… is the emergent result of humans burning fossil carbon.
This one-time burst of energy will be soon be gone.
The open question is what will also be gone.
We have used this energy with little thought, in ways that “feel good” to our brains in the short term. It has made possible the “green revolution” which spiked the human population to 7 billion on its way to 10+ billion. Most of humanity is living a more lavish life than the kings of old. And we have naively concluded that the real resource is our own cleverness.
But perhaps we have not been wise. The net energy available to do work has been increasing for two hundred years, yet now it has leveled off and will soon start a permanent decline. Future humans will have to work with natural steady-state flows of energy. But they’ll have to do it without the intact ecosystems, good soils, reliable rains, and resources of wild nature which were formerly available. The earth’s carrying capacity has been degraded.
At the same time, we are turning the oceans into an acidic home for bacterial slime, increasingly becoming devoid of high-energy food resources like pelagic fish. We are cutting down and drying up the rainforests. We are enthusiastically pursuing the earth’s sixth major planetary extinction event, with species being erased daily.
We have used up the easy-to-get energy resources and metal ores while filling landfills. Those natural endowments won’t come back. Elements like phosphorus we use to grow our food are likewise getting scarce. In order to keep humanity from crashing into dieoff, we need to expend more energy each year chasing more expensive raw materials. Yet each year there will be less net energy available, at increasingly higher cost.
This, then, is the bottleneck. A converging set of dire circumstances through which humanity, and any surviving species, must pass to reach a stable future.
What that future looks like – what knowledge, what ethic, what infrastructure, what goals and aspirations we will need to arrive there – are very important questions, not ones usually considered when responding to the needs of the day.
It’s a very different way of looking at the world. A more realistic way. And it frames the issues of planetary survival and the future in an important new way.
Getting past the bottleneck
will be the essential challenge of a livable human future.
It is also the main challenge of all other earth species. The entire course of planetary evolution will be determined by the bottleneck events set in this century.
There is no question the bottleneck will occur, even though you’ve never seen it in the news. It’s based in thermodynamic laws and the nature of the universe. Only the details are hidden from us.
We can, however, steer through the bottleneck, at least in principle. And we can steer other species through it. In principle.
The future exists as a set of probabilities. Right now, many of those future probabilities look terrible. With business as usual, we will acidify (and largely kill off) the seas this century, dissolving coral reefs, shells, plankton and calcareous skeletons. We’ll heat the planet to the point the equitorial latitudes won’t be livable for the species which live there now, including humans. The rainforests will burn. Antibiotics will become useless.
It may not seem plausible from a short-term perspective, but the intricate systems we now rely on to keep ourselves alive will cease to work at some point in the decades to come. And we’ll find out what happens when 10 billion people don’t have enough to eat or drink, and too little energy to change that fact.
If we’re not honest about what’s coming, we can’t steer through it. We’ll lose it all.
But that isn’t inevitable, it’s just probable. It’s still possible for there to be a living, healthy world – if somewhat degraded – and happy human children living decent lives in 1000 years and even 100,000 years. That possibility is currently slipping from our fingers, but it is not yet lost.
That’s what The Bottleneck Foundation is about. A human future, an earth future, that’s worth fighting for. A new set of strategies, and a new way of looking at things, to guide us to some decent version of that future… on the other side of the Bottleneck.
We won’t get through
the bottleneck doing as we have done.
The converging crises are every bit as predictable as the population rise and fall of yeast in a wine bottle. Humans are wonderful and unique, but we are thermodynamic creatures, subject to the laws of nature.
If we are to steer to a decent future for our species and its cohorts, we need to take an honest look at these laws of nature and the fundamental limits imposed by net energy and planetary carrying capacity.
And that means re-framing nearly every issue in those terms.
Our cultures today view the world and its issues with an assumption of continuity, and that things will generally get easier as time goes on. This is incorrect. Things will be getting more difficult, and the systems we rely on will become less reliable.
This means that everything from wildlife conservation to fisheries to farming; everything from health care to jobs to transportation, will face a set of challenges that pretty much nobody is now planning for.
This is the challenge of the bottleneck. We have human populations which are largely oblivious to anything but the short term, we have natural ecosystems crumbling, and we’re going to start having less net energy to deal with it every year from now on. We need to take that messed-up situation and steer it to an emergency landing somehow.
Because everything depends on it.
The Bottleneck Foundation is systems scientists, specialists, and conservation campaigners trying novel strategies to try getting a livable world past the bottleneck.