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Lisp inventor John McCarthy on human progress and its sustainability (stanford.edu)
136 points by maxharris on Feb 9, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

I feel like any such discussion must address the fact that, globally, phytoplankton has declined by 40% in the past century. That's 40% of the base of the food pyramid for all ocean life. That's 20% of the plant life in the world, and accounts for 20% of the oxygen we breathe. Whatever is causing it, something significant is happening to the ecosystems of earth.


What a refreshing and extensive analysis, based on research and hard numbers. You might not agree with John McCarthy, but at least he brings up clear, verifiable points of discussion. It's too bad that strident alarmism will always out-shout the more reasoned approaches to what is, fundamentally, a very important problem.

He's also provided my all-time favorite quote about how to think productively about the environment: "He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense."

This is mostly a gimmick, though, because other people who uses arithmetic as he says manage to go to near opposite conclusions. His website is written such as his conclusions are claimed to logicallly follow the data, at least that's how I read it, and I think this is slightly disingeneous. For example, David Mc Kay and his website/book(http://www.withouthotair.com/) are mostly based on data in a similar fashion, and his consequences are radically different.

His conclusions are the same; the difference is in how he reacts to them.

> If fast reactors are 60 times more efficient, the same extraction of ocean uranium could deliver 420 kWh per day per person. At last, a sustainable figure that beats current consumption! – but only with the joint help of two technologies that are respectively scarcely-developed and unfashionable: ocean extraction of uranium, and fast breeder reactors.


It's great that people use arithmetic to argue the opposite point, and it's a very worthwhile discussion. Unfortunately, this discussion, which should be pursued and decided on the hard cold facts, is usually pushed to the sidelines by all the people screaming "our guys have the right arithmetic and you are all a bunch of dangerous idiots".

This is true over a very wide range of public policies.

Great article, but it might be more complete with a mention of the rising acidity of the oceans and how as the ph drops, many of the shelled animals at the bottom of the ocean food chain who depend on their shells for protection will not be able to form shells (the acidity eats away at the calcium carbonate) making a whole category of the food chain susceptible to extinction.

I appreciate the optimism in this article that humans are "on the right path", but the bottom line is humans have already caused a major disruption to the biosphere via carbon emissions, and the carbon emissions are still increasing which will have an effect of ocean life, thus humans.

I'd like to see more thought going into "helping people live better lives while living in balance with nature", rather than "We can expand the human species to 20 billion - let's do it!"

>>I'd like to see more thought going into "helping people live better lives while living in balance with nature"<<

Nature is inherently unbalanced:


For instance, the biosphere has managed to royally mess itself up at least once:


(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowball_Earth#During_the_froze... for some of the effects)

Aside from semantic arguments about what "balance" means, it's true that nature is a state of constant change.

When people talk about sustainability, they're acknowledging that humans can have an impact on nature, or more to the point, on our ability to sustain our own species. It's pretty fair to say that no matter how royally we mess things up, the biosphere will probably eventually "recover"... it'll simply be drastically different.

So, given that we can be agents of change in nature, it's not unreasonable to consider not only whether we can simply survive as a species, but whether we can or should show restraint with respect to the effects we have on the rest of the natural world.

McCarthy seems to be of the opinion that efforts thus far have been not just ineffective, but actually harmful to ourselves. That is to say, we're better off allowing progress to happen naturally without "artificially" trying to mitigate it. Others would appear to disagree, or at least still consider the pursuit of sustainability, in the popular sense, worthwhile.

>>It's pretty fair to say that no matter how royally we mess things up, the biosphere will probably eventually "recover"

That's not what I've argued, please read my comment again. On the contrary, my point is that the biosphere is a very unstable system, and there are no guarantees of "recovery" from anything. It can kill itself on a whim, and has come close to doing so in the geological past. In the long run, nature is a chaotic, not a homeostatic system, and "balance with nature" is an oxymoron.

>> It can kill itself on a whim, and has come close to doing so in the geological past.

I'm not sure what you mean by "close to" killing itself. In the geologic past, life itself has survived rapid toxic oxygenation, the complete freeze-over of the planet's surface, and the complete sterilization of surface life including boiling off the world's oceans. Microbial life still survived that last one in insulated rock miles below the surface. What catastrophe are you proposing we could induce that would do worse?

>> In the long run, nature is a chaotic, not a homeostatic system, and "balance with nature" is an oxymoron.

Now I invite you to read my comment again.

I've invited you to read my comment again because I felt you were mis-representing my point. Regarding the rest,



Considering that there have been very severe extinction events in the past; that the best evidence we have for Mars indicates it sustained life in the past, and then lost it; it is special pleading to argue that life on Earth, or at least multi-cellular life, has some hypothetical property that will make it go on forever. On the contrary, the multitude of documented dangers, the suddenness and magnitude of shifts in the paleobiological record indicate that life on Earth may yet go completely extinct within a relatively short geological time span, even were all humans to commit suicide today.

I see what you are saying, but I don't agree. You are reversing the evidence in your assertions. There is no evidence that life has existed in the past on Mars. If there were, that would be fantastic, and many people believe such evidence will be forthcoming, but as of right now, there is none that is accepted in the mainstream.

As to your other point, the very fact that life on Earth has come close to extinction, and yet survived, so very many times indicates that there is an empirical (not theoretical) basis for my claim that life (in some form) tends to bounce back. The mechanism is the fact that bacterial and archael life forms live deep within insulated areas of Earth's crust and retain relatively (geologically speaking) modern genes for traits such as aerobic respiration. Survivorship bias does not imply that in some situations there are no survivors, that is a misapplication of the idea.

Now, it's certainly possible that life could be extinguished in a short geologic time span, that I don't refute. And of course, in around a billion years the sun's total radiative output will make life all but impossible on Earth's surface. But in the mean time, evidence suggests life is incredibly hardy.

I suspect, anyway, that we are talking at cross-purposes. The topic was sustainability vis a vis human activity. You rightly point out that we are not in total control, that things can go awry without our intervention. Nature is indeed a chaotic system. However, I suspect you do not disagree that we can choose to avoid certain paths that would inevitably lead to our own destruction. We probably can't avoid all of them, as we are not omniscient, but my main point is that it behooves us to think about it, and to attempt to act responsibly, not in a sense of maintaining the natural state of the world as a static equilibrium, but merely to survive as best we understand how.

There's quite a difference between an unmonitored event and shooting oneself in the foot. We're a technologically capable, conscious, foreseeing species; things having happened back when we were not are not an excuse to behave today as mere beholders, or worse, as levers of the system instability.

My comment didn't say anything about how we should behave; I was merely pointing out that nature is inherently unbalanced.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. We have some technology, we have some understanding of how our biosphere works and we have some ability to effect change in our environment. The earth is a big, complicated machine- are you confident that we can predict the long term outcome of our actions when we try to "fix" things?

rising acidity = lessening alkalinity. Let's be more precise and use more benign statements.

The Ocean Acidification scare falls directly under the types of scares this article talks about. It is unproven, untested and not subject to high levels of certainty. Talk of changing the entire ocean pH fails to cover the fact that there is no one set pH level for all the oceans as whole.

Further to that, shellfish and crustaceans are a pretty ancient life form, and have existed throughout many different levels of atmospheric co2.

All I'm saying is that the article advises a data-driven approach to these matters, and the data on the ocean decreasing pH theory is still full of a lot of 'maybe, possibly and if' disclaimers.

21901 hits since 1995 - little over 1000 hits a year. Let's see the HN effect now. [One hour later - 22797, a little way off 900 in an hour.]


Reocities link for the rebuttal linked at the bottom of the article.


He has a second counter that shows 350,000+ visits, but there's no explanation for the discrepancy.

Also would be interesting to see how HN points are correlated to page views.

A compelling article when it was written, and I think many of his potential solutions to problem have promise. But the article really suffers from not having been revised in the intervening years. For example, the view of oil is very '90s: everything will be fine until oil stops coming out of the ground, and then we'll have a crisis. But oil won't stop coming out of the ground for decades, so we have plenty of time to deal with it.

But the idea behind peak oil is that even a relatively small decline in oil can lead to drastic increases in prices, which would have devastating effects on the world economy. Peak oil isn't even addressed in McCarthy's writing, as far as I can tell.

Related is agriculture: McCarthy portrays it as an issue of water and arable land. But it's also an issue of fertilizer, and fertilizer production is dependent upon petroleum. So if we have a drastic spike in petroleum prices, that will lead to a drastic spike in fertilizer costs, which would lead to a drastic spike in food costs. See Egypt for an example of what happens when that occurs.

Finally, the Ehrlich/Simon bet. Again, compelling at the time, but the bet ended in 1990. 21 years ago. That's hardly a compelling statement on the state of the world in 2011. What would the result of that bet been had it been replayed from 2000 to 2010? From looking at this: http://minerals.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/ it looks like all 5 metals in the bet have risen in price over the last decade.

EDIT: I found one reference to peak oil on the Hydrogen page, but it's given no serious analysis.

For a more detailed analysis, see Re-litigating the Simon/Ehrlich Bet: http://paul.kedrosky.com/archives/2010/02/re-litigating_t.ht...

While it may be out of scope, it would be nice to see how he would address the increasing level of automation and its factors on classes, labor, wealth, and population.

I think Bastiat beat him to it.

I basically agree with the analysis, that technology makes human material progress potentially sustainable well beyond our current numbers.

Our biggest challenges are social and economic ones. First and foremost, is to push against the tides of conservatism on both the left and the right, which see sustainability as either a matter of "going back" or as unworthy of a goal at all.

Or, as he points, out, idealogical threats are the largest threats to humans. People blindly following idealogies and ignoring data is the most likely thing to cause large-scale deaths.

Or to put it more simply, humans are the greatest threat to humans. Always have been. When people talk about evolution, they usually use the example of running away from a lion or some such. But it's much more likely you were running away from another person.

I have read through these pages. Undoubtedly many of the things he states, particularly with respect to how long nuclear energy could supply us, are correct but only under the assumption that we don't continue to increase our usage of energy. It's hard to see how that assumption holds in a world that is continually growing its economies. Exponential functions grow very fast. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-QA2rkpBSY)

You may then counter that a decoupling of economic growth from its material and energy underpinnings is possible. This has yet to be effectively proven. We have only seen partial decoupling so far. For more information on this see the writings of Tim Jackson in his book Prosperity without Growth.

I also urge you to download this spreadsheet (from the BP website) showing the growth in usage of fossil fuels (http://tinyurl.com/2yhx7d). We may find alternatives to these but if we do, we will have to bring the alternatives online at roughly the same level to supply our societies with the energy they now require to function. This is no easy feat. It's good know, quantitatively, just what's required.

That's how web pages were back in 1991, and how they should look again in the future: just plain raw content and links, no frills and graphic fluff.


the readability of many modern pages is considerably improved over plain text.

Oh, is that so? Last I checked, people frequently install browser plugins just to turn modern pages back into single-column plain text pages.

This page is no exception, looks way better in readability than it does by default. The main issues are the 100% width and the font/size.

Sure, but the font and size are exactly what you are free to control as you please with your browser.

The readability of the page is supposed to be the responsibility of the browser, not the page.

The intent of the "founding fathers" isn't really applicable anymore.

My Readability plugin and I disagree with you.

I'd be all for a CSS-less minimal page style except for the fact that it comes with no margins and produces unreadably long lines on my browser window that's full-screen most of the time.

Yes! Some more color or graphics are okay, but just the minimal, please thank you.

I remember reading through these pages back when I learned about McCarthy, probably 10 years ago or so. I think he's a born optimist, like I'm a born pessimist. He fails to mention fresh water shortages around the world, too. And a couple of other huge pending problems of the sort. I'd like to see convincing information that we are not currently in overshoot...

In the tradition of the late Julian Simon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Simon This will make John McCarthy reviled in some fashionable circles. I wonder if he speaks with Stanford Prof. Paul Ehrlich.

Although I come from a very different economic and social perspective, I can appreciate the effort that went into this page, regardless. There seems to be some good information here, no matter if you agree completely with his perspective.

I'd also be interested to see what the people of HN think about this essay I wrote about long term energy needs:


Looks interesting. You should submit it on its own. In fact combined with The prof. Bartlett videos (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-QA2rkpBSY) it makes quite a good usage of arithmetic to counter McCarthy point of view.

all these human progress discussions imply, or bounded by, one hypothesis - there will exist only one species of humans. Is divergence of the species into 2 or more is such an unprobable event?

No, no they really aren't. There is essentially no dependence on "humans" in that discussion. "Intelligent species" can be substituted with no loss or even substantial change in meaning. The point is that an intelligent, active technological civilization is not intrinsically unsustainable. Bringing up your point would just open a distracting side discussion not terribly relevant to the author's point.

>an intelligent, active technological civilization is not intrinsically unsustainable.

that would be bad. No need to evolve in any cardinal way. Only needed changes would be minor adjustments to fit humans most comfortably into the tecnological civilization cradle. Just like dinosaurs who evolved to fit most comfortably into their Earth dominating niche ... until the meteor stroke, super vulcanos erupted , etc...

Anyway, i don't agree that technological civilization is not intrinsically unsustainable. The civilization has already established its exponential nature. Good thing about exponentially increasing speed is quickly hitting whatever natural limits are there, and that induces need for change. Yes, in many cases we naturally prognose (McCarty incl.) the response to be a new improved technology. Yet, artificially limiting human species response to a need for change only to technological type of responses seems ... artificial.

The problem with running up against the limits is that it isn't always pretty. I've heard it said that "all exponential functions are really S-curves" which in this situation would correspond to a civilisation gracefully decreasing its growth as it approached the limits.

However, other curves are possible too. Overshoot and collapse can also occur.

The S-curve scenario can only happen under the following circumstances. a) the limits are recognised by us b) they are responded to immediately with no delay.

Another scenario, called "overshoot and oscillation" occurs when: a) there is a delay in the response b) AND the the limits that we have exceeded recover quickly. i.e. the limits are no erodable.

"Overshoot and collapse" occurs when we erode some resource that does not recover quickly. Unfortunately, I can think of many resources that are very erodable. The most obvious being fossil fuels which take millions of years to replace themselves. Top-soil and biodiversity are also examples of highly erodable resources.

"that would be bad. No need to evolve in any cardinal way... until the meteor stroke, super vulcanos erupted , etc..."

Again, you bring more assertions out of thin air, this time actively contradicting the source. McCarthy explicitly mentions space colonization, though he doesn't make it a central part of his argument. Who anywhere said the only response to change would be technological? You're criticizing McCarthy for ideas that you're the one bringing up in the first place. That's not fair.

> Anyway, i don't agree that technological civilization is not intrinsically unsustainable

Objection! That sentence should be taken out back and shot.

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