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« Economic dynamics - and the real danger | Main | What's wrong with ideology? »

December 20, 2009


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Great rant George!
Have you ever heard of The Iron Law of Oligarchy?
It is not so much as democracy failed but that it migrated toward oligarchy which seems to be an uncanny tendency that is evident in history.
Needless to say I agree with everything you wrote but at this point the situation seems overwhelming and to expect the organs of the bureaucracy to do anything but try to keep the mess going is naive.

George Mobus

Thanks Porge.

I hadn't heard it stated as a law, but I have read of some examples. Actually this is precisely an example of why I claim our species is sub-sapient. We simply never seem to learn from prior mistakes (pretty much all of history!)

BTW: I certainly hold out no expectation for "...the organs of the bureaucracy to do anything..." Hence the rant. My main hope is encapsulated at the end of the blog.



I didn't mean to imply that you were naive.
My last line was a sigh of rhetoric.

Mark Twain

My own thinking on these subjects has mirrored yours, in many ways.

It's interesting to me that the global economic crisis appears to have influenced those who think about these things to consider the larger ramifications of the tendencies and beliefs of the human species. It's just an observation, and may not be a good generalization; but, the similarities of thought seem significant to me. And, it is interesting that even those who think about these things are only brought to discuss them at the precipice.

Regarding Copenhagen, I am reminded of a James Burke program that he did in the early 90's called "After the Warming". Speaking from a hypothetical future, he laments about the lack of agreement to do anything about CC and recounts the years from 1970 onward with various plans: "1976: A call to action, 1978: studies of the problem, 1980: more studies, 1981: a call to action, 1982: a call to action, 1985: a call to action..." I've been thinking about that scene during these negotiations in Copenhagen.

I am not convinced that the genus Homo is worth saving, regardless of whether some individuals are aware of the danger that the species represents to other forms of life. Despite my desire to see humans in a positive light, it is our embrace of ignorance and belief-systems that truly frightens me in the dark hours of the night.

"There are times when one would like to hang the whole human race, and finish the farce."
- Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court


I think the ultimate fate of homo was written into the complexity of civilisation itself- its expansion and separation from nature of its slave members. Tainter is correct in the the collapse is an intrinsic destiny its only been avoided so far in ours by expansion into the 'developing world' but now there is no-where left to expand. If collapse is as inevitable as civilisations rise (it began simultaneously in various parts of the world so was not a accident)then perhaps the eventual rise of the eusapient via this catastrophe event is not accidental either.
Maybe we are the holocene equivalent of velocotoraptors seeing the asteroid and convinced its the end of everything, maybe we need geological prospective...!


Hmph. When people get emotional, sapience is flushed.

Porge was spot on -- democracy naturally takes this turn historically. If such luminaries as Oswald Spengler are to be regarded (and he was a seer in all senses), the next setup will be what he called 'Caesarism', and when it comes, we will wish for democracy again I can assure you. We still have a lot to be grateful about on the civil liberties front.

The same goes for wanting to 'hang the whole human race' -- being a seer means seeing the big pattern, which emotions only blind us to.

Truth is that the organism we call culture has barely even started to evolve yet; we're one of nature's more dangerous experiments but if we can survive the next century and (crucially) manage to hold onto some records of what has been happening, we will find there has been learning going on -- just awfully slow, too slow this time folks!

I know quite a few seers are out there doing their thing. But I guess pausing to supplicate the heavens is quite seerly style too.

George Mobus


Understood. Just used that as an opportunity to clarify. See you on TOD.



"I am not convinced that the genus Homo is worth saving, regardless of whether some individuals are aware of the danger that the species represents to other forms of life. Despite my desire to see humans in a positive light, it is our embrace of ignorance and belief-systems that truly frightens me in the dark hours of the night."

I'm a bit of a renegade in evolutionary science circles, though my concepts are in line with a few others'. I do see something that looks like progress in evolution, namely the increasing capacity for information processing represented by brain evolution. The branches of the evolutionary tree that led to Homo sapiens do show progressive abilities to capture information, integrate knowledge, and construct anticipatory models of much greater elaboration. This does not depend on teleology but on teleonomy ( ).

In my mind, Homo sapiens is nothing more than another step along the route to even greater capacities with the trajectory now fairly clear with respect to the expansion of sapience ( ). We are just another link in the phylogenetic tree. Or at least we might be. There is no guarantee that our species will evolve into a Homo eusapiens, but OTOH there doesn't appear to be any other genus that has the same potential for more teleonomic evolution than us.

Sapiens will go extinct. Of that there can be absolutely no doubt. The question is whether it will be a link to a yet more sapient branch of the tree (possibly along with other branches as has happened before) or will just die out completely with no subsequent issue.

I maintain a hope that some of us are smart enough and far seeing enough to do a credible job of preparing a seed population that might stand a chance. See my blog on William Catton's book, Bottleneck ( )






"When people get emotional, sapience is flushed."

I think yes and no. One of the defining characteristics of strong sapience is that it is able to modulate emotions but it does not eliminate them. It isn't the same thing as we imagined a Commander Spock (Startrek) to be - purely rational, or at least trying to be. A sapient person still experiences emotions of all sorts. It is how those emotions are then modulated and channeled that makes the difference. A sapient (seer and sage) can still see the "big pattern" and use the emotions to ground it in what is happening. It is only when emotions take over (e.g. lack of adequate sapience) that the otherwise rational individual looses perspective. Sapience is about the ability to balance and integrate emotions and intelligence but does not eliminate the former.

As for the onset of Caesarism, I acknowledge that such could be the fate of our civilization. We might get lucky and find a benevolent despot. But it really doesn't matter. Whatever the trajectory of our civilization the decline of net energy will be the ultimate arbiter of how we organize and what any leader (ruler) can do. We have to remember that all of our notions about politics and economics come from a history where on average, over the long term, energy has been growing. In the new regime, the decline of energy will produce serious constraints on what sort of governance we can effectively have.



You are rocking and rolling.
Keep it up.
I just don't think that there are enough of us out here though.
But I am a pessimist by design.


Mark Twain

George, I enjoyed your review of Catton's "Bottleneck" on TOD (we conversed a bit, at the time).

I agree that there are signs that the species is improving its ability "to capture information, integrate knowledge, and construct anticipatory models of much greater elaboration." I've bookmarked your series on Sapience to read later, and will respond further once I've done that.

However, even if we stipulate that this progress is continuing - and will continue for an indefinite period of time, there are still doubts about the long-term viability of this progress. Most significantly - Fermi's Paradox.

If the progress of life toward sapience is not unimaginably rare (the Rare Earth hypothesis), then there is an absence of evidence that this progress towards sapience continues for significant periods of time (at least in ways that we can detect). Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But, it alters my perspective on the issues of progress in sapience.

I look forward to reading your Sapience series and your future posts. See you at TOD in the meantime.


George, my mistake for putting it that way. As an artist involved in mystical practices for many years now I'm far from a logical rationalist! But I see that you follow me fine. The human feeling function is essential to all wisdom, but emotion-laden rhetoric is another matter. Wanting to hang the whole human race falls into the latter category every time.

Personally, I think it does matter whether a putative despot is benevolent or not! Or I should say despots, because multiple regional governments are quite likely especially in the US. But perhaps what you mean is that we can't do anything to ensure benevolence, so why worry? I could follow you there I guess. :)

The truth is that a move to Caesarism (as shown by someone like Oswald Spengler, a man who knew his feeling function if anyone ever did) does indeed often happen at moments when energy in civilizations declines historically. As a believer in historical cycles I see this moment to a certain degree as something which has come round again, rather than something the human race is facing for the first time.

Only bigger, of course!

Merry christmas to all.


Cold eyed reality?

About 5.5 billion people need to go away as soon as possible.

The quarter billion or so in low lying SE Asia are a start.

Billions more will starve as climate change destroys already marginal food production.

Copenhagen is a joke (always was). Whatever happened would not have garnered a 67 vote treaty sign off required by the constitution.

The only thing we Americans can do at this point is try to set an example and lead.

BUT, authoritarian capitalism (i.e. China) is going to kick our ass as long as we allow a 40 vote Senate minority to rule.

Mark Twain

Jason, it is interesting to me that you take such offense at a quote from Twain, who was arguably one of the greatest American seers (IMHO, he was THE greatest American seer). He was a human who saw the big picture more than most, and who understood the role that emotions play within the human animal.

As he wrote in "Letters From The Earth": "All emotion is involuntary when genuine."


Fair comment, but it's not the quote itself perhaps, so much as that (what with 60-90% of humanity about to die off on the ground, for real) its original somewhat ironized tone turns to ashes in my own mouth, for one.

I'll certainly give you Twain as Great American Seer, whether THE Great or not I have no idea, as I don't exactly construct league tables, but I possibly am oversensitive to nuance. There is a world of difference, for me, between a moment of exasperated condemnation on the one hand, and acknowledgement of a difficult doom -- one in which compassion will be maximally necessary from all -- on the other.

One may *feel* many things, but which feelings one sends into the feedback loop of thought, to mount up into something upon which one judges and acts, is another question. Denied feelings and fake feelings are no answer, but some feelings I do better not whipping up. There will be enough real anger and hatred along presently, I suspect.

Maybe it's just me! I hope you are not experiencing too much 'harassment and dread'; Merry Christmas to you.


another quote:
"We should be the heart and mind of the Earth not its malady." -- James Lovelock, 2007

This is the vision any serious seer needs to grasp. We have had enough of heaven seers. Forget about heaven, hominids - get back to Earth! There might well be a constructive solution to Fermi's paradox.


As a most unlikely 'seer' I can see how Climate Change has become a bandwagon on which anyone and everyone realises they can hitch a free ride, and if I had to bet on it, I would err on the side of believing that the whole 'science' is bogus - just consider the calibre of 'scientists' (in reality naive statisticians) exposed in the CRU emails for example.

However, if it had been identified that a real threat to the capitalist economy was a shortage of resources or an impossible level of debt to developing countries etc. etc., and I were given the task of engineering a solution that didn't result in all-out war, or my rich friends suffering a loss of income, I couldn't think of a better way than introducing a truly global threat related to oil usage that I could 'play' like a Stradivarius as I wished.

The question is, if the result of this strategy should, on the surface, appear to align with the desires of the world's 'seers' anyway, should they 'keep quiet' as the bandwagon rolls, or should they stir up trouble by asking searching questions?


David, I'm sorry you seem to be a victim of the fossil fools' antiscience propaganda. Forget those emails. (The contrarians found not one half serious argument since a decade. Now they resort to stupid smear campaigns. But there is not one smoking email gun - if you study the context. The disgrace is on the side of those who made up the scandal.). And forget conspiracy theory. It's about plain physics and maths, not money or power. The planet is not flat, whatever the fossil fools tell you.


Hi Florifulgurator. I really don't want to drag this good blog down with tedious 'denier' vs. 'warmist' arguments. And I'm not anti-science having been a scientist for a few years technically (which is maybe why I am in the 'it takes one to know one' category!), and now an engineer.

My point is that surely the most perspicacious among us should be questioning everything (!) including the meagre abilities of the CRU crew (and if you'd ever worked with such people on anything remotely similar you'd know just how meagre) and the very existence of the Climate Change bandwagon.

I find it strange how sites I respect like this one, and some others, see wickedness/conspiracy/foolishness/misunderstanding/ignorance everywhere they look, but don't for a minute question the premise that everyone who pays lip service to Climate Change is beyond reproach. They seem to need Climate Change as a fixed stake in the ground, whereas I cynically see everything as potentially not-as-it-seems.

(You may now shout "denier!" at me in a loud voice, and suggest that I am in the pay of an oil company or something...)


Yeah, David, I also don't want to spread out this can of worms here.


"Friedman is one of the smarter observers of the world and how it works.."

I have to strongly disagree with you about Friedman (as well as cap-and-trade) -- Friedman is a simpleton poser who consistently gets EVERYTHING wrong!

I heard him recently berating American (generally speaking) for poor infrastructure -- yet Friedman has been promoting the lack of infrastructure investment along with his pseudo-intellectual promotion of globalization (i.e., "corporatization").

As he has been promoting the non-amortization so prevalent among the American-based transnationals.

Cap-and-trade is nothing but yet another financial scam (as that GAO study demonstrated) --- Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and the oil cartel already have gamed everything: from ownership of all the climate exchanges, to ownership of InterContinental Exchange (ICE), ICE US Trust and direct linkds to the MarkIt Group.

End of that story.

George Mobus


The 'nice' thing about global warming and climate change is that it is, in the end, an empirical question. The truth of the whole thing will eventually come to light for everyone.

My own position is to not rely on faith or belief in anything, but to let the evidence speak for itself. As I doubt seriously that anything will substantively be done one way or another in any case, this experiment will be played out and an answer will be forthcoming. I do, however, wish we as a species were wise enough to proceed with caution given the fundamental physics involved.

As it happens, I suspect we will diminish out fossil fuel reserves past the point of energy break even and find we can no longer pump CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans (don't forget that changes in acidification is also measurable).

Either way, humanity will be learning to live within biophysical limits the hard way.

I think honest skepticism is a good thing. There are a number of specific findings in the climate science that I have thought exceeded the evidence or may have had problems with methodology. But these are specifics and do not throw out the whole body of evidence with some small aspect (I would include human foibles as demonstrated at East Anglia in that category). I don't think I automatically accept everything that someone, say like James Hansen, says. For example, I don't agree with the notion of fee-and-rebate that he favors to put a price on carbon. I accept the need to put a price on it but disagree with the idea of rebating the money to the people since that makes the pain of consuming less. I would be happy with a simple progressive carbon tax, using the proceeds to fund energy research and build out of the energy infrastructure.

But as always, I'm open to arguments, supported by evidence, that could change my mind!

PS. Thanks to you and Flor for not getting into a shouting match. But if you have evidence to bring to bear on any arguments you (everybody who wants to comment) wish to forward, please feel free to do so. I don't wish to quell collegial and honest debate.

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