Collapse and Continuity

SUBHEAD: Prunings of the Tree of Life, were essential to us: each cleared the field for new diversifications.

 By Robin Datta on 23 June 2011 for Nature Bats Last -  

\Image above: Onset of mass extinction event that destroyed the dinosaurs. From (
This is an attempt to address collapse in its greater temporal context.

Collapse is a regression that is perceived by the observer as a change of a large magnitude over a short period of time. This regression is in a direction towards the status quo ante. However, there can be many irreversible changes during the time interval measured from the status quo ante: in such cases collapse cannot produce an exact reversal to that prior state. Such regression is caused by the progressive and cumulative failures of essential components of a system, through their destruction, lack of maintenance, and/or lack of sustenance.

Collapse can occur in static systems as in the controlled demolition of a building, when the supporting structural elements are removed. In a dynamic system, such as a star, collapse occurs when the supporting forces, energy — generated through nuclear fusion — radiating outwards declines as the nuclear fuel is depleted: gravity is then unopposed.

A human society collapses when there is a progressive shortfall in meeting its needs. The most critical of these, as recognized by Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are the physiologic needs. Respiration is of such immediacy that it is usually considered a given. The other physiologic needs are hydration, nutrition, and homeothermy (the maintenance of body temperature, through clothing and shelter). While community and its corollaries including security are essential in a larger frame of reference, they presume the adequate sustenance of the physiologic needs.

Meeting the needs requires the provision of items of daily use including potable water, food, clothing, shelter, etc. All of these are ultimately derived from Nature: sunlight, arable land, flora and fauna, wind, water resources, energy sources, etc. and these constitute the primary economy.

Conversion of items from the primary economy into usable items in the secondary economy is by the direction of streams of energy with appropriate skills (= services). Some items in the secondary economy represent very large amounts of embedded energy, as in buildings, bridges and other infrastructure.

To facilitate the exchange and transfer items of the primary and secondary economies, symbolic representations of value are used. These can be cowrie shells, wampum, disks of base or precious metals (coins), printed paper issued by an authority wielding force (government issued paper money) or even magnetized particles or a hard drive. The symbols can be represented by other symbols, such as collateralized debt obligations, certificates of deposit, and other derivatives, and even derivatives of derivatives.

A dollar or a dime is the promise of the state (not the cashier at Wal-Mart) to make good the value it represents in items of the primary or secondary economies when the cash is tendered. This promise is redeemed by making the symbols “legal tender”: coercion, through the threat of force, to accept it as the medium of exchange.

The tertiary economy can be expanded by producing more symbols and derivatives, all of them promising to make good at some future date, their purported value, in items of the primary and secondary economy. Larger numbers and longer times to redemption make for “fiat growth” in the tertiary economy even when the primary and secondary economies may be contracting.

The critical factor in the industrial society that distinguishes it from prior societies is the ability to entrain massive amounts of energy. Harnessing sunlight by cultivation of plants and animals gave agricultural and pastoral societies an advantage over the prior hunter-gatherer paradigm. This exosomatic (originating outside the body) energy was far greater than the hunter-gatherers could command. It was increased further by many orders of magnitude when fossil fuels were harnessed. The endosomatic energy (originating inside the body) could be used to control exosomatic energy streams very many orders of magnitude greater.

Both agricultural and industrial exploitation of energy had limitations: arable lands and fossil fuels. But while arable lands may decline, appropriate practices can minimize this or even prevent it altogether. And depleted lands can be restored by careful management within decades — a human lifetime. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, take hundreds of millions of years to generate, and no such options are available to replenish them as their extraction proceeds apace.

Increased energy availability translates into increased availability of food: increased substrate in biological systems fosters growth and replication, In human terms this translates into increased populations. Populations increase pari passu with energy availability. Current human populations are sustained with significant undernutrition and starvation by the fossil fuel extravaganza. Depleting fossil fuels will result in depleting populations if energy availability declines with the fossil fuels: and as yet no alternate energy sources fill the bill, either in scalability or in energy return on energy invested.

Sustainability implies the continued fulfillment of the needs that maintain a system. In agriculture this can be approached by recycling the plant and animal (including human) waste/products back to the soil via composting. Fossil fuels however, cannot be recycled. Matter can and should be recycled.

Energy is a one-way street. The Three Laws of Thermodynamics (pertaining to energy) can be roughly summed up as:
1. Nothing is lost. 2. Everything turns to trash. 3. You cannot stop it or clean it up.

The Second Law reflects the direction of energy flows, from concentrated (low entropy) to dilute (high entropy). This implies the heat death of the universe, when the energy is evenly distributed throughout and puts a limit to sustainability. Sustainability comes with its time scale: when the scale is not mentioned, it is understood that it is so large that in is being excluded from consideration.

Marion King Hubbert’s time scale for petroleum depletion was derided and ignored until the reality loomed large. Then of course, every possible ploy was used to rebut and/or deny that prognostication, with little effect or mitigating the reality. Rather, they stalled any useful measures towards mitigation while the windows of opportunity were still open. With declining energy availability, any substantial adaptive changes to infrastructure are moot. The option to minimize trauma in this regression has been discarded.

Yet this tsunami is a wave, albeit of different magnitude and consequence. It is the first one in recorded history to affect humanity, but not the first bottleneck: it is estimated that at one time there were as few as six hundred breeding pairs of humans. There is less genetic diversity in all the nearly seven billion humans today than in a band of chimpanzees in the 3% of the DNA in which we differ from them. Our closest relative, the Neanderthals (now extinct for 32,000 years) had survived for 400,000 years — twice as long as we have.

Now, however, a substantial part of the carbon sequestered in fossil fuels through a combination of biologic and geologic processes over hundreds of millions of years is being released in hundreds of years by another of nature’s creations, another oscillation (or perhaps wild gyration) in the larger scheme of things as billions of individual human stories unfold in the denouement. The associated environmental impacts including pollution have engineered the sixth great extinction.

Extinctions, however, have been followed by luxuriant radiations, a diversification of the survivors, often from a very narrow origin. The derived branches carry traits marking their ancestral kinships. Prominent examples include the three pairs of legs in insects, the seven cervical (neck) vertebrae in mammals, and the bony configuration common to both the lobe-finned (sarcopterygian) fish and the four-limbed vertebrates (Tetrapoda — although some, including snakes and whales/dolphins have lost their limbs).

Yet the range of diversity in insects and mammals calls no attention to the limitations imposed by the three pairs of legs or the seven cervical vertebrae: the loss of biodiversity through repeated prunings is masked by the regrowth. Similar diversification could be hoped for after this sixth (and greatest) extinction.

These prunings of the Tree of Life, however, were essential to us: each of them cleared the field for new radiations and diversifications that were cumulative from pruning to pruning and made Homo sapiens possible. The pruning of dinosaurs made room for mammals — and for primates (monkeys, apes and humans). We owe our existence to (among other things) the prior great extinctions.

The time scale to any future radiation and diversification might be estimated by looking backwards at the last great extinction, the one that retired the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Taken in the perspective of our genus — Homo — 2,000,000 years old, our species — sapiens – 200,000 years old, agriculture 12,500 years, written language 3,000 years, the recovery from the present extinction is far outside any human cultural context. Indeed, it could well be up for debate whether or not Homo sapiens would be extant on that time scale as the species we know today — even under the best of circumstances.

The replenishment of fossil fuels would involve a time scale of several hundreds of millions of years, combined with some very fortuitous circumstances, both geologic and biologic acting in concert. Barring some near-miraculous technology, another industrial age for Homo sapiens is not in the cards. Should another intelligent species appear in that time period, the biological drives may leave it susceptible to overshoot and dieback if presented the opportunity for unconstrained growth. Overcoming these drives may require a preponderance of wisdom to guide decisions and actions.

It has been suggested well before the fossil fuel depletion era that the absence of evidence for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe may reflect similar drives leading any and all intelligent beings to overshoot and dieback – and possibly extinction.

But even on a smaller scale, the transition through the current collapse and its bottleneck may bode better for those endowed with a measure of wisdom.

• Robin Datta was born in Quetta, Pakistan in 1949. His father was one of three Hindu officers in the Pakistan Army, and a veteran of the Burma campaign of WW2 (Regimental Medical Officer). Robin attended nine different schools as his father was posted to different places. His mother was also an officer in the Nurse Corps of the British Indian Army in WW2. Mother’s native language Telegu, fatrer’s Bengali; common language English (British Raj for two centuries). Spoke English as first language, but had to unlearn it rapidly in NY. Also speaks Urdu, the lingus franca in those parts, natively.
Datta graduated with a medical degree from Bangladesh in 1972, and learned Bengali in the process. He learned history from the locals in order to graduate, and moved to New York in 1973. He served in the Army two years (one in Korea, and half a year in Desert Storm). Served three years in the Navy. Flight Surgeon in both branches of service.

Datta completed Family Practice Residency in Louisville, Kentucky, and passed board exams both in Family Practice and Emergency Medicine. He worked in Emergency Medicine 1983 to 2009 in Kentucky and California (San Jose, Hollister, Fresno). He is single (never married) and retired with no dependents.

Datta is not sure what to do next. Whatever it is, it must include the imminent collapse. He is open to any possibilities and suggestions.


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