Beta Culture: ‘Yeah, We’re Fucked.’ Now What?

Big Boy 1I’ll tell you about one of my sort-of-hidden motivations behind my thoughts about the necessity of Beta Culture.

I’ve told this anecdote at least once here, but I’ll repeat it: I was in New York City a few years back, specifically to meet PZ Myers at a Seed Magazine event, and I got to meet a climatologist at the same time. Drink in hand, and jokingly, one of the first things I said was “Tell me the truth. Are we fucked?” Dead seriously, he replied “Yeah. We’re fucked.”

Some years before that, I had this revelation about how to think about the future. The thing was, I could SEE certain things that were going to happen, but I lived my life on automatic, as if only NOW was the important bit. The revelation was that I should live as if that future, the stuff coming down the pipeline as sure as graduation looms for a hard-partying high school senior, was a real thing.

No, I’m not saying any of us, including me, can predict the future.  But we can look at the trends around us, and follow them out to some fairly-certain end point. The problem we have is that when that fairly-certain end point looks bad, we flip over into an instant optimism that roadblocks us from following through to preparative action. For instance:

1. No, the oil can never run out!
2. Okay, maybe it will run out, but it will take a long, long time.
3. Sure, the oil’s gonna run out, but hey, somebody will invent something!

The end of petroleum as a viable widespread energy source? Yep, gonna happen. Already happening. But SOLAR, right? Sure, except for all the things petroleum is used for that has nothing to do with energy. Plastics, for instance. Asphalt for roads – a shitload of roads, roads that have to be repaired and repaved constantly.

But we’ll find workarounds, rights? Yes, probably, but they’ll cost more, in energy, in funding, in the direct drain on your own personal wallet. Everything about life will be a little bit – or a lot – harder.

The cool thing about oil is that it has been so cheap.  The other cool thing — which flips over into being a huge disadvantage if there’s no oil to feed into it — is that we have a massive civilization-wide infrastructure built with petroleum (and coal, the other fossil fuel) in mind.

The point is, have any of us ever considered the one more option?

4. The oil is running out. It really will run out. There’s nothing that can take its place, so things are going to get really, really bad.

That instantly offends something in you, doesn’t it? Why would anybody say such a negative thing? And why bother to think about it? Because Intelligence! Because Inventiveness! Because the Soaring Unbeatable Human Spirit! Because the Good Old American Can-Do Attitude! Right?

Switching back from talking about oil and onto the more general subject of civilization-wide problems: What do we do if the solutions don’t work, or actually make things worse? What do we do if we wait until the last minute to try to solve the problem, so that panic is the most widespread reactions?

Here’s David Suzuki talking about that INEVITABLE last minute:

We optimism-addicts refuse to really grapple with Suzuki’s idea. Instead, we gaze out at the world and think only about all the technological wonders in store.

But how about this? NASA Study Concludes When Civilization Will End, And It’s Not Looking Good for Us.

According to a new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, we only have a few decades left before everything we know and hold dear collapses.

Or this?  Superbugs Could Kill 10 Million Each Year By 2050.

Back in 2000, I had this idea for a book, The Next 30 Years, and half of it was going to be about coming technological and social goodies, the positive progress that might be made. The other half was going to be about certain challenges to be faced, the not-so-good stuff that, extrapolating from ongoing trends, was very likely going to happen. Some part of it would be about, well … not the End Of The World, but a definite crash that would pretty much wreck civilization.

I didn’t write it. One reason was time and energy, but another was that I couldn’t bear to think about certain bits I’d be writing about. Book or no book, though, nothing I was thinking about back then has changed except we’re coming up on halfway through that 30 year period.

So. What’s my solution?

I don’t have one. Or rather, I think there isn’t one. I think we’re fucked, seriously. Civilization is due to suffer catastrophic failure, in 15 years or less, by my guesstimate. I actually think I’ve seen signs of it since the 1970s, which means it’s already in progress, and the “catastrophe” is only the phase at which it will become undeniable to everybody. Given the already-obvious limits to resources, which will sharply worsen when the panic hits, most of us — most of the people you know — won’t survive.

But I do have this idea that there’s a certain number of sane, rational people who might be convinced to work together to get through it and create a saner civilization on the other side of it.

It’s a completely bombastic idea, I admit. But … why not? And who else is doing anything that will include US?

  • Dorothy Grasett

    It’s so. And I have nothing to add. No optimism any more. If I am really lucky, which I may have been all my life, because I lived through a great deal of stuff, I will die before the ultimate catastrophe. Or worse, I might live through this, too.

    • Judy Thompson

      interesting that this comes at what is commonly thought of as the end of the “”Christian Era” in which an entire civilization collapses in on itself and heralds the beginning of a new Dark Age. Not unlike the collapse of Rome, or Egypt, or any other massive culture.
      And it will start over. New religion, to replace the hundreds spawning nearly daily, new culture, the people with good survival skills, and luck, and timing, will survive.
      I think this lecture by David Suzuki is part of the process, as is the decline in art, in culture, education, everything.
      Dorothy, come sit by me on the bench here, I dont expect to be around either, but it saddens me to think there will possibly be nothing left of what we worked so hard to preserve. I guess, just keep on keeping on. I dont want to be one of those end of the world people who has to come down off the mountain in the morning and beg for her house back…

      Always, with a grain of salt and some hope.

  • Pofarmer

    Now, cmon, apocalyptic bullshit has been around since, well, forever.

    • Hank Fox

      Heh. Yeah, at last, the Dream of the Ages made real!

      But seriously, we have a long list of regional civilizations or cultures that have failed. The fact that THIS one is world-spanning doesn’t necessarily exempt it. We never did make that great leap into space, and the population here on Earth is still rising.

      • MNb

        Which is the core of the problem. Exterminate 90% of mankind and things don’t look as gloomy anymore. But I’m not going be the one who decides who may survive and who not. Are you?
        So yeah, we’re fucked.

  • Pofarmer

    O.k. Now, on another note. Modern agriculture and our food system is massively dependent on fossil fuel energy. And ya know what? If we have to go back to draft animals it will be worse, yes worse, because a signifigant amout of land resources would now be feeding animals. I would like to think we could prioritize appropriately where energy goes, but I’m not betting on it. M

  • Roger Lambert

    “But we’ll find workarounds, rights? Yes, probably, but they’ll cost
    more, in energy, in funding, in the direct drain on your own personal
    wallet. Everything about life will be a little bit – or a lot – harder.”

    I believe this to be absolutely incorrect.

    Renewables will be cheaper than fossil fuels. The best evidence right now, about how much renewable energy we need and how much it will cost is by a team of Stanford professors – Jacobson and DeLucci. They say the cost to power California completely by renewables is $1.0 trillion dollars. I’m guessing multiply that by 6 for the rest of the U.S. Now, let’s round up to $10 trillion so we can buy a new smart grid, retrofit our homes and businesses with electric utilities. Maybe even put a new Nissan Leaf in every driveway.

    Does $10T sound like a shitload of money? It’s peanuts. We ALREADY spend $1.5T on fossil fuels (2011 figure) every single year. Suppose we start building the renewable infrastructure we all know we need. We put it on the Federal tab and commit to pay it off with taxes over, say, thirty years. And let’s say that since we, the public, own all this new infrastructure, we should get the resulting electricity for free. After all – there are *no fuel costs* for sun, wind, tide.

    What better way to discourage fossil fuel use than to offer clean power for free? We don’t need a carbon tax or oil industry regulations. We just make them obsolete.

    Right now, that $1.5T we spend on fossil fuels comes out to more than $3000.00 per year for single person in every single household. All that money will stay in our pockets once the new system is up. That’s about ten grand a year for every family in the country year after year – new spending money burning a hole in our pockets.

    Right now, it looks like the solar PV technology we already have, will likely have an eighty-year useful lifespan. Do the math – a new Federal renewable energy utility system would be the best ROI the world has ever seen. And we would be swimming in free power.

    Drive all you want in your electric car. Take three-hour long showers if you want. Keep your home at 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Renewables do NOT mean a decrease in our standard of living – they will make it better. And it will cost trillions of dollars less than if we keep paying through the nose for fossil fuels.

    • Tobias 27772

      Let’s say that I accept your premises and conjectures. What set of circumstances do you envision that will impel the powerful oil companies to step aside and cede that power to non-profit renewables. And what will impel ,this government or this society to have the vision to make a 10 trillion dollar investment in our future.
      Boy, I wish it were so.

      • evodevo

        No kidding – all you have to do is look at the new Congress to figure out that isn’t going to happen. They will try with all their might to take us back to The Gilded Age – wherein most of us will be the starving proletariat. I think Soylent Green was prophetic.

    • “Suppose we start building the renewable infrastructure we all know we need. …and commit to pay it off with taxes….”

      You do know the rising right wing is going completely the opposite direction, yeah? In Arizona they are now taxing solar power; think about that for a minute.

  • R Vogel

    Jeremy Grantham, noted investor and founder of the firm GMO, has been harping on this subject for a number of years. In April 2011 he published a paper ‘Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever’ (a tolerable reproduction of which can be found here: His follow up piece, Resource Limitations 2 has a wonderful diagram in Appendix 2 that explains why will will likely not address these issues until it is too late. ( Kind of depressing, but the one bright spot is that globally that growth of human population has been decelerating and may turn negative in the next decade or so.

  • Yonah

    So. Who is the “We” in “We’re fucked”?

    I have found your youtube lecture. I found your graphic in that lecture helpful in trying to understand where you are coming from. You say “No” to Government, Business, and the Church…and then call for a fourth road aka “Beta Culture” which “you” do not yet have.

    Who is your “We”?

    • Hank Fox

      The “we” in “we’re fucked” is everybody.

      The “we” in the creation of Beta Culture is whoever steps forward to do it.

      • Yonah

        So, Government, Business & Church are part of “everybody”….so that “we” is not a “we” of community, but simply of species? Hardly seems worth a “we”. I suppose one might consider that Government & Business would mind being fucked. But, as to the Church, the Cross is part of its strategem. Bring it.

  • Firsly thanks for the amazing topic. It’s so. And I have nothing to add. No optimism any more. If I am really lucky, which I may have been all my life, because I lived through a great deal of stuff, I will die before the ultimate catastrophe. Or worse, I might live through this, too.