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« Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom. Not Again! | Main | Sapience, Intelligence, and Creativity Delineated »

February 25, 2010


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Mark Twain

George (if I may call you that now),

Unfortunately, I don't think the 2 options you discuss (do nothing and forced sterilization) have equal potential of being chosen.

First, you hit the nail on the head with this:

"In general, the right to procreation is considered, universally, God given, or at least inalienable."

It is the ingrained belief that everything - EVERYTHING - has been given by God to humans. The species believes, by and large, that the entire universe is under our dominion. This includes the right to procreation.

There is not a similar belief in forced sterilizations. So, I'll put the "do nothing" choice at 99.9% probability and "forced sterilization" (or some such control) at 0.1% or less. They are both possible, but not equally likely.

Secondly, even some of the most sapient (enlightened) thinkers have this same predisposition:

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I would imagine that these sapient humans believed that the right of procreation was included in the statement above, and was worth enshrining in the core beliefs of the new nation. As such, these beliefs approach 100%, while not quite getting there. There is still a non-zero chance that we might choose something else besides "do nothing".

I also think there is an issue with the likelihood of a large enough group of people agreeing on the rate of energy flow decline to allow such a choice ("forced sterilization") to be made. The same large group would then be required at each stage that needed a determination or quantification. Each of these majority agreements are necessary to proceed to the next step, and as they add up, the probability of reaching an impasse (or lack of enough agreement) approaches certainty.

Your writing is superb. Your thinking is just as superb. I agree with almost all of it. However, I don't agree that "forced sterilization" or some other factor limiting procreation is viable.

We are not a wise species. Clever, yes, but not wise.

Account Deleted

I wonder what are the cultural aspects of all this. As we are approaching the energy decline, is there a possibility that some unaccounted effect in the very collective behavior of our species will take place? After all, overpopulation and advanced culture combined have never been observed in the wild. I am proposing nothing specific at the moment, just pointing out at what we may be missing.


Thanks for the excellent article.

My study of history and human behavior suggests there is a 3rd and almost certain outcome of overshoot and resource competition: war.

I think the problem of overpopulation will be solved with nuclear weapons.


One other way overpopulation will be controlled is by rationing health care, a type of medical survival of the fittest.

Robin Datta

"We can choose
to allow billions of people to starve, dehydrate, or succumb to diseases from population density effects."

Actually, we do not have to make that choice. It is the default outcome. We can choose another outcome, but we cannot reset the default.

And there is no reservation or restriction on "Reproductive Rights" that requires the intelligence, knowledge, foresight and motivation promoting actions that manifest responsibility towards future society and its members.

In some ways it is reminiscent of the spawn of frogs or fishes.

George Mobus


Of course, call me George! Just don't call me late for dinner.

As for the probability of one choice over the other, I agree that there is very little likelihood that we would ever consciously choose the one that our moral compass actively points away from. I said: "Of course I suspect that we will choose the former by choosing to do nothing but hope for the demographic transition."

The founding fathers lived in a nearly empty world. The North American continent must have looked like endless opportunity needing people to take advantage of them. I would think that their judgments were not untoward, given the conditions of the time and the history of Christian beliefs. In my mind, what determines sapience, is the capacity to adapt one's views of the world when the evidence suggests that the world doesn't work the way you had thought it did. I don't think the founders had knowledge of things like exponential growth rates and may not have understood the principles involved. Malthus didn't publish "Principles of Population" until 1798 and its contents didn't become widely appreciated for many years after.

Also in earlier writing I dubbed our species Homo caladus, man the clever!


George Mobus


I think there is a very high likelihood that something interesting is about to happen! My bet is on the further evolution of the genus Homo as a result of the collective challenges of energy depletion, climate change, etc. The problem is that you can't predict evolution: could be for the better or for the worse from a morality perspective.


Yes war may be in the mix, but I would guess it would have to be short-lived simply because the fuel necessary to conduct a war is a big problem. Of course there is a non-zero likelihood that someone is going to launch a few nukes in a futile attempt to dominate someone else. But then what? You have to go occupy a land if you are trying to exploit the resources (whatever those might be). Probably smaller regional wars (reminiscent of Middle Ages Europe) will be fought. But I see this as being a part of the do nothing about population option.


Good point.


We are, after all, animals!


Account Deleted

Thank you for the answer.

Evolution might well be the case, but the reason I referred to culture is that it is a highly dynamic and sensitive structure with direct impact on behavior. Can the human culture change as a whole when exposed to these new conditions? I think it is the question worth considering.

And let us not forget that the very conditions we are talking about are the product of our own activity. So now we have this globalized culture facing its own limitations—an unprecedented situation.

A. Lewis

First, you're probably right in general, but I think that war will come before mass starvation or sterilization. Or shortly after the announcement of such things.

Second, I seriously question your analysis of EROEI for Solar, Wind, and Nuclear. The devil is in the details, and you're lacking them. I think they are demonstrably in excess of 1, and demonstrably sustainable. The physics is not hard. The sunlight and uranium and wind are there. Pumped storage is a great solution to variation, especially if distributed.

I have been re-reading "without the hot air" (, by McKay, and I think the only thing stopping us is the political and economical will to spend the money to build these sustainable/renewable energy systems.

I think it's more likely you'll see a series of energy crises, followed by limited (though horrific) wars, matched with powerful countries' realization that they need energy independence, even at great cost, so they'll build the nuclear, wind, and solar, and annex (by force if necessary) the geographic requirements for those. Some will win out and have energy - others will lose.

I'm afraid you're really quite off base to think that the remaining stores of fossil fuels won't be sufficient or used 'in time' to build renewable systems. It won't be smooth and easy, but our technological advances have already demonstrated the viability of all these things - they're just more expensive than coal and oil, so we aren't doing them largely yet (actually, France IS doing nuclear, and if they can survive the crises in some form, will be way ahead in being able to provide a lot of sustainable energy to their citizens, while others catch up).

Your sapience argument is very strong, and is the reason why we haven't, and won't, made an easy, non-horrific transition to a sustainably small population with sustainable energy usage habits from non-climate-changing sources.

A lot of people will die, because we're not sapient enough to get there nicely, but we'll make the transition all right.

Your vision of the tiny fraction of humanity left living in adorable sustainable farming communities is but a dream. Very pleasant (after the first 6 billion dead are buried, of course). Reminds me of Star Trek: Insurrection, and a host of other Sci-Fi.

Sustainable cities will be the way forward, make no mistake about it. Working and living within short energy distance will be how we do it - in fairly large numbers.

I think you should spend more time in the EROEI numbers, because you assume them, and make HUGE conclusions from them. If you're wrong, your whole thesis falls apart.


Thanks for speaking up and thinking out loud about the unthinkable.

I agree with the anlaysis that says there is a 99% probability that the "default" die off will occur before we we do anything like forced sterilization. It seems clear that the organization and resources required will also be affected by energy flow.

I'd offer that we have a closer (than Darfur) to home model for our future: Haiti.

One caveat, though: Won't water and arable land in Asia / South Asia be driving die off before we actually run out of usable fossil fuels?

Then there is Ugg99 (the wheat rust for which there is no immunity) and similar threats to industrial agriculture. North America won't reamin unaffected, I think

Steven Earl Salmony

Thanks, George, for being there just as you are and for all you are doing to protect life as we know it on Earth from huge human-induced threats. You have probably been correct in your identification of formidable global challenges that are likely the result of human activities borne of foolishness, arrogance and greed. To be a species with such remarkable self-consciousness, intelligence and other splendid gifts and to do no better than we are doing now is a source of deep sadness and occasional outbreaks of passionate intensity.

Still I believe in remaining engaged with you and others in the necessary struggle to preserve the future of life as we know it, a sacred struggle in which so many human beings with feet of clay have been involved for a lifetime.

The first fifty years of my life were lived as
if in a dream world, the profane one devised by the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe among us. I had no awareness a single generation would elect sponsors of powerful, greed-mongering economic powerbrokers who would formulate policies and implement business plans that irreversibly degrade Earth's environs, recklessly dissipate its limited resources, relentlessly diminish its biodiversity, destabilize its climate and threaten the very future of children everywhere. My failures include not communicating well enough that I and my selfish generation were ravaging the Earth and effectively behaving in a way that could lead to the destruction of our planetary home as a fit place for habitation by the children (let alone coming generations). Even though it is discomforting and difficult to responsibly perform all our duties to science and humanity, at least we can speak out loudly, clearly and often about these
unfortunate circumstances and in the process educate one another as best we can. Like you, I do not have any easy answers to forbidding questions related to the patently unsustainable 'trajectory' of human civilization in its present, colossally expansive form. Much more problematic, however, is the ruinous determination of many too many experts who have colluded to obstruct open discussion of the best available scientific evidence of "what could somehow be real". If what could be real about the human condition and the Earth we inhabit is not confronted with intellectual honesty and moral courage, how is it possible for the family of humanity to adapt to the practical requirements of "reality" in reasonable, sensible, sustainable and timely ways?

An ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort is likely to be the end
result of experts choosing to remain willfully blind, hysterically deaf and electively mute rather than skillfully examining and objectively reporting on extant science of human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth.

The refusal to respond ably by acknowledging evidence and accepting responsibility for the distinctly human-driven global challenges that have emerged robustly and converged rapidly just now could be one of the greatest mistakes in human history. After all, what mistake in history could be greater than the ones made in our time that lead humanity inadvertently to precipitate the demise of life as we know it and to put at risk a good enough future for the children?

We have entered not only a new year but a new decade as well. Hopefully, the deceit, denial and dishonesty that marked the last decade have ended.

Steve Salmony

George Mobus

Hi Igor.

I think what you are talking about fits what I have referred to as the result of the do nothing (initially anyway) choice. In other words culture will change but only in response to the damage done to our populations (and the world) by having done nothing preemptive to avoid it.

Yes, cultures will change as humans do adapt to the results. I just don't think we are going to like what kind of changes those are going to entail.

Thanks for the dialog.


George Mobus

A. Lewis,

You said:
"Second, I seriously question your analysis of EROEI for Solar, Wind, and Nuclear. The devil is in the details, and you're lacking them. I think they are demonstrably in excess of 1, and demonstrably sustainable. The physics is not hard. The sunlight and uranium and wind are there. Pumped storage is a great solution to variation, especially if distributed."

Well, I must point out that you didn't actually provide any of those devilish details either! As for EROI, I have written extensively in prior blogs about it. I spent my fall sabbatical with Charlie Hall at SUNY-ESF, arguably the father of EROI analysis ( ). What I learned there about the energy sources you claim are OK does not support your assertion. You are right, the devil is in the details and that is why we have so many erroneous numbers being reported in the more popular press. If you care to dig a bit deeper you might take a look at the Biophysical Economics web site. If you dig into it you will find my work.

As for McKay, from Chapter 18:
"But please remember: in calculating our production stack we threw all economic, social, and environmental constraints to the wind. Also, some of our green contributors are probably incompatible with each other: our photovoltaic panels and hot-water panels would clash with each other on roofs; and our solar photovoltaic farms using 5% of the country might compete with the energy crops with which we covered 75% of the country."

He has produced a tour-de-force analyzing Britain's energy possibilities and future. His data re: EROI are old, however, and incomplete. The above caveat should give you pause in forming any lasting beliefs about feasibility on the renewable energy front.

Your scenario is not dissimilar to that projected by John Michael Greer (the Archdruid) in "The Long Descent". My position is that there are too many imponderables to project exactly how the downward side will look. But my models indicate the decline rate for fossil fuels will be much steeper than had been assumed under the Hubbert model. Greer's scenarios are based on the gentler decline rates implied by the Hubbert curve. May, or may not play out that way.

As for my "adorable...dream", I will simply reiterate that the point is not to write a prescription but to ask what is feasible in light of an objective, namely a sustainable living condition in which humans can fulfill their self-actualizing potential. If the analysis guided by the question leads to suggestions for what 'should' be done, so be it. But that isn't my intent.

Finally, I suspect you will need to get into the devilish details to support this assertion:
"Sustainable cities will be the way forward, make no mistake about it. Working and living within short energy distance will be how we do it - in fairly large numbers."


George Mobus

Hi Vern,

It seems some of the regional projections for specific climate change effects support your query. I cannot answer that however. Not my area, as it were.

Regrettably, there are so many different challenges that face us that it is hard to say what trigger or triggers will explode the bomb. All anyone can say right now is the bomb is armed and ready to go off.

Unlike the MAD policy of the Cold War, where we had the discretionary ability to pull back from the brink and avoid massive destruction (we being the US and the USSR) with energy flow decline we do not have a way to choose between a bright future and an energy starved one. Short of an energy supply miracle (which would only buy us more time, not solve the problem) our civilizations will falter and decay. That much is certain even if we can't predict exactly when and how (though many of us expect it will be within the next two generations or before).


George Mobus


Thanks for that comment. For those who may not know it, Steven has been a longtime champion of population stabilization if not reduction.

Steven's GPSO message:\
'Our species has given itself the name “Homo sapiens sapiens”. In light of the deplorable, human-induced state of our planetary home as well as all of the unfinished work we have immediately ahead of us in order to begin accomplishing the many things that some of our brightest and best say “matter most”, are we justified by reason or common sense in naming ourselves as we have or is this way of identifying ourselves a misleading moniker of a sort that reveals more about human hubris than it says about human intelligence, much less our possessed wisdom? Would the name “Homo hubris hubris” be more accurate?'

See also:


Macdonald, C.

Yes to Global Population Speak Out. Thank you for taking and fulfilling the pledge. I’m now trying to figure out what more I can do to speak out on this issue.

H. sapiens will go extinct. It is only a question of when and how. The issue for us today is that extinction in the very short term is now a very real possibility.

I generally agree with the assessments about energy, but I feel that concentrating so entirely on this one element of the problem may deny the complexity of it and thus make continued denial seem plausible to some. In any case, as oil production tapers off, there will be huge efforts to access other fossil, nuclear, biological, and direct solar energy sources with probably disastrous impacts. No sacrifice is too great for the "right" to energy as well as for the "right" to breed.
[N.B.: Biological energy, if it involves agriculture – including wood growing – is not renewable on any time scale relevant to humans because of consequent degradation of the environment, especially soils. Also, I put the word, right, in quotes to indicate that any such thing is a human artifact.]

A limitation of the choices to either mass starvation or “forced population [size management] via sterilization” is artificial. If we could develop anything close to the politics required for forced mass sterilizations, then we could also establish the politics for other systems of control that would be less apparently coercive yet at least as effective. Furthermore, I doubt that mass sterilizations could be effectively accomplished at a reasonable cost, even utilizing the antibiotic method.

But I disagree that we are damned if we choose to actively manage population size. That the “right” to breed willy-nilly is unassailable at any level is as patently absurd as is the right to commit fraud under protection of the “right” to free speech. All "rights" are subject to limitations to protect others against the abusive exercise of those "rights". Breeding is one activity that clearly can be – and is – abused at the expense of communities and of individuals. If we be damned, it will be because we do not exercise limitations on the “right” to breed, no matter how the wording of any bill of "rights" may have been constructed or interpreted.

Thus, there is no moral dilemma. There is only the lack of will to address a problem of giving up a traditional perception of freedom. It is not unlike commercial fishers struggling with the realization that their traditional “right” to fish anything everywhere at any time needs to be regulated or the whole kit-n-caboodle will be lost. The much bigger problem in this case is that almost everyone is a “fisher” when it comes to breeding and there are far too few who are saying regulate before it’s too late.

The problem of deciding who gets to breed was addressed all too briefly. The location of any moral dilemma we might face can be found in this process – any central panel, or group of panels, so empowered will be inherently corrupt and unfair. A system that can find its own equilibrium for the distribution of breeding rights will be far more tolerable and is not terribly difficult to design. There would still be complaints about unfairness, but they would be minimized.

Nevertheless, whatever mechanism is chosen, enforcement would have to be very severe indeed, which means convincing people that the criminality of giving willy-nilly birth is severe enough to deserve the required response. A difficult feat in any culture, especially the one that worships a baby as a god and holds the baby's mother to be the epitome of faultless purity.

This leads, of course, into the question of what population size goal we want to set. Historically, the question is always framed in terms of maximization, yet why it should be maximized is never explained. It seems to me that minimization is at least as justifiable and, given that even a minimum population size is more people than any one person could ever become acquainted with, never mind get to know, then the personal impact is equal to maximization. I have suggested before, and will continue to do so until someone gives me convincing evidence that such a minimum is too low, that a population size where agriculture is optional would be about right. That has been estimated at 5-10 million.

In the end, we are only damned if we do, if we do it very badly indeed. There are perfectly feasible ways to manage population size that do not involve discrimination or favoritism. The argument that it will be economically disruptive is quite valid – but we’re in for severe economic disruptions no matter what we do unless the engineers pull some pretty amazing rabbits out of their hats and we’re very, very, very lucky.

Account Deleted

Yes, the cultural change can (and ultimately will) come as a response to the damage, but in that case it will be a quite superficial one: lifestyles will be simply adjusted to the altered environment. What I would like to suggest instead is that we might expect some organic transition, a change triggered by not mere mechanical but creative forces. While this forces should not be seen as a miracle that will inevitably save us, it is also inappropriate, I humbly suggest, to completely ignore them.

Getting responses from you was delightful, I deeply appreciate your work.

Mark Twain

George -

I must start by saying that my comment was not intended to imply that you were stating that the choices had the same probability. You certainly noted that one choice was much less probable - several times! However, with that said, there were elements of your article that - on the surface - seemed to equate the two choices: "damned if we do, damned if we don't" and "rock and a hard place" are two examples. I just wanted to clarify that one of the choices was highly improbable.

Your further point is very good:

"In my mind, what determines sapience, is the capacity to adapt one's views of the world when the evidence suggests that the world doesn't work the way you had thought it did."

I would take this further, though. In my mind, what determines sapience is "everything George says above" for a critical mass of humanity. The important thing when looking at the ability of the species to change is not that some have achieved sapience - it's that a critical mass (usually a majority) has achieved sapience.

And, while I agree with you completely with your definitions of sapience (and your series on Sapience is excellent, BTW!), I cannot get past the critical issue in our closed Earth system regarding sapience - enough people must achieve sapience for it to have any noticeable effect within the system.

How many is enough? I don't know.

I would argue that even when we achieve a critical mass of sapience on an issue (let's choose food as the issue), we still do not act on that sapience. At the current time, enough food is produced each year to feed all the hungry humans out there. The issue is transporting that food to the people who need it. While we are aware of this issue, we have only attempted the smallest changes to address it.

When I extrapolate this to the future, I am confronted with the realization that those who have more will hold on to that for as long as possible - regardless of the suffering it causes to others.

I suppose this means that I think that our species can become sapient but will still be ruled by selfish choices most of the time.

Thanks again for your great articles!


George; This is the best summary of the subject I have read. The unholy alliance of left and right in politics ensure it will remain a taboo subject.
In practical terms the sheer scale means social engineering on the scale necessary would cause colossal upheaval...but its academic anyway, Copenhagen showed the practical competence of international agreements.
So the default setting will remain, nature via resource depletion will 'solve' the problem eventually. The only sensible starting point I can think of is a way of linking health and retirement entiltement with birth rate. In the 'developing' world people have more kids to provide security in old age. Some kind of global contract such as "We will guarantee a reasonable standard of living and free health care providing you limit your offspring to one" More than one child and you forfit these basic other words you CAN have more than one but you get no healthcare and have to make your own retirement plans because the state will not help you. Harsh yes, but this would be maniditory for every citizen of planet Earth.


And another thing; to those who bleat 'wheres the money coming from for all this'
It should come from a globally binding unescapable Tobin* tax of 2%.

*Tobin tax = Mininal tax on EVERY financial transaction in the worlds financial centres to be ploughed into green projects and poverty redistribution .
The sums raised would be truly colossal.

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