Friday, April 29, 2011

Peak Oil Aware Biologist John Janovy, Jr. Predicts Future Human Evolution

photo: wikipedia

By now you thought you'd read them all. Joseph Tainter on the collapse of civilization due to complexity, Jim Kunstler on the demise of humans via their own stupidity of living in the suburbs while eating twinkies and relying upon the finite resource of oil, and you've read Jeff Rubin explain to you why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller. You've watched "The Road," "2012," and "Children of Men." You love this doomer stuff and really can't get enough of it, can you?

Today, I have a new voice for you that is quite a delight, and since it is the voice of a biologist who has a gifted ability of analyzing the big picture, his predictions are refreshingly science-based. John Janovy, Jr. has been professor of biological sciences, parasitology, ecology, evolution and behaviour at the University of Nebraska for forty plus years. His summer course, teaching about the interconnectedness of the natural world through the window of parasitology at Cedar Point Biological Station in Keith County, Nebraska has been transformative for his many students. And... it just so happens that he is the son of a petroleum geologist. Who better than that, could attempt to predict the future of our human species?

Janovy has written eighteen books, the most recent, as he nears his teaching retirement, is largely autobiographical, "Pieces of the Plains, Memories and Predictions from the Heart of America." As a nature writer, his name is in the company of the greats such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.

"Good biologist though [Janovy] is, he's an even better nature writer, with a special affinity for the mysterious and the mystic."—Noel Perrin

When I contacted Dr. Janovy seeking permission to excerpt from his book, he commented upon his writing of this book and his family background in oil: For a number of years I've been working on a book about my parents in Oklahoma. My father (now deceased) was a petroleum geologist, so I heard a lot about "dependence on foreign crude" going back to the 1950s. My stepfather in Wichita Falls is a retired petroleum engineer, and whenever we visit, I spend quite a bit of time looking through "Oil and Gas Journal." So awareness of the the petroleum industry comes fairly naturally, and on those visits to Wichita Falls we get a lot of talk about the business (usually a one-way conversation!!).

So, without further ado, I wish to feature excerpts from the final chapter of Dr. Janovy's book, "Pieces of the Plains, Memories and Predictions from the Heart of America."
K. McDonald


What Will Human Life Be Like in a Couple of Thousand Years?

Obviously there is no way to answer this question of the title for certain, but we can do a little thought experiment that might suggest some answers. Picture yourself in what is now Israel at the time of Jesus' crucifixion attempting to predict what human life would be like in the year 2010 and you will have a sense of the difficulty in making such predictions. ...

Regardless of specific predictions by various experts, many of whom have personal or political agendas, the historical record is fairly clear. That record tells us two things: (1) you cannot predict technological innovations and developments very accurately or very far in advance, and (2) deteriorating environmental conditions are probably the most important factor in the collapse of civilizations. ...

Jared Diamond's compelling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed provides an easily accessible and beautifully written analysis of this relationship between society and environment and suggests that the process will be repeated again and again in the future. Diamond claims that societies fail when their economies become unsustainable for a variety of reasons, mostly environmental. There is little evidence that Diamond is wrong and plenty that he is correct. So for the purposes of our thought experiment, let's assume he is correct. ...

In two thousand years, humanity easily could be extinct. We could destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons and make Earth uninhabitable, or a large asteroid could hit our planet somewhere and simply obliterate us, or at least obliterate the resources we need to survive. Invaders from outer space could arrive tomorrow and kill us all. ...

But in general, people today do what people have done for all recorded history. For this last reason, I will assume that in two thousand years, there will still be people on Earth developing technology, practicing various religions that are not always compatible, going to war, discriminating against one another, using their religion to justify behavioral dictums, including highly personal ones involving sex and diet, engaging in whatever forms of agriculture are allowed by their environments, gathering food from the ocean, using narcotics, writing, painting, and creating art, forming pair bonds and producing offspring, and engaging in all sorts of political machinations. The question of course is whether in doing all these activities they will resemble the Flintstones more than the Jetsons. Most reasonable scientists would say yes, in two thousand years humans will be living more like the Flintstones than like George Jetson and his family.

The main reason for the scientific judgment is the absence of fossil fuels, which surely will disappear during the next millennium, at least as a socio-economic phenomenon at the national and international levels. We have spent the last century converting crude oil into people, and when the crude oil is gone, then so will be the people and all those conveniences that rely on petroleum or other fossil fuels for their existence. Good examples of such conveniences include automobiles, motorcycles, airplanes, ships, tractors and other farm implements, warplanes, tanks, helicopters, and Humvees, many if not most electrical power generating plants, lawnmowers, gas, coal, and oil furnaces, gas stoves, most public transportation, and all manufactured goods whose production depends on fossil fuels either for energy or as chemical feedstock. The United States already is in a state of serious competition for fossil fuels, our main competitors being India, China, and Russia. ...

So all the evidence indicates that we are now approaching a condition in which an exponentially increasing population has nearly used up its supply of a fixed resource. By nearly I mean within a few hundred years, again, but a blink in evolutionary time. So the world of 4010 likely will be more familiar to the people of the first century than to people of the twenty-first century. We will use horses for transportation and our numbers will have diminished to whatever levels can be supported by agriculture without pesticides or artificial fertilizers, both of which are heavily dependent on fossil fuel supplies. When we fight wars, they will be with armies that walk or ride on horses and in wooden chariots instead of tanks, and do not fly in helicopters or jet planes. We are likely to have explosives, which the people of Roman times did not have, but the kinds and amounts are probably a matter of debate. We will fight mainly over water supplies, thus most wars are likely to be somewhat localized ...

Oceans will recover from their current over-fished condition, and we will probably start whaling again, once the technology for building wooden ships is rediscovered, a development that depends on reestablishment of adequate forests.

However, and this is relatively important "however," we will be in this socio-economic-ecological state with our current knowledge of mathematics, art, music, and literature. It is entirely possible that the two- or three-hundred-year period from the global collapse of civilization and massive death to the readjustment of humans to Earth-imposed limits will be one of the most miserable times in all of human history. And it is equally possible that the following thousand years will be one of the richest, culturally speaking, in all human history, mainly because our capacity for destruction will have been so drastically reduced and we will have retained our knowledge of how to make art, music, and literature.

There is little evidence from either the historical record or published psychological research to support a prediction that we will have "learned our lesson" about violence and environment destruction, thus purposefully achieving a harmonious relationship with our planet. Like today, many individuals will understand the need to live in such a way, but at the population level we are still going to be governed by our human genes, most of which we inherited from our nonhuman ancestor primates. These genes, and the behaviors they drive us into, are described well in E. O. Wilson's classic book On Human Nature, as well as a number of more recent works. Because of our genetic makeup, Wilson claims, human males will always live in dominance hierarchies populated by other males, and human females will always form mutually supportive groups capable of working together to solve problems. Our best prediction, therefore, is that two millennia hence, most if not all of us will resemble Ndani people of the New Guinea highlands more than the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and People magazine cover story subjects.

Should we worry about this transition? Probably not, because there is not much we can do about it. Even if I said yes, we should worry a great deal about the changes coming for humanity in the next two thousand years nobody would listen to the advice. We worry about ourselves, our next meal, our children, and if we have some and they are cute and readily accessible, our grandchildren. We don't worry much about our neighbors down the street, nor about our neighbors' great-grandchildren-to-be, even when the neighbors are good friends. Instead, our worries are about what E. O. Wilson probably would predict, based on his understanding of primate genetic heritage. We focus our emotional energies on immediate needs and resources, factors that threaten our small extended family troop, and various real, imagined, or metaphorical bears at the cave door.

[Janovy goes on to discuss prospects of nuclear use, wars, torture, urban jungles, future diets in a post-petroleum world, which of Earth's regions will most likely continue human habitation, the future of creative communication methods too unmentionable today, the issue of communication capability going forward being a key component in predicting our future, human's exclusive role in causing this age of mass extinction, and the resulting genetic bottleneck.]

[In two-thousand years:]

...the next species of human is likely to be darker, on the average, than the present one, and will be smaller and smarter in the same way that certain so-called primitive tribes are smart. In other words, the environment will dictate survival much more than we believe it does today, and those individuals who are mentally adept at picking up survival skills will produce the most offspring. ...

[Janovy ends the book with a five million year prediction of Homo sapiens:]'s not too difficult to conjure up an extremely intelligent and cunning little brown primate, perhaps the size of a squirrel, eating rodents and insects, cultivating certain plants, protecting itself with deadly natural poisons on hair-thin darts, sitting around tiny fires singing magically beautiful quiet songs and telling novels to adolescent children the size of today's mice.


  • To order the book, "Pieces of the Plains, Memories and Predictions from the Heart of America" go here.
  • To see Janovy's recommended reading list go here.
  • To visit Janovy's blog "Let's talk Parasites" go here.
  • To read about Janovy's Field Parasitology summer course at Cedar Point go here.
  • To see a video from Janovy's Parasitology class go here.
  • To see One Planet Institute's nature writing list go here.
  • Book excerpt from Janovy's "Back in Keith County" here.


  1. Regarding the 5 million year hence human...I wonder, will our cats shrink with us or start to eat us?

    I would sure hate to be on the small end of the "I am just playing with you a bit before I eat you" end of kitty games.

    I believe Darwin had something theological to say about this habit of felines.

  2. Jason
    Not to worry. Somewhere in this near-term between stage we'll probably eat all of our cats.

  3. Kay - Thanks for all that exposure! The comment about the cats is pretty interesting; maybe the hair-thin poison darts will take care of the problem! Cheers! John Janovy, Jr.

  4. Excellent! I will be seeking out more of Janovy's writings.

    One minor quibble, this statement:

    And it is equally possible that the following thousand years will be one of the richest, culturally speaking, in all human history [...]

    Is immediately followed by:

    There is little evidence from either the historical record or published psychological research to support a prediction that we will have "learned our lesson" [...]

    Maybe I'm mis-reading the intent, but that seems contradictory to me. If we don't learn our lesson from global ecological overshoot and the resulting collapse of industrial civilization then really how likely is it that the following period will be especially enlightened?

    For example, reading Tainter's book Collapse of Complex Societies he spends some time at the beginning surveying the historical record and it is quite chilling to realize how many civilizations have left scant evidence of their existence, not because it faded over time, but because so much of their cultural heritage was deliberately destroyed in the paroxysm of their collapse.

    If my reading of H. T. Odum is correct, information has a high level of embodied energy due to the cultural and technical support systems necessary to keep it intact. As those systems degrade, will the information available to future generations also be lost?

  5. Jerry
    Obviously these are just "thought experiments" as Janovy said. One could quibble with any number of the predictions but I personally thought there was as much wise forsight in Janovy's ideas as any that I have read thus far. Since we all know the meaning of "a worse thing than peak oil is no peak oil" I think Janovy makes a good point that between the possibility of working past our destructive capabilities that exist today which could take a very long time, he uses 1000 years, and the possibility that communication abilities might be retained in some form, I think his idea is possible indeed.

  6. K,

    Indeed, how many centuries did it take for Europeans to rediscover the lost works of the ancient Greeks and Romans?

    If your "thought experiment" can be read as "it will probably take a thousand years for a future civilization to regain some small part of what we will have lost" then you will get no argument from me.