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Civilizational Collapse, Part 4 (johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com)
190 points by mathgenius 52 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 198 comments

This feels reminiscent of the current issue of long-term data storage.

Flash drives are volatile and can lose your data any minute. Solid State drives are slightly less volatile, and a hard disk has magnetic fields that will last decades, but nothing will keep our gigabytes of data alive and intact for future archaeologists. If the Library of Alexandria can burn, then so can any form of digital storage.

On a side note, I enjoy reading John Baez's answers to common physics questions: http://www.math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/

> If the Library of Alexandria can burn, then so can any form of digital storage.

There is no form of storage that cannot be destroyed. Even stone scriptures eventually erode and fade away. The best thing we can do is duplicate everything as much as we can and hope to reduce the loss over time.

Being able to make copies easily and store them in different location are probably the best protection for any document. And now days copies are virtually free and moving them is extremely easy.

I'm wondering if someone as done studies on the last technical revolution of this kind, aka the printing press. To which extent the printing press helped prevent the definitive loss of documents? There are probably a tons of factors to take into account, like history, age, kind of documents, etc, but it could be quite interesting.

Lastly, as a though experiment, I'm wondering how an archeologist would react in front of a disk drive in a thousand years. Let say the disk drive is in a good condition, but the archeologist has to discover everything:

1) First he has to understand that the disk contains binary data spread in a certain way, if he has equivalent technology or better than today, this should work. (if he realizes that he should be extremely cautious when opening the disk drive, at least for spinning rust).

2) Then he could have to understand the logical layout of data on the medium (aka the FS), this step is kind of optional has you can recover fragment easily, but it would help a lot. And if data was stored in a DB, it's a second layer equivalent to the FS.

3) Then you have to understand the file format, if it's directly a simple TXT file, it should be doable, and it's probable someone can deduce the encoding used, ASCII is easy, UTF-8 is a bit more complex but doable. But, and it's a big but, if the data is compressed in anyway, and a lot of formats are these days, I skeptical that the archeologist (and his technical assistance) would be able to deduce it's a compressed format and not some random garbage, and then re-discover the algorithm used. And if it's a more complex document, like images (even if BMP should be doable), sound and video, it starts to get really tricky.

4) And then, you need to decipher the language and/or alphabet used.

Basically it feels a lot like Champollion needing to decipher 4 layers of hieroglyphs before getting the content. Deciphering one can already be hard enough.

That being said, as source code is often recorded as simple ASCII files which should be decipherable, he could get lucky and get the code parsing the layers, or at least get a specification of it.

What if you genetically modified a species of tardigrade to hold data in their DNA? They would reproduce forever and are extremely hard to kill. That would be a form of storage that couldn’t (practically) be destroyed.

All knowledge is a palimpsest, I'm increasingly convinced.

Agree, Which is exactly what we do.

>but nothing will keep our gigabytes of data alive and intact for future archaeologists

Not so, it seems:


This sounds great. I’m wondering if this technology will ever be available for cunsumer use, similar to CDs or DVDs. The article didn’t mention current costs of this technology.

And something else for any future intelligent species:

Today, fossils are dug up and flown around the world to museums etc. We publish but if that storage doesn't last or is undecipherable, future civilizations might have an interesting adventure trying to reconstruct the world of 100's of millions of years before our time.

I wonder if there has been any consideration of this or attempts at placing long-lived simple markings to guide?

> I wonder if there has been any consideration of this or attempts at placing long-lived simple markings to guide?

There's a project to design and place long-lived simple markings to tell people to stay away from nuclear waste storage sites, and... it's hard problem: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/04/17/talking-t...

As you probably know, the Long Now foundation has wrestled with the problem of extended time period preservation of physical buildings. In the video linked below, they discuss how ancient people attempted to carry knowledge through the generations. Some of my favorites: the stone markers for the high water mark of Tsunamis, and the temple that is physically rebuilt in exact duplicate every 20 years.


> On a side note, I enjoy reading John Baez's answers to common physics questions: http://www.math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/

Me too. But take care about the infamous answer to "Why is the sky blue?", which is quite confusing. The take of Randall Munroe is much clearer, and exactly as correct: "the sky is blue because air is blue".

Except when air is red, pink, orange, grey, green, violet...

I found Walter Lewin's explanation of Rayleigh scattering to be pretty clear.

> the sky is blue because air is blue

This comes off as a smart-alecky non-answer to anyone not already familiar with what gives things colours in the first place. John Baez's answer captures the core mechanism in two sentences and one diagram, and provides more detail below for the curious:

> A clear cloudless day-time sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light. When we look towards the sun at sunset, we see red and orange colours because the blue light has been scattered out and away from the line of sight.

That is not the point. The point is that anything scatters and absorbs the light in a particular way, and we cal this phenomenon the "color" of the object. "Vegetation is green because chlorophyll is green" is deemed a correct answer. The same for the sky and for anything else.

Ref: https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/1818:_Rayleigh_Sc...

Substances don't have a single "color". Air, for instance, scatters blue but transmits more red. So if you look at a light source through a lot of air, it's red (such as a sunset) and if you look obliquely to the light source, it's blue.

"Vegetation is green because chlorophyll is green" is a borderline useless answer that intentionally misses the point of the question. Assuming the asker knows what chlorophyll is, all this does is shift the need for explanation one link up the chain.

Try to empathize with someone asking this type of question. Would you be satisfied with the type of answer you support? Would it trigger immediate follow-up questions that are basic rephrasings of your original question?

I think for what is important you can make it important effectively forever.


When reading about what Physcon, I reminded me of an interview[0] I recently listened to with Drs. James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. They bring up some of these very ideas and how they are encountering them today in our society: i.e. people who see science and reason as "master's tools" of "oppression".

It seems that everything old is new again.

[0]: https://youtu.be/YDFL3xwEEG8

There is a logic to that and the logic is partially found among Luddites and will continue to "annoy" us. In that technology in a hierarchical civilization like ours is highly dis-empowering and supports those at the top of the hierarchy.

Not to mention all the science which is bullshit and simply made as justification for funding. And the culture that goes with it which is often parodied on Reddit on /r/iamverysmart.

The Sociology of knowledge and science in our civilization leaves much to be desired in terms of distribution of power.

All the various -isms are each their own religion with their own power dynamics. Their truth is in many ways questionable and its a question as to whether its power structure is not mostly make belief propped up by power and money to further its own agenda.

Scientism, new atheism, whatever you want to call it is really a side show. James Lindsay, Dawkins, etc. don't have any real power. They are just a sideshow to the real power plays that go on in the background.

Part of the problem is that powerful civilizations, while pursuing science and developing reason in may respects, also involve powerful state or commercial structures which conquer, exploit, oppress and kill a lot of people - often in the name of reason and science.

As a Brazilian, I see a MUCH larger threat from the current right-wing government than from lefties inside academia. While the relationship between natural/hard/exact sciences and social/soft sciences can indeed be very strained, there's very little interference in the actual content of research.

Meanwhile, the State Assembly of São Paulo formed an Investigative Comittee that just requested the content of all research produced by the three state universities in the last 8 years to look for bias under the guise of fiscal responsibility[1]. The commitee is led by a conservative state congressman who never attended college.

1: https://www.adusp.org.br/index.php/defesauniv/3408-deputada-..., link in Portuguese

I don't think either "side" can claim any sort of moral high ground on this issue. In the case of the video I'm referencing above, the issue is decidedly from the left which has been trumpeting a post-truth, highly individualized, no-harm-freedom, and consent-based understanding of personal conduct.

But on the other hand, I think you are right in that there are people who can and will say _X is unquestionably always true_ by calling out to something like truth even though it has little to no basis in reality.

I'm going to be honest with you, I won't sit through an hour and a half video that makes your point for you. I'll just say that the current president fired the director of the National Institute for Space Research (an MIT PhD) for saying satellite data indicated deforestation was on the rise, contradicting the minister of the environment. An Air Force official was temporarily put in his place. While the official is a PhD, he was found hastily after the also hasty firing

I think you'll agree that actually dismissing the director of an important research institution is very much more important than whatever new prank Boghossian has played on the “identitarian left”

> I think you'll agree that actually dismissing the director of an important research institution is very much more important than whatever new prank Boghossian has played on the “identitarian left”

I don't agree. Dismissing this discussion as a "prank" played on the "identitarian left" is not accurate or does it adequately convey the weight of the discussion.

So while I do agree what you are saying is troubling, both the "left" and the "right" are swing their axes at the bottom of the tree of civilization.

My point is that one of them is using a chainsaw, but some people insist on crying “both sides”

And I suppose we shall have to agree to disagree on which is which. ;)

Maybe a silly question but how well connected was the world during Greek and Persian civilisations? Shouldn't their ideas and works survive on neighbours empires that we have a good track record?

I wonder if it's possible that some of the inventions attributed to China and India today could be tracked to works lost on one of these civilisations collapses.

Alexander of Macedonia conquered a vast empire right up to the Indus River.

Then there's the Silk Road who connected the Eurasian continent economic, cultural and political influence for centuries.

So, the spread of ideas across cultures is pretty much established.

The problem is that the survival of specific historic records across centuries or millennia is tenuous at best. First hand accounts are extremely rare and most of what we know about those times was handed down by copying what was deemed relevant throughout time.

Lesson number one each historian learns is to ask critical questions about the source material. Who wrote this? What do we know about the contemporary context? Does other material corroborate with what we are reading now? How about our own hindsight bias when reading records today? What about other biases that played out at the time?

Oftentimes, it's not possible to ascertain a theory or a hypothesis, how things actually went down, simply because we lack the source material. And just as often we may get caught unaware by our own assumptions that were handed down to us by teachers, authors, movies, art,...

As such, most historians will tell you that while it's plausible that the origins of some technologies root back further in time, there's little point in looking for evidence as there is simply no historic or archaeological record available. That's where you'll find that a falsifiable theory turns into mere speculation.

A historical researcher therefore only builds on top of verified sources. Much like a criminal investigator trying to establish the raw facts that support a given narrative.

I guess one question there would be which Greek civilisation - there was a significant collapse of civilisation (the "Late Bronze Age collapse") starting around 1200BC or so:


The works of Homer, written down much later, are probably based on oral histories of the times before this collapse. There still seems a lot of debate as to what caused this widespread collapse.

What I find fascinating is that there are vast ruins like Gla that aren't even mentioned by Homer that appear to date from just before this time:


Before the late bronze age collapse, they were very very well connected: regular commercial trade between the entire mediterranean is attested through massive numbers of letters found. And it wasn't just Greece: Egypt, Mitani, Hitites, Cannaanites, etc etc were all regularly interchanging knowledge, tech and commercial goods.

You can find temples in Egypt decorated in Mycenean styles. Mycenean style pottery got everywhere. It was very modern.

I understand Greek civilization was first to actually be interested in preserving knowledge and ideass. Other contemporary civilizations did not see need to do the same (and you have invading Romans as an example).

This quote: "Ecologically, these Archaic hunters and gatherers had moved one entire link down the food chain, thereby eliminating the approximately 90-percent loss in food value that occurs when one feeds on an animal that is a plant-eater."

This is just completely false. All meat consumed is bioavailable protein and nutrients. Even more so when it's cooked. Plants have reduced bioavailability due to high oxalate, phytic acid, and lectins.

Humans would have never evolved the ability to eat meat if it didn't confer a natural advantage over foragers.

The reference is to trophic levels and caloric loss.

Plants, in net, capture about 1-3% of available solar energy and convert that to equivalent biomass. Food conversion -- the parts you can eat -- are a small fraction of that.

Herbivores and predators each convert about 10% of the food energy they eat into body mass, for a 90% reduction (approximately) at each trophic level. Grazers lose 90% of the primary plant food energy, first-order predators lose 90% of the herbivore food energy, second-order predators (rare, but they do exist), lose 90% of the first-order predator food energy.

This is known as the trophic or ecological pyramid:


Yes, eating something that can eat what you cannot is a net win. Eating something that eats what you can (most contemporary livestock) is not.

Technology changes that game.

Grains are the core of the human diet, and have been since the dawn of civilization. But they are only edible because of civilization - the grinding, fermentation, and cooking breaking them down into something our bodies can use.

In the US and other wealthy countries, we might feed grain to livestock, but it's also often parts of grain that we can't really eat (hulls, etc). And in poorer countries, livestock are often open-grazed on grasses that are inedible for us. And non-grazers like hogs often eat garbage, food waste that we don't consume.

When farming, the questions are even more complex. The livestock generates manure that fertilizes the fields, so much of that "lost" energy is recovered.

Cultivation, selective breeding, and hybridisation of grains does not change the trophic level calculus.

The bulk of livestock feed is corn (which has seen tremendous yield improvements since the 1960s through "green revolution" techniques), and for protein content, soyabeans, which have rather pointedly not.

Additional silage provides some but AFAIU considerably less general nutritive content. And you will absolutely find vast acreages of corn and soyabean in the flyover states destined entirely for livestock feed. Not table crops with the leftovers going to livestock. Fully 100% livestock-dedicated.

Integrated farming operations in which cows run loose amongst the corn and wheat fertilising the fields are ... effectively nonexistant.

Theoretical possibilities are not on-the-ground, in-the-dirt, realities.

And that's a totally legitimate point - but does it support your contention? You seem to be arguing that it is too expensive to raise meat. But food is driven largely by economics. Replacing the integrated farm with the sort of separation of duties you're talking about here is succeeding because it's cheaper.

If you're talking about thermal efficiency.. what you're saying is true but irrelevant. Whether my food is the optimum use of sunlight is not a real concern.

"Economics" unfortunately excludes numerous costs and risks associated with both provisioning and consumption of resources, including not only economic impacts, but fully-costed ecological inputs. Most especially in the accounting and market price mechanisms for utilisation of nonrenewable (or, read equivalently: nonsustainably-utilised) resources.

The alternatives to sustainable, integrated, ecological agricultural methods are "cheaper" because the market doesn't price in the 5-million-years-to-one rate at which we're extracting fossil fuels from the Earth over that at which they'd been put there,[1] of the strip-mining of topsoil at rates 100x - 1000x greater than those at which it had formed, of the natural-gas-fed fixing of atmospheric nitrogen (again at a roughly 5 million:1 ratio of inputs), of the mining of phosphorus, another critical fertiliser (potash is, for the moment, relatively abundant), of the impacts of eutrophication of rivers, wetlands, and oceans near ag-land outflows, of the systemic risks posed by monoculture cultivation, of the systemic ecological impacts of pesticide use, of the destruction of virgin ecosystems and biological diversity, and more.[2]

The "economic" costs are actually financialised costs, which include a long, peculiar, historically-contingent, largely malformed and false worldview model origin, which persists for numerous reasons, largely boiling down to being a highly convenient fiction for contemporary beneficiaries of this particular theology. Though the difficulty in moving to a more accurate, realistic, and one might hope sustainable model is severe. The convenience of the modern lie is profound.

Upshot: "cheaper" is based on invalid models heaped on invalid models. There's a vast unbooked debt accumulating.



1. Jeffrey S. Dukes, "Burning Buried Sunshine" (2003) https://dge.carnegiescience.edu/DGE/Dukes/Dukes_ClimChange1....

2. Lev Tolstoy has an early and fascinating discussion of cost accounting and factors of production in What Shall We Do Then (https://archive.org/details/whatshallwedothe00tolsrich/page/...), finding the standard three-factor model of the time, land, labour, and capital, insufficient.

The economic theory seems to derive directly from cost accounting, dating principally to Alexander Hamilton Church (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Hamilton_Church). The problem of defining economic theory to guide accounts based on what accounts tallied to inform economists seems ... problematic.

The legal and economic theory of extractive resources has a long, problematic, and almost entirely unscientific history, specifically the Rule of Capture and its logic, and the principle theory of pricing, which though largely dismissed doesn't seem to have found a replacement: Hotelling's Rule.

Unfortunately, in the world we live in, externalized costs are considered independently from financial costs.

Now, it's just a matter of time before fossil fuels are no longer an issue - we are rapidly moving to renewable energy. And that will have a significant impact on farming practice, by altering the cost of tillage and transportation. And as these costs accumulate to the point where they enter the financial equation, farming technology will adjust accordingly. That's what the market does.

So what is "sustainability" here? Are we worried that the agricultural system will break so rapidly that it causes massive famines?

Unless the underlying models are corrected and replaced, we'll continue to have the problem.

To give a concrete example, Google (well, "Alphabet", but really, Google) launched a project whose entire premise and name were "RE<C": renewable energy cheaper than coal.

It failed.


The problem, if you subscribe to my view, is that the underlying premise was wrong. It's not that renewables are too expensive. It's that the accounting for coal's costs are entirely flawed.

An interesting implication is that if the underlying accounting, tax, and economic model is changed, fossil fuels will be glued to the ground by a force far stronger than gravity: economic fiscal reality.

What are the odds of that happening? Frankly, low. I'm looking to see how much that particular Overton window might swing, however.

Addressing your ag question: Another of my academic remits (both agriculture and economics). There are any of numerous problems, most revolving around various forms of risk. One of my personal collapse scenarios would involve major, possibly multiple simultaneous, crop failures, whether from weather (most likely drought, floods or freezes might also have impacts), disease, a polination collapse, or something similar. There are some food reserves, but those are decidedly finite and would present severe difficulties at mass scale.

Even through the mid-20th century, massive famines resulting in millions of deaths were seen. The most recent major famine was in Bangladesh in 1974 -- the 1980s Ethiopian famines were comparatively mild, despite the worldwide coverage they drew.

Critics of Communism like to point out the Great Famine of China (1959-1961), in which 15-30 million, of a population of about 660 million, died. Roughly 5%. These same critics ignore the 1920s famine under noncommunist Nationalist China, or the numerous 19th century famines under what was largely British control, or the English-exacerbated Great Irish Famine, which saw a fifty percent reduction in the population of Ireland, from a peak still not matched to this day.

Throughout history, famines in which 10%, 30%, or even 90% of populations have died over wide regions have been fairly commonplace.

In a world of global supply chains, massive monocultures, limited self-sufficiency, and vast inequalities of wealth and military power, a recurrance would be an exceedingly notable event.

Though catastrophic collapse isn't the only possibility. The slow yield decline of overworked lands is another possiblity, and again, soil, water, fertiliser, and pest pressures can build with time. Adjustment to such a gradual erosion should be less severe, but still strongly dislocating.

Yes, in this day and age, famine is basically obsolete. It's not just advances in food tech. Changes in transportation (locally and globally), communication, refrigeration and other preservation techniques, sanitation, and a host of other things affect the situation. Localized crop failures shouldn't lead to massive hunger, and they won't, unless someone wants them to go hungry and is willing to use force to prevent aid.

So what are the odds of something like the Irish potato blight happening on a nationwide or worldwide scale, large enough to disrupt a global food supply? Like the entire US corn crop failing all at once? I'm more concerned about genetic monocrops like Gros Michael bananas or rubber trees than I am about rice or wheat. But one country having a bad year? That's not the problem it was.

Slow yield declines is also a concern, but those are likely to be regional and crop-specific. These things can be managed with modern farming techniques - change crops, or use alternate varieties.

And beyond that, I think we have at least one, maybe a couple more agricultural technical revolutions up our sleeves. The first is already underway - detailed sensors monitoring crop quality down to a plant-by-plant level. When integrated with small, inexpensive crop-tending robots, whole new worlds open up. Who needs "Roundup Ready" when robots that can recognize and pull weeds on sight are roaming the fields? The second is also underway... starting with GMO crops, but I think we will cross over to genetically targeted poisons for common pests. There's a lot of potential there.

We've not seen a major famine for 35 years, true. I'd not be too blase in considering this a solved problem though.

On the plus side: crop diversity (three or for major staples), regional production, and major transshippment capabilities.

On the negative side, continued massive global inequality, high birthrates in the poorest (and in some cases least agriculturally productive) lands, and a globally interconnected transport (goods, people) network that's phenomenally effective at spreading disease and pests, changing climates and sea levels, and a continued reliance on unsustainable inputs, as well as major increases in plant productivity largely by offloading native disease resistance with artificial supplementation, and, despite the 3-4 major crop diversity, a very high level of monoculture within those.

The main question will be whether a famine will be localised or globalised. As an example, China is buying up cropland rights in Africa now, much as England once did in Ireland, or the US exported colonial crop cultivation in Latin America. If Africa gets hungry again, who eats what is produced? Africa or China?

In several recent historical famines, money and legal institutions and dynamics starved farmers and fed cities, most especially in the Great Irish Famine, Holdomor, and Dust Bowl.

The general problem is one of building an increasingly complex and optimised system until it starts failing critically at multiple points, stressing resouces and knowledge. Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (https://www.worldcat.org/title/collapse-of-complex-societies...) gives the general dynamic. Much of the reading on complex systems bolsters his view, as does the study of ancient civilisations. Most of which thought themselves the ultimate pinnacle of progress.

Additional technical means are possible, yes. One of my projects over the past few years has been looking at the mechanisms by which technology works, and the specific capabilities and limitations of these. I've come up with a fairly consistent list of nine:

1. Materials: Substances, minerals, elements, molecules, organics. Provide properties, have associated abundance, cost, and side effects.

2. Fuels: Dispatchable consumable stores of potential energy, largely fossil fuels, biomass, and nuclear. (Stored and kinetic or photovoltaic potential are considered separately: wind, geothermal, hydro, solar.)

3. Process knowlege: Roughly, technology. Domain-specific understanding of how to achieve some ends, independent of other characteristics.

4. Structural knowledge: Roughly, science. Domain-specific understanding of causes and interactions, based on experience, experiment, and observation.

5. Power transmission and transformation: Any communication or conversion of power or energy. Examples: missiles, shafts, rods, gears, electricity, magnetism, beamed energy, batteries.

6. Networks: Structures usefully describable as nodes and links or vertices and edges, whether physical or conceptual, having arity and topology. Examples: transport network, web of knowledge, comms netwok, social netework, land and its varying qualities and capabilities.

7. Systems: Multi-part structures (often networks) with sensing, processing, action, and assessment feedback loops. Roughly, the domains of cybernetics, operations research, or systems theory, in the general, or the topics of most social sciences and management domains.

8. Information: Receiving, parsing, processing, storing, retrieving, and transmitting. Examples: speech, writing, logic, magnetism. Affects focusing activities, managing systems, or disrupting other (or others') systems.

9. Hygiene: Side effects and unintended consequences affecting overall function. Inevitable, often emergent properties, which require mitigation or management.

What this provides is a way of looking at problems (or solutions) and breaking them into components that are not siloed by traditional disciplines (scientific or technological domain silos), hence, they are mechanisms. You get something more useful than "technology is efficiency", or "the power of thought". It's also possible to look at past developments in terms of what contributed to them.

Ag has benefitted hugely from domain-specific knowledge: what plants grow where yielding what requiring what inputs, methods, protections, and processing, and further through hybridisation and now direct genetic manipulation. From energy inputs, especially in supplying water, but also in preparation and transportation. From mechanisation of cultivation -- tractors, combines, and harvesters. From energy- and materials-specific treatments of fertilisers and pesticides.

The biggest changes in 200 years have been the vast reduction in labour inputs (from ~90% of the population to < 2% in most industrialised countries) through mechanisation, and Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis for fertiliser. Hygiene factors -- management and suppression of disease and pests -- has been another major factor, but produced further hygiene effects consequent of pesticide use. Fertiliser overuse is another hygiene effect.

What automated rather than merely mechanised methods can provide is the ability to further reduce labour, though as that's already low on staples, an Amdahl's Law type dynamic kicks in: parallelisation (of labour inputs) is limited by the nonparallelisable portion of your operation, an example of mechanism-specific limitations. You're also pushing utilisation to ever-more marginal land -- there's more of it, yes, but it's frequently more easily damaged, or more subject to swings in climate, hydration, salt intrusion.

And we're left with the bits we cannot readily change: perennial crops can be sown or left fallow, but vine and tree crops require consistent maintenance across years, if not decades and centuries. Topsoil, literally the top few centimetres or metres across large parts of entire countries, is not a factor which can be meaningfully artificially manufactured, though it can be moved or amended, with tremendous effort. Salinisation, desertification, and innundation are threats that can be managed poorly. As are runoff and ecological disruptions from fertiliser and pesticides, or habitat displacement.

TL;DR: Technology lets us approach limits. It does not let us erase them.

I'm sorry but we've been using fossil fuels for over 130 years at this point and best estimates are that we have at least 100 years of untapped reserves. At 5 million to one that would imply we've already burned through the Jurassic, Mesozoic, and Triassic periods. This of course, is false or we wouldn't have so many reserves being discovered all the time.

> When farming, the questions are even more complex. The livestock generates manure that fertilizes the fields, so much of that "lost" energy is recovered.

Which is why grassfed > cornfed in pretty much every situation except for the extra fat/flavor you might get from cornfed beef. Having cows that consume grass is a win-win. The grass absorbs sunlight instead of reflecting it back into the atmosphere like a feedlot does, the grass is digested better, and manure fertilizes the grass. And when the cows are moved to different pastures and chickens are brought in, they help to agitate the manure into the soil to help that fertilizing process along.

I wish the grassfed beef industry was embraced more instead of people attempting to swear off beef completely.

Trends in agriculture are driven heavily by cost. This is where the vegan fundamentalists go wrong, arguing that meat is "more expensive". But in the days before modern agriculture, people raised animals and had meat - it was economically beneficial to do so, even for people living at the edge of famine.

Cornfed beef is a result of economics, too - it's cheaper to buy corn than use pasture, and/or it produces meat that can sell for higher prices. We don't just see corfed beef for fancy prime steaks. It's used in cheap fast food hamburgers as well.

Fast food and junk food are the cheapest food. They've applied industrial logic to every link in the food chain. If meat was as expensive as vegans argue, we wouldn't see it as the basis of so much fast food.

Cows are fed very, very little corn. Corn is not cheaper than grass! Grass is free and widely available in the great American plains. More than 90% of a cow's diet over its lifetime is grass and hay. Less than 10% is grain or non-human edible leftovers from corn stalks, such as corn silage:

https://www.progressiveforage.com/forage-types/silage/what-i... https://beef.unl.edu/cattleproduction/forageconsumed-day

Net of methane production from the cattle may affect that.

I don't know if it does or doesn't, but you might want to incorporate that into your model.

(NB: I'm not a vegitarian myself. I'm quite familiar with arguments. And have some familiarity with feedlots.)

If we didn't have cattle, would we have buffalo? Large wild herbivores in general? (Hmm, results of a quick google... there were 30-60m buffalo in the 19th century, and there are 94m cows in the US today. Given relative size, methane output has probably been more or less static over that period.)

That's a good question and I don't know.

The net terrestrial vertebrate biomass has shifted markedly over the past century (and undoubtedly over the previous 50,000 years of the Human Diaspora). What the pre-Columbian American bison population was I have no idea.

Total pre-industrial wildlife biomass ~10,000 BCE, by estimates, was ~1/7 that of the present, and smaller than humans in total:


Some people think buffalo herds exploded when native Americans died off.

The herds may not have been that big pre-columbus.

You're talking about the loss of solar energy, which all life derives from. That has nothing to do with caloric energy and nutrients derived from food. I get that plants have the largest biomass on the planet and animals syphon off a tiny fraction of their energy, but a hunter-gatherer doesn't give a damn about the trophic equation. Isn't even aware such a thing exists.

This article is false. The Navajo / Clovis Indians never stopped eating meat. They continued to hunt and they raised lamb and goats. Mutton formed a staple of their diet, along with fried bread and goat milk. Clothing was formed from deer skin and yucca fiber. Note, they hunted the deer. And note, they ate the deer. They also ate the yucca, but it wasn't all they ate.


"The people in this area responded in an interesting way: by focusing much more on gathering, and less on hunting. We know this from their improved tools for processing plants, especially yucca roots."

Just because they improved tools for eating yucca doesn't mean they stopped hunting. Presumably, all of their tools improved, including hunting tools.

They also raised lamb and sheep. I've been to the Taos Pueblo near there, it's 1000 years old and it has a large meat rack centered in the village, for drying meat out for jerky and pemmican.

The caloric density of meat and protein / fat content is much, much higher than found in vegetables...especially wild vegetables.

And no, we don't have the same gut bacteria or digestive tracks as livestock. Sheep, goats, and cows all have four chambered stomachs and are ruminants. They have trillions of microbes in their stomach to process grass and break down cellulose. They also have a digestive tract that is 27 times longer their bodies versus a human's 3 or 4 times length. We couldn't digest grass like them if we tried. Plant foods are much harder to process than animal foods, because of cellulose. The human gut length ratio is similar to an obligate predator like cats.

Also, animals can digest many forms of plant that are useless as human food such as plains grasses and tree leaves. Vegetarianism is elitist in that many people on earth cannot afford to foregoe any availible source of protein and food, there are starving people already and telling someone in Africa they shouldn't eat a chicken that forages near their house is pretty narrow minded. I tend to eat vegetarian on my own but this is only possible because I am privileged in my income.

I agree with everything you said vis-a-vis elitism. Having mentioned that, I just wanted to point out that for the poor in certain parts of Africa, meat is pretty hard to come by. There are a lot of people on this planet who have to eat plants or fish not for any perceived health benefit, but literally because it is the only food available to their families. It's certainly gotten much better in Africa, when I was younger there were certain places where there was no food, and you'd bring in aid that was basically all plant and legume based. Over time, I came to realize this practice probably did more harm than good but that's orthogonal to the point. Point is, there are a lot of non-elite vegetarians. Lots of people who eat such a diet simply to survive.

What does being vegetarian have to do with telling other people what they should or shouldn't eat?

I think the comment is built from the assumption that vegetarian push their ideas on others around them - like zealots

The old joke: "How can you tell if someone is a Vegetarian? They'll tell you."

How can you tell if someone is a meat eater?

They'll complain that you're a vegitarian.

Hm. Its pretty different. I don't come to a table and say "Hey! I'm a meat eater! Better supply me with meat in this meal, or I'm going to walk away!"

Clearly, on one side, we have omnivores. On the other, extra rules about food type and preparation. Its almost always more complicated to feed one, than the other.

lifestyles are typically packaged with identities, which are packaged with values

The world’s wealthiest (eg, the American middle class) have the largest carbon footprint, and would make the most immediate impact by eating less meat.

A set of mid-sized though significant quibbles.

The United States no longer has the largest total national carbon footprint. That title now goes to China, which has exploded past the US. The total carbon emissions title, since 1970 (roughly half, probably somewhat more, of the total since the Industrial Revolution, given ~30-ish year doubling rates), remains the US, though China are on track to surpass this within a few years.

Per capita, US residents still have a larger carbon footprint than China.

It's not the largest in the world, though, with that title going, depending on how you allocate, to petroleum exporting regions (e.g., Saudi Arabia), fueling and bunkering centres (e.g., Gibralter), ammonia fertiliser production (e.g., Trinidad and Tobago), or, if you're looking at direct local consumption rather than exports, largely Scandinavian countries with very large heating requirements.

Emissions by country, graph, 1970-present: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_...

2017 national vs. per-capita emissions: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_...

Cumulative emissions, 1970-2017: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_...

I’d say when we’re talking about a dietary choice an individual makes, looking at carbon on a per capita basis is the right way to look at it. Especially given that the US consumer is a very influential one in the world. China is set to put a substantial chunk of global emissions under a carbon tax in the near term, which should prove to be a market force which drives down meat consumption, among other things.

The US agricultural system has global implications — from tooling and process, to subsidies and what poor countries grow. A fundamental change in the American diet would have an enormous ripple effect across the globe.


Lifestyle changes can make a large difference, but the changes that make the most difference are also the hardest to implement (driving less, flying less, A/C and heating, etc.)

I try to do whatever lifestyle changes I can, but I also use Project Wren (https://projectwren.com/) to offset the remainder of my carbon footprint!

"What can" arguments are frequently blind to "what is" facts.

The bulk of present livestock animals raised for food either directly consume feed which could be eaten by humans, or consume feed which grows on land that could be used to grow foods eaten by humans.

Net grazed livestock, especially in the US, is rare. Where such livestock do exist, they tend to be on already marginal lands -- if something better could be grown there it would be. The consequence being that its carrying and feeding capacity is highly limited. And even historical herd-keeping practices have proved highly damaging to long-term land quality, helping in the destruction of forests through much of the middle east, as an example. "The pines of Lebanon" is not just an allegorical phrase.

The split between animals which do effectively forage and those which don't, I'm not immediately aware of, though

Vegetarian is lower cost and better for the environment.

Protein per calorie doesn't seem comparable.

> Vegetarian is lower cost and better for the environment

Depends on the biotope. In fertile European fields, less meat is much more efficient. In the arctic steppe or in the Sahel, animals are the more efficient way to extract calories from the land (though it doesn't scale to high population densities...)

In every conversation I've seen, this accurate fact has been the primary counterpoint to the idea that a plant-based diet is more sustainable, but what percent of the world population lives a nomadic lifestyle in the arctic steppes? I don't see even the most hardcore vegans running social media campaigns aimed at coverting remote nomadic cultures to vegetarianism. They tend to focus on middle class white people who have more options available to them. Also, reduced meat and fish consumption by rich people would leave more healthy ecosystems to sustain those who depend on them.

> doesn't scale to high population densities

that's where we are right now so anything that doesn't scale is practically irrelevant

Given the climate of our world, we have a certain amount of arctic tundra etc. The best way to extract nourishment from that is foraging by e.g. reindeer. That holds irrespective of the population density.

Also, reindeer is one of the most ethical ways of modern husbandry. Animals live out in the wild, supported by humans e.g. adding feed when there is little to eat, protecting them from carnivores etc, and then they are slaughtered in a sustainable way after living close to how they do in their natural state.

that is a very long chain of ifs, any of which can evaluate to false EDIT: there is also no precedent for what you propose and if we go by the partial match of grass-fed beef, the yield will be so small compared to the population as to be pointless

There's almost 2 million domesticated reindeer worldwide, compared to 1.4 billion cattle, so it's tiny for sure. But in most of those regions, it's regulated such that only first people/native inhabitants/etc. are legally allowed to work reindeer.

how do you propose the mindset and techniques behind first people's husbandry sustainability can be scaled and applied to profit seeking "modern" farming?

What is the net total protein yield of sustainable grazing-based non-augmented livestock production in those regions, and the equivalent global daily per-person ration?

Protein per calorie is higher in e.g. spinach but 1000 calories of spinach is like 6 bags.

(or 1 tablespoon, once cooked) ;)

I'm trying to figure this out. I see chicken breast at $3 for 450g which is about 900 calories? So 1/3 penny per calorie?

A tomato is 16 calories per 100g which cost 50 cents so what, 3 cents per calorie? Did I do that right?

"Table crops" (vegetables, fruits) are not dietary staples, that is primary sources of calories.

Grains are.

Rice. Wheat. Maize (corn). Rye. Oats. Barley. Millet. A handful of others.

A 50# bag of rice (22.7kg) costs less than $20, and provides 17,800 calories, or about 900 calories per dollar, or about 0.1 cents/calorie.

I see chicken at about $2/lb, 102cal/3oz, or 544 cal/lb. That's 2.7 cents/calorie, 27 times more expensive than rice.

(And for the nutritionists out there: kilocalories are not all that food provides, but it's the most significant start. Macros and micros as well as other factors do matter. I've been told.)

Oh: There are also root crops, especially potatoes.

I think the math isn't quite right: that's about 0.4 cents/cal for chicken? 200 cents / 533 calories

Hrm: A third of a cent?

$ units Currency exchange rates from FloatRates (USD base) on 2019-05-31 3460 units, 109 prefixes, 109 nonlinear units

    You have: 2/544 kcal
    You want: 0.01/kcal
            * 0.36764706
            / 2.72

You'd like Efficiency Is Everything.

But I was particularly talking about per calorie rather than "per dollar"

Dollars can be a pretty good measure of the 'cost' of something - energy, transportation, land use, labor. If vegetables cost more to deliver to the grocery store, that cost is pretty related to the environmental cost?

The idea that a piece of meat is more nutritious than the same mass in plant matter is not in conflict with the idea that an ecosystem can feed more vegetarians than omni/carnivores.

Except in the winter in temperate climates when you can't harvest enough calories or protein to survive on a vegetarian diet

Are you claiming that vegetarians have no access to the global logistics services or storage of food? This is ridiculous.

The parent comments were about civilization collapse and hunter-gatherers, so I was staying on-topic

I agree that the claim about "food value" is in need of rewording, but it's context makes it clear that we're talking the total number of meals that the ecology of the region can provide, and not the percentage of any given meal that happens to be bioavailable.

It's not about running faster than your vegetarian rival, it's about whether your tribe collapses because there isn't enough food.

Yeah, not all plant matter is food for humans, but if you only had, say, 100 square miles, and you wanted it to support as many humans as possible, how would you allocate resources between hunting and gathering?

The point is not that one choice is better than the other, it's that those who happened to make the right choice at the right time were the ones that survived.

When you eat an animal, you are consuming (in this analysis) all nutrients it has consumed over its entire life, of which 90% are wasted vs. just eating those nutrients yourself. It isn't talking about bioavailability or whatever.

How exactly would they be "wasted"? Seems to me that they would just end up back in nature and deeding other organisms as part of the food chain.

Some are, in the form of excrement. Most are not, because they're released as heat with the animal moving around and maintaining homeostasis. It's the same for us except all our excrement ends up in a landfill.

Exactly, what if the animal just dies without being eaten... are 100% of it's nutrients wasted? Or did it lead a full life and return from which ot came?

This is where scavengers and decomposers come in.

It's relatively rare that living organisms die without being part of some further biological change, though that does happen. Fossil fuels are formed through lack of biological decomposition, as are precursor materials: peat bogs, kerogenated biomass, abiotic methane. Deaths in desert, arctic, or alpine conditions may simply dessicate and degrade rather than being eaten.

The entropic channel may pass through biological mechanism, but there's no obligation that it must.

> How exactly would they be "wasted"?

Increased entropy mostly in the form of heat.

Compared to not eating it, or compared to the animal never having existed? I can't follow how, either way.

> When you eat an animal, you are consuming (in this analysis) all nutrients it has consumed over its entire life, of which 90% are wasted vs. just eating those nutrients yourself.

Most of those nutrients you, as a human being, either can't eat at all or get nothing from. Humans can't feed on hay and silage.

Yeah, and the vast amounts of land used to grow those things can be redirected to other things that humans can eat.

I have no idea why otherwise smart people get such a brain block on the topic of meat-eating. These "gotcha" points fall apart if you take 10 seconds to think about it.

I'm not an expert on global agriculture, but a lot of the famous Texas cattle ranches can basically only grow grass. If the natural state of the land is brush that only goes up to your ankles you aren't going to feed much other than grazers off it. The efficient solution would be to use the good land to grow food and the rest of the land to feed livestock, and that's what tends to happen (feedlot factory farms fueled by cereal crops notwithstanding).

> the famous Texas cattle ranches can basically only grow grass

Why? Anyway, wheat is a grass.

Wheat is the simple-starch-rich seed kernel of a hybridised grass.

Much of Texas lacks water -- generally West Texas, a line extending from roughly Austin. In the US generally, the 100th parallel divides the moister east from the drier west. Topsoils are also far poorer than further east.

There was an experiment conducted some years ago on dryland farming. It ended poorly:


Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time is an excellent telling of this:


Not all grasses are equally edible. Most aren't, in fact.

> Why?

Not enough water.

As someone who grew up on a steep farm where grass, fruits and potatoes where the only options that worked out in practice (most of it is steep, summer is short and unpredictable) I'd say maybe you should reconsider.

One easy thought experiment that helped me understand: given how extremely poor our ancestors where and how hard they worked to make ends meet there must have been some advantage to keeping animals.

Otherwise they wouldn't have had them, because they are sometimes a real hassle and gathering food for them is time consuming I can tell you.

So maybe your idea would work in a more temperate climate. And maybe it would provide extra food for people further north, but it would mean a lot of land that cannot be used for anything but pastures would go out of use.

Yes, but remember that pigs are probably the only animals that are grown only for their meat. Cows, sheep and goats are grown for their milk also, sheep for their fleece, chicken, duck and geese for their eggs etc. Eggs and dairy are valuable sources of protein that can last a lot longer than slaughtering and eating the animal that produces them. So, in many places, where people raise animals they keep them alive for the small but steady supply of eggs and milk, and only kill them for their meat on special occasions (like religious festivals and so on).

That's my experience anyway. I spend my summers in a friend's farm and they have a small army of chickens, a plattoon of goats and in different times, a couple of pigs or so. We get fresh eggs and fresh goat's milk, but all the meat we eat is bought from outside the farm. It seems to be a very good deal actually, which was surprising to me when I first realised it, because of course the chickens and goats have to be fed. Then again- they often eat what we do (or rather, our leftovers).

> given how extremely poor our ancestors where and how hard they worked to make ends meet there must have been some advantage to keeping animals

Our ancestors generally ate far less meat.

They could also feed smaller animals like poultry on scraps of food, which doesn't really scale to feeding the billions of animals we currently raise for food.

I guess we agree.

I don't argue that we should continue todays consumption, only that going all vegan might not be a good idea.

Reducing consumption seems like a really good idea to me for several reasons. As does small scale poultry and animal farming (raising a pig or some poultry on scraps instead of throwing it away should be a good idea today as well if one could get away with it.)

Yup. Think I've heard them all over the course of 20 years.

The obvious explanation is that people don't like the implication that their behaviour is unethical and look for clever outs. Rather than simply owning that benefits > costs from their point of view (a la 'I like bacon too much').

Of course questioning motivations is not a point to be made in an argument. However it is an entirely satisfactory Bayesian explanation of why so many people take the other side of the argument with such force.

Any of your teachers/lecturers had a background from agriculture?

I'm not saying this is not possible. But I am saying - as someone who has grown up on a farm and studied farming - that it might be somewhat more complicated.

For a start, not all farmland is usable for anything but grass.

Do you know what fraction of world calories that type of land is?

Otherwise this objection is a case of 'an edge case exists, and I would like you to imagine that it is the major determining factor.'

What I am saying is you can kiss goodbye to everything except fruit, potatoes and some easy vegetables on good fields in Norway (except central East Coast and Trøndelag, they have somewhat better conditions). Fruit will be hit or miss in a lot of places and will only be an option in southern parts of the country anyways.

Same goes for a number of other places in the world.

As I pointed out from the start, the efficiency gained by growing plant food for humans instead of food for animals elsewhere in the world might more than compensate for this, -but going hardcore vegan will reduce global food production compared to a mixed approach.

It will also erase a lot of culture and landscapes that depend on active animal farming, but who cares?

I hear what you're saying. The difficulty is that you're another non quant trying to make a general argument and failing.

I'll spell out what a strong argument for the point you're trying to make might look like:

A) An estimate of the total number of calories coming from purely grazed meat on this sort of land.

B) An estimate of the total number of calories of meat consumed.

C) A/B > 3/4.

I think I did better than your quant way :-)

Without having to resort to any kind of estimates[0] I have demonstrated for anyone interested that a purely vegan alternative will render lots of land unproductive, so - even given an optimal use of the rest of the land - you will still leave unused resources on the table.

I can go deeper into this subject, but I think this will suffice for now.

And: I'm all for reducing consumption and waste, and actually enjoy the reduce-reuse-part of the reduce-reuse-recycle-idea so this shouldn't be seen as a defense for overconsumption, bad farming practices or anything but rather an attempt to bring some realism into this thread.

[0]:really my only given is that not all land is usable for effective production of anything except grass.

> lots of land.

How much in comparison to farming generally?

You're attempting a bait and switch: 1) Claim veganism is bad because it would reduce output if everyone switched now. 2) Claim veganism is bad because it would reduce output at the margin of an optimal policy.

These two things are quite different scenarios. Scenario 2) is tacitly accepting that most people would be vegan most of the time. But hey, if you want to argue that under both our optimal policies there would be many more plant eaters, fine by me.

> How much in comparison to farming generally?

This has already been answered elsewhere in this discussion.

> You're attempting a bait and switch: 1) Claim veganism is bad because it would reduce output if everyone switched now. 2) Claim veganism is bad because it would reduce output at the margin of an optimal policy.

I'm not doing a bait and switch. Here is what I wrote:

1.) in a sibling thread before this one:

> So maybe your idea would work in a more temperate climate. And maybe it would provide extra food for people further north, but it would mean a lot of land that cannot be used for anything but pastures would go out of use.

2.) On top of this thread:

> I'm not saying this is not possible. But I am saying - as someone who has grown up on a farm and studied farming - that it might be somewhat more complicated.

I write that in reply to you writing a comment in support of this comment:

> Yeah, and the vast amounts of land used to grow those things can be redirected to other things that humans can eat.

> I have no idea why otherwise smart people get such a brain block on the topic of meat-eating. These "gotcha" points fall apart if you take 10 seconds to think about it.

Back to your claim of bait and switch :

It is more like as I proceed down the thread I get more and more specific to make my point easier to understand.

I still stand by my original claim.

My point is that while vast areas can be repurposed other vast areas cannot.

I point out early on that it might be possible anyway.

I also claim that like a lot of other topics it isn't something you can understand in ten seconds like the comment you supported seems to claim.

So, now you've had a chance to 'get more and more specific' (sic.), this is my understanding of your understanding of an optimal food production policy:

1. Vegan food production wherever possible. 2. Non-vegan food where vegan food is not possible (the Norwegian uplands case).

Is that correct? Or would you like to finesse things any more?

Now we are getting somewhere. That would be one reasonable if boring policy :-) Compared to todays reports from different parts of the world about

- feedlots,

- constant use of antibiotics,

- use of food grade grain for animal feed

- unhealthy overconsumption in small parts of the human population

- while others are starving

it sounds like an improvement.

If you ask what I want though I still think we could do even better than that.

There are a number of other parameters I think we should try to optimize for as well instead of thinking just vegan/not vegan:

- Regional and national or even local production to reduce fragile dependencies and reduce the need for transport.

- Healthier food.

- Happiness.

- Better conditions, both for workers and for the livestock.

- etc

There is a reason the Dalai Lama (nor any Tibetan) is not a vegetarian...not much arable land above 3k meters (well, you can grow some barley). Likewise, next door India has so much arable land vegetarianism makes sense, China on the other hand is in between, being fairly mountainous and lacking much arable land (so they have more vegetables but still rely on meat).

Worldwide distribution changes things up a bit, but barring that entire cultures fit their habits according to the land they had, not vice versa.

What's your point?

My point that some land being suited for growing thing and some land being suited to grazing is totally a thing. If the whole world were as arable as India, we might all be vegetarians. But it isn’t.

Those vast amounts of land usually don't have viable soil for multi-year agriculture. Arable land is limited

Arable land is getting cleared out en masse to farm cattle. Cattle farming is not driven by the inability to grow crops on that land, it's driven by the demand for red meat (and dairy products).

Rainforest land is not arable. Farmers who try to grow crops (typically soybean) in the Amazon get 2-3 years of crops before the land becomes infertile, then it has to fallow again. Their only option is to add massive amounts of chemical fertilizers which washes out into the Amazon basin. Aside from leaving the forests undisturbed (which is my preference), raising cattle is better for that ecosystem than agricultural farming would be.

Slashing and burning rainforest to farm cattle or raise crops are both bad options given how critical the Amazon is to maintaining climate and biodiversity.

Either way, the amount of land and water required to raise each lb of beef is an order of magnitude greater than the amount needed for a pound of chicken, which is in turn an order of magnitude higher than the resources needed for a pound of vegetables. The expanding demand for beef is ecologically unsustainable, doubly so if people are burning down critical environments to create cow pasture.

I don't think anyone disagrees with you. My point (again) is that this land can't be sustainably farmed for vegetable/cereal crops, so cattle is the only industry that the land could be used for. I would prefer there were some sustainable ranching practices, but I don't know enough about Brazilian agriculture to comment on how that land is managed after it's cleared.

I guess the million dollar question is - who has the moral authority to tell Brazilians that they don't have the right to utilize their land and natural resources like China, USA, India, and every other industrial nation?

> I guess the million dollar question is - who has the moral authority to tell Brazilians that they don't have the right to utilize their land and natural resources like China, USA, India, and every other industrial nation?

That is going to be a very thorny issue in the years to come, thorny enough to lead to armed conflict. Climate change is a threat to humanity, much less a huge threat to the national security interests of any nation with a military. At some point the situation is going to be serious enough that military conflict will occur over water rights, environmental destruction, climate refugees, etc.

I imagine that before that happens, some country (or countries) will get hit with sanctions for environmental destruction. Of course that will be fraught because who isn't guilty of that?

But at the end of the day, what does it matter when the future of civilization is at stake? Why should the world stand by while Brazil (or any other country) destroys THE essential ecosystem in combating climate change. 100 years from now if the Amazon is gone people will wish other countries had put a stop to the destruction with sanctions or even military force.

“Humans would have never evolved the ability to eat meat if it didn't confer a natural advantage over foragers.”

Is this really true though about evolution in general. Evolution happens because of adaptations due to selective pressures. This doesn’t necessarily mean that evolutionary changes are beneficial.

Evolutionary changes are virtually solipsitically beneficial, by definition.

They may be a local optimum, or adaptations to circumstances which existed at one time, but no longer, or be the result of a long chain of path-dependencies (effectively: multiple local optima jumps, a/k/a "the adjacent possible"), or even non-heritable benefits, such as "don't be under that big sky rock when it comes down" (luck plays a selective role, but features little if any heritable characteristics).

All that said, I'm not making any argument for or against meat eating, other than to note that the evolutionary support of it suggests that it was certainly useful at least at some point in the past.

> This is just completely false. All meat consumed is bioavailable protein and nutrients.

I think you're missing the point entirely. It's about the calories needed to feed the animal, and the 10:1 ratio is the usual number quoted for this.

Are you sure you're replying to the right post?

It's in Part 1.

If our current civilization completely collapsed, I would think most of our technology would be gone forever. It is hard to imagine another civilization figuring out how to read a hard drive.

A lot more people are literate and we have lots of libraries everywhere. So for that to happen there would have to be a complete directed effort to abandon learning. By all countries. It’s highly unlikely even if we had a catastrophic natural disaster like an asteroid hit taking out or majorly degrading infrastructure.

Such an event on the contrary would probably prompt the most able country left to seek to become the leader (technically and politically) by taking the opportunity to best those left in a worse state.

The problem with that theory is theoretically you could wipe out most technical knowledge within a generation. All it takes is for a lot of books to be burned and a lot of engineers/scientists to die.

Looking at what goes around inside schools, there seems to be an ongoing directed effort to abandon learning, already.

There isn't a lot of essential technology beyond energy, agriculture and mining. The biggest driving factor is actually making a society that rewards technological progress. Give that society half a millenia and it will invent computers again.

If you wanted to let a society recover from technological collapse then you would merely need a list of possible inventions ordered by the date of their invention. 3D CAD models with micrometer tolerances are not useful to such a society anyway.

Oh you could shortcut tremendously. Once photography was invented (1830s) we could have had integrated circuits. If we had known they were possible. Which we do now.

There's ideas that can survive long after devices turn to dust. The germ theory of disease. The Staff system. Ops planning. Cross-fertilization and hybridization. Optics. With these ideas, the devices can be recreated, and in a better sequence that we accidentally created them the first time.

On the other end, we might not be able to reinvent nuclear technology. Quite a bit of that was based on the Shinkolobwe mine which had 65% uranium ore deposits. These days finding 1% uranium ore is a lucky find.

That is a fascinating story. It makes fictional countries based on hidden mines, like Wakanda, seem much more plausible.

Given that we've depleted most easily accessible mines as well as easy coal and oil sites, I very much doubt that any future civilization will be able to reach our technological level ever again.

A lot of modern resource extraction relies on easily available energy. The days of oil coming out of the ground or being able to dig for coal on the surface have long gone. My guess is you are right, once lost it won't be coming back.

There are alternatives. It won't be as easy or as cheap, no, but windmills and nuclear plants can both be built with WW1-era technology.

WWI-era technology was built on coal, and fueled by oil.

The amount of fuel required to smelt iron and produce high-quality steel (a technique only perfected in the 1860s -- previous high-quality steels such as Damascus and Japanese tamahagane were forged rather than smelted, with the iron and carbon impurities literally hammered out, often by hand. Water- or wind-driven trip-hammers could help with this.

Given the mass of raw wood needed to produce charcoal used in both iron and gunpowder production, the embodied mass of wood represented in an age-of-sail ship of the line (typically 72 cannon, half of which would be engaged in a broadside) rivalled or exceeded the mass of the ship itself.

That's not "the cannon and powder weighed more than the ship", but "the fuelwood consumed in producing these weighed more".

Britain, never particularly lush in forests, had stripped itself bare, and relied on imports from Sweden and the Americas to build and fuel its ships. Coal, particularly coked coal, was a game-changer. Even today, 15% of all coal use is "metalurgical", which is to say, coked coal used in steel production, not merely providing fuel to the fire, but chemically bonding with iron.

And that's just steel.

The concentrations of ores from which other metals are smelted are tremendously reduced from pre-industrial times. Copper (virtually all electric transmission and motors), gold and silver, numerous vital and strategic minerals (look up the "Harbord List", dating to WWI, of strategic minerals, now encompassed in the US Strategic Mineral Reserve and successor programmes), and more.

If we can avoid shutting off the grid entirely, some elecrical substitution may suffice. Aluminium smelting is virtually fully electrically-based, and steel recycling (which doesn't require coal) can and does run in electric arc furnaces.

Vaclav Smil's books on energy, Energy and Civilisation, and materials, Making the Modern World, are very strongly recommended.

There's Methane Hydrates underground too. More of that, than oil. Estimated 6X. So we have 6 more tries at civilization?

Oil came shooting out of the ground, and even now generally flows.

Methane hydrates largely seem to be frozen in tundra and on the seafloor. Even accessing them tends to precipitate release. Liquids are far more fungible than either solids or gasses, and methane hydrates tend to be the latter transforming wantonly to the former with very little in-between. Sort of the worst of all possible worlds.

Also a tremendously worse greenhouse gas, though not quite so long-lived as CO2. Centuries rather than millennia.

Oil that fuels our civilization comes from 2000ft down, and takes sophisticated drilling rigs to capture. The days of 'shooting out of the ground' is a century gone, and never fueled much.

Methane Hydrate can be 'harvested' by drilling, then pumping a little warm water down the hole, then piping the gas into the harbor where the city enjoys endless free natural gas.

Note the use of past tense in my comment. And oil still flows, as a liquid, from wells. Sometimes thicker, sometimes more volatile. But liquid.

The most productive wells and fields tended to be heavy initial producers. Among the most prolific single wells I'm aware of is the First Oil Well of Bahrain:


Drilled in 1931, initially flowing at 9,600 bbl/day, peaking at 80,000 bbl/day, and (as best I can make out still producing at 35,000 bbl today, 89 years after first oil.

Contrast with stripper and marginal oil wells, producing 10-15 bbl/day, or less.

But even a stripper well produces a liquid, which stays a liquid (modulo condensate and NGLs). You can pump liquid from the ground, and store it in loosely-covered tanks. It will flow through nonpressurised or lightly-pressurised pipelines.

Methane hydrates are solids which sublime to gas. You can't pump solids. You can't store gas in unenclosed containers. Piping requires pressurisation, cooling, or both. This is done, yes, but gas remains generally more problematic than oil. Whilst not an intractable problem, it's a more technical, constrained, limiting, and expensive prospect.

Something tells me that "a little warm water" becomes a more complex prospect at deep-sea depths, pressures, and temperatures.

> If our current civilization completely collapsed, I would think most of our technology would be gone forever. It is hard to imagine another civilization figuring out how to read a hard drive.

A collapse is never binary (unless you are talking about planetary collapse where life does not recover at all anytime soon). It's actually very hard to even imagine circumstances where the whole body of knowledge we have would be completely lost. Even with 10% of the knowledge and existing machinery left, we could pretty much rebuild everything in a matter of centuries.

A fictional universe of battletech illustrates that quite realistically.

They have fusion reactors for every housewife, godlike metallurgy and rocket engines, but they can't make advanced computers no matter how hard they try after an interstellar nuclear civil war put an end to interstellar trade and, thus, complex economies and long supply chains.

Such things require enormous societal organisations to work, and that requires period of civility, prosperity, and material security to make people with brains to do things like that and not to scramble to work on better bomb shelters.

After few generations of people living caring about only basic necessities, the society went into downward spiral because the less scientists and engineers there were, the less were available to teach the next generation of them, and maintain advanced manufacturing equipment.

Despite the basic knowledge of science still being there, there were nobody with hands on skills and material capacity to make complex manufacturing equipment even after a period of relative prosperity 300 years later.

It's like asking a average random engineering or physics PhD to make AMSL 3500 EUV scanner. He will have a basic idea how the thing works, but it will take him more than a lifetime just to make a single part of it if he were to work alone without societal and material facilities for making something so complex.

I think there's one key flaw in this, as well as it being fiction. There's a difference between being able to do something once or at very low volumes, and then doing it at scale for production.

So long as you understand the basic principles, you could make an integrated circuit using hand-drawn acetate or glass sheets and some really simple optics. Or ignore integrated circuits and make stuff from discrete components which you made yourself. You only need to care about making complex EUV scanners much, much later on.

In research labs around the world, we make stuff almost completely from scratch all the time. It's costly in terms of labour, and it's doing low volumes with lower tolerances. But it is making real, working stuff. In thousands of companies, research findings are developed into manufacturable products, with a lot of additional development work, optimising and refining.

We already know you can go from most concepts, to research, development and production. We've done it, and will continue to do it, in every field we can think of. I think to assert that we couldn't reinvent every one of the technologies humanity has discovered and developed fails to recognise just how resourceful and ingeneous we can be if we have the drive and opportunity. It might be that some technologies would be harder to reinvent, or would take longer to reinvent, but we're a capable lot and I'd bet we could get up to speed quite quickly given a few hints about what was possible. There are thousands of manufacturing techniques from the last century which we have lost the capability to use. Material quality changes, loss of knowledge and skills through retirement, fires, water damage etc. But we could regain each of them if the need was there. Look at FOGBANK for a recent example of a capability which was lost and regained. It takes time, money and resources, but it's possible.

The main thing we have in today's world which a collapse would eliminate is effectively limitless energy, and redeveloping that would be far harder than any individual technology. They would lack the more easily exploitable resources we already exhausted, and it would take time to overcome that hurdle through additional technological advances. But that is not a hard barrier. They would have to develop alternative sources and work out different strategies. This might delay things, but it wouldn't stop them entirely. We had sophisticated civilisation before the discovery of coal and oil, and electricity. Wind, water, solar and wood were widely used for mechanical and heating purposes long before electricity was discovered.

> So long as you understand the basic principles, you could make an integrated circuit using hand-drawn acetate or glass sheets and some really simple optics. Or ignore integrated circuits and make stuff from discrete components which you made yourself. You only need to care about making complex EUV scanners much, much later on.

Yes, in the universe, they can easily make microelectronics on technology level of twentieth century eighties.

The main idea is that they have no hope to make anything remotely approaching even 21st century "advanced tech" level, without an actual civilisation that had few decades of peace and prosperity to allow for civilisation-wide supply chains, knowledge sharing, and economy.

Why? There's sooooooo much electronic equipment in the world right now. Huge datacenters, landfills filled to the brim with electronics. I think it's a stretch to assume that would all just evaporate.

You could load the entirety of Wikipedia onto an e-reader and power it with almost no electricity.

Data centers are basically bunkers and there is a tremendous amount of replication occurring.

If anything I think we're likely to leave by far the largest accumulation of knowledge in history, regardless of how bad things get.

> Data centers are basically bunkers and there is a tremendous amount of replication occurring.

All encrypted at rest. Lose those keys and the data is gone...

I think there are plenty of unecrypted copies of Wikipedia floating around. Good point though.

The supply chain is long and fragile.

With interruptions in the provisioning of everything from the electricity required to parts for power management, cooling, air handling, networking, memory, disks, CPU, etc., the half-life of such centres would likely be on the order of a few years, even assuming local power.

Talent is probably the biggest factor.

Even absent greater civilisational collapse, a multi-billion-dollar-a-year income company such as Google can barely keep the lights on for a given project for 5-8 years, if that. Many startups fail even faster.

I'm imagining the equivalent of our archaeologists finding their way into one of those data centers and figuring out what to do with a hard drive.

I wonder what a datacenter would look like 10,000 years from now if no one did anything to it. obviously it wouldn't be powered but I'm thinking there would be recoverable data.

Clearly, it's a religious temple devoted to ritualistic ceremonies and sacrifices to our gods.

For that to happen our current civilization would have to be defined as every civilization on Earth.

there currently is one single civilization earth. All the cultural diffences between countries are far less than it would take to define different civilizations

> there currently is one single civilization earth. All the cultural diffences between countries are far less than it would take to define different civilizations

What is your definition of a civilization then? As far as i know there is no "global" culture, you can live in many different places and have a totally different everyday life experience.

Science and technology (and maybe trade?) are our global culture.

I just said there is no such thing as a global culture. It's not because you have Starbucks in every big city that the experience of living in different places is the same.

There are local peculiarities, but we share a common core built around science an technology. You can learn to drive a car anywhere on earth. You'll learn the same maths, physics, chemistry and biology. You can use phones everywhere. That is culture, globally shared.

Only the civilization that uses the current hard drive standard and related electronic and digital standards.

There are no hard lines between civilizations of course, but societies that agree on common standards for a number of things sounds like one of the better definitions I can come up with.

That's pretty much where we are going, if we are not already there.

Alternatively, assuming the current automation trend holds on, our technology may survive the collapse of humanity...

We don't have an example of such a complete collapse in the world since the arrival of globalization.

It's easy to envision that a lot of knowledge will be conserved somewhere.

Yes, in our hard drives.

No, in books and journals. We're still printing them by the billions every year.

Software of various kinds might be lost, since we usually don't print them out. But the theory required to re-implement them are all available on paper, sitting in a library somewhere. A book on algorithms and data structures will be far more useful to a future civilization than raw source code for a hardware architecture that won't even exist anymore.

A book on software and algorithms would be useless without hardware to experiment on. There's only so much you can do with cogs and rods, so software only really starts to make sense with electronics of some kind - and only becomes useful when you have enough speed and memory to do real work.

Which in turn assumes that you have real work to do. One of the earliest civilian computing systems was a payroll calculator - which is only useful if payroll is a problem you need to have solved, which in turn is only necessary if your economy is complex enough to need payroll calculations at significant scale, and human "calculators" aren't available.

The point is that the Greeks and the Romans had the IQ to invent modern technology. The Greeks especially also had the philosophical background.

But neither had the politics or the economics.

Modern computing is a political phenomenon, not just a scientific one. It exists because it solves certain economic and political problems, and there's no reason to assume that a different culture would have identical problems - even if it could understand the theory.

All the more reason to appreciate the general knowledge we've written into books, rather than the cutting-edge implementations that only live on computer disks. The former is much more likely to be useful to a civilization with radically different needs and available tools.

I often have to read articles published in the MLJ, or the proceedings of IJCAI and AAAI in the 1990's. That was the time when machine learning was predominantly preoccupied with modelling the world with logic languages, particularly propositional logic (and, less often, first-order logic).

Although I have a background in logic programming and I study logic-based machine learning for my PhD, I find that I often have trouble to understand important terminology - and I mean "important" in the sense that entire papers are based around it, but take it for granted that the reader is very familiar with the terms, what they mean, and how they're used.

For example, I recently struggled with the following terms: "finite axiomatization", "explanation-based learning", "constructive induction", "knowledge-level learning", "weakest preconditions", and others.

I eventually managed to get on top of those terms, sufficiently to read and understand the papers that used them. I did this by searching online for an explanation ("finite axiomatization" is used in mathematical logic) and by digging in the literature for terms that were defined in previous works. I found all of that material online, of course- and where I couldn't find a copy online, I basically had to "wing it" and hope I grokked it right. Searching for anything published even in a major AI conference or journal before the 1990's is a big pain and even university libraries seem to lack physical or electronic copies.

To conclude- yes, there are going to be various works left behind if civilisation collapses. But a lot of them are going to be like maps without the key. The people surviving us will be able to read them, but not able to understand them, because they will miss key knowledge, that is currently spread around hundreds of thousands of sources that only experts in niche sub-fields are even aware of.

That hard drive doesn't exist in isolation unless you have forcibly removed it from its computer. I would be more worried about not having an electric grid that lets you power the computer.

One of the salutatory effects of pervasive solar is that it becomes less and less plausible that the electric infrastructure could totally collapse, because every house with solar on it is its own independent power station that has enough juice to use electronics. We still have the problem of decay, but it still gives a window of many years to potentially recover.

I'm a big fan of house solar for that reason. In the short term, there's every reason to prefer big solar installations run by power companies interested in every last percentage of efficiency and willing and able to maintain it well, but for disaster prep it's great to have as many independent islands that can run to some degree in an isolated mode as possible.

(Although I'd be a lot happier if house solar was more conveniently integrated into the house system. Then again, if the grid was down in the long term there's a lot of people who could tweak the solar installation to be the primary house power in not too much time or effort. Even in their current form it's a lot better than nothing. The difference between one powered outlet and zero powered outlets is pretty big.)

If our current civilization collapses, I think it’s unlikely that another similar one would arise- or if it did it would happen much more slowly. There are no more easily accessible seams of rich ores of any kind in the world; the deposits remaining require a lot of energy and technology to use since they are low grade ores and it would be very difficult to get to a high enough technology level to use them without already having the refined minerals. A chicken and egg problem.


"When the Romans took over, they dumbed things down"

Without reading the cited book, the case doesn't seem to have been made for this.

"then we have the first four books by Apollonius on conic sections—the more elementary ones—but the other three have been lost"

Maybe the 4th volume was just wrong, or an index, or so highly valued it was separated from the other 3. Or maybe the rich hand side of the bookshelf got rot.

Is there any more to this?

Isn't spacetime an all time storage system? You can't burn it, chafe it, erode it. Its is going to be there forever. Even if there's something that you think has been lost(like the library of Alexandria or the Roman empire) is waiting to be seen again. It is never lost. These `movies` of spacetime is being saved on a forever store.

Storage requires retrieval, as well as well as an encoding and preserving mechanism.

Much as users don't want backups, they want restores, authors don't want books, they want readers.

There's an interesting parallel between transmissions and recordings I'd noticed some time ago, that doesn't seem to be much commented on in discussions of information theory, though I'm not sure if it's because it's obscure or obvious:

A transmission utilises variations in time in a low-noise channel to deliver information over space to a receiver which does not have to move or sweep relative to the signal.

A recording utilises variations in space in a low-variance medium to deliver information through time, to a reader which must move or sweep relative to the encoding.

Each further relies on encoding, decoding, is subject to noise or deterioration, and may be subject to context or inference. Probably other factors as well.

Recordings can, of course, be moved through space (though a single recording can be in only a given location at a given time). Transmissions also travel through time at some rate, not exceeding the speed of light.

There are systems which combine transmission and recording (notably computers). Transmission and recording each play a role in virtually all message chains. And there may be some forms of encoding (possibly holographic?) which either combine both methods or utilise others (though I'm inclined to see holograms as forms of recordings).

"Spacetime" as an all-time storage system, by itself, either doesn't make sense or is so vague as to be meaningless. Perhaps you could clarify.

Also: there's no inherent conservation law of information. Quite the opposite.

Practical upshot?

> Isn't spacetime an all time storage system?

I don't think it is? What does "storage" mean? It refers to something that keeps something else invariant over time. Spacetime is time itself and can not be considered "storage".

Though kind of lost from the perspective of our bit of space time even if there's scope for historical recreation.

Storage is useless without retrieval. Good luck implementing a system to replay your movies of spacetime...

If you can find a way to retrieve the info, yes

Not if black holes lose information.

We would have known about machines like the Antikythera mechanism because the Romans wrote about them : specifically Cicero documented the existence of these kinds of machines (that could predict the motion of the planets).

The only reason anyone pays any attention to that throwaway line in Cicero is because the Antikythera mechanism exists. Can you find a single modern reference to that Cicero passage - pre-Antikythera mechanism - which interprets it, in full generality, as proving the Greco-Romans had analogue computing developed to such a high extent?

No! You are right, but isn't that super interesting? Especially given various other descriptions of automata, and also some of the descriptions of medieval automata.

If something happens in the world able to cause a collapse of our civilization - the preservation of knowledge will be the least of our problems.

I see little point in trying to solve this issue.

But while we are here - we can make copies of useful knowledge and try to have them as in tact as possible...

In the land of collapsed technology, an accessible copy of Wikipedia may be a priceless gem.

I couldn't help but reading `Civilizational Collapse – Part IV` .

On this topic - Oswald Spenglers observations on the topic of civilizational collapse are an interesting read.


> Spengler's model of history postulates that any culture is a superorganism with a limited and predictable lifespan.

> Spengler's model of history postulates that any culture is a superorganism with a limited and predictable lifespan.

A superorganism, yes, with a limited lifespan, yes, if you stretch it until the extinction of humans, but a "predictable" lifespan, that's laughable at best: the more information is transformed into data, the longer a culture will last, and the less predictable its lifetime will be.

I’m just saying the observations are interesting, not stating what a historian and philosopher wrote 100 years ago as an absolute fact.

The article reminded me of ”the decline of the west”, which in turn makes me connect to Asimov, for some reason.

It is an interesting and inspiring read. However, it turned out to be completely wrong, like many (all?) predictive models of history.

Well according to him we are the latest civilization and have entered the final decadent millennia of our existence. We’ll have to wait and see!

Now the superorganism is global. Who will be left to carry the torch?

Civilizations don't die, they fragment and reform. The analogy of an organism is being stretched too far.

That is quite the claim.

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