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« Homo sapiens, I'm glad I knew ye | Main | A Heartfelt Thank You »

May 24, 2010


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Neat calculations George I agree with your sentiments. You question what should our species do? Also requires the counter what should they not do? In answering that question they would have a few clues from the demise of current civilisation....
Reconnection I would say; reconnection rather than separation, reconnection to community, to nature, to the universe which begat us and embracing not forgetting of being...which is the cultural componant hinted at by your aesthetic appreciation of music. Artistic multi-dimensional culture has a huge largely untapped potential for resonating and communicating the 'underworld' of existance beyond the narrow torch-beam of our conscious attention..... quality rather than quanitity of our experiences. Showing us the futility of the frantic inertia of growth, development exapansion domination and control of nature and our fellow humans...the things our species should give up henceforth because (20th century prime lesson) they were a project doomed to failure from the start.


If you were living in (say) the year 2100, what would the graph of global human population look like, looking back over the previous 2 millennia? Would it be coming down even faster than it went up? Where would the peak be? How far down will it be by 2100? I know that it's impossible to know but it would be interesting if you could hazard a guess.


George Mobus

Hi GaryA.

All it takes is wisdom.


According to the UN Population Projections by 2100 the world population should just be starting to decline after leveling off at 9.5 billion by about mid century. Personally I don't think we'll ever come close to 9 billion without some major (and I mean major) miracle in energy. Things are starting to come apart at the seams now, today. Within ten years we will be on a major downslide in energy and population will follow shortly. What the shape of the curve will be is completely conjecture.

One possible moderating factor for the population in the US is that the real problem is total biomass in human form. Since there is a real obesity problem in this country we may first see a reduction in per capita weight as people go on forced diets! But once all the excess fat is burned up, then the real problems start.

What could make the curve steeper would be any number of radical social upheavals causing rioting and a government crackdown. Real bullets were shot at Kent State U. Just imagine what they'll use to quell the crowds in our cities.

Finally, the real Black Swan is the potential for an outbreak of a serious killer disease like influenza. Our current and constantly increasing population densities in cities makes us easy targets. Couple the overcomplexity of our public health system that has trouble tying its shoes let alone head off a new disease with the diminishing availability of fuels to move medicines and bodies and you have a real horror story brewing.

And then the bottleneck.



Enjoyed your post (and the link to Brandi Charlie). Maybe you're vision of a responsibility to our future "eusapient" Homo sapiens is too limited. Are you acquainted with the "uplift" series by David Brin? Maybe we should be working with "pre-sapient" species (great apes, dogs, cetaceans) to hurry them along towards sapience - a less lonely future for our decendants...


George, I think you know by now I like the "metaphor" of growth to maturity for describing what a physical system needs to do to become sustainable, grow to maturity...

What keeps humanity from adopting that approach to our use of the earth, is the question. Something drives us treat the music of life as if amplifier feedback, so on the first note of modern civilization we are taking our new found power of science and reason to the point of blowing out all the speakers and all the instruments. Why is hard to pinpoint.

I posted a nice couple comments on it on DOT EARTH this AM, on the critical moral and practical difference between "the golden rule" and "the rule of gold" humans have been living by and treating as if "normal" for so long.
Well,... one of the other "golden rules" is one we need to break our true addiction to.

That's arranging economies like casinos, where everyone is offered sure bets of a wide variety and encourages you to keep piling your winnings on your bets. It's a very effective way to manage the economy and the earth as a casino where the house is sure to lose ever more on every bet, giving away wealth to idle users ever faster.

No wonder the finance industry (of the 1400's I guess) set up government to establish that central purpose of economic regulation.

Not to avoid mentioning the more "golden ethic" we've been failing to recognize, in the failure of the "rule of gold" in managing the economies to guarantee the bets of idle players and encourage them to pile on their winnings.

It's that betting with a guarantee to win is no bet at all. That's also because it otherwise naturally craters your environment to take such bets and continually add your winnings to them. Everyone is then both naturally and morally obligated to give away their winnings, any time they come from the synergy of the place in which they were found. That is indeed where the great majority of profits do come from.

It's elemental math, involving a recognition that the synergy of all the others around you is not your private property, but a stewardship responsibility.

That's unfortunately, almost a completely foreign concept in our culture, having been run of, for and by the wealthy for so very many centuries it seems. Maybe it comes from the sloppy way we tend to buy someone's story, just because it seems give you part of the spoils. That may seem profitable at first, yes, but it's apparently not actually be a very good form or reasoning.

Robin Datta

Yes indeed, a feasible living situation of the future would include both appropriate primary economy (nature) and the secondary economy (labor), to borrow the ArchDruid's terms. The golden rule, "He who owns the gold makes the rules" (as I had once heard) has been applicable ever since we have had tertiary economies.

Depending on its robustness (if such a term can even be applied to a faith-based system of promises as is the tertiary economy), the tertiary economy may continue to sustain that golden rule.

Regrettably with that golden rule the rules that are made are designed to facilitate the further accumulation of gold.


Everyone -- don't forget that the tertiary 'casino' begins as ways to hedge risk. That's a good idea. Yes it ends in the crash of society quite regularly, but that's because no-one sees fit to control speculation on values that arbitrage risk. People with the power to regulate it are too busy making money off it. :)

"Sapience" would involve seeing the long-term systemic effects of such things as they happened and correcting for them. The alternative is 'credit is bad'. That works for populist religions that arise in times like these, ("usury") and we're going to be hearing it a lot. But I can pretty much guarantee more risk-hedging in any putative human future. We're in a cycle here.

I liked this post George, so far as it goes (you know I don't think the bottleneck will be as narrow as you do). I agree with what you are saying in the final para, contra those who say cynical despair could be more useful -- but I would word it a lot stronger.

Despair and (in the modern non-philosophical sense) cynicism are not merely emotionally inappropriate compared with 'optimism', they are flat-out not sapient and can't even be considered viable responses for one moment. This has nothing to do with 'optimism' in an emotional sense.

I don't know where people are getting their old-time wisdom doses (I like Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism and Taoism) but wherever you look, you won't find many recommendations in favour of despair as a viable option for wisdom, or indeed as anything other than a copout. This has nothing to do with judging humanity's worth or even its viability -- it's to do with what works constructively in practice, taking a long view, which is precisely what wisdom/sapience is supposed to be about.

Everyone is starting to get an idea what they should be getting on with on the ground, and there is not one rational argument against doing it; whether it happens to work or not is as you say unknowable, but it's also completely irrelevant.

George Mobus


Indeed I am familiar with David Brin's work. I knew David when I lived in San Diego a couple of centuries ago. I used to hang out with the sci-fi writers crowd, of which David and Greg Bear were the nucleus. This was before either had really made it big (I'm even mentioned by name in Greg's novel "Queen of Angles", but I don't remember which pages).

Fun to think about, but given the great differences in the brain architectures of various kinds of animals I seriously doubt that any such program would work. Chimps maybe, or at least some increases in cognitive abilities toward human-level intelligence.

We are a long way from knowing which genes do what in brain development (though there are some interesting beginnings here). So I can't imagine that we'd know which genes to twiddle any time soon.


George Mobus


I believe that from my understanding of your writings ( that we seem to agree that a sigmoid curve is the natural order of things and that human expansion has been the anomaly. I think, too, we agree that the sigmoid is due to an early dominance of positive feedback mechanisms because there is some kind of time lag in the growth of negative feedback loops. At the center inflection point of the sigmoid the negative feedbacks begin to overcome the positive ones and that is what we see in the deceleration effect. Then, what happens after the curve reaches its apogee depends on whether there was overshoot (positives dominated for too long in the system building up excessive reaction forces in the negatives) determines if the curve levels out into the classic sigmoid or goes through a peak and rapid fall. The Limits to Growth model showed this effect and was based on these dynamics.

As to what has allowed humanity to break the mold and far exceed the ordinary carrying capacity of our environment, I think it is the emergence of a new level of organization. I see it as similar to what Teilhard de Chardin ( ) called the noosphere, the sphere of mind that sits atop the biosphere. What we are witnessing is the sorting out of, the self organizing of meta-mental structures in this new layer. In such newly emergent media there is always chaos.

There are no guarantees that this new level will succeed, of course. And there is no way to cause it to! I do think that the emergence of sapience and the evolutionary drive toward eusapience represents the self organizing going on. Too bad we won't be around to see the results :^(


George Mobus


Don't you think that should there ever be a future viable primary and secondary economy that since we now understand the relationship between money and energy that a tertiary economy would not arise? If that future civilization were to adopt the exergy standard of currency (i.e. one unit of money = x units of exergy) then the money supply would always match the ability to do work and there could be no borrowing from the future (only from savings and for limited times). In fact with a reserve requirement of, say, 95% and no loans from savings longer than 1 year, the impact on money supply would be negligible. Further restrictions on the conditions of borrowing (say to repair damage) rather than growth (building a new house instead of repairing the old one) would assure that no one could start gambling about how much profit they will make at some future time.

Get rid of the gold.


George Mobus


My own preference (as I indicated in my response to Robin) is that the only viable and useful hedge against risk is an adequate savings. The kinds of risk-hedging that goes on in Wall Street these days is hedging bets on bets. The theory, from finance, sounds good but it is flawed. It works only as long as energy flow is increasing. When energy flow is decreasing the risks are greater than calculated from models based on past experience with rising energy flows. We simply cannot bet that we will be making more wealth (real wealth) in the future when we have less and less net energy to do the work with!

The future will require diligence, frugality, and savings. These are values that worked well for humans for thousands of years before we discovered oil.

As for despair, I agree wholeheartedly. To succumb to that emotion is a personality flaw. Those who do will almost certainly be the ones selected against! Survival and a future thriving population depend on wisdom, intelligence, creativity, and gumption - nothing less.



GM -- The kinds of risk-hedging that goes on in Wall Street these days is hedging bets on bets.

Oh I fully agree, but "these days" is the operative phrase. What you're calling "adequate savings" is just where insurance begins after all -- essentially paying into a pool that pays out when needed. The problem is when it goes fully tertiary and speculative, and "metastasizes" (as Greer would say) at such a furious rate.

I'm kind of surprised by your reply to Robin though -- you say "we now understand the relationship between money and energy", but who is this "we"? Maybe your readers do and a few other people, but I see a very high possibility that the knowledge won't make it through the bottleneck, don't you?

Maybe your best bet is to start making a big rock inscription, Oenoanda Style. It worked for Diogenes!

George Mobus


Something like that is in the works! The "we" is the biophysical economics (and to some extent the ecological economics) crowd. This is the kind of stuff we do!

Here is are the slides from my 2009 Biophysical Econ meeting presentation:

It isn't a new idea, just needs more work.



I'm very aware of the thermoeconomic stuff, systems stuff, ecological economics etc. etc. (And I think it's great BTW). All I'm suggesting is, you might want to think how you can be sure to pay it forward to whatever succeeds us.

I talk about Greek philosophers very liberally, but we so nearly don't have them, and this time we might not have an Islam to hand them off to. Culture doesn't necessarily survive dark ages, that's why they're dark!

And what does survive tends to do so because it's useful to each generation. Oenoanda contained wisdom meant to help with life during the collapse. But we'll see the end of money during the decline, and there may be a hate-backlash against money that lasts for centuries, followed by feudalism that doesn't require it for centuries more. To hoard economic theories like Hall's and yours, etc., through all those centuries could require some forethought. No?

I don't think it's impossible, I just suggest it's worth a headscratch or two. It'd be a shame, having produced a theory that could prove so useful to our successors, if they never saw it! I've seen some fancy ideas floating around about indestructible microfiches deposited in monasteries... short of that, how does one ensure the survival of information?


Apropos Oenoanda,
"I declare that the vain fear of death and that of the gods grip many of us, and that joy of real value is generated not by theatres and ...and baths and perfumes and ointments, which we have left to the masses, but by natural science..." (-- The Epicurean Inscription (Abridged)
by Diogenes of Oinoanda (c. 200 CE)

Already said in the last thread, to preserve some of our knowledge: my suggestion is to form some sort naturalistic religion around science (and agriculture). Knowledge will survive best when actively used and pondered. Not microfiches in monasteries, but brains in monasteries. (But I suggest to drop chastity and poverty and replace the classic vows by non-procreation resp. carbon negativity. A bit more at ).


@Florifulgurator, agree living traditions will work better than dead ones; it's just that like I said, it might be hard to keep theories about money "actively used and pondered" when no-one is using any money for a few centuries.

Some sort of catechism perhaps? ^_^ Or maybe there is a scriptorium approach possible where the idea is to write the history of the fall and continually explain it in terms of exergy, then illuminate the results on vellum.

JMG is just talking about monasticism on his blog today, matter of fact, but I agree with him that traditions like that won't spring up in earnest for a hundred years yet.

Not that I'd stop anyone being in the vanguard of course! Myself though, I practice spiritual discipline for actual spiritual reasons, oddly enough.

George Mobus


I should have been clearer when I said, "Something like that is in the works!" I was referring to the fact that I have been in conversations with several people who are thinking about methods for selecting, encrypting (for compression), and archiving critical knowledge for a distant future generation to decrypt and start using. So we are thinking about this problem. However, if you have some more thoughts on the subject please feel free to e-mail me or post them here. It is a very worthy subject to pursue.


Some kind of tradition, based on beliefs in how the world works, is certainly natural to Homo sapiens and would be essential to foster while this species begins the process of sympatric speciation that I have envisioned. A more eusapient species of humans would, I presume, better understand why they believe in the tradition, whereas our current, weakly sapient kind might easily forget the purposes and let a tradition morph into something, possibly harmful. After all, isn't that how Christianity morphed into greedy capitalism?!

The reason I think we need to ensure that any bottleneck survivors are as maximally sapient (genetically) as we can is that this might help minimize the loss of meaning. Sapience, as evidenced by attributes of wisdom in later years, is highly correlated with deeper understanding vs. superficial knowing of facts. But of course the whole scheme remains a conjecture regarding a crap shoot!

At present I am enamored with David Holmgren's version of Permaculture as it entails a "spiritual" dimension that is not based on dogmatic beliefs as found in most religions, but in practical wisdom regarding natural systems and the application of systems thinking to a human built world. I think that traditions built up from this kind of approach could be maximally successful in being passed on intact from generation to generation.

Jason (again),

I may have missed that JMG post. I'll have to take a look. It has been a busy week (esp. following the oil leak in the GoM - what a horrible tragedy). My notion of a village based on Permaculture and a University of Noesis is really just a version of a circumscribed culture (like a monastary but, as Flor noted, with sex, not necessarily procreative!) that is functioning to preserve understanding by living sustainably and able to adapt to future climate changes (if possible).



Fascinating George, that you're thinking about that question of bringing the data forward. I also think Flor's idea of a living tradition is important too. I would love to know more at some stage.

Greer's post on monasteries came up yesterday, still there. Other important ideas of his on that: they are funded by necessarily lower standards of living than even regular livelihoods, plus I personally very much like his idea of 'dissensus', that is, of having more than one strategy in play to up the likelihood of something getting through. That is, don't have only one model of monastery and make each very very local.

Having spent the last decade putting together a personal spiritual practice, I'll be practicing whether in a community of this kind or not. My only potential problem would be if I were expected to adopt practices I didn't like... but I can usually get around that.

I hope sex is not compulsory your final model either! For many spiritual practices, periods of celibacy are incredibly useful, they aren't by any means a random product of spiritual systems worldwide.

George Mobus

Hi Jason.

I don't plan on any final model! I agree with Greer on that point, variation is a key. However, I think that variation will necessarily arise quite naturally over time. My only concern is with the necessary and sufficient conditions needed to produce a viable village. Just a set of guidelines. After that the villagers will decide what they will. My expectation is that the more sapient villages will adapt and survive reasonably well. The less sapient will succumb. What their spiritual "practices" will be is anybody's guess. But part of the culture and heritage that they pass on to future generations will surely be based on physically meaningful choices and those meanings will be part of what is passed on as well, not just the practices. E.g., abstinence may prove both spiritually uplifting and a good method of maintaining a stable population. It supposedly worked for the shakers. But, of course, they imported new bodies into their fold. Every once in a while somebody has to get pregnant!



All sounds sensible George, I look forward to hearing more.

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