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« The Fourth Annual Biophysical Economics Conference | Main | The Fourth Annual Biophysical Economics Conference - Followup »

November 06, 2012


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It goes without saying that if you printed out your clear and chilling summation and left it on the doormat at the White House, it would make no difference to the end game, whoever "wins" this election. These horses have been led to water for decades, but they just won't drink. Silly asses haven't a clue - and of course if they did, they wouldn't be politicians. Or be their even more stupid and stupefied cronies - the economists.

So I suggest it is an imperative to proceed with one of your aforementioned plans - to store knowledge in some manner that may be accessible in a few decades from now and which will enable any sapient remnants to at least relearn how to rub sticks together to make fire.

A final thought on this Day of Idiots. How far would $2 billion go in assisting the victims of Sandy, the amount frittered away on imbecilic electioneering by both catatonic candidates?

John Wesley Harding

While I've spent my former life as a staunch advocate of egalitarianism and civil rights, I'd posit that Obama was the worse of all choices in terms of the environment.

Obama has demonstrably increased GDP (a abstract representation of energy commanded) and seeks to reduced disparity further--but we know that more disparity in a society seems to actually impeded aggregate energy consumption (supply-side economics is dead).

Further, he has a much less divisive effect on environmentalist who see him as a friend.

In all, Obama may be better for the short term economy and in crafting an equal society that will have a better ability to consume energy, meeting far less resistance. Obama wins all the arguments of the 20th Century, while ignoring THE 21st Century question: survival or extinction.

To our deaths in a Prius we ride.

John Wesley Harding

"How far would $2 billion go in assisting the victims of Sandy, the amount frittered away on imbecilic electioneering by both catatonic candidates?"

Either way, you are commanding energy with a multiplier effect and have zero chance of a return in the context of Survival. Each investment builds up a bigger, hungrier machine--something that is detrimental to all of humanity.

Shouldn't our energy now be spent planting masses of trees for carbon sequestering, soil stabilization and long-term food production (more than FDRs 3 billion)? I'd think that would go much further to help out potential future victims of weather events and drought.


John WH: i agree that the $2 billion would be a waste, but it would probably make a short-term difference to those in need. Your final suggestion would have been a great idea to pursue in the 1970's, along with the "greening" everyone here talks about but relatively few do. Now it's too late for anything. We're on our way out. Get used to it.

George: thanks for the cogent commentary and thought experiment on the faux elections. i totally agree that we're lead by (at best) slow learners and we're running out of rail. Next year should make it abundantly clear to everyone exactly what's going on (you know, in case they weren't paying attention this year).


John WH - I think the time has come to be honest and acknowledge that our ship is holed and it's inevitable that we will go down. Until we succumb to the waves, I am all for helping my fellow sufferers minimize their pain. So I would divert resources to those who've lost their homes, rather than see them freeze to death. An unfortunate "accident" on Capitol Hill while a full Congress is sitting would free up enough otherwise useless dollar bills to re-home all victims of natural disasters - worldwide.

John Wesley Harding

While I acknowledge there is a high likelihood of an impending bottleneck at this point, humans still have a last chance opportunity to determine just how deadly this will be if they focus on building resilience with our resources. Continuing business as usual (consuming energy) in a manner that provides no resilience amplifies our chance at extinction. Soon it will come to the point where no matter how much more energy we burn to save the last victims, we will never have enough to save the future ones in our dying world.

I don't think I am becoming heartless...just trying to be thoughtful.


John WH - I think you are preaching to the converted, at least as far as I am concerned. I have no wish to (somehow, some way) subvert extinction for Homo sapiens. We are unworthy of saving, having inexorably created a civilization that necessarily consumes and destroys, rather than conserves and shares. We are incapable of changing this - it is written into our genes.

Even if a handful of sapient thinkers get this and desire to be something different, they are up against overwhelming opposition in the form of Alpha Males and their proxy physical forces - a.k.a. the money-blinded plutocracy and their protectors in the military-security complex. This is the stark side of Darwinism.

Accordingly, I remain empathetic to people suffering, and believe the terminally ill patient deserves pain relief, rather than some false promise of post-bottleneck survival.

John Wesley Harding

Sometimes I care and sometimes I don't regarding complete extinction; but nature will not ultimately poll me. In any case, I do not completely feel over-consumption is necessarily genetic, and it may be possible that the opposite is true (culture may be overriding a sustainability/balance instinct).

Anyway, this ridiculous story is the end of a 6000 to 10000 year old screw-up. Homo Sapiens have been around long before that.

In almost anything humans do these days, I can't help thinking: "how will this impact the inevitable famine to come". Our culture & system keeps telling us we must consume more energy to solve problems caused by over-consumption. Its not that I am trying to ignore those in pain, but point out the futility of pouring more gas on the fire (instead of building resilience).

BTW, I completely understand your viewpoints and share them occasionally as well. Facing the end, I find settling on a single-mindset difficult at times


It's a very interesting idea that over-consumption may not be genetic, and I would dearly love this to be so, but all evidence seems to point to the contrary. And of course the evidence only goes back as far as recorded history.

On this basis, I cannot see how anyone can surmise with confidence how Homo sapiens behaved prior to recorded history. You say we are at the end of a c.10,000 year old screw-up and that we have been around much longer, but for all we know the screw-up started the moment we evolved from whatever it was we evolved from, apparently in Africa.

There is an inevitability about human conduct in given situations that suggests to me that "culture" is a necessary outcome of our genetics, rather than a thing-in-itself. In other words, if we could be different, we would be different - at least experimentally. The bald fact is that in all societies, brute force and tribalism have been the major drivers in human activity - which at root are genetic (blindly or consciously) in the sense of me and my progeny are what matter to me, and I will fight all-comers to preserve my genes.


PS - It's late where I live, so I will respond tomorrow to any further wisdom from you. Thanks for the debate, John WH.

John Wesley Harding

Evidence only reveals that isolated groups of Agriculturalists were able to shove their way of life down others throats. Unlocking the sun's power probably put them into local overshoot, forcing them to conquest in order to fight declining per capita available energy (sound familiar?).

Evidence to the contrary would show that all isolated groups of humans trend toward non-sustainability and agriculture. This simply is not true. There are groups of homo sapiens today that live a joyful existence in balance with nature. Example:

It isn't that these are mere exceptions, but rather, expansionist agriculturalists have never taken an interest in their resources and decided to convert or kill them (it would not be cost-efficient).

It is the agriculturalists that are typically the exception, but because of their ability to leverage the sun's energy, they multiply and conquer until they appear to be the norm. In contrast, any society that doesn't produce surplus to fuel infinite growth simply gets overshadowed or killed off.


John WH - I'm now scratching my head. This is a case of the more I know, the more unsure I am of what I know.

On the one hand, you aver that the agriculturalists are the exception, but then you state that "any society that doesn't produce surplus to fuel infinite growth simply gets overshadowed or killed off."

Under the Darwinian axioms of survival of the fittest, species Homo sapiens is now almost entirely "expansionist agriculturalists-cum-industrialists". Doesn't this simply prove my point that our genetics have necessarily brought us to this breaking point?

John Wesley Harding

Again, you are assuming that being an expansionist agriculturalist is a genetic trait, rather than a cultural one. But this characteristic is simply not engrained in all humans, and if you trace the origins of this behavior, it appears in a slim minority that shared common cultural trends (like theistic religion with personal dieties).

I believe the source of your human-hating comes from this confusion; but there is another way people can live, and they did so for over 100K years (And some continue to do so today).

If the majority of the world one day embraces the iPad, are we to say that iPad using is in our genes, even though we evolved genetically long before the iPad--a terribly wasteful idea--was shoved down our throats?

You are basically making the argument that all majority human culture and behavior that exists is the result of genetics, even if these behaviors originate in small segments of the population and are forced onto others, correct?


John WH - I really don't know how to answer you, to tell you the truth. I am not a geneticist. What I have to go on is the daily conduct of my human brothers and sisters as I witness it and read about it.

You seem to project the idea that only a relatively few (the "slim minority") follow the culture of expansionist agriculture, but surely almost all of us are party to this - even if it's blindly.

I don't state that all culture and behavior emanates from genetics, but I certainly do think our conduct in over-consuming natural resources and destroying the fabric of our environment is a direct outcome from our species' evolutionary development. We could call this behavior "stupidity" or "unthinkingness" but the point is that we have moved inexorably towards extinction because of this drive to dominate our planet to the exclusion of other lifeforms.

Where does this drive come from? You infer it's from culture led by a few and imposed on c.7 billion of us. I say it's from our genes. I could be wrong, I admit that.

John Wesley Harding

The culture isn't led by a few; its pervasive. Once its adopted it spreads outward exponentially. Culture reinforces itself.

Rather, it *originated* among minority groups (in Mesopotamia for example) and was thrust upon the majority (because these practices lead to overshoot, forcing land acquisition to solve energy deficits).

But, if you will, refer to the following example: imagine an island where the are 100 people, one of which has sociopathic tendencies. That exceptional individual (caused perhaps from genetics) is able to act contrary to the current culture and use the threat of death to enforce a new behavior on the other 99 people: they must walk on their tip-toes or be killed. Their genetic instinct isn't to walk on their tip-toes, but to survive, so they follow the only person who feels compelled to use violence to obtain an ends. In 100 years, if they still walk on their tip-toes, are we to infer tip-toeing is a genetic-driven behavior or the result of a complicated cultural phenomenon?

The only way to tell would be to take their children, put them into a "blank slate" environment, and then see what happens. It just so happens that we have a multitude (dwindling) of "blank slate" populations of humans, uninfluenced by expansionists tendencies of civilization, and they do not exist the way that we do.

It isn't humanity that is the problem, but rather civilization (whose practices give great power to its followers to expand, exploit and exterminate).


I can accept your account. But it does leave me with hovering question marks.

Is our current civilization that is based on expansionism (with all its over-consumption downsides) some kind of accident?

Are you saying we could have turned out differently somehow, and not evolved en masse into rapacious consumers?

Your dividing line between "cultural coercion" and "genetic driver" does seem to be wafer-thin, because if we accept the coercion in order to survive, we are in truth acting in keeping with genetics. Yes or no?

Mark N

Great commentary George! This blog is truly a port in the storm from an insane culture. A wonderful counter to the constant din of those who mindlessly echo the cultural narrative. Thanks!


John Wesley Harding

I would not call our predicament an accident, but the one possibility that unfolded among numerous likely alternatives. It is no more of an "accident" that the creation of life on earth after the big bang; rather it is the result of specific processes unfolding in a system with unique variables.

Because it happened, we are here to talk about it. But instead of condemning all humans, it may be useful to distinguish between ingrained, unavoidable behaviors (like sex) and those that we are indoctrinated with (like buying iPads). In fact, if you likely accept that "all humans are flawed" (except for the ones we haven't conquered yet), you are simply buying into a cultural enforcement mechanism that is beckoning you to submit to, and even fuel, our failure.

With that said, I do admit it is very likely that even with the absence of the Mesopotamian Agriculturalists, someone else, at some point in time, would of successfully pursued this and spread (some societies tried and failed even).

A very real problem (and it isn't a human one specifically), is that the energy to rapidly springboard and develop technology isn't available until after agriculture. Just because we are smart enough to put some seeds in the ground does not make rocket-scientist out of the average ex-hunter/gather.

Despite it initially being humans or koala bears who started planting seeds to create surplus and grow, they *couldn't* have known better until they developed an understanding of how they were impacting the system (science). Instead of being allowed to self-evaluate, the momentum of infinite growth will take over. So is civilization (a human originated institution) the result of human flaw, or the result of a system unfolding that all life could be equally susceptible to?

Civilization, I suggest, isn't a human tendency but perhaps the tendency of the system at large. The instant any being reaches a level that they can increase available energy, but not a level to know better (which comes later), the exponential momentum will spread it everywhere. So why blame human "nature"? Blame photosynthesis. Blame evolution. Blame the fertile soil. Blame the universe.

The sad thought is that now, when we have finally created sound knowledge of how to live (which is ironically how we were naturally living), it may be the end of us anyway.

"because if we accept the coercion in order to survive, we are in truth acting in keeping with genetics"

Surviving and thriving, as all life attempts to do, is quite different than picking the culture and environment we are born into.


John WH - Very interesting statements, thanks. You've given me much food for thought. Perhaps I will need to revisit my blanket revulsion for all things human - by dreaming how much "better" we could have been at this juncture.

Re. The sad thought is that now, when we have finally created sound knowledge of how to live (which is ironically how we were naturally living), it may be the end of us anyway. This is the most heart-breaking series of words I have heard in many a day.

All the best, Oliver

Paul Chefurka

It seems to me that something very strange happened to the human species when we developed agriculture.

Behaviorally speaking, humans appear to be essentially two different species pre-ag and post-ag. It appears that before agriculture we lived within limits, accommodated ourselves to our environment, and didn't apply much innovative horsepower to our way of life. Then in the blink of an eye, we became what looks like another species entirely - one that rejects limits, molds the environment to our own needs, treats everything but us as a resource, and innovates like crazy.

The more I look at the period around the development of "totalitarian agriculture" the stranger it seems. Our behaviour changed so radically the shift feels more genetic than cultural. So much so that that people like Jay Hanson ( can say that our current behaviour is genetically mediated. He can even retroactively edit pre-agricultural history to accord with that view - and very few people object.

What the hell happened to cause such an enormous break in our behavior? It seems to be wrapped up in the mystery of why we developed agriculture - maybe it's even the same question. But I have yet to see a satisfactory explanation of either why we did it or for the drastic break in values and behavior that went along with it.

Where did the idea of "wealth" come from? We got along without it fine for 200,000+ years.

Why did we decide that the accumulation of wealth was a good thing?

Why, after 200,000+ years, did we finally get tired of migrating? Did our feet just get sore?

Why did this shift happen nearly simultaneously (within a 1,000 to 2,000 year span, anyway) in virtually every part of the world no matter how widely separated? Travelling agriculture salesmen?

The reason I ask is that without the transformation of values and behaviour that agriculture precipitated, we wouldn't be in this mess today. Further, if agriculture dies out as a means of subsistence, due to climate change and resource exhaustion, will we drop back to our older, more humane values? Or will we bring our more recent values like aggression, competition, selfishness and alienation with us into a resource-poor world? If it's the latter, what does that imply for the long-term prospects of our species and all the others with whom we share the joint?

A decent answer to the question "What the hell happened to us 10,000 years ago?" would seem to be at the heart of the conundrum, and might give us some clues as to how to approach the coming shift.

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