Dr. Pangloss, I Presume

Erle Ellis begins his essay, "The Planet of No Return," with a worshipful paean to humanity's powerful ability to exploit the natural environment:

We have seen what we can do, and it is awesome. In just a few millennia, humanity has emerged as a global force of nature -- a networked system of billions of individuals creating and sustaining an entirely new global ecology. We live longer than ever, and our average standard of living has never been higher. These unprecedented achievements clearly demonstrate the remarkable ability of our social systems and technologies to evolve and adapt.

In Ellis's view, there can be no question that on average, and in the aggregate, the past, present, and future deserve to be conceptualized as thoroughly positive, claiming that "human societies are likely to continue to thrive and expand, largely unconstrained by any hard biophysical boundaries to growth." In particular, he expresses blithe confidence in our ability to indefinitely increase food production.

But his claims are historically blinkered. In fact, the last "few millennia" have not seen a continuous uninterrupted expansion of agricultural productivity. Until about 1800, all agricultural civilizations, from Babylon to Rome to the Maya to China, were fated with repeated crises of production that resulted in massive famines and catastrophic collapses in political order.

Contrary to Ellis's claims of "millennia" of continuous innovation and productivity growth, it is only in the last two hundred years that certain thrusting parts of the global economy began to achieve sustained technological innovation. It's worth interrogating what engendered a breakthrough to an era of seemingly limitless increases in human numbers and prosperity.

One argument is that on or about 1800, human experience changed in some fundamental (and somewhat mysterious) way that enabled sustained growth. According to this school of thought, humans suddenly became much more clever and started to see and achieve breakthroughs of the sort their benighted forebears had simply been too dull to perceive. One ingenious innovation built on another, creating an endless upward trajectory that has allowed humans to continually stay a step or two ahead of the impending bankruptcy threatened by the human compulsion to strip mine the planet of useful resources.

Ellis's argument is a particularly pure distillation of this point of view.

But there's a more prosaic account of what changed around 1800, and it wasn't human nature. What happened in the 18th century is that certain human societies began to exploit the planet's supply of fossilized sunlight, first in the form of coal, then later via hydrocarbons like oil and natural gas. It is only the ongoing harvesting of fossilized sunlight — the fact that every day modern humans are using up 500 years worth of fossilized sunlight — that has allowed industrial civilization to continuously innovate.

Notably, no society in human history has ever maintained its productivity, much less its innovative drive, while reducing its total energy consumption. Cheap and abundant energy forms the foundation for every major technological breakthrough. Indeed, without a continued supply of cheap energy, all those innovations — from "green revolution" seeds, to wonderful new medicines, to delightful gadgets — will cease to be usable.

Now, as it happens, the Earth had (and in fact still has) a great deal of this fossilized sunlight, so much so that for the last quarter millennium it has remained possible to continue ramping up the production of energy. The result has been a great party for the wealthy of the industrialized world. The fact that this party has lasted several hundred years has convinced some people, including Ellis, that it's going to last forever.

But recognizing the keystone role of fossilized sunlight in fueling the party suggests a different perspective. Rather than representing a fundamental breakthrough to a permanently different kind of human experience, the innovations of industrial civilization may instead represent a slowly unfolding one-time bonus. From this perspective, modern human beings are not in the middle of a continually upward trajectory from the caves to the stars, but rather are near the peak of a one-time pulse of fossilized sunlight through the system of human production. Seen this way, the party of modernity looks less like permanently improved lifestyle funded by the promise of endless raises, and more like paying for a bender by progressively pawning off more and more of the family silverware.

As the Breakthrough Institute knows well, the basic question we should be asking is what are we going to do when the fossilized sunlight runs out, as inevitably, one day, it will. That's when the modernist religion of endless innovation will come in for its first true test. Can human beings invent and deploy a scalable form of "alternative" energy before the planet runs out of fossilized sunlight? Are we capable of rebuilding the foundational source of all our other innovations? The stakes couldn't be higher. If we fail that test, agricultural production (and human lifestyles) will necessarily fall back to methods closer to those that predominated when humans and animals provided the main sources of power.

Alas, when it comes to finding non-fossilized sources of high-intensity energy, the record of human innovation is not encouraging. While there's been some tinkering around the edges with renewable solar, wind and biofuels, none of these are anywhere close to being able to replace our huge civilizational reliance on fossilized sunlight.

The main exception is nuclear. Emerging technologies ⁠— such as small modular, integral fast, and thorium reactors — could, in principle, provide a reprieve from the coming darkness. While none of these new technologies is proven, they're certainly worth trying. But the biggest concern is the political limits to nuclear. Those came clearly into view when a panicked Germany shut down its nuclear facilities in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Is a world that is so scared of its own shadow about to turn around and deploy a nuclear reactor in every town?

It is possible that when societies of mass abundance come face to face with the prospect of an end of abundance, the choice to mass-adopt nuclear will come to seem more politically acceptable. But my own guess is that a broad willingness to go all-in on nuclear technology has no hope of taking shape until humanity has burned through all the cheaply available fossil fuels. And by that time, the Earth's climate may well resemble that of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum , and the opportunity to make such a conversion may well have passed.

Perhaps billions of human beings can survive on a planet with a biotic diversity one-tenth of what it was as the end of the Pleistocene. Perhaps we can ignore the grotesque inequalities that continue to define modern civilization. Perhaps we can even find some way to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, produced by burning all that fossilized sunlight. But unless we can achieve a radical breakthrough in energy production — one that scales both technically and politically — industrial modernity will one day appear as just another half-millennium civilizational surge, before the jungle reclaims us.