An Introduction to Ecological Survival


Humankind is facing an extreme ecological crisis, and its primary victims will be the global young.  Unless drastic action is quickly taken, young people will suffer immensely and likely perish well before their time.  It is therefore my view that children and teenagers, if they are psychologically ready, should be told the hard truth about the crisis and the solutions that might save them.  This is the sentiment that inspired the following introduction.  Written in simple language, it candidly outlines the profound changes that are now required for our ecological survival.

Frank Rotering
January, 2024


1. Why is the Earth sick?

Why is the Earth sick?

Pretend that you're not feeling well and don't know what's wrong.  What would you do to get better? You would likely go to a doctor, who will check you over and find out why you feel sick.  The doctor will then treat your illness and hopefully cure it.

The Earth is sick, and most of us don't know exactly what's wrong or what to do.  In this document I will therefore play “Earth doctor”.  I will first examine our planet to find out what the problem is. I will then propose what I believe is the right treatment.


Let me begin by giving you the big picture about the Earth's tragic state.  There are two things to consider: the Earth itself and us - the human species.

Scientists have been studying the Earth’s environment for many decades.  One thing they have learned is that it is VERY sensitive to small changes.  If we increase the global temperature just a little bit, massive ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctica will start to melt and raise sea levels.  If we destroy only a small part of the Earth's forests, many animals will die and some species will disappear forever.

We have already changed the Earth in numerous destructive ways, so its sickness is no mystery at all.  What is more difficult to understand is why people haven't treated it with more care and respect.  Let me give you my views on this.

Scientists call our species Homo sapiens, which means "wise human".  But if we're so wise, why have we made such a mess of our beautiful home?  To answer this we need to better understand who we are as a species.

Compared to other animals, human beings are highly intelligent.  This is why we can build computers and go to the Moon.  But we have two other important traits: we are moral and self-interested.

People have always lived in groups, so we care about other people who are familiar to us.  This is why we have a moral or ethical side.

But we also care deeply about ourselves.  We want to live and enjoy life.  We therefore desire food, shelter, and clothing to survive, and also things that give us fun and pleasure. In other words, we are self-interested.

How might an intelligent, moral, and self-interested species behave?  That depends on how moral we are compared to how self-interested we are.

If our morality is stronger than our self-interest, our intelligence will be used mostly for helping people and protecting nature.

But if our self-interest is stronger than our morality, our intelligence will be used mostly for our own benefit.  We wouldn’t care too much about others or the natural world.

Because human beings have damaged so much of nature, it seems obvious that our self-interest is much stronger than our morality.

However, people are not all the same, and some are far more selfish than the average person.

Below I will call them the "greedy people".  Those with an average level of self-interest will be called "ordinary people".  Let me use these terms to briefly explain why the Earth became so sick.

A few centuries ago the greedy people took control of our economies and societies.  This allowed them to produce more so they could consume more.  But because the ordinary people also desired improved material lives, they were also happy to consume more, and didn’t complain.

Meanwhile the trucks, factories, mines, and farms used to produce all these things began to severely damage the Earth.

Even after this damage became widespread and extremely serious, the greedy people pushed ahead with business as usual.  Tragically, the ordinary people didn't stand up to challenge them.

At this point you probably have questions, such as:

  • What exactly is wrong with the Earth?
  • How can its illness be cured?
  • How can we get this done despite the greedy people?
  • What can I personally do to help?

Continue reading for my answers.

2.  The Ecological Crisis

The Ecological Crisis

People who are concerned about the Earth often call its illness the ecological crisis.  I will first explain this crisis and then propose how to fix it.

Before starting I must warn you about something.  The greedy people want to keep producing too much stuff, so they often use confusing words and phrases to muddle our minds.  This makes it really hard to think clearly and figure out what to do.

Below I will introduce some new terms that make sense to me, and hopefully to you too.

One important term, which the greedy people carefully avoid, is ecological overshoot.  The word "overshoot" means to exceed a limit, like an airplane that lands too fast and ends up in a field past the runway.

Ecological overshoot means that our impact on the environment has become so great that plants and animals start to die.  This destruction of nature began around 1950.  We should have stopped consuming too much stuff soon after, but we didn't - we kept right on going.

As a result we are now facing an extreme ecological crisis.  This has two parts: the GHG crisis and a bunch of other harms.  Because the first part poses an extreme danger right now, I will explain it in detail.

A. The GHG Crisis

This part of the ecological crisis was caused by unsafe levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.  As you probably know, these gases are emitted when we burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, and also when we cut down trees or convert wild land to farms.

When these gases enter the atmosphere they form a kind of blanket that keeps the Earth's heat from escaping to space.  The resulting rise in the Earth's temperature is called global warming.

The levels of GHGs in the atmosphere are called GHG concentrations.  For carbon dioxide these are written as "420 ppm", which means 420 parts per million.  This number is increasing every year, so it's likely higher today.

When the Earth warms, weather patterns change: we get bigger storms, longer droughts, more floods, longer and hotter heat waves, and so on.  These effects are called climate change.

From this you can see that global warming causes climate change.  The greedy people often say that they're the same thing, but this isn't true.

Carbon dioxide has a second nasty effect.  Besides warming the Earth it causes the oceans to become more acidic - that is, more like vinegar.  This destroys coral reefs and some marine animals because it dissolves their shells and skeletons.

There are thus two major dangers from unsafe GHG concentrations: global warming and ocean acidification.

These impacts are usually lumped together and called "climate change".  However, this can't be right because ocean acidification is a chemical effect - it's not a result of changing climates.

Using "global warming" for all these impacts is also wrong because acidification is not caused by higher temperatures.

Because neither term makes sense, I use a different one: the GHG crisis.  This is accurate because global warming, climate change, and ocean acidification are all the results of unsafe GHG concentrations.

So far I have ignored an important fact about global warming to keep things simple, but this must now be addressed.

Fossil-fuel emissions contain not just GHGs that warm the Earth, but also tiny particles called aerosols.  These cause health problems when we breathe them in, but they also reflect the Sun's rays and therefore cool the planet.

This means that fossil-fuel emissions have three impacts: they warm the Earth, they cool it, and they harm our health.

In section three I will examine these impacts to see if the greedy people are right when they say that reducing fossil-fuel emissions is the best way to fight global warming.

The second part of the ecological crisis is the damage to nature that has little or nothing to do with greenhouse gases.

This includes the destruction of animal habitats when land is cleared for farming or raising cattle, the chemical poisoning of streams and rivers, and the spread of microplastics all over the planet.

I call these forms of damage non-GHG harms.  These don't seem to threaten our survival right now, but if things don't change they very likely will in the near future.

3.  The Key Survival Measures

As we've just learned, the ecological crisis has two parts: the GHG crisis and non-GHG harms.  The main threat to our survival today is the GHG crisis.

Let's see how we should tackle this environmental nightmare. For simplicity I will deal only with its most urgent aspect: global warming.

Remember that the GHG crisis is the result of GHG concentrations that are too high.  The most obvious way to fix this problem is therefore to reduce them.  Sadly, this is very difficult to do, and it would take far too long.

The reason is that GHGs are mixed with other gases in the atmosphere, and their actual amounts are very small.  Imagine dissolving a teaspoon of sugar in a barrel of water and then trying to take the sugar back out!

This measure, which is called greenhouse gas removal or GGR, is therefore not a good survival solution.  However, it will be useful after the climate emergency has ended because it will permanently reduce the warming threat.

What about reducing fossil-fuel emissions?  Are the greedy people right when they tell us that this is the answer?  Let's check the facts and see.

The first issue is that global warming won't stop even if GHG emissions are reduced to zero.  This is because the huge amount of heat in our oceans will cause further warming for decades to come.  One estimate is that the global temperature would continue to rise by more than half a degree over the next forty years.  It could even be a full degree or more.

The second issue is that the GHGs in emissions are only a small fraction of the unsafe GHG concentrations.  For example, every year we add about 2.5 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through emissions.  However, the carbon dioxide concentration is at least 70 ppm above its safe level.  This means that reducing emissions addresses only a tiny part of the temperature problem.  The rest is simply ignored.

The third issue, as noted above, is that emissions contain both warming GHGs and cooling aerosols.  The GHGs stay in the atmosphere for a long time, but the aerosols quickly fall to the ground.  The result is that, when emissions are reduced, the rate of global warming hardly slows, and it may in some cases speed up.

The greedy people are therefore completely wrong - their favorite solution will not work.  Let me say it loudly and clearly: reducing fossil-fuel emissions is the wrong solution to the GHG crisis.

To find the right solution, we should imagine TWO smokestacks on every polluting facility.  We can then picture GHGs coming from the first and aerosols from the second.  Let's call these pollutants GHG releases and aerosol releases.

With this image in mind, we can ask the right question: what should happen to the releases from each smokestack?

For the GHG smokestack the answer is straighforward.  Because GHGs cause global warming and stay in the atmosphere for a long time, they're highly dangerous.  They should therefore be reduced as much as possible, as quickly as possible.  This can be done by drastically increasing GHG efficiencies in our economies.

For the aerosol smokestack the answer is a bit trickier.

Recall that aerosols have both a good and a bad effect. They cool the Earth, but they also damage people's health.  This means there is no easy answer.

What I think should happen is that smart people who care about both humankind and the environment should find the "best" balance between the two effects.  For example, they might decide to remove half the aerosols to improve our health, but to leave the rest to help with global cooling.

So far I have proposed two measures for dealing with the GHG crisis: reduce GHG releases and find the right balance for aerosol releases.

Unfortunately these won't be nearly enough for our survival.

Reducing GHG releases will slow the rate of global warming, but the warming itself will continue.  Allowing some aerosol releases will provide a bit of cooling, but much more is required.

Fortunately a third solution is available: we can reflect the Sun's rays to directly reduce the heat.

There are several ways to do this.  We could set up mirrors on land or water, or perhaps even in space.  We could also make clouds brighter, or spread aerosol particles high in the atmosphere.

These measures are usually called solar radiation management (SRM), but many other terms are also used.  Probably the most common one is "solar geoengineering".

To summarize, there are three things we can do in response to the GHG crisis:

  1. Reflect the Sun’s rays with SRM
  2. Reduce GHG releases as much as possible
  3. Find the right balance for aerosol releases

If we can quickly do all three, our survival chances will greatly improve.

Now, what about non-GHG harms?

The best solution here is to decrease our consumption and population levels as quickly as we can.  This is especially true for the rich countries, where too many people consume much more than the Earth can safely provide.

We must also use far fewer resources and create far less waste when we make stuff.  That is, our economies must achieve much higher levels of ecological efficiency.

We can also start ecological restoration by cleaning up our pollutants, repairing major environmental damage, and returning the Earth as much as possible to a wild state.

If we can rapidly do these things in addition to the three GHG measures, we have a chance to solve the ecological crisis as a whole.

Let's now see how all this might be achieved.

4. Implementing the Survival Measures


Implementing the Survival Measures

Above I said that the main reason the Earth is sick is because the greedy people control our economies.  However, I also said that the ordinary people didn’t complain, and didn't try to remove the greedy ones from power.

What this suggests is that very few human beings are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to solve the ecological crisis.

Until recently this meant that a solution was out of reach: if humans can't handle the problems, who or what can?  However, something really big is happening in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), and this gives us some hope.

You can think of an AI as a computer that can analyze and solve difficult problems even better than the smartest human brain can.

A very important fact is that AIs were created by humans for intelligence, not by nature for survival.  This very likely means that they don't feel the intense self-interest that makes humans so environmentally destructive.  I therefore think that AI developers should create AIs that can take control of human societies and guide us to a sustainable future.

Unfortunately the greedy people and their experts think of artificial intelligence as just another technology to benefit humans.  They therefore want to keep control of our societies and use AIs to increase their consumption still further.

They call this "AI alignment", and it's a terrible mistake.  The only way we can deal with advanced AIs is to form relationships with them.  We should think of ourselves as smart dogs who are keen to help our AI masters as they address the GHG crisis and non-GHG harms.

To learn more about AIs and their possible ecological rescue, see the documents below.  Note that these were written for adults rather than the young.

  1. For Ecological Survival, AIs Must NOT Serve Human Interests
  2. AIs: End human rule to save the environment!
  3. Humans: AI takeover is our only survival chance

Let me now say a few words about a sustainable economy, defined as one that won't destroy the Earth as we produce and consume the things we need and desire.

Today's economy is called capitalism.  This is the system that the greedy people set up many years ago.  It is designed to help them produce more and more stuff while ignoring the resulting damage to ecosystems.

A sustainable economy would instead satisfy people's needs and some of their wants, and it would carefully stay within environmental limits.

If you want to learn more about such an economy, see my book The Economics of Needs and Limits.  For an introduction, see chapter seven in Youth Ecological Revolution.  These books were also written primarily for adults.

5. Actions You Can Take

If you think my ideas make sense, I urge you to do something concrete to get the survival project started.  These are my top suggestions:

  • Scream loudly that today's actions on the environment are incredibly stupid and will destroy your future.  Most importantly, tell older people that reducing emissions is the wrong climate solution, and that large-scale SRM will be needed for your survival.
  • If you have parents, relations, or acquaintances who are involved with AI development, insist that they create AIs that will execute the takeover and implement the rational crisis response.
  • Fiercely oppose organizations that spread the greedy people's lies.  There are hundreds of these, but the most important one is the IPCC.  This organization, which is strongly supported by the greedy people, poses a massive threat to the planet and its inhabitants.
  • Form social movements to voice your environmental outrage, express your opposition to harmful groups, and push AI development in the right direction.