What happens when there are no more plants?


If you stop and think about what happens when all the plants are gone, it can become obvious. If it’s not, maybe the results of the simulation can shine some light.

With energy source running out, beings closer to the top of the food chain can still survive and make progress for a while, by feeding on those lower in the food chain. Oblivious to their upcoming destiny, however, sooner or later they go extinct too.

Z. Fras, “Artificial life simulation,” M. S. thesis, University of Zagreb,
Zagreb, Croatia, 2014.

Is it weird to quote your own thesis? I don’t know, is it? Perhaps.

Let’s pretend that’s fine for a bit, because the data is real, the simulation is real, the title is obvious and the world is, not just metaphorically, on fire, so you’re not here for the answer to the question, you’re here to go deeper. You’re here because you hope there’s more. You’re still reading because you hope we can do something about it and you want to know what your part is. Or that’s my mental image of the kind of person you are.

If it was all black and white, we would end here. Quite literally. We’re killing our forests, our plants are dying, simulations are predicting our demise. We ought to write our eulogies as we look at the smoke raising on the horizon as the setting sun paints beautiful, bloody, hues. Our only hope for life would be the Phoenix of the next civilization raising from these ashes, thinking to themselves “What the heck happened to these guys, they had such advanced technology…”. Because life finds a way, and if it was a movie, it leaves room for a sequel.

Luckily, world has shades of gray, and like the bloody sunset, it has color, visible and invisible spectrum. Simulations are not copies of the real world, and this is our first movie, not the sequel.

Let’s dive in

This is not the only outcome observed in the simulation. Two other, at the first glance, equally gloomy outcomes, appeared frequently.

  1. Beings on top of the food chain exhausted their life sustaining resources, and essentially eradicated the world until there was nothing left but plants. This outcome is not that interesting to us humans. The solution sounds simple, we all just (if by lack of choice) go vegan. Until this scenario turns into the one this article is about. So, in your mind, just prepare to go vegan and bundle them together.
  2. Due to sheer luck of the draw and fortunate initial placements, life arranged itself in favorable position of energy flow that led to overpopulation. So overpopulation is fortunate? Compared to extinction, certainly. Our universe is huge, there is still plenty of space to populate. Beings in the simulation bent the rules of the physics engine in rare fluke cases and escaped the confines of their safe little bubble. Just like them, humanity too is exploring the vicinity of our little bubble. Outside of it, our universe is a very hostile place.

If we bundle the first alternate outcome (or convince ourselves it’s fine to ignore it), we notice how obvious the second one is. We’re making accelerated progress with SpaceX, Blue Origin, NASA’s latest plans, and plenty of other, lesser known companies. The only thing left is to address the main one.

The main topic of this article, what happens when all plants die, is also obvious. Yet, while obvious, it carries inherent dangers.

Have you ever thought about what would happen if there were no more plants? A chain reaction!

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Inherent dangers

While the answer to the question “What follows the extinction of plant life?” is obvious and the dangers seem obvious too, what’s not obvious is that it’s a chain. A food chain.

And change in chains travels as a wave. Those who spend time with me on a daily basis (hello teammates) now smiled a bit, sensing a physics lesson coming up. I’ll keep it light, promise. When something happens on one end of the chain, the effects influence their neighboring link, which influences their neighboring link, which influences their neighboring link… Effects are slowly making their way throughout the whole chain and finally reach the other end of the chain. The longer the chain, the longer it takes for changes to propagate.

But Zvonimir, that’s obvious, everybody can see it coming!

Yes, it’s easy when you’re looking from the side. It’s a lot harder when you’re one of the links in that chain. What makes it even harder is visible in those graphs at the beginning. The chain effect allows those removed from the source of disturbance to continue unaffected and even prosper, oblivious that the ground is disappearing under their feet until the change is there and takes them with it. That’s what happened to the beings on the top of the food chain in the simulation. And it might be already happening to us. All the deforestation and fires certainly suggest so. And we wouldn’t feel the effects right away either.

Diving deeper

If we take a look at the number of species extinctions and human population growth correlation, we can pretend that correlation implies causation and that because other species go extinct we can prosper.

Let’s laugh a little and move on from that idea because correlation doesn’t imply causation. Instead, have a look at the graphs from the beginning again. Notice how plant life numbers (green graph) start to drop while second tier life (blue graph) and top tier life (red graph) prosper. It takes plants going bellow a certain threshold for the second tier life to start feeling the effects. It’s the point of no return for these simulated populations. Top-tier life continues to prosper for a while until a lower tier hits a similar threshold. This cascade continues as the effects spread through the chain. The longer the chain, the longer it takes for the top tier to become affected by them.

We know these are not faux correlations implying causation because simulated beings are coded to be dependent on the lower-tier beings for food.

If you were to create a graph showing extinction count and top-tier population growth from the results of the simulation, it would exhibit the same pattern we see happening in the world around us.

Let that linger for a few seconds.

Now what?

The silver lining is the color we’re surrounded with. We poses far greater intelligence and agency than the simulated beings. With that, and with our view from the top, comes great responsibility.

Bringing awareness is great, yet there’s no amount of awareness and activism that would make it possible for you to buy an electric car when you became aware of the negative effects of fossil fuels if there wasn’t for Elon Musk-led revolution in electric vehicles.

Send me a message or post a comment if you’d like to do something about it too, even if you don’t know what you could do. Or tell me in a comment or a message what you’re doing and I’ll see if I can help!

Now that you’re aware, what are you going to do about it?

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