Nature is Doomed

Long ago humans pioneered some very powerful innovations, innovations that have allowed us to grow in capability much faster than the rest of nature.  As humans grew more capable, we learned to live in more kinds of places, and to use more of the plants and animals in each place.  We didn’t always destroy non-human living nature – sometimes we converted it to farms, pets, or parks.  But we only left nature alone when we couldn’t figure out how to make use of it, or of what it used.  Our expanded use of nature has left less for other species, often leading to their extinction.

This trend has continued in recent times: as we learn more ways to use nature, we use nature more.  There has been, however, one notable exception: rising wages over the last few hundred years have made us abandon some old practices.  For example, during the depression my grandparents farmed marginal land in Kentucky that is now forest.  We still know how to farm the land, and with free immigration it would still be farmed, but as it is labor is too expensive for farming.

This reprieve won’t last.  Wages have risen because economic growth rates have outpaced feasible rates of growing well-trained people.  But current growth rates simply cannot continue at familiar levels for ten thousand more years.  We’ll eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms, and growth in available atoms will be limited by the speed of light.  So over this timescale growth rates simply must fall below feasible population growth rates.  (I actually expect a new brain emulation tech to allow very fast population growth in a century or two, but this is tangential to my argument here.)

With familiar competitive habits, this growth rate change implies falling wages for intelligent labor, canceling nature’s recent high-wage reprieve.  So if we continue to use all the nature our abilities allow, abilities growing much faster than nature’s abilities to resist us, within ten thousand years at most (and more likely a few centuries) we’ll use pretty much all of nature, with only farms, pets and (economically) small parks remaining.  If we keep growing competitively, nature is doomed.

Of course we’ll still need some functioning ecosystems to support farming a while longer, until we learn how to make food without farms, or bodies using simpler fuels.  Hopefully we’ll assimilate most innovations worth digging out of nature, and deep underground single cell life will probably last the longest.  But these may be cold comfort to most nature lovers.

Yes, nature would be saved if we destroy ourselves without destroying nature in the process, but hopefully we’ll avoid this scenario.  We might also somehow coordinate to prevent competitive growth.  For example, we might empower a world government to protect nature, prevent innovation, or prevent population growth.  But I honestly see little prospect of this.  We now live in a very competitive world, and even governments mainly just redirect competition, toward controlling those governments.

We like nature, but aren’t really willing to pay the price it would take to save most of it.  Nature than cannot survive as farms, pets, or small parks, is doomed.

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  • rumin8r

    Nice speculation. But where is your evidence?

  • Dan

    Oh look… a prophet of doom

  • Stirling Westrup

    Well I basically agree with you, I’m not sure you’re correctly envisioning the results of having that much control over atoms. We may well end up deciding that the surface of Earth, down to a few miles, might be devoted to a wildlife sanctuary while we make whatever use we wished of all the other dumb matter in the solar system. On that scale, leaving Earth’s surface to Nature is reserving a lesser percentage of available matter to parks than the US currently devotes of its area.

    • Sure, far enough into the future Earth’s surface is small economically. But how much nature would be left by then? Perhaps it could be recreated from records, but perhaps not.

      • Granite26

        I’d go back to your Nature is all living things, not the living things alive now statement.

        I firmly believe that we won’t be tied to Earth or even Sol by the time tech gets to the level you’re talking about.

        Sure, Earth may repopulate from rats and cockroaches and seagulls evolving into the old niches, but it’ll still be alive, and won’t take long to be VERY diverse.

  • How is it compatible with facts of negative population growth we observe in rich countries?

    • That won’t last ten thousand years.

      • And you know about this how? There’s plenty of evidence that people can easily be made to have fewer children by social forces (of either market or government nature, there’s really not that much difference between them anyway). There’s much less evidence that people can be made to have more children. It implies that if governments wanted to limit population, they would have no problems at all doing it.

        Are you postulating some super-fast evolution for urge to have unprotected sex?

      • We already have subgroups with high population growth rates. It won’t take long for those groups to dominate the total population.

    • Technology gives each person the ability to use more resources.

  • Robert

    Just to second Tomasz – if em tech doesn’t work, couldn’t we end up with a stable, low and rich population?

    • If technological growth peters out, Idiocracy is more likely over the real long term. Unless you think there is any chance of restricting births in among the less intelligent and increasing them in the more intelligent. (Again this is discussing the **long** term; the variation in intelligence between parents in children is low, so this would not be a short term problem, but it **does** exist and would become significant over time with little or no selection pressures, natural or artificial).

      • We’d be genetically engineering our children to be smart long before that was a problem.

      • You might want to check out the original story, Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”, they were using genetic engineering in that story. They were effectively a small class of super-geniuses working to support a horde of morons.

      • Granite26

        Even if you do engineer your kids to be smart… Idiocracy shouldn’t have been about people do dumb to live, it should have been about people top IGNORANT to live.

        Imagine Einstein in a world where no one taught math because it was thought to be useless. No one learned physics because all the cool stuff had been discovered, and it wasn’t economically viable to spend money on research.

        Even your tech is self replicating so there’s no need to understand it well enough to troubleshoot.

        People aren’t getting dumber, they’re getting lazier. Being smart in that world isn’t an advantage anymore, it’s just another trait, like brown eyes or red hair. They’ll be smart, but smarts without a culturally encouraged thirst for knowledge and reward system for those who accomplish (dismantled at the end of accomplishment), what’s the point?

      • Granite26,

        To an extent you are describing the situation at the beginning of John Ringo’s Council Wars series (starting with “There Will Be Dragons”), set about 2000 years in the future (it’s not very realistic in its historical/technological backstory unfortunately) where universal nanotech and genetic technology has created a paradise where some people do serious work while many do nothing but play, in reality and virtual reality, all the time, some of whom never even learn to read or do basic (as in 1st grade level) arithmetic. Naturally, to get a story things break down.

  • fenn

    I would greatly enjoy hearing your argument for the likelihood of humanity surviving the next couple hundred years. (Or hearing your estimate that it will)

    My (knee jerk) view is that advancing technology will just make it easier for smaller groups to more cheaply wreak havoc, and that it will always be easier to break stuff than prevent people from breaking stuff.

    Once one person can kill millions, it seems pretty bleak to me.

    • If worried, you should do what I do, study and try to keep up with the research, the better to be able to help defend ourselves. It may not be possible, but as Drexler pointed out, nanotech, and other threats he didn’t address, **are** going to happen eventually. I took his discussion of active shields to heart, and am trying to keep up with the research to hopefully be able to help implement them in time if it becomes necessary. Reading OB I now think AI is more likely a threat in the shorter term, but I was already trying to learn comp sci and learning and psychology for IA in the pursuit of nanotech, so I haven’t actually changed my studies much. I just wish I could stay with my studying more consistently.

      • fenn

        Perhaps my imagination is as limited as my analysis: I expect it to be germs (genetically modified) or nukes, though I don’t know what the odds are that either of these would actually completely wipe us out.

        As to doing research, I can’t see doing much for the same reason I don’t vote. Uses time & doesn’t change anything.

        But I do restate my sincere interest in hearing Robin’s estimates for human extinction over the next 100 years since he has done the research. Though if I’m the only one curious, it certainly is not worth his time.

      • Fenn, we are more likely than not to survive the next thousand years.

  • Robert Koslover

    For someone who normally seems to maintain that science and technology will improve our lives in the future, today you seem to show surprisingly little confidence in our future ability to manage both ourselves and the planet. Your words remind me of Paul Ehrlich’s, whose stunningly wrong predictions of man’s impending depletion of the Earth’s resources have made him into somewhat of a joke. Why would you want to follow in, or get anywhere near, his line of thinking? And if cryonics works, you may yet have an opportunity for this “Nature is Doomed” column to prove rather embarrassing to you in the future. Yes, I suppose you have to take risks to have an interesting blog. And I expect much of your work will stand the test of time quite well. But… I wouldn’t put this one on that list.

  • magicdufflepud

    It’s all well and good to view the disappearance of nature from an economic perspective, but your tale of woe for environment ignores other factors which may affect its longevity as well. Consider, for instance, the possibility that an increasingly wealthy world may come to adopt a deep ecological viewpoint that invests the environment with some intrinsic rather than instrumental value. And here you’ve only considered instrumental value. So what if people come to conclude that nature has earned a right to exist unmolested? Certainly in the last half century, the developed world has endured quite a lot of economic hardship to accommodate our sympathies toward non-human animals. In the end, you’re going to arrive at an ethical debate: are rights (for humans and environment) which are not welfare-maximizing worth maintaining? Seems to me that you’re assuming utilitarianism.

    • It is the per-capita wealth, not total wealth, that makes folks want to spend a larger fraction of their wealth on ecology. I’m saying per capita wealth will eventually fall.

    • mikem

      I think the deep-ecology-society scenario is accounted for in Robin’s caveat that a world government might be able to impose preservation of the natural world.

      Without a system to maintain and enforce such normative values though, random variation in beliefs will eventually produce a (sub) population which is willing to convert their (local) natural environment to more economically productive non-natural structures. This sub-population will have an economic advantage over those which forgo utilization of natural resources, and so it will have differential success over those others, who in turn will be motivated to adopt the nature-consuming practices so they can more evenly compete.

      So a deep-ecology society is unlikely to survive for long without some kind of centralized control, as the benefit of deviating from the cherish-nature philosophy (all those untapped natural resources) is very high.

      • A deep-ecology society is the background for the nastiest distopian novel I have ever read, “The Bridge” by D Keith Mano. I read it once, a high school library copy, back when I was a teen – never again. I think it may be the only book I have never reread, and never intend to.

  • Felix

    Was this post meant to be a bit of weird, academia humor?

    What the devil is “nature”? How is it counted, measured? In gallons, pounds, cubic feet? What?

    Why would wages drop as time marches on? Relative to what? Are you speculating that the value of people (and/or peoples’ time) will go down relative to the value of things around them? Why? Is it because the thing-pie gets so small with so many people wanting pieces that each piece of the thing-pie (or, heck, nature-pie) gets to be really, really valuable to people? That may take a while, given the size of earth, solar system, and galaxy. For starters.

    • In this post, Robin is clearly using “nature” as shorthand for the parts of the biosphere that are less manipulated by humans (since there, even now, is none that is not influenced by humans).

  • mjgeddes

    Alternative scenario:

    SAI soon takes over everything (Singleton world government) and prevents further population growth and unchecked free-market economics. Earth is converted into parkland wilderness and placed under complete democratic management, market economics no longer applies to natural resources.

    As to other markets, with population growth held at zero and massive increases in productiivity due to widely shared new tech advances, wages skyrocket, not fall. Competition falls and approaches zero, since ever increasing specialization sees all agents moving into their own unique optimal niches – future changes in the environment are managed through intelligent design, not Darwinian evolution.

    • That certainly sounds like a nicer world to live in. However, as Robin Hanson points out, the future is just another region in spacetime, not necessarily the realization of our hopes and dreams.

    • ben

      amen to you

  • Why would we stay on one planet over such a time scale?

    • mikem

      Some will stay. It’s a good planet, even just considering it’s material wealth and proximity to a nuclear furnace. Why give it up?

      This does not preclude colonization of the rest of the universe at the same time.

  • Thanatos Savehn

    It depends, I suppose, on what you mean by “nature”. When beavers dam a stream dramatically altering “nature” both upstream and down is some part of “nature” destroyed? Assuming that cyanobacteria, or something that preceded them, burped uncounted zillions of tons of O2 into the atmosphere, forever changing whatever “nature” was before, was that old “nature” destroyed? And which “nature” do you favor? The one that existed two billion years ago? Two million years ago? Two hundred years ago? Two days ago? And why? And what is your objection to the “nature” that is yet to be? What did it ever do to you to make you want to strangle it in its crib?

  • ..which is why we don’t see the heavens alive with other civilisations?

  • Just consider that where most Americans live, a Shih Tzu has a better chance of survival than a wolf. That tells you something about how we affect that rest of nature.

  • mitchell porter

    Robin, you don’t mention the possibility that the dynamical regime of anarchic competitive growth may be ended by some entity actually winning that competition, and taming or eliminating its competitors. Nature still looks doomed unless the winner happens to have nature-friendly values (e.g. Marc Geddes’s singleton, mentioned above), but not for the reason that there will always be freely competing rival polities of replicators.

    • It is a logical possibility, but quite far out of the range of our experience.

  • Why would a powerful world government be so loving of the archaic forms? It probably wouldn’t. Check with DARPA for the current government’s sense of direction. Major governments are typically progress-friendly – progress maintains the power differentials that keeps them on top. They are hardly very likely to turn much of the planet into a nature reserve – that’s not going to help anyone.

  • I reach much the same conclusion as this post in one of my popular essays – see:

  • haig

    As we all probably have innate biophillic tendencies, I can relate to people’s reverence for nature. But you have to realize that nature is doomed whether humans thrive or not. Either way, our planet is toast in ~5 billion years when our sun goes red giant. Life’s chance to evolve enough to where it can break free from its biological constraints and metamorphose into something unimaginable and disturb the rest of the universe is running out. We can always recreate ‘nature’ in silico later.

    • If you thought we would spread elsewhere and take lots of nature with us, you might hope for lots of nature even after the sun naturally died. But of course we are unlikely to allow the sun to play out its natural life cycle.

  • ann

    Until we start reaping (raping?) near planet resources we should bump up on the conservation of matter and energy – you can’t just “create” atoms from nothing – the argument about the speed of light is specious – Einstein’s equation is a conversion.

    • You’re confusing Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence, e=mc^2, with Special Relativity, the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction; you might want to learn a little physics before you start complaining that someone’s argument is “specious”.

  • As we are organic beings, are we not a part of nature as well? Wouldn’t it then follow that our creations and behaviors are natural exhibitions of the greater ecosystem. Yes, we can reason, and thus make intelligent decisions about the future well being of our ecosystem, but I tend to believe that predicting the future of highly complex systems is a bit like fortune-telling.

  • bellisaurius

    I think you’re underestimating nature. Sure, stuff like forests and large animals live a somewhat more delicate system, but one’s home is an ecosystem too. Many species of plants, insects, small mammals, mold, bacteria, and the occasional reptile will find there niche as long as long as excess energy (in the form of food and sunlight) is available. They’re nature too. We’ll pretty much be setting them up to take over.

  • UserGoogol

    Virtual reality. Long before we have control over every single atom, we’ll be able to make virtual realities which are as good or better than the real thing. Once that happens, we won’t need nature except for to satisfy the most basic needs: keeping ourselves and the machines running. And even if people for some strange reason don’t want to spend their whole lives plugged into the Matrix, augmented reality would allow us to split the difference and limit our use of natural resources by having all the fun stuff be virtual even while we live in the real world. Making consumer goods out of natural resources is an idiotically inefficient waste when you can just simulate them with a bit of ones and zeros.

    • Until one atom can store more information than the information contained within itself, we won’t be able to create virtual worlds that are “better” than reality. That said, the machines that provide virtual reality are consumer goods, and people will always want to spend some time outside of the matrix. We need physical bodies to interact with the physical world so there will always be a process of taking from nature to provide for those bodies.

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  • spriteless

    And I thought that most nature lovers seemed to want parks; rarely do they understand that nature is about death.

  • Why do we need a world government to adopt population control policies? China did it well enough on its own. Do you think that in the long run, any country that does unilaterally limit its population will be militarily invaded by another one that doesn’t, or something like that? What happens to nuclear weapons and MAD, in that scenario?

    • The nations that don’t limit their population might invade their neighbors, but more peacefully the extra people may migrate across the borders. Of the nation that limit population may see themselves becoming weak and stop the problem before invasion would be a realistic threat.

      • A country that unilaterally adopts population control policies will of course also have to adopt strict immigration and border controls. You ignored my point about nuclear weapons and MAD. And finally it seems just as plausible that citizens of countries that don’t limit their populations will see the higher per-capita incomes of countries that do, and wish to become more like them.

        It seems to me that the whole thing hinges on how feasible it is for a high-population country to invade and take over a low-population one and obtain a net gain.

      • I wrote a review of Producing Security: Multinational Corporations, Globalization, and the Changing Calculus of Conflict, the book does a good job of explaining why economic benefits of war are not really available any more. But the scenario being discussed here is totally different; given a high population and technological level, invasion, simply for living space appears much more of a risk (for the more distant future). Nuclear weapons are dangerous, but they are mainly (on the strategic level) blackmail weapons. If two countries with equivalent economies went to nuclear war, the one with the larger population would almost certainly win, especially if it also had the larger economy (likely) and was the aggressor (which means was prepared).

  • Ben

    Surely by then we’ll be colonising other worlds? The scenario you outline will happen eventually anyway, but the colonisation of the universe would have to be complete first.

    • Colonization of other worlds will have no noticable effect on population here on Earth. It takes a lot less energy to make a person than to ship one off to another star. This is independent of your technology level.

  • Eric Johnson

    “Competition?” An abstraction. Today competition means nuclear arms, and you needn’t to cut down the last tree to have them.

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  • This isn’t a prediction. It’s already happened. Next time you fly from the east coast to the west coast, look out your window the entire trip. You’ll spend about 6 hours looking at either cities or farmland below you. You may fly over some forest in southern New Jersey or central Pennsylvania for one to two minutes. When you get near the Rockies, you’ll fly over our famous, vaunted national parks and national forests in less than thirty seconds.

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  • Guest

    Honestly I don’t think we’ll be able to completely destroy nature. Admittedly things do seem to going in that direction but i think if anything it’ll get to the point that we’ll overshoot and destroy ourselves in the process. Even now it seems our civilzation is increasingly unsustainable. Personally considering the violent nature of mankind the world might be better off with fewer of us.

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