MARCH 15, 2012
“BIG HISTORY AND THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY”

 

Fred Spier, Senior Lecturer in Big History, University of Amsterdam Vice President, IBHA. Amsterdam, NL

 

Well here you see a picture that is the front cover of my recent book, in which I explain a certain model that I think is very helpful to understand all of history, known as Big History, and may also be helpful for understanding the future. If you think this is an advertisement for my book, you’re dead right, that’s what it is, but it may also help you to understand a little better, I hope at least, what has been going on. So let’s face what we find ourselves in. We find ourselves in the present, there’s no way around it, we don’t find ourselves in the past, we don’t find ourselves in the future, we are here right now, the past has gone, we don’t know anything about the future really. So if you want to say something about the future, we need to have some understanding of the past, that is exactly what all the speakers so far have been doing, everybody who said something about the future also said something about the past, and the claim I have here is that if you understand your position right here right now in the best possible way, and therefore if you are able to perhaps prepare yourself well for the future, it’s probably a good idea to have the biggest possible understanding of the  past. So that’s what I’m going to do with you in hopefully less than 25 minutes.

 

So let’s first do a little step back and think about how people reconstruct the past. Most historians do that by telling stories, by telling narratives, and that’s a very legitimate way of doing so, and I think most people on this planet like that kind of story the best. So I think that’s probably the kind of story that’s going to be around for a while, that’s my first prediction for the future. But there are also people who try to look at history in a more systematic way, there’s some kind of an underlying scheme, an underlying theory, as it were. Here you see an example, but there are many examples, and that offers some advantages. One of the advantages is that it’s pretty clear what you’re talking about, and you can analyze it more directly. You can criticize, you can come up with better ideas perhaps, which is a little more difficult if you just tell a story. So what I’m going to do is to tell you what I think is the underlying structure, the process of all of history.

 

Now, it works like this. If you look at, let’s say, the Earth as part of the cosmos, and as you can see most of the universe is pretty empty, it’s black, there’s really nothing there. There are certain structures, like the sun for example, you can see the sun here right now, but you can see it indirectly because it is illuminating the lunar surface here, and part of the Earth, there’s the sun out there somewhere. But also, suns are pretty rare, for example if you were to think of the sun as a light bulb, about this size, have you any idea where the next light bulb would be on that scale? It would be in Amsterdam, about three hours’ flying from here. So that is how empty our local galaxy is, it’s a pretty empty space. So if you think of the universe, you have to think of it as basically nothing at all, and then some structures in there, some complexities. So big history is the rise and demise of certain forms of structures of complexity on all levels, from the smallest level, that’s the level of the smallest particles, to the largest levels, clusters of galaxies and everything in between, such as the moon, this is the lunar surface, and this is the Earth. It’s a pretty complex planet, at least on its surface. So you can summarize all of history in a very simple way as the rise and demise of complexity. And then you of course ask the question: how common is that kind of complexity in the universe, the kind of complexity we see all around us here? It’s pretty rare, I can tell you, very very rare. So if we want to think about what’s going on on our  planet, you need to think about something that is very very unusual in the universe.

 

Now why is it so unusual? The reason for that is that there is something known as the second law of thermodynamics, and it tells you that everything has to become more messy, more chaotic. So for example, you see this nice cup of cappuccino, and what you see there is someone has drawn a face in there. Now that’s some form of complexity. It doesn’t emerge by itself – very very unlikely. And what will happen over time, if nobody touches it, it will disappear. That is the second law in action. So it makes one wonder, where does all this complexity come from? And the answer is you need an energy flow, an energy flow through matter to get that complexity. And it doesn’t really matter what it is, it’s the case for the smallest particles to the largest structures, and everything in between. 

 

OK, that’s what you need to get it. But you need also something to maintain it. And the answer is it all depends. If you have, let’s say, relatively simple structures like asteroids for example, swinging through the universe, you don’t really need an energy flow to keep these things going. But if you have something like our sun, then you need an energy flow to keep it going. Otherwise the thing would simply contract and collapse, as a result of gravity. In fact, this thing is a balance between the inward-directed force of gravity and the outward push of the radiation that comes as the result of nuclear fusion in the core. And it keeps the thing in a kind of steady state, dynamic equilibrium you could call it, a dynamic steady state. And the sun has, let’s say, a certain reservoir of energy, potential energy that can be converted to radiation inside, and as long as that is there, the thing keeps shining, but after, let’s say from now about five more billion years, that’s gone, and the thing will end its life. 

 

There are also forms of complexity like us, and that’s a little different. We need energy to keep going, and we don’t get it from inside, we get it from outside, we eat, we drink, we breathe, that’s how we keep our complexity going. We are very rare, we were complex, and that is what we do.

 

But the problem is if you get more complexity, that inevitability produces more of a mess too, more entropy, it’s called, to use the technical term. That is the result of the second law of thermodynamics, simply because everything overall has to become more messy. That’s the problem. So because we are more complex, we create more of a mess elsewhere. That is inevitable.

 

Now, how does that work?  Here, what we have here is let’s say the sun that provides energy for us, for the sun it’s low-quality energy, for us it’s high-quality energy when it arrives, it heats up the surface of the Earth, plants use it for photosynthesis, animals eat it, and low-level radiation is radiated back into the universe. That is kind of an entropy mess that we get rid of, and because the universe is so big, and so cold, it’s no problem, it’s a big entropy trashcan. And that’s what keeps us going. There’s also an energy flow from inside here, the geothermal energy that keeps the surface of the Earth moving with plate tectonics, so basically we have two energy systems. And that’s what keeps everything on the Earth going. 

 

Now the person who basically elaborated this idea is the US physicist Eric Chason, who is actually here, so Eric I would like you to stand up please and wave to the crowd, just to say you’re there. So basically what I have been doing so far is explaining what Eric has elaborated, I’ve got to explain it a little more. You can try to measure that, you can try to measure these energy flows through a certain amount of mass during a certain period of time. And then you can see what that looks like in the universe. This is a table from his book from 2001, and here you see that when you look at galaxies, you have to look at this figure, and you see you have a value of 0.5. Stars are higher already, planets are a lot higher. But this is the surface of the planet, it’s not the planet entirely. You see plants are a lot higher, animals and brains are even higher than that. Very very counter-intuitive, most people would think, my Gosh, the sun is shining so brightly, it must have an enormous energy output per mass. But the point is that the sun is so heavy, and therefore in the end it is less than, for example, us or our brains. Such a table – there is really a lot you can say about it, it’s a very very interesting approach that Eric has been pioneering. It makes you wonder, for example, why would we have brains, if they’re so expensive in terms of energy. There must be a pay-off somewhere, right?

 

OK, but there’s more to it than that, and that is something I am not going to sound too original with, but I have elaborated more than anyone else, I think, and it is a fact that for certain types of complexity – it’s a little complex, perhaps – you need certain circumstances. For example, we feel pretty comfortable when there’s a temperature of roughly between 20 and 30 degrees as we just saw in the earlier presentation. We would like to live on a planet with sufficient gravity, so we don’t float up into space. We would like to have an atmosphere that contains oxygen, etc. etc. So we have certain Goldilocks circumstances that are required for our existence, that’s why it is so hard to go into space, and for space travel we have to basically reconstruct all of that. 

 

This is named after a story of an adventurous little girl named Goldilocks, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that story. It’s a story about a little girl who goes into the woods, starts wandering, very adventurous, and at a certain point she gets tired, and she finds a house. A house that’s owned by the bear family, Father Bear, Mother Bear and the little bear. But they’re not at home. So she goes inside and she finds three bowls of porridge on the counter-top. One is too hot, the other one is too cold, and the third one is just right, so she eats that one. Then she sits down on the chair. One is too hard, one is too soft, and the third one is just right, so she sits down, but unfortunately the thing isn’t strong enough, so it collapses. She goes upstairs and tries out the beds. Same story, one is just right, and she falls asleep. And then the bear family comes home. Obviously then the circumstances aren’t just right anymore. I’m not going to tell you how the story ends, but what you see, and that’s the moral of the story, is that the circumstances have to be just right for certain things to happen. 

 

Now I would argue that it is a little broader than that, circumstances have to be within a certain bandwidth, certain limits, so they have been good enough, I would say, for events to happen. That’s the case for the sun, that’s the case for our planet, the case for us, basically for everything, and you can argue that what we humans have been doing is more and more constructing Goldilocks circumstances for ourselves, situations that we like, that we think are good. Just look around us, we cannot see any nature here, nothing at all. What we are seeing is Goldilocks circumstances, created by people which make it possible to hold this conference in a way that’s pretty comfortable, it’s cold outside, it’s freezing, maybe snowing, we don’t notice it at all, it’s very comfortable. And that is the result of a long, long history. 

So my claim is, and it’s a bold claim, that if you combine the energy approach with the idea of Goldilocks principles, and you trace all of history, then you get the contours of a historical theory of everything. That’s what I claim. And I’m not going to tell you what exactly that entails, all these different phases, because that would take us way too long, but it’s in my book.

 

You can go through all of history, this is a picture again from Eric Chason, where you see in one glance the whole history of the universe starting with the Big Bang, and this is the arrow of time, it goes all the way down to the present, you see all the different phases of history. And you can use that theory to explore these things, you will find that works very well. Here you see Eric and his wife Lola, actually Lola made the first drawing of that picture, and they have it on the wall of their house, they’re proud of it, I think it’s a great idea, I just wanted to show you. 

 

OK, I’m not going to trace all that history, but I’m going to quickly look at human history, and then examine what we can learn from that for understanding the future. Now if you look at human history in a nutshell, you can say that 3 million years ago, we were like this, walking the African savannahs, while now we find ourselves quite often in an urban environment. I took this picture last summer in Beijing, it could just as well be in Moscow, or any other big city. This is the kind of urban environment of Goldilocks circumstances we’ve created for ourselves, but not necessarily for others, right? And it also means that we’ve used a lot of energy to make all of that, that’s the only way to make it. And actually we’ve done this too, [photo of moon landing] some time ago, 40 years ago, a little more than that. That also required a lot of energy, to get the complexity going, to keep it going, to create all the Goldilocks circumstances that made it possible.

Now, how did that happen? How can you summarize human history in a nutshell? I think you can do it in the form of process, in the form of energy transitions, all very familiar I think. But if you think of it in terms of these energy flows that can help to create complexity and Goldilocks circumstances, you may see a pattern that you might not have seen before. Now the first, let’s say, process is tool-making. People started to make tools, and used them to make other things. A very important transition which probably contributed to becoming a smarter animal, because it was a kind of a feedback cycle that started with those animals who could do better making tools, making things, got better brains. 

 

A similar thing happened with the domestication of fire. People started to use fire not only for burning whole landscapes, also for cooking food, and as a result you could eat a lot more, defending yourself against animals, attacking animals, attacking people. Lots of things became possible, people started using it, and you can actually argue that without the fire revolution we wouldn’t be here the way we are right now, everything we’re doing, including this powerpoint presentation, is a byproduct of fire, there’s a fire burning somewhere that keeps us all going. 

 

Agriculture – the next revolution, about 10,000 years ago. People starting to make sure that all the sunlight captured by plants and eaten by animals is actually harvested by us, and is no longer wasted from a human perspective,  but that we actually harvest it. So you basically harvest a lot more energy from a certain amount of land, that’s what you do. And then at a certain point, and that’s the result of the agricultural revolution, people start harvesting energy from each other. That’s what we’re doing. I get my money from a bank account, I don’t get it from a plot of land. And that’s probably the case for most of you too. That creates a whole new set of interdependencies which have all kinds of political consequences, that I don’t want to talk about right now, but of course all these aspects can be elaborated in many ways.

 

Then at a certain point, about 500 years ago, people started harvesting and reorganizing the whole world. Especially because of people transferring plants and animals from one place in the world to the other, they reorganized entire ecologies. This is a process that hasn’t stopped yet, but which has enormously influenced the world.  And then of course the process of industrialization, people start using fossil fuels, powering machines, making all these forms of complexity that we are now familiar with, all these Goldilocks circumstances. Without fossils fuels, without that sort of piggy bank of solar energy on the planet, that would not have been possible. And now we are basically adding information technology to industrial production, and using it for connecting ourselves to machines, connecting ourselves to each other on a global scale, creating global brains or what have you, and that is what this conference is focusing on, or so it seems to me. It’s a very recent process, so you see this process of acceleration going on here, as described before. And it all led to more complexity, created with more energy, and more Goldilocks circumstances. Not necessarily for everybody, but certainly for the ones who created it. 

 

So in sum, basically what the situation is is that humans need energy for producing, and maintaining artificial complexity, but this also creates a mess, more of a mess in the form of material waste and low-level heat. And until recently, we’ve been relying on all these natural cycles that have developed over billions of years on the Earth to get rid of that, and on the universe to irradiate our low-level heat. But given what we are doing, all the materials we are producing, just the sheer amount of materials that we are producing, we can no longer rely on these natural cycles. We have to do something else. 

 

OK, now we are ready to look at the future. So, what about the future? Well, if you think that it is important to understand that we need energy to create complexity and all these Goldilocks circumstances, then we would like to know how much energy do we have left. And here are a few figures. I am sure that they can be discussed, they’re not certain, it may be more, it may perhaps be less in some cases, they’re rough estimates. Let’s take oil, 100 years, coal, 100 years, perhaps 200 years. Natural gas, a little longer. Uranium needs several decades, it depends on how much we’re going to use it, and after Fukushima, that may be different again. That’s not a long time, it’s actually a very short period of time, so that makes one wonder, what do we have left? Nuclear fusion, we don’t know. Doubtful, I think. Because 40 years ago, they said, yes, in 40 years’ time, we’ll have nuclear fusion. That’s exactly what they’re saying today. Now 40 years is about the period of useful activity that a scientist can expect in his life, so basically what you’re looking at is the life cycle of a nuclear fusion researcher, I think.

 

So what you’re basically looking at is what has been emphasized here already, that there’s basically solar energy. And then you would like to know, where is that solar energy. It is of course closest to the Equator. You would want to do that in places where there’s not a lot else left. Mostly deserts, that’s the best place you could think of. So you can calculate how much you would need to service, let’s say, all our energy needs, and you come up with doable quantities. However, there are lots of problems associated with this, that technicians don’t always consider sufficiently. First of all, in deserts you can have pretty severe dust storms. If one dust storm covers all your solar cells, it’s a major effort to clean them up again. How are we going to do that? But more importantly, I think, who is going to own these cells? Who is going to make a profit out of it? What are people going to do with these profits? This is not just for a few years, perhaps a few decades, it is going to be for the foreseeable future. So that means a transformation of, let’s say, the power structure. The person who is going to control this is going to be very wealthy, and is going to have a lot of influence. 

 

Another aspect is that if you just put in, let’s say, three areas – well, that’s pretty vulnerable. You’d just need three nuclear bombs, and you’d get rid of the entire energy system. So I would argue that it would be better to decentralize it a little, but that makes it more expensive again. And it is an expensive source, because it’s much more extensive, it’s not as concentrated as fossil fuels. And it has been argued that, yes, the price of solar cells is going down – yes, it is going down. But they are made with the aid of fossil fuels. Not with solar energy. So you have to calculate the price of solar energy terms. And then you will see that these things are pretty expensive still. So we have a major challenge at hand, and I think that that is what we have to prepare ourselves for. 

 

So in sum, I think that what awaits us around 2045 is a pretty decreasing, let’s say, supply of oil, because that is probably going to run out first, and then an attempt at transition. When there are more people on the Earth that need more energy, we will try to make the transition to this kind of energy production. But it will not be easy, not as easy as has been suggested, I think.

 

So if you look at it in sum, then we will need energy for maintaining our complexity, right, all these things that we like, all these things that we want to do. But also we need it for combatting the mess that we make as a result, the entropy that we make. But if we install artificial recycling, then there is another layer of complexity, we will also again generate more entropy, more mess, it’s inevitable. So we find ourselves in a bit of a difficult situation, when whatever we do we will create more entropy on the planet. 

 

So is there a way out? So what can we do? I think that what we need to think of, and I think that this should be our general principle, is that we think of trying to minimize our material entropy, our material mess, and produce as much low-level heat as possible, because we can get rid of that in the universe. That’s easy, the universe is big enough, it’s a big trashcan. So I think this should be a general strategy for everything we are doing in the future.  In the present, of course, but for the future. 

 

Well, that is more or less what is in my book, so this is what I wanted to tell you, so thank you very much for your kind attention. Spasibo. 


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