The Fall of Homo Sapiens

from Erasmatazz by Chris Crawford

In this essay, Crawford discusses the implications of technology’s exponential growth paired with the exceedingly slow (if any) progress of society and culture. In his view the implications of this disparity are frightening.

Homo Sapiens changes its environment. Humans clear forests to make farms; they dam rivers to control floods; they cover land with their homes and cities; they dig up the ground to obtain mineral resources. Up until just recently, the species was too sparse and too weak to make substantial changes to their environment. But now the impact of Homo Sapiens on its environment is growing rapidly. They are changing their environment faster and faster.

It is an iron law of evolution that every species must adapt to a changing environment or go extinct. Homo Sapiens has demonstrated a remarkable ability to change its culture to adapt to new environments. Indeed, one of its greatest advantages over other species is that, while other species require perhaps 10,000 generations to genetically adjust to a big change in the environment, Homo Sapiens can adjust to a new environment in just a few generations. Nevertheless, human culture is not instantly adaptable; social mores tend to resist change, limiting the rate of change to a few generations.

Happy changes can take place rapidly: Grandpa and Grandma may reject those newfangled smartphones, but the grandkids have made smartphones an important part of their lives. The immediate existential threat of nuclear weapons has made traditional warfare obsolete, and knowledgeable people quickly adapted, but the human population as a whole is still unable to purge itself of its militaristic fantasies. The abolition of warfare remains several generations in the future, in the most optimistic assessment. In like fashion, the response to environmental pollution was fairly quick when its costs were immediate and obvious.

Unhappy changes, however, take longer. Abortion, for example, became medically reliable perhaps 80 years ago. Society has been unable to adjust to the new medical reality and so the policies controlling the use of this medical technology remain highly controversial.

The greatest failure of the species lies in its inability to cope with subtle long-term changes to the environment. The obvious example of this is the response to anthropogenic climate change. Scientists have made it quite clear that carbon emissions will cause great damage in future decades. Yet 30 years after they first became aware of the problem, Homo Sapiens still resists taking the actions necessary to fend off the impending disaster.

Part of the problem arises from the fact that the complexity of current technologies exceeds the intellectual capacity of most humans. Climate change is an immensely complex subject that few people grasp, yet a lot of people, for reasons of primitive tribalism, oppose taking action to avert or reduce its impact.

Economics is another area that has long surpassed the comprehension of most humans. Almost every economist in the world will tell you that free trade is a desirable ideal, something to be limited only in special situations and only temporarily. Yet a wave of anti-globalisation threatens to increase trade restrictions, to the detriment of all.

Another example is provided by nuclear power, which has long offered humans an excellent source of energy. Yet, the terrible power of nuclear weapons is somehow illogically transferred to nuclear power plants, and the fear of radioactivity only adds to the resistance. There is simply no rational case against developing nuclear power, yet humans remain reluctant to take advantage of this resource.

Homo Sapiens is a species best adapted to operate in small groups of hunter-gatherers. Yet the cultural and technological difference between a modern office worker and a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer is almost impossible to fathom. That office worker’s mind is no different from the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer’s. It is still dominated by tribalism, emphasis on social reasoning over logical reasoning, and emotionalism.

It all boils down to this simple graph:

Doom Graph

When the blue line crosses the red line, the extinction of Homo Sapiens begins. With great effort, humans could conceivably push the red line upwards, but this will be opposed by humans who resist change (normally called “conservatives”). Humans really can’t do anything about the blue curve; if one country refuses to advance technology, another one will.

Thus, the extinction of Homo Sapiens is inevitable. However, there is a fine point to add to this. Once the blue line crosses the red line, the inability of Homo Sapiens to adapt to its environment will lead to various disasters that will sharply reduce its population. That, in turn will reverse the upward direction of the blue line. Unfortunately for Homo Sapiens, the same virtuous circle that enables ever-advancing technology becomes a vicious circle when it starts to reverse. Reduce the population, and there will be insufficient specialization to maintain the current technology. As the technological level of civilization declines, it will drag down population, which will reduce specialization even further, which will cause more reductions in population. This process will continue until Homo Sapiens reverts to the condition for which it is optimally adapted: a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The Mechanics of Collapse

How, exactly, will civilization collapse? The obvious endpoint is a nuclear war, and this is certainly a real possibility. For example, it is entirely possible that a confrontation in the South China Sea could trigger a nuclear war. China is dead set on establishing its sovereignty over the entire area. While its claims are illegal, the intensity of Chinese nationalism is so great that it is entirely feasible that they would use nuclear weapons to assert themselves. The catastrophic scenario runs as follows:

The USA decides to prevent further Chinese incursions into the South China Sea, using force if necessary. It sends a carrier group into the region to enforce a blockade against military facilities in the South China Sea. The USA rightly figures that the Chinese cannot defeat an entire carrier group — one of the most powerful military units in existence — using conventional forces. What the USA does not anticipate is that the Chinese would use a ballistic nuclear missile against the carrier group. This would annihilate the carrier group. China asserts that it used the nuclear weapon on its own territory, and therefore was not an act of nuclear war. The USA is now in an impossible position. Either it retaliates against China, expanding the war and risking a catastrophic nuclear exchange, or it backs down and accepts defeat. The American public is just stupid enough to prefer a nuclear exchange over an admission of defeat.

However, this scenario remains unlikely, as I doubt that the US would be stupid enough to militarily challenge China in the South China Sea. The only factor that makes this even plausible is the presidency of Mr. Trump.

It is more likely that a nuclear war will be the last act in a long degradation of international relationships. The steady progress of Homo Sapiens towards a peaceful planet has been halted by increasing nationalism in many countries. The sudden jump in progress in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by the global recognition that the USA was clearly the world leader and would strive for policies beneficial to humanity as a whole. However, the American invasion of Iraq shattered the image of the United States as a positive force in international relations. Confidence in American leadership was further damaged by the use of torture and the abandonment of the rule of law symbolized by Guantanamo and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Even more destructive was the worldwide near-depression caused by failures in American regulation of its financial regulation. The destabilization of the Middle East by the USA triggered the Arab Spring, which led mostly to more repression and civil war in Syria. The financial crisis that America started led to serious economic crises in a number of European countries, further eroding confidence not just in American leadership, but in the European Union.

The rapid collapse of American prestige triggered a rise in nationalism worldwide. If countries could not rely upon the USA to preserve the global order, they would have to fall back upon their own resources. Eventually the wave of nationalism swept into America as well, leading to the election of Mr. Trump, a disastrous development that destroyed all semblance of world leadership by the USA.

The resulting scramble of “every man for himself” among nations will wipe out the power of international institutions to dampen crises the world over, accelerating the collapse of global comity. Minor disagreements will mushroom into military confrontations. Military spending the world over will increase dramatically as nations seek to prepare themselves for the war that now seems inevitable.

Climate change adds pressure to the situation. Millions of people will be displaced by rising sea levels; the USA will of course refuse to accept any of the refugees. That will trigger bitter resentment among the countries who did take in climate change refugees. Terrorism will find a new driving force in the sufferings of climate change refugees. Americans will respond to that terrorism with even stronger nationalism and increased military spending. Their overwhelming military strength will give them a false sense of invulnerability. Owners of American debt the world over will begin dumping their American assets, causing American interest rates to rapidly climb and driving the economy into a deep depression. All of this will only prod the Americans in even greater fury and the use of its vast military resources to take what they consider theirs by right. China might well organize economic sanctions against the USA, at which point everything will spiral out of control.

That is only one scenario that would lead Homo Sapiens to destroy its civilization. However, nuclear war is not necessary to destroy civilization; that could just as easily be triggered by nonviolent developments, climate change being the most obvious. Climate change has a long lag time between causes and their effects, roughly 30 years. The climate changes that take place today are the consequence of carbon emissions up to the late 1980s. The full effect of current carbon emissions will not be felt for another 30 years. Any politically feasible suite of policies to reduce carbon emissions will come far too late to deflect economically catastrophic consequences of climate change. Already climate change is wreaking something on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars of damages each year, and those costs will be rising dramatically in future decades.

The global economic output just now amounts to about $75 trillion. During the latter half of the 20th century the global economy grew by perhaps 3% per year. At that rate of growth, the world economy should grow by about $2.5 trillion per year. But the rising costs of climate change will eat into that number. When those costs reach $3 trillion per year, they will cancel all economic growth; humanity will no longer be growing wealthier each year.

One of the most fundamental rules of politics is that economic privation drives political unrest. Homo Sapiens expects economic growth over the long run. When humans realize that their situation is worsening, they resort to desperate measures — which always make matters worse. Even without war, economies around the world will collapse under the increasing strains of climate change. Economic collapse will kill not with bullets but by the collapse of the complex logistical systems necessary to keep billions of people alive. Civilization will regress until tiny self-sufficient groups stabilize the situation. At first they’ll take advantage of remaining technology, but as the technology wears out, their output will fall, further reducing the population. Once all the technology has worn out, the only way people will survive is through the means that cannot wear out: human bodies. The population will stabilize at Pleistocene levels with a few million hunter-gatherers populating the planet.

Thus will end the meteoric career of Homo Sapiens.

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10 thoughts on “The Fall of Homo Sapiens

  1. The notion of a doomsday, Armageddon or some variation(s) on the theme has long been foretold. Homo sapiens, in it’s anthropocentricity, has been asleep at the wheel, with each succeeding generation seeming increasingly somnolent. Some of us, now of an older generation, pay increasing attention, recognizing warnings, many written of by our contemporaries. When one has seen more, one more readily recognizes the differences between coincidence and inevitability. Responsive consciousness is part of an expanded skill set. Predictability is only as useful as we are willing to make it. Well-said, Mr. Crawford.

  2. Even nuclear warfare will not be sufficient to completely eliminate mankind’s existence on planet earth. No doubt our populations will be severely reduced, but there will remain a few places where people can survive. The aim of this warfare being for the dominance of some part of ourselves and our doctrines, it is very likely that even if the remaining peoples are in a terrible state and society split into slaves and masters, compared to the more civilized world of today, it will recover and not eliminate everybody that there is still to be around. Then we will be able to start all over again working up to another world crisis unless the measure of our foolishness is recorded and remembered.

  3. Mr. Chester, I think two factors argue against a recovery. First, there’s the loss of the low-hanging fruit of resources. The Stone Age was followed by the short Copper Age because there were copper nuggets right on the surface. The Bronze Age followed because it there were surface deposits of tin. All of the various resources we now use were initially discovered by surface deposits. Oil, I admit, had to be drilled for, but the guy in Pennsylvania discovered a quite shallow deposit. But after a nuclear war, the only resources will be old stuff. Granted, there’s a lot more copper hanging around on the surface now, but once that stuff is exhausted, there won’t be a natural evolutionary path to getting more.

    The second — and much more important — factor is the decline in population. For any given level of technology, you need a minimum size population. The Romans could not have pulled off the Industrial Revolution because their population, and hence their economy, was just too small. If the earth’s population were to drop to, say, 10 million, we simply wouldn’t have enough people to sustain much more than a simple agricultural technology.

    Of course, humanity will be able to ride on the leftover technology for a few hundred years, perhaps. But once that stuff wears out, it’s gone forever.

  4. A devastatingly true, and brutally detailed, assessment of reality for Homo Sapiens. I too believe it will all end in self-destruction.

    The two greatest plagues for Homo Sapiens are not diseases, but stupidity and selfishness, and the drive for short term benefits. Ironically, in these areas it never did any better than animals. Actually, animals are less stupid than Homo Sapiens.

    What HS really do with technology, is this: reinventing the wheel. Just a different wheel. It discovered fire, but it wasn’t enough, so steam engines were created, but these weren’t enough, so some other tech was created.

    But in the end, it’s all for the same miserable ends, which all lead to selfishness, short term benefits, and stupidity. The latter, of course, have dumb ideologies and dogmas at the basis.

    The less selfish, smart people, have always been a minority, and the opposite of that, a majority.

    I see nothing in all this that it’s not a recipe for disaster. Personally, even though I am not American, I really believe it’s only America that, perhaps, could delay the disaster. Delay, not avoid. It goes without saying that this cannot happen with people like Trump at the helm.

    America has made mistakes, but also done some good things. I believe it’s still the least worst of a bad bunch, so to speak.

  5. Dear Mr Chester,

    Yours seems simply a fancy prophecy. You seem to suggest that a few nuclear wars, the irreversible consequences of climate change because of dumb ignorance and carelessness, along with those of nuclear radiation, and at least a few million people dead, won’t be too bad after all.

    Even if such a fancy prophecy would come true, the question remain, why destroying something, only to try to rebuild it later at great cost. You also seem to believe that mankind truly is master of its own destiny. The reality is that so far, we have simply been incredibly lucky. But luck doesn’t lasts forever.

    But even if you were right, it would really change nothing: ‘starting over’ doesn’t undo destruction and damage on a vast scale.

  6. David Harold Chester, is. in my opinion correct, everyone will not die, at least not initially.

    I’ve often read that forward progress halted for a thousand years when the Roman Empire collapsed , new knowledge displaces old knowledge. Roman society was intimately familiar with the arts of animal husbandry, agriculture, making cloth and clothing, essentially making a living from the Earth. We still live on the bounty of the earth but the skills required to consistently harvest what we need from nature have atrophied until they are now nonexistent.

    We are modern men, divorced from nature, familiar with cell phones, supermarkets and restaurants that we access with our money. Money is the harvest we cultivate, a harvest that alleviates our needs and wants, and should money lose it’s potency our world would come to a halt. What that would mean to society is too disturbing to even contemplate, yet madness is always afoot in the world awaiting the proper spark that will set it off.

    Today’s madness is particularly virulent because it has a fear based motivation that expresses itself as religious fervor. Fearful people lose their fear in their fervor, having a cause worthy of dying for reduces the fear of death and focuses the mind on the cause. Perhaps death is even contemplated and welcomed as a way to ensure some eternal reward!

    There is only one Human race on earth, but people do tend to congregate in groups with shared interests. A shared and practiced religious ideology is a powerful bonding agent. Once a fire is lit between two believing religious groups and their supporters and begins to spread more and more people from either antagonist group begin to see that the struggle gives meaning to their lives, gives them something worth dying for!

    (here on Reason and Meaning) we have often contemplated the “Meaning of Life”.

    I am not judging anyone, I am simply observing my fellow humans in their folly!, of course I cannot see my own folly, no one can see their own folly, if we could we wouldn’t do it.

    Madness is an innate part of our Human nature, it has flamed and burned hotly often in the past so why not now?

    Many species have come and gone before us, and even if we make the World an atomic wasteland something will come from nature and green the world again, something will replace us, something that thrives in radiation!

    We want to think that we are important, the most insecure imagine themselves owning and controlling the whole world and all the creatures in it. (The more insecure you are the more you indulge in reveries of your importance.) No one is important, everyone is born to die, the desire for importance blinds us to what could be our true mission, the reason we have been gifted with intelligence is to be a servant of nature and live off of nature’s bounty. People aren’t intelligent, they manifest intelligence, all the life around us is a manifestation of the intelligence that regulates all the life on earth.

    What is this intelligence? Not God I’m afraid, the god concept is inextricably linked to the old man with the beard who selects the winners and losers in life and apparently makes friends with some of them. No this intelligence seems not to care much for anyone of its creations, they come and go like the seasons. If we could curb our madness we possibly could last until the next ice age, perhaps even longer, but only if we can recognize the innate insanity in our species and learn to put some checks upon it!

    This is an impossible task for our present philosophies sto attempt, as modern Philosophies have their roots in a past where no one could challenge the castle and humans were simply one of the creatures on the earth.

    Doctor John find a word that will describe a force we know exists that we don’t, as yet, truly understand but we are working on it and hopefully, some day, we will be able to understand and explain it.

  7. I believe the overall theme of Mr. Crawford will probably prove accurate. The specifics may differ, but he is correct regarding the basic vector that industrial civilization is traveling.

    No society/civilization can operate outside the physical limits of the resources it is dependent upon. If we choose not to adjust to these limits ourselves, then Nature will do it for us. (in her time-honored manner)
    We are clever, but not wise. Indeed the sorcerer’s apprentice, but lacking the sorcerer to come save us from ourselves.

    As ‘we’ approach these limits problems will manifest themselves in such a way that they may seem of a different nature from their root cause. As everything is connected: global warming may cause a megadrought, which cause mass migration and worldwide increased food prices, which cause governments to fail, which cause long dormant national foes to go to war, which can bypass nuclear safeties…..just to stream one of an infinite number of possibilities.

    If it comes to catastrophic proportions, the correction to population numbers is probably beyond our ability to truly grasp. While Homo Sapiens will likely survive, the suffering would likely also be beyond our abilities of comprehension.

    Which raises these questions.
    If and when Man is faced with extreme consequences of ecological/resource limits overshoot, how does He maintain his Humanity during this period?
    Would our surviving descendants share values we now view as universal, or could it be so traumatic we would scarcely recognize each other?
    Or are these emotions/values so innate, that Man would rebuild again, with cultures that would not be so different from what has already been?

    Most of us have come to some sort terms with our own mortality.
    However, I feel there are very few who would be at peace with a similar near term for either Mankind’s extinction, or humans no longer continuing as what we understand it is to be human.

  8. Thank you for referring me to this earlier post of yours. (unfortunately I now have added another book to my pages long list of books to read….a physically impossible list to ever “do”).

    Your summary of Samuel Scheffler’s thoughts, and then your personal additions, catch what I was thinking regarding most people’s deep fears and emotions about human extinction or catastrophic population/civilization collapse.

    I have witnesses anecdotal evidence of how deep this species mortality concern is (including one with our youngest son, about age 6, learning of the future red giant stage of the sun. he was deeply disturbed by its effect on ‘the babies who haven’t been born yet’), but they are admittedly few.

    I believe a stronger bit of evidence of its (almost) universality, is world leaders and statesmen’s certitude on the effectiveness of MAD as way to prevent nuclear war. The strong assumption that even our most evil foe would not willfully destroy Mankind’s future.

  9. thanks for the thoughts Lyle. As a kid growing up during the Cuban Missle Crisis and the many close calls in starting nuclear war I was truly frightened. See for example The Man Who Saved The World) I suppose you have to get use to the fact that annihilation is always with us but what a commentary on humanity that it has a MAD doctrine.

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