Ultimate Success

Earth 1

In early fall 2020, I took a break from intense work on textbook preparation to immerse myself in nature, in the form of a month on the Olympic Peninsula. I spent periods of good weather in the backcountry, and therefore didn’t bother carrying a tent along in my already-too-heavy backpack. Somehow sleep is more precious when there’s some chance of being woken by a (black) bear’s slobbery breath in your face. But for the many dozens of times I’ve slept this way in the wilderness, I have not had a single nighttime bear encounter—being exceedingly careful to keep food smells well away from my sleeping site. Luckily, it would seem that my physical person does not smell like food.

I’m not an adrenaline junkie with a death wish, but exposing myself to some risk at the hands of nature brings a greater appreciation of the relationship between humans and the world of the wild. Being a temporary tourist in nature is not quite the same as fully being a part of nature, but it’s closer than many experience in our human-dominated artificial world.

One of my aims for the trip was to step back from the nitty-gritty focus on margin-notes and glossary items for the textbook and synthesize a broader picture. Being immersed in the wilderness really helped that process. Nature is so grand; so ancient; so indifferent. Nature is wild. Nature is mature.

Humans have embarked on a 10,000 year experiment to separate from nature: to build stores and access “old money” that Earth has banked for eons, providing a recent freedom to largely ignore annual, renewable flows in nature. The last several centuries have accelerated the divorce to an alarming degree. But the question I stumbled upon as my boots navigated rocks and roots on the trail was:

Is the 10,000-year-old human civilization in its infancy, or nearer its end than its beginning?

Of course, this is not a question that I or anyone can answer with any confidence, but that’s not the point. The question provides a compelling framework against which to assess what long term success for humans on this planet would mean, by forcing us to think on appropriate timescales. Appendix section D.5 in the new textbook explores this topic in a complementary way to this post.

Local Limitations

General Relativity casts gravity as a curvature of spacetime, so that a particle (or planet) simply responds to the local curvature imposed by nearby masses, executing the straightest path that it can in that twisted space, which distorts into orbits traced out on a global scale. In this sense, we say that gravity is local. It’s not Newton’s “action at a distance” but a locally-felt influence, via the mechanism of curved space.

Humans are similarly “local” by nature, most concerned with events in the very short term: eating today; rent this month; quarterly profits; annual yield; few-year political terms. Some thought goes into decade-level planning, but seldom extends beyond one’s own lifetime. All this is very understandable and is the way it is for good reason. It’s a sensible reaction to dealing with uncertainty and limited control over a complex life, and is highly adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

Economists formalize this natural tendency as a discount rate: devaluing the future relative to the present. Where money counts—that is, in nearly all current human decisions—the distant future may as well not exist, having essentially zero value.

Maybe this dismal framing simply captures human nature accurately. But maybe it also amplifies a destructive tendency—conditioning us to think in these myopic terms.

That’s what is so powerful about the question: is human civilization nearer its end or its beginning? It forces a completely different perspective and timescale for consideration. It suddenly places value on the distant future, and has the potential to reshape actions today to help steer outcomes on such long timescales. It says: “Hey: do you even care what happens to humanity in the long term?”

Futile Future Fantasies?

At this stage, many say:

“Sure, but we can’t possibly predict well enough the developments over such timescales to have a meaningful impact by our actions today.”

A large part of this thinking is guided by the only context many of us have: the past. Someone 10,000 years ago surely could not have foreseen the technological world of today. Any mental energy in this direction would have been an utter waste of time. Any actions in preparation for that unforeseeable future would be exceedingly lucky to have any relevance whatsoever.

Here’s why this mindset is not as valid as it seems:

  1. Most of the change in the last 10,000 years has happened in the last 200 years: much more local and fast-moving, and therefore more tractable to understand and predict.
  2. The tools of math and physics permit us to define some things that are not possible to maintain for 10,000 years, allowing us to usefully constrain the “head-space.”  In this sense, we can turn the usual argument on its head and say that people 10,000 years ago could not possibly fathom that we would have tools today to help meaningfully constrain possibilities 10,000 years hence.

The first lesson from physics is that growth cannot be a long-term prospect. The last few-hundred years are the anomaly. We can be sure of that. A 1% growth rate—thought of as modest in the present era—has a doubling time of 70 years. 10,000 years means 140 doublings, which is 42 orders of magnitude. Physics says: not gonna happen. If each year, 1% of any resource is “destroyed” (mined, chopped, burned), it will be utterly gone in 10,000 years. According to the Attenborough show, A Life on Our Planet, wild spaces declined from 62% of the planet to 35% from 1960 to 2020 (very close to 1% reduction per year). Clearly, we’ve been doing it all wrong for the last 60 years, so that the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed is a terrible template for the future, and should probably be utterly ignored: discarded like smelly trash.  We have been deceived by rapid exhaustion of the extravagant inheritance into thinking life will always be at least this rich.

Human civilization in 10,000 years therefore cannot afford to continue any exploitation or destruction of one-time resources. Fossil fuels will be long gone or abandoned. Deforestation must stop. Aquifer depletion must stop. Jeopardizing the survival of any species must stop. Soil erosion or degradation must stop. Anything that is not replenished by nature as fast as we’re using it cannot be part of a successful future.

Success, Sustainability: Synonymous

To me, that rock-solid and rather obvious insight is a big deal. Suddenly, we have a rule book for success. In the end, success can only mean sustainability. The rule book could get by with that one line. The converse is also true: unsustainable is unsuccessful. Which should we aim to be?

To satisfy our desire to be in our infancy as a civilization, and not near the end, we have no choice but to cease actions that result in gradual decline of resources or gradual accumulation of pollutants. Doing it in a controlled manner might allow preservation our hard-won knowledge through the transition. If we ignore the unmistakable call to change, then nature will exercise indifferent control in a way that may not be to our liking, as ecosystems collapse and turn off our life support machine. We’re basically gnawing on the cord that powers the very thing keeping us alive: smart enough to destroy, but not wise enough to preserve.

In this stark—and ultimately correct—view, almost everything we do today is not compliant with the success rule book. Can you guess what is left in the absence of success? That’s right: failure.

Fueling Failure

A restatement is therefore: most things we do today are contributing to our ultimate failure. The dinner table question: “What did you do today?” might as well be asked as “What did you do today that contributes to humanity’s ultimate failure?” The answer is generally the same. Whatever we did likely contributed more to ultimate failure than to ultimate success. Shouldn’t we be shouted at for our juvenile negligence and be sent to our rooms without any dinner?

If, in the course of your day: you used fossil fuels; utilized mined materials; ate food grown using industrially-produced fertilizer or other soil amendments; used furniture whose wood was harvested from a place that is no longer forest; worked for a company whose focus is monetary rather than ecosystem health, enjoyed electricity produced by devices whose materials or fuel were extracted from the ground; lived in a house or building made from extracted materials or chopped forests; ate food irrigated from an aquifer (or animals fed on such food); or looked at a computer screen; then you contributed to ultimate failure. In other words, if you are a member of modern society and not living in harmony with the land like a primitive outcast, then you are perhaps unwillingly and/or unwittingly an accessory to crimes against the ultimate success of humanity.

Scrapping the Script

That’s okay, maybe. It’s not over yet. Nature is resilient and can rebound to support us for the long haul if we take our hands off its throat. It won’t bear a grudge (the upside of its indifference to our fate). We “just” need to sort activities into those that contribute to success and those that contribute to failure, and stop doing the latter in favor of the former. As long as we turn the tanker ship before too much irreversible damage is done to ecosystems, they can recover. But it has to be a system-wide shift, and we don’t have much time. Many ecosystems have already been hacked into small enough disconnected parcels that we cannot be assured of their springing back.

The hard part is how pervasive the failure-promoting practices are. As aware as I am of our destructive trajectory, I can’t avoid contributing to failure as a member of our society. It pains me to know that like almost everyone else, I contribute more to failure than I contribute to success every day. My main strategy has been to drastically reduce how much damage I do by using far less energy, traveling less, buying less stuff, prioritizing nature (even bears, if they decide to eat me), and of course communicating concerns and perspectives that might help leverage broader action.

Change won’t happen overnight, but it must start with awareness. Put on your 10,000 year glasses and ask what things in life are likely to be present in a successful 10,000 year lifestyle. Try to stop doing or at least de-emphasizing those things that contribute to ultimate failure. Be a part of the values shift, and help educate others—trying not to be righteous, condescending, or a know-it-all: just ask others if they think those activities will be possible in 10,000 years to start reflection and discussion. Explore together. Liberally sprinkle “I don’t know” into the conversation to encourage acknowledgement of the same truth from the other side.

To help discern successful modes, think about natural flows: things nature replaces as we use them. Oxygen, water, wood, vine, pelts, bone, thatch, and fibers are resupplied by nature, for instance. Rock and clay are not regenerated, but perhaps abundant/present enough at the surface to be permissible. Primitive modes stood the test of time and offer valuable insight. Note: I’m not recommending everyone rush out to get bone tools, because 8 billion people wanting animal products may unleash a devastating blow against nature.

Conversely, mined materials are not replaced. We may be able to recycle materials, but for how long? How many cycles before corrosion and dispersal preclude indefinite use? 10,000 years is many hundreds of human generations. It is true that the atoms don’t disappear, but our ability to gather them profitably may suffer.  Recycling mined materials may not be a viable possibility in 10,000 years.

Remaining Reflection

I would hope that the far future, while necessarily blending more intimately into nature, can also preserve some critical technology so that we can maintain and improve upon our knowledge of the world. But I honestly don’t know if nature is compatible with a technological species for the long term. We simply have no evidence on Earth or beyond, inspiring this thing I made up (not sure what the rules are, so is this a passage, a quote, or a poem?):

Present practices are fundamentally incompatible with nature.
Is it even possible to maintain technology over the long term?
We, ourselves, will never know the answer.
Meanwhile, the universe says… nothing.

The next post will address the terms of our contract with nature.

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics.

Originally published by Do the Math



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