Sabine Hossenfelder on Free Will

Sabine Hossenfelder today explained why we have no free will and why we shouldn’t worry about it.

She’s right but she missed an important piece of the story.

A quick summary of her essay is that our brain is a computer made of particles governed by the laws of physics that inputs our current state and calculates a decision for what we will do next. Because we don’t know the result of the calculation before it completes, we interpret this as free will, when in fact a computer has no free will.

What’s the main app in our computer? Hossenfelder says it’s to “optimize our well-being”.

Most students of human overshoot would refine Hossenfelder’s description of our main app as the Maximum Power Principle (MPP), which creates our dominant behaviors like status seeking and desiring sex/children.

Varki’s MORT theory adds an important real-time interrupt handler which terminates any calculation that produces an unpleasant result, especially those results that conflict with what the MPP app wants to do.

How else can you explain that elections never even whisper about the elephants in the room like overshoot, resource depletion, ecosystem collapse, debt bubbles, etc.

Not even a whisper. It’s amazing.

http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2020/10/you-dont-have-free-will-but-dont-worry.html

These deterministic laws of nature apply to you and your brain because you are made of particles, and what happens with you is a consequence of what happens with those particles. A lot of people seem to think this is a philosophical position. They call it “materialism” or “reductionism” and think that giving it a name that ends on –ism is an excuse to not believe it. Well, of course you can insist to just not believe reductionism is correct. But this is denying scientific evidence. We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does. If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science. I can’t prevent you from denying scientific evidence, but I can tell you that this way you will never understand how the universe really works.

The reason this idea of free will turns out to be incompatible with the laws of nature is that it never made sense in the first place. You see, that thing you call “free will” should in some sense allow you to choose what you want. But then it’s either determined by what you want, in which case it’s not free, or it’s not determined, in which case it’s not a will.

Now, some have tried to define free will by the “ability to have done otherwise”. But that’s just empty words. If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.

If it causes you cognitive dissonance to acknowledge you believe in something that doesn’t exist, I suggest that you think of your life as a story which has not yet been told. You are equipped with a thinking apparatus that you use to collect information and act on what you have learned from this. The result of that thinking is determined, but you still have to do the thinking. That’s your task. That’s why you are here. I am curious to see what will come out of your thinking, and you should be curious about it too.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think that people who do not understand that free will is an illusion underestimate how much their decisions are influenced by the information they are exposed to. After watching this video, I hope, some of you will realize that to make the best of your thinking apparatus, you need to understand how it works, and pay more attention to cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

On Garrett Hardin’s Denial and the Gift of History

Three years ago I wrote about Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” here. The gist of it is that the collective effect of individuals making independent, well-intentioned, rational decisions regarding the use of a shared resource, such as livestock pastures in the past, and our entire planet today, leads to the degradation of the resource such that it can no longer support the individuals that depend upon it.

I was impressed with Hardin’s clear and direct thinking about over-population: 

To couple the concept of freedom to breed (in a welfare state) with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience.

I summarized Hardin’s position on population control as follows:

  • Failure to control population growth will result in ruin.
  • Population control via appeal to reason or conscience, or threat of shame, will not work, and will in fact make the situation worse. Population can only be effectively controlled by coercion, that is, laws with penalties for overbreeding.
  • The key to passing population control laws is to educate citizens on the reality that if they do not relinquish the freedom to breed they will lose all of their freedoms, including eventually the freedom to breed.

I concluded that since Hardin wrote his paper 50 years ago the accessible evidence for severe overshoot is overwhelming and proves that Hardin was wrong in that education alone is not sufficient to pass the necessary population control laws.

I asked, how can a majority emerge to support a contentious law to control breeding when the vast majority of 7.6 billion people deny human overshoot?

If you deny the existence or implications of overshoot, then it is logical to embrace one or more of the many arguments against population control, austerity, and conservation. On the other hand, if you embrace the reality of overshoot, then population control, austerity, and conservation not only become perfectly reasonable, they become the most important, ethical, moral, and rational things we must do.

There was a hint in Hardin’s paper that he may have understood the centrality of reality denial to our predicament:

… natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.

Hardin did not elaborate further on reality denial but did reference another paper he wrote titled “Denial and the Gift of History” published in a 1964 book edited by himself titled “Population, Evolution, and Birth Control”.

I was unable to obtain this book and 3 years ago asked readers to help me find it. A kind reader named “V” recently found it and I thank him/her very much.

You can download the book here.

It appears to be an important book that will be of interest to students of human overshoot. Here is an enticing summary I created from the best bits of the 1st and 2nd edition back covers:

Population, Evolution, and Birth Control: A Collage of Controversial Ideas

Assembled by Garrett Hardin, University of California, Santa Barbara

“Every year Malthus is proven wrong and is buried—only to spring to life again before the year is out. If he is so wrong, why can’t we forget him? If he is right, how does he happen to be so fertile a subject for criticism?”

“The emerging history of population is a story of disaster and denial—disaster foreseen, but disaster psychologically denied in our innermost being. How can one believe in something—particularly an unpleasant something—that has never happened before?”

With these questions Professor Hardin introduces this unique collection of readings on what is perhaps the most important social problem besetting mankind—the population problem.

For the past twenty years Garrett Hardin has focused his interests on the social implications of biology. He has drawn together here what he considers the most effective published statements made in support of, and in opposition to, the questions at issue. Arranged to show the historical development of major ideas, the more than 100 articles, reviews, and criticisms serve to clarify the points of controversy. Editorial comments accompany the readings, but the reader is urged to draw his own conclusions.

Among the selections are writings dating from Old Testament times to the present. They include extracts from Malthus’ first essay, from Margaret Sanger’s autobiography, from the book Famine—1975! by William and Paul Paddock, which despite its startling and unpopular conclusions, may prove to be a turning point in population literature, and a recent essay by Roman Catholic Dr. Frederick E. Flynn that presents the startling new interpretation of “natural law” that Dr. John Rock used in his book, The Time Has Come, to argue that progesterone oral contraceptive is theologically acceptable to the Catholic Church.

Other important readings include J. H. Fremlin’s “How Many People Can the World Support?”, Paul Ehrlich’s “Paying the Piper”, Kingsley Davis’ “Population Policy: Will Current Programs Succeed?”, and Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”.

Each article was selected in the light of its proved effectiveness in stimulating classroom discussion. The collection provides excellent collateral reading for any course of study that deals with the social impact of science—whether taught in departments of biology, anthropology, economics, sociology, geography, or others.

GARRETT HARDIN studied at the University of Chicago and at Stanford University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1941. He has been associated with the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford University, and the California Institute of Technology; and he is now professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written a popular introductory textbook, “Biology, Its Principles and Implications”, and a general work, “Nature and Man’s Fate”. The present collection of readings was a natural product of his experience in developing discussion classes in universities and in adult education programs.

My initial reaction was, OMG, we’re definitely not becoming wiser. Over 50 years look how far we’ve fallen in public discourse and university teaching of important matters.

So far I’ve only studied the one essay “Denial and the Gift of History”, which I extracted in full below, and the remainder of this post discusses it. A quick scan of the book suggests it contains many more essays worthy of future time and discussion.

I summarize Hardin’s “Denial and the Gift of History” as follows:

  • Denial of death is a widely recognized human behavior.
  • Humans have also denied unpleasant realities throughout history.
  • Due to denial’s ubiquity, a biologist must conclude it is at least in part genetic.
  • Denial in moderation is more advantageous to the survival of an individual than extreme denial, or the absence of denial, hence denial’s ubiquity in humans.
  • While advantageous to an individual, denial is a grave threat to society, because the rate of change of overshoot threats is slow relative to a single lifetime, and thus are easy to deny.
  • “The Gift of History” is that studying prior collapses of ecosystems and civilizations can teach us to overcome our denial of current events.

My conclusions about Hardin on denial:

  • Hardin got a lot right:
    • denial is ubiquitous in humans
    • denial is genetic
    • denial of overshoot is a key threat to the species
  • Hardin missed a lot:
    • denial is not an interesting oddity of human behavior, denial is central to the emergence of behaviorally modern humans
    • the need for denial of death with an extended theory of mind drove the evolution of the more generic denial of unpleasant realities – in other words, denial of death is central, denial of everything unpleasant is an artifact
  • Hardin was wrong on the solution to overshoot:
    • 50 years of history has proven that knowledge and education will not overcome our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities like overshoot

Here’s the complete essay:

Denial and the Gift of History by Garrett Hardin

“None believes in his own death,” said Sigmund Freud. “In the unconscious everyone is convinced of his own immortality.” He was not the first to say this. The poet Edward Young, more than two centuries earlier, wrote: “All men think all men mortal but themselves.” Very likely others, even before Young, recognized this power of denial in man’s life.

The operation of denial is evident in all literature, particularly heroic literature, which is the visible monument of this psychological process. “A thousand shall fall at thy right hand, ten thousand at thy left, but it [i.e., death] shall not come nigh thee,” said the Psalmist. How our breast swells with confidence at these words! Religion must surely be good if it can instill in man this most useful confidence in his powers! So says the apologist for religion, after giving up the defense of its verity. It is a powerful apology. It is no doubt the cornerstone of the philosophy of life of both geniuses and habitual criminals. Arthur Koestler has reminded us that during the days when pickpockets were executed in England, the day of a hanging was a day of great profit for other pickpockets who circulated through the tense and orgasmic crowd. Statistics gathered from the early nineteenth century showed that out of 250 men hanged, 170 had, themselves, witnessed an execution. Denial plays havoc with the deterrence theory of punishment.

“Nothing can happen to me,” said Freud’s poor Hans, the road mender. Great kings are no wiser. When Croesus contemplated waging war against the Persians he consulted the oracle at Delphi, who replied, with her characteristic ambiguity: “If Croesus should send an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire.” Delighted with the reply, Croesus attacked, and the prophecy was fulfilled: a great empire was indeed destroyed—his.

Are we less the victims of denial now, two and a half millennia later? Consider an article published in the Wall Street Journal discussing the dangers of thermonuclear war. More than four columns were devoted to a glowing description of how our stockpiles made us capable of destroying the Soviet Union “in several ways and several times over.” But, as Jerome Frank has pointed out, the article included just two slight references to what the USSR could do to us. The oracle of Wall Street has spoken: “If we wage thermonuclear war, a great nation will be destroyed.” Nothing could be clearer.

But perhaps it is only men of great affairs, practical men, who are the victims of the impulse of denial? Hardly; the biographies of scientists and scholars are replete with accounts of behavior that denies the implications of knowledge. Herbert Conn, a pioneer in the public hygiene movement, did not hesitate to use the public drinking cup himself; and though he warned that the housefly was a carrier of typhoid he did not bother to close his own screen doors. And Freud, who declared that children should receive sex instruction from their parents, left his own children to learn the facts of life “from the gutter,” like everyone else.

How are we to explain the persistence and ubiquity of denial? As biologists we adhere to the working hypothesis that every trait has both genetic and environmental components. As evolutionists we ask, what is the selective advantage of the trait that the hereditary component should so persist through centuries and millennia? Does nonrealistic thinking have a survival value? Is denial superior to truth? These are unpleasant surmises. The problem is a difficult one, and it cannot be said that any man has the answer. But biologists know of a suggestive model—the sickle-cell trait. It is caused by genes.

In malarious regions of Africa the human population is genetically diverse with respect to this trait, and the diversity is stable (so long as we don’t drain the swamps to kill mosquitoes or introduce atabrine to destroy the malarial parasites). The sickle-cell gene causes the red blood cells of the body, normally disc shaped, to become sickle shaped. Only the disc-shaped cells support the life of the parasite. But sickle cells are bad for the human; if a person has only sickle genes, he suffers from anemia, and usually dies young. In a malarious environment it is best to be a hybrid; such individuals are resistant to malaria, but do not suffer from anemia. Individuals having completely normal cells are not anemic, but suffer from malaria. To be hybrid is (individually) best, but a hybrid population is not stable; it constantly throws off some offspring having only genes for normal cells (these are eliminated by malaria) and some having only sickle-shaped cells (who are eliminated by anemia). Only some (50 percent) of the offspring are hybrid.

Is this perhaps the analogical model we need to explain the persistence of denial among humans? The purest deniers live in a world of magic; its lack of congruence with the real world causes the statistical early death of this group. Among these magicians we must number early aeronauts, men who go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, gold prospectors, and indeed all compulsive gamblers. At the other extreme are men of so realistic and cautious a disposition that they are left behind so long as there remains a frontier where rewards are great. A world made up only of such men of pure sensibleness would never invent the submarine or the airplane, never discover the New World. Denial, dangerous though it is, does have some survival value.

The power of denial, valuable though it may be to the individual competitive man of action, is a grave danger to society as a whole. The time scale of historical change, extending as it does over many human generations, makes denial easy and plausible. We tend to assume that as things are now, they have always been, and there’s nothing to worry about in the future. The tourist of the Mediterranean lands naturally assumes that the picturesque and poverty striken countrysides of Spain, Italy, Greece, and Lebanon looked always thus, not realizing that these deserts and near deserts are the work of unconscious man. Plato, in his Critias, says:

“There are mountains in Attica which can now keep nothing but bees, but which were clothed, not so very long ago, with fine trees producing timber suitable for roofing the largest buildings, and roofs hewn from this timber are still in existence. There were also many lofty cultivated trees.

The annual supply of rainfall was not lost, as it is at present, through being allowed to flow over a denuded surface to the sea, but was received by the country, in all its abundance—stored in impervious potter’s earth—and so was able to discharge the drainage of the heights into the hollows in the form of springs and rivers with an abundant volume and wide territorial distribution. The shrines that survive to the present day on the sites of extinct water supplies are evidence for the correctness of my present hypothesis.”

Every move today to preserve the beauty of the forests, the purity of the air, the limpidity of the streams, and the wildness of the seashore is opposed by practical and powerful men. The reasons they give are various, and are (of course) couched in the noblest terms. Freely translated, the voice of the practical man is that of Hans the Road Mender: It can’t happen to me. Other Edens have become deserts, other empires have fallen, other peoples have perished—but not us. We deny the evidence of logic and our senses. As La Fontaine said, “We believe no evil till the evil’s done.”

The gift that history has to give us is freedom from denial. Historical decay takes longer than the efflorescence and decay of a single life, and so it is not easily perceived as a real process and a real danger. But the study of history, if it is to have any real worth, must convince us of the reality of processes that extend over more than a single life span. To achieve this goal we must explicitly state the therapeutic function of history, which is this: to reveal and neutralize the process of denial in the individual. If we fail in this our fate will be that which Santayana described: “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Maximizing Power with Fewer Children

Most people who are expert on our overshoot predicament and the behaviors that enabled it believe two things:

  1. The Maximum Power Principle (MPP) governs our behavior.
  2. We have no free will.

These beliefs lead to the following conclusions:

  1. Our overshoot predicament was inevitable.
  2. There is nothing that can be done to improve the outcome.

A recent comment by Apneaman here is a good example of this belief.

Overpopulation is baked in and so is the remedy (die-back).

I don’t see breeding less as a choice. Survival & reproduction are what life does. Evolution & the MPP are non negotiable.

I don’t think it’s possible to study how life works and not come to the conclusion that we are governed by the MPP and have no free will. I accept these as facts.

I also know that we are the only species with sufficient intelligence to understand the reality of our overshoot predicament, its implications, and to calculate the best course of action.

Most paths are blocked by powerful constraints:

  1. We can’t grow out of our predicament (finite planet)
  2. New technology won’t help (energy depletion)

The best path given the constraints is voluntary rapid population reduction because every overshoot related problem we face improves with fewer people, and because reducing the population will minimize suffering.

So the key question becomes, is it possible to voluntarily reduce the population without violating the MPP?

I’m not an expert on the MPP, and so acknowledge risk of being proven wrong here, but I’m thinking there is some evidence that we could voluntarily reduce the population and not violate the MPP.

It seems there are conditions where max power requires fewer children. For example, families choose to have fewer children when some combination of the following conditions exist:

  • no dependence on children for survival in old age (low risk power will go to zero too soon)
  • not dependent on children for labor (power maximized with fossil energy)
  • success (max power) requires expensive education & income is sufficient to educate few children
  • childcare expenses are high (too many children risks all failing with suboptimal total power)
  • mothers are educated with careers (too many children reduces mother’s power)

This evidence hints that the MPP could be leveraged by awareness of our overshoot predicament to drive down population. One possible scenario follows.

While it’s true that population control is an unpopular topic and is rarely discussed, it’s also true that a political party seeking election has never clearly told the voters that the economy will soon collapse due to resource depletion and environmental damage, and that new born children will have a low probability of survival until we reduce the population.

That party could offer policies suitable for maximizing power in a collapsing economy. For example, a birth lottery where applicants are randomly awarded a permit to have a a child and those children will be heavily supported by the state assuring max power for the lucky family. Childless couples will also maximize their power because they won’t waste resources on children that die. Couples who have a child without a permit will be subject to expensive fines thus reducing their power.

It’s worth a try. If they’re not elected we’ll be no worse off, and we might even be better off since some couples will go childless after listening to the debate.

We need a principled small party that has a low probability of being elected anyway, like for example the Green Party, to step up.

This scenario unfortunately depends on party members breaking through their genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities and accepting our overshoot predicament and its implications.

Thus we’ve come full circle to a prerequisite for a broader understanding Varki’s MORT, which is why I talk about it so much.

MORT awareness is not happening, and it probably never will happen, because denial of denial is the strongest form of denial.

But I’ll probably keep talking about MORT, hoping that some people join me in spreading the word, because there is no alternative except darkness.

By Apneaman: On Plandemics and Denial

Apneaman is one of the brightest lights illuminating the handful of blogs that discuss reality. Unfortunately he does not have his own blog and so his unique insights are usually buried in a sea of less significant comments.

We were discussing here new evidence that the virus was engineered and Apneaman wrote a comment that deserved it’s own post, so I promoted it here.

From day 1ish, I never saw a problem with the possibility of it coming from a lab & that it was toyed with (gain of function). Why? Because unlike 99%+ of the population, I have had an interest in & done a shit load of reading the last 35 years on infectious diseases, history, science & their effects on societies, armies & humans. A bunch of it covers the modern era including bio warfare research, gain of function, thousands of incidences of lab accidents & escapes, criminal experimentation by gov, whistle blowing & a steady stream of scientists warning that gain of function + sloppy-reckless lab practices has the potential to cause a catastrophe & the same if used as a weapon. IMO, it appeared there was circumstantial evidence & cause for further investigation, but always remembering that circumstantial evidence is not ‘proof’ – just ask those hundreds of poor bastards that were convicted of a serious crime based on circumstantial evidence only to be set free 10-40 years later based on DNA proof of their innocence. A lot of humans don’t seem to know the difference & lately some highly intelligent ones that did know the difference between proof & circumstantial evidence seem to have lost the ability to make that distinction. Another thing I’m always remembering is Carl Sagan’s rule that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

I don’t find the claim the virus came from a lab to be extraordinary for reasons I already mentioned.

I do consider that other claim, ‘Plandemic’ extraordinary & hugely suspicious given the parties pimping it & the pretext for it.

The vast majority of Plandemic pimps are western, white, male & conservative with the majority of them being American & there is big conservative money, political-business, funding much of the ‘grassroots movements’ (astroturfing) & leaders (shills) – like Anti-maskers fer freedum-liberty-patriotism-family values-the children-the troops-Mom-&-warm cuddly puppies.org

Most of these same people: conspiracy generators, politicians, think tanks, PR & image management firms & legion of true believer useful idiots have been denying & poisoning the water with: Climate change, industry pollution, consumer pollution, human population, mass extinction, any & all limits to growth with extra effort on energy denial. Many of them are hardcore/want violence racists too. They’ve been doing it for months, years to decades. What’s different this time is seeing doomers, who have previously debunked & dismissed these denier ideologues, join them for plandemic that is framed & sold with the same amateurish jumping to conclusions, cherry picking, false comparison et al logical fallacies, rhetoric, fear fear fear, spin & falsehoods as they’ve used to attack anyone or thing that challenges their dogma.

I find the pretext for plandemic, steal our freedom by enacting control measures, to be very shaky. It’s debatable if most of us are or have ever been free to begin with & to put it correctly it’s enacting MORE control measures on top of the stack they’ve been enacting since we were born & immediately assigned a number. Some of us even had our prints (foot) taken, like a person charged with a crime, before we left the hospital. In recent years parents willing give the authorities their kids DNA. Ya know, in case they get abducted (mega lotto odds).

Again it’s the same denier crew of (mostly) Americans moaning about loss of freedom & I say it’s a delusion about freedoms they never had. The major difference between now & then is they can watch & record more of what we do more of the time & corporations gather as much data as BIG GOV & share it with them. Sometimes the gov, like the California DMV sell their/your data to marketing businesses.

Many say if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about, but free people should not have to hide things from their gov that they do that don’t hurt others. But they still need to & do.

Back in the day, if the FBI suspected you of being a communist they would follow you, open a file on you. Check your bank records, library books, etc. They did the same thing to civil rights & anti war (Vietnam) activists in the 60’s & 70’s. & many others who crossed Power’s lines. They never stopped. Now everything is on a hard drive in gargantuan Gov and/or Corp server farms. So where’s the freedom? You’re free from being tagged & watched as long as you stay between the lines power has laid down as acceptable – go to our schools & follow our rules & we will allow you to drive a car, consume approved goods (alcohol & cigarettes OK, weed & Cocaine NO WAY). If you are born in the right class & posses enough intelligence & discipline you can choose among a variety of better paying employment & status options. You can vote, but not/never commie or socialist/never against the interests of BAU & Power.

No doubt tptb are using the pandemic as cover to hasten their surveillance-police state plans, long in the works. Plandemic pimps are trying to spin it as some freedom losing tipping point when it’s BAU. Just a progression of what’s been happening for over a century – using the new tech for surveillance & control. The progression is usually at a slow crawl, but never let a good crisis go to waste has been in the rulers play-book since day 1. There is no singular freedom losing event, there never has been one & trying to find one is equivalent to looking for a transition species. Missing links are for narrative seekers – looking for something that don’t exist to play a part in a primitive emotionally satisfying story. This is what humans do to make sense & deal. It’s a form of control.

I don’t have proof that there was no plandemic, but the onus is not on me, it’s not impossible, but all I’ve seen is bad evidence & twice as much emotion & dogma. If I was to believe most of what this largely right-wing American conspiracy denier crew believes then I’d be believing everything bad that happens in history that happens to challenge their ideology, didn’t just happen – IT WAS PLANNED (always by their nemesis – “The Left). To believe what they do is to believe in the mother of all coincidences, not to mention a level of self centeredness, self flattery & tribal specialness that makes them the neo chosen ones. What irony coming from conspiracists who claim most not to believe in coincidences. Ever notice they don’t have any conspiracy that exclusively fucks over the left? They’ve never been targeted? Only the right? Great underdog narrative that.

Although Russia Gate was mostly horse shit & the left is just as bad with their own dogma protecting denial & lies, Trump is a piece of shit & leading his crew into fascism. Not because the left says so, but because Trump is a piece of shit & leading his crew into fascism. It’s obvious. The left looks to be 1 or 2 steps behind in unleashing a US cultural revolution Mao style. I guess they need the white house. Looks like a lose lose situation to me. We’ll likely catch some spill over. It happens when the house next door is a meth lab & goes BOOM!

I’m with Carlin in that what people call freedoms & rights are just temporary privileges. I lmao at the American denier conspiracy crew because they were not just silent on what is probably the biggest plebs freedom losing piece of legislation in their country’s history, ‘Citizens United’, but many of them even supported it, which is kinda like a black slave 300 years ago cheering on the forging of his chains. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) & The Patriot Act are two other freedom stealing pieces of legislation they were also all but silent on or supported. These were all enacted in the 21st century, but were on the drawing board in the 20th.

By Art Berman: Stop Expecting Oil and the Economy to Recover

This recent essay by Art Berman may be the best historical analysis of oil and its relationship with the economy I’ve read.

https://www.artberman.com/2020/09/03/stop-expecting-oil-and-the-economy-to-recover/

Here is my simplified summary of Berman’s analysis:

  • both supply and demand for oil have recently fallen
  • oil demand has fallen more than oil supply
  • this despite an all-time record amount of debt conjured to stimulate the economy
  • which means the global economy is contracting and is in serious trouble
  • the contraction was underway before the virus – the virus accelerated but did not cause the contraction
  • the problem began in 1974 when oil prices increased above the level that the economy can grow without debt growing faster
  • we’re not going to run out of oil, we’re going to run out of people that can afford oil
  • the problem being geologic and thermodynamic in nature, has no business as usual fix, and will continue to worsen

Berman’s analysis is consistent with the conclusions of the other leading minds on the energy-economy relationship: Gail Tverberg, Tim Morgan, Nate Hagens, and Tim Garrett.

The most interesting question, by far, when viewed from 10,000 feet is why do none of our political or intellectual or business leaders understand the most important influence (energy) on the thing they care most about (economic growth)?

The answer of course is that the human species evolved to deny unpleasant realities.

As an aside, recall that Eric Weinstein, the brilliant physicist/hedge fund manager whom I recently wrote about as a case study in denial believes correctly that economic growth and scientific advancement slowed in the late 70’s, but he doesn’t understand the cause despite thinking about it a lot. It’s no wonder that the much lesser intellects of almost all economists don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Berman believes that our economy, being a dissipative structure, will either collapse or spontaneously re-organize itself into a simpler form that uses less energy. I suppose the virus lockdown is a good example of a spontaneous lower energy re-organization. I put my money though on some form of collapse in the not too distant future. Despite a surfeit of entitled citizens, we could weather a significant reduction in living standards because we in the developed world consume so much more than we need to survive, however, the unprecedented debt bubble we have created by denying reality blocks a civil contraction.

Berman concludes that as the economy necessarily simplifies and we live much poorer lives, our energy mix will shift to lower productivity energy sources like wind and solar. My response to this is maybe. It’s more likely that Berman is denying the reality of his own analysis.

I can see solar panels being used for low power/high impact applications like, for example, LED lighting and pumping water into a gravity fed cistern. But it is unlikely and probably impossible that we will heat our homes, or cook our food, or cultivate and harvest our crops, or mine and smelt our minerals, or transport ourselves and our necessities with solar and wind.

When our solar panels and wind turbines wear out some decades in the future it is unlikely that the sophisticated factories and complex supply chains needed to manufacture and install replacements will exist. If some do exist to supply elite customers, like the military, most citizens probably won’t be able to afford their products.

I expect reality denial will prevent us from ever acknowledging peak oil and its offspring human overshoot. Instead, our consensus story all the way to a medieval lifestyle, at best, will likely be that there’s plenty of oil if the other tribes would stop using so much and we just need to elect someone tougher to deal with them and get our economy growing again.

Acknowledging our genetic tendency to deny reality would be a good thing because we might then focus on the best response to our overshoot predicament which is to rapidly reduce our population. Other wise responses can be found here.

Here’s the excerpted conclusion from Berman’s essay, but it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing for the data backing up these conclusions.

The Great Simplification

Energy is the economy. Money is a call on energy. Debt is a lien on future energy.

What is happening to oil markets and to the global economy is not because of a virus. The virus greatly accelerated what was already happening. Things won’t go back to normal when the virus ends.

The expansion of energy and debt have been leading toward some sort of reckoning for at least the last fifty years. That day of reckoning has been brought forward by coronavirus economic closures.

Oil prices had averaged $25 per barrel from the end of World War II until 1974 when average prices doubled (Figure 9). From 1979 through 1986, oil price soared to an average of $86 per barrel. These massive economic dislocations resulted in use of debt to maintain economic growth.

Excessive debt was the leading cause for the Financial Collapse of 2008. The crisis was resolved with more debt and monetary policies that ushered in the present era of central bank primacy in the world financial system.

Quantitative easing, near-zero interest rates and high oil prices led to the first wave of the tight oil boom. Over-investment resulted in over-supply and price collapse in 2014. By February 2016, WTI price reached $33 and investors rushed in to support the second wave of the tight oil boom.

WTI reached $72 by mid-2018 but by then, investors had begun to abandon tight oil as well as oil companies in general. The coronavirus economic closure brought monthly average prices to $17 in April, 2020—the lowest month on record. Unlike early 2016, investors weren’t writing any checks this time.

U.S. production may be 50% lower by mid-2021 than at year-end 2019. The implications for U.S. geopolitical power and balance of payments are staggering. It seems likely that the economy will weaken as government support for the unemployed decreases

I doubt that we are on the cusp of either a global energy crisis or the end of the oil age. It is more likely that both supply and demand will fall in tandem as the global economy contracts.

These observations are at odds with the mainstream view that both supply and demand are recovering. Some might concede that I am correct for the present but that things will improve and return to normal although it may some time.

Figure 10 shows credit growth and credit impulse for the United States from 1960 through the first quarter of 2020. Credit impulse is the change in flow of credit (debt) relative to economic activity (GDP).

Spikes in credit impulse correlate well with the oil-price shocks of the 1970s and 1980s. The extraordinary U.S. comparative inventory drawdown of early 2017 through the second quarter of 2018 also corresponds to credit impulse anomalies.

The chief feature of Figure 10, however, is that the magnitude of the first quarter 2020 credit impulse was more than twice as large as any previous increase. Moreover, GDP growth was either neutral or positive during previous spikes but was negative (-10%) for the first quarter of 2020. Also, oil prices were increasing during earlier periods but prices were decreasing in early 2020.

Ilya Prigogine was a chemist who won the 1977 Nobel Prize for his work on dissipative structures and self-organization. Dissipative structures are physical systems that release considerable heat as they consume ever-greater energy to support their growth and increasing complexity. A crisis occurs when growth can no longer be supported by available energy resources. The system either collapses or spontaneously re-organizes itself into a simpler form that uses less energy.

Empires, organizations and economies are dissipative structures. So is the human brain.

My friend Nate Hagens has applied some of Prigogine’s ideas to his own research about world energy, economics and ecology. He believes that we are on the cusp of something quite different from the scenarios suggested by Ahmed, and Goehring and Rozencwajg.

Hagens predicted a global economic decline in the 2020s and publicly expressed that opinion before the Covid pandemic. The main reason for decline, he stated, was too much debt undertaken to continue consuming and growing the economy. The virus has accelerated its timing and may result in contraction greater than the 30% drop during the Great Depression.

The Great Simplification will occur when the credit-supported part of the economy is removed. Economic activity will contract and less energy will be needed because it will be increasingly unaffordable to many parts of the population. People will be forced to adjust living standards downward and self-organize around energy with greater emphasis on local supply chains and regional economies.

I expect that the mix of energy sources will be similar initially. That will probably change as declines to meet the decreased carrying capacity of a society deprived of fossil energy productivity. Then, I imagine the world will move increasingly toward lower productivity energy sources like wind and solar. A viable economy may very well be created based heavily on wind and solar. It will, however, support a much poorer world than we have known for many decades in the world’s advanced economies.

Most ideas and analyses about future trends in energy and the economy fail to recognize that they are the two aspects of the same thing. That is why they are so far off the mark. This basic misalignment is painfully obvious because the energy sector represents only 2.5% of the S&P 500 valuation but underlies probably 95% of U.S. GDP.

That is what Hagens calls energy blindness1.

1I call it energy denial.

By Jack Alpert: How the World Works

This latest video from Jack Alpert is very good.

Alpert explains why on our current default trajectory most of the global population that lives after 2050 will experience starvation and that by about 2100 our 8 billion will be reduced to about 600 million serfs leading a medieval lifestyle on a sick planet.

Alpert then describes an alternate trajectory via voluntary rapid population reduction that avoids unnecessary suffering and preserves a modern human civilization of 50 million living on a healthy planet.

Alpert remains the only person that I’m aware of with a thermodynamically feasible plan for maintaining a modern human civilization as fossil energy depletes.

His plan does require us to break through our evolved tendency to deny unpleasant realities. A few, such as the readers of this blog, have demonstrated this is possible but scaling to the majority remains in serious doubt.

You can find other work I’ve posted by Jack Alpert here.

What a relief, I was wrong, we’ll be ok…

I just listened to Michael Shermer’s interview of Michael Shellenberger on his new book Apocalypse Never.

Here is the publisher’s summary of the book:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50173134-apocalypse-never

Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

Michael Shellenberger has been fighting for a greener planet for decades. He helped save the world’s last unprotected redwoods. He co-created the predecessor to today’s Green New Deal. And he led a successful effort by climate scientists and activists to keep nuclear plants operating, preventing a spike of emissions.

But in 2019, as some claimed “billions of people are going to die,” contributing to rising anxiety, including among adolescents, Shellenberger decided that, as a lifelong environmental activist, leading energy expert, and father of a teenage daughter, he needed to speak out to separate science from fiction.

Despite decades of news media attention, many remain ignorant of basic facts. Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas.

Curiously, the people who are the most alarmist about the problems also tend to oppose the obvious solutions.

What’s really behind the rise of apocalyptic environmentalism? There are powerful financial interests. There are desires for status and power. But most of all there is a desire among supposedly secular people for transcendence. This spiritual impulse can be natural and healthy. But in preaching fear without love, and guilt without redemption, the new religion is failing to satisfy our deepest psychological and existential need.

Key points from the interview:

  • It’s unhelpful, unscientific, and depressing to describe our problems in apocalyptic terms.
  • Doomers are angry depressed people who want the world to collapse.
  • Environmentalism fills a spiritual need within atheists. When you’re living a life of prosperity and you stop believing in god and think you’ll become worm food after you die, you ask yourself what’s the purpose of life?
  • There is no 6th mass extinction underway. We are only causing 0.001% of species to go extinct each year. It is a problem that we’ve reduced wild animals by 50% since 1970 but the solution is to end poverty.
  • People are overreacting to Amazon deforestation.
  • CO2 emissions in advanced countries have been falling for years.
  • Nobel price winning economist William Nordhaus has shown that 4 degrees temperature rise is optimal considering the benefits of burning fossil energy and the costs of climate change; it’s a good thing we’re only going to experience 3 degrees rise thanks to us switching from coal to clean and amazingly abundant natural gas.
  • Nothing bad is going to happen at 3 or 4 degrees temperature rise, nor will it remove the flood control system that protects my house in Berkeley. The only bad thing that might happen at 4 degrees is we grow less food, but that can be solved by providing tractors, irrigation and fertilizer to farmers in poor countries.
  • The Netherlands has proven that sea level rise is not a problem for rich countries.
  • Eating less meat will not help climate change nor improve your health. We evolved to eat meat and CAFO’s have reduced our use of land for livestock by an area equivalent to Alaska.
  • People wanting to lower their impact should drive a used car and fly less.
  • Cheap abundant energy is the source of our well being.
  • Renewable energy has too low power density to support our lifestyle. If you want to reduce climate change you should support nuclear energy.
  • Using more energy is good for people and nature because it reduces the consumption of materials.
  • The solution to environmental problems is to bring poor people up to our standard of living.

To summarize what I think is Shellenberger’s message:

  • A modern affluent lifestyle is good for the environment and is enabled by abundant low cost energy.
  • Renewable energy does not have sufficient power density, we need fossil and nuclear energy.
  • There are serious environmental problems but helping poor countries achieve a similar lifestyle to ours will solve many of them, and if we’re wealthy we can cope with the remaining problems.

I think Shellenberger is intelligent and is correct on many of his points. Unfortunately the points he’s wrong on are fatal:

  • Affordable fossil energy will deplete much quicker than he assumes. Our economic problems of the last 12 years are evidence that power down is underway.
  • If I’m wrong on the depletion rate of affordable fossil energy, our economic growth will be constrained by other non-renewable resources.
  • Nuclear energy was once a good idea, but not now that fossil energy depletion is weakening economies and governments thus making good governance a too risky bet. Nuclear also doesn’t solve our dependency on diesel for tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships.
  • The consequences of our current 1 degree temperature rise are already dire due to the loss of ice. The 3 degrees Shellenberger is comfortable with will create a planet incompatible with modern civilization due to the impact on food production and sea level rise. Even if I’m wrong, we won’t have the wealth to cope.

People like Michael Shellenberger, Eric Weinstein, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari demonstrate that regardless of how intelligent or well educated you are, if you deny the reality of energy depletion, then most of your beliefs are probably wrong, because pretty much everything depends on energy.

Perhaps this is why Nate Hagens once likened discussing peak oil to eating a bad oyster.

I’ve added Shellenberger to my list of famous polymaths in denial.

On the other hand, if you think Shellenberger is right, then I’ve got just the tune for you.

Eric Weinstein: A Case Study in Denial

I watch for evidence that supports or contradicts Varki’s MORT theory.

With average citizens it’s hard to distinguish ignorance from denial. The only way to know for sure is to explain the facts and associated evidence about human overshoot to someone and then observe if they still deny our predicament and what needs to be done about it.

It’s much easier to detect denial in polymaths because almost always fossil energy driven overshoot is the only important topic they are completely blind to.

I’m therefore on the lookout for smart polymaths, especially those with physics degrees, because with a physics background it is impossible to be blind to energy overshoot without denial of reality being in play.

I recently discovered Eric Weinstein via an interview on the Joe Rogan podcast. Weinstein has a PhD in physics from Harvard and hosts a podcast called The Portal in which he discusses big picture problems facing society.

Weinstein has been quietly working for a couple decades on a theory to unite general relativity with quantum mechanics. There’s no consensus yet on whether he’s onto something promising, but he’s clearly a really smart guy, as this recent unveiling of his theory demonstrates.

I’ve listened to several of Weinstein’s Portal podcasts and he demonstrates an impressive command of many disciplines. This one is a good representative sample covering a wide range of topics:

Weinstein is thus the perfect polymath poster child for testing Varki’s MORT theory.

On the important issues facing our species, this is what I think Weinstein is saying:

  • Economic growth and scientific advancement slowed in the late 70’s which is a big problem, but he doesn’t know the cause. He thinks we should invest more in physics research, we should make higher education more effective, and we should encourage innovation. He’s apparently blind to the effect of rising energy costs. I wrote about our stagnation after the 70’s here.
  • Economic growth today is faked with debt which is a big problem that threatens democracy. He doesn’t know the cause and makes up crap like all the other pundits. He’s apparently blind to the relationships between energy, wealth, debt, and growth.
  • He thinks that we need to return to 3+% economic growth to avoid a zero sum game and the human violence this will unleash. He’s apparently blind to the implications of 3% exponential growth on a finite planet.
  • One of the new technologies he thinks has promise is radical lifetime extension in which people will live many more years before dying. He’s apparently blind to human overshoot and the need to get our population down quickly.
  • He thinks non-carbon energy is a feasible solution to climate change, and is thus just as wrong as all the other famous polymaths.

In summary, Weinstein understands everything except what matters. Given his impressive intelligence and education this is impossible without strong reality denial.

I’ve added Weinstein to my list of famous polymaths in denial.