How Does the World Work?

  • See the About page for a description of the subjects of interest covered in this blog.

Series Indexes

Global Issues Blogroll

Blog powered by Typepad

Comment Policy

  • Comments
    Comments are open and welcome as long as they are not offensive or hateful. Also this site is commercial free so any comments that are offensive or promotional will be removed. Good questions are always welcome!

« A Heartfelt Thank You | Main | What Economists Believe »

June 06, 2010


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Yea,... I agree that there are practical and logical reasons for us to "rise to the occasion" and "grow up" to begin to "think for ourselves". I'm afraid that takes generations of cultural development our culture thought it was doing, but was just faking and didn't get done.

How do you explain the inexplicable timidity of all the environmental movement leaders. They seem completely satisfied with their commitments to piece meal solutions that directly make the problems they say they're solving worse.

The world consensus "green economy" policy that making energy resources ever more productive for creating wealth (what efficiency is used for) can be relied on to reduce our demand for and use of energy, is so bizarrely backward and misguided. Another example is the clear indication that relieving any one resource constraint just shifts our growing pressures onto all other depleting and conflicted resource uses. Still everyone is busy busy about finding new resources to throw into the fire. Thirdly, I raise these two problems and other related ones over and over, and get immediate response showing that people understand. Nothing ever happens!

I think we have arrested development, as a culture, for maintaining the domestication of a people as servants to an ideology, keeping them from maturing enough to feel free to question their own domestication. That the ideology is one of "be fruitful and multiply" and remains unquestioned even as it clearly stopped working as sold helps confirm that. We're just "good servants" waiting to be told what to do, rejecting every hint that what to do is think for ourselves.

We seem just too domesticated to object, like grazing cattle, on principle, that we have no right to object. We were all taught the natural law, and would like to be treated nicely. So we shouldn't object (overlooking that having leaders be servants to the same ideology means being culturally addicted to a fatal disease).


Interesting lecture on subject of "Collapse Dynamics" at London School of Economics, given last year by Noah Raford.

Collapses seem to follow a general pattern, depending on initial conditions. My guess is that England will follow usual "Imperial" trajectory, typical of multi-cultural country with low social cohesion. First comes financial collapse and break down of long distance logistics systems, such as food. Then civil war. Malnutrition and end of water supply / sewage systems lead to epidemics. And so on. Roman London went from multicultural city of 60,000 in AD 410 to perhaps 50 to 60 by end of century. And no ethnic minorities or members of elite appear to have survived. Selection for strong social cohesion must have been intense.

Will USA follow similar path. We might soon see.



You have summed it all up, then with no reservations toward accuracy. Hmmm!

As Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics 1965, told us, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."

How can anyone in this century be so dismissive of the capacity of man (based upon developments since the start of recorded history, not to mention the Indusrial Revolution) to overcome obstacles to population growth with science and technology?

You have succombed to the current blindness of political speak that proclaims Climate Change a sudden malady. Examine the record of climate changes and human existence for hundreds of thousands years, author.

See any survival? Is there hope after all? The better question is how will those authorities frightening you profit from your blind fear?

Wake up, man!

- More than your Weak Sapience "Majority". A professional in the realm of human nature and frauds.

p.s. Is the sky ble? It may be falling soon.

Robin Datta

Wow. A thoughtful and organized dirge.

Regrettably, "their beliefs in something that could not ever happen — that happy days would come again" is all too prevalent in the eloquence economics, financial and business crowd (and in society in general), the expectation of return to BAU.

The evolution towards greater sapience is something that may proceed at a brisk pace, but whether it will be swift enough to stay apace of the changing milieu. It was perhaps two million years ago that

Homo erectus showed up on the scene. Homo neanderthalis had been around for 400,000 years before going extinct 30,000 years ago. Homo sapiens has been around only 200,000 years: a spring chicken when compared to any and every species we see around us. Yet on a scale of 200,000 years evolutionary change may not stay apace of the alterations in our lot that may play out over a millennium or so.

Gas conversions

Ecogas have a wide range of LPG kits and can fit most of today's vehicles. Our workshop located in Laverton North.

Matthew Watkinson BVetMed MRCVS FLS

Dear George,

I still can't see how increasing competition will select for a species that 'wisely' believes in decreasing competition...

"Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would soon sink into indolence, and the more highly-gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means." Charles Darwin

...or how being fruitful and multiplying can ever be anything other than the most sensible evolutionary strategy on a dynamic planet...

"It is impossible not bitterly to regret, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase." Charles Darwin

...or indeed, how anything can ever be considered a work in progress given that evolution has no specific direction:

"...for natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, does not necessarily include progressive development—it only takes advantage of such variations as arise and are beneficial to each creature under its complex relations of life." Charles Darwin

...but apart from our differences about the future and the fuel (unsustainable population growth) and direction (whatever works) of evolution, this summary of the present is, as usual, engaging and thought-provoking.

Kind regards,



I sincerely hope this is not a sign that Georges isle of sanity is in danger of being swamped by a floodtide of unsoliticed promotions, denialists and the formulaic refugees!


Your post brings up a question I've never seen addressed, to wit, "How much of our petroleum is used by our food production and distribution system?"

Perhaps my view is influenced by the previous oil crises of the 70's and 80's, but if I were making preditions, I would predict government intervention in how much petroleum was available to the general public. Remember how the number on your license plate determined which days you could purchase gasoline?

I'd bet on more intense government regulation as Peak Oil begins to really bite. If the government has any sense at all, food production and distribution and electrical generation will be high priority consumers of what oil is available. While this sort of "clever" response won't ultimately solve the problems you have ably summarized, it will allow for a more gradual weaning away from our petro-milk.


Thanks for the recap... personally I think the 'villages' idea, like any solution, needs to grow bottom up and by being muddled into being as Transition Towns are doing. I'm not sure there are any historical precedents for such things, and intentional communities often don't have great records when deliberately started. You know better than I that the conversion rate from theoretical possibilities to on-the-ground results, when it comes to actions requiring sapience, is low.

I can't necessarily step with you from "humanity is in dire straits and headed for a major decline" (obviously true) to "humanity is no longer fit for survival as it is currently genetically constituted" (more tenuous and don't see relevance)... in fact it seems a little like throwing the board away because you don't like the game!

Whoever manages to survive, if anyone, they may learn more about sapience. But their genome doesn't seem to matter hugely to me. If we as a species go bust, so what? We've had a good innings! And since we can't know much about the process or usefully predict it, having "no more homo sapiens sapiens" as a major conclusion seems a little over-dramatic. Who knows what will happen on that score? And does it actually affect what needs to be done? I think not.

The ancestry from Catton is where you and Greer intersect so strongly (Catton has a quote on the back of Greer's "Long Descent" I think). I think like JMG that history is a better guide than one might believe. All the issues you're dealing with about sapience, moderation, and so forth, were mooted in China and Greece 2,500 years ago, and their conclusions in terms of what constituted sapience weren't so far from yours. These cycles come around, varying in intensity, and ours (because of oil) is at the intense end of the scale, but although our situation is different in degree from earlier ones, I don't think it differs as massively in kind as you do. Human settlements will certainly go through massive upheavals but that doesn't mean the only survivors will be in small villages "off to the side" somewhere! There are all sorts of interesting dynamics to play out...

So "a completely new experience for humanity" doesn't seem quite right to me, nor does "there can be no recovery from this decline" -- whilst certainly "There is no other lands to which one might migrate", the civilization we currently have in Europe was seeded from the earlier classical one via a dark age, not a migration. And a dark age, a sword and axe age and an age of bitter difficulty, is indeed what we are in for, with a lot of weirdness and unpredictability.

I should stop carping, since I agree with all your factual points...

George Mobus

Phil (shoulda...),

RE: timidity of environmentalists. I believe James Speth addresses that very issue in The Bridge at the Edge of the World. I highly recommend this book to all.

RE: our over-domestication. I like the words to PinkFloyd's Another Brick in the Wall; "We don't need no education." For me at least that means none of the kind of education that is offered today.


George Mobus


Thanks for the link.



Interesting remarks. Funny you should mention climate change and survivors. In fact it was the major climate changes that initiated a reduction in species of the genus Homo during the last several ice ages! In fact Homo sapiens was likely a product of glaciation some 150 to 200k years ago. Thanks for bringing that up.

I'll try to wake up.


George Mobus


The issue of the rate of biological adaptation and subsequent speciation is a crucial one for the reasons you intimate: rapid and radical climate change.

I know that there is some reasonably good evidence that rates of genetic drift can be high under the right pressures. I am also thinking that adaptation can be accelerated under conditions of breeding programs. The third possibility for us appears to be gaining traction, i.e., genetic engineering. I'm not thrilled about that approach but I suppose it will be tried somewhere by someone.


George Mobus


I don't allow ads on my blog but as a public service to readers who might be thinking about the gas option, I'll leave this up since you didn't also post a link.


George Mobus


We're still not connecting!

I still can't see how increasing competition will select for a species that 'wisely' believes in decreasing competition...

Now maybe you are one of those evolutionists who are adverse to group selection theory, but I think that is an example of exactly the kind of thing that I am referring to. Group selection is put forward by Sober & Wilson (Unto Others) and endorsed by E.O. Wilson, as the most explanatory way to view increasing cooperation among individuals within groups by competition among groups! There is no dichotomy here. The group emerges as a new entity with greater cohesion as a result of inter-group competition in the traditional view. What sapience represents is the emergence of this property mediated by the sections of the prefrontal cortex I have outlined (as a hypothesis). Eusapience is simply expanding the scope of this emergent property, in exactly the same way that intelligence expanded in early humans giving us fire and tools. Eusapience provides a way for more humans to act cooperatively and plan over longer time scales. This latter, I suspect, will be an advantage for a population that will be facing the hardships of climate change without the abilities for adaptation provided by industrial-grade technology.

It isn't ever the case that there will never be competition at some level of organization. Currently, for example, the cells of our bodies generally cooperate to produce us as individuals, but we individuals, on a higher level of organization, still compete with one another quite often, in spite of our sapience.

Competition and cooperation seem to alternate in dominance in emergent processes. At any given level of organization competition among components gives rise to much more highly adapted components. But in turn these components are coevolving in such a way that they cooperate more than compete (think symbiosis). That gives rise to the emergence of a yet higher level of order where aggregates of cooperating components become, themselves, systems (not unlike climax communities in ecology). Then, at that higher level, those new systems can enter competition and the process goes on and on.

I appreciate your quotes from Darwin, but we must remember that Darwin was just the first (or one of the first) recognized authorities on selection. Much has been learned since then so his are not the final words on the matters. BTW: he did recognize the potential for group selection as similar to sexual selection, so he had some notion that not all selection is at the individual level within a population.

Take the issue of progress in evolution. Is there a direction? Most non-systems biologists will argue (vehemently) that there is not. Yet we have the obvious fact that evolution has produced greater levels of complexity and increasingly complex brains to deal with that increasing complexity. Not in every creature, of course, but in terms of niches and emergent species able to exploit the increased complexity.

Those biologists (naturalists like Darwin) argue against teleology, rightfully. But they make the mistake of confusing teleological arguments with teleonomic ones. The latter have to do with systems dynamics and emergence phenomena. The universe is tending toward greater complexity - not all over because that would be in defiance of the Second Law of Thermo - but in pockets like the surface of the Earth.

So, to summarize, members of our species that demonstrate greater cooperativeness will form symbiotic relations that emerge as much more organized (and controlled) systems. Perhaps several such species will emerge (it has happened before!) and then they might compete with one another. This is taking group selection to a much higher level. I think it works.


George Mobus

GaryA, GaryA,

Actual ads will not be tolerated. As for other sorts of comments, they all keep me thinking. At my age that is a good thing! But thanks for the sentiment of concern.



According to Pimentel & Pimentel, Food, Energy, and Society, page 6, the proportion of fossil energy devoted to food production as a fraction of total fossil fuel use, is about 19% in the US. In some developing countries it can run as high as 60-80%. The US uses so much more fossil fuel in toto that the 19% number represents substantially more total energy than the 60% in a developing nation; about four times as much per capita per year as in Africa, for example.

If the government has any sense at all...

Therein lies the operative phrase!


George Mobus


Indeed Catton does provide a jacket cover quote for Greer's book. But that was after he wrote Overshoot but before he wrote Bottleneck. Have you read the latter? I suspect Greer and Catton are on divergent paths on the issue of how bad and how soon. And I find myself siding with Catton.

The reason I say this will be a whole new experience for mankind is that throughout all of history humans have been able to discover new sources of ever higher power energy, and then find ways to exploit them. Once the fossil fuels are no longer recoverable at a high enough EROI that may likely be the end of that whole history. Our current efforts to extract real-time solar energy are puny at best, and nuclear may represent the epitome of our capacity to develop technology to exploit such exotic sources of energy as fission or fusion. Personally I think we have reach the apex of technological competence; diminishing returns on complexity now rules the day. Thus, no more growing sources of energy will ever emerge again. The folks going through the dark ages did so not because they lacked energy, but because they lacked the knowledge of how to exploit what sources they had and how to improve the efficiencies with tools. Once that knowledge started to emerge the energies were there to supply.

In the future, no amount of tool magic will compensate for the loss of the high power sources from fossil fuels.

Having said that, I do suspect in the far future when, if my thinking proves right on this, there will be a predominance of eusapients who will find wiser, not necessarily cleverer, ways
to exploit whatever energy sources (i.e. real-time solar) in a way to bootstrap a higher technological capacity without all the wastage that marks our current foolish ways. I do not claim it is over for humanity, only that Homo sapiens' time is coming to an end. The way that can happen is for our species to give rise to a new, wiser species.

Carping is OK!



I suspect bottleneck selection will favor a decrease in sapience. What selection pressure do you think will increase sapience?

Georgi Marinov

It is worth asking what would happen if a major world leader comes out and explains the situation as it is, with no sugarcoating, including the most inconvenient fact of them all, the necessity to bring the population times per capita consumption quantity safely within the carrying capacity of the planet (and safely may mean significantly less than a billion).

The two opposites in the range of possible outcomes are:

1. Everyone realizes in how deep trouble we are so we collectively decide to lower birth rates to something like 0.1 kids per woman, to cut back our consumption, to forget about benefits like retirement, to abandon religion and begin actually educating the kids that will be born so that they grow up to build a truly sustainable and sapient society.

2. The economy immediately collapses like absolutely never before because the empty promises on which it is built are exposed, mass rioting begins, everyone tries to hoard as much food and fuel as possible by any means possible, including violence, social structures fall apart, chaos reigns everywhere; the collapse comes much sooner as a result.

Which one do you think is more likely? It may very well be that people like Obama are perfectly aware of the situation, (although the evidence does not suggest that at all, I am just stating the possibility), they would still not be able to do anything because of the above considerations.

Climate change and energy efficiency

The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.


Eusapience. Be careful what you wish for. Because for some reason this reminds me of naked mole rats.

The naked mole rat is one of the two species of mammals that exhibit eusociality.

Maybe highly intelligent naked mole rat type hominids that look on current homo sapiens as dangerous vermin to be severely culled. Not a pleasant thought.


The comments to this entry are closed.