Peak Oil is You

Donate Bitcoins ;-) or Paypal :-)

Page added on May 23, 2015

Bookmark and Share

The future of humankind after the great crash: extinction or the human hive?

The future of humankind after the great crash: extinction or the human hive? thumbnail

Hellstrom’s Hive,” written by Frank Herbert in 1973, is one of the few sound explorations of how an “eusocial” human society could be patterned on the lifestyle of social insects, such as bees and ants. Could this be what the remote future has in store for humankind? It is impossible to say but I, for one, welcome our new hive overlords.

I have no doubt that we are heading at full speed toward a major ecosystem crash. We are wrecking the climate, destroying the biosphere, poisoning the seas, dispersing heavy metals all over, creating radioactive isotopes that had never existed in the four billion years of the Earth’s history. Whatever is going to happen, it will not be a pretty sight for those who will be alive to see it.

But does the upcoming crash mean the end of the human species? That can’t be excluded and the concept of “Near Term Extinction” (NTE) even became rather popular, nowadays (*). But the problem with human extinction is not so much how likely it is. The problem is that it is boring. We go extinct and that’s it; end of the story. We may even wreck the ecosystem so badly that we would sterilize the whole planet, having everything else dying with us. Even more boring, isn’t it?

Yet, the future remains a fascinating subject and the remote (or “deep”) future is the most fascinating one. So, suppose that not everybody dies in the great crash; what future is in store for homo sapiens? (**).

As a first hypothesis, the great crash might not be so great, after all. Maybe it could be just a bump along the way; more or less like the Middle Ages were for Europe. So, humans could emerge into the after-crash future still as a few billion strong and still having most of the technologies we have today. They could have energy from renewables, enough to keep going in the form of an industrial society.  But this would imply a capacity of long range planning that we just don’t seem to have.

More likely, humans would emerge out of the great transition as few, battered, and poor. They would find themselves stranded on a planet badly depleted of the energy and mineral resources they had before the crash. Then, what could happen to them?

Much depends on what the after-crash climate will be. After the great warming “pulse” generated by fossil carbon burning, the Earth will stay very warm for a long period – at least some thousands of years. Gradually, it will cool down as the atmospheric carbon dioxide created by the industrial revolution will be gradually – very gradually – re-absorbed into the Earth’s crust. It may well take a hundred thousand years to return to the pre-industrial CO2 concentrations. Only at that point we may see again the climate conditions which were typical of an Earth unperturbed by human activities; perhaps with the series of ice ages that characterized the “Pleistocene,” the epoch preceded the more stable Holocene – in which we are still living.

So, we can say that our after-crash descendants (if any) will live in a warm, possibly extremely warm, climate. But the Earth is big, so it would be possible for them to find areas cool enough that they could survive, perhaps in the far north or even in Antarctica. On the whole, we can expect that, after the great crash, humankind could face several tens of thousands of years of survivable conditions, perhaps even a few hundreds of thousands of years.

A lot of things can happen in several tens of thousands of years, but we can be reasonably sure of one: humans will not see another industrial revolution. Fossil fuels will be gone and it will take millions of years, for the ecosystem to create them again – maybe they will never be recreated. Then, the after-crash world will also be badly depleted in mineral resources. Our descendants won’t be able to mine much, but they will be able to scavenge what their predecessors had left in the ruins of their cities. They will have plenty of iron from the skeletons of old bridges and buildings; perhaps they’ll be able to put their hands on some ancient vault filled with gold ingots. But they will lack the abundance of rare metals that we are used to and an even more serious limit will be the vegetable charcoal they will need in order to process the metals they scavenge. For them, most metals will always be rare and expensive.

So, we can imagine that future humans will have to settle back to simple ways of living. Perhaps they will have to revert to hunting and gathering, but they may also be able to cultivate the land, even though we can’t be sure that this future climate will be stable enough for that. Whatever the case, it will be a low-tech world.

It doesn’t look very much like an exciting future. Hunting and gathering by hominids has been going on for millions of years, always more or less the same. And agricultural societies are static, hierarchical, oppressive, and have been described as “peasants ruled by brigands.” (attributed to Alfred Duggan). Is this what we should expect for the next 100,000 years? Just new peasants ruled by new brigands? Not necessarily.

The fact is that humans can evolve. And they can evolve fast, substantially changing even in a few thousand years. The recent results of genomic research opened up a Pandora’s box of discoveries. Our ancestors did evolve, oh, yes, they did!. The idea that we are still the same guys who hunted wooly mammoths during the ice age badly needs an update. We are similar to them, but not the same; not at all.

A lot of things happened to humans during the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and pastoralists. We lost a good 3-4% of the cranial capacity, many of us became able to digest milk, we developed resistance to many diseases and the capability to live on a diet that was very different and much poorer than that of hunters and gatherers. These changes were genetic, resulting from the need of adapting to a different lifestyle and to a more complex society.

So, if humans can survive the great crash and keep going for more millennia – perhaps many more millennia – there is plenty of time for more and deeper changes. Actually, humans are going to change a lot over such a long time span. How will they change? Of course, it is a difficult question, but we can at least identify some trends. In particular, we can imagine that some present tendencies that today we tend to see as mainly cultural, may eventually become enshrined in the human genome.

Something that might happen is that humankind could speciate. That is, they could gradually branch out into two or more separate species. We have already seen a considerable divergent specialization among at least three different human groups: hunters/gatherers, shepherds, and farmers. Each of these three branches exploits different ecological/economic niches and has developed cultural (in  part also genetic) adaptations to different lifestyles. Extrapolate this trend into the far future and you have two (or even three) species of hominids; repeating the situation that was common long ago, when different hominids co-existed at the same time. Neandertals and Sapiens, indeed, lived in overlapping times but they were different species and they had limited (although non zero) capabilities of interbreeding with each other.

If the future will see more than one species of “homo”, then each one will independently specialize and adapt to their environment. Hunters/gatherers will probably revert to the already optimized tool makers of the Pleistocene. Shepherds will become more and more adapted to their nomadic lives in areas which are poorly productive for agriculture. Farmers will keep living in villages and cities at high population densities. They will build cities, temples, and palaces. They will create armies, fight against each other, and build up kingdoms and empires. And it is there that things have a chance of getting more interesting.

The past genetic and cultural evolution of agricultural humans has been all along the development of more “social” characteristics: an increase in the ability of living in large groups of highly differentiated categories (farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, priests…). If the trend continues, we may see cultural characteristics becoming more and more embedded in the genome of the species. In the (very) long run, we could see the birth of a “eusocial” humankind; the same kind of social structure of bees, ants and termites. That is, a society of sterile workers, sterile soldiers, “queens” that generate most individuals, and dumb males (on this last characteristic, we are already pretty advanced). It is not impossible. There already exist eusocial mammals, one is the naked mole rat of Central Africa. So, maybe the future for humans will not involve advanced technological gadgetry (of which we are so fond) but, rather, advanced social engineering, with the development of more and more efficient and stratified societies.

Is the future of humans a beehive? We can’t say, but it looks more and more likely that some old ways of seeing the future are now wholly obsolete. Likely, our descendants will have no flying cars; no spaceships, no robot butlers bringing the martinis to them as they relax on the pool’s edge. But the powers of a human hive could still be impressive even without the gadgetry of our times. Maybe the “superintelligence” that some see as developing in our computers could actually appear in an eusocial human organization (this is one of the themes of Frank Herbert’s novel “Hellstrom’s Hive“).

Will these superintelligent entities avoid the mistakes that we have done? We can’t say; of course, it is a future that none of us will ever see. But it is a fascinating future and the interest in the future is part of the fact of being human. Perhaps, our hive descendants will have think in the same way.


George Mobus’ take on the future evolution of humankind. 

George Mobus contributed to the discussion started by RE of the doomstead diner with these considerations that I am reproducing here with his consent.

With respect to ideas about extinction as a possible outcome, I would like to reiterate that extinction of species is apparently inevitable. Some 99% of all species that have ever lived (it is estimated) have gone extinct, and the current batch of biodiversity is probably no more than one million years old, on average.

But there are alternative pathways to extinction and alternate subsequent outcomes. Much has to do with the “evolvability” of the stock species. I posted a piece on this notion some time back: 

Human evolution is still underway, but is tightly coupled currents with cultural evolution, that is co-evolution is driving mutual selection in both the biological species and the artifactual, human-built world. Biological evolution is still very much slower than cultural innovation owing to a lower generation of novelty rate (e.g. genetic mutation). Nevertheless, we humans are still undergoing biological adaptations (not individual adaptations) to cultural influences.

The capacity for evolvability, however, affords many kinds of opportunities for species to radiate even when occupying the same geographic and ecological environment (see: and an article in Scientific American, Vol 312, Issue 4, on “The Extraordinary Evolution of Cichlid Fishes,”

All of this leads me to expect (and hope) that some form of hominid, specifically derived from our current genus, will survive the almost certain change in the cultural devolution due to decline of energy and the environmental stresses due to climate change and, given enough time, produce a new species of Homo, indeed perhaps several new species, over the next several million years. Technically, then, Homo sapiens, as we understand our species now, will be extinct even while new species carry on under the future selection conditions that will exist.

Though speculative (trying to second-guess nature is always a shot in the dark!) I have used some evolutionary historical patterns of emergence of cooperation throughout the history of life (from origins of life to eusocialization in humans) to envision some future possibilities. See:

All of which is well and good, and stimulating to think about. But I still think the immediate concern is for the dynamics of collapse. Can collapse be “managed” so as to minimize, in some practical way, the suffering that will attend it?

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

25 Comments on "The future of humankind after the great crash: extinction or the human hive?"

  1. dave thompson on Sat, 23rd May 2015 7:17 am 

    The nukes left to melt down will be a problem.

  2. Davy on Sat, 23rd May 2015 7:19 am 

    What will humans have after a collapse that must happen and is necessary? This is as broad discussion just as the collapse details are broad. Important issues are the climate for a post collapse discussion. We know agriculture preceded civilization. If our climate destabilizes and normal sedentary agriculture is not possible civilization like we understand it from the last 10,000 years will be unlikely. I think it should be clear except to the hardcore BAUtopian industrial man is almost over. We here right here right now are the last of the Mohicans. We are the peak of an age.

    What I see coming short term is a hybrid man through salvage, adaptation, and a relearning. We must relearn the ways of pre-industrial man. This is a must and necessary for survival. All food production will have to go pre-industrial. We can do a hybrid of fossil fuel and preindustrial now for a few years in the bumpy descent but eventually it will all be pre-industrial. Building, energy, and transport can be a hybrid during the bumpy descent but eventually the entropic decay will take us back to pre-industrial.

    The most important hybrid part of this descent is knowledge. We have learned so much through science, engineering, and social studies over 2000 years. If we can keep some of the best of that knowledge it will offer us answers to many age old problems. We need to understand how quickly knowledge can suffer entropic decay. In the bumpy descent it is vital we save the right knowledge and continue education or this valuable resource that can be retained in collapse will dissipate.

    I will argue that with this valuable knowledge we can go back to seminomadic hunter gather, small agricultural settlements, and pastoral shepherding that on a spiritual level is more advanced. If we do not completely destroy the ocean ecosystem we can live by the sea again. These are all big ifs and depend on the climate and collapse severity.

    I have done extensive research of the Native American cultures. Many cultures that had an abundance of food lived very well. We BAU pussies would consider it difficult and short but I would argue these people had purpose and connection to nature we lack. Is it any wonder we have so many psychological ills. Our modern lives lack so much that they had.

    Our hybrid man may or may not last long because it is possible we collapse very hard and very quick from a bottleneck of destruction to roving bands of savages with little culture or skills. This is very possible especially if climate destabilizes as is feared. If we cannot retain some of the knowledge of the last 2000 years we will descent to a level of savages. This is by no means the end because humans over generations can reconnect to nature and redevelop a culture.

    I find the Native American cultures fascinating. They were savages by certain definitions but their cultural connections to nature, their community, and their adapted strengths were in many ways superior to ours. I say this because they survived for many generations in relative resilience and sustainability with low enough populations to move or reemerged as new tribal cultures as needed.

    We have a violent reshaping ahead. It is in no way clear whether this will be a long or short and violent emergency. There are actions we can do now globally and locally. Global actions seems unlikely with the probability of destructive activities of war and cultural conflict. Locally you can prep at the community level most importantly. Prepping at the individual level will be the seeds for the community level. You can learn skills and retain knowledge that will be vital for your community.

    In many circumstances the dissipation of large populations into a locust like scenario will destroy many such prepping activities but it is clear from nature many seeds always manage to survive. You could be one of those seeds that will survive.

    We are on the cusp of descent on some levels but evolution on other. Spiritually we can advance. We can rediscover our connections to ourselves and nature. We can reject those destructive activities and attitudes that lead us to the pain, suffering, and death collapse always brings on. This is where we can advance learning and spirituality from our global mistakes.

    You right here right now have that ability to do something that will benefit the future. Many of the current BAUtopian activities of engineers, scientist, and academics are wasted activities. Many of you here reading this are useless to the future. In fact some of you are the reason many will suffer and die. Most BAUtopian work is the work of death. Be the work of life and future.

  3. steve on Sat, 23rd May 2015 7:33 am 

    What I see coming short term is WW3…you don’t think they have enough oil left but I think you are naive…WW3 will only take about 4 months and then it will be all over….we came into this world with a bang and we are going out with a bang..

  4. Dredd on Sat, 23rd May 2015 8:39 am 

    The problem is that it is boring. We go extinct and that’s it; end of the story. We may even wreck the ecosystem so badly that we would sterilize the whole planet, having everything else dying with us. Even more boring, isn’t it?

    One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” – Josef Stalin

  5. Cloud9 on Sat, 23rd May 2015 9:06 am 

    It will not be a one size fits all collapse. The assumption that we will somehow magically be transported back to the neolithic age does not take into account the millions of hobbyist soap makers, black smiths, wood workers, wood gas producers, aquaculturalist, gun makers and back yard chemists. Much will survive to include machine shops and life steam enthusiasts. Expect the 19th century. It may be preceded by a brief dark age but it will not be the end.

  6. Dredd on Sat, 23rd May 2015 9:31 am 

    “Some 99% of all species that have ever lived (it is estimated) have gone extinct …”

    This is old school science.

    We now know that by far the greatest number of species have and will live on sans homo sapiens sapiens (The Real Dangers With Microbes & Viruses).

    The greatest biomass on Earth is composed of microbes and viruses.

  7. Hubbert on Sat, 23rd May 2015 9:34 am 

    I don’t see anything major taking place. World will just return back to a Feual Age.

  8. Davy on Sat, 23rd May 2015 9:54 am 

    Hub, wouldn’t that be great! But I doubt we will be that lucky with 7BIL people and a ruin climate and ecosystem.

  9. tahoe1780 on Sat, 23rd May 2015 10:51 am

  10. joe on Sat, 23rd May 2015 11:08 am 

    Given an unknowable time frame, and the pretext that we live today as mere expressions of our energy use then a post carbon age will likely race towards an alternative energy, that race will save our fractional reserve state capitalist system, but the replacement cost of tech will eventually drive us to lower standards of living and more ignorant forms of beliefs. We always imagined the dark ages to be horrible but our relatives must have been happy in them, afterall they wouldn’t have known any better, and so it will be in the future. The hard times will be for us, because we know better.

  11. Apneaman on Sat, 23rd May 2015 1:47 pm 

    This is how countries are really preparing for the Paris climate talks. Everyone has their excuse. Hairless apes are the great rationalizers.

    ‘Poor in India can’t pay for 150 years of pollution by West’

  12. Apneaman on Sat, 23rd May 2015 1:50 pm 

    Climate Change Is Killing Agriculture As We Know It

  13. Apneaman on Sat, 23rd May 2015 4:21 pm 

    Amber Rudd Confirms Government Will ‘Kick-Start’ Fracking

  14. Perk Earl on Sat, 23rd May 2015 5:33 pm 

    I don’t think there’s any chance humans will go extinct. I liken our species to raccoons, rats, pigeons, seagulls, coyote, jellyfish, you know species you can throw the kitchen sink at and they come back for more. Even in a worldwide cloud of radioactive fallout with numerous generations suffering genetic mutations the push for greed would go on. Even on a planet with 9C global warming enough would survive inside the arctic circle and Antarctica. Relentless, cunning, greedy, selfish, aggressive, adaptable are just a few words to describe our species tenacious endeavor to get as much as possible with whatever is available.

    Post apocalyptically I could see humans farming rats, then processing them to make a form of McNuggets and using artificial toxic industrial waste products to parboil a barbecue dipping sauce, then selling it, then pasting the rat product on a lunchbox, then going public, then some guy will become the super wealthy rat master and give talks like Elon Musk about their latest rat product.

  15. Makati1 on Sat, 23rd May 2015 6:56 pm 

    Perk, a Nuclear Winter is likely to end it all. Even the so called ‘hardy’ critters, and Western civilized man is NOT one of them. If there are survivors, they most likely will be already semi-primitive tribes in warm, unbombed locations around the world, i.e. Africa and South America. I give little chance for those north of the equator or the Western wannabees in N.Z. and Australia. They will be bombed because they will have the Empire’s military in their countries when the war starts.


  16. GregT on Sat, 23rd May 2015 7:06 pm 


    When the oceans become acidic enough, and the phytoplankton are killed off, there goes half of all oxygen production on the planet. The resulting die off will finish off plant life, which takes out the other half of oxygen production.

    Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Game over.

  17. Apneaman on Sat, 23rd May 2015 7:21 pm 

    In 3 days, heat wave kills 200 in Andhra, Telangana

  18. Apneaman on Sat, 23rd May 2015 8:01 pm 

    First the ice disappears….then the tragic ape.

    Dramatic photos: Fox Glacier’s retreat causes valley to rise by a metre

  19. Apneaman on Sat, 23rd May 2015 8:33 pm 

    Collapse is a process.

    Greek hospitals cannot afford painkillers, scissors or sheets as budget cuts bite

  20. Energy Investor on Sat, 23rd May 2015 10:08 pm 

    Hi Apn,

    If you drive up the access road in the valley left by the retreating Fox Glacier, you see from marker pegs that the retreat has been monitored since well before the industrial age of oil started.

    I have no doubt that pollution and industrialisation has caused an impact on the atmosphere as well as ice cover, soil and water quality. But we must not forget that we are in an interglacial period where an increasing melt and continued glacier retreat should be expected.

  21. Apneaman on Sat, 23rd May 2015 11:19 pm 

    The industrial age of oil? Cute denier trick like using the most powerful El Nino year ever recorded (1998) as a starting point for temperature (Say hi to Anthony Watts). The industrial revolution goes back further and burning coal counts for a lot of CO2. It’s a cumulative effect. 280 ppm CO2 at the start of the industrial revolution in 1750. Today 400pmm and climbing. During the last interglacial CO2 did not exceed 300 ppm. Guess what does happen when there are fast increases of CO2? Extinction periods. There have been 14 of them and the worst(Permian) took out 95% of all life. Our carbon burning is releasing CO2 much fast than the Siberian traps released it during the Permian. The laws of physics and chemistry do not care how it is released; it’s simply cause and effect, and they do not care about your politics or fear or entitlement. If your worried about the fear of climate change stopping people from burning carbon you need not. There is about as much chance of that happening as Lions going vegetarian. We will stop burning oil when it becomes uneconomical to extract. If you have kids or grand kids and you plan on leaving them an inheritance of any sort, my advice would be to give it to them now while there is still time to spend it.

    Dr. Peter Ward on Mass Extinction and Global Warming

    Survivable IPCC projections are based on science fiction – the reality is much worse

    The IPCC’s ‘Representative Concentration Pathways’ are based on fantasy technology that must draw massive volumes of CO2 out of the atmosphere late this century, writes Nick Breeze – an unjustified hope that conceals a very bleak future for Earth, and humanity.

  22. Richard Ralph Roehl on Sun, 24th May 2015 4:43 am 

    Not to worry! Jeeezass and Mohammad-mad-mad are teaming up to ‘save’ us from unbelievers.

    Indeed! My sheeple-people preacher urges us to keep reading the gawd damn bible (according to King James and his editors) an maybe ‘Our Lord’ will intervened on our behalf

  23. Davy on Sun, 24th May 2015 7:02 am 

    Ape Man, I am not a denier. I read all your climate AGW comments and links. The subject is fascinating. I read them out of curiosity because like you said BAU going off carbon is like a lion going vegetarian. We are cooked at least until we collapsed IMHO. BAU cannot have managed degrowth. We can start degrowth and see were the chips fall. Once a major change is made in BAU that involves less of any of the vitals especially carbon collapse will start. This will probably start first with our financial system which is confidence dependent.

    Within the financial system confidence is liquidity and without adequate liquidity our just in time global production and distribution will not function properly. All locals have been delocalized and dependent on the global system for vital life support. The knock on effect of positive carbon reduction changes to BAU leading to carbon reductions at the scale needed will induce collapse of our growth based BAU system. Leading to the population and consumption drops needed to mitigate AGW climate change. The be question will this happen fast enough.

    I think it is clear you realize nothing is going to happen until collapse. Even in a collapse will we be able to lower carbon emissions enough? I have read the locust effect of so many people without fossil fuels will be devastating to the ecosystem in ways further causing carbon release. We will surely see massive destruction of the existing forests for fuel for heat and food prep.

    I guess it comes down to how sharp and deep the initial collapse is. How quickly population and consumption drops to sustainable levels. We then must see how far along the runaway elements of climate change are in motion.

    Ape Man do you post these links and comments as a warning like Prophet Job? Do you post these things to reminding us how evil we are and how we must prepare for fire and brimstone retribution? Do you comment and link to get us to adjust and mitigate for less pain and suffering? All of the above?

    My position is near term collapse with food insecurity, hunger, and starvation is the immediate concern. AGW climate change is a longer term concern that is out of our hands unless nature chooses to reduce our population significantly through the near term collapse of our system for systematic reasons. With population reductions consumption reductions will occur reducing carbon emissions.

    I am not criticizing you and you are a board buddy because we have so much in common as far as outlook and interests. I am just trying to dig into your head to better understand my approach better. Systematic collapse from oil depletion and financial collapse is my doom meme with climate AGW as the possible knockout punch unless nature reduces our population and consumption quickly. That is where I am coming from.

  24. Gil on Sun, 24th May 2015 8:01 pm 

    It is almost impossible to imagine how life in the not-too-distant future will play out. The breakdown in an energy intensive industrial civilization will do more than just make life a bit less comfortable. It will mean the great majority of humans will succumb to hunger, disease, natural disasters, simple accidents and conflicts. We are already a “hive animal” dependent on an enormously wide and complex web of interdependencies. When that breaks down life will become extremely precarious. Humans almost went extinct once in the past when only a few thousand survived to perpetuate the specie. We may not be so lucky this time.

  25. Apneaman on Sun, 24th May 2015 9:36 pm 

    Davy, all of it except the retribution. Our technological evolution has simply out paced our cognitive/emotional evolution by orders of magnitude. Were emotional moralizing story loving apes with nukes. What could possibly go wrong?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *