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!

« Will Earth be the stage for a cosmic tragedy? | Main | Does Evolution Have A Trajectory? »

May 19, 2011


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


I'm enjoying the challenging series but I miss some reflection on the direction you are taking. If we just suppose you are 100% correct on Sapience, if we focus on developing that characteristic of humanity, it would seem likely that other characteristics would diminish as a trade off. Genetics it seems is not a collection of dualities but a mesh of characterists, selecting for one can give unexpected results in other areas. Even if these aren't immediately apparent hasn't the differences in human beings one of our advantages in adapting and surviving so far?
Final point, I thought a lot about Sapience and Cleverness when I first read your introduction and I missed another critical point. Are we sapient enough to recognize real wisdom or do we just look in the mirror and see ourselves and say that we need more of that.


Great synopsis. We need more of such holistic views, even more detailed, so people can see we're not facing just one or a few problems in isolation.

You are perhaps extrapolating a bit to much from the U.S. population, which is exceptionally unfit, deluded and decadent (at least when judging from the representatives they send to Washington). Panic, evading information and education, whining, etc. will perhaps be not as bad in other parts of our world.

I like Lovelock's "optimistic" view: A tough challenge could make life more interesting and meaningful...

1) A technical quibble with "ocean acidification": The oceans won't get acidic (pH<7) but just less alkaline. Still this suffices to wreak havoc.

2) Typo: "miler climes"

George Mobus


I'm not aware of any rule that says evolution and refinement of any particular trait is a zero-sum game. It could be that an increase in the relative size of Brodmann Area 10 to enhance sapience would be at the expense of nearby patches (e.g. BA12) of prefrontal cortex, but there is no rule that it should. The skull develops in response to the brain's development. It isn't a fixed sized package that prevents brain development.

You are, of course, right that an amplification of one gene (or control segment) can have multiple consequences in other parts of the genome. No question. But that doesn't mean those effects are necessarily bad or negative.

The question of diversity WRT: survival is also an important point. And for long stretches of relatively stable, but oscillating environmental conditions the maintenance of higher diversity in many traits is a benefit. For example, Darwin's Finches in the Galapagos have shown that over the oscillations of the El Nino, La Nina cycles the diversity in beaks, for example, allow the birds to adapt to food changes.

However, there have been many dieoffs throughout evolutionary history. There is evidence that several have affected the hominins and Homo in particular. These have resulted in a narrowing of diversity, but to traits that directly contributed to their survival in extreme conditions. In my thesis, I imagine sapience to be a trait that will contribute to survivability in a world of diminishing resources.

If you read my series of working papers on sapience you may find an answer (or proposed answer) to your last question. You can find that series here.

Hi Flor.

Glad to see you are still around here!

You are perhaps extrapolating a bit to much from the U.S. population, which is exceptionally unfit, deluded and decadent...

I agree that that might be my tendency, but look at the Greeks! They are in a snuff about going lean and mean.

Also, the so-called Arab Spring may be motivated more by the high cost of food and lack of jobs (austerity) than by any philosophical bent on democracy. Let's see how it plays out world wide over the next few years. At some point, no matter how thrifty one has been, the call to even greater austerity may pull a few more triggers.

Good point about acidification. Should have thought that through a little more.

Thanks for the typo alert. It should read "milder climes". Will fix.



Bravo for your courage in writing this staggering essay. Lets hope humans or stocastics selects for more sapience for the next interbottleneck period. Even is sapience reduces a trait such as ambition, agressiveness, discount rate or risk taking that would not be a bad thing. We may use slightly more calories as a trade off.
Thanks for your work.


Laudable, arguably, but at least forty years too late.

Nathan Chattaway

typo alert: "Chaffing at the bit" :)
I think you meant "champing at the bit"
Excellent post, as usual George. I wonder if a major newspaper would take a short piece from you?

George Mobus


Thanks for the support!


At least 40! But really, I have to wonder if it would have made any difference. Look at what happened to limits to growth (Meadows). Or Ehrlich or any number of visionaries. Low sapient beings are simply not able to grasp.

That is why I do not feel compelled to shout out or promote my POV. This simple whisper at QE is all I need.


In truth it wasn't a typo (but thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt). I actually thought the saying was 'chaffing'. Learn something new all the time!

As per my response to Nemesis, I am not super inclined to write for the MSM audience. The regulars here at QE keep me happy.


Tiité  Baquero

I have been following your blogs with great interest and anticipation for a long time now; you certainly are like fresh rain to a parched garden.

The current “two scenarios” blog entry is marvelous and quite fitting to cap the detailed and long running narrative you have offered for years, a narrative which I think can be thought of as a survey of the state of the human species (Homo sapiens) as it heads towards a dreaded “bottleneck” event.

As you know, I’ve been working on a response to the same general problems; however, you seem to have drawn such a clear dividing line between what is knowable at this moment in history and the prospects of a fresh interpretation of the same data from an outsider’s point of view like me that I feel my comments at this time may be useful to the dialog.

Since the particular details leading to the bottleneck and all of the possible notions regarding its proximity, severity and consequences are basically open questions; my comments are offered only in the spirit of continuity.

Therefore, I will attempt to create a narrative that is inclusive of what you have said, but that moves forward to suggest a third scenario in which the problem is resolved in the context of a larger framework of ideas that is supported by improvements on the fundamental strategy that lead to scenarios 1 and 2.

I’m therefore going to appeal to an idiom familiar to Americans, namely the one in which “we let the genie out of the bottle and now we can’t put it back” and use it to paint a picture of the transition between a level of consciousness that has peaked and a particular improvement which can offer it continuity into a next and unexplored level of consciousness.

In my narrative the BOTTLE is the common denominator of life on Earth as a collective of creatures with unique survival strategies that are tied to a single ever changing biosphere (Earth.) The GENIE is the manifestation of our creative genius and our ability to obtain the physical means to sustain a strategy that is changing the Earth biosphere without long term benefits to us and all other life.

We have taken great pains to separate ourselves from the natural order to a point where we claim to have our own human nature. We just never thought that it would backfire this way.

Quite reasonably, we wish to put the genie back into the bottle after realizing that our survival strategy is unsustainable. But as you point out George, at the end of the day we seem to be confronting just two very unsavory scenarios left as options.

So, the genie is out of the bottle. It is out of control and as the bottleneck approaches, we find ourselves talking about it and arguing about it passionately. We place fault where we think it is due and we recoil at the wholesale devastation of the environment. We also lament our own fortunes amidst the cultural and social degradation of the whole of civilization.

Shockingly, we continue on with business as usual, helpless and seemingly resigned to the prospects that there is no hope, that we simply can’t put the genie back into the bottle. In the futile efforts to do so, the best we have managed to do as a species is to agree to disagree on the particulars.

Here is where the outsider’s point of view can be useful. Trying to put the genie back into the bottle has no benefit because the damage is done. Damage control seems to be the one rational thing that is left to do; however, damage control, in order to be effective, would require improvements to our survival strategy which we do not have at present.

The problem is the genie, not the bottle. To move forward we need to prop up the genie to take seriously the job of being at the top of the food chain and the responsibilities that come with the stewardship of millions of other living creatures who still live in the bottle but whose destiny is totally entangled with ours.

All of the rhapsodies about human sapience and survival crumble at the feet of creatures like the termite, whose towering citadels can reach fifty feet (on our scale the equivalent of a building one mile high) and house hundreds of thousands of citizens in an air-conditioned environment with all of the living conveniences, all the while maintaining harmony with the environment over the last tens of millions of years. All of this, without the use of a single drop of fossil fuel.

I know that we are not termites, but suggesting that we are finished or that we have nothing left to learn from nature about survival is not what a top of the food chain creature like us would care to admit in public given our sad state of affairs.

I think that if we look at things a little closer we would see that both of the scenarios that you pose are already at play. We know that our species, unaided by a fresh interpretation of life and how our survival strategy stacks up against it, has already failed.

The question is: can we rally up to the bottleneck challenge?

I think we can. I think that we have finally managed to decode the simplicity of the constituency behind life and its central motivation. After all, four million cataloged plants and animals that embrace it cannot be altogether wrong.

As the very admired and cherished physicist John Archibald Wheeler once remarked about the theories of everything, “Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it - in a decade, a century, or a millennium - we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid?”

We all know that nothing is, until we make it so. Therefore I will say that, after having looked at this problem for over half a century now, an intonation of that simple idea (which surely has propagated itself to all of life on earth) has emerged to the light of our kind of consciousness. Curiously, the farther back that we look in time towards the big bang the louder the intonation gets in suggesting that this simple idea also embraces the apparent motivation behind the universe itself.

As we are a species in need of a new theme to which to align our creative genius, what better theme than one which has been around for 13.7 billion years and is working successfully everywhere else in the universe?

I’m talking about an aesthetic construct that I call “Sustainable Continuity.”

There is of course a lot more to it than meets the eye (as Sustainable Continuity has precursors and an armature that gives it structure) but as you begin to think about it, it begins to take the shape of a first principle that is comfortable at every level and state of matter in this universe.

We have come far enough in our desire to conquer the world to where we are now confronted with having to create a new one, just to have a world and that is just fine, because nothing else will do at this point.

All that is needed to do is to enlarge our point of view and embrace the next size consciousness. Sustainable Continuity provides our interpretation of life with a destination that is analogous to the direction of time and the local urge of life on Earth to survive.

Thank you again George for painting an eloquent dividing line that is also marking a starting point for this transition from Homo sapiens to what ever rises up at the end of the transition. Maybe, just maybe, your eusapient being is already lurking just outside of this small and suffocating consciousness.



Dear Tiite Baquero,
I would like to point out that the planetary net productivity appropriated by the current human biomass should not be compared to the same used by the social insects. Additionally we provide food to ouselves with a generous helping of old sunlight. Things that can not go on forever wont.


Alas, a near perfect description of the coming perfect storm. I wish I could argue alternatives to your analysis, but I fear that alternatives are just not "really" there. As that famous intellectual, John Prine, observed, things are what they are and ain't what they ain't. And what they are is bleak. I remember when I was teaching social studies in high school, having a VERY difficult time teaching-arguing against China's draconian "one child" policy. It seemed at the time, and STILL seems, like a VERY rational, if, alas, still inadequate, policy - that has apparently been abandoned. We have a young grandchild who is, of course, the jewel of our lives, but in actuality, what future IS there for her?

Tiité Baquero

Dear Larry
I see your good point, although, comparative indexes of productivity and the means to accomplish them are in fact quite helpful, particularly, in establishing the operative parameters that lead to the wise use of resources and the impact analysis of their use. Be it at a local ecology and by extension at a global ecology. Thus, comparison between two approaches at different scales occurring within the same finite earth biosphere are not only useful but provide a clear indication that optimum resource utilization and wellbeing is possible without destroying the host environment.

As to the generosity of the sun in the making of food, with the exception of a small minority of creatures all other life on earth is pretty much sun dependant and yes you are right we are just beginning to learn to use the sun to do what plants have done for 300 million years.
Also I will propose that you are perhaps being too alarmed about forever as we do not know what that means. You see, so far forever has lasted over 13.7 billion years. I think, that we have time to let the kids create a new world if we let then have their part of forever.

Larry, while I think of it, I meant to type fifteen and not fifty feet tall termite citadels. They have been reported at thirty feet and housing several million termites; however, my overall point was about the contrast in survival strategy and how one is sustainable and the other is not.

The central issue seems to be, that it is not as important to know that civilization is in trouble as it is for civilization to understand that is has reached a high point from which further development will require an improved strategy.

That new strategy although inclusive of the old strategy, must put into play organizing principles that are formed from new interpretations of natural principles that are already at play, but, occurring just outside of our field of understanding (solar photosynthesis as a power generating source with an edible waste product comes to mind as the result of one such principle) which are beginning to roll-out into the cultural mainstream willing and able to tackle the challenges that George has outlined for us. Sustainable Continuity is an example of a fresh, Nature tested, ready to be used principle.
Cheers to you.

Dear Molly
Couldn’t help to notice your comment and the sobering question it asks.
Your grandchild and her generation have two probabilistic futures. On one we have sufficient courtesy to allow them to interpret the data without our biases while we encourage a transitional age climate between our mindset of concern and their awakening to a new world of opportunities. On the other, we stay on course and allow them to close the books as George points out.

I think the kids will do just fine; we can give up and lose our own hope, but, we are not entitled to give up theirs.
Great comment Molly

Joe Jackson

You are, I believe, missing a few critical data points that should not be missed:

- The world population growth rate is slowing. Yes, that raises the question if it is slowing quickly enough, but slowing it is. In most western industrialized nations, the population is in fact declining already.

- Western industrialized nations are currently throwing away 40-50% of all the food that is shipped to supermarkets (i.e. it is produced and packaged and stuffed into the supply chain). By simply eliminating this waste we could feed twice as many people as today at western standards of living.

- Meat production uses 9x as much biomass as vegetable production for the same amount of foodstuff to humans. It is too simplistic to call for going all-out vegetarian since some animals are raised on land which would be unable to sustain other foodstuffs. Still, the population that could be supported by eliminating most of the meat from our diets is easily 2-4x as large as that which is being fed today.

Assuming a conservative 1 billion people living a western lifestyle today, an applying the numbers above, we could feed another 4-8 billion people on top of the 7 billion we are already feeding today - if we really wanted to.

The limiting factor is energy, specifically fossil fuels, since the only way we could realistically feed all the people mentioned above involves a lot of transportation.

Most energy is being consumed by industrialized nations with comparatively low populations, not the population rich, high-growth nations (China and India being the exceptions). Of these the U.S., Russia, Japan, Germany, Canada and France consume about 30% of all of the energy used on this planet. (And China uses another 25%).

So instead of vaguely proposing mass sterilization of 90% of the population (something that you seem obsessed with, if I may so observe) I think it would be much more rational and sapient to propose that energy consumption by industrialized nations be reduced massively. This would leave amply fuel to transport foodstuffs while we get busy developing alternative sources of energy to the point where their EROI becomes sustainable in the long run.

George Mobus

First an apology for not being more responsive. As it turns out I am working on something that does directly address some of what Tiité has written about. I am preparing a blog to explain but it has to do with this notion of evolution driving toward greater complexity and organization so long as the energy flows in a local system. In several days I will be posting something of a preview of those ideas.



As noted above, I am convinced that the "solution" does involve raising consciousness but at the same time that requires some brain restructuring as a result of evolution. I actually see the coming bottleneck not as a horrible problem for the evolution of greater consciousness, i.e. greater sapience, but as the key opportunity. I am convinced that the evolution of higher sapience WILL take place regardless of what we mortals decide to do in the short run. What I am trying to point out is that we are faced with a bifurcation that on the one hand leads to much misery, torment, and suffering in short order versus one that might provide a modicum of easing through the bottleneck. A bottleneck must occur in any event as Larry notes, there just isn't enough energy available to support the level of population we have built up thanks to fossil fuels. And whatever energy flow we might obtain from real-time solar (and other minor sources) cannot begin to approach the power level we have enjoyed in the recent past.

Species do go extinct. There is nothing at all controversial about this fact. Some times, for species that are morphologically and behaviorally malleable (as are we humans) the old species gives rise to a new species that is better suited to the new environment. That has actually been the history of the hominins. We are the product of just such evolutionary process.

Eusapience does already exist in an incipient form. It is found in the genes of the wisest in our societies. It is, unfortunately in short supply, which is why we are where we are. But under the right selective forces (e.g. climate changes and biodiversity loss) it can emerge as the dominant mentality of humanity, just as our mentality emerged from Hominidae over the past 2 - 2.5 million years.

Homo eusapiens will posses a level of consciousness far greater than what we can imagine for our species now. In fact, the work I am engaged in looks at how the tendency in nature for cooperation to eventually dominate in social animals will, in man, lead to cooperation not only with one another, but with nature as well. We will emerge with a capacity for wise tactical management as well as wise logistical management, all governed by strategic wisdom - your sustainable continuity.

Humans will become more like termites in their ability to cooperate with one another and with the natural environment. They won't be mindless insects, I do not want to leave anyone with the impression that we will become hive-minded. Ours will be a new and unique form of eusociality celebrating what are the outstanding features of human existence, creativity, intelligence, emotions (esp. the ability to love and appreciate), and the capacity to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. Our successor will be the best we can see in humans now, but with the capacity to succeed in survival by the dominance of cooperation.

It is difficult to realize that this breakthrough must be accompanied by the kind of pain that a bottleneck event will cause we last remnants of Homo sapiens. It is not easy to accept that a greater prize need be bought with a such a high price. But nature has always worked thus. Supernovae explode to give rise to heavy element clouds just so the universe can become more complex and organized in the form of planets and life. Transitions are difficult, but necessary it seems. Take heart. We are all made of star dust, and one day our successors will be made of us.


Teach your grandchild permaculture. There is a future for those wise enough to prepare for it.


Thanks for your perspective. Doubtless there are many data points that I am missing. I like to point out to people that compared with what there is to know, I surely know nothing.

But let's engage your points.

First, while the rate of growth has indeed slowed, what is relevant is the population size now (even if it didn't grow any more) relative to the decline of fossil fuels as the principle power sources for society. If you read back any in my previous writing you will see I have covered this disparity between rates of change and why the current situation is so bleak.


By simply eliminating this waste we could feed twice as many people as today at western standards of living.
Therein lay the problem. The "by simply" part isn't very simple is it? You may be right in asserting that we could lessen the problem by judicious conservation practices (though I generally find such projections as overly optimistic). But will we?


...the population that could be supported by eliminating most of the meat from our diets is easily 2-4x as large as that which is being fed today.

Again one might wonder where your numbers come from, but that isn't the difficulty. The problem is the "easily" part isn't it?

Finally, the energy analysis means nothing if the energy is declining everywhere. Percentages of total use tells us nothing unless we know the size of the pie we are cutting up. I suspect you are missing that data point. And by the way, there are a large number of us who have been proposing exactly the reduction of energy consumption to conserve for food production/delivery for years. Perhaps you've missed that. Also, good luck with the dream of alternative EROIs that will sustain the populations you project. Thermodynamics doesn't work according to our wishes.

And a few data points missing regarding human nature and what the difference between feasible and realizable are. What you argue could be actually does little more than underscore why we are facing a bottleneck. It may or may not be the physical feasibility of raising and delivering more food. It is about the human propensity to not do these things that is really at issue. And as the energy further declines, which it will, the pie gets smaller and the haves will, I guarantee you, scramble to take larger percentages.

As to my obsession with sterilization, given all that I have written regarding the scientific basis of sapience and the human condition, and the analysis of real feasible solutions to prevent undue suffering, that is like saying I am obsessed with gravity.


Tiité Baquero

I want to thank you for taking the time to drive forward such an interesting dialog. The only thing that perhaps detracts from its distinct elegance is the fact, that, the real world implications of said dialog are so troublesome to those of us who look at the data and are making an effort to describe the nature of potential answers.

The “Bottleneck” already sounds like a ballet theme looking for a new Igor Stravinsky to write the music. Is the bottleneck impending, yes, is it manageable, I think yes, providing we can mentor a global transitional culture with new tools and a destination.

I’m reminded of something I wrote before to illustrate survival choices during the dinosaur extinction, their bottleneck.

A group of dinosaurs gathered to talk about it and after all of the issues had been presented and the comment filed in, the moderator of the discussion turns to a dinosaur with a peculiar feather-like skin coat that was just quietly listening and said…

You over there! What are you going to do about this extinction event?
The dinosaur stood up and said… you guys have talked about everything but changing your survival strategy. I and a few others are going to become birds and just fly away.
The dinosaurs rolled in laughter and later, they all went extinct.

A bit silly but true, anyway George, I can’t wait for your next blog.


Prof Mobus: Re: "teach your grandchild permaculture..." , YES, and my husband is DETERMINED also to teach her to hunt and to fish! Now "all" we have to do is to convince her parents that this is a wise set of lessons to impart. Why are we so soon old and so late wise?

Phil Henshaw

George, You always do such a brilliant job and show such a balanced approach, it's easy to miss that you don't deal with the roll of money. It's difficult reading to a modern ear, but Keynes' Chapter 16 in The General Theory, his crowning statement on the nature of economies, is quite clear.

You know that every net-energy system needs to continually produce net energy to exist. It also needs to have produced multiplying net energy to grow. The structure of any natural system that causes its growth is its "seeding plan" you might call it, the way the system uses of some of the net-energy produced to expand the system to produce more net-energy.

What manages that process in economies is "finance", in a diverse variety of ways, directing the net returns on money to be managed for making more net-energy investments for making more net money. That's what Keynes is discussing as "saving" and the macro-economic role of savings. When a net return on financial savings is added to the stock of financial savings the economy is then either, 1) driven to grow exponentially or 2) driven to inflate a bubble of false expectations exponentially. This forces an issue when the physical system can no longer perform compound growth.

Keynes points to the one and only possible solution, to change the quite longstanding habit of compounding investment. People who do nothing for it but be thrifty and set some money aside have been treated to ever multiplying earnings, taking a share of the growth bonus caused by the creative use of the system's net energy to multiply the system's use of energy. That always produces still more net energy... up to the point of refusal.

So here we are, at the point of refusal. All the commodities markets are now setting prices for who can be squeezed out rather than for expanding supply. That's what you see in "the confluence of it all" as every food and fuel resource market for 10 years has departed from the prior 50+ year stable price regime we thought would last forever. All together now they're displaying an escalating price regime, indicating to me that, in 2001 the world economy ran out of its previously limitless ability to absorb shocks.

What would a sane world do in response?? The cut to the chase, what we need to do is redirect the net-energy stream that has been seeding the system to continually multiply demand. It's new job (beyond the maintenance function that seeding new things overlapped with) is steering the economy as a whole toward a stable net-energy state, and away from a multiplying net-energy state. For not making that change, the steering mechanism of the economy is continuing to drive growth and our civilization toward a neg-energy state of collapse.

So, I think addressing the long suppressed subject of the natural limits of money is really the key to salvaging what opportunity we have left.


Hubbert's "Steady-State Economy":

"Hubbert's "Matter-Energy and Money Culture":

Energy (unit income) Distribution card:

All economic activity has a net energy per unit per time basis. Net energy per capita in fiat digital debt-money terms is collapsing; therefore, it follows that our capacity to produce at a socially acceptable standard of material consumption is at risk of collapse.

So much of the necessary energy flows for modern civilization is many times removed from the individual's ability to affect efficiencies at meaningful scale.

As debt-money "wealth" continues to concentrate to the top 0.1-1% of households, so, too, does the implied net energy surplus similarly concentrate.

Effectively, it requires 25-50% of US debt-money income and 85% of debt-money wealth going to the top 1-10% of US households to maintain the current structural division of labor and system of debt-money wealth and income distribution.

Needless to say, this system of net energy and debt-money wealth and income distribution is woefully inefficient and obscenely costly to the bottom 90% of the US population, not to mention the rest of the planet's inhabitants.


The so called genetic bottlenecks of the past are likely just the result of a small group of humans gaining a selective advantage that allowed them to spread out and replace other humans. Other species of human like Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Hobits survived until they were replaced by Sapiens. Neither is there is any evidence of the Toba eruption significantly affecting other species.

There is no reason to think the genetics for the Human Brain became totally uniform after and immune to mutation after the appearance of Homo Sapiens. And twin studies confirm that ability to learn and all measurable forms of intelligence are largely genetically determined baring the most extreme nutritional or sensory childhood deprivation. It is sad that Trotskyite dogma has had such a large impact on anthropology.

To work population control would have be implemented globally as although rudimentary eugenics would strengthen a nation a country with a shrinking population would likely be taken over by a country with a growing population vus achieving nothing.


The most likely kind of population control to occur is therefore predatory population control in the form of extermination of competing nations or groups.

The comments to this entry are closed.