Earth is running out of time

New York City. One of the United States’ most recognizable cities. In September 2020, one of the many artistic landmarks of the city was repurposed. It was the Metronome near Union Square. If you’ve ever walked by it or have seen it online, you will probably notice 2 things. 

One, a giant piece of artwork by Kristen Jones and Andrew Ginzel that is supposed to convey instancy and infinity, transience and permanence all at once. While the “pulsating” nature of the artwork is supposed to embody the city’s energy, elements such as the massive piece of bedrock symbolizing millennia of geological history, and the rippling centerpiece all come together to help the viewer to visualize one thing: time. Another thing you might notice is the nearly 60 feet long display of digits. This digital facet of the artwork is what allows it to be reprogrammed to fit an occasion. Previously, it was used to display the time of the day, and the number of hours, minutes, and seconds that remain in it. It is all quite fittingly titled, “The Passage.” Passage through the day, you might imagine. 

But this September, this artwork embarked on a new mission, a passage of its own, if you will. The digits changed to display not the regular time, but the time Earth has left in our “Carbon Budget” before, given the current rate of emissions, we cross the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold outlined by the IPCC in 2018. 

It all sounds like things people have heard before. Scientists come up with numbers, they urge how important it is, and then people move on with their days. This, however, is different. A complete depletion would result in a total destruction of our planet, and it will have been at the fault of our own hands. 

If the Earth’s temperatures increase by just 1.5 degrees Celsius, we will feel it’s consequences. Extreme heat waves, fires across the world, droughts in places there shouldn’t be, and less and less of the one resource on Earth we all need: water. 

The concern for climate change is certainly nothing new. In fact, it has been with us not just for the last few decades, but for centuries. British archaeologist Ian Morris spoke at the World Economic Forum to talk about how civilizations in the past had collapsed. He incorporated modern-day scientific methods, excavation practices, and billions of artifacts to dissect the collapse of previous civilizations. He concludes by saying that all major collapses tend to have 5 common factors, time and time again. 

Firstly, they tend to have massive, uncontrolled population movements that overwhelm societal infrastructures. Secondly, they have major pandemics and diseases, which because of the population movements, spread and merge faster. Then there’s state failure and increased warfare. This in turn leads to an economic collapse. And then, there is the final piece of the puzzle: Climate Change. Civilizations rarely collapse because of one thing. And so, these five factors often co-occur, and it is their combined effect that leads to the collapse of civilization.

It’s easy to see how these factors connect with each other, because all of these things are taking place right now around the world. Climate change is displacing millions of people, a pandemic is ravaging the world as we speak, and bad governance about these issues is making it all worse. And while the population growth rate is certainly not out of control- it is, in fact, declining steadily- all in all, we’re well on our way to collapsing. 

Ian Morris says there is some hope, however. In fact, in his study of past civilizations, he notes that quite a few actually survived the 5 horsemen of the apocalypse and rebuilt themselves afterwards. He credits their survival to economic growth. Now, I’m really not about to debate capitalism versus other economic models in the world, because, well I don’t want to start a war, but there is little doubt about the unprecedented success of capitalism in being able to sustain economic growth. 

In his book about the future of human civilization, Homo Deus, historian Yuval Noah Harari notes that, “Although we experience occasional economic crises and international wars, in the long run, capitalism has not only managed to prevail, but also to overcome famine, plague, and war.”

And while today it is getting more and more popular to go against the idea, he still says, “criticizing capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and attainments.”
In fact, in modern times, we have experienced so much economic growth that today more people die of eating too much than not eating enough. It turns out, we have a little too much stuff sometimes- some of us anyway. And that too much stuff isn’t produced out of nothing. Beyond the dollar value we pay for the thing, there is a far greater cost to this abundance: an ecological cost. 

The overuse of unsustainable natural resources, water pollution, soil pollution, loss of biodiversity in recent times has meant that we are closer to ecological collapse than we have ever been. Even though in the past there wasn’t a global governing body like the United Nations to oversee and recommend actions to reduce our environmental footprint, the footprint itself was always very localized. People hardly traveled as far as we do today, and business was not nearly as robust. Sure, a few centuries ago, there were no solar panels or recycled plastic, but there weren’t any fuel-hungry airliners either. We weren’t siphoning oil and fossil fuels out of the ground either. The scale of the industrial world, it seems, is truly unique to our time and our civilization. 

There are, of course, other aspects to our civilization that make it more unique, and, by extension, more complicated. Total nuclear obliteration is still a non-zero probability- and as low as that number might be, the simple possibility of something like that is terrifying. Both natural pandemics and bioweapons are also a threat, given a large amount of travel modern society has become accustomed to. In fact, both are quite common throughout the history of collapsed civilizations. Until recently, more soldiers died from disease than from actual combat itself. It’s just that, modern advances, while allowing us to cure far more diseases than before, have also opened up a pandora’s box of future threats. 

There is obviously the threat of runaway superintelligence as well. Such a technological singularity can encompass the threat of nanotechnology, and their rising incorporation into everything from manufacturing to medicine. All of these factors understandably complicate the modern infrastructure, and Joseph Tainter, a historian, suggests that this rising complexity is what could ultimately be our society’s downfall. 

He suggests that societies emerge as problem-solving collectives- that’s what they are there for.

But eventually, they reach a point where the complexity and intricate structures required to solve problems actually reach a point of diminishing returns, and civilization collapses under its own weight. Tied to this idea is that of “Energy Return on Investment” or EROI for short. Simply put, it’s how much energy is needed to produce or extract a set amount of energy. Fossil fuels have historically had good EROI’s, but as we are burning through tons and tons of non-renewable fossil fuels, this EROI is steadily declining. The EROI for petroleum, for example, has fallen by around 10 times in the past century. Besides, despite being more in line with our goals of a greener future, as it stands, renewable energy sources are quite hard to develop, manufacture and implement, which does not help their EROI’s either. Eventually, these values might fall to where they are barely sufficient to run government and financial institutions crucial for societal function. Beyond that, well, we can only imagine. 

These are all factors that are truly unique to our time. If the factors themselves aren’t unique, their fluctuations certainly are. Having said that, however, there is one factor that civilizations in the past have certainly never seen before: Social Media. It’s unique in the sense that never has there ever been a platform that allows us to connect with so many people so easily. It’s a society within our society, one we certainly did not evolve to live in. It just was a byproduct of other advances. Of course, social media has led to some wonderful things, like every other element I just talked about. It has allowed lost families to reconnect, allowed fund-raisers to reach significantly larger audiences and it has given a platform to the ordinary person. But the problem with social media, well, it’s much more nuanced. Much like the cost of biological advancements, there is the threat of virality in social media too- only it’s much, much worse. If falsehoods spread 6 times faster than truth on Twitter, there is only ever going to be one winner in the battle of ideas. 

The virality of ideas, or bad ideas I should say, is a newfound threat to civilization. It means that the ripple effect of a bad idea is now much more likely to escape the geographic confines in which it took place and affect the rest of the world. The sharing of misinformation on social media has led to levels of polarization that have never been seen before. Lack of tolerance seems to be at an all-time high. And all this is happening while we are fighting a losing fight against supercomputers designed to bank on every minute of our attention. In a way, the problem of social media epitomizes all of the problems I just mentioned. It’s infecting us all in an epidemic of misinformation, destabilizing societies around the world, and giving us a glimpse of what a purely profit-driven technology can do. But perhaps where it really epitomizes the problem that we as a civilization face is our fragmented attention. 

You see, one of the psychological side-effects of prolonged social media is a broken concentration. You could argue that that’s less of a side-effect and more of an objective.

Regardless, people are constantly glancing at their phones no matter what they are doing and it’s turning them into short-sighted individuals who are preoccupied with the next burst of dopamine. That is exactly the problem we are facing with climate change and ecological collapse. We now have a world that is unwilling to look beyond the next presidency or the next election or the next generation or two. Social media, in this case, might just be a good analogy.

But the fact of the matter is we are slowly but surely walking towards the collapse of civilization as we know it. While an asteroid strike or an alien invasion is perhaps a more spectacular possibility, they are not nearly as likely as, say, a slow ecological collapse. A popular saying goes, “Civilization may not end with a bang, but with a whimper.”

The moral imperative to do something really presents itself when you think about the number of lives that will eventually be affected by climate change, ecological collapse, or another factor that might cause societal collapse. The number of people presently alive pales in comparison to the number of people that CAN be alive in the future on this very planet, at least as long the sun isn’t too close. That number skyrockets once you factor in the possibility that given enough time, civilization could become multi-planetary. But that’s the thing, “enough time.” We barely have “enough time” to think about the policies of today, let alone those of tomorrow. Think about this: how often is a policy made not just with the present constituents in mind, but also future generations? 

A man named Danny Hillis invented the idea of a 10,000-year clock in 1984 with one singular purpose: to encourage long-term thinking. As the name suggests, this clock will continue ticking, without human intervention, for 10,000 years when construction is complete. Much like the Metronome near Union Square, this clock reminds us of time, albeit in a different way. This clock is not necessarily counting down from something, but by its sheer presence, its sheer scale, it serves to remind us that the world will go on long after we have passed, and as such, we can still have an impact if we only step out of our collective myopia.

Despite all the analysis, there are even more aspects to the prospect of societal collapse that make it such an interesting intellectual problem. Harari cites a paradox of historical knowledge in Homo Deus. He says, “Knowledge that does not change behavior is useless. But the knowledge that changes behavior quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.” There is also an observational bias in all of this. Were a sufficiently large collapse or extinction-level event to occur, it would leave no survivors, no observers. The failure of such an event in the past offers no information about the likelihood of it not happening in the future. Who knows, maybe under thousands of layers of sediment and fossilized remains, unbeknownst to us, there could lay buried another civilization - another civilization just like ours, at this exact stage of their journey. All but wiped out of our present. Their time had come.

7 years, 36 days.

“The Passage” ticks away, second by second, to remind us that ours will too.

- MA, MM