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« Reality? What's That? | Main | Does Anybody See an Alternative to Obama? »

June 30, 2011


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Peter Cranstone

Now if we could only get them to read this post and try an alternative approach. Sadly this will never happen, as they continue more of the same expecting a different results.

John D

Nice post. The most succinct way I can think to put this is that most people think growth is the solution, but it is instead the problem. With this mindset I can read the economic news and understand it perfectly.


Like i think I've said SEVERAL times before - infinite growth in a finite system is a logical impossibility. Why is that SO difficult to grasp? ALL resources - at least on planet earth - are LIMITED. Period. Economic expansion to Mars seems a touch unlikely at present.

step back


What you fail to mention in all that long winded ranting is this:

Capitalism is a state-sponsored religion.

They convince everybody to believe in an Invisible Appendage (a.k.a. The Hand)

George Mobus


What I write, I don't expect a mass audience. I don't write for the general populace, but for myself and those few who already grasp the nature of the problems (the choir!) But feel free to share with anyone you think would benefit.

John D,

This 'mindset' is actually nature's way. All living things work hard to grow and reproduce. We just managed to transcend the normal negative feedbacks that keep populations (and profits) in check. So nature will find more instructive means to cap our tendency for growth!


Good to hear from you.

step back,

My intellectual superiors do often remind me that I have a tendency to be long-winded and rant. Thanks for reminding me.



"My intellectual superiors do often remind me that I have a tendency to be long-winded and rant. Thanks for reminding me."

George, keep huffing and puffing and "ranting". We in the choir will do our best to stay on tempo, or at least the same page of the hymnal. :-)

Mark Twain

Another great article, Mr. Mobus.

Since you begin with a quote from Mr. Clemens, I thought I would offer a couple more pertinent quotes from Mr. Twain:

"Between believing a thing and thinking you know is only a small step and quickly taken."

"The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet."

Not to defend the idiocy of pundits, politicians, capitalists, et al, I thought that I would point out that the inherent ability in humans for pattern-matching leads inexorably to believing in things that are not true. This is in our (human) nature. I suppose one could sum it up as "I believe X because it just SOUNDS right".

Religion/Mysticism/Spirituality/Belief/etc were all created before we were even human (sapiens). We are hard-wired in this way.

Very few humans want to accept the (obvious) fact that growth (economic or otherwise) cannot continue forever, for it means that things will not always be as good (or better!) than they are now.

I have been struck recently by the number of solutions proposed for various problems (some of which you touch on here) that focus on developing an even-more-complex solution to a slightly-less-complex problem. Tainter's been on my mind a lot, recently. As has Diamond. And, Mobus. :-)


All I see is a lot of criticizing and complaining and not a single idea offered as to a best way forward.

George Mobus






Suggest you take a look at the archives. I've been talking about the 'way forward' for a long time. But I also recognize the futility of asking ordinary beings to change their beliefs in order to implement such ways forward.


Eric L

There is a grain of truth to each of these individually, but they don't quite add up for me. You object to services and information as economic growth because if they are all that you have then you have no economy. And things like food and shelter are absolutely essential and cannot grow without bound. But so long as population doesn't grow without bound, they don't have to, and many demographers expect that population will stabilize around 9 billion or so.

So my question is, what if, after taking care of food, shelter, clothing, and health care, the next thing most people want is to watch a new movie? What if we stabilize the parts of the economy that can't grow and enjoy the unbounded growth in services and information? Is your concern that it is cheating somehow to call that growth? That we should not want this, because it isn't real? Or are you arguing that growth, even in this form, can't be delivered; that without radical changes to the economy the only way we will create growth is through trinkets?

George Mobus

Eric L,

Thanks for the comment.

The key understanding, in answer to your question, has to do with recognizing the critical role that energy plays in having anything more than our basic requirements met. As long as we have been literally swimming in energy from fossil fuels we could afford to direct some significant resources toward entertainment and unfettered research.

With the advent of peak oil and the economic impacts of decreasing energy return on energy invested we are no longer able to think of expanding non-essentials while jeopardizing the essentials. The problem is in your premise that "... if we stabilize the parts of the economy that can't grow..." What if we can't stabilize the physical economy for the population that exists or will exist, presumably, in the future? Therein lies the rub. If you are counting on alternative energies, based on what you read or hear in the media, then you may be in for a rude awakening, I'm afraid.

Basically, what I am saying is that anything thought to be 'growth' in the economy cannot take place as long as energy is in decline. Period. Whether you think it is real (physical) or virtual (entertainment, financialization) or service (burger flipping), no work of any kind can be done without energy. And no growth of any kind can occur without an expansion of energy.

I have written extensively on these topics, so you may want to read some from the archives. Biophysical economics (the category on the left side of the screen) contains writings on energy and the energy future. You might also take a look at this article to give a sense of what I think about non-physical development (not growth) of the individual even in a low-energy life style.


George Mobus

This was sent via e-mail from George Girod:

I think the cause of the dilemma you see facing all of us is most recently, and I think, best, described by Steven Hawking's Model Dependent Reality. I know Peter Senge and many other management/systems thinking/organizational development experts have proposed and described mental models but IMHO none have anchored the concept as rigorously as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in "The Grand Design". You may disagree, and it does not necessarily detract from the argument below.

I worry that today nobody can present substantive information in adequate quantity and compelling urgency to overturn the models that the vast majority of the American people are using to interpret their reality. Those models, dating back to Reagan (the government IS the problem, Starve The Beast, etc.) and others even before him, are protected with layers of denial so thick that it would take decades to reverse the programming. To quote you, "It won't be pretty, but it will be gawdawful ugly if people are caught by surprise. People don't react well to losing their beliefs overnight."

People who discover their models are inconsistent with reality, like those in an experiment, those whose goggles suddenly reverse vision up/down and right/left struggle but eventually regain full competence in spatial navigation because their brain's model adjusts. I think "gawdawful ugly" is an excellent description of people's reactions in the experimental condition while transitioning to the new "reality". Ultimately they adjust and navigate perfectly until the "sadistic" experimenters again reverse the coordinates. Then "gawdawful ugly" again prevails. We are slaves to our models and our realities.

I think many of us might choose scientists as being role models to guide our intellectual lives (at least i would). However, if we do that, we have a long and impressive history of scientists resisting abandonment of their favored model until strongly convinced otherwise by evidence. Before they reject their model some scientists struggle to add/adjust parameters to make it work with the data. It is human nature. It's in the hardware. Should we really expect the populace to adjust instantly? If we do, we haven't held our intellectuals to the same standard. Instead we have cheered them on in the name of science when they did their own personal about face. It is human nature. Models, like reality, are necessarily persistent. None of us would like to rebuild all of our models of reality every morning. Fortunately (most times) for us, we don't have to.

By a combination of filtering data in the news, discrediting science, encouraging rabid individualism to isolate people from each other, while applying numerous powerful propaganda techniques to partition society into many small, self interested and ultimately powerless groups, the media have constructed a shared model of reality that is seemingly more robust than that which encouraged people to smoke decades after it was revealed as obviously harmful. Decades of counter evidence and thousands of gory deaths were required to shift the balance and gain social consensus.

Nicotine addiction was a very good training ground for manipulating the reality of millions. Sadly, the same techniques work about as well for {fossil fuel / eternal growth / infinite resource} addiction that we are now dealing with. Oops - I am sorry. I realize my current model implies a "they" who are orchestrating the nasty outcome for "their" nefarious ends just like big tobacco.

The whole point was that "The Grand Design" does not require a supreme being to bring about life, the universe, and everything. It just emerges. There is no "they".

If we don't have a "they" to blame, what do we do?

With a huge sample of sentient life in our universe, and with an additional 10^500 possible universes, at least some of which have to be nice to live in, is this maybe how sentient beings face extinction? Do they look for a "they" or do they look for something else? If so, what is it they look for?

Great article. I have been sharing it with dozens of people.

Gregory Bateson treads similar ground in a critique of monoculture ("Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation" 1968) :

"Our conscious sampling of data will not disclose whole circuits but only arcs of circuits, cut off from their matrix by our selective attention."

... and of course this kind of wisdom is/was well known to the sufis, the buddhists, the gnostics, and many others

George Mobus


Bateson has always been a hero - some of his stuff in my forthcoming (I hope) book on systems science.


Brennan Young

I am "www" For some reason I couldn't post with my real name. Had to log in with my google account. (Didn't want to use fb or twitter)


Another of your really great articles.

Diamond Drill Bits

It is a nice article and I have been sharing it with dozens of people..

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