Well, Actually Too Late!
What do you do when something you always thought was a good thing starts to look like the root cause of our demise? You start asking questions. And you start thinking about the evidence. That is what I've been doing for the past many years after seeing the evidence of failures of some of America's most treasured institutions.
I have to be blunt. Capitalism, corporatism, and profit taking are killing the planet, or large and growing swaths of it. Politics, governance, and the education system are acting as willing accomplices to assist. Of course, it is really the people who work within these institutions who are at fault, both for shaping them to their current embodiments, and for promoting them as good and worthwhile. Ultimately we humans are at fault for being just too ignorant and unwise to see what incredible damage we are doing to the Earth and even ourselves.
I won't recapitulate what all of the various problems are that we are causing or even entertain a conversation about them since the evidence for them is so abundant, and a little simple connecting of the dots will lead to the understanding of how they are all interconnected and will collectively exacerbate our predicament. When the planet is significantly altered beyond recognition there is a very high likelihood that the vast majority of humanity will suffer the same fate. I and many aware writers have covered this before. Only, to what avail?
After watching this drama unfold for the last one and a half decades (and noting the accelerated pace with which it is doing so) I have drawn the conclusion that absolutely nothing can be done at this juncture to mitigate these problems. And even if it could no one with the ability to make a difference will endeavor to do so. I have given up completely on the political and business leadership in the developed world. I've given up on the scientific prowess of the US. I've given up on our education system. Put simply, there is, in my opinion, no institution or group of people who (have the power/effectiveness and) can or would make the effort to change anything that might make even a modicum of difference. There are many people who do see and do try to help, but just like me, have no influence that could conceivably reach the scale needed, at least, to lessen the pain about to be inflicted. There are many, like Bill McKibben, who have relatively high public visibility but cannot seem to move the conversation, let alone action, fast enough to have any bearing on the ultimate outcome.
At least that is what I think will be the case until it is so obvious that we are taking a leap from the high dive into an empty pool. Then, I imagine, everyone will start doing something, in panic, of course. Lots of finger pointing and rending of loin cloths, but it will be too late. Most unfortunate. This is pessimism at its worst, I admit, as well as cynicism. But I come by these attitudes honestly by having opened my eyes to what is happening and seeing what is not happening that should. And it always comes back to the same baseline. Homo sapiens should be called Homo callidus, “man the clever” and definitely not “man the wise.”
The Profit Picture
The two things that are killing us are actually variations on a single theme. They appear as biological and individual economic profit taking. The former translates into exponentially rising biomass concentrated in a single species, us. The latter translates into consumption for the sake of consumption and at whatever speed we can obtain. Both have their roots in the biology of individual organisms. Every organism that ever existed has attempted to maximize its biological profit (excess material and energy over and above that needed to maintain) in order to reproduce as much as possible. Thus we human individuals are effectively programmed to always seek to maximize our resource consumption. However, for us, due to our technological ability to consume exosomatic energies and aggregate material goods above and beyond our mere biomass, we are acting like a catalyst for a runaway process of extraction. And, extraction at rates substantially higher than nature can replenish. Worse still, at the end of consumption, the output waste streams, are coming out at rates greater than the environment can absorb. Ergo, depletion on the input end and poisoning on the output end.
Previous biological entities were always held in check to one degree or another. Most species evolved to be relatively specialized for econiches and when climates changed or invasive species came into the picture, the populations of natives were stressed, as often as not to extinction. All species have had to compete with other species, and individuals generally have had to compete with conspecifics, for scarce resources. This competition led to maintaining relatively steady-state levels of population so that the profit taking behaviors never could cause the species to expand beyond the carrying capacity of the environment. There have been a few notable exceptions and those have been the causes of significant evolutionary events, massive die-offs. The Great Oxygen Catastrophe thought to be caused by the rise of photosynthesis in Cyanobacteria was the first significant time when living systems caused the demise of most other living systems. If you are an oxygen breathing creature you probably don't think that that event was such a bad deal. But if all the other anoxic bacteria alive at the time had been conscious they probably would have thought it was terrible!
The point is that the rule for life on Earth has been an elaborate set of checks and balances that help maintain the biosphere in a sometimes wildly fluctuating, but generally stationary steady-state. Humans have seemingly ruined the balance. I say seemingly because we won't really know what the outcome will be until it comes out! One thing is almost certainly true — we have become the cause of the next great die-off for the biosphere and that may include us.
What is Profit?
I have argued repeatedly that economic profit is nothing more than biological profit gone out of control. Biological profit is just that excess above maintenance and repair requirements that go to reproduction. In nature reproduction is a messy affair with the majority of offspring dying before reaching sexual maturity themselves. Thus evolution has selected for individuals who are compelled to maximize their profit taking behaviors because in most cases the profits will turn to losses with only a tiny proportion making it into the next generation.
Economics is nothing more than an extension into the exosomatic domain of physiology. In “Our Energy Cocoon” I showed how each of us is surrounded by an exosomatic cocoon or wrappers of energy and, by extension, material goods. All of it doing nothing more than providing convenience, speed, and relative security but nothing that isn't part of our normal physiological makeup. However, this cocoon has altered our psychical makeup considerably. We've gotten spoiled. Worse, we actually have come to feel entitled to these cocoons and fully expect them to remain in place forever. Judging by watching people on the streets and public places, even in their cars while driving, texting and talking on their smart phones, these cocoons, provided by technology, are the only “real” world they know.
So economic profit is just the expansion of biological profit amplified through the energy cocoon. And because of our incredible cleverness we have essentially buffered ourselves from the ordinary biological stresses that would keep our exploitations in check. Homo callidus, the only symbol-processing, tool-making hominid that evolution launched on Earth, is both blessed and cursed. Blessed by an ability to attend to the effort and time needed to accomplish biological profit taking and to then imagine ways that he might be able to take shortcuts. Our capacity for affordance, the ability to see how to use existing things in new ways, plus our capacity to combine elements in our minds gives us the ability to create new tools that solve the problems we wanted to solve.
We are cursed because while evolution produced our level of cleverness it was just getting started to select for sapience, the basis of gaining wisdom, in any meaningful way. We are smart and creative enough to know how to solve immediate, local problems but not wise enough to consider what the long-term consequences will be by doing so.
And consider the nature of what we might call problems. Our original biological problems, the same ones shared with all other life, were 1) how do we get enough food, shelter, etc; and 2) how do we keep from being eaten. And we share the same motivation as all living systems, doing this with the least effort necessary. Thus humans started early to find ways to get the most with the least effort and given our ability to make tools that translates into busting out of the biological boundaries. Economic problems are extensions of the biological ones but can be phrased differently. How can I do less work to achieve the same end? How can I get this done faster? How can I get more done in the same or less amount of time? And as soon as our symbol-processing language formulates those kinds of questions our tool making cleverness kicks into high gear.
But look at what happened. Our biological problems are based on true needs, those of survival and fitness. But our economic problems start to be based not on needs but on wants. And wants are controlled by the limbic system, not the prefrontal cortex, which for most people is used just to fulfill those wants. Are our wants legitimate? Do they fulfill a higher purpose in humans then mere existence? Should we not want to be profitable?
And consider this. Why would you not use a sharpened long stick to kill game instead of chasing them down and clunking them on the head with a rock — if you could make such a stick? Tools give us leverage, mechanical advantage. They save time and effort. They can increase our insurance of succeeding. They can increase our access to exosomatic energy. Why would we not use them?
Of course we would and we did. By doing so we gained greater fitness than any species ever. And biology being what it is, and us with very poorly developed sapience we did what nature intended (metaphorically of course). We made economic profits and were damned glad to do so. We didn't ask, as I presume a truly wise person would, “Should we keep making even more profits?” We didn't think, “Once we have enough shouldn't we stop?” And we didn't ever ask, “What is enough anyway?” Those questions would have taken too much wisdom for creatures who were just starting to gain experience in an economic life. Besides, the world was so empty then. How could killing a mammoth for a bit of meat, leaving the rest to scavengers, be a bad idea? In our drive to make economic profits we succumbed to what is now called the Jevons paradox.
Biological profit taking requires controls from outside the system to prevent excesses. And humans figured out how to break out of that situation over one hundred and fifty thousand years ago. Economic profit took over. And it felt really good. By the time agriculture was well underway as a new lifestyle, profit taking became the acquisition and hoarding of grains and other food stuffs and the acquisition of material wealth by those who controlled the land.
How to Make Economic Profits
It all starts with real estate. Capture and control access to land. Extract a raw resource from that land (like food, game, minerals, water, etc.). Process it into something somebody thinks is usable/desirable. Sell it for more than what it cost you to process it. Since you paid nothing to nature for the extracted resource, you don't consider that cost. And then, with the profit, you can reinvest in more real estate (later it would be capital) so you can make even more profit. There is seemingly no end, except maybe the availability of land. But back in the day that didn't really seem to be a problem. Profits could grow indefinitely it seemed.
One of the most ‘clever’ profit-taking schemes has been the banking system. Banks and rapidly traded equities can appear to make money out of nothing and then record profits from fees on the transactions. Now that has got to be the ultimate in economic profit taking. No real product, doesn't even need real estate or capital to back it up (these days). Just create money and pay yourself handsomely for getting away with it.
Here is the kicker. In a consumerist market economy you can charge whatever the buyers are willing to pay. Income minus recognized costs equals profit. And thanks to our old biological mandate we try to maximize profits in the short run. Then we tell ourselves how good we feel about the virtuous nature of greed! You made somebody happy and you contributed to the GDP. Moreover you now have more wealth; you can be a hedonist consumer and further boost the GDP. What could be a better system?
Resources are mostly finite, or renewable on such long time scales as to be effectively finite relative to the rate of extraction. Over the course of human history we have cycled through all of the viable substitutes so the idea that when a finite resource becomes too expensive we will simply move on to the next resource is no longer valid. What, honestly, fully replaces fossil fuels? What can replace fresh, drinkable water?
The idea of profit taking at a maximum rate is now so deeply engrained in our cultures that it can hardly be questioned. Indeed, high profit taking has been a major factor in investing in even greater technologies. And they indirectly funded research and education. So, can we say that they were really all that bad? It depends on pace and extent. We long ago passed too fast and too much. Our profit taking has now far exceeded the planet's ability to cope except in the sense of having a tizzy fit. We now have a whole new set of interrelated problems that will not likely be solved by inventing something new. In fact they won't be solved at all in the sense of us coming out happy. And all of those economic profits we've been so proud of, kiss them goodbye.
Back to Biological Profit Taking
The only way forward now is the way backward. Humanity will have to take a time out from its energy cocoon-based life. It is time to go back to biological profit taking and far fewer individuals living on the planet if there is ever going to be some kind of settling down. The planet will take care of imposing the punishment. We are witnessing the on-set of a population bottleneck scenario and the pruning process will be chaotic and definitely not pretty.
When the dust settles, if there are humans left standing, then life will be very different from what we have come to believe is normal. The human animals will once again be constrained to just the biological profits needed to maintain life and reproduce. I do expect that the few remaining will try to retain some semblance of an energy cocoon to the extent of Neolithic or early Bronze Age lifestyles augmented with knowledge of permaculture and a few more modern tools that can be manufactured with minimal energy inputs. For a very long time thereafter human beings will once again have to adapt to environments with very limited resources. And they will have to evolve beyond the limited capacities they have for sapience.
Sapience and eusociality go hand-in-hand in human beings, unlike the mechanisms in eusocial insects, for example. Eusociality is based on cooperative motivations, that is the desire to work with others for the common good. It is the essence of socialism! Cooperation is not the same as altruism, even so-called “reciprocal altruism.” Altruism is defined as a form of sacrifice in which the altruist lowers his or her reproductive fitness in order increase that of the recipient. reciprocal altruism is considered a mutual benefiting behavior over time, similar to the tit-for-tat strategy in the iterated prisoner's dilemma game.
Cooperation does not carry the weight of up or down changes in fitness of individuals, as is the case for altruism, and can include groups of people rather than just one-on-one. Cooperation on work tasks generally improves the fitness of the whole group rather than select individuals (who may still compete for internal resources in other circumstances). The question is what underlies the motivation to cooperate if it is not expectation of a payoff?
I come at this from a different approach than just psychology (except for the psychology of wisdom). The components of sapience provide some clues as to why people have some subconscious motivation to be cooperative with their fellows. From my previous work I claim that sapience is composed of four basic cognitive loci. One locus is what I have called moral sentiment, which includes the motivational aspects of all that we do. Another locus is that of higher order judgment that is our subconscious master model of how the world works that influences our intelligence decision making apparatus through intuition. This is the wisdom part. A model of how the world works is simply too complex and large for us to work on consciously. Our conscious minds (working memory available to conscious examination) have limits of attention and so most of what we know of the world is stored in tacit knowledge and only surfaces through subconscious processing as judgments.
The other two loci provide more specific, yet generally subconsciously processed, cognitive capacities, and these are what more directly affect cooperative behavior as the default mode (aggression and selfishness are now thought to be triggered by specific situations or as due to brain defects). The first is systems perspective/thinking. This facility, if sufficiently operative, is what helps shape perceptions and guides integration of new information into our tacit knowledge base. It is also responsible for making us look at the larger picture, or attempting to put instances into whole contexts. Systems thinking allows the mind to encompass the whole group and situate the group in the larger environment (which includes other groups).
The second is strategic perspective/thinking, which is the ability to model the world (along with the self) and, in essence, run simulations far out it time and space. It is the ability to use your systems knowledge to see what the likely scenarios for the future look like taking into account all of the model veracity that your judgment and systems thinking can bring to bear.
The combined action of these four loci (which is cooperation!) produces an automatic subconscious motivation and action toward cooperation with fellow beings. Anyone who has been an observer of the world for very long and has built up a veridical model of how it works can feel the long term consequences for whole groups of cooperation being for everyone's good. Moral sentiments include desires to make others happy and to not make them inadvertently unhappy. But it also includes desires to see those who do not cooperate (so-called “cheaters” in game-theoretic treatments of social and evolutionary psychology) punished for not doing so. This is experienced as emotional responses, joy at seeing someone smile at you or anger/disgust at someone's selfish behavior.
Those emotional responses are built into our limbic brains and are frequently our downfall as a species. But sapience depends on a relatively new kind of mediation of the limbic areas responsible for generating emotional responses. Von Economo neurons, also called spindle cells, connect the prefrontal cortex (PFC), with those areas of the limbic brain, with high-speed transmission. It is now thought (with building evidence) that these cells allow the PFC to down modulate the emotion-producing responses so that the PFC has time to evaluate the whole picture and decide if a strong emotional response is appropriate. Wise people have the capacity to throttle their emotions, such as anger or hatred, to an extent not generally seen in ordinary people. I contend that higher sapience means even greater ability to manage the emotions. For example, a wise person may feel an urge to exact retribution on a cheater, but may find ways to deal with the person short of physical punishment.
So my argument is that there is a possibility that humans may evolve even greater sapience capacity as a result of a future stressful environment that will require cooperation among members of groups and not necessarily mean competition between groups per se. Some new research in early Homo evolution is suggesting that we were already finding ways for groups to cooperate more than compete. Group selection requires that there is some competition between groups in order to provide selective pressure on greater cooperation within the groups. But then it also depends on how one perceives who the WE are and who the THEM are. Our capacity to belong to many orthogonal groups might also allow us to consider a hierarchy of groups (like tribes in a region belonging to a single nation).
I contend that humans were in the process of evolving greater sapience before the advent of agriculture. After the demise of civilization the same situation will emerge but with new and more challenging selection forces. Hominids have speciated many times over the last, roughly, eight million years. There is a growing body of evidence that it was usually tied to climate changes and a need to maximize adaptability. The mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA evidence also points to a bottleneck event in human prehistory about 70-80 thousand years ago in Southern Africa. So this story has been told before.
No one can possibly want what is about to happen (actually is already happening) to us. But I take some comfort in the idea that a very long-term good may yet evolve from our travails. The species may go extinct, but the genus will survive.
And What of Profits?
Biology isn't only about unchecked expansion. There have been many instances of biological systems learning to self-regulate their own growth for the good of the group. Eukaryotic cells, and individual multicellular forms are composed of heterogeneous components that have learned to cooperate and to manage (generally) their individual mandate to take a profit (grow or reproduce). So unconstrained growth is not the absolute rule. Cooperation, communications, and a hierarchical self-regulation system can allow a system to achieve a mature status and then enter a steady-state condition until senescence sets in.
Truly sapient humans can use their high intelligence to understand this phenomena and use it to self-regulate their biological profit taking to be in balance with the rest of the Ecos. Rather than depend on outside forces to do the regulating, strategic and systems thinking humans with the motivation for balance and harmony and the superior understanding of how the world works can make judgments to not enter into the trap of economic profit taking. They can be both smarter and wiser than what we witness today. Most members of the current species are definitely not wise enough and, though smart enough to know better, are not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to reason through the evidence. Most are willfully ignorant because they are not wise enough to think through what the evidence is telling them. I just read an article about Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) who continues to assert that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by liberals in order to justify a global socialist government! What a f***ing idiot (excuse my colloquialism)! How does he do this? He was smart enough to get elected (I'm guessing by an equally ignorant electorate). But he simply ignores the evidence and uses conservative talking points (all based on untruths) as if they were evidence.
Sapience, even at its modest average level in our species, keeps most of us able to not be so stupid. But, unfortunately that level is still not sufficient to make all of us alert to what we are doing to the world by insisting on taking economic profits as our god-given right. So when people like Inhofe and most politicians, CEOs, bankers, economists, and even scientists and educators keep telling us that greed is good the vast majority of us buy it and keep on trying to get raises or pay the least we can for goods (so that manufacturers have to seek cheaper labor markets in other parts of the world). We've shot ourselves in both feet (all of our feet combined) multiple times and we can no longer stand, as a civilization or even as a species.
Say goodbye to profits and the institutions that promote them.