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!

« Book Update - Phase One Complete! | Main | Happy Autumnal Equinox »

September 12, 2013


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


@George - Round of applause once again. But of course, what you have done with this essay is the equivalent of walking into a bar late in the evening and trying to engage resident drunks in a debate about liver function.

The numbskull piranhas who are destroying our brief flirtation with civilization with their zealous attachment to voodoo economics can't listen, won't listen and will never ever listen to the logic of your argument. They are too far gone, and so addled by their 'success' in rigging the system in their favor, they have lost any ability to correct their behavior for humankind's benefit.

On that basis, I guess there's no point in printing out this piece, wrapping up a brick and delivering a missive to the offices of Goldman Sad-Sacks via a closed window.

On the other hand, how's about taunting any of your academic colleagues who still adhere to neoclassical BS? Now that's a sport worth the entrance fee.


Another masterful post. Again, I am torn because you turned me onto systems thinking three years ago and I loved your model of sapience, but after reading Odum and seeing his fourth law I think we aren't as stupid as you think. If Odum is right then we are being constrained in our actions by a physical law to maximize free energy flows. No serious person walks around saying if we are wiser we can break the other three accepted laws of physics. I guess that would leave me with either Odum is wrong or my understanding of his laws is wrong. Something EP Odum said was that with every level in a hierarchy comes another emergent property and I can see society as an emergent property of humans that must follow the laws of self organizing evolution. But I guess in your defense you have said humans maybe outside evolutionary forces. So maybe our stupidity is being outside of evolution and still following its principles?


For the record, Keen as acknowledged that energy is a foundation element for any economy (I've seen him mention this in several talks), but he has not yet figured out how to add it to his model (which, itself, is new and evolving).

That said, I don't think his thinking has probably taken him as far as he needs to go with that idea, certainly not as far as Hall, et al.

I think one of the problems (there are many) with the widely-held interpretations of the "invisible hand" is that the concept was formulated at a time when, in actuality, we had already crossed a threshhold into somewhat abnormal behavior. After many thousands of millenia of evolution in small social units, we had, in evolutionary time, exploded into living conditions that were incredibly dense and complex.

The problem is that humans evolved social/phycological mechanisms for managing interaction within those small groups. We, still, in my experience, function quite well in such groups. In small groups, we are familiar. We know and are known. We develop a sense of being and belonging that deeply influences and, importantly, constrains our behavior. We consider the impacts of our actions on others because we know them and they know us. However, humans, increasingly, do not exist in this living arrangement. We live in large, complex arrangements in which we are dependent upon others for almost everything, but in such a way that we can identify almost none of these dependencies in terms of individuals that we know. That change, while ongoing for perhaps thousands of years, has occurred in the blink of an evolutionary eye. Fueled by agriculture, then slavery and indentured servitude, then fossil fuels, we did what all life forms do; we expanded to consume all accessable energy. But, due to the speed of this expansion, our genetic makeup has not had the opportunity to adapt, at least in such a way as to promote beneficial coexistence (perhaps one could argue tha this is the beauty of nature making an out of control species ever more self-destructive and, therefore, self-limiting). The growth, living arrangements, and impact, of our species has simply outpaced evolutionary change. We are no longer suited, genetically, for the environment in which we find ourselves.

How does this relate to economy? The ideas of modern economics were largely formulated to explain existing behavior during a time when that existing behavior was, in evolutionary time frames, a serious outlier. The models try to explain behaviors that might more apropriately be considered to be negative human traits (greed, glutony, hoarding, rent-taking, etc.), and to not just explain them, but to idealize them. In short, it provided cover for already existing, abnormal, narcisctic, and perhaps, sociopathic behaviors.

With such a system in place, and with seemingly boundless energy to fuel it, is it any wonder that the species proceded on the course it did?

I think that it is unlikely that humans can meaningfully change their behavior, absent ongoing, in-your-face, existential crises. A slow-burning existential crisis will not do it (hence, the failure of climate change to affect human behavior meaningfully). I suspect that only the reduction of available energy is likely to have a meaningful impact, and, even then, only slowly as those entrenched in power will move to protect that position, trying to maintain the status quo. The result is likely to be far more painful than it need be. As you point out, we are far more clever than wise.

George Mobus


I have, in fact, done a bit of taunting! Here is a link to a presentation I gave where several of my colleagues attended. Some have been rather "cool" since then!


Well there is stupid and then there is foolish. First let me say I definitely do not think we humans are outside of evolution. Evolution abides! We are, however, now subject to a very different set of selection forces.

As far as Odum's fourth law is concerned, it is true that we are dissipative systems (and a dissipative system in aggregate) as are all systems. But this doesn't mean we have to NOT constrain our power usage. There is no law that says we have to operate to dissipate the maximum at all times. If it were a law then life could not exist because it depends on slow oxidation of fuels (metabolism) rather than a burst of flame. Life is a good example of a dissipative system that self-regulates its power usage to maintain its structure and function. Human society could emulate this approach.

Odum's concept of maximum power applies to systems unconstrained by controls that regulate its use. And, if anything, it proves my point that we are very foolish as we act as an unconstrained system - a fire instead of a slow metabolism.


That is good to hear about Steve Keen. We seem to have a mutual acquaintance who I will try to get to cross-introduce us. I would very much like to start a dialogue that might help integrate energy and economy concepts. He is clearly a systems person so that should be feasible!

I sometimes go back and forth on this proposition that our late Pleistocene evolution failed to prepare us for the modern world. On the one hand I very much think that we failed to develop sufficient sapience to moderate our cleverness. And I do admit there are plenty of examples of mental dysfunction passing as normal these days. But I also can't help but think that our in-group, out-group sentiments were much more flexible than we might imagine based on our beliefs in early sapiens evolution (small tribes and all that). There seems to be more emerging evidence that trade was actually going on more than previously thought. We know, from genetic analysis, that trade in mates (presumably wives) had to have taken place frequently given the population densities of the time (recent evidence of incest-related deformities in skull fragments). And, if I am right about certain aspects of the selection for sapience, then it is possible that humans were already adapted to interactions over much larger "groups" than we would have thought. Of course some of those interactions could still be aggression, but that is true even between individuals in a tribal group.

Even if that is the case, it is clear, and I think we both agree, that the level of complexity that culture has produced now far exceeds even that level of flexibility and the evidence of breakdown and failed institutions is all around us. So we arrive at the same conclusion about the likely future.


Reverse Engineer

"But this doesn't mean we have to NOT constrain our power usage. There is no law that says we have to operate to dissipate the maximum at all times."-GM

True enough, but of course all conservation/constraint might serve to do is to put off the inevitable somewhat.

Basically, as Ugo Bardi and I went over on the Collapse Cafe, the MAX time left for Vertebrates on Earth is not much more than 200M years under any circumstance.

So you would have to project out that by slowing energy consumption, this might enable time to get OFF the earth before Solar Radiation bakes the planet.

EXCEPT, to get OFF the planet and make Intestellar Touristaing looking for a new suitable Home for Homo Sapiens would take MORE energy, a LOT more.

You could look at the last Century since Einstein elucidated Special Relativity as an all out last ditch effort to access an control sufficient energy to be able to get off a Planet that has only a limited time left under any circumstances to support life as we know it. Regardless of whether we pumped tons of Carbon up into the atmosphere or not over the last few centuries, we STILL would go extinct, just maybe last a bit longer. Sort of like the Heavy Smoker, quitting smoking might extend his life some, but he STILL would die eventually no matter how clean he lived.

Ulitmately, life on Earth is NOT SUSTAINABLE. The only "chance" was the Star Trek Meme, to get OFF the planet before it is fried by the Sun. So on the pages of Popular Science since I was a kid, the HOPIUM of Fusion Power was promoted, and BILLIONS of Dollars were spent on Superconducting Supercolliders to realize this dream of Limitless Power.

Sadly, it failed. There won't be money or energy of conventional kind to continue pursuing this dream much longer, and the result of rapidly burning up the fuel we did have quickly means we won't last as long as we might have on a slower burning trajectory.

Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good Looking Corpse as the saying went in my youth.



Check out:

and their "Four Horsemen" documentary.

Paul Chefurka

George, as long as there are sovereign nations competing for world supremacy, Odum's MPP holds. Any nation that deliberately adopts energy restraint will be steamrolled or sidelined by one or more of its competitors who don't hold themselves back. That means that the incentive to expand a nation's energy use is an international political imperative.

Our evolved psychology that governs such matters can't easily be tempered by reason. The emotions hold the gavel in the court of human behavior; the darker urges bubbling up from the unconscious will not be denied.

George Mobus


Except that we seem to be a K-selected species ( Your saying would be more applicable to an r-selected species ;^)


Of course. I'm in no way saying our current species could accomplish this. Only that it is a strong tendency in evolution. Cooperation through hierarchical cybernetic systems is more a rule than an exception and there is no reason that if Homo survives the die-off through a bottleneck that newer, more empathetic, altruistic, and cooperative leaning species such as my hypothetical Homo eusapiens might evolve. Under those circumstances the regulation of power dissipation is not out of the question.



Vis-a-vis the cooperation or lack of it in species, I recall seeing a visualization of countless incredibly fast moving particles within a single animal cell, and as far as I am aware, all this frenetic activity goes on with no or little conflict/collision/seizure of energy between and from the particles.

I compare this to a particularly sad event which I learned about today; a gentle friend was killed on a motorbike when colliding with a deer that suddenly ran out in the road, and he was thrown into the path of an oncoming vehicle. This is but a microcosm of the continual premature destruction of human life every day, as burgeoning numbers of Homo sapiens aka callidus try to occupy the same space at the same time, along with other animals "trespassing" on human highways and byways.

The difference between cooperation (inside cells) and competition (multicellular animals including us) couldn't be more stark.

Sobering food for thought. I couldn't be more happy about the prospect of emergent eusapience at some far point. But today I have new doubt about how "we" will possibly evolve fast enough to cooperate sufficiently to thrive anew, having eliminated the collisions/theft of energy between us.

Then again, maybe if the numbers of Homo ??? after the bottleneck are low enough...

Reverse Engineer

"Except that we seem to be a K-selected species ( Your saying would be more applicable to an r-selected species ;^)"-GM

So maybe what we need to Evolve into is an R-selected Species. :)

Or Homo Reanimus. :D



@ Business electricity price comparison a.k.a. Are you making money...

Your intrusion on this blog is a sad indictment of all that is fetid about capitalism. Kindly solicit your monetization fantasy elsewhere, unless you have something of merit to add to the issues covered by QE.


Thanks for the reply. I guess I just see that as a species we have pulsed thousands of times and our DNA has pulsed millions of times. Modern Economics seems like the perfect info system for the free fossil fuel energy that was available. And I went back and saw that it was Neo Darwian Evolution you said we might evolve past (survival of the fittest of the current environment) but not evolution (survival of the fittest of some future environment). Do you know of any organism that throttles its energy usage when it can be put to productive use? I only think of examples of throttling energy usage when the system is in danger and Neodarwinian evolution has had previous experience with the problem. Looking at the situation I still think a true sapient being might still choose our path on an a prior basis.

George Mobus


I'm sorry about your friend.

Of course I have no idea about the "speed" of evolution. But if the past is any indication the amount of rapid (only a few million years) adaptive radiation after a bottleneck event could be expected to apply here. In the meantime we will just have to hope that the survivors do have sufficient sapience to find cooperation more useful than conspecific competition. We were headed in that route at one time, I think.

RE: the spammer. He was one that miraculously got into the current post. Most (and there are many) generally just hit pages at random and are easy to spot. Notice that comment is gone!


I take it as a joke. I actually don't know of an example of a K-selected species giving rise to an r-selected species, though obviously the opposite had to have happened, at least slowly. Anyone else have an example?


A couple of thoughts.

In the not-too-distant future I think I will review the evolution of evolution theory to clarify some subtle points. As you mention Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian evolution and tie them to my thesis I think I need to clarify. Darwinian evolution was the original decent with modification/replication beyond the carrying capacity/and natural selection through competition story. Nothing was known about genes and genetic mutations so the decent with modification part was pretty much taken on faith. Once the nature of genetic inheritance was grasped Darwinian evolution and genetics could be synthesized into what was called Neo-Darwinian evolution.

However a great deal more has come to light since the late-middle of the 20th century when Dawkins could propose the "selfish gene" metaphor as a sufficient explanation for decent with modification.

Today we include epigenetics and Evo-Devo along with a few more dynamical considerations and we probably ought to give up the adjectival inclusion; we should just call it evolution. I will, one day, try to write this up better.

Do you know of any organism that throttles its energy usage when it can be put to productive use?

The key here is the definition of "productive". Again this requires more space than I can use at the moment but put simply, productive, in a systems science/cybernetic (i.e. Biophysical economics) has a narrow technical definition that depends on the sustainability of the system. It is not used to describe merely more growth. As we are seeing now that use of energy is definitively NOT productive. Rather it is now destructive.

In my post of today, I mentioned that I am planing to write about Howard Odum's maximum power principle in relation to system dynamics. I think the name of the principle may misguide some people into thinking that it means systems will always try to dissipate the maximum amount of power. But that really isn't the case. You have to be careful about choosing the boundaries of analysis. What looks like a maximum at one level might actually be an optimum at a different level (and, of course, vice versa). I think exploring this would be a useful conversation.


The comments to this entry are closed.