Why might billions of brains be doomed?

Yes, this is a blog about brains, but if you’re determined enough, you can contrive to use that as a starting point for pretty much any topic. This post was prompted after watching the HBO series Chernobyl. It occurred to me that the meltdown may have doomed our entire species, in spite of the heroism of the various Ukrainians involved in the damage control. We’ve not been condemned by radioactive waste, but rather, the fallout has been fear of nuclear power. Had nations across the globe continued to expand our nuclear energy infrastructure through the 80s, 90s and 00s, then millions of tons of carbon dioxide released from coal and gas might have been spared. Counter to our fears, nuclear waste isn’t what’s set to cause the most dramatic, planet wide mass extinction since humanity started up.

This is going to be a post that focuses on climate change. If you’ve only got a short while to spend on idle interneting, then I will be delighted if the only part you take note of is the first step – it is the science, not my meandering arguments, that I hope will most impact you.

Step 1
Read the IPCC’s 2018 report on the state of play and then these reports (2) (3) of what happens when a neutral risk assessment is undertaken bearing in mind the best climate change data we have.
If you’re more of a video/audio learner, this presentation (link starts at the juicy part, but it’s all good/devastating) by Professor Kevin Anderson from the University of Manchester, and this presentation from Extinction Rebellion covers much of what I’m going to talk about.

Step 2

Accept that whilst some of the projections lie outside the scientific value of publishable certainty, they are all credible possibilities. Neat statistical ‘significance’ doesn’t translate cleanly to the decision making one has to make when the stakes are mass human extinction – as XR put it, “you wouldn’t put your children on a plane that has a 1 in 20 chance of crashing”, and “you don’t wait until you’re sure you’re going to hit the iceberg before you start turning your ship away from it”.

Step 3

Appreciate that the death toll has already started, and it will in our lifetime, have a real chance of reaching the billions no that can’t be right. millions. oh shit. tens or even hundreds of millions. Humans all over the world, starting in (but not limited to) developing nations, will begin starving or droughting* to death as crops and soils fail, succumbing to novel pandemics and diseases for lack of clean water, or being killed in worldwide conflicts over what little food and water remains available to us. These numbers are not the figures you will see in the IPCC’s report, but are derrived from a credible scenario based study that incorporates factors of salination of river deltas and the mass migration that sea level rises will precipitate. As sea levels rise, up to a billion people on the planet will need to be relocated, and up to two billion more will have a strain on their supply of fresh water.

Step 4

Before you think this isn’t likely to affect you, just know that the city of London contains enough food to support itself for just 3 days, and depends on a diverse and sophisticated, but not invulnerable, supply chain that could easily be disrupted by something as mundane as a 4 week long heat wave of 55°C – As pointed out in the above video by Prof. Anderson, “there is a widespread view that a 4°C [temperature rise] future is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems and has a high probability of [continuing to increase to even higher temperatures]”.


Now you’ve undertaken these steps, I present the ‘Choose your own adventure’ options below:

  • “I always vaguely knew we were headed for disaster in the future, but until I can’t get avocados from my nearby cafe it doesn’t really concern me”
  • “Well at least the people in power are making changes to sort out this mess”

Human brains and the societies they precipitated did not evolve to deal with many/any of  the challenges of the modern age. Put bacteria in a petri dish tailored just to their liking, and they will expand and consume with reckless abandon until all the jelly is depleted, and they themselves expire. So too will a capitalist global society that is capable of total exploitation of its planet’s limited resources.

One can apply the basic principles of ‘survival of the fittest’ to the various forms of government that have developed over the last few hundred years across the globe. Part of that survival is a resistance to rapid change in the absence of a readily apparent existential threat or cake deficit, and rapid change is certainly what is required for us now.

The First World War killed just over 1% of the global population, and the Second World War killed 3%. These two incidents produced the more or less unheard of circumstances of ‘Total War’. Entire continents transformed their whole societies and economies to serve the war effort. In a matter of months, millions of people were compelled by their governments to sacrifice either their lives, or the quality of their foods, pastimes and freedoms. But in both of these cases there was an enemy you could point a finger at, no shortage of capitalists that had everything to gain from war profiteering, and the cheerful notion that this hardship would all be over by Christmas.

The scale of global human deaths and displacement that a 3-4°C increase would precipitate is unlike anything our current political system has ever dealt with. The Black Death in the 1340s killed off somewhere between 30-60% of Europe’s population (~22% of the global population of ~450 million) but the expert opinions for the levels of displacement, food shortage and disease are in the billions (vs. the 20 million people displaced in WW2). You’d think that would be enough to kickstart some pretty drastic changes.

The following excerpt is from the ‘What Lies Beneath‘ report cited above, which I highly recommend. It is one example where I found actual numbers put to the resultant human population reduction – such speculation is based from the most extreme outcomes of ‘hothouse earth’ scenarios, and includes the sum of previously mentioned factors such as war, famine, disease, flooding and extreme weather.The 80-90% reduction of global population mentioned is a dramatic figure that seems to be cited from a presentation about 8 years ago, but I’ve got in touch with the author of that presentation to establish from where it was derrived. Regardless, it does seem to offer a frightening upper limit of the destruction we could be exposed to if we don’t act – more conservative estimates (acknowledged recently by the WHO to be significant underestimates) are in the region of 250,000-750,000 additional deaths per year as a result of climate change.

Miscellaneous reference

Excerpt: ‘What Lies Beneath’ Page 14 



What has the UK (best of the bunch of the G7 nations) achieved in the last decade?

  • A target of being carbon neutral by 2050 (when we are already not meeting our previous target for 80% reductions).
  • Cutting our coal usage massively, mostly through burning more gas (this has been our single biggest win).
  • Promised to invest in wind power, (though the land/sea area needed to make up our shortfall in energy is around the size of Wales)
  • Projects for 3 out of 6 new nuclear power stations abandoned  due to lack of governmental funding (which means that we’ve left ourselves with no more room to cut carbon output when it comes to electrical grid energy).
  • The nebulous plan of carbon capture which is still magnitudes of scale away from viability.

It is almost depressing that the UK have been doing the best out of our G7 colleagues (And Agent Orange might end up in power for another term), but even the above leaves an enormous amount to be desired. This presentation in the French Parliament a few days ago highlights how far short we are falling. The reason for this lacklustre response?

I’d make the case that its because the threat we face is not born from an overseas villain our Western populations can demonize – it is ourselves. When has a population ever shouldered such responsibility, when there exists the opportunity to shirk or deny it?

The mighty economic machinery of a war economy, which by 1918 had taken just 4 years to transfer the much of the accumulated wealth of 330 years of British Imperialism to the USA, is not on our side here either. Simply look at the fossil fuel industry’s cover-up of climate change data and ongoing lobbying against climate change policies. Furthermore, the very valuation of such companies is derived from their plan to burn every last gram of dinosaur-juice they have in their wells. Aside from fossil fuels, any meaningful climate change strategy will necessarily involve a massive curtailment in consumerism – personally owned cars, regularly refreshed wardrobes, and an all-season-round food availability will all become things of the past. Not exactly the capitalist’s wet dream.

And what’s worse, is that these curtailments aren’t just for Christmas. The threat of a runaway greenhouse effect is here to stay for the indefinite future of our species. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel in this regard, and millions of tons of coal and oil is going to have to stay underground for us to avoid truly apocalyptic temperature rises.

There is no way of tackling climate change that does not restrict the current freedoms enjoyed by the wealthier members of our global population. The freedom of movement needs to be restricted through financial or other means, to start to curtail the ever increasing impact of 1.32 billion active road vehicles4.3 billion flights each year alone and 53,000 merchant ships to continue to pump greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.


So how do we fix it?

Well the first thing to do is write a nice long blog post about it. You’ll feel much better then. You can also agonize over whether donating to Extinction Rebellion or The Climate Coalition will end up with your name on an eco-terrorist watchlist.

Afterwards, consider petitioning your local MP for whichever you think is most sensible from the following options. I’ve found the most effective way to submit these sorts of things is to scrawl the suggestions on waste cardboard, tuck it into a glass bottle and then drop it to a nearby recycling plant… but you could always try an email.

  • Total war scale, societal and industrial changes in
    • transport – massive curtailment in non-public and aviation travel.
    • food – huge restrictions of dietary variety and likely vegetarianism/veganism by necessity.
    • housing – compulsory insulation of every household, replacement of every gas heater with electric
    • waste avoidance and reduction
  • Significant expansion of nuclear, solar and hydroelectric energy.
  • Compulsory carbon costing on every product and company logo, akin to the dietary traffic light system, with associated taxation.
  • Mass re-forestation (this might actually work!)


Our planet, as Professor Anderson states, is heading towards a global system wide change. We might still have a very short window of time to determine the nature of this change.

We can have our diets changed either to predominantly vegan/vegetarian through collective conscientiousness, or to the diet of mass starvation through global crop failure.

We can choose to vastly reduce our flights around the world to limit our carbon footprints, or have viable destinations reduced to rubble through war or desert through war and drought.

We can take family planning seriously, or have our plans for families torn apart.

We can use our brains to avert this catastrophe, or let countless millions of minds suffer the consequences of inaction.

In the end, the choice is between putting pressure on our government and the international community to act drastically now, or suffer the loss of having any palatable choices to left to make.

*NB. ‘droughting’ is barely a word, and I use it only because we don’t have a neat word for ‘death by dehydration’. Interestingly I’ve seen it argued that this is because merry old Britain is too rainy for the English language to have needed one.


And so ends medical school

This self-indulgent little spiel was conceived after my audiobook ran dry during a long drive south from Stoke on Trent. I’ve neglected this blog for far too long, and felt the end of my medical school career warranted some brief mention. Anyway…

I’m about to become a doctor. I graduate on Thursday the 7th of July, and am given my provisional registration with the General Medical Council on the 25th July 2016. This will mark a rather extreme transition of state, from the infamously carefree life of a student, to all the responsibilities and expectations of “being a doctor”.

As I approach this stark threshold, I’ve been looking over some of the angsty reflections I’d indulged in as a teenager (thankfully before I was given a blog), and it’s been a bit like bumping into an incredibly inebriated version of yourself a few hours before you leave for a party.

I am writing this in part so that Dr Low of 2022 can look back on what was on the mind of Mr Low of 2016 in (presumably) the same way. A lot more seems to have happened in the 6 years of medical school than the half dozen years preceding it – whose meagre highlights were video games, music and the romantic tact of an adolescent whose best (read: only) line was “I’m in a band…?”.

Since then, my repertoire of emotional and romantic discourse has expanded hugely. I’ve managed to get this far with Mei partly on the back of “I won’t always be this useless – I’ll be a doctor in a short while, and I’ve heard they’re great!”

Dinner table talk – albeit some that can cause the more soft stomached of my friends and family to groan, has certainly improved. I’ve seen internal organs inadvertently delivered via C-section, only to be frantically reinserted (twice) by incredulous obstetricians. I’ve called over doctors to help resuscitate a patient we’d previously declared dead after 6 rounds of unsuccessful CPR, when I noticed he’d started breathing again of his own accord. I’ve helped out a man stabbed at Kentish Town station, and had to explain to my flatmates why I was covered in blood, and “no it isn’t mine”, and “no you don’t have to keep glancing at the nearest exit”.

All in all, it’s all been rather exciting, and if you or someone you know want to embark on the process of becoming a doctor, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Medical school can be a great way for sheltered white heterosexual cis-males to gain a sense of perspective in this exciting world.


I hope to revisit sleep and dreams at a later point, but here is a brief crack at providing something interesting before I delve into exam season, and is the first piece I have written particularly for the purposes of this blog! Enjoy.

Almost every single organism we know of, from bacteria to blue whales has a some manner of circadian rhythm, and all of those with a brain have some manner of equivalent to sleeping.

While the simplest explanation for why we must sleep is that we become sleepy, sleep deprivation is eventually 100% fatal. A study into sleep deprivation in rodents was conducted, and within two weeks, every single subject died. When autopsies were conducted, nothing was found to be obviously wrong, except for the tell-tale signs of not breathing and zero blood pressure, commonly found in things that are not alive.

But beyond this perhaps ethically troubling experiment, a rare condition exists in humans by the name of fatal familial insomnia. It will come as no surprise to the more attentive reader that this too is invariably fatal, and is a condition caused by prion buildup in the brain leading to progressive deterioration of the ability to sleep. Death usually follows within 7 to 36 months of the onset of symptoms, which progresses from a state of partial insomnia leading to panic attacks and hallucinations, to total insomnia leading to dementia and death.

What is sleep? I think of myself as a consciousness generated by my own neuroanatomy, so when I am unconscious, to an extent you could argue that I no longer exist. You could use an analogy with the image produced on a computer screen as the conscious awareness produced y the unknown workings of a humming desktop computer. The screen will go into standby after a while, but the overall hum of the computer will not disappear entirely.

The analogy, while perhaps already a strain, ought not be taken much further. Computer screens will turn themselves off to prevent ‘burn in’, and while an interesting case could be made to apply this analogy to the mind, the reality is that scientists are still struggling to provide a definitive reason for why we need to sleep, or indeed point to the mechanisms through which insomnia causes immune suppression, depression, and even death.

Massive thank you to Mei Mac!!


So this website was set up on my behalf by the apparently tech savy Mei Mac, without my knowledge, permission or consent.
That being said….

It’s so cool! I’d been urged in the past by friends to get into blogging, but in her infinite wisdom, she was aware that I’d never get round to it without a kick up the bum. Now that my bum is sufficiently kicked, I’m really looking forward to musing about consciousness, and I’ll also be sharing any thoughts I have about developments in the neuroscience world.

I’ll probably take a while to get into the swing of this blogging business on account of exam stuff, and I hope to buck up the standard of my writing for anyone who enjoys what I blab about. So watch this space.

Mei definitely got one thing right.
Brains are fucking cool.