Tren-Maya

Transportation continues to avail our civilization. Our roads and railway lines make almost any place on Earth readily accessible. With this transportation network, we efficiently move people and material. And we continually add more. For example, Mexico is building the Tren-Maya railway line. This +1500km rail extension will soon open the Yucatan peninsula to modern conveniences.

Yet transportation networks are costly. They are expensive in terms of both money and energy to build, to maintain and to operate. Equally, their construction usually replaces the native flora that naturally captures and stores the Sun’s energy. Thus, they represent a strong energy imbalance.

No one expects the Tren-Maya railway line to become an historical footnote like the Mayan temples, the line’s namesake. Yet, as with most constructs of our civilization, we will only use this line when profitable and abandon it when not. And its remains will be a continual energy imbalance as nature restores the flora’s natural energy capture. Given this perspective of our transportation network, what does this foretell about civilization’s future?

Steam Train
Photo by M. Rehemtulla / QUOI Media Group

Choices

Imagine sitting down at a banquet. You are famished. As you eat, others keep joining you at the table to eat as well. There’s pleasant background music. The food is totally tasty. Life is grand.

For awhile, as you eat, you see that servers regularly replace empty trays. But as you eat and new comers join you at the table, you see bare spots appear on the table. Also, you hear servers gossip about the kitchen running out of supplies and that some of its appliances are failing.

Also, weirdly, the longer you sit and eat, the hungrier you feel. Actually you see that everyone at the table seems to be eating more and eating faster. You soon appreciate that with more people coming and with the supply failure then the banquet will not suffice.

What do you do? Do you go find another banquet house? Do you reduce your consumption? Do you stop eating and remedy the supply shortfall? Do you try to convince everyone to reduce theirs as well? Or do you ignore the information and just continue eating?

Using this as an analogy to our situation on Earth then do you see the value of a social contract for humans together with the other life forms that share Earth?

Feedback

When we feel hungry, we eat assuming there is food at hand. When we’re full then we stop eating. This represents feedback at the biological level.

There is also feedback at the technological level. For example, we experience easier lives by using semi-autonomous powered assistants such as vehicles. As we desire more ease, we want more assistance. However, we have no feedback saying we’ve got enough assistance. Rather, with easily available financial credit, there is no feedback to limit our access to technology-based powered assistants.

Nevertheless, the use of powered assistants comes with its own feedback mechanism. Principally, as over 85% of mechanical power comes from a carbon base, the use of powered assistants results in airborne pollution. This leads to an increase in the Earth’s global temperature which results in the melting of the polar ice caps and desertification of many regions. This is a very strong environmental feedback to our use of technology-based assistants.

If we ignore the feedback and continue to eat though full, then we suffer health consequences. If we continue to use powered assistants and ignore the environmental feedback are we ready to accept the consequences?

Human impact via machine tools
Machine tools

Housing Starts

Human numbers are exponentially increasing. Our impact on the world shows the effect as buildings and roads replace trees and glades. “Housing starts” is an excellent indicator of our impact. This indicator quantifies the number of new homes being built. While more houses entail more jobs for construction workers and manufacturers, each new one means less for nature.

Houses are artificial, miniature worlds. We install in them automatic climate control, robust security and on-demand entertainment. While its windows allow us to view the natural world, we purposefully build houses to prevent the natural world from entering. And sometimes, such as during a pandemic, we purposefully don’t even exit our house. As if the natural world was no longer relevant to us in our homes.

Each year well over 20 million houses are started. Each house replaces the natural land cover. Each house requires large amounts of energy during its construction and its operation. Each house needs replacing, usually in 50 to 100 years. With world population growing to well over 10 billion can we afford to keep starting houses? At what cost will we maintain all these houses?

Foundations

People make stuff. A lot of it. By one account, we’ve made more stuff than there is stuff in nature. Let’s assume this is true; it probably is. What stuff have we made? Well, we made roads, buildings, machines and such. What has nature made? Through evolution, nature has trees, elephants and amoeba. Our stuff, for the most part, needs humans to maintain it and to get value from it. Nature on the other hand has effectively created autonomous beings that fend for themselves.

Where is the future leading? The trends indicate that the quantity of human stuff continues to increase by about 30Gt per year. All this stuff needs human effort to maintain usefulness. In contrast, the amount of natural stuff has remained somewhat the same for a very long time. Exceptions are for global catastrophes such as asteroid strikes, massive volcanic eruptions and climate change. However as Homo sapiens take over, we replace nature with human stuff. Thus, the future necessitates increasing human effort, energy, to sustain stuff.

Nature continued over billions of years. Changes occurred such as the extinction of dinosaurs and the expansion of mammals. Will the future see the same for human stuff? Will it remain useful after global catastrophes? And will people leave enough natural stuff to sustain the future?

Foundation
Foundation