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« Knowing/Thinking - Strategic | Main | The Future of Evolution? »

November 03, 2013


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Great essay George and, on the whole, I agree with your assessment. i'd just like to point out that your optimistic conjecture that some small batch of "evolutionarily advanced" humanity with this "sapience" you keep going on about may only be the usual optimism/anthropocentrism of humanity continuing in the face of the evidence that our so-called intelligence is actually NOT being selected for in reality. Please consider this essay:

I believe that we're only another species in a long line that developed this thing we call "intelligence" but that, instead of it being an advantage, it actually worked the other way - to paint us into a corner that we can't extricate ourselves from; and that we're going to go extinct like all those before us (but this time, our "superior" intelligence actually CAUSES the extinction event). We can't just imagine this sapience as being some magic bullet that suppresses our innately selfish and inherently disgusting behaviors - when most of humanity fails to exhibit any sign of it.

Other than that, I enjoy reading your thoughts and analyses.

Reverse Engineer

"RE, it might be a better solution "demographically speaking" but it's just as politically impossible as the approach George listed. It could be accomplished, however. "All we need to do is"* make all medical care illegal. Or too expensive, an approach that is already showing signs of working in the United States."-PC

Politics change RADICALLY once TSHTF in earnest, as the example of Nazi Germany proves. So either Soylent Green for Old Folks or Children of Men for this generation or some combination probably will occur eventually.

BTW Paul, I've been meaning to ask you on for a Podcast. You wanna chat on the Collapse Cafe?



Humans are competitive and will release even the most toxic long term poisons into the biosphere if it gives them a short-term competitive advantage. Who gives a damn about the future when you could be dead tomorrow on the vaporizing end of a hydrogen bomb. “Pave the roads, pump the oil, lay the tracks, educate the engineers, we have to stay ahead.” Competitive carcinoma until Major Kong takes his last ride and releases an LD50 of radioisotopes into the northern hemisphere. The LD50 of carbon dioxide has probably already been released and will manifest as death by denaturation in the tropics and death by famine elsewhere. Technological advancement should not be conflated with intelligence. Technological advancement is a predictable thermodynamic process that creates structures to degrade energy. It just so happens that humans can imagine an infinite number of ways to waste the energy in a very short period of time and kill themselves in the process.


George, you have compiled a well-reasoned, but unrealistic list showing that drastic change will not happen. As my wife says, people will not willing give up the creature comforts of industrial civilization once they have tasted them. All I have seen from the financial elite is a maintaining of the appearance of normalcy. To get to the top of the capitalist pyramid requires less than Gandhi-like qualities; they will not consent to giving up their positions and wealth in this cutthroat social hierarchy. Thus famine, war, and disease will reign as the population is whittled down to the last greedy bastard on the planet.


Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot effected many of the items in the list above. We have seen the results. The critical "sapience" difference is consent and even active support of those most affected, and even dramatic selection events will fail to change the paradigms of the first generation. The second generation might catch part of the program, and the third will be mostly enrolled (for by then the cascading catabolic selection will have winnowed down the survivors to some small fraction of the 8+ billion we have now).

In the meantime, what peace and joy can we create in our daily lives? What can we do to savor the delightful and not be bummed by all that is outside our influence and beyond our powers? Tend our gardens and recite the Serentity Prayer. This seems to have been a deja vu wisdom available for millennia, for (subjectively) the terrors of the present and future have always felt essentially the same, however different their actual content.

We should not deceive ourselves that our modern planet-scale content is generating an emotive response different from that of our ancestors. Nor that we really do know what will transpire, however well we have reasoned it out.

It is conventional wisdom that the planet will be just fine without Homo sapiens; what has not been generally recognized is that Homo may become a sufficiently different animal in the process - one that may handle it adequately (as we too have been doing all along).

We may be our own greatest enemy now; we may become better adapted to that "new" world in due time. How many have to survive our present excesses for a healthy population to eventually emerge in better balance (for its own while) with that new world?


these are all excellent recommendations, but highly unlikely any will be implemented at any level. China just ended its one child policy and moved almost ALL of its farmers off farms and into the cities to make consumers out of them, rather than producers.
Humans are a terribly clever, but painfully dumb animal; selfish, mentally ill with greed and hoarding, violent and vengeful, we are going to take ourselves out through extinction. Sadly, we are also going to take out most other species as well. Bringing down this diseased industrial civilization would be the best thing for the living planet, rather than trying to survive the bottleneck. We have already murdered ourselves and most life on Earth, we just haven't noticed yet.
As Dr Guy McPherson says, we are walking around to save on funeral expenses...
The best advice for anyone now, in a world that is ruled by madmen and populated by fools, is to love those close to you, hold them dear, celebrate their milestones while they have them, and work to have no regrets as we step into the Abyss together.
There will be no dirges, no Iliads, no legends told of our courage in the end. There will be no holidays to remember our final hours.
There will only be 9 million years of Earth restoring Herself to bring forth new life. Let's hope She does a better job than us next time around...


Everything you said is true, and there's little doubt that it will play out badly for human kind (for all the reasons you note, plus the others noted in some of the comments.) I came to this realization some time ago, and have been struggling with the despair that results out of it. However, like others, I'm letting go of that, and just trying to love life and not hate all humans and their endeavors (a tall order as we are destroying far more than ourselves with our folly.)

Given our obvious failings, I've wondered about our place in the scheme of things. In the past, I've sardonically called us "Our Asteroid", but I wonder if that is closer to the truth than I ever imagined. It certainly explains the senseless slaughter of other creatures (dolphins, elephants, Amazonia, just about everything): we are Gaia's agents for a reset. All of our pluses and minuses are the equivalent of a scouring of life on this planet, returning it to the state it was at the last great die-off. That's not comforting, particularly when one considers just how much (little?) time this planet has left to support life--another 1.5 billion years, perhaps, but we are who we are, and short of spontaneous evolution (perhaps from all that Fukishima/Chernobyl/Three Mile Island/weapons testing radiation?), this is our lot.

Thanks for the good read.

John Wheeler

Your logic is sound. But you have made a couple major gaffes in your proposed solutions. If you "turn all arable and climate-viable land over to permaculture" then plows are quite unnecessary and so is using fossil fuel for food production. Other than initial land shaping like creating terraces and digging retention ponds, such things would be pretty superfluous.


There are some minor disputable points in the article, but nothing critical; i agree with all the main conclusions it presents. I also spent quite a few years trying to see what's going on with the mankind and Gaia, and what i learned is in generally massive agreement with the article.

One interesting point, though, is the future. For nearly a year, i am living with acceptance of inevitability of the bottleneck event, and with acknowledging of possibility of our species' complete extinction.

You said:

" ... My hope is that a few wiser groups will form and isolate themselves in regions that will be relatively stable climate-wise. They will focus on skills in producing the essentials of life based on real-time solar energy inputs. They might survive. ... "

This is my hope as well. However, for now, this is a faint hope, because:
- the key word is "wiser"; those groups will need to be _massively_ wiser. You're right about bilogic restrictions upon our sapiense. It's hard to see how relatively small groups which will be using (inevitably) relatively low-tech technologies (including educational and information technologies) - would be able to ensure that all of its "citizens" are wise enough. All - because it only takes a few "rotten" souls for the whole deal of "profit from exploitation" to start again, - and eventually destroy the group.
- there are strong biological urges for a human to be destructive towards its environments. In fact, very many, if not vast majority, of species are in some or other ways destructive to their environment wheneever overpopulation happens. A single organism has one very high priority: to survive. As conditions continue to worsen, and resources to dwindle, this natural urge to disregard "the larger view" will affect more and more people, stronger and stronger;
- it is likely that for at least several months, and possibly for several years or even few decades, remnants of global technological civilized societies will remain operational. These remnans are likely to find and exploit even well isolated and remote communities. Asking 'em nicely to stay away - won't do when it's a matter of life or death for thousands/millions of "intruders". Guns blazing, - won't do either (wiser people would most likely remain a vast minority, plus there is a need to avoid destruction of remaining livable habitat).

Many other serious issues also exist.


An expanding cancer inside a body, having unsheathed forbidden tools and motivations to employ against the cells with which it had been in equilibrium, would have to consider itself exceptional for all of the success in expanding its numbers at the expense of the body. It would marvel at its endless angiogenesis and metastasis and the seeming uniqueness of its structures. It would wonder about the meaning of life and make such meaning consonant with its pursuit of continual growth and unlimited lifespans. Eventually it would go into remission or so interfere with the balance of metabolic relationships within its environment that collapse would become inevitable. I certainly hope it unnecessary for eco-oncologists to employ methods of radiation, chemo, and biological therapy upon this “thriving” stock of cancerous apes, but I also have the feeling that an accelerating spiral downward, similar to cachexia in seriously ill humans, is beginning to take hold. If the rate of failure becomes too great, it may be impossible to arrest it, even with the elimination of human industrial activity, an impossible voluntary feat and a highly toxic involuntary one.

Aboc Zed

I've been in agreement with George's way of thinking for long, pretty much since I discovered his writings.

So nothing to add to the article.

My comment is prompted by F.Tnioli spotlight on "hope" for isolated communities of wiser people to survive and be seed for more sapient super-speicies.

I concur with F.Tnioli that the hope is faint.

In my case it is non-existent. I think we are at such a stage of overshoot and diasporation into all the corners of the planet that isolated communities are simply not possible anymore. At least before serious population attrittion brings about a 90% population reduction.

Instead of hope for isolated communities I am looking elsewhere.

I am looking into the thin layer of people who understand enough like George and commentators here and other places like Decline of the Empire by Dave Cohen and many other numerous internet platforms.

At some point I expect those people to formulate a coherent unification language and the means to form a distinct group somewhere on the planet and work themselves into the power structures of whatever society they find themselves be part of.

I am not talking about coup d'etat but _evolution_ into government and transforming it from government out of ignorance (ignorant voters voting ignorant representatives that do not know what needs to be done) into government as a science laboratory.

Of course system science will be behind it, operations research will be behind it, the understanding that institutions of family, property, law and so on and so forth will have to be morphed to support this transformation and evolution towards the government by knowledge instead of government by ignorance.

I know it is not possible to have such change over the horizon of one person's life-time but I do think the genetic imperative to survive will steer the cultural evolution towards that outcome.

I do not think this outcome is predetermined, there is no teleology here.

But I do think that transition to sustainability in whatever of human population is left after the bottleneck event is more likely to take this path of continuity of cultural evolution of our institutions rather than follow the path of isolated communities of vastly more sapient subset of population.

In the end the result is the same - a super-species, a species of Home that is always thinking , always on lookout for what's around the corner and always capable of acting upon the knowledge it acquired to rebalance itself and its relationship with the rest of the biosphere to keep going over the time afforded to LIFE on this planet, say half a billion years or so.

Ken Barrows

I hope I get a gold star for getting a vasectomy last week (zero kids). Some money would be better ;)

I figured that we can get down to 4 billion by about 2051 if deaths exceed births by 200,000 per day...starting now.

Christian Mobus

It is fact that we (homo sapiens) have only been around for a fraction of measurable time in comparison to life itself on this planet. The earth is a living breathing organism as is the universe and will suffer minor injuries and heal itself just as any organisms do. People as a whole (society) is an organism also. We will develop ways to endure and heal from injuries just as we do a scrape on the knee.

In this sense, the earth too will heal itself. If society is making earth sick, the medicine would be as un-fathomable to us as anti-biotics are to a virus. We might not understand the changes say, in the earths cleansing of itself. Maybe, we're spinning our wheels thinking about it.

If we as individuals, can identify the problem, rationalize and execute a solution that's within our own realm of existence, then as a whole, society will be better off. The question is, are we trying to save the earth or ourselves? It doesn't seem to be a parallel objective.

The powers that be may or may not be interested in salvaging our resources or using our resources to heal so called undesirables. The powers that be DO seem interested in monetary gain. Thus, depleting the earths resources for a better NOW than future. The problem with this is that, to gain the power to change things, you must have money to buy out these powers and to make the money needed, you would need to BE of the powers that be. A "catch 22" if you will.

The only way to REALLY make a change is to start with ones own concern and be diligent with the task of conscious effort.
The world is full of hypocrites but, little changes, everyday could amount to big outcomes later on.


I think of it this way: memory is an ancient and well tested capability, in evolutionary terms, that almost all of us can use reliably and effortlessly. Reason is something new that we're not very good at yet; I've read that about a third of adults walking around never develop the capability at all (that fraction seems a bit high to me).

Naturally, then, we rely on memory far more than on reason. We're creatures of habit with occasional flashes of consciousness more than rational beings with occasional lapses.

The practical upshot is that we don't change our ways until a crisis materializes. It's just how we're wired.

It also explains some of the appeal of religion. Religions offer a path through the world that can be adopted as a set of habits, without requiring much thought.


Isn't it interesting that the thing that most people balk at most is not having kids? Bring on a command economy and redistribution of assets, no worries. But stop having babies - no way! As if a group of people with an average age over 50 can't take care of itself.
Beverley, the problem with the "just end poverty" solution to population growth is that it's a myth, and the most insidiously cruel myth in the world because it's responsible for withholding access to birth control from billions, thereby generating their poverty and exploitation. The "equality first" people don't understand that it is overpopulation that generated inequality: people don't allow themselves to be exploited nor pay economic rents if they've inherited an adequate means of subsistence. They only hand that power to "capitalists" if that inheritance has been diluted away or usurped by some other resource-hungry (overpopulated) group. George is right - it's too late now. We're passed peak water, and won't have the energy to keep delivering it to crops. If we did stop all births from today, the death rate is only around 150,000 per day so we'd shed barely 2 billion by 2050. Possibly survivable if we were sapient, but we're not. Thanks to K-dog for clarifying that. It won't be the sapient, humane folk who survive. It will be merciless religious extremists with a completely misconceived view of the crisis, which means the post-crisis regime will just repeat the cycle. Cheerful thoughts - thanks George!


A. Alas, I can find no arguments to your essay. You are undoubtedly "right" - that is, "right" as in "correct."

B. The discussion above is also most interesting….not much in the way of disagreement here, but real thoughtful observations. Thanks, all.


What you're describing is what a rational species would do to deal with the ecological emergency we're entering into... Humanity is facing a scenario that will require logical choices in order to minimize hardship and suffering, possibly even to ensure long term survival. Unfortunately, the emotional short cuts that evolution has selected for over time serve to effectively bypass our capacity for logic, and thus our collective responses will end up being limited to eleventh hour overreactions, when conditions are beyond mitigation. Can you say mass hysteria? The way I understand it is that if human beings weren't essentially irrational, then we wouldn't be facing this convergence of impending socio-economic and ecological disasters in the first place. :-P

Most people I know expect technology and unsung, lone geniuses to lift humanity above the fray, to save the day. Humans have conquered Nature, right? We went to the moon, discovered atomic power, we have the Internet... We have smart phones! That's the cultural myth that we are stuck with at the moment, and it isn't winning the race against depletion. We should all be using contraception, reducing our resource through-puts, building more sustainable infrastructures, cleaning up the biosphere, living frugally, recycling everything, using education, peer pressure, advertising, politics... even religion, to attenuate our consumptive and destructive urges. But instead, we continue with business as usual, while looking for 'dilythium' crystals, perpetual motions machines and the next good Hollywood tromp depicting crafty humans beating the odds, colonizing space and managing to survive the wrath alien predators... Not a hopeful sign. An honest and scientifically literate world leader, going public with the overshoot and declining net energy story would be a good start. When the public is through discarding that leader, we would need another one with the same message to take their place, and another one after that, and so on. Eventually, reality will take precedence. I think the permaculture crowd is on the right track. Go Zen, get simple, develop self sufficiency. Hopefully, younger generations will adapt without too much fuss.


One to add to the list of How We Could Save Humanity:

Abolish tenureship -- This group of supposed intellectuals needs to produce meaningful output just like the rest of humanity.

One to remove:

Freeze prices and wages (except for the overpaid executives; reduce theirs). -- Try living in a country where prices and wages are frozen. I have experienced it first hand and on the ground for 2 years. It does not work. People suffer and so does the environment.

George Mobus


Well the comments to this post seems to have hit a record number, as have the overall hit counts! Unfortunately it comes right at a time when I am involved in several parallel projects related to the topics above. So I will not be able to acknowledge every comment. Below I do address a few comments that seemed to need doing so.

Some comments (and reams of e-mails) suggest that some people interpreted this post as suggesting that the actions I listed would actually save the world and they thus took exception to one or more points (or added their own pet actions). I meant this list as simply representative of the kinds of things that would be necessary (not necessarily sufficient) to lessen the pain of a bottleneck. My main point, however, is to show how impossible that avoidance will be due to the total impossibility of implementing these items. In other words I was attempting (perhaps clumsily) a kind of reductio ad absurdum. If my list contains actions that, if taken, would lessen the pain, but all items are relatively absurd, then the conclusion has to be that we cannot lessen the pain. I hope those who took the list seriously will be able to see this as the point.


Human understanding is primarily affected by social considerations. People stop thinking whenever answers come from authority figures. That authority figures will lie and that what they say may not seem quite right sometimes is totally irrelevant. Social considerations establish beliefs and behavior patterns, not truth.

Yet you exist and are thinking outside of the social considerations under which you have lived and learned! There are those who are not as conditioned as you seem to be implying. I would say most long-term readers of this blog are not in possession of beliefs conditioned by social considerations. In other words there really are people who have much stronger sapience than average and who are able to see through the bs that you describe as being the primary influences on ways of thinking. There really is a much bigger role for genetic influence over the kind of consciousness that people have. The evidence for this is building up every day. Nurture is important in terms of allowing a mental capacity (e.g. general intelligence) to achieve its maximum potential. But nature governs what that potential is. And genetic variation in the population is the root of the kinds of distributions (balanced Gaussian or highly skewed, as in the case of sapience) that we see. People on the high end of that distribution can see through the fog of the normal social milieu. That is why we are all here, I think.


Seems to me this would cause a demographic nightmare 20-30 years down the line.

Yes, of course. But would that nightmare be worse than the one where we don't try to do anything about population? I don't know if increasing death rate is necessarily a BETTER solution. But I suspect both the decrease in births and the increase in deaths (owing to breakdown in the healthcare system as you suggest) will leave our planet and our survivors better off.


You are invited to state your evidence and your reasoning as to why you disagree. But you are not permitted to hit and run with an epithet. It serves you no purpose.

@Zola Akinyi, and others who worry about the looting of pockets of wiser groups,

Part of the wisdom of preparation involves consideration of where to hide, how to succeed, and for how long! Many people pose this scenario of aggressors winning the competition because that is a common meme in the Armageddon scenarios, easily imagined, portrayed in movies like The Road, and The Road Warrior, etc. But I don't think people quite appreciate that there are still wilderness areas that are largely uninhabited and so remote from urban areas that the chances of marauding armies (or bands) making it there are relatively small.

Forgive me for being circumspect on this, but I can tell you that there is a project underway to identify the methods by which small pockets of people can be protected and survive through the bottleneck. For obvious reasons details will not be divulged!

On Zola's second point, the problem is not mineral resources, mined, presumably from asteroids. The problem is energy to get there and back again as well as drive the Earth-bound economy. Perhaps a space-bound population using raw solar energy (meaning they would need to be a lot closer to the sun than the asteroid belt) might have some kind of existence. But that would be a very limited group and one without an obvious future.


Seems to me you conflate intelligence with sapience, which is the mistake that we make in thinking about survival fitness. No one here likely disagrees that we are too smart for our own good (as per Craig Dilworth). The point is there is more to cognition than just cleverness, and that something is sapience (which yes I do go on about!) It isn't a magic bullet. It is a documented cognitive behavioral phenomenon called wisdom. And you are right that the vast majority of humans do not possess it in adequate strength to make a difference in ordinary human behavior. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist at all. If you want to catch up on the science behind the idea feel free to download my working papers starting here.


I just hope Guy is a bit too pessimistic! He spins a believable scenario, I admit. But when I look at the earth as a whole system (as in the Gaia hypothesis) I can't help but notice the negative (balancing) feedback loops that may seem muted at present (where Guy sees naught but positive loops) but invariably are amplified as the positive loops raise the pressures. I wish I could say what those negative feedbacks will be (one obvious one, of course, is the bottleneck itself) but Earth would turn out to be an abnormal non-equilibrium system if there weren't any. That, of course, doesn't mean the world won't look terribly different a thousand years from now. It just means that life will go on and I strongly suspect there is an opportunity for more adaptive members of Homo to make it through to the other side. Bear in mind it is all speculation on all of our parts. No one knows what is going to happen or how it will work out. But my thought is to assume a possible outcome that includes humans and then try to figure out what would be needed to assist that outcome (not guarantee it).

@John W.

Other than initial land shaping like creating terraces and digging retention ponds, such things would be pretty superfluous.

Thanks. You clarified the exact point I was trying to make. I have another post somewhere in this labyrinth that addresses this transition from current agricultural practices to permaculture in small communities (made small by the bottleneck!) If you find it you will see what I meant by plows. It was a while back.


If it weren't for tenure this blog wouldn't exist ;^) Or perhaps that would have been a good thing.

As for wage freezes, etc. producing harm. Well consider the alternative. The whole point is that we are all going to suffer some kind of deprivations as civilization collapses. Which kind are better than famine, rampant disease, all-out skirmishes - just plain brutal deaths for the majority of people. The ill effects of price and wage freezes would seem to pale in comparison!


I need to to thank you for this great read!! I definitely loved every bitt of it. I have got you bookmarked to check out new thinngs you post…

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