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« Yet another look at cost inflation | Main | It's the Area Under the Curve »

February 17, 2011


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I think you might value the work of Jack Alpert. He is a very smart engineer that has been thinking deeply about what population the earth can sustain. The video on his home page is a good starting point:

You might also find a recent Radio Ecoshock podcast interesting. It features a discussion with Jack Alpert, Bill Rees, Rex Weyler, and others with some harsh (but informed) opinion of what needs to be done.

My personal view is that the population problem will be addressed by WW3. All of history supports this prediction. And in our collective subconscious we know WW3 is the likely end game. Why else would the US spend more on defense that all other counties combined when it is bankrupt?

Fred Magyar

I have a question. How is it possible to work with a rather large majority of the population who think like this:

Mike Beard, a Republican state representative from Minnesota, recently argued that coal mining should resume in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, in part because he believes God has created an earth that will provide unlimited natural resources.

"God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable," Beard told MinnPost. "We are not going to run out of anything."

These are dark times indeed!


Hmmmm. I lack the brilliance to "argue" with your observations and conclusions, and it seems irrational to suggest that you have "rigged" the computer input to output your "desired" conclusions. No rational person (and you are obviously VERY rational) would desire your conclusions. So I conclude that you are "right" - as in "correct" - here, tho I have also to acknowledge that your conclusions mirror my own (less carefully informed) thoughts. Your mention of several films that serve as stark illustrations of these likely realities brings to mind one of my husband's favorite films - Idiocracy. Actually you only have to watch the first five minutes of it to get its drift. And again I STRONGLY recommend Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed's book, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization. This is a brilliant, VERY well researched interweaving of the critical complex of problems facing modern homo so-called sapiens. This book mirrors and reinforces your position(s) and arguments, and surely there is a certain cold comfort in finding like-minded, equally well informed, soul-mates.


I agree with RobM, there will be the biggest war in history far before we are close to net zero energy from fossil fuels.

If the goal is human survival then I think the most obvious thing to do is make biophysics and zero growth a sociopolitical ideology. Instead of trying to convince the masses though (there is too little time and we're already in overshoot) it'd be best for the individuals to form enclave communities that adhered to the principles and to set up a global federalist quasi-government structure for them to communicate and work in concert towards concerted strategy. The aim should be to develop (physical and informational) technology, share information with each other and get as many resources as needed to live through local energy flows at as high of a level as possible; which I personally think is advanced historically speaking if you don't blow most of your energy on stupid consumerism.

Then when conflict hits in their region they have strategy to try to minimize their exposure as much as possible: which means trying to get the local populace not in the enclave to buy in while pretending you don't have much valuable and defending the area from attackers that do come. Then everyone just sits back and prays.

At some point the enclaves will be relatively very strong because they have a concerted strategy and are self sufficient for their basic needs while tons of people outside of them will be sick, dead and terrified. At that point the larger quasi-governmental structure can make the decision about whether to make the push to the larger society both ideologically and (eventually needed) militarily. That is where a big propagandistic clarion call about how they have a sustainable ideology and it's all puppies and sunshine comes in, in contrast to the devastation that will be in place everywhere else to the collapse of the supply chains. At that point puppies and sunshine just needs to mean having food, water, shelter and health, which I think biophysically is a reasonable promise.

So then the strategy at that point would be to get all the new converts to buy in totally and be the Power, and start going around and figuring out how to reclaim all the scrap resources that are lying around and rebuild ecosystems.

People may recognize that what I'm referring to is largely based on Anarchist movements (although they were focused on labor not resource utilization) which all in all weren't totally unsuccessful. Autonomous regions still exist in Spain for instance and the ideology has grown in Argentina. The main reason they were squelched was just supreme resource utilization by the Hierarchical Powers, which at the time was a major disadvantage but in the hypothetical we're positing could be their biggest weakness.

It also gives a cohesive long term reason to live that is appropriately cynical (can't stop the collapse so just wait for things to fall apart and war to destroy the old ways) but also intrinsically optimistic on both the philosophical and humanistic level (there will still be a few billion people that are suffering and need help and the ideology can provide it). That'll make "our people" have something to live for in the moment that isn't a total lie, which is important for all honest people even if we eventually end up getting nuked or shot or dying from famine due to flood or kill ourselves to end suffering. Or perhaps the worst fate, we're all wrong and things work themselves out.

In a perverse way it also provides hope. I think part of the problem is that environmentalism in general and zero-growthism in particular are infected with enormous strains of kumbayaism on the emotional level and scientists are infected with detached rationalism on the intellectual level. This means that our movement basically is sitting around saying "oh why can't everyone just get along and be happy?" or "it all makes so much sense, how can we best communicate this to everyone so they do the right decision?"

For instance Fred asks above how we can work with that idiot? I say we don't, we just organize into a structure that has a higher resiliency and wait for those types to die off to the point that they lose influence and come begging or are destroyed. Which is highly anti-thetical to my nature (I'm much more apt to just try to work with people or ignore them) but seriously, with climate change that's not an option. I've always held solace in the fact that I personally wouldn't mind living an ascetic life with some good friends, but climate fuckery really doesn't make that an option.

This Naked Capitalism post "Why Liberal Are Lame" contains a comment at the gist of what I'm saying:

Liberals are lame because the very philosophy that liberals embrace is lameness. Liberals are what Nietzsche called “passive nihilists.”

“Passive nihilism is a form of resignation in the face of a world without God,” is how Michael Allen Gillespie describes Nietzsche in Nihilism Before Nietzsche. “It is characterized by an increase in pity and is thus akin to the Buddhism that destroyed Indian culture.”

“Passive nihilism deflects the convulsive self-obliteration that active nihilism seeks by putting in its place a doctrine of universal pity,” Gillespie continues. “It wants to go out not with a bang but a whimper. This is the path of the Crucified.”

The end result is that, as Gillespie goes on to explain, “While liberalism may end in relativism, it rejects…Promethean visions; and while it may in some instances produce banality and boredom, it does not produce a politics of terror and destruction.”

Passive nihilism has two alternatives according to Nietzsche. One is active nihilism. The Tea Party is the clearest modern-day manifestation of this. As Gillespie explains: “Active nihilism, by contrast [to passive nihilism], is not content to be extinguished passively but wants to extinguish everything that is aimless and meaningless in a blind rage; it is a lust for destruction that purifies humanity.” Active nihilism is not something “affirmative and healthy.”

The other alternative to passive nihilism is embodied in what Nietzsche called “superman,” “over man” or “Dionysian man.” Here’s Gillespie again:

As forms of negation, both active and passive nihilism must be distinguished from the affirmative stance toward life that characterizes the Dionysian man. The Dionysian man grows out of nihilism but he also overcomes it. In one sense, he therefore represents the most extreme form of nihilism, which Nietzsche describes as a divine way of thinking… His stance toward life is not reactive, it is not driven by the spirit of revenge or by resentment [as is the case with active nihilism], and it is thus not a form of negation.

Contrary to the Nazi's smearing of Nietzsche, the superman concept is very similar to George's sapient species. And reading George's reframing of the issue not as a liberal moralistic issue but a survival strategy in the evolutionary sense has given me a newfound sense of purpose in my own aims and goals. It also is a perverse positive vision that gives the active nihilists something to work towards and beyond, and we're definitely seeing a huge increase in those numbers to tap into.

Students of history will also recognize that as the difference between the Anarchists that did terror and random assassinations until they were put down (smearing the whole concept) and those that formed worker collectives that served as a beacon of sanity.

It also helps that Anarchism is intrinsically much more systems oriented and that its success relies primarily on information transfer, which the internet can provide; indeed cyber Anarchism is a huge subculture amongst experts. They just need to get linked up with the physical aspect and then you have a pattern for society.

find a way to reduce the population at a rate that will exceed the rate of decline of the carrying capacity
Ha haaa haha. You are methinks a merry optimist...

Watch for Egypt, a paradigm of overshoot: Oil money gone, now how to finance food imports? Food prices were the straw that broke Mubarak's back. Here's the only glimmer of hope I see: The Egyptians managed to revolt peacefully. I didn't expect that. But food prices will keep rising. Will they starve in peace?


Good job George,
Unpleasantries are hard.

Could you follow up with a graph with time scales and human numbers assuming a mean US lifestyle, Mean Western European and Mean Chinese lifestyle in current energy terms? I am sure we can also become more efficient if we try but could we support .5 billion at US standards with our present technology assuming that we do not overharvest water and end our net topsil loss as a species?

there is a small posibility that we could have net energy fusion within 50 years or so. Then it could be ramped up but still we would have to be careful stewarts of the net primary productivity of the earth

George Mobus


I know Jack. And we had quite a bit of conversation at last year's Biophysical Economics Meeting.

On the issue of WWIII: I don't think history gives us a good guide to predicting or even understanding the future. True enough that wars have been the 'logical' outcome of resource conflicts throughout history. But we are entering an entirely different phase of human existence. Wars of any size require energy resources and lots of them. Someone, somewhere may get off a nuke or two in some early and vain attempt to conquer, but I'm betting that will be the extent of it. Even marauding hoard scenarios seem unlikely to me since these depend on there being local resources where they are invading in order to sustain them. Again, not too likely in my estimation.


But wouldn't it be swell if Beard turned out to be right? The likelihood may be slightly less than monkeys flying out of Mike Meyer's a*s. But you never know for sure.

To tell you what my answer to your question would be, OTOH, I honestly don't think you can work with the majority. The capacity for critical thinking is critically dependent on sapience, the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex. And for most people that is stunted.

While an embryo or even a post-natal being has an opportunity to develop their brains up to the limits of what nature endowed them, once they are grown there is no known method to 'teach' them to have larger prefrontal cortices!

Dark, indeed.


Ahmed's book is on my Amazon wishlist. Have to wait until the budget allows. Our library copies seem to be taken up. No availability for 6 months!!! Must be good.

Also agree about Idiocracy. Loved the premise - no wait - I mean I didn't love it, but it is classic gallows humor.


You saw my comment to RobM re: war. I don't doubt that there will a lot of local and even regional violence as things unwind, so your notion of an enclave that is prepared and protected is certainly legitimate. I also would not be surprised to see terrorism increase in the near future as people lash out at the supposed enemies (e.g. the US), but as fuels diminish the logistics of carrying out any massive or sustainable conflict grow increasingly difficult to the point that the returns on such a campaign would be negative.

But in a chaotic world, who knows.

And, yes, Nietzsche's ubermensch was a concept that started me thinking about sapience a long time ago.


I can take the voice of an optimist on occasion! Notice the quote is regarding a 'provisional' requirement, where the provisional part is in serious question. I did say this was infeasible.


I don't have numbers like that to graph. Although I have seen such analysis in other places (e.g. The Oil Drum). My models derives from first principles rather than data-based.

The ecological footprint people have models based on average lifestyle (consumption rates) but point out that averages don't really tell the whole picture as far as a population parameter. Also the per capita energy consumption per country is known, but again it is only a gross measure of what is going on dynamically.

From a very different perspective, e.g. from analyzing the energy requirements for a permaculture-based lifestyle (not subsistence), based on data I got from Pimentel & Pimentel, "Food, Energy, and Society", I have estimated that the number of hectares per individual would be about 4. This is mixed-use land (forests, watershed, fields, etc.) and assumes a relatively stable climate. That is a lot of land! And given that there are only a fixed and small number of hectares in this world where the future climate is currently thought to be relatively stable, the total future sustainable population may only number a few million, not hundreds of millions.




Fascinating essay but I'm a bit puzzled about your 'feasible solution' which you have alluded to but not set out in the text (unless I'm being really dense). Does it involve the constraint that the majority of the world's population: (a) understand the problem, and; (b) are prepared to do something about it? If so, then I'm not so sure that this feasible solution exists. People won't even give up their incandescent light bulbs. What hope is there for a major (planned) change in their lifestyles? The 'tragedy of the commons' dictates that very very few people are going to be willing to sacrifice anything at all in their daily lives, even if the very existence of our species depends upon it.

George Mobus


I did not explicitly print the 'feasible solution' to the restated problem (the one that only requires that the genus Homo survives) because when I tried it out on a focus group of no-growthers I got a generally negative reaction. It seems the only solution that I can imagine invokes negative emotions even among people who actually do understand the general problem of overpopulation. It involves admittedly overtly coercive actions, so it does not depend on everyone in the population understanding and doing what they should.

Others in the group were simply uneasy with some of the assumptions I use regarding the survival of more sapient people. I have written about this before, but many in this group were not sufficiently convinced by the arguments. And the strength of the arguments is carried by my working papers on sapience.

So I removed that and only allude to its existence.

Maybe someday, when TSRHTF, I will reveal it more broadly.


Paul Yarbles

Oh for heaven's sake Dr. Mobus why don't you just say what your solution is? We're all big boys and girls here :-)

Here's my guess:

1. Testing to rank people who can or will be able to procreate by sapience.
2. Assignment of some threshold below which you will not be allowed to procreate.
3. Forced sterilization of those who fall below this threshold.
4. Forced sterilization of those who are allowed to have children after they have the maximum number of children.

Alternatively, you can lower the threshold and hold a lottery for the increased number who fall above to get the same amount of people who can procreate.

Assuming my guess is somewhat on target here are some questions that immediately pop up in my head:

How the heck does one test for sapience?

Do you want differences in the sex ratios?

Will the test have gender differences?

How do you avoid politically powerful and/or connected people from gaming or simply doing an end-run around the system of selection?

This question does not assume my guess is anywhere near correct:

Do you go into feasible ways of implementing whatever solution you have? I mean if it's anything like my guess, it's going to get a lot of push-back!


I don't believe voluntary sterilization will be workable. We are competitive dissipative structures with a loose overlay of cooperation. Maximal reproduction and resource acquisition defines our success. The survival of the nation does not supersede the survival of the individual especially as it becomes apparent that the nation is neither homogeneous, intelligent, nor willing to adapt to developing shortages of life-sustaining energy.

We have just gone through a massive amount of energy and used much in an effort at educating one of the productive components of the technological system (humans). Unfortunately the prevalence of magic space within the cranium has shrunk very little, even with free libraries and twelve years of compulsory education.

It is most likely, IMO, that the population will be brought under control on the death side of the ledger with pathogens of mysterious origin. A final solution of a grand scale and likely not sparing any ethnicity. What comes later for the survivors? Consolidation in the most survivable geographic areas and abandonment of large areas of developed infrastructure? It must be noted, however, that each nation could also have a strategy of being the last nation standing if only energy availability is at stake. If the environment undergoes massive degradation, those in control of infectionious agents may decide that population must be reversed even in their own nation.

At this point it seems clear to me that established interests have led us into this predicament based upon their own desire to extract all the profit possible from fossil fuels, as fast as possible, while imagining magical technological innovations to save us at the last moment. They get the profit and they can assuage their guilt by “believing” in technological magic or perhaps the intervention of Gods.


You say: "The population is simply too large for the long-term carrying capacity of the planet."

Well, I think that while focusing on just one factor, you miss the whole equation:

charge_capacity = population * resource_consumption

So, why put the burden on just one side? I don't mean we don't have a population problem, but you cannot count an American or an European with the same weight on that equation as an Bolivian or a Cuban or a Malawian. We can both act on population factor and on consumption factor. That's what's about the Degrowth movement.

Yes, we are in overshoot, but not necessarily in overpopulation: the "over" point is given by the consumption level of each and all of the humans that compose that population.


"The time scale in the graph from the peak of fossil fuels is roughly one hundred years."

100 years after the peak? Did you take in account the following EROEI in your model? David Murphy's and also my own models of net energy Hubbert curves shows a shorter period, of about 20 years!



Sorry: I meant "falling EROEI", not "following" :-D


George, when do you think these issues will come to a head? I'm personally betting that within 10-15 years they will be causing so much misery due to our social structure that we'll have large scale conflict. At that point we'll still have a hundred billion barrels of oil at an EROEI of 7-8; plenty to fight a war with mandatory quotas for the populace.


Mikkel, your insights look very interesting, and remind me those of Ted Trainer in favour of an anarchist bias for Transtion movement (see )

You look like if you were Spaniard for you comments about Anarchist communities (in 1936-37 revolution, maybe?) and autonomous communities (a totally different concept of 'community', I must say). If you like, you can contact our Galician association in

I think that global federation on anarcho-permaculturalist lifeboats could work!

Phil Henshaw

George, as you said "No Real Solution to the Problem As Defined By We Humans", so here's another approach, taking off from Dan Arely's entertaining "predictably irrational" approach. He gave a nice lecture on Feb 8 that you can watch. Re:

The question is: "What kinds of beliefs do we not dare check?"

Are we more likely to be willing to check, beliefs based largely on agreements with others, or beliefs based largely on direct observations? You can tell already what the answer to that is, that questioning beliefs based on agreements threatens the belief system and the complex social network… and checking them would question the integrity of everyone and be perceived as a threat. In most groups that would risk dissention and loss of personal status to even bring up. Questioning beliefs that are readily checked is easy for people to understand and discredits no one’s integrity, so decisions about checking are balances of costs and benefits that are readily discussed.

So, if we’re naturally blocked from checking, when seeing cultural beliefs not working… 1) what kinds of irrationality do we construct to avoid confronting the observations that would confirm it, and 2) what would give people the self-confidence to at least consider the balance of costs and benefits involved?

I’m sure you have examples. I have lots of them, important questions with clear proof that people persistently avoid, if anyone needs them. Phil


Fascinating posts on this thread.
What kind of ideas we dare not think..?
Reminds me of the

Which few have even heard of...Harking back to my time on the Derrick jensen forum.


Alas Manoel, I am not a Spainard and my Spanish is woefully stuck at a weekend tourist's level for now. Which is a pity because I've always preferred Spanish culture over Anglo.

But yes, except for a few small points Trainer was speaking out of my mind. The primary difference between what he wrote and I believe is that he did not have enough emphasis on technology. He alluded to it briefly in talking about IT, but I think it is integral. I say the ideal economy has fractal production because everything is done as localized as rationally possible (in accordance with systems theory) which means that higher forms of technology would be made in a more centralized manner but would focus almost entirely on enabling local production.

I also think the key point is that all citizens should be producer-consumers -- which he talked about extensively -- and that with this goal then the economic theories do not matter so much. I find it absurd that historically there has been so much friction between anarcho-capitalists, anarcho-communists and syndicalists. I say that people should define the boundary conditions based on biophysics and let the implementation of the cultural dynamics proceed as they may. Different local cultures and governance should be actively encouraged because people are different; yet we can still work together on the more abstract aims.

Lastly I want to put more emphasis on aestheticism. I am strongly influenced by the technocracy movement in ideal (although not implementation) that we should use our scientific and technological progress to minimize the need for menial labor. I have spent an inordinate amount of time experimenting and calculating and I believe that it is possible to create a low energy community in which people only need to work 4-6 hours a day for their needs. Which as George has mentioned in the past, is not a chore but a pleasure to a sapient individual. There is some formalization of the concepts I feel intuitively, for instance from Oscar Wilde's Wikipedia, "Wilde envisions a society where mechanisation has freed human effort from the burden of necessity, effort which can instead be expended on artistic creation. George Orwell summarised it thus, "In effect, the world will be populated by artists, each striving after perfection in the way that seems best to him.""

And in the vein of Maslow, "artist" would not have the narrow meaning it has now but expand to an outpouring of all forms of self expression.

Speaking of Orwell, his experiences in Catalonia and admiration for the anarchists even has his faith was destroyed in the centralized communists influenced me a lot in actually figuring out what anarchism was at its roots. Which obviously is not widely done considering the response on this page to Trainer's ideas. And with that I just noticed you chimed in with my exact thoughts that "Rob’s approach is more realistic than Ted’s in that area." Which is true in itself, but honestly I have not been able to get into Transition because I haven't found any there's like trimming around the edges of your lawn while it's on fire. The idea that it is exposing people to these memes without having them needing to change the core of their life is a valid one so I can't complain; especially because I'm not doing any of this yet since I am working on trying to squeeze out a few more things from being in proper society. I just do not find their vision sufficient.

They would find me far too pessimistic but I'm posting this on a well reasoned thread about extinction of all mankind, and feel the outlier risks are to that side than theirs.

If you are working on this stuff from the more radical angle I'd like to hear more.


Thanks for your answer, Mikkel. I'm glad you know so much about anarchist historical experiences here in Spain!

Me, working on this stuff? Well, I'm trying but very modestly:
- I've bought a rural house and I'm making my own way back-to-the-land (from which my parents emmigrated) here in our Celtic Galicia
- I've been trying to promote Digital Direct Democracy (while we still have some digital tools!). Direct Democracy is a concept beloved by anarchists, isn't it?
- I'm working with an association and cultural think tank called Véspera de Nada We have got little but important success, like getting the first Spanish municipality to approve a peakoil resolution. Now we're working on a Energy Descent Manual for its citizens.
- I'm trying other ways of spreading the peakoil concept like

Radical? Well, Digital Direct Democracy might seem quite radical for many. And going back to land with a low energy style and changing computer engineering by natural-agricultural and permaculture re-skilling will seem so for many more! :-D

I'd like to translate and spread some texts about Direct Democracy + eDemocracy in English. Hope you can read some soon.

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