Creatures such as ourselves have managed well in practically every part of the world. Rather than being instinctively fixed to live in particular circumstances, our big brains are programmed anew each generation, with the realities present in the world they grow into.

    Already an increasing number of today’s youth are forming world views based on our full Earth. As time reveals more of the dangers resulting from ignoring Earth’s limits, far more of our youth will build their world views around that understanding, rather than on the model of perpetual expansion. Helping young adults grasp the new criteria may be the most potent action for change that anyone can take.

    In the same way that those who have grown up with computers are fully at home using them, those who grow up with an understanding of sustainability will become competent at building a world to fit.

    Civilizations are nurtured by the value of people treating each other as they like to be treated themselves. In Life, Money and Illusion I call this the “tap root of civilization.” All cultures include this “rule.” As an underlying principle, it nurtures cooperation and leads to synergies by which well-being exceeds, by far, the sum of all the individual efforts. Even the capitalist faith of Growth Everlasting exhibits this ethic when we buy the products and services of others the way we would like them to buy our products and services. Alas, the greater value placed by that faith on competition and greed leads to insensitivity and abuse of the social and environmental foundations of well-being. Communities where people don’t take care of each other do not endure.

    There is a logic to what one philosopher from an earlier era said to embellish the Golden Rule. He encouraged people to love their neighbours as they love their own selves. Following this example, he explained, leads to everlasting life. Where is the logic here? No one lives forever! When one truly loves another, the interests and concerns of the other become one’s own. Loving one’s community, from good neighbours, even to enemies, unites one with the community.  While such individuals eventually pass away, their essence continues in the communities they nurture.

    Taking care of each other has been the human tendency for so long that is is at the core of our emotional selves. The “Law of Feeling” states that when one does something for someone else, without thought of getting anything back in return, one feels good about one’s self and consequently about the world. You can easily test this, if you have any doubt.

    Success is not about us as individuals. Individuality is great for pioneering new approaches and guiding societies as they adapt to changing circumstances. However, if one identifies only with one’s own self there can be no end but tragedy. You will die. No one has ever gotten out alive, even in the best of times. What can be everlasting is the gifted species that we have the huge honour to be.

    Enormous volumes of nutrient materials are cycling through living systems at all times and we can eat much of it.  We already live in climates as diverse as the Arctic and the Sahara Desert and everything in between.  And we can adapt in the short term, if need be.  A huge amount of work has been done in preparation since planetary limits came into view four decades ago.

    Before us is a spectrum of possibilities. At one extreme is the best possible outcome, where mature responsibility sweeps throughout the world’s institutions and we re-structure how things are done to serve all life safely within our planet’s limits. At the other extreme, nations pursue their “me, me, me” policies, competing for diminishing resources, and leading to massive conflict, followed by a nuclear winter and the end of the human experiment. We could end up anywhere along this spectrum.

    In the next century and a half, human impacts will trim down either by greatly reducing our average consumption of natural resources or by a compassionate or naturally induced reduction of the population. At present levels of consumption, one or two billion people would be practical according to some ecologists studying the ability of natural systems to provide the essential nutrient – nitrogen. We could achieve such a population in a few generations with a custom of one child per couple. Or it could come about chaotically. Chances are that, if we wait for the chaotic option, only a half a billion people or fewer will populate the globe.  

    Rest assured, however, that regardless of how things unfold over that time, nether you nor I, nor any of the children or grandchildren that we know, could possibly be among that population. If we are identified with our community, however, those hundreds of millions of people will be us, homo sapiens.

    In such a time, we will have a potent memory of a civilization that went very wrong.  If we do our job well today, that memory will contain a clear understanding that ongoing efforts must respect the limits of our planet.  Indeed, as we shed the dread of personal mortality and take on the practically immortal role of homo sapiens, we can focus more resolutely on the work at hand.

    The spectrum of possibilities remains. Every effort we make toward the positive end improves the outcome. Every shock to our social and environmental stability inclines more people to consider the possibilities. Responsibility may yet come to our institutions as it comes to most individuals. One approach to advancing this end can be found in this free on-line mini-course on Shifting Society’s Goals.

    Even if we can’t get beyond our veneer of individualism, and the collapse scenario unfolds, the pressure on living systems will drop dramatically with the population. With the pressure off, Earth will repair itself. Human culture, chastened by the experience, will sooner or later begin its reorientation into far more appropriate forms. If we love humankind, that civilization will be us. Take heart today and, whatever actions you are drawn to will, when the dust settles, leave us better off.

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  11. Peter Brandis says:

    I am still looking for the several “short” sentences. Exercise for Dave: write several short sentences. Or several short paragraphs! I am trying to imagine Dave being succinct – perhaps that will happen say, in the next 50 years or so, when time spent writing is far less important that time spent gardening!

  12. “They have given up abstract languages because such languages are no longer of value or use, though they can communicate essential messages very accurately through vocalizations (whistles, calls and songs) and gestures. They retain a passion for art and music and practice these extensively.”

    I read this segment, and I was reminded of an interview of John Zerzan where he talks about the deleterious impact of technology on the human psyche, in the aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death. It occurred to me, to introspect on what the crux of human experience is, so that if everything else were to be taken away from us, and only “that” remained we would still qualify to be called human? This is not to suggest that humans are in any way special or more important than other species, but just to emphasize that while in the larger scheme of things we are just one of billions of species who have flourished and become extinct on this planet, at the same time we are probably the only species on this planet to have been burdened with a crystallized sense of self-consciousness – in other words ego.

    While songs and music will survive, perhaps literature will not, for what can those humans write about? What kind of stories can they tell? Because don’t stories occur in the future, while our descendants a few hundred years down the line will live primarily in the present? But with this loss of abstract languages, will we lose something uniquely us? Isn’t conceptual thinking something uniquely human, something which has enabled us to create great works of music, sculpture, architecture and literature? Is there nothing worth salvaging from these? While some of these have definitely resulted from our destructive civilization, storytelling and painting/ drawing is perhaps our heritage from those distant pre-civilization hunter gatherer days. Maybe we can continue telling stories, imagining and dreaming even after this civilization has collapsed. But what will we dream of? And what kind of stories will we then tell? Maybe herein lies the crux of human experience. After this industrial civilization has collapsed and we have gone back to living in the wilderness, whatever remains of our innate nature – shorn of the destructive civilization, will be uniquely us!

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Peter: Yes, you’re right, they aren’t ‘short’, and I will work on that; the title is an homage to Verlyn Klinkenborg’s recent work, where he uses this structure of discourse (a simple numbered list of points) rather than sentences organized into paragraphs.

    Shailendra: I thought about that, and several people e-mailed me saying they thought the loss of abstract language was the only thing that didn’t ring true in this post. But there is evidence that humans have been practicing art twice as long as they have been speaking abstract languages. You can tell wonderful stories with drawings and song, and while they aren’t as ‘precise’ as modern human language stories, they are perhaps more profound communications, less transient. There is a theory that abstract language co-evolved with settlement, because settlement brought the need for hierarchy and instruction, so our languages evolved to convey instructions down and information up the hierarchy ‘accurately’. So that’s why I postulated that post-civilization society will lose the need, and hence the capacity, for abstract language, and convey what they must through, as Joni Mitchell puts it “wires and hammers”.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Sorry to the commenters whose comments got stuck in my spam filter — I have liberated them and thank you for them.

  15. Steve Hinton says:

    Dave! My thoughts after your article went, spontaneously,to the internet platform “Second Life” and the island Perfect Paradise, I think you are familiar with it. It is an online community exploring what it is like to scale everything back to just having nature and each other and maybe a few simple tools to rely on.
    You future vision is very much like that Island, maybe we should encourage more to go visit it and join the community to get a taste of what this future might hold.

  16. bart raguso says:

    to Dave: again,thank you for creating a venue and a forum for people to share their thoughts about the central issue of our time, the affect we humans have on our miracle home, the Earth.
    Perhaps you do not see what a great contribution you are making by “being present” and consciously observing the truth of what is, (without having an ax to grind), with the full weight of the your rigorous intellectual analysis. We can observe without attachment, but still we have to respect our feelings of sadness.
    We need to express our feelings to avoid becoming immobilized.
    Thanks for airing all of Mike Nickerson’s comments. I thought they were particularly valuable and his website is worth attention.
    One final comment: It is extremely important what we do if we want to remain free in our hearts, minds, and spirits. ” a sense of the endpoint/purpose of your actions” as a result of this visioning exercise, is achieved by accepting what is, accepting ourselves entirely without beating ourselves up, doing what we are capable of, realizing it “is” in the hands of the Lord for anyone with the heart, mind, and spirit to see it, and living with joy and gratitude. Dave, you are already part of the solution by fostering this dialogue and sponsering the free flow of your lively ideas and those of other aware folks. Please don’t stop the dialogue now. You are just getting started.

  17. Jim Newcomer says:


    If there is some conversation I missed about abstract languages, please forgive my ignorance. I’ll say my piece anyway. I don’t see a boundary. Language is language. As hunter-gatherers, people use abstract language to tell each other where the game is and how to prepare for the hunt. They tell stories about what happened. They – we – have memories and dreams as inescapably as we have skin. I watched my dog, who does not seem to have an abstract language, dreaming last night, her paws and nose quivering with the chase (or whatever the sequence was). So I can’t imagine something that does not include a wide range of abstraction and memories expressed through words.

    Further, we humans are social animals. We live in bands, tribes, villages, cities, corporations, battalions. Many forms, granted, depend on technology and other forms of information that can only exist if they are supported by massive sources of energy – e.g., fossil fuels. There are only so many forms a society can take – or any system for that matter. Information, which is one of the building blocks of a social group, can only be generated, transmitted, stored, transformed, or remembered in certain patterns. Language is extremely efficient at all those processes. Think, for example, of the effects of inventing the word ‘energy.’ Until that happened, there were terms for fire, for falling water, for rocks rolling down hills, for lifting timbers and dragging sledges and wagons. But it wasn’t till Maxwell’s time that someone realized that all these things were aspects of one thing: energy. That energy could be transformed from fire to steam to electricity and back to cartage or lifting or warmth. Once that was established it became interesting to look at electrons and atoms – and voila, energy could be generated from mass, enough to destroy Hiroshima and to electrify all of France.

    So our languages, I think, will not fade. Those terms will not all be forgotten. Maybe not even our written languages, maybe not mathematics – well, maybe calculus and quantum will lose some of their attractions. But there is evidence – e.g., from the Roman desertion of Britannia in 525 a.d. – that written language, once learned, persists. OK, so it was the church that preserved it mostly. But not completely; there were still people in most major towns who could write and keep records.

    And farming as a principle may not be forgotten. It will persist, I think, because it works; it is an efficient way to corral the sun’s energy and turn it into food energy for us humans. And that will imply property because the people who plant will want to eat the food they have grown – and will not want others to take it away from them. And that will imply writing and mathematics because people want to remember who owns what land and what crops they grew and traded over several years. And how the climate has varied and produced more or less water, greater or smaller crops.

    I could go on with my own unfounded predictions. But I think you get the idea. There are some things – and I hope that the awareness of bacteria, the formulae for anesthetics, and some other very useful discoveries that I like are among them – that I hope are salvaged.

    But these things we also know: the easy mineral resources have been mined for all time. There will never again be easy copper or iron ore or petroleum at the earth’s surface. The fossil fuels will be unavailable. No one will reinvent cars or airplanes, and huge, multi-continental organizations such as corporations and national armies will be impossible without the energy required to support them – as well as the organized information processing that keeps their organizations acting regularly. Our human organizations seem to require a fractal form of hierarchical information and human groups to operate. I doubt that will be possible without coal or oil. (On the other hand, the Romans, the Mayans, the Indians under Ashoka and the Chinese seem to have done it. Who knows?)

    I am rambling. But my point is, I doubt humans will lose their individual memories, their abilities to tell and understand stories (since that is how the human brain seems to operate most efficiently), their basic structures of organizing under power laws of distribution, or their collective memories – what we call cultures. I hope they don’t lose some of the other precious information we have stored in our collective memories – our libraries, our hard drives, our stories – the knowledge of metallurgy and at least simple genetics. And as for what emerges, I would base my predictions on what I know of complexity and emergence.

    (I was influenced in this by watching Sapolski’s lecture on that subject, and I recommend it. You can find it on YouTube at – or look under Stanford University.) There’s a lot more, and I’m working to make my ideas on it intelligible. But for now, I hope this contributes to the discussion – actually I also hope that this discussion contributes to our ability to act in the now in ways that lead to good outcomes for our children and grandchildren. Because I have grandchildren and I care.

    Jim Newcomer

  18. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Jim: I’m familiar with Sapolski’s work, and I’ll acknowledge that our brains are predisposed towards complex language, but I think the Roman situation was different — before their empire imploded they exported a lot of stuff to other areas who could continue to keep and (more important) use the memory of what had been learned. And our memories are terribly fragile — we keep saying we must never forget the lessons of WW2, but we have already forgotten them, and that is less than a century ago. We remember what we use, and that’s why I see the long-distance future of human communication as being art and music, not abstract language, because art and music will continue to be useful.

  19. I had a strange response to this article. It was like looking at pictures of a land I used to know well, but where I no longer dwell. I spent years shaping dystopian futures in my mind as I fleshed out my understanding of where we are, how we got here, and where our future trajectory might land. I ultimately found that being that kind of visionary was a soul-destroying business for me. On a positive note, however, I found that the answer for my own survival was precisely the same as the answer you found for your future version of us:


    They live entirely (except for brief periods when under attack by predators) in the present, joyfully, in the moment. They have, of course, memories (so do most creatures) but their minds(…) now evolve differently from the way they did in the old “civilization” times, so they cannot and do not dwell on the past, nor fear nor long for the future. They live lives of great joy, leisure and abundance, and are unaware of the trajectory that will inevitably lead, many millennia hence, to their ecologically maladapted species’ slow and final extinction. And they are unaware of how humans live/lived in other places and times. It doesn’t concern them. They do not fear death; they accept it. Their curiosity is focused on here, and now.

    Imagine that such humans have begun to evolve cultural and coping characteristics more aligned with their forest-dwelling bonobo cousins than their savannah-dwelling chimp cousins. Their best-adapted societies are peaceful, gentle, matriarchal, affectionate, and egalitarian, and resolve internal conflicts and stress through embrace, caress, and sexual calming methods rather than through the expression of violence.


    You’re not just talking about what we might become in the future – you’re describing what we can become today. It is within our grasp to evolve into this vision of post-apocalyptic humanity without even waiting for the apocalypse. It is available here, right now, for those who wish to walk this path. Our species may (will?) end up someplace entirely unexpected in terms of physical circumstances. Regardless of where that may be, I think it’s a a good idea to get a head start on the essential psycho-spiritual changes we’d need to navigate whatever future present we enter.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Nice David. This is the story of Spirit Walker written by hank weaselman back in 1996. Great read. Cheers.

  21. Dave,

    John Trudell is horrified by the fact that our culture “has no spiritual connection to the future.” That’s a fatal defect. You’re doing important work. Trust your intuition. Listen to your ancestors. Snatch a pile of Tom Brown books, and remember how human beings live. Learn what it means to reconnect with the family of life, to be fully present in reality.

    I have no suggestions for a smooth, pleasant, low-impact collapse. A super-storm is moving in, and humankind will not be in control of what happens. Mike Davis described what it’s like to be alive during a climate shift:

    Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts, Verso, New York, 2001.

    64 Rains failed for two years in the Yellow River basin of northern China, beginning in 1876. Relief food moved slowly. The government had chosen not to invest in railroads, to discourage foreign colonialists. It took more than a year for relief to arrive, and millions died. Recent rebellions had disrupted an old system for providing famine relief. 65 Current rebellions were draining government funds. The Grand Canal was seasonally unnavigable. 67 People burned their houses for fuel. Then they dug large pits, and 240 people would huddle together to stay warm. 68 Children were sold so the parents could buy food. Some committed suicide to avoid the shame of begging. 69 Bandits were executed by the thousands.

    70 In China, when famine refugees became too numerous at a place, they were massacred, to get them out of the way. 71 Packs of wolves finished off the starving. 72 Hunger was severe. First you eat the dead, next the strong ate the weak, finally, men eat their own flesh and blood. 76 The living would be killed for food. Husbands ate wives. Parents ate children. Children ate parents. 78 Refugees would march to relief camps to get some food, where they were wiped out by diseases in the camps. 79 Typhus spread beyond the drought regions and plagued the rich and healthy.

    Take care, Rick

  22. a lost soul-average joe says:

    hello Dave, I am glad to see im not alone in this world, i am a 30 year old American who battles with these issues on a daily basis, i am your average American “just trying to get by”. I “work” in a retai establishment and see the plague of our “consumer” society, i see the poor,the rich,the obese, the mentally ill and all of the above and below. I see the happy and sad, im a”new age wage slave” like most other people in this Country, i myself am i guess an Atheist because i really wasnt tought any major religion(even thou i have friends and family with different beliefs) ,i do have some morals and i have a sense of spiritually i feel pain and joy like everyone else,could be labeled as a little rascist,homophobe,sexist person inwhich most of this was tought to me as a child. I struggle with issues daily knowing these things are wrong,that we are all just people! i was mentally and phisically abused as achild inwhich has affected my entire life.i make a little over $30,000 a year and can barely support myself, i do drugs(if you want to call Pot a drug) occasionally drink alchol,smoke cigarettes(which are know good for anybody and are very addictive) and still pick my nose. i got good grades mostly in school and did graduate from highschool.ive had a “job” since i was legally allowed. many different fields from food service to roofing, and even mindless repetitive factory work .(im not putting these things in here seeking mental or financial help,just wanted to give a basis on my background)I ve made mistakes in my life and have done good deeds as well. I have brought joy and pain to scarred to see what will happen to us as a species as well and when i bring the issues of our current world up to others they say its all BS or that im a negative person! i admit i have issues but i just dont “see” our f****d up society/
    culture/world etc ,but feel it in my soul. We are tought that “money makes the man” by comercialism and consumerisum. But thats all we know in the USA.I see it in peoples faces and see our sadness in these times. people want to be happy and make others happy,and they work hard to try to do this. But it seems like we all take one step forward and two steps back. i want to see humans survive. i admit i am a contributer to these issues because i watch movies,play video games,eat s**t food, occasionally buy useless material possesions, pay more money for a product when its more convient, polute the enviroment …etc,the list goes on.i guess what im trying to say is that im glad to see im not the only one out ther realize we as humans have problems and we need to fix them. PS. if people try to tell you are full of it, tell them to look in their hearts and they ll realize your pretty right unless all they really care about is money. if their is a God may he help us all! im gonna check out your book if ican get my lazy a** away from the “boob tube”

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