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January 24, 2015


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Don Stewart

Dear Professor Mobus
I believe that the textbook Principles of Systems Science is very good.

Do you think that the book is a good resource in a declining, or perhaps collapsing, civilization? Or is it mostly relevant to a civilization which is expanding?

Thanks...Don Stewart


You write: "Group selection is now favored as an explanation for the evolution of human sociality and I also add to that the evolution of sapience (the two phenomenon are tightly linked, in my view)."

Glad to see you now incorporate the societal dimension. The individual and societies are indeed the 2 polarities of humanity or its yin and yang. Species evolve biologically (the genes of the individuals) and evolve also societally (the memes of their culture). Your earlier presentation of sapience was exclusively centered on the mechanics of the brain and so you considered biological evolution as the exclusive way for humanity to gain higher levels of sapience. But as you now state the transition to agriculture fostered a hierarchical model of society that consecrated 'power' in the hands of the few and so individual interests obliterated the societal interest. In that sense we have to consider that power is the determinant factor of 'societal imbalance'. Society or the group balance themselves naturally when left on their own (sapience in the case of homo but this is also true for any other specie). We can thus say that power is the original sickness of humanity.

Let's observe that the available research and literature about 'societal evolution' is still very limited; we are only in the very early days of that new field.

About future societies you write:
1. "The only practical way that humans will live in the future is in those localized and limited scale tribes."
2. "Governance will need to be autocratic and organized along the hierarchical control theoretic lines."

I agree that the most probable path forward, by necessity, will be the tribal societal model. But the tribal model of governance was not autocratic nor hierarchical. That understanding was the ideologically tainted vision of classical anthropology (projection of Modernity upon animism) that since has been debunked (Sahlins, Dunbar, Clastres,...).
- population: tribes were 'small groups' that balanced their population around what is now called the "Dunbar number". The Dunbar number also applies to groupings of individuals in social media settings. Practically the figure 150 is observed to be the mean size of all 'small groups'. When reaching 180-200 the group splits and when reaching 100-120 the group fuses with another group. Groups do that 'spontaneously' outside of the individuals' consciousness.
- economy: instead of living in economies of subsistance as classical anthroplogy depicted their economies tribes were in reality characterized by 'economies of abundance'.
- governance: tribes were groups with no institutions: no power, no chiefs, no military leaders. But when entering moments of tension the individual considered the most able to resolve that tension was momentarily looked upon as the best asset of the group. When the tension had dissipated that individual recovered his 'natural' position as an equal to his fellow tribesmen.

"Propositions Regarding the Salvaging of the Genus"

I think that salvaging or not the homo genus will be taken care of by nature. Human will and desire is an infinitesimally small element in the calculus of nature. Having said that the future being probabilistic, at the bifurcation point between chaos and order, our dreams and ideals could eventually gain oversized weight in favoring one outcome over the other possibles. Keeping this in mind the path of humanity in the future shall, most probably, be paved along the following parameters:
- drastically reduced population levels
- life recentered on local relations
- tribal model of society (societies without power)
- abundantly satisfied real needs while the superfluous is forbidden
- animistic like worldview shared by all (narrative about the working of reality)
- individualism is forgotten the individuals consider themselves the cells of their tribes
- the arts reappear as instruments to foster societal cohesion

Reverse Engineer

Nice theoretical post George. Good to have a new one on this level from you. :)

Will cross post to the Diner forthwith.


Paul Reid-Bowen

Many thanks.

Re-blogged and briefly commented on here.

George Mobus

@Don S.

The book was actually my way of aggregating and organizing what I think is the core body of knowledge about systems science. The latter is, in my view, the most basic knowledge that any society should have. So I guess it works both ways. I put it together and published it in the current environment to hopefully get more people thinking systemically. But it also acts as a repository for the future when these tribes are trying to maintain an understanding of their world.

I don't see it as relevant to an expanding society because one of the key findings of systems thinking is that growth must come to an end and negative feedbacks will ensue. Anyone who studies the subject seriously is going to come to that conclusion (I hope)!



...the tribal model of governance was not autocratic nor hierarchical.

You may be correct in this but I was not talking about the past (except for noting the natural way that humans formed tribes). I was referring to the future under the stresses almost certainly coming our way due to climate changes. As you described, when under tension, tribes turned to their best qualified decision makers (presumbably the wisest) for guidance.

I'm surprised that you characterize my work on sapience as not incorporating the societal view. Many of my writings in this blog emphasize the importance of societies in the coevolution of the human mind. I am working on a new book specifically about sapience - sort of the systems perspective on the human mind - that should make this even clearer.

I think that salvaging or not the homo genus will be taken care of by nature.

It may not have been clear enough in this post, but in prior blogs I have said as much. The point of this blog was more to show that it will in fact be nature that "takes care of" things. By stating what needs to be done by societies, I had intended to show that the likelihood is that the human salvage will not be due to societal intervention since the vast majority of humans would never go along with this program. Again I have written about this many times before. But I also view the human psyche as a part of nature, so cannot be excluded in thinking about how nature might take care of things. That a few more sapient people consciously take actions to assist there being a preservation of the genus is not outside of nature at all.

The parameters you listed are in agreement with what I wrote.



Theory and practice should be mutually reinforcing!



@Paul R-B,

Thanks for the promulgation! I will visit to see how it is received.



" It does mean that we will abandon much of the current high-tech material wealth that many consider essential, like iPhonesTM. Our societies may be able to retain some forms of technology that are essential to supporting life, such as water-driven generators for limited electricity. But I suspect when the choice between TV and food is to be made most of us will choose correctly"

It seems to me that the more likely choice will be between TV, iPhones etc, and one item that is uncomfortable, inconvenient, expensive (compared with gadgets) yet crucial for the future of humanity - having children.

If you look at the more dystopian cities today (especially in places like China) you find lots of young people content to live in dehumanizing conditions as long as they have access to cheap industrial "human dog food" and the distraction of electronic media. However, most of those people rightly conclude that you cannot raise children in those conditions.

I've also been thinking that perhaps a free market is the best way to raise the costs of living for most people, thereby forcing people to live within nature's constraints. It seems to me that a government could squander its resources just as stupidly (if not even more) than private corporations. By going to war, for example. Or using them to keep the masses docile, without demanding any responsibility in return (distributing natural resources for free is a great way to give out the message that they're endless). Saudi Arabia is a good(?) example of a welfare state gone wrong:

Of course, you also have governments like Norway, which have better foresight when it comes to utilizing their resources. But then, you also have a culture that values responsible behavior (such as small families and less consumerism).


thx for your post and great work mentioned your work here:


I find it laughably interesting that so many people love to wrangle over the "details" of our forthcoming demise and discuss how it will unfold.

This couch-surfing of the future has ZERO to do with the reality that will occur.

How do I know this? History. The collapse of humans has happened before, and it does not go according to our "plans" at all.

Mutant humans gone? A good thing. It will be a scramble for the exits by everyone for exits that don't exist, while we kill off everything else that remains, including each other. End of Story.

No "ism", reasoning, logic or economic models need apply (or will apply). It will be meanest, baddest, biggest and hungriest the will live the longest, and then they will die too.

Humanity will not escape its own wrath in other words, nor from the path it set out upon.

Everybody that still thinks they're going to be "ok" is a fucking fool.


OK, George....I admit that I haven't read this entire post YET, but you seem to be saying....yet again....that infinite growth in a finite system is a logical impossibility. Come college economics courses (OK, that was SEVERAL years ago) taught me that OF COURSE you CAN have FOREVER growth in a finite system. You just have to BELIEVE.

George Mobus


I've also been thinking that perhaps a free market is the best way to raise the costs of living for most people...
I'd like to know how you imagine this happening. How would there be a truly "free" market established? What would be traded? How would externalities be made visible and real? Markets are not really solutions to problems, they are mechanisms for limited-scope trading of value.






I find it laughably interesting that so many people love to wrangle over the "details" of our forthcoming demise and discuss how it will unfold.

This couch-surfing of the future has ZERO to do with the reality that will occur.

Well in one paragraph you deride those who would think about what might happen in the future and in the second paragraph state that you know what will happen. What is your secret vision into the future?



Yes a recurring theme because it seems no matter how many time it is pointed out to the masses it doesn't sink in.

I think one definition of insanity says that you keep trying the same thing again and again expecting a different outcome each time. By that definition I must be insane! Well, I can hardly be blamed can I?



Alas, George, but as you know, you can repeat actual, real, true things a million times but the willfully ignorant of this poor, benighted, country will choose their childish faith in ideology EVERY TIME. That's just easier and less intellectually demanding than is analytical thought. When I was teaching high school social studies, I would compare communism and capitalism, and my main teaching point was that they were BOTH ideologies based on assumptions that HAD to be accepted to make the entirety of each system seem "logical." Weep, wail and gnashing of teeth.....


"There is an upper bound on the total wealth that can ever be produced but no bound on the degradation of wealth."

This statement in the first claim is inaccurate. It is true in the unbounded timeframe assuming that entropy increases (as is observed). In bounded timescales (as this article appears to use for context?), the upper bound is flexible with respect to human attitudes and to technological efficiencies. Ignoring this take simplifies the structure of the argument in an agreeable manner, so as to make the argument itself more efficient.

If the technology as savior counterpoint is further explored, it can be observed that different groups of people reach different conclusions. Claim: it is still possible that technology could increase the upper bound on the total wealth to accommodate for the desired population increases of our species within the required timescale. In practice, there are various groups of intelligent human beings - both of which can be seen as logical in their own right - some of which conclude, based on the observation of past and current trends, that ergo, the outcomes expressed in this article are accurate, and others of which conclude, based on similar observation, that ergo, humans will continue to prosper and mitigate the challenges they face for the foreseeable future, be those challenges self-inflicted or otherwise.


I am interested in further evidencing of this part of the first claim:

"The current evidence strongly supports the claim that wealth production is now in decline..."

Counter evidence exists in sufficient quantity and provided by generally trusted, verifiable sources so as to make this part of the first claim at least marginally suspect. For example, plotting IMF data for GDP per capita PPP yields a graph with positive slope at the global scale as well as on the scale of most individual nations at the current time. Additionally, this is true for the vast majority of points in time on each of those graphs in the past.


First: The former comment regarding technology as savior was perhaps premature, given that you indeed comment on that topic, and you acknowledge, albeit dismissively, that a potentiality exists for that take to be correct.

Second: Overall, very enjoyable read. What are your thoughts on timescales over which and degree of extent to which population decline will occur?

Third: Where can one find any more specific thoughts you might have on the encouragement or implementation of your five proposals?

Fourth: Would it make sense to develop especially the third proposal regarding the culture of such societies and the nature of the interactions between the individuals as that would seem to be at least if not more important than the specifics discussed in the fifth proposal regarding the behavior of such tribal societies.

George Mobus


Sorry for the delay. My other job and writing work has been keeping me particularly busy of late.

A lot depends on what you use as the definition of wealth. In my past writings I have stuck to the idea that wealth is physical goods and an ability to provide services based on the free energy available to a society, regardless of what any society considers to be something of worth. The amount of work (free energy considered) is going to be limited by the availability of total energy which is given irrespective of the society's definitions.

I have addressed this issue of using GDP as any kind of evidence for "wealth" being specious. Since the calculation of GDP is heavily dependent on many possibly false assumptions and "tricks" used by different governments to make their numbers look good, I dismiss their use entirely. Instead I base this claim on the net free energy per capita which has been in decline (globally) since the mid 70s. You can't do more real work than there is free energy available so it is a better indication of what is going on in the economies relative to well being.

AFA predictions of time scales, etc. I am particularly skittish on making any. The sense I get from observing the rates of change in a number of factors (e.g. the increasing rate of climate disturbances) and the "mood" of people around the world suggest to me that we have already entered the collapse phase. Moreover, I am guessing that we, in the US, will begin experiencing serious collapse symptoms (e.g. no food on the store shelves) in the next decade or so. Can't (or won't) be more specific than that.

Please note that the proposals are more of a Reductio ad absurdum. I actually intended to point out how "impossible" the salvation of humanity in its current form and population size is. That I hold out hope for the genus is just that, hope.

The elimination of capitalism and profit motive is a non-starter for every society that retains hope for greater wealth in the future - which means just about everyone. Even though people like Naomi Klein and I call for this as the only logical and physically feasible solution I have every reason to believe that societies will stubbornly cling to the model to the bitter end.



Thanks for your response!

Where are you getting the information that supports your claim that "the net free energy per capita [has] been in decline (globally) since the mid 70s"? A quick search of global per capita energy production and consumption indicates that this value is and has for the past few hundred years (at least) been increasing, albeit at a significantly reduced rate since the 70s. If you mean free energy of the entire physical system, not just that which is used, hasn't that been decreasing since well before the 70s?


Or maybe you are referring to the amount of free energy that is energetically (or economically?) accessible given available technology?

If this is the case, can you point me to something that describes your method of estimating such values as in my experience it's a pretty difficult thing to do.

George Mobus


The assertion comes from my modeling studies of stock-limited energy flows. Data is hard to come by since we don't keep accounts in things like free energy. The term, "global per captia energy production", etc. is not the same thing as free energy.

Let's be clear that I use the term free energy in the strictly thermodynamic sense of energy available to do useful work. Free energy had been increasing in part because gross energy (barrels of oil for example) had been increasing more rapidly than population from the early 1900rds, due mostly to oil production. But the other factor is increases in free energy (even if the actual available gross energy did not increase) due to increases in efficiency (your second post point).

Modeling is about the only way to tackle this question. My main motivation has been to "alert" people to the problem in hopes that someone would start collecting the necessary data. I'm too old to start a major project myself!

Reports on my models can be found in this blog under the biophysical economics topic.



Hi George

I haven't written here in a while. Congrats on the new book!

There are lots of issues to consider in this bp. Our current economic situation probably being the underpinning circumstance, all other elements proceeding.

I think it's a given that capitalism has failed us. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time but, we've allowed it to get out of control. No way, can this system go on indefinitely. Without going into the details of how it tops out, I'll tell you, we're in for a ride. Probably not in our lifetime (at least I hope not) but, for my kids sake, I hope to at least be able to inform them about alternatives to adapt.

You keep referencing wealth and profit. Are these just substitutions for lack of a better word? I don't think these words will have the same meaning, if any, in the economic model we need to adapt. These are capitalistic terms that imply a trade off for goods and services.

In a contributional economy, the currency wouldn't have a monetary value.

I've been trying to wrap my head around a world where money was non-existant and unnecessary. It's hard not to use terms that are so familiar. There are so many foundational issues that need to be worked out, even discovered before this can happen but, it's a better alternative to the current monetary system.

The competition for maximally profitable outcomes are leading our planet down the proverbial tube. There's definitely a need for a different model but, what does this model look like and how is it instigated?

Any suggestions or references would be appreciated.

George Mobus


Glad to hear from you.

In my systems approach wealth is the aggregate of material goods and knowledge that allow us to maintain some semblance of organization if not happiness. Big parts of wealth are arable land, seeds, and tools.

Profit is just the excess wealth (above what you need to keep the system going) that gets stored for a bad season. And in the agrarian sense you don't operate to maximize profit, too much of what is really important wealth (like food) could rot or decay.

Those terms have been warped by neoliberal capitalism. Wealth now seems to include any material good no matter how superfluous it might be. Just the act of owning some new movie or computer game is counted as acquiring wealth. And profit is absolutely required in every operating quarter because it has become the goal, not the having of useful wealth itself.

I don't think you will find a reasonably complex economic system that doesn't have a tokenized exchange subsystem. Money as a means of accounts, etc. is just too useful an invention to toss it out. Of course the monitary value has to be based on something legitimate such as the amount of energy available to do useful work (and/or its embodiment in physical goods and services).

As it turns out I am starting on my next book project, which will be the systems science approach to "governance" of society. It will analyze various cybernetic mechanisms that we employ to manage (govern) our societies. Markets in the economy are one such mechanism but not the only or best one. Nor is our current representative democracy a particularly successful approach. But the study of hierarchical cybernetic systems holds the key to proposing more sapient forms of governance. Unfortunately this book may take another three to four years! Hope I live that long!


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