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Insect collapse (theguardian.com)
258 points by crispinb on Jan 15, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 255 comments

It's funny we think we are an "advanced" civilization, yet we have no real time diagnostics of the status of our biosphere. It's really creepy how little basic research apparently is going on into "boring" ecological factors.

This insect apocalypse is like you suddenly notice you are missing an arm and a leg and have no idea what happened to them.

Any professionals in um... ecological metrics here? To an outsider it seems there are like three people on the planet who are concerned about the quantifiable properties of our biosphere and only one of them got part time funding.

The funding issue has hamstrung scientists for decades and limited our data to a very small pool, but the trends are increasingly clear: we're well into the 6th mass extinction event. See https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-bound... and https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/11/animal-de....

On a more positive note, a few folks I know are in the early stages of an ambitious attempt to regenerate a bioregion: https://medium.com/@joe_brewer/we-are-regenerating-an-entire.... The hope is that this kind of work—developing models of ecosystems rooted in complexity science that expose key leverage points—can be refined through experimentation in Costa Rica and extended to increasingly dissimilar bioregions.

For some reason we as humanity have been living really well for the last 50 years and, without thought, we imagine it's just going to stay like that.

Even 'living well' isn't quite right. By and large, we have swapped out physical for psychological suffering.

What I meant is, for an unprecedented in human history amount of people life is not poverty, dirt, disease and death at 40.

But you're right, just like the observation below, we (this amount of people) also offload our suffering onto the environment and even onto some of those people living in poverty.

But even that is misleading. A small fraction of humanity has been living really well.

And it’s increasingly apparent they have been able to do so by essentially pushing the costs of their actions to future generations.

"living really well" is highly subjective,

>5 billion people now have a mobile phone connection, according to GSMA data.

Per https://venturebeat.com/2017/06/13/5-billion-people-now-have...

That alone should be an indication people are living quite different now than just 10 years ago.

No. Almost everyone is living "really well" compared to 100 years back. The lowest low is higher than it was before.

Makes me think of Buckminster Fuller's World Game: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Game

I guess the problem is that similar to indicators of climate change there would likely be massive methodological argument, some of it legitimate, some of it mendacious, bogging the thing down so much as to destroy its usefulness.

I'm talking just raw numbers like you get in a weather forecast. The fact that politics would happen is not really an explanation of anything. Politics happen in everything people do - at some level.

Using the kardashev scale, we aren't even a level 1 civilization and nowhere close to be an advanced one.

We might destroy the ecosystem and ourselves because we reach the first level of the kardashev scale.

It's simply human hubris to think we are an advanced civilization and our pride may be our downfall.

>we are an "advanced" civilization

I wouldn't call a civilization "advanced" if 3 generations ago it had a vague idea about electricity and flush toilets.

And here I was recently musing to myself that if something embedded into our societal imagination, like the giraffe, went nearly extinct due to climate change, that would wake people up before it's too late.

Little did I know that's already essentially happened here according to this article, and the powers that be neither seem to be aware nor care.

And because I was curious: Giraffes are now on the endangered species list as of about two months ago [1]. Go figure. When do we do something?

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2018/11/14/giraffes-risk...

> When do we do something?

When it significantly impacts the daily lives of a majority of people, and not a second earlier.

When it significantly impacts the daily lives of uneducated Americans.

Educated people around the world already want to do something. Uneducated people outside America already want to do something (because their governments are on board.) It is uneducated Americans -- and their president -- that is going to do us all in.

This means the survival of the planet depends on our ability to communicate with and convince uneducated Americans. That's hard. Al Gore tried long ago with his movie.

It's sort of delusional to say that un-educated people and Trump are the problem. Educated people have vastly huger carbon footprints than non-educated people, thinking globally. Is it the poor people in Africa and Southern/Southeastern Asia that are to blame, or is it the rich people who literally use 10X or 100X more carbon emission in their daily lives? What about the historical emissions of our ancestors - I know mine as an American/WASP are HUGE considering all the cars/planes/meat that have been consumed by my ancestors. Compare that to a line of subsistence farmers in other countries. While I believe in climate change, it doesn't matter, I'm still on the hook for FAR more historical emissions than those un-educated people.

Carbon emissions are going up globally, carbon emissions went up in the USA, slightly different political environments won't change the reality that the vast majority of people, societies, and companies have done far less than they need to already. We can't fool ourselves into thinking a democratic presidential win in 2020 will stop this crisis, it simply won't be enough by any rational view of the emissions already out and coming out every day. Even the favorite policy of democrats/progressives, the carbon tax, got voted down in multiple progressive-state reforanda.

In summary, it feels good to point the finger of blame at the current political regime, but the reality is very little is being done anywhere except for pockets of hope like Norway, California, Iceland, Hawaii, which are NOT enough to balance out historical emissions and rising emissions in China, India, etc.

>Educated people have vastly huger carbon footprints than non-educated people, thinking globally.

But the resistance to doing something about it is not coming from educated people, at least in the US.

Regarding India and China, their governments are on board and they are making progress: https://qz.com/india/1475736/india-is-now-a-world-leader-in-... https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2019/01/11/china-...

You live in a fantasy world if you think uneducated people outside America give two fucks about global warming.

Most uneducated people outside America live worse lives than uneducated people in America, so they have much more important and immediate things to care about than global warming.

Outside America the governments are on board. The only country not in Paris Accord is the USA (which also happens to be, historically, the biggest contributor to global warming).

> When it significantly impacts the daily lives of a majority of relatively economically comfortable people, and not a second earlier.

By then it will be too late.

Majority of which people?

Honduras is being impacted. Our reaction in the USA is to block the refugees fleeing famine and drought from reaching us and “invading”. Similarly with Europe and African refugees.

A significant portion of those "refugees" are seeking safety from problems that can be solved at home, not famine.

I read a very in-depth write-up on your last question couple weeks ago. Have tried to post it on HN a few times with no luck. Won't spoil the "when" answer for you: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18753499

Something like a sudden coffee shortage would get people involved for sure.

Tigers are nearly extinct.

People don’t care.

Apparently there are more pet tigers in Texas than in the wild. (Source unknown to me)

Tigers disappeared because of humans. Not the natural ebb and flow of the planets rhythms. Less humans = less impact.


>With an estimated 5,000 tigers, the U.S. captive tiger population exceeds the approximately 3,200 tigers in the wild.

While not just Texas that is still insane.

I wouldn't have any problem with tigers going extinct in the wild.

From Wikipedia: "The most comprehensive study of deaths due to tiger attacks estimates that at least 373,000 people died due to tiger attacks between 1800 and 2009, the majority of these attacks occurring in South and Southeast Asia.[1] Over the last five centuries, an estimated 1 million people have been eaten by tigers.[2]"


No problem at all! So put tigers at the top of your list and work slowly but surely down the the list of 'nasty' animals and plants. Doubtless we can eliminate the whole damn lot if we really try. You'll be a hero! Or maybe not.

I'd put malaria carrying mosquitoes at the top of the list, not tigers.

The concept of a tiger is an important part of human culture, and it would be a pity if nobody could see a real one, but they breed in captivity, so people can see them in zoos. It's easy to romanticize the idea of "wild tigers" when they live far from you, and you're at no risk of one eating you or your livestock. Humans killed most wild tigers for good reason.

A lot of deaths can be attributed to humans encroaching upon the tiger's territory. If you condone tiger killing due to that then we can extrapolate that to any carnivore capable of killing humans because eventually we do like to take over their land.

To suggest that tigers can own land is a valid argument, but it's a minority opinion. Most people limit animal rights to avoidance of unnecessary cruelty. Vegans are a tiny minority of the world population, and if it's morally acceptable to enslave and kill animals for food (which is unnecessary for human survival), why can't we kill them for safety reasons?

Human beings have become destructive apex predators. In nature, apex predators.. even though they are keystone species...have an impact on prey density and regulation of the eco system. They do not destroy the very system that sustains them.

Human beings are not supposed to be apex predators but we have taken over that role without embracing the intricacies of the responsibilities involved with it.

Would you say the same thing about wolves, re the wolves returning to Yellowstone? https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/wolf-reintroduc...

I oppose the reintroduction of any large predator. The ecosystem benefits can be met by human hunters instead, and if they are skilled they can kill more humanely than wild predators. That said, wolves are much less dangerous than tigers, so I'm not too concerned by that specific case.

To all the downvoters, what is the maximum number of humans eaten by tigers per year you'd be willing to accept in exchange for allowing them to roam free?

Tigers don't eat humans because tigers roam free, they eat humans because humans roam free. Build a fence around your town and tigers won't eat you.

Don't try to build such a general argument on such marginal premises. Humans kill far more humans that Tigers ever have. Tigers are simply not a serious threat to us.

Well considering the problems caused by human overpopulation, I think we need to release enough tigers to eat about 100million humans a year.

>To all the downvoters, what is the maximum number of humans eaten by tigers per year you'd be willing to accept in exchange for allowing them to roam free?

All of them.

Really you’d wipe out the entire human race to see tigers remain in the wild? That’s an odd hypothetical but do you really stand by it or am I missing something.

Most wild tigers in India were killed for sport under the colonial rule not a good enough reason if you ask me (Thats how the Indian cheetah went extinct as well).


I said "extinct in the wild", not completely extinct. Tigers are popular zoo animals (partly because they're so dangerous), and they will breed in captivity. If things are so bad that even captive tigers go extinct then we have bigger problems to worry about.

Would you agree to spend your entire life in a prison for no reason? Zoos are incredibly horrible place for animals to live in, and any animal found only in zoo is as good as extinct, since they are no longer able to sustain themselves outside, should they escape the prison.

If I was severely brain damaged to the point where I had tiger-like intelligence and self-awareness, I'd be happy to spend the rest of my life in a well managed but limited environment. A well managed zoo is not a horrible place. The animals have a reliable food supply, and nothing tries to kill them. They have a large enclosure, and cover to hide from humans if they want to. They have medical care if they get sick. There are no tiger philosophers, so none of them care about freedom in the abstract. The romantic idea of "the wild" being intrinsically good is a human idea. Nature is a horrible place for most animals.

Certainly there are bad zoos, and I support legislation to enforce high standards of animal welfare, but the only animal I am aware of that is absolutely unsuited to captivity is the killer whale (which IMO might be smart enough to have some philosophical understanding of abstract freedom).

We don't do anything because people read too much pop-sci, pretending that we can just store the DNA.

The guardian links to a study of a nature reserve in australia. The abstract is terrifying.


Aim We characterized changes in reporting rates and abundances of bird species over a period of severe rainfall deficiency and increasing average temperatures. We also measured flowering in eucalypts, which support large numbers of nectarivores characteristic of the region.

Location A 30,000‐km2 region of northern Victoria, Australia, consisting of limited amounts of remnant native woodlands embedded in largely agricultural landscapes.

Methods There were three sets of monitoring studies, pitched at regional (survey programmes in 1995–97, 2004–05 and 2006–08), landscape (2002–03 and 2006–07) and site (1997–2008 continuously) scales. Bird survey techniques used a standard 2‐ha, 20‐min count method. We used Bayesian analyses of reporting rates to document statistically changes in the avifauna through time at each spatial scale.

Results Bird populations in the largest remnants of native vegetation (up to 40,000 ha), some of which have been declared as national parks in the past decade, experienced similar declines to those in heavily cleared landscapes. All categories of birds (guilds based on foraging substrate, diet, nest site; relative mobility; geographical distributions) were affected similarly. We detected virtually no bird breeding in the latest survey periods. Eucalypt flowering has declined significantly over the past 12 years of drought.

Main conclusions Declines in the largest woodland remnants commensurate with those in cleared landscapes suggest that reserve systems may not be relied upon to sustain species under climate change. We attribute population declines to low breeding success due to reduced food. Resilience of bird populations in this woodland system might be increased by active management to enhance habitat quality in existing vegetation and restoration of woodland in the more fertile parts of landscapes.


This planet will not support 7 billion humans. Certainly not 7 billion stupid-ass humans who swing massive sledgehammers into the pillars of the biosphere that support them in their hedonistic blunder in search of more "wealth".

When I hear the words "economic growth", and then weigh it against the destruction of this magnitude, I often want to vomit.

And how do I square the fact that I work on flipping bits in computers somewhere that represent some fiction of our collective imagination, all the while burning more energy and fuel and contributing to the massive side show that distracts us from our self-destruction? Not well.

I used to feel this way and I found that it wasn't productive. What can you do? If you can do something, do it. If you think you can't change the future possible destruction of our ecosystem or millions of people, then you also need to make peace with it.

I think you can either do or not do things without the negativity. I found that the negativity made me think emotionally and not rationally or productively, and also sometimes came off in my conversations with people which was also not helpful-because I was clearly very emotional about the issue.

My thought process is whatever happens, happens. I can't do much to prevent whatever systemic collapse that might happen or not happen. But whatever I can do, I will. When I first learned about this, I thought it meant the future that I took for granted could be nonexistent - the dying happily carefree of systemic collapse part after having a family and growing old. It made me bitter and resentful. What's the point of doing anything if the world's going to go to shit by 2030? I decided to be more optimistic or maybe stoic. Make sure I can do what I can or all I can and not let some potential apocalyptic future darken my life. Sorry if this is a trash comment.

> I decided to be more optimistic or maybe stoic. Make sure I can do what I can or all I can and not let some potential apocalyptic future darken my life.

I am somewhere along this path, trying to find a mindset to cope. Yet I have the feeling that even so, widespread, happiness all but ensures the collapse, as the emergent effect of everyone being happy and living their best life, no matter what they think as they do it, is just as bad. I am sorry about this, sorry to be a bearer of bad news, sorry to bring this darkness out in the world, but honestly there is no way out of this box for humanity.

I am too optimistic about humanity. I think there are billions of humans on Earth and not all are as stupid as some people might presume. In fact I would say if there's any humans that survive, it will probably be the 1% that many people hate. I think even then being in the USA easily increases your survival chances.

At the same time, I have absolutely no doubts what is to come. If this is the end of humanity then so be it. It would be irrational to feel bad because I can't do much to stop a disaster like that. I accepted last year that I will die, everyone I love will die, and even potentially all of humanity will die perhaps in my lifetime, and I have made my peace with it.

I have spent a significant amount of time reading all the ways the dominoes will fall and how people will die. People are dying right now.

Happiness comes from within, not from outside. What happens outside should not affect what you feel inside. That's the mindset I learned from stoicism and reading Victor Frankl. "The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance."

If you are too emotional and depressed, you will be unproductive/not be able to do much to help, and do you also want to spend the little time you have like that? I choose to enjoy the little life I have with the people I love but not in ignorance. I will do everything I can but I will not let it darken my life and my disposition. I hope that makes sense.

I view our success as a product of evolution. It is the driving factor that got us down out of the trees, cultivating our food and to where we are today.

Would we be putting a little less pressure on the environment without people like Edward Bernays, possibly. However, I think our collective consciousness can put itself a little at ease. As we enter the 6 mass extinction event, it's a natural cycle and if it wasn't us, some other species would dominate the planet.

It's never a bad time to listen to George Carlin's "saving the planet"


Thank you. St.Carlin always keeps me grounded.

I think you vastly over-estimate our power.

If the oceans die through acidification and pollution, and all of the insects die we will die as well.

Yes, we'll die, but only 99.99% dead. The remaining surviving will have learned the most costly lesson yet of humanity, and will continue on and rebuild. It sucks, but so did the millions of years of animals murdering each other just so that I could type this and you could read it.

> The remaining surviving will have learned the most costly lesson yet of humanity

I wish I could believe this, but I don't. The cycle will repeat as the collapse passes out of living memory. We will have lost civilization by then, the only records that remain will be the trash heaps that we leave behind.

I expect us to die.

I think you may have misread the intent of my comment.

We're going away.

This isn't a trash comment- this is exactly what I needed to read after reading this article. Thank you!

I'm still on the "affected by negativity" phase. May I ask what concrete actions are you taking (besides being optimistic).

I spent one morning with a group which plants and looks after trees in a reserve near my place. We were putting protections around young saplings so cows wouldn't eat them. It took my team of three the whole morning to put protections around a single sapling.

The whole thing made me sad. There is no way we are going to counteract our consumption with single individual actions like that. So I am looking for ways to be more effective.

I'm doing the basic concrete actions of the eco-friendly conscious like consuming less, avoiding plastic, etc.

I don't think that will do much so I have a bigger dream of eliminating menstrual poverty. I read a book that said if we could educate more women, it could have a significant impact on climate change, and I think menstrual poverty is an easy way to access and help educate the women that probably need it the most. So I am working on creating free resources to help eliminate menstrual poverty in the USA to start with reusable products- and also building a company that sells reusable products but whose mission is to eliminate menstrual poverty. It's not much but it makes me feel better.

Drawdown is the book I read that lists 100 potential solutions to climate change to reverse whatever is happening now, if it's possible. Maybe you can check out the website and see if any of the solutions look interesting to you, and see if there's any way you could help people with them. Volunteering should make you feel happy like you're making a difference. Maybe you will feel a lot better when you can donate your skills to a cause that could move the needle. I am sure you have more skills than planting trees that any organization needs and could appreciate.


It seems to me the only thing we can really do is not have children. There are too many people on the planet.

There's more one can do than just that. I do not own or use cars. I try limit my meat consumption (not entirely successful on that front). I changed energy providers to buy from renewables sources. I do not travel by air. I don't have air conditioning.

I also sit on a pile of money, not sure what to do with it. Index stocks contain fossil companies which I don't want to support. Maybe I'll throw some at those silicate weathering pilot projects.

> I try limit my meat consumption (not entirely successful on that front).

You can drastically reduce related emissions by just giving up beef and replacing it witch chicken. IIRC it's something like 1/5 or 1/6th the amount of greenhouse gas emissions pound for pound of meat.

What you write is true but I don't think will be duplicable on a large scale without regulations and pricing negative externalities into products. The free rider problem is a negative aspect of human psychology.

The question is what someone who is aware of the issues and willing to act can do. Just because there are those who act irresponsibly does not prevent you from adjusting your behavior.

It does actually prevent me for adjusting my behavior. I'm a victim of free rider thinking. I'm not going to fall on my sword so to speak and sacrifice whilst almost no one else does.

Please reflect on what you are saying. You stylize yourself as victim when you are actually benefiting from making harmful decisions and then rationalizing that harmful behavior with "but everyone else is doing it too".

I haven't stylized myself as anything other than a person who advocates not having children. I over consume. I've come to grips with this fact. I deal with it by not having children as a means of assuaging my guilt. I've got just one life and I'm going to enjoy it as much as I can. I'm not going to sacrifice for the greater good when it's just me and a handful of other people doing it.

Why not invest in space-faring companies? There are 40 billion earth-like planets out there. Plenty of room for lots of different eco-systems to flourish.

You could also eat a mostly vegan diet, get the world to move towards sustainable farming practices (and away from monoculture crops), and support scaling up nuclear, renewables, and a massive infrastructure overhaul.

It may seem counterintuitive, but if you care about the environment, you should have children. I wrote a whole blog post on this, but the gist is that people are going to have children whatever you decide to do. If people like you, who are thoughtful and conscientious about the future of our species, decide not to have children, then the world will just be filled with the offspring of people who don't really care about the future of our species. And those children will share both the nature and nurture of their parents.

My blog post: http://www.richardjones.org/kids-are-good-for-the-environmen...

Agreed. Raising vegan/vegetarian children and trying to steer them toward effective-altruistic careers around environmental benefit probably has positive expected outcomes for the environmental and political future.

What you write makes sense but I don't feel right about having children. The world sucks and it will suck much more in the coming decades. I have no desire to put my progeny through that mess.

This only makes sense if you assume "caring about the environment" is highly heritable and that individuals "caring about the environment" in the abstract somehow translates into large-scale public policy that's better for the environment (I would suggest available evidence shows that it does not).

As I pointed out, children get their nature and their nurture from their parents. And I don't know how you can reconcile the success of the environmental movement in the developed world in the past 5 decades with your position that somehow people caring about the environment doesn't have any real world effects.

CO2 emissions are not just rising but rising faster. We haven't even gotten the second derivative pointed in the necessary direction.

But you and your significant other are not the only players in the game. There are other people who will have children, regardless of what you do. So your choice is between a future that contains your children, who share your disposition and are indoctrinated by you into a specific worldview, or a world that does not contain them.

How does your side win if it promotes a strategy of not even showing up to the game?

My "side" "wins" in that my [non-existent] children and grandchildren will not suffer and starve on a famine-stricken planet burning itself to death.

I don’t get your position. You’re evidently not concerned with the greater good, only with what your own descendants will experience. But then you’re completely willing to ensure that you will leave no descendants.

I think you're poorly informed, or perhaps in denial about how far down the road we already are: [0] [1] [2]

It's essentially too late for your or my hypothetical descendants to have any effect on "the greater good". The IPCC says either we cut _worldwide_ CO2 emissions by 50% in the next 11 years, or it's game over for +1.5C scenarios: all coral reefs die, along with most of the fish, crop yields down 40% in some places, mass migration and resource wars are likely.

So basically I think it's too late for any "greater good" to come from my having kids, and I believe it's immoral to bring a life into a doomed world just to suffer.

[0] - https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/rcp-85-t...

[1] - https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-story-of-sustainability-in-2018-...

[2] - https://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=8433

I get the risks. I’m just not a quitter. Somebody has to show up and try and I’m willing to nominate my descendants for that. And I’m pretty sure they’ll be okay with my choice. Many people throughout history have been born into some pretty fucked up situations (slavery, etc.) and decided that life was worth living.

I've thought this too but then you are leaving the future to those who breed more irresponsibly. Another way to look at it would be that we have a responsibility to raise more responsible people.

Hrm, I'm thinking that all the time one spends raising a single child could be spent educating a lot more children to be responsible. Raising != educating of course, but raising individual responsible children doesn't scale the same way that education can.

do both and gain extra insights into humans overall.

I suppose the question is whether the future is a gift or a curse.

Though I agree. It's odd - I've known people who seemed offended by Idiocracy, but couldn't really come up with any flaws in its basic premise (in short, well-educated highly-productive people (for traditional values of productive which is its own debate) tend to have fewer kids, and people are usually like their parents, so over time we'll have fewer people like that).

Yes, this is true. For me the way that I deal with the reality of a planet becoming a shitty place to live is to not have children. It is the best way for me to cope with the situation. People can choose to do otherwise.

Have you considered letting your children decide whether they want to be alive on whatever the future has in store for this planet? Life is optional; they can opt out at any time. But my hunch is that they'll appreciate being alive and decide to make a go of it, however tough it is. After all, there is no alternative; the only life they can have is the one you give them.

I have not considered letting things that don't yet exist decide if they want to exist.

> I've thought this too but then you are leaving the future to those who breed more irresponsibly.

The movie "Idiocracy" addresses this very issue. It's a comedy, and I really enjoyed it.

>It's a comedy

I think you meant prophecy.

While I'm very happy having chosen the path you suggest, I never suggest it to anyone because I think it is not realistic. What do you think the odds are, that the average person can win against one of the strongest primal drives with which every living being is born. Also, people (on average) do need to procreate if society has to continue its existence.

I would agree that having sex is one of the strongest primal drives. However, a drive to have sex =/= a drive to have children. Can you provide a source that shows having children is a natural, inborn drive of humans?

You are looking at it the other way around. The drive is ultimately to spread one's genes. We just invented a way to get enjoyment out of the process without creating offspring. I leave it to you to reach for your favourite search engine or to visit library if you wish to verify that propagating one's genes is one of the primal drives of living beings.

You might have a fundamental misunderstanding of how genetics and evolution work. The spreading of genes is a consequence of having sex, not its goal. There is no higher power that determined "spreading one's genes" as some sort of ultimate drive, then set about finding ways to make it happen.

You can think of it this way:

- Presumably, some mammals would have been born that did not enjoy sex. Those would not procreate and their gene would die out.

- Other mammals would enjoy sex. They would procreate, and their genes would spread.

It's the sex and enjoyment thereof that is the driving force behind procreation. When you hear people saying "the ultimate drive is to spread one's genes," that's just a hand-wavy explanation used for simplification (which, unfortunately, many people have come to interpret too literally - as is often the case when simplification is involved).

It's the same type of simplification as when a nature documentary says "Nature found a way to do X". As if nature is some conscious entity with a will that is working towards achieving some goal.

For the sake of a charitable interpretation and productive dialogue, I'll ignore your first sentence. From the rest, it appears that we are (mostly) in agreement. Genes which are more likely to spread and survive are the genes that remain. Also, it is not evident that many species enjoy sex.

I do have a question, actually, if you will humor me.

Suppose we take two human children - a boy and a girl. We separate them from their parents at age 1 and we isolate them from society. A professional caretaker visits them a few times a day, giving them food and helping them with their necessities. They are taught to communicate in one manner or another, perhaps given access to some form of entertainment.

Now, I'm going to be brutal - for science: the hypothetical boy has been sterilized. He doesn't know it, of course.

At no point do the children learn how humans are born. Nothing in their surroundings is an indication, and the caretaker never tells them.

Also, they never learn that it is "normal" for regular people to have children of their own.

As far as the kids are concerned, no other humans except them and the caretaker exist.

Do you think that:

1) Those children will experience an innate need to have children of their own?

2) What activities will the children undertake to satisfy that need?


- Adapting to artificial changes to environment/constraints requires a long time to evolve and that will be through countless generations. So, the example above needs to be thought of through large numbers instead of such a small sample.

- Additionally, consider that you could perhaps fool a duckling to imprint upon someone/something else as his/her mother. This one example is not useful if one were to attempt to disprove that this imprinting behaviour evolved to help the ducklings stay with their mother in a vulnerable period.

To me, this appears clear. However, I am not sure if I've articulated it in a way where you are able to also see where I am going with this.


Sorry if my post came off as rude - it was not my intention.

Your comment arrives a bit too late. I already have one child. What else?

That's basically it. Assuming you live in a rich country the facts are that we way over consume. The people who say they are vegan and recycle and whatnot are still way over consuming for the most part. All of those cars, clothes, devices, etc. that they possess are very harmful to the planet. Limit yourself to one child since that is below the replacement rate for population growth. That's my suggestion and my way of dealing with the reality of the world we live in.

>>It seems to me the only thing we can really do is not have children.

And then who pays for your social security checks, pensions and other debt that was raised to fight wars?

This line of reasoning is spurious. The people who consume the most resources also have the lowest fertility rates.

What we can do other than despair and contemplate genocide is transition to a carbon neutral economy. It really only requires political will.

Sorry but your comment doesn't help me. I can not "transition my society to a carbon neutral economy". I don't know how I can "create political will". Can you be more concrete?

You posited an individual act that could only have a result if realized collectively. I posit the same. Make carbon neutral choices as much as possible, in your personal and professional life; conservation works.

As for political will, it is the same: composed of individual wills. Bill McKibben points out that a major impediment to a carbon-neutral future is that fossil fuel reserves are capital; the powerful people that own them need us to remain dependent on fossil fuels so their capital continues to have value. These people mobilize huge resources to support their goals; in the last generation trillions of dollars, representing engineering, resources and manufacturing, that should have gone to developing a carbon neutral economy was squandered in useless wars to secure access to fossil fuel resources in the Middle East.

At the same time these forces are extremely vulnerable to collective action in the form of an organized populace. Creating political will means: educate yourself and your neighbors and discover ways (protest, lecture, lobby) to stymie their agenda and advance your own.

We could always transcend from carbon based life forms to a hybrid silicon-carbon based lifeform by becoming part AI.

>Creating political will means: educate yourself and your neighbors and discover ways (protest, lecture, lobby) to stymie their agenda and advance your own.

Tons of people have been trying this for decades now, and all we have to show for it is Trump and climate denialism. Educating people doesn't seem to actually work in practice.

Blog, tweet, participate in tv, radio shows “, join a political party, join an activist group. Really pick any assembly of people and contribute to the agenda in with any means available. Be a leader.

It's not genocide to not have children. At an individual level the best thing we can do is to not have children if you are in a rich country. Those of us who live in rich countries massively over consume (including myself in this). Going to a carbon neutral economy is not helpful if it isn't done on a world wide scale. Right now rich countries have a nice system whereby they can realistically become carbon neutral in terms of their energy usage but their appetite for consumer goods is one of the main reasons for all of those polluting factories in other countries. Rich countries are outsourcing their pollution.

The resource consumption per capita of a person in the U.S. far exceeds the resource consumption of a person in Afghanistan. One American is more damaging to the world wide environment than a family in Afghanistan. Thus your second statement is not relevant. It is true that Americans have fewer children than people in poor countries. But our overconsumption more than makes up for this deficit.

It really only requires political will.

Are you an American? Because this statement sounds like someone who is not aware of the political reality in the United States.

Not having children is also not helpful if not done on a worldwide scale, so I dont see how your strategy is better.

I am an American, and I remain optimistic that we can fix our politics. In fact I'd say that fixing our politics is exactly the same as manifesting political will. For a generation since the labor movement dwindled there have not been any significant vehicles of popular will at work in American politics. It's past time to change that. To suggest we can't is simply despair - it will be true as long as we believe it, and no further.

The person I originally responded to asked for suggestions to deal with the reality of living on a planet increasingly becoming a shitty place to live. He/she appeared to be having a problem coming to terms with this reality. I suggested not having kids. The suggestion isn't feasible in terms of large scale change. It is feasible in terms of coming to grips with being an over consumer of resources and assuaging the accompanying guilt. At least it has worked for me.

Political reality in america is that there were multiple changes of ruling party in the last decade and MPs being voted out on specific issues. Of course a representative multi-party system would be preferable, but it's not that it's impossible to achieve anything at all.

...multiple changes of ruling party...

I think you don't understand the American political system. At present there are only two parties in terms of realistically getting elected. There is no such thing as a ruling party in the sense of European parliaments. Members of a party are free to vote as they please. Hence Lieberman famously derailing aspects of Obamacare. There is also the fact that both parties in the U.S. have shifted very much to the right the last 40 years. The reality in the U.S. is that even with our so called left leaning party in power in the legislative branch and executive branch no serious environmental accords were negotiated and passed.

Reaching out and talking to people will help.

1. If everyone has 1/2 surviving child then in 150 years, our population will become stable.

2. It’s not transferable because we still need species diversity

3. People will be incentivized with ubi and all their needs taken care of if they agree to #1.

4.stop animal based foods.

5. Return half planet back to nature to reforest and rewind.

6.reverse acidification of oceans.

7. Find ways to restore polar ice caps and bring down planet temperature

8. Reduce fossil fuel dependence. Go nuclear.

9. Protect water.

Nature will rewild. We just need to stop being so successful with procreation because our highest achievement will result in our extinction.

My 2c.

Human populations grow slower the more advanced they are. Most of the first world, including the US, is below replacement fertility rate of 2.1. Without immigration and the like, the US would start contracting. Bringing the third world up to first world is what is needed. That and the other things you said.

[EDIT] Links help: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-replacement_fertility

The timescale for sub-replacement fertility to work its magic is too long--on the order of centuries. We are already in an overshoot scenario, and bringing the third world up to first world living standards will only consume more energy and produce more greenhouse gasses. We're in serious trouble and small tweak to birthrates isn't going to fix this.

>>Bringing the third world up to first world is what is needed.

Again, the biggest hurdle to that is politics. There are deep geo political ramifications on any thing that causes change in economic equations at such massive levels.

Mostly its also the will of the people. The world is indeed a giant stack ranking system, and people do indeed believe in ruining anything it takes to score the most points. Most people do believe in things like their civilization, nationalism and racial supremacy.

If you think of it as a whole, space, asteroids and what humans could do if they work together. The very concept of economy feels like something that limits human progress.

Economy won’t go away, limited resources needs to be managed. A market economy, otoh, is just one approach.

I’m pretty sure the current configuration is just a temporary blind spot. Market economy as an optimization algorithm is pretty neat for a limited set of problems. As a means to handle social justice, collective planning, and a bunch of other problems perhaps not so much. While finding better models for that, we shouldn’t throw out the bayby with the bath water.

I appreciate this helpful comment

You can sabotage, initiate preemptive collapse

Agreed, but I believe we can act about it.

My environmental fingerprint is probably <5% of average first-world countries people, I don't consume much, food mostly obviously, and local one, mostly vegs/fruits according to the season. no car, no pets, not a smoker, working remotely, avoiding trips as much as possible. I try to save wild life as much as possible, on every possible occasion, even if it's just moving a dead one off the road, in a better place.

At a single person level, these actions looks insignificant, but if everyone does it, it won't be since the major source of pollution is residential pollution, i.e. people, and the other sources of pollution (industry, large-scale transports...) are also driven by consumption. So if people stop over-consuming, this saves dramatically our planet, and our sibling animals. Of course governments need to foster this change

Local food is not necessarily more environmentally friendly. According to a paper on food transportation and reducing its carbon footprint, about 11% of typical US food consumption's carbon footprint comes from transportation [1]. If the food you're eating from the area you're in is not suited well for growing that kind of food, it's quite possible the local farmers are making more of a carbon impact versus growing it in a more suited area and shipping it.

[1] "Food transportation issues and reducing carbon footprint", Wayne Wakeland , Susan Cholette , and Kumar Venkat. http://www.cleanmetrics.com/pages/Ch9_0923.pdf

Transporting food is a lot more than just fuel consumption, the farther you transport a given amount of food the greater your loss potential is to spoilage/contamination/infestation etc. It also promotes unsustainability, the US exports an insane amount of grain and imports nearly half of it's fruit for example, using land in America to feed livestock and people in China, Russia, India etc while eating fruit year round by importing it from Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, New Zealand etc.

local at country scale I meant (France or Italy which is near)

If everyone does it, at best we'd get a 25% decline in emissions; the vast, VAST majority of emissions, global warming, pollution, etc is caused by industry, which in turn is controlled by governments.

Some of them are doing something about it; this morning I heard the Dutch government is proposing a new emissions tax for industry: 45 euros per ton in 2021, raising by 2% annually to 80 euros per ton in 2050. Of course, the problem is that at the same time the government is subsidizing these very industries.

But that's just a tiny country that's already doing very well in that regard; right next to us is Germany and the UK with their heavy industries. And the whole emissions of Europe is negligible compared to the US and China.

Change won't come from individuals; it comes from politics. If you really care about the environment, you'll have much more influence if you become a politician instead of (or in addition to) a vegan.

Industry exists to serve personal consumption. Other than a few percent of GDP spent on defense and national infrastructure, the remainder of emissions is ultimately the responsibility of the individuals whose consumption that activity enables. If everyone took full responsibility for their emissions including those intermediated through industry we could see a much larger reduction in emissions.

Asking for people to individually change consumption habits, especially when it could put them at a disadvantage if others don't change, has repeatedly proven to be a bad solution. It's often better to use government as a focused effort to change things.

> My environmental fingerprint is probably <5% of average first-world countries people, I don't consume much, food mostly obviously, and local one, mostly vegs/fruits according to the season. no car, no pets, not a smoker, working remotely, avoiding trips as much as possible

You forgot to mention the #1 (by far) contributor that is 20 to 50 times more significant than everything else you mentioned.

> We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year).


That's recursive reasoning because a child also eats, travels by car and by airplane.

It's also equivalent to saying: Kill yourself because you cause 58.6t CO2 (unless children cause more CO2 than adults which would be absurd because children don't take a lot of emission-relevant decisions)

It's not equivalent since you're already alive. Not producing a child isn't the same as killing one's self in any way.

Of course it is. You can immediately and permanently eliminate all of your CO2 production going forward. That's a big help to the world, not very useful for yourself though.

Obviously if we eliminate humanity we also eliminate humanity's impact on the world. You can also get rid of all bugs in your code by deleting the code. That is the exact definition of throwing the baby out with the bathwater though. We're looking for ways to eliminate humanity's impact without eliminating humanity.

In 1600s, the population of the world was a little more than half a billion.[1] We predict 10 billion by 2050.

We certainly can work towards reducing our population. Starting with 1/2 surviving child per person. It is important that it can’t be bought or sold in order to maintain diversity of human genetic code.

We could also likely become part AI or part synthetic instead of organic to deal with a different planet. But I am treading sci fi here.


P.S. nice handle!!

I hate to do this, but apparently you didn't understand what was quoted:

"One fewer child"

So instead of 3, have 2. If you were so inclined to have a vasectomy or tubal ligation after a 3rd child, it would help the overall situation.

It's about lowering the growth rate in human population. Similarly, your analogy to code is incorrect. It's about eliminating new bugs but reducing the number of commits.

In your value system.

It's easy to construct a value system where my own life and my future child's life are both worth more than 58 t CO2.

Well, then you may have a catch-22 where the expense of having your child could cause making the world unlivable for that child thus condemning it or its descendants to non-existence. Thus generalized to the whole population the best action to maintain the ability to have those valued children is to have fewer of them on average. So we're back to the same conclusion.

How do you reconcile the future warfare and famine risk to your N existing children caused by the additional carbon of your hypothetical N+1 vs your utility of having an N+1th child, though? Because that is the actual formulation.

You reconcile it by reading some history books and realizing that life has always been tough and that the future probably won't be any tougher than the past.

Except for the fact we are, in decades, affecting climate in a way that took several millennia previously and we've contaminated the water and air with not only microplastics but all sorts of outright toxic compounds.

Then of course we are making species go extinct 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate because we are contaminating ecosystems, clear-cutting ecosystems and causing ecosystems to collapse by directly influencing climate making it impossible for parts of those ecosystems to survive.

Life is already orders of magnitude 'tougher than the past'.

I mean, you are absolutely, 100% incorrect. It's textbook fallacy. X is tough, Y was tough, we survived Y, and therefore we can survive X.

The planet has never been through warming as rapid as what we are going through in known geological (not human) history. There was a paper hosted and copublished by NASA to that effect in the last month. It's literally unknown how much life can survive the velocity of the change that is in progress.

What "history books" should I read about climate science, too?

Climate change has caused famine and strife for humans in the past. It's one of the more common reasons for civilizational decline. Sure, this round of climate change is worse. But our ability to fend for ourselves is better.

Again, 100% fallacy. "Sure, this round of climate change is worse." and comparing that to another change (our coping ability) with no discussion of magnitude.

The degree of climate change is not just "worse". It's without precedent in geologic history in velocity of change. Our improved ability to fend for ourselves is many orders of magnitude less that the degree of change that is happening.

You can read your history books and multiple it by 100 or 1000.

The scale of both differences is unknown. Current rate of climate change is unprecedented. Human civilizational complexity is also unprecedented. There is no way to know what the outcome will be.


Given that, it would be pretty stupid to preemptively quit.

Nobody's quitting. Recognizing the gravity of our situation is essentially the opposite of quitting.

Limiting further population increase is in no way equivalent to saying kill yourself. This is a gross exaggeration.

I'm just saying it logically follows that killing yourself is likely even better than not having children.

I consider it a failure of the study if it says "don't have kids" if (and only if) its original aim was to show how that can be done without drastic measures (such as "kill all humans", "don't have kids", ...).

It's like suggesting to not have kids in order to fight cancer. Yes, absolute cancer occurrences will decrease if you don't have kids, yet we have not in any way addressed the underlying problem.

EDIT: Previously I said "absolute cancer rates" where I should have said absolute cancer occurrences

Fighting cancer involves lowering cancer rates in each individual person. Individual likelihood of cancer is unaffected by the global population. Fighting climate change involves lowering CO2 rates for the globe, and is heavily influenced by the global population and the population of rich countries.

> Fighting climate change involves lowering CO2 rates

Exactly, and not having kids doesn't lower CO2 rates per capita, it just reduces absolute CO2 emissions.

Hence the equivalence that the article's statistics implicitly suggest killing humans reduces CO2 emissions and my claim that this type of info doesn't help at all.

It reduces absolute CO2 emissions if everyone has less children. Biology tells us that life does not stop reproducing short of extinction level events, however.


So your solution is to simply do nothing. It might offend some voters’ sense of entitlement. That things aren’t the same as they were 30 years ago.

We could do it the hard way. When ocean levels rise the coastal house market will collapse. Water will become scarce as aquifers get spoiled by salt. And climate patterns are certainly changing. Places that used to get an abundance of rain are already facing a drought. But some douchebag in a bro-dozer is certainly sticking it to the rich.

My apologies for going off track, but your last statement reminds me of how "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy" begins.

> So your solution is to simply do nothing.

I never said that. I said implementing extreme solutions like a 95% cut to everyone's carbon footprint are a terrible idea.

Also we are most likely talking about like a 0.5-2 ft rise maybe over the next 30 years. That is not exactly a "day after tomorrow" panic situation. The coastal real estate economy can deflate over 30 years.

It seems to be quite well established that not dealing with climate change is going to be significantly more expensive than taking preventative action. So your arguments about economic hardship and the associated problems are (if valid) really arguments for taking more drastic action against the problem.

> It seems to be quite well established that not dealing with climate change is going to be significantly more expensive than taking preventative action.

Over what time period though? Projections are all over the place, and it is basically impossible to predict where our technology will be 20 years from now. Maybe moderate interdiction now on our part will stave off the worst of it until we discover technologies that will get us out of this jam.

We haven't discovered any major technologies in the last 20 years that would make a significant difference; what makes you think the next 20 years would be any different?

I'm confident we will make some gains in things like lower power consumption and better efficiency with renewables, but we're coming up against some hard physical limits; plus we are finding more toys all the time that demand more energy.

The best chance of finding technological solutions is to pour money into researching clean technologies, which is not something I would be against, but it doesn't guarantee anything.

Hoping for a technological solution in the future is a bit like spending all your money and taking out loans you are unable to pay in the uncertain hope of a windfall in the future.

It doesn't have to be this way. We utilize automation and slave-like labor to produce disposal junk.

It would be much better if via policy we encourage repairs, and levy a cost on packaging of any kind.

Then the market will sort itself out and there will be work in form of a robust secondary market.

That's a big problem for sure. Unfortunately, the collapse we'll get if we do not rapidly transition to a sustainable economy is likely to be much, much worse. But your point is a good one - how do we manage an orderly transition to a sustainable steady-state* economy when the changes needed to do so in the time we have are likely to be so drastic, they will cause a collapse of any social system that tries to make them?

*We can probably eke out some more economic growth while cutting resource consumption, but sooner or later continued growth and finite resources become an impossibility. If nothing else, we'll eventually generate too much waste heat from energy production.

If we all suffocate because the phytoplankton died off, I’m sure the history books will note that we freely voted for mass suicide.

There are enough sadists that I wouldn’t rule out a homicide yet.

In the most practical terms, wouldn’t a first-world genocide be good* for the environment? I mean, the problem is us, right?

*I am not personally endorsing genocide.

Yes, world-wide genocide would be amazing for the environment.

> And how do I square the fact that I work on flipping bits in computers somewhere that represent some fiction of our collective imagination, all the while burning more energy and fuel and contributing to the massive side show that distracts us from our self-destruction? Not well.

Well at least the mass consumption of virtual goods (software) seems to produce less waste than the mass consumption of physical goods. Your mission is to write software that's so good that people do not need to upgrade their hardware.

I'm not sure about that. Sure, the software itself won't, but the hardware needed to run the software absolutely has environmental impact: It drives habitat destruction due to mining the raw materials, pollution from waste by the mining and production processes and than more pollution when the hardware is decommissioned and ends up on landfills.

Then there is the enormous energy demand of IT systems, which in turn requires more fuel to drive them.

The industry itself is not helping either. Not just is writing resource efficient software often not a priority, it's sometimes even seen as an anti-pattern (due to a misunderstanding of "premature optimization"). In the latest iteration, we have technologies like blockchains that make wasting energy into a feature.

> Your mission is to write software that's so good that people do not need to upgrade their hardware.

Meanwhile, the mission of your superiors is to make sure people upgrade their hardware as often as possible so the revenue keeps coming in.

Before there is a large-scale change of that culture, I don't think software development will be innocent in this.

...the hardware needed to run the software absolutely has environmental impact

I agree. When I look at other industries I see efforts to reduce energy consumption. Most programmers, in contrast, couldn't care less. The most popular languages are the least energy efficient. But they make life easier for developers, or as devs love to say 'more productive'. Who cares if you need to add more and more server boxes to your setup, after all 'hardware is cheap' - the default response of countless programmers everywhere. This industry is absolutely rife with hypocrisy.

It's not just the language though. It is also what's done with the language. Increased productivity also means all kinds of marginal convenience and monetization features will get implemented which gobble up additional compute cycles.

If everything were written in assembly we simply wouldn't have the human resources to implement 500 ad trackers on a web browser. Not to mention that the web browser would be far more rudimentary in the first place.

>The most popular languages are the least energy efficient.

What does it mean?

JS is the most popular language. Thus most software is wasting orders of magnitude more energy than it should. The same functionality would require less than a tenth of processing power (and thus energy and physical hardware) if it were implemented properly.

Properly is like what, assembler? So lets spend 100x power on developers notebooks and 100x of their paid time and rewrite eveything in asm so it will work faster? Or what "implemented properly" means?

Properly is like what, assembler?

No-one is advocating that. There are dozens of fast, high-level programming languages to choose from.

Today, dynamic programming languages are the most popular - and often (not always) the least performant and least power efficient.

What does energy efficient mean? Here's one perspective explored in a paper:

Energy Efficiency across Programming Languages: How does energy, time, and memory relate?


Here's the related Hacker News discussion:


Dynamic languages benefit too from attention to energy-efficiency and speed in their evolution.

When PHP 7 was released, Rasmurf Lerdorf, the creator of PHP, said the performance improvements meant fewer servers, smaller memory use and reduced CPU activity - all of which equalled less power or electricity consumed.

When you consider the millions of servers in use, that additional language efficiency adds up to a substantial saving in electricity use. You can watch a segment from his presentation where he talks about this here - and the calculations he made of potential CO2 savings:


Properly in this context would mean achieving the same effect at the lowest possible overall expense of energy (including those of developer laptops) given specific hardware.

Google spends a lot of effort optimizing their software because they bear the energy cost of running it in their own data centers.

Websites do not bear the energy cost of running their code on enduser devices.

The lack of incentives turns energy waste into an externalty which means it is not factored into development.

Well, climate change doesn't care very much about developer hours. And the amount of power the dev notebooks spend is probably negligible compared to the power your production servers use. So in the context of this discussion which is explicitly about energy efficiency, I'd say this is absolutely correct.

And yes, there absolutly nonsensical stuff going on in modern software stacks, that could - in theory - be cut without any negative consequences. E.g., contemporary languages and framework seem to do a lot of stuff repeatedly at runtime that you could just as well precompute during build. However, this would require a completely different software stack than what we have now, so from our current point of view, it would be hard to change.

In a modern compiled language and without using ten layers of abstraction. It is very feasible and does not require significantly more development effort, at least not compared to the energy and material savings.

If it "would require less than a tenth of processing power" while being "very feasible and does not require significantly more development effort" I think you should get in touch with Google or Facebook with your suggestion.

You can solve two problems at once - you will lower their carbon footprint to 1/10 of their current one, and become a multi-millionaire or even billionaire. Sounds like a double win to me.

That's the problem we're talking about. It is very feasible but only if performance and energy use is something you want to focus on, while accepting the economic penalty of not prioritizing time-to-market. This is just yet another case of unchecked capitalism and free market destroying the planet. Focusing on energy and resource conservation may be more important as well as feasible, but it's not quite as economically competitive. Unless the industry as a whole decide to do what's morally right, or it is regulated and mandated by the government.

Unfortunately datacenters don't run on pixie dust! I'd love to know the carbon billow produced in a 5 social media session.

mass consumption of virtual goods (software) seems to produce less waste than the mass consumption of physical goods.

I read that bitcoin produces more CO2 than the global aviation industry...


Your mission is to write software that's so good that people do not need to upgrade their hardware.

Email, word processing, the vast majority of commercial workloads, would work fine on machines with a tiny fraction of the typical PCs power today. But developers insist on using godawful “frameworks” to do the most trivial things. Like JS based text editors that take gigs of RAM to do less useful stuff than Emacs could do in megs.

The PC of the future is something like an RPi with an eInk display with a solar panel on the other side.

> I read that bitcoin produces more CO2 than the global aviation industry...

It's big (~23Mt), but not as big as aviation (~860Mt).

https://www.atag.org/facts-figures.html https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption

It feels like humans lack the capacity to optimise for success beyond reproduction and acquiring power, especially at large scales and timelines. Maybe there is a non-technological solution to this - new ways of organising that enforces better choices for the planet and our long term survival - but it's hard to see that.

Perhaps the bit flipping will be the way out of this mess - using machine intelligence to understand and help us optimise for things that we can't. I think that will take a while though - we need more legislation around polluting and overuse of resources as the immediate step.

What's best for the individual is not always best for society or the world. As long as people have a mindset that prioritizes individual well-being, the only roadblock to environmental irresponsibility is to generate enough political awareness so that laws get passed that curtail some of the more harmful individual behaviors (in ways that are enforceable).

I think nothing has that capacity from incomplete information alone.

One would think primitive lifestyles would produce less pollution. They would surprisingly be wrong - biomass cooking fires scale worse than petroleum ironically. Similarly the reason hunter gathers were nomadic was because they were like a plague of locusts stripping food capacity - it is no wonder humans caused so many mass extinctions with spear and arrows alone.

Given the sheer difficulty of predicting technology I don't think it is very possible beyond "Don't put lead in gasoline you morons!".

The vast, vast majority of people use so little resources and energy, it's not even worth talking about. Even if there was 1 billion people , but those people were only Americans and Europeans, you would still see such a large collapse of our habitat. Billions of poor people are not the problem.

When? Yesterday?

Enough energy enters Earth's atmosphere on days like this one to sustain 7 billion people plus the six-legged majority with room for human technological innovation. We're just not capturing each day's energy with even greater than 50% efficiency yet.


While I mostly agree, I would like to make one little point about "economic growth" not necessarily being worse for the planet: digital goods. People making money selling digital goods (e.g., downloadable songs/videos, subscriptions to internet content, etc.) doesn't have nearly the effect on the planet that making and shipping physical goods (VHS tapes, DVDs, CDs, magazines, etc.) does, especially as computing devices become more energy-efficient. So I think it is possible for the economy to grow in some ways without a negative ecological impact.

But yeah, people buying bigger cars (SUVs) and houses generally isn't good for the planet at all.

Not when you consider that the total ecological footprint of the internet and computers.

Not to mention the impact of online shopping, which is fed by the internet as an advertising/profiling/consuming state machine.

The ecological footprint of the internet and computers isn't nearly as much as all the carbon we pump into the atmosphere so we can drive around alone in 2-ton steel cages just so we can go buy little trinkets at various stores, frequently some distance from where we live.

For most of those "7 billion stupid-ass humans", "their hedonistic blunder in search of more wealth" means acquiring things like food, water, and shelter for themselves and their families.

Seems like you want them to halt their economic growth?

I'm concerned about the biosphere too, but people gotta live. Check out ecomodernism:


It's a more productive way to frame your concern for the environment.

It's dangerous to be so confident about something that hasn't happened yet. Something about counting chickens...

I've come to believe that we'll adjust our numbers in time. That time has not come yet but it will come.

We're essentially gobbling up all possible biomass at this stage...

The insects are dying off not because we're eating them or taking their habitats. It's because of the insecticides.

We need better ways, and technology is the only way to save us and the biosphere at the moment. No way we will choose to starve 7 billion people to death.

Most data right now does not suggest its the insecticides (outside of agricultural areas). It’s because the entire planet is warming up and this is changing the entire biome faster than speices and interconnected biological systems can adapt.

Choose, no, but it's not unfathomable we'll see a huge crisis in our time, famines caused by climate change, wars over resources, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the highly tense parties (mostly the US) hits the launch button. I mean if Trump wants to leave NATO there's nobody stopping him / them from going for that, plus a big objection to its enemies nuking the US goes away.

I've come to accept the fact that we've already lost the game.

I have a friend that is extremely optimistic and thinks we will figure things out, like fusion, 'because we need to' but I'm far more pessimistic.

This year, based on previous years, we will probably hit 35 gigatons of carbon emissions and it won't be long before we hit 40 gigatons. Even if a fleet of alien ships appeared in orbit today and was like "we're going to give you 20,000 fusion reactors and we should have them all operational by the end of March, this will replace all of your power needs with much room for growth" we'd need to find some miraculous way to begin sequestering tens of gigatons of carbon a year on top of what the earth can naturally do to begin to retard the damage we've done and it would take us 15-20 years to make a significant reduction in carbon that we've added since the industrial revolution.

Then we'd still have a planet lousy with microplastics that are now in the air and water. A recent study found microplastics in all participants fecal matter, on multiple continents.

Then to borrow from Loyd Blankenship in his The Conscience of a Hacker " You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, you cheat, and lie" so even if we solve our power issue, solve our carbon generation issue, summon a miracle to deal with the microplastics, make rapid advances in land management and sustainable food production, then we still have the fact that by nature humans are full of hate, full of prejudice, we are flawed with greed and the desire to wage war.

Add to that the middle class is shrinking, the lower class is growing, even a measly billionaire worth exactly 1 billion dollars has a net worth equal to 16,937 years of the MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME of the United States with Forbes estimated in 2017 that there were 2,208 billionaires in the world and we are quickly on our way to seeing a trillionaire in the next couple of decades most likely...

Then student loan debt. A friend expressed to me yesterday that she "is better off dead" as she's been trying to refinance her student loans (2 bachelors degrees, different fields, decided teaching wasn't for her and pivoted to nursing) because after a year of trying to refinance the MINIMUM monthly payment is more than double what she's paying now if she consolidates and that she fully believes she will be servicing her student loans for the rest of her natural life because she's looking at 6 figures of debt that only continues to grow from interest.

I suspect this comment will be severely downvoted but my opinion stands. The world is truly and duly fucked. Barring miracle-aliens or an unprecedented number of miraculous inventions by dozens or hundreds of individuals in a very short time period, the ship is sinking.

Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.

While I generally prefer optimism to pessimism, this comment seems horrifyingly accurate. We may escape to new planets, we may learn to live under the sea. Humans will likely persist for a longer time than you suggest here because we're feisty motherfuckers who are programmed to survive.

BUT when you consider how long the lizard kings owned the planet, we are but a drop in the bucket now. The thin veil of oxygen on this planet will shake us like a cold when we use it up. And like an abusive husband, we'll be stuck holding a sad empty hull of defensive behavior and anger that wont bring back ecological balance.

>We may escape to new planets[1], we may learn to live under the sea.

The problem is even those options put humans in a space where someone else (whoever that someone else is) can turn off your air supply, a kind of social constraint that even the worst individuals and societies and governments in history have never had at their disposal.

[1] baring a true Earth-like planet being discovered, but, even then, based on any foreseeable technology, the only option to get there would be generational ships subject to exactly the same constraints as outlined above.

As an optimist I can just note that your, probably, fully accurate description is all artificial. Everything you mentioned are incidental issues we’ve created for our selves, and are trivially solvable from a pure technical perspective.

Organizing people to that effect might look doomed to failure, but entire economies have been overturned in decades before.

>trivially solvable from a pure technical perspectiv

You have a trivial technical solution to removing gigatons of carbon from our atmosphere?

You have a trivial technical solution to cleaning up microplastics?

Please, would you kindly share this trivial technical solutions with the rest of us?

Reallocating wealth to free up resources to focus on the challenges would be pretty straight forward. The IPCC report had a few figures on various techniques we could explore which to me looks “trivial” given the resources we have at our disposal.

My point: it’s mostly a political issue.

>My point: it’s mostly a political issue.

Both require technologies we do not have.

The air and waters the world around are contaminated with microplastics, we're not fixing that. We just aren't, that's forever. It's done. All we can do is reduce how much we are adding.

For the carbon sequestration, we don't even have any remotely viable methods for sequestering a gigaton annually. If you happen to know one, YC put a call out for startups in that area last year and I'm sure they'd love you to develop a prototype and pitch them http://carbon.ycombinator.com/

Even of you try and replicate the Azolla event, for carbon sequestration, and you use the 10 largest bodies of water in the world with ideal efficiency you'll only be sequestering about 10% of what we produce and using the 10 largest freshwater lakes in the world (like you know, the great lakes 172,000 square miles of lake dedicated purely to azolla (forgetting it would destroy entire ecosystems) would do roughly 10% of what we need to to combat current emissions under unrealistically ideal conditions.

Please though, tell us how trivial it is.

Nowhere did I imply current emissions could continue.

IPCC estimated up to 2Gt/y for afforestation alone. And their target was at 100Gt until 2100. Given emissions are cut abruptly.

My assumption for trivial was that this is the targets to be reached. That we cease all emissions not directly or indirectly contributing to reaching those targets and align our societies to prioritize this as the highest priority goal (as opposed to producing more worthless junk in order to keep people busy)

The only way we’re going to get better at managing our environmental impact is going to be through technological improvement. As you say we are too many now. The only way that technology will improve is under good economic conditions. We have to weigh economic growth against its impact else we will only speed up the destruction. When people become poor environmental concerns come second place to the basics of life.

This is silly. The economy has been booming for a while now and technology is more advanced that it's ever been. The situation is accelerating the wrong way. More of the same won't help.

Plant trees and revive massive amount of land loss that most countries have caused due to poor stewardship (overgrazing).

Better capture negative externalities. Or at the very least, stop subsidizing them. (aka, tax beef production, water consumption and plastic use).

This is a social, not technology problem.

> Plant trees and revive massive amount of land loss that most countries have caused due to poor stewardship

In some places you can't even plant the trees back. For example if you clearcut trees on a karst landscape, the rain washes away the thin soil completely, leaving only bare rock.

>The lesson goes back to the ancient Romans, who harvested the great pine trees on the Dalmatian karst on the southern tip of Croatia. “As soon as new trees got started, the sheep or the goats ate them,” Ford says. “The word karst means stony ground—stony because they wrecked it.” In the Middle East, the mythic Cedars of Lebanon—believed by some Christians to be the place where the resurrected Jesus revealed himself—grew on pure limestone karst very much like that of Vancouver Island. They were mowed down to build the temples of ancient Egypt and Jerusalem. The soil disappeared and never came back. Around one percent of the original cedars remain, in scattered, protected groves. Slovenia banned clearcutting on karst in 1949—but by then it was too late. There are photos, circa 1900, of babushka-wrapped Austro-Hungarian peasants hauling topsoil back onto the bald karst after it was clearcut.


Frustratingly these landscapes are often seen as natural in places where they've been around for a long time, a problem of shifting baselines. I was going to point out that this is a huge problem in Ireland, where the landscape is sheepwrecked, but the article uses it as an example:

"The land would resemble a feature in Ireland called the Burren—an expanse of rundkarren produced by overgrazing and logging, marked by fissures that hint at the fathomless void beneath. "

The burren's OK, but it would be nicer as forest.

We have the technologies now. We're just failing at the political and societal organization.

We don't have technologies now that bring things under control. When it's cheaper to use renewable energies, when it's cheaper to use recycled materials then we have the technologies.

The "just" is unmerited. That was always the difficult part, necessitating the most gargantuan act of exaptation in the history of life on our planet. It was never very likely to work.

I find these articles terrifying, and yet unreal. Like it's not really happening. I guess this is what denial feels like.

That's because it's an alarmist piece which aren't too difficult to find in The Guardian. They do sell papers after all.

I'm by no means claiming there is no problem and the situation is fabricated; However, using terms like “ecological Armageddon” really makes your amygdala go into overdrive and for what? To shock people into action or something?

That term is a quote from one of the scientists. It also seems quite appropriate. What would you use to describe this event?

Anthropocene extinction. I'm sure the ecosystem will finally stabilize with a fraction of current amount of species. It so far always did in the past.

EDIT: I did not make up the term. The term Holocene seems to be more current (but also more obscure). See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_extinction

Right, but having your species single-handedly cause a mass extinction event on a scale not seen in 250 million years and having it happen in the span of a couple centuries (which is like a millisecond in geological time) seems like a pretty big deal to me. Like the biggest of big deals that we’ve ever lived through. This is a “there is a three mile wide asteroid inbound that will hit the earth in 80 years” kind of big deal.

A couple centuries? The insect collapse (from the various articles I've read) is something that happened in the past couple decades.

That seems highly obfuscatory for describing a catastrophic event to a nonscientific audience. Might as well call it an “unplanned existence deficit” or something.

Speaking as a farmer..We should return half the earths landmass to nature. We must change how we grow food. We must even reconsider our ‘food for survival and fuel’. We can all do without pork and HFCS and kale to live. We can’t live without this planet and it’s natural systems sustaining us. We should waste less. Use less fossil fuel. Every time I hear another VC flog their investment with the tired old line ‘we must feed 10 billion by 2050’, a chill runs through my spine. And another species inches closer to extinction. We have a population problem. Not an environmental problem. All this ‘innovation’ is enabling our addiction to procreation. .. all our traditional and modern methods of Ag and producing food + having breached the carrying capacity of the planet so long ago , we are losing this battle of species survival ...with willful ignorance. It’s all very disheartening.

But 1/2 of the world is already wilderness.[1]

I think people underestimate just how big Russia and Canada are and the fact that for most the part, they are completely undeveloped.


I think they meant more along the lines of

"We should take half of the 17,235,800 square kilometers of cultivated land in the world and return it to nature"

Or even

"We should take half of the 1,549,600 square kilometers of permanent cropland"

For those who haven’t done so, the Pulitzer winner “The Sixth Extinction” is well worth reading. We are on the cusp of popular culture realizing the world as we know it is coming to a close and we are probably half a century beyond the point where our ingenuity or actions can do anything about it.

The growing body of anecdotal evidence, including the disappearance of insects at the bottom of the food pyramid in more than one area, suggests that it is now too late to reverse these dramatic changes to the earth's biosphere and humankind's ability to extract food from it.

Let us hope that as these dramatic changes start affecting more and more people in concrete ways, we, human beings, will search for and develop technological solutions that will allow us to survive and thrive in a changing environment.

It's an interesting position we've put ourselves into, at least in the US. Half the population in denial that anything is wrong, the other half convinced the only solution is conservation.

Eventually we're going to have to engineer our way out of it, or die trying. But I expect it will get pretty dire before enough people across the spectrum get on board.

> Eventually we're going to have to engineer our way out of it, or die trying.

Exactly. That's a much better way of putting it.

The data underlying this study were taken most recently in January 2013. I wonder why it took almost six years to publish the results? Given the catastrophic nature of the findings, six years seems a long time to wait before publication.

It's hard to replicate this kind of data six or seven years out. If someone repeats the survey this year and gets different numbers, it can be discounted as an anomaly. It would have been better if the study could have been repeated right away: in the same year, or in the following year.

Also, the authors are overwhelmingly biased in favour of climate change as the cause. This is mainly a bug count. How hard is it to count the bugs and present the data and the analysis, leaving speculation about the cause to the discussion? I have to be very suspicious of a study that starts off implicating climate change instead of following the evidence. Especially when the conclusion is "we need more money to study this".

It does not make much sense to try so hard to fit climate change to the curve of this data. If it turns out that something else is operative, such as pesticide use, or the unusual solar minimum, or the unexpectedly rapidly diminishing magnetic field, then we have missed an early indication of something huge.

There is overwhelming evidence that humans are screwing up this planet, but no matter how politically correct and funding-expedient it may be to nail everything with the climate change hammer, it's not really how science is supposed to work.

It's hard to lay an insect apocalypse at the door of a 2C change in temperature. Measuring the temperature of a whole planet is hard. Pons & Fleischmann had trouble measuring the temperature change in a beaker and look at the stupidity that occasioned.

Lister & Garcia mostly rely upon increased variability in the weather to make the connection, but the fundamental mechanism is never explored. It's pretty hard to swallow that all the insects in a tropical rain forest died because they were a little too warm a few days out of the year.

Climate change has become a religion, and, like a religion, it makes a lot of money for its practitioners.

If 98% of the bugs in Luquillo are dead, then we are likely in dire trouble. If true, this finding is way too important to screw up with curve-fitting.

Somewhat related...

The other day I was annoyed at my allergies, in winter, with snow coming down and reflecting on how I never had allergies until around 30 a few years back. Bees. Bees dying. Bees eat pollen. It seems many of my friends have far worse allergies than previously...

What if we are already seeing consequences of insects dying off, like bees for example. I need to find time to try and see if there is good data on allergies, if there has been a general increase, and how it matches up with bee die off and pollen count. Is it possible that bees not being around to use pollen, has caused pollen count to go up on average, which is causing more allergy issues with humans?

And what happens if mosquitoes start dying off, we have chocolate because mosquitoes are one of the few pollinators that can pollinate the cacao tree due to the small size.


I heard that pollen are more aggressive in areas with high emissions - on a reputable German radio show. This could be one reason for worse allergies, especially when you add in lifestyle changes such as moving to a city.

Personally, I could not remember a situation where I felt this could be true.

Urban planning is a factor too. Someone decided that trees dropping fruit everywhere was messy, so urban planners made a blanket recommendation to only plant male trees. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/botanical-se...

I'm not a biologist, but, if there's less bees, wouldn't that also mean there's less pollination done by them which would reduce the amount of seeds produced which in turn reduces the amount of plants?

Bees aren't the only pollinators by a long shot, they're just the most commercialized/domesticated one. Take corn/maize, you have to rely on a pollinator speices or manual pollination if you grow small amounts in your garden but if you grow acres and acres of it wind alone will sufficiently pollinate it.

The plants still produce the pollen though. Pine trees for example produce copious amounts of pollen but it offers a relatively poor protein source so most pollinating insects don't make use of it.

Bees consume pollen as one of their food sources though, they just happen to pollinate plants due to accidental transfer while collecting pollen for their own use. You can then harvest some of the wax and honey as a commercial product and it's much easier to load up box after box of honey bees on a truck to transport to the next field than it is moths, butterflies, beetles, mosquitoes etc. Modern farming outright relies on domesticated bees, domesticated bees aren't remotely 'natural' though and nature has plenty of other means of spreading pollen sufficiently for reproduction.

A recent figure puts just domesticated honey bees at 80-100 million colonies worldwide. An average-size colony may bring in 100 pounds of pollen in a season so 8-10 billion pounds of pollen annually.

If you saw just a 10% die off of those domesticated colonies, you're talking about an insane amount of pollen. 2000 maize pollen grains weigh one milligram, so 907 million grains per pound for maize.

So the NAB scale, depending on the type of pollen, 5-89 grains per cubic meter of air is moderate and 20-1499 grains per cubic meter is a high pollen count.

Yeah, there's a LOT of air but you can see how even a small reduction in colonies could drastically increase average pollen counts. Add in global warming which can extend the growing season and open up new regions and you also see an amplification of pollen during a given period.

Reminds me of my favorite demotivational poster:

Responsibility: no single raindrop feels it is responsible for the flood.

That's a great quote. Very similar to: "The avalanche has has already started. It's too late for the pebbles to vote." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zJsrjOytG8

Unfortunately pointing out the obvious - that the destruction of our ecosystem is a direct result of the massive overpopulation of humans - almost always results in denials and rationalizations. Those who prefer to keep their heads in the sand about massive overpopulation wave their hands and attempt to rebut the problem with two absurd arguments.

First, deniers say that people who have been warning about overpopulation for centuries have always proven wrong. This flies in the face of all the evidence, such as the article being replied to. The verdict is in, there's no disputing the damage that has been done. The insects, the birds, the fish, virtually all large mammals (and most of the smaller ones).

The Second response deniers go with is that "we can solve the problem of overpopulation with new technologies". The damage is done! What's left of the environment is being destroyed right now. Talking about solving the problem of overpopulation by developing new technologies is like talking about inventing new ways to fight fires as you watch a building burn down in front of your eyes.

This is obviously not to say that we should be killing people off or forcibly sterilizing people or any of the feverish rhetoric used by those who don't want to face reality. It means that if we as a society want to continue to live on the planet earth we need to start having a conversation about what sort of population the earth can sustainably support and what sort of policies we should enact to reach that massively reduced number at some time in the future (which hopefully isn't too late).

Wendell Berry once wrote that we are at war with nature, and I think the metaphor is quite appropriate.

This war, like most wars, has turned out to be a trickier business than we expected. We must now face two shocking surprises. The first surprise is that if we say and believe that we are at war with nature, then we are in the fullest sense at war: that is, we are both opposing and being opposed, and the costs to both sides are extremely high.

The second surprise is that we are not winning. [...] Even in our most grievous offenses against her, as in the present epidemic of habitat destruction and species extinction we are being defeated, for in the long run we can less afford the losses than nature can.

Though I sometimes enjoy Berry, he's wrong. We can't be 'at war' with nature. We are nature. Human destruction of ecosystems is a natural process - it's not fundamentally different from introduced flora & fauna overrunning island ecologies. It's just happening on a planetary scale.

The only 'unnatural' aspect of the picture is the common notion that humans (primates designed for small-scale tribal interactions) could somehow magically adapt to managing planetary-scale populations (let alone the vast network of ecologies hosting them).

The story of human 'progress' or 'destiny' is a religious myth. Amusingly, it is held with particular vehemence by many technologically-inclined atheists without a shred of irony.

>Though I sometimes enjoy Berry, he's wrong. We can't be 'at war' with nature. We are nature. Human destruction of ecosystems is a natural process - it's not fundamentally different from introduced flora & fauna overrunning island ecologies. It's just happening on a planetary scale.

Yes, we are nature. However, in this case, we assume a role of a parasite. A cancerous growth that keeps consuming it's host until they both die. That is the uniqueness of humanity, the ability to completely destroy the habitat of the species on global scale.

I read it more allegorically than that.

Being at war with nature is a good metaphor for our behaviour, because we seem determined to completely vanquish it and bend it to our will.

Of course it's a bitter irony that if we are at war with nature, we are at war with ourselves (because as you say we come from nature). I think that's implied by the passage.

The way we interact with nature is different in kind from other species, not just in scope.

For humans, it's not enough to take , say, just the fish that we need. Because of money we take _all_ the fish we can get and then sell them. What doesn't sell is thrown out.

That's certainly the standard narrative - Berry isn't as counter-cultural as he thinks. He's just the mirror image of convention, but that buys in equally to the false nature/culture dichotomy.

We don't 'interact' with nature. There's no getting outside of it to do the interaction. When we 'take more than we need', we're acting exactly as a hominid with tribal cognitive & affective adaptations that have been turned to extended purposes in a global context would act. In other words: evolution in creating H. Sapiens has explored an area of state space that will result in large-scale ecological collapse. This is unfortunate, from our present-day point of view, but it is not unnatural.

Watched this the other night: https://www.vpro.nl/programmas/tegenlicht/kijk/afleveringen/... It's from a Dutch broadcaster, but most of the program is in english. Very pertinent, disturbing and the questions it lays on the table unsettling.

Evolution will ultimately prevail; it just may not include us. In all eras of mass species die off, eventually new niches created new opportunity. Even with idiot humans messing up stuff, in a long enough timeframe, evolution will eventually route around us.

Our world is dying.

The world isn't, but the ecosystem that allows us to be alive appears to be.

To me, that’s the “our” in “our world”.


If life started on the Earth, then we are just part of a process of a particular rock floating in space. There is no 'our' world and it is not dying.

This is pointlessly pedantic. You know full well what the GP is trying to say, and you are being willfully obstinate by ignoring the obvious context. We are rendering the world uninhabitable for a frightening number of species—most likely including our own—through environmental collapse. Instead of bothering to discuss that point, you've decided to try and derail the conversation by playing semantics and arguing over the meaning of "destroy" and "our" and "planet".

If you're not willing to or capable of engaging in these types of discussions in good faith, maybe Hacker News isn't the site for you.

Are you objecting to “our” on the grounds that we didn’t build it? Because most people use “our house” to mean the one they occupy, not limiting it to only what they built.

> Are you objecting to “our” on the grounds that we didn’t build it

I'm objecting that we own the Earth and that somehow we can kill it.

> people use “our house” to mean the one they occupy, not limiting it to only what they built

The Earth isn't being occupied by us, we are simply part of the Earth. So I don't mind the use of "our", but implying that we are killing the planet is the bit I think people should take a step back from and think about.

'Our' doesn't connote ownership. Our families are not owned by us.

If anything the relationship is the other way around: we belong to the world that has formed us.

> implying that we are killing the planet

That would be a meaningless assertion. We our killing our world, which is a network of evolved complex living systems, not 'the planet'.

“Fortunately, the house isn’t in fire, there’s just a 50 mile wide firestorm sweeping this way that will be here in a few minutes”

Exactly to quote George Carlin "The planet is not going anywhere, we are"

We are making the world into farms and monocultures. A very brittle arrangement.

Someday, we will realize that it's too late. There only will be regrets. Meanwhile, we just have to ignore it and complain about stupid stuff. That's humankind.

How do we know that global warming won't ultimately lead to a better future, all things considered?

Why is all the focus on what can go wrong?

Serious questions, not trying to be cute.

The Puerto Rico rainforest? You mean the same island that got hit by a massive hurricane last year?

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