A bestselling author, neuroscientist, and computer engineer unveils a theory of intelligence that will revolutionize our understanding of the brain and the future of AI.
For all of neuroscience’s advances, we’ve made little progress on its biggest question: How do simple cells in the brain create intelligence?
Jeff Hawkins and his team discovered that the brain uses maplike structures to build a model of the world-not just one model, but hundreds of thousands of models of everything we know. This discovery allows Hawkins to answer important questions about how we perceive the world, why we have a sense of self, and the origin of high-level thought.
A Thousand Brains heralds a revolution in the understanding of intelligence. It is a big-think book, in every sense of the word.
I’ve followed Hawkins for many years and he’s one of my favorite neuroscience researchers. He started as an electrical engineer and created in 1996 the groundbreaking handheld PalmPilot (which I owned 🙂 ), and then switched careers to his passion of figuring out how the brain works.
In his book he proposes a new theoretical framework for how intelligence works. I think he’s on to something important. So does Richard Dawkins who wrote the forward and compares the book to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
I see an opportunity to build on Hawkins’ intelligence framework to push Varki’s MORT theory forward by refining why and what we deny, and how denial is implemented in the brain. Some of my still rough ideas are presented at the end of this essay.
There’s a second aspect of Hawkins’ book that is also interesting.
After presenting his new theory on intelligence, Hawkins spends the last half of the book explaining how our old brain behaviors and false beliefs (aka denial) threaten the survival of our species, and he proposes several ways we might avoid these threats.
He’s clearly worried and knows we are in trouble.
Yet when discussing the threats to our species he is blind to the biggest, imminent, and certain threat we face: fossil energy depletion. Hawkins, like most polymaths, can’t see that the technology he loves, was created by, and totally depends on, rapidly depleting non-renewable resources.
So we have a world expert on how and why our brain creates false beliefs, that can’t see his own false beliefs.
We could ask for no better evidence that MORT is true!
But wait, there’s more.
In the last chapters Hawkins obsesses over inventing a lasting means for our species to signal to other life in the universe that human intelligence once existed. As I was reading this I kept thinking, what the hell are you going on about? The odds are extremely low that other intelligent life will ever see our signaling satellites, and who the hell cares if they do? Then a light went on. His signal is a high tech version of an Egyptian pyramid, and is his brain’s mechanism for denying death.
So how could it get any better?
a well written enjoyable book
with an important new theory
on the most interesting aspect of a unique species
that may push forward Varki’s MORT theory on why we exist
by a brilliant polymath
that is blinded by the same denial that created his species
Following is a brief recapitulation of Hawkins’ cortical column framework for intelligence integrated with my musings on how it might be used to clarify and focus Varki’s MORT theory.
This hypothesis will be revised, possibly substantially, after I complete a 2nd more careful reading of Hawkins’ book and published papers, which I’ve just started. I’m also hoping to incorporate criticism from Dr. Varki which may improve or kill my ideas.
Downvoting the Cortical Column Death Model to Breach the Extended Theory of Mind Barrier
Version 1.2, April 17, 2021
Note: For the sake of brevity, every occurrence of “not die” should be read as “not die until viable offspring are produced”.
Genes evolve and collaborate to create bodies.
Bodies exist to replicate genes.
A body must not die to achieve its purpose of replicating genes.
The brain exists to help the body by choosing the best action to not die for a given set of sensory inputs.
The old brain uses simple static models to directly cause actions to not die.
The neocortex uses more complex learned models to indirectly cause actions to not die by requesting the old brain to execute actions.
Learning is moving: the neocortex learns by moving senses around the subject to create (up to about 1000) reference frame models.
Thinking is moving: concepts without physical form, like mathematics, are learned by moving between models to create new reference frame models.
Models have redundancy which makes knowledge more resilient and repurposable.
Models are stored in cortical columns.
The neocortex is composed of many nearly identical cortical columns.
Senses (and outputs from other models) are evaluated for matches by models.
Models collaborate by voting to decide our conscious reality.
The agreed reality is used by other models to select the best action to not die.
Evolution increases the number of cortical columns in species that benefit from more intelligence to not die.
Social species have the most cortical columns because modeling social relationships is hard.
The human neocortex has about 150,000 cortical columns.
There are two important thresholds on the continuum of increasing social intelligence.
“Theory of mind” is the threshold where a brain learns a model of another brain, and that model includes an understanding that the other brain can die.
“Extended theory of mind” is the threshold where a brain learns that its model of another brain also models itself, and that it can also die.
The extended theory of mind threshold may be difficult for evolution to cross, because it has happened only once on this planet.
A model that predicts possible death from injury and certain death from old age results in fewer actions to not die.
Fewer actions to not die is called depression.
Genes for an extended theory of mind thus do not persist.
To break through the barrier, evolution requires a mechanism to prevent the learned death model from evaluating true.
A mechanism consistent with the archeological record was to learn a model for life after death (aka God) which downvotes the death model thus continuing the actions to not die.
Modern Implications of the Death Model
Climate change acceptance combined with the common false belief that renewable energy can replace depleting non-renewable fossil energy, and the common false belief that technology can remove sufficient CO2 from the atmosphere, does not trigger the death model, and the false beliefs cause our species to take actions that worsen our overshoot predicament.
Awareness of human overshoot and its implications are present in less than 0.01% of humans, including most highly educated polymaths, because it triggers the death model. Most people deny overshoot with false beliefs that non-renewable resources are abundant.
Chris Martenson yesterday unveiled what has been going on behind the scenes at Peak Prosperity.
I salute Martenson’s honesty for explaining how difficult it has been to make a living from overshoot education.
As an aside, I don’t think he’s aware of it, but the reason it’s so hard to teach overshoot is explained by Varki’s MORT theory.
It seems there were 3 key problems at Peak Prosperity:
insufficient revenue from selling overshoot education;
one partner who wanted to focus on science based journalism, and one partner who wanted to focus on how to profit from the coming economic collapse;
a threat to revenue from YouTube’s censorship of Martenson’s excellent science based COVID-19 journalism.
Martenson shared something that troubles me (even more than I already was) about out future:
I created the Crash Course in 2008 because it didn’t exist. I’m proud of all that the Crash Course has accomplished – without it Peak Prosperity would never have come into being – and while it represents some of the best work of my life (so far), if it didn’t already exist I would not invest the time to create the Crash Course today.
Why not? Because the world has changed and I don’t think it would be even slightly receptive to that material now. The Crash Course had a huge impact in 2008. My assessment is that today it would fall flat and gain little traction. The programming against critical thinking and independent thought is too pervasive and successful. In brief, from my perspective,the world has gone a bit mad. It’s lost its grip on reality.
In case you aren’t aware of it, Martenson’s Crash Course is the best introduction to our overshoot predicament available anywhere. It was instrumental on my personal journey to awareness, and I thank Martenson for his excellent work.
There are two dimensions to his statement that trouble me.
First, Martenson is saying that citizens today are less interested in understanding reality than they were 10 years ago. It’s a concern because to reduce future suffering we need the overshoot awareness trend to be increasing rather than decreasing. The more we grow our population, deplete critical resources, degrade ecosystems, and inflate our debt bubble, the greater the eventual suffering we will experience. By denying an unpleasant reality we are making the eventual reality more unpleasant.
Although I think I understand the underlying reason for this trend, which is that our genetic tendency to deny reality is proportional to the unpleasantness of the reality, and our predicament today is much much worse than it was 10 years ago, it still deeply troubles me.
Second, Martenson is saying that if he were to start Peak Prosperity today he would not invest the time to create the Crash Course because insufficient people would pay for it.
Martenson is one of only two individuals out of eight billion (the other being Nate Hagens) that has taken the time to create a high quality video course on everything every citizen should understand to be a good citizen.
And he says he wouldn’t do it again because no one would watch it.
Physicist Tom Murphy is one of the brightest and most articulate people in the overshoot awareness space.
A decade ago Murphy wrote frequently for a few years on his blog “Do the Math” where he explored the energy opportunities and constraints for powering our civilization. Then, having said what he wanted to say, he went silent.
Here is some of Murphy’s work that I’ve posted in the past which includes my all time favorite talk on limits to growth:
After a long hiatus from teaching the general education energy course at UCSD—due mostly to a heavy administrative role for five years—I picked it up again for Winter quarter 2020. I had always been discontented when it came to textbook choices: my sense was that they tended to play it safe to avoid the risk of being provocative. But provocative may be what our situation calls for! I had been inspired by David MacKay’s fabulous and quantitatively rich Sustainability: Without the Hot Air, but its focus on the UK and not-quite-textbook format kept me from adopting it for the classroom.
So I set out to capture key elements of Do the Math in a textbook for the Winter 2020 class, following a somewhat similar trajectory: growth limits; fossil fuels and climate change; alternative energy capabilities and pros/cons; concluding with a dose of human factors and personal adaptation strategies.
Where is humanity going? How realistic is a future of fusion and space colonies? What constraints are imposed by physics, by resource availability, and by human psychology? Are default expectations grounded in reality?
This textbook, written for a general-education audience, aims to address these questions without either the hype or the indifference typical of many books. The message throughout is that humanity faces a broad sweep of foundational problems as we inevitably transition away from fossil fuels and confront planetary limits in a host of unprecedented ways—a shift whose scale and probable rapidity offers little historical guidance.
Salvaging a decent future requires keen awareness, quantitative assessment, deliberate preventive action, and—above all—recognition that prevailing assumptions about human identity and destiny have been cruelly misshapen by the profoundly unsustainable trajectory of the last 150 years. The goal is to shake off unfounded and unexamined expectations, while elucidating the relevant physics and encouraging greater facility in quantitative reasoning.
After addressing limits to growth, population dynamics, uncooperative space environments, and the current fossil underpinnings of modern civilization, various sources of alternative energy are considered in detail— assessing how they stack up against each other, and which show the greatest potential. Following this is an exploration of systemic human impediments to effective and timely responses, capped by guidelines for individual adaptations resulting in reduced energy and material demands on the planet’s groaning capacity. Appendices provide refreshers on math and chemistry, as well as supplementary material of potential interest relating to cosmology, electric transportation, and an evolutionary perspective on humanity’s place in nature.
I skimmed the book to assess its tone. Murphy is trying to strike a balance between being honest about the difficulties we face, while not saying that civilization collapse is a certainty, and offers some constructive suggestions for how his young students might respond. It’s a similar (and understandable) strategy that Nate Hagens, another well known overshoot teacher has taken.
Here are a few excerpts filled with wise words from Murphy’s book:
19.1 No Master Plan
The “adults” of this world have not established a global plan for peace and prosperity. This has perhaps worked okay so far: a plan hasn’t been necessary. But as the world changes from an “empty” state in which humans were a small part of the planet with little influence to a new “full” regime where human impacts are many and global in scale, perhaps the “no plan” approach is the wrong framework going forward.
19.2 No Prospects for a Plan
Not only do we lack a plan for how to live within planetary limits, we may not even have the capacity to arrive at a consensus long-term plan. Even within a country, it can be hard to converge on a plan for alternative energy, a different economic model, a conservation plan for natural resources, and possibly even different political structures. These can represent extremely big changes. Political polarization leaves little room for united political action. The powerful and wealthy have little interest in substantial structural changes that may imperil their current status. And given peoples’ reluctance to embrace austerity and take personal responsibility for their actions, it is hard to understand why a politician in a democracy would feel much political pressure to make long-term decisions that may result in short-term hardship—real or perceived.
Globally, the prospects may be even worse: competition between countries stymies collective decision-making. The leaders of a country are charged with optimizing the prosperity of their own country—not that of the whole world, and even less Earth’s ecosystems. If a number of countries did act in the global interest, perhaps by voluntarily reducing their fossil fuel purchases in an effort to reduce global fossil fuel use, it stands to reason that other countries may take advantage of the resulting price drops to acquire more fossil fuels than they would have otherwise—defeating the original purpose. Then the participating countries will feel that they self-penalized for no good reason. Unless all relevant nations are on board and execute a plan, it will be hard to succeed at global initiatives. The great human experiment has never before faced this daunting a set of global, inter-related problems. The lack of a global authority to whom countries must answer may make global challenges almost impossible to mitigate. Right now, it is a free-for-all, sort-of like 200 kids lacking any adult supervision.
How many people do you know who are concerned about a legitimate threat of collapse of our civilization? It is an extreme outcome, and one without modern precedent. It seems like a fringe, alarmist position that is uncomfortable to even talk about in respectable company. Yet the evidence on the ground points to many real concerns:
1. The earth has never had to accommodate 8 billion people at this level of resource demand;
2. Humankind has never run out of a resource as vital as fossil fuels;
3. Humans have never until now altered the atmosphere to the point of changing the planet’s thermal equilibrium;
4. We have never before witnessed species extinction at this rate, or seen such dramatic changes to wild spaces and to the ocean.
20.3.1 Overall Framing
In the absence of a major shift in public attitudes toward energy and resource usage, motivated individuals can control their own footprints via personal decisions. This can be a fraught landscape, as some people may try to out-woke each other and others will resist any notion of giving up freedoms or comforts—only exacerbated by a sense of righteous alienation from the “do-gooders.”
Some basic guidelines on effective adaptation:
1. Choose actions based on some analysis of impact: don’t bother with superficial stuff, even if it’s trendy.
2. Don’t simply follow a list of actions or impart a list on others: choose a more personalized adventure based on quantitative assessment.
3. Avoid showing off. It is almost better to treat personal actions as secrets. Others may simply notice those choices and ask about them, rather than you bringing them up.
4. Resist the impulse to ask: “what should I buy to signal that I’m environmentally responsible?” Consumerism and conspicuous consumption are a large part of the problem. Buying new stuff is perhaps counterproductive and may not be the best path.
5. Be flexible. Allow deviations. Rigid adherence makes life more difficult and might inconvenience others, which can be an unwelcome imposition. Such behavior makes your choices less palatable to others, and therefore less likely to be adopted or replicated.
6. Somewhat related to the last point, chill out a bit. Every corner of your life does not have to be perfect. We live in a deeply imperfect world, so that exercising a 30% footprint compared to average is pretty darned good, and not that much different than a “more perfect” 25%. Doing a few big things means more than doing a lot of little things that may drive you (and others) crazy.
7. In the end, it has to matter to you what you’re doing and why. It’s not for the benefit of others.
20.4 Values Shifts
In the end, a bold reformulation of the human approach to living on this planet will only succeed if societal values change from where they are now. Imagine if the following activities were frowned upon—found distasteful and against social norms:
1. keeping a house warm enough in winter to wear shorts inside;
2. keeping a house so cool in summer that people’s feet get cold;
3. having 5 cars in an oversized garage;
4. accumulating enough air miles to be in a special “elite” club;
5. taking frequent, long, hot showers;
6. using a clothes dryer during a non-rainy period;
7. having a constant stream of delivery vehicles arrive at the door;
8. a full waste bin each week marking high consumption;
9. having a high-energy-demand diet (frequent meat consumption);
10. upgrading a serviceable appliance, disposing of the old;
11. wasteful lighting.
At present, many of these activities connote success and are part of a culture of “conspicuous consumption.” If such things ran counter to the sensibilities of the community, the behaviors would no longer carry social value and would be abandoned. The social norms in some Scandinavian countries praise egalitarianism and find public displays of being “better” or of having more money/stuff to be in poor taste. Abandonment of consumerist norms could possibly work, but only if it stems from a genuine understanding of the negative consequences. If curtailment of resource-heavy activities is imposed by some authority or is otherwise reluctantly adopted, it will not be as likely to transform societal values.
20.6 Upshot on Strategies
No one can know what fate awaits us, or control the timing of whatever unfolds. But individuals can take matters into their own hands and adopt practices that are more likely to be compatible with a future defined by reduced resource availability. We can learn to communicate future concerns constructively, with out being required to paint an artificial picture of hope. Our actions and choices, even if not showcased, can serve as inspiration for others—or at least can be personally rewarding as an impactful adventure. Quantitative assessment of energy and resource demands empowers individuals to make personal choices carrying large impacts. Reductions of factors of 2 and 3 and 4 are not out of reach. Maybe the world does not need 18 TW to be happy. Maybe we don’t have to work so hard to maintain a peaceful and rewarding lifestyle once growth is not the driver. Maybe we can re-learn how to adapt to the seasons and be fulfilled by a more intimate connection with nature. The value of psychological preparedness should not underestimated. By staring unblinking into the abyss, we are ready to cope with disruption, should it come. And if it never does in our lifetimes, what loss do we really suffer if we have chosen our adventure and lived our personal values?
In this sense, the best adaptation comes in the form of a mental shift. Letting go of humanity’s self-image as a growth juggernaut, and finding an “off-ramp” to a more rewarding lifestyle in close partnership with nature is the main goal. Continuing the freeway metaphor, the current path has us hurtling forward to certain involuntary termination of growth (a dead end, or cliff, or brick wall), very probably resulting in overshoot and/or crash.
The guidelines provided in this chapter for quantifying and reducing resource demands then simply become the initial outward expressions of this fresh vision. Ignore the potentially counterproductive allure of fusion, teleportation, and warp drive. Embrace instead a humbler, slower, more feasible future that stresses natural harmony over conquest and celebrates life in all forms—while preserving and advancing the knowledge and understanding of the universe we have worked so hard to achieve. Picture a future citizen of this happier world looking back at the present age as embarrassingly misguided and inexplicably delusional. Earth is a partner, not a possession to be exploited. Figuratively throwing Earth under the bus precludes our own chances for long-term success. A common phrasing of this sentiment is that humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Let’s not lose the path in a flight of fossil-fueled fantasy.
March 22, 2021 Update: Tom Murphy wrote a post highlighting the ideas from his book that will be new for Do the Math readers, and asking for our help to promote his free book.
Last week, in the first Do the Math post in years, I kept the post brief, only pointing out the new textbook: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, and giving a brief account of the backstory.
In this post, I take a bit more time to introduce new elements in the book that Do the Math readers have not seen represented in some form in earlier posts. In other words: what new insights or calculations lurk within the book?
The following is organized into three sections. The first takes a brief tour of the book, pointing out large, new blocks that are not already covered by Do the Math in some form. The second highlights the results of new calculations or figures that bring new context to our understanding. Finally, I summarize some of the new big-picture framing that emerges in the book.
Rather than laboriously inserting associated graphics into this post, my intent is that you treat this as a companion to be used side-by-side with the downloadable PDF of the book. References are to sections, figures, boxes, etc. rather than page numbers, which vary between electronic and print forms. So go ahead and get a version of the PDF up, and let’s jump in…
Brief Tour of New Content
The Preface may be worth reading for overall framing and motivation. The middle part about student learning and approach to mathematics/problems might not be as worthwhile, but the beginning and end are likely of interest.
The first four chapters attempt to lay out constraints on growth, initially hewing closely to the first two Do the Math posts on Galactic Scale Energy and Can Economic Growth Last. Chapter 3 on population echoes some points in The Real Population Problem, but adds substantial analysis of the demographic transition. I felt this was an important addition because many academics look to this mechanism to “solve” the population problem. What I point out is that the transition is a double-whammy for planetary resources: even though the result is zero-growth, the road to that point involves a population surge and increasing resource usage per capita. More people multiplied by a higher per-capita resource use is bad news for resource constraints. The dream, therefore, has a nightmarish element that might be neglected by many because demographic transitions of the past were not constrained in this way and seemed to be very positive, on balance. A recurring message: the highly abnormal recent past offers poor guidance to the future. Finally, Chapter 4 echoes the popular Why Not Space post, closing off this exit—or at least prompting the invested believers to cast the book aside and waste their time in a manner more to their liking.
Chapter 5 is a dry one on units, and does not exist on Do the Math except in a static page called Useful Energy Relations. Chapter 6 consolidates several posts on thermal energy and heat pumps. Chapter 7 is basically new, as a snapshot of U.S. and global energy and plots of recent trends.
Elements of Chapter 8 on fossil fuels can be found among the Do the Math posts—especially those on peak oil. But no overview of fossil fuels really existed on the blog. Chapter 9 on climate change is similar to the Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps, but is considerably expanded to detail the expected impact on temperature, explore limiting-case scenarios for the future, and delve into the thermal requirements for heating the ocean and melting ice.
Chapter 10 provides an overview of Earth’s energy budget and introduces the alternative and renewable energy options. This short chapter has no direct analog in Do the Math.
The heart of the book covers topics that do not change much over time: technologies for harnessing alternative energy. Prices might change, but the fundamentals tend not to. Thus, Chapters 11 through 16 largely echo Do the Math content. Note that the writing itself is new, and has benefited from extensive student feedback to improve clarity and accessibility. So it’s not a cut-and-paste job, but the overall take-aways are going to be familiar to Do the Math readers. Chapter 17 is the book’s version of The Alternative Energy Matrix, and is the closest thing to cut-and-paste in the book, being billed as a slightly edited reproduction of an existing chapter in the State of the World 2013 book.
The two main changes in the alternative energy chapters have to do with solar prices going down (now at under $3/Watt for residential and $1/Watt for utility-scale installations; the panels themselves being $0.50/Watt) and new recommendations for wind-farm turbine spacing, lowering the estimated power per land area available. I also added state-by-state maps for hydroelectricity, wind, and solar photovoltaic utilization in the U.S., for four different attributes (total power, power per area, power per person, and capacity factor).
The last three chapters depart the most from Do the Math content, although containing familiar elements like an exploration of personality types and a description of the Energy Trap. Chapter 20 bears some resemblance to posts on household energy and dietary choices. But the packaging may be different enough that it does not feel like repetition of Do the Math.
The Epilogue is completely new, and likely of interest to Do the Math readers.
Appendix D is the most thoughtful Appendix. Of greatest interest will be D.3 on electric transportation, D.5 on the long view of human success, and D.6 on an evolutionary perspective regarding human intelligence and how that may or may not mesh well in the natural world.
Highlights of New Results
The following tidbits are arranged in chronological order, and for the sake of brevity only represent the more thought-provoking additions.
In Chapter 2, Figure 2.3 on lighting efficiency progress surprised me in that the same 2.3% growth rate adopted for Chapters 1 and 2 on growth of energy fits the lighting history rather well. If the trend continues, we reach theoretical limits well before century’s end.
Chapter 3 has one new development and one new presentation of interest. The development is the recognition that the population surge associated with a demographic transition is proportional to the exponential of the change in birth/death rate times the lag between declining death rate and declining birth rate (Figure 3.16). The factor can easily more than double the pre-transition population. The new presentation is in Figure 3.17, exposing how preposterous the “dream” scenario looks of advancing a growing population to “western” energy standards by the year 2100. Substances that facilitate such delusions are usually illegal.
The only thing I’ll say about Chapter 4 here is that I planted an (accurate) Easter egg in Figure 4.2—only applicable to the electronic version.
I was surprised by Figure 7.9, showing the U.S. as a literal super-power (as measured in Watts) in the mid-twentieth century—using more than 80% of global natural gas and over 70% of global petroleum. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some Americans long to return to these “glory” years (not at all glorious for less privileged individuals, it should be noted). The mistake is thinking that it’s a matter of choice. America’s dominant role in the world had a resource foundation, and that ship has sailed. It’s not a matter of politics: it’s physics, and anger won’t solve it.
Figure 8.8 made an impression on me as well. A simple calculation based on discovery and consumption of conventional oil, as presented in Figure 8.7, provides a measure of how many years appear to remain in the resource. Simply dividing unconsumed reserves by current consumption gives a timescale, and this can be tracked as a function of time as new discoveries accumulate and consumption rate increases. The startling result is that the predicted endpoint has not budged from around the year 2050 for about four decades! I caution readers not to take this literally to mean that oil runs out in 2050. First, the plot only applies to conventional oil reserves. Second, reduced consumption rate due to scarcity, prices, policy directives, or suitable substitutes will mean a tapering beyond 2050 rather than abrupt termination. Still, it’s a relevant and alarming data point: conventional oil is unlikely to persist in its present dominance for even three more decades! I think that’s big news, people. How many decades old are you?
A number of new results accompany Chapter 9 on climate change. Most rewardingly, I “took it up a notch” from the previous calculations of annual and cumulative CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and used annual data on fossil fuel use to produce a graphs of emissions from the three fossil fuels across time (Figure 9.3). Doing so shows coal’s prominence as the king of CO2 emitters—now and throughout the past. Since we still have more coal than any other fossil fuel, it may just be the gift that keeps on giving. But most remarkable was the exercise of plotting the predicted emission on top of measurements in Figure 9.4. Prior to this, I was satisfied by getting the annual and cumulative emission numbers to match measurements. But to see it graphically: faithfully following the curvature and lying right atop the measurements brought a smile of despair to my face. The same approach lends itself well to exploring CO2 emissions scenarios for fossil fuel expenditures going forward: what happens if we cease growth in consumption; if we replace all coal with natural gas; or if we taper off entirely by 2100 or 2050. Only the last, draconian option limits the ultimate temperature rise to 2.0°C, according to my math.
I also had some “fun” in Chapter 9 stepping through the process by which a radiative imbalance equilibrates (Figure 9.15), and computing the timescales for melting ice and heating up the ocean (section 9.4.2).
Box 13.3 in Chapter 13 looks at solar-powered transportation. Why had I never before computed that a Boeing 737 could only get 4% of its cruise power from direct solar power? It’s an important demonstration of physical limitations.
Box 14.3 computes the thickness of all life on the planet, if squashed to a uniform layer surrounding the globe. It’s 4 mm thick! Or should I say 4 mm thin? That’s precious thin: a fragile wafer. It’s what makes this planet special, and our own lives possible. That’s the ultimate treasure of the planet, and deserves every protection we can offer.
Figures 15.14 and 15.15 are my attempt to explain the origin of nuclear waste, and why the neutron-rich daughter nuclei are radioactive hazards. This resurfaces in Figure 15.19 on nuclear waste radiated power, which I derived from probabilities and decay energies found in the Chart of the Nuclides. On another front, a quick-and-dirty financial assessment for both fission and fusion does not put them in a favorable light against (also expensive) solar, while solar is much safer.
The only good part about Chapter 16 is the fish duo in Figure 16.2.
Box 17.1 is a bit of a follow-up to Box 13.3 on solar transportation, exploring electric (battery-powered) passenger airplanes, concluding that for the same “fuel” load, range would be cut by a factor of 20 (to about 200 km), making them sort-of useless.
Chapter 17 also introduces an alternative scoring of the Matrix, based on student weights for the ten attributes of each source. I was interested to see if the fossil fuel gap persists (it does), and if the rankings change (mostly, they don’t).
Box 19.1 takes a stab at quantifying the dollar value of Earth. It’s a crude approach, and not entirely defensible. But even under dubious assumptions, the resulting price is so preposterously large that the point is fairly robust: Earth is far more valuable than our global annual economy, by as much as a factor of a million. Decisions based on money (i.e., most decisions) are therefore woefully misguided. Earth and its ecosystems should come first in societal decisions. Sorry if capitalism gets hurt in the process. Money ceases to have meaning without a life-bearing planet. Priorities!
Chapter 20 works to frame individual adaptation and quantitative assessment of energy footprints. The biggest new piece is the quantitative toolset developed in Section 20.3.4 for assessing dietary energy impact. I think this kind of analysis has the potential to meaningfully reshape our habits and expectations around food choices.
Section D.3 in the Appendices represents a first attempt on my part to nail down the implications of electrified transport for shipping as well as personal transport. Part of the work was already done for Box 17.1 (airplanes), but I had never put pencil to paper on cargo ships or long-haul trucking. The results address the “why can’t we just…” musings on electrifying all transportation. It’s hard. Table D.2 is still new enough to me that I need to study it more and internalize it.
Okay—that takes care of the nuts-and-bolts additions. What larger messages might emerge from the textbook that may not have been apparent in previous Do the Math content?
Life is Precious
Much of the focus of this blog, and of the textbook, is on energy and resources. But a consistent undercurrent advocates prioritizing nature above ourselves. See, for instance, the reference to Box 14.3 in the section above. Also, Box 19.1—in computing the monetary value of the planet—stresses the backwards way we assess value. We put the flea (economy) in charge of the dog (Earth), ignoring the important fact that the flea can’t live without the dog. An upcoming post will illustrate this theme in an absurd yet compelling manner.
In the end, as the Epilogue wraps up, I try to encapsulate this in a message to the future (but not too soon to adopt the message now!!): Treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves. It’s a partnership, and the health of the former is a prerequisite to the health of the latter.
Focus on the Long Term
Chapters 18 and 19 discuss the limitations of short-term focus in the face of our challenges. Democracy and business interests tend to have a very short focus, making us vulnerable to the Energy Trap.
But Section D.5 in the Appendix takes this to an expansive vista. It starts with the observation that civilization (cities, agriculture) began roughly 10,000 years ago. Lest we be nearer our end than the beginning, we should be thinking about practices consistent with another 10,000 years on this planet, at least. Maintaining uninterrupted civilization (preserving knowledge without a catastrophic reset) for this long is what we will call successful. Failure to do so is, well, failure.
What would it take to achieve success? As spelled out in section D.5, almost nothing we do today contributes to ultimate success. Therefore most of our actions today only make failure more likely. To me, that is sad to contemplate. Each passing day that we do not prioritize the natural world makes ultimate success a more distant prospect.
Section D.6 follows this up with musings on the role of human intelligence in an evolutionary context. My conclusion is that evolution tinkers, and is capable of producing a being that is too smart to succeed. We have the power to create our own failure, and take many species down with us. It’s time to “ask not” what we can do with our power, but what we should do to best ensure a long, rewarding existence in partnership with the rest of nature.
This Moment is Abnormal
Perhaps the most important message the new textbook can convey is that the abnormality of the last few centuries has turned us into the worst judges of future possibilities. Several times in the book, I compare the present era to a fireworks show: dazzling, awe inspiring, and a short-lived exception to “normal” activity. At least we can appreciate the aberration that a fireworks display represents by comparing it to a longer baseline: we have a broader context. Yet for those born and raised entirely within the fireworks show, it is easy to understand how their world view would be badly distorted.
Margin note 12 in Chapter 2 and the one below it points out our tendency to extrapolate, and think that just because we got “lucky” once (finding and learning to exploit fossil fuels) does not mean the trend will continue indefinitely. People often process the abnormality of our time in a dangerous way: because people 200 years ago could not possibly have predicted the amazing life of today, we are equally ill-equipped to fathom the miracles of tomorrow. I appreciate the bigness of thought that it takes to conceive of this. It’s a fair and alluring point. But it also ignores data and context: physical limits; a “full” earth; exhaustion of one-time resources; climate change perils; systemic collapses in ecosystems around the globe. Please work harder to incorporate these “wrinkles” into an otherwise grand notion.
Somewhat relatedly, margin note 24 in Chapter 2 and note 11 in the Epilogue make reference to the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” parable. This is a story told by adults to caution kids against raising false alarms, as setting up a reflexive dismissal of “fake news” can have damaging consequences. But consider two overlooked aspects of this story: first, a wolf did eventually appear and wreak havoc; and second, shouldn’t the adults bear responsibility for not protecting the town? Is the child really to blame? What idiots would put the responsibility of town protection on a child? I say that the failure rests mostly on the adults. They should recognize that children are prone to false alarms, and admonish them for knowingly creating disruption—after checking on the possibility of a real threat, for goodness sake! They utterly dropped the ball, and paid the price.
I came to think as I put finishing touches on the textbook that if asked to pick one message to communicate with this book it would be that the recent highly anomalous past has cruelly misshapen our perception of future possibilities. I put this into the abstract (and the back cover of the paperback), and sprinkled it into the text as an afterthought (search the word fireworks for some instances). As important as this point is, its presence throughout is implicit. I will likely try to more directly integrate the thought into a future edition.
A grounded understanding that our time is grossly abnormal in the long view is, I think, a necessary first step in snapping out of our current mindset, shaking off fantastical dreams, and getting to work defining and implementing a future that can actually work. It’s time to break the spell.
HELP SPREAD THE WORD
I am too close/biased to judge whether this book has enough intrinsic merit and appeal to “catch on” and reach a broad audience. But people will not give it a chance and instructors won’t adopt it for classrooms if too few people even know about it. Because I intentionally bypassed a for-profit publisher to make the book freely available, I lose the benefit of any publicity apparatus a publishing company might provide. So it’s down to “the people” to let others know of its existence. Fortunately, social media channels are well suited to this. Please consider sharing this book with others (reference the link to the book, not this “inside baseball” post). I hope the book is written in a way that can draw people in and then inspire them to keep turning pages. If recommending to friends and family, perhaps think about targeting a section or two to avoid their feeling overwhelmed by a textbook-sized reading assignment. If you can think of a personal connection to make it more directly relevant to them, all the better.
I don’t think I have ever asked for this sort of favor, and am not wholly comfortable with the appearance that I am shamelessly self-promoting here. But since I receive no financial benefit (even from the printed book) or prospect of job promotion as a result, I can convince myself that it’s out of a hope that the book might have some power to change minds and play some small role in setting us onto a more successful path. Call it optimism, bias, over-confidence, or whatever, but if the book can gain significant traction, then perhaps it deserves every chance and advantage. If months or years go by, this “old news” textbook will no longer have the shiny luster of newness, and will be less likely to spark a flame equal to the task ahead of us. The book may flop on its own (lack of) merits; then it flops—so be it. But let’s at least be able to say that it wasn’t for lack of trying to make people aware of its presence.
Apneaman wrote a song to celebrate the return of Tom Murphy:
Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back
He went away and hopium hung around And bothered me, every night And when I wouldn’t buy into it You said things that weren’t very nice My Physicist’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) You see him comin’ better SHUT UP on the double (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) You been spreading lies that collapse was untrue (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) So look out now ’cause his math foretells doom He’s been gone for such a long time (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) Now he’s back to prove we’re out of time (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) We’ll all be sorry we were ever born (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) ‘Cause his brain’s kinda big and his math’s da bomb (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) (You’re a Green dreamer now but he’ll cut you down to size (Wait and see) My Physicist’s back he’s gonna prove our damnation (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) If I were you I’d pray for endtimes salvation (Hey-la, hey-la, my Physicist’s back) Yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Look out now, yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) I could see him comin’ so you better get a runnin’ alright now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) My Physicist’s back now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Know he’s comin’ after you because he knows I’ve been true to doom (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)
At the end of this post I will add periodic updates on the case trend in Israel so that we can determine whether Bossche’s claims are likely true or false.
Geert Vanden Bossche, a vaccine expert with 3o years experience, thinks our vaccination policy has a high probability of causing the virus to mutate into variants that cause more serious illness, and that people who have been vaccinated will spread the virus rather than protecting those that have not been vaccinated, and that the immune systems of vaccinated people will be less effective at fighting future variants of the virus.
Bossche believes we are on the cusp of creating a global catastrophe and is asking the WHO to change course, and is calling on other scientists to engage in scientific review and debate of the risks.
Thanks to Nehemiah @ OFW for bringing Bossche to my attention.
I posted some of this material in the comments section of the last post, but after further review and thought, I decided it’s important enough to warrant its own post.
My initial reaction was to dismiss Bossche as yet another wack job / conspiracist / anti-vaxxer / pandemic denier. After reviewing Bossche’s credentials and thinking carefully about what he’s saying I concluded his concerns are worthy of consideration and may prove to be serious.
His message is a little difficult to understand because the topic is inherently complex, is not intuitive without some understanding of biology, and he speaks fast with an accent.
My objective of this post was to make it easier to understand Bossche’s key points, and to make all of his source information easily accessible.
In case any readers are wondering why I am distrustful of the authorities, it is because the biggest issue by far that we face, the danger of which far exceeds the virus, is human overshoot, the symptoms of which are climate change, non-renewable resource depletion, unsustainable debt, habitat destruction, and species extinction, which is completely ignored by our leaders, and the policies they have chosen are making much worse the future suffering that will be experienced when it is no longer possible to deny human overshoot. If our leaders don’t have a clue about the important issues, why would we trust them on lesser issues?
Here are the key points I think Bossche is making.
Note: If I have made any errors in summarizing Bossche I will promptly correct them when informed.
What is the big picture background?
We are conducting an unprecedented global experiment by broadly administering a vaccine in the middle of a pandemic, while having an imperfect understanding of pandemic science.
For example, we do not understand why pandemics usually have 3 waves before dying out. Or why pandemics often first attack old people and then shift to younger people in subsequent waves.
Given our imperfect understanding, our priority should be to do no harm.
Experts today are so specialized that very few have an integrated big picture view.
Our culture today is fixated on technology as being the solution to all of our problems.
Do our officials and experts have any bad intentions?
The vaccines were developed by brilliant people in professional companies, have been properly tested for safety, and achieve the objective of preventing people from becoming sick when exposed to the virus.
Why have officials chosen a plan for mass vaccinations?
Their top priority is to prevent the medical system from crashing in the short term due to an overload of sick people. They are not thinking about the long term.
I would add, which Bossche did not mention, that governments are anxious to restart their economies because they know the system is fragile and susceptible to a deflationary crash, and because current emergency deficit spending is not sustainable.
What are the characteristics of the vaccines we’re using?
The vaccines prevent someone from becoming sick when exposed to the virus for which the vaccine was designed.
The vaccines do not kill the virus. A vaccinated person can spread the virus without showing any symptoms.
Bossche claims that the immune system of a vaccinated person will be less able to fight variants of the virus for which the vaccine is ineffective. In other words, an unvaccinated person may stand a better chance against future virus variants.
A vaccine is not like a drug that is eventually expelled by your body. A vaccine permanently reprograms your immune system software. Because of this, the precautionary principle is critical.
What are the problems with the current vaccination plan?
Mass vaccinations, in the middle of a pandemic, which do not kill the virus, and which keep the recipient healthy and thus less prone to spread the virus, will apply strong selection pressure to the virus for mutations that both evade the vaccine AND make people sicker.
If more deadly variants of the virus emerge we will not be able to outrace them with new vaccines. In other words, if we inadvertently create a more deadly variant, we have no exit plan.
Why did Bossche become alarmed, and why is he speaking up so late in the game?
Bossche’s studies of pandemic history suggest it is very unusual for more virulent strains to emerge late in a pandemic. When more virulent strains were reported in late 2020 he became concerned and suspected that our lock-down policies may have encouraged the virus to mutate. Then he thought about the implications of broadly vaccinating both healthy and unhealthy people and decided to pull the fire alarm.
What should we have done?
Protected vulnerable people with some combination of isolation and vaccinations.
Allowed the virus to spread and build natural immunity in the healthy portion of the population.
Encouraged lifestyles for healthy immune systems.
How will we know if Bossche is right?
In countries with aggressive vaccination programs (Israel, UK, US) we should see an initial decline in cases, followed in a few weeks or few months by new variants and a rise in cases.
Here is the COVID data for Israel which we can monitor to help decide if Bossche is right or wrong:
Profile: Experienced management professional; expert in vaccine R&D and early vaccine dvpt,; proficiency in program and grant management; used to working in a heavily interconnected environment (in private and nonprofit sector) while managing the needs of numerous stakeholders. Proven track record of success in designing and developing vaccines, managing dynamic, high-performing consortia, developing efficient processes to deliver impact, offering expert scientific-technical advice on complex immunisation projects, leading vaccine R&D work as CSO. Proficiency in program management, team leadership, patent writing, laboratory research, immunology, epidemiology, microbiology, vaccine technologies, preclinical vaccine dvpt. Substantial experience in strategic budgeting, CMC- and IP-related matters, incl. patent infringement and litigations. Over 2 decades of professional experience working in Europe and the US in managing implementation of immune interventions to address unmet medical needs. Highly familiar with major challenges in Global Health (as previously engaged with B. & M. Gates Foundation and GAVI).
This April 22 interview is the best summary of Bossche’s concerns that I’m aware of. Bret Weinstein does an amazing job of helping Geert Vanden Bossche explain a very complicated topic.
Here is a March 1 keynote given by Bossche at the Vaccines Summit Ohio 2021 titled “Why should current Covid-19 vaccines not be used for mass vaccination during a pandemic”.
Here are the slides from the March 1 keynote:
Here is the March 6 post of his open letter:
Here is the full text of his open letter published on March 6:
Here is an excellent March 8 interview with Bossche:
Here is another March 6 interview, which I did not enjoy as much as the above interview:
Here is Bossche’s March 11 appeal to the WHO to change course:
Here is a March 12 statement from Bossche distancing himself from the crazies who are misrepresenting his concerns.
Here is a March 12 detailed rebuttal to Bossche’s claims which I skimmed but don’t understand. If anyone does understand this, please translate for us.
March 14 addition…
Here is another presentation by Canadian researcher Byram Bridle that supports Bossche’s claims.
Historically it usually takes 10 years to develop a vaccine. The previous shortest record was 4 years.
There is a lack of peer reviewed data to assess the current vaccines.
Those that are being vaccinated now are participating in what was previously called a phase 3 trial during which they monitor the safety of the vaccines.
There have been historic examples of new vaccines where the short term safety profile was good but long term problems emerged after 2 years of use.
There is good reason to believe that the efficacy data being reported may prove to be optimistic.
Some countries (like Israel) are changing the protocol for administering the vaccines from what was tested and approved. That’s a apparently a big high risk no-no in this industry.
A total of 8 pregnant woman have been vaccinated, 4 of which aborted shortly thereafter.
The type of vaccines we have chosen, and the method we are using to roll out them out, is maximizing the probability that vaccine immune variants will emerge. He thinks it’s only a matter of time.
People who have been vaccinated will do less well against vaccine immune variants than people who have not been vaccinated.
Bridle predicts that in the end we will be forced to adopt the strategy that we should have adopted from the start which is to build natural herd immunity.
He’s cautiously optimistic that there may already be considerable herd immunity in countries like Canada that have not been locked down all the time and because the PPE we have been using is ineffective against the virus.
He personally will not take the vaccine because he has a low risk profile and prefers the broader protection of natural immunity. He thinks people with high risk profiles should consider taking the vaccine.
He predicts historians will document this period as the greatest mismanaged crisis of all time.
March 17 addition…
Here is a rebuttal to Bossche’s claims. I did not appreciate that ZDoggMD spent more time attacking Bossche’s character and making fun of his accent than he did discussing Bossche’s claims, of which he only addressed 2 of the 4 key points made by Bossche, and provided just as little hard data as Bossche did.
I don’t know who’s right. I’m going watch the Israel data over the coming weeks to decide.
March 20 update.
Israel cases are still trending down with 56% of population vaccinated.
March 31 update.
Israel cases still trending down with 57% of population vaccinated. No evidence yet that Bossche is right.
April 9 update.
Israel cases have leveled off with 58% of population vaccinated. No evidence yet that Bossche is right.
April 20 update.
Israel cases still flat. No evidence yet that Bossche is right.
April 28 update.
Bossche has a recently updated FAQ on his site which says we should not have to wait too many more weeks before his prediction comes true.
This April 22 interview, which I also linked above, is the best summary of Bossche’s concerns that I’m aware of. Bret Weinstein does an amazing job of helping Bossche explain a very complicated topic. It’s a must watch.
June 24 update.
Bossche predicted an increase “by summer” which began 3 days ago.
Brilliant new talk by my favorite alien engineer, Jean-Marc Jancovici.
If you only have 90 minutes to spare, and you want to understand everything that matters about how the world works, and the nature of our overshoot predicament, and what we need to do to minimize future suffering, then this talk is the best use of your time.
Jean-Marc Jancovici is an advisor to the French government on climate change and energy as part of the French High Council for Climate. He is a founding partner of Carbon 4, a Paris-based data consultancy specializing in low carbon transition and the physical risks of climate change (www.carbone4.com). He is also the founder and president of The Shift Project, a Paris-based think tank advocating for a low carbon economy (www.theshiftproject.org). Jean-Marc Jancovici also serves as an associate professor at Mines ParisTech.
The thermo-industrial development of our society has been possible due to resource extraction and the transformation of our environment. Unfortunately, it has led to severe environmental consequences that humanity is experiencing around the globe: shifting and unpredictable climate, extreme weather events, and biodiversity collapse. Humanity is paying the consequences for technical and technological progress. Thus, can technology still save us from climate change?
Jean-Marc Jancovici will address this question through the paradigm of energy. He will first detail how modern society is structured around thermal and nuclear energies, and will then discuss the impact of this structure on global climate and society. Finally, Jean-Marc Jancovici will conclude by exploring the trade-offs between economic growth and sustainable climate stewardship.
Thank you to X for finding this new talk by professor Tim Garrett.
Garrett has developed the most significant and useful theory for explaining the relationship between climate change and the economy.
In this talk, Garrett explains his theory and tears a strip off climate scientists for their unscientific beliefs.
Garrett, in the Q&A, discusses the disgraceful manner that climate scientists have responded to his theory. I think the fact that almost all climate scientists ignore or deny Garrett’s theory is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence in support of Varki’s MORT theory.
Paraphrasing Garrett, an educated person would not infer from the above plot that human agency has an impact on climate trajectories. Instead, a naive person might reasonably conclude that CO2 emissions are caused by COP climate change accords. 🙂
Garrett used to summarize the conclusion of his theory as:
US$1 (1990) = 9.7 mW
Garrett is now expressing the same conclusion as:
5.8 gigawatts = US$1 trillion (2010)
Garrett observes that a single atmospheric chemist stationed on Mauna Loa would more accurately measure global GDP than the tens of thousands of idiot economists we employ.
One component of Biden’s climate change plan calls for more efficient appliances, machines, and buildings. Garrett shows that this piece of Biden’s plan will make climate change worse because the more efficient we are, the more we grow.
Garrett does not discuss it, but Biden’s plan would help if we tax away all of the savings that result from improved efficiency and use the taxes to pay down public debt. Biden of course would not have been elected if he included this in his plan.
Garrett also does not discuss the simplest solution for reducing CO2 emissions, which one person at a keyboard can implement: increase the interest rate. Garrett’s theory predicts a higher interest rate will reduce emissions because our wealth would reduce through defaults.
Garrett correctly observes that our current path of trying to switch to renewable energy will increase the combustion of fossil energy, but he doesn’t add the important caveat, until fossil energy depletion collapses our economy.
Garrett remains blind to one key piece of the puzzle: The depletion of affordable fossil energy has created a global debt bubble because the cost of extracting fossil energy is now higher than what consumers can afford. When this debt bubble pops, our wealth and CO2 emissions will decline, a lot. Curious minds want to know if the bubble will pop soon and fast enough to retain a climate compatible with a much poorer civilization.
My take away: The only path to maintaining our wealth and reducing CO2 emissions in time to possibly prevent a climate incompatible with civilization is to switch to nuclear power more quickly than we can possibly afford. And so our wealth will decline regardless of what we do.
One path, if we somehow breakthrough our genetic tendency to deny reality, might be a managed and civil decline. The other path will be chaotic and uncivil.
You can find more work by Garrett that I’ve posted here.
P.S. I note from the title slide that economist Steve Keen was a collaborator. Steve Keen, in case you’re not aware, is one of the only economists on the planet with a clue. The behavior of economists differs from climate scientists in that idiocy explains the former and denial the latter. Here is some of Steve Keen’s work that I’ve posted.
I watched the new documentary Hot Money by Susan Kucera tonight.
An intelligent world-wise father (General Wesley Clark) and his son discuss some of the problems we face with many smart participants. I don’t think they interviewed a single idiot, which was refreshing.
They know something is seriously wrong and make an honest attempt to connect the dots. They come tantalizingly close to a complete picture of reality, but miss the all important overshoot drivers of over population and declining returns from non-renewable energy.
Which of course means they understand everything, except what matters.
Nevertheless, Hot Money is excellent and worth watching because it has a lot of intelligent substance.
I also think it indicates a growing mainstream awareness of how close we are to collapsing, and I suspect herd awareness (coupled with denial of the real causes) may be the trigger.
Some of the important points made:
the financial system is a bomb waiting to explode, climate change may be the trigger
climate change is real and very serious
droughts, floods, and fires are a big problem now
it now takes more than 3 dollars of debt to create 1 dollar of growth, it used to take less than 1 dollar of debt to create 1 dollar of growth
farmers are struggling and failing due to climate change, debt, high input costs, and low crop prices
real incomes and living standards are falling despite lower taxes than the 50’s
some young couples are not having children because they see a terrible future
it was much easier to make a profit in the good old days, doubly so if you were early enough to steal land from the aboriginals
companies now invest more money in stock buy-backs than R&D
there is no such thing as trickle down economics
the financial system is now too complex for its players to understand – it’s like trying to understand quantum mechanics when you don’t have high school physics
the planet is a finite physical system and the financial system is unbounded – the two systems are incompatible
Venezuela is a preview of where the USA is headed
if the government isn’t competent enough to deal with homelessness in L.A., how can it possibly deal effectively with COVID?
Americans live under the illusion that they are different and could never descend into the savagery they’ve witnessed elsewhere in the world
the Kosovo genocide was committed by and against people with homes, refrigerators, cars, kids in college, and who spoke the same language
people are turning on each other because the capitalist system is breaking down and climate change is causing scarcity
there will be a billion displaced people within 30 years
it’s unlikely the Romans could give us advice on how to avoid collapse
the wealth gap increases as a civilization collapses
many nest eggs will be wiped out when insurance companies won’t insure homes because of sea level rise
much of the oil industry’s infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise
rich people are not investing enough in renewable energy because they can make better returns elsewhere
governments must step up to invest in what needs to be done
most authorities think we have 30 years to act before civilization collapses, some people think it’s already too late
the most valuable thing in the world is oil reserves in the ground, but the damage burning oil causes is even higher – we must tax carbon energy
we need a cultural change to accept less – but that’s hard
nothing comes for free, everything costs energy
renewable energy cannot replace fossil energy and satisfy our greed, but it can help us survive
the food system is a huge consumer of energy (lots of interesting detail here)
our energy system is highly dependent on water which is being disrupted by climate change
we need to democratize the electric grid to accelerate renewable energy, but that requires a long range plan which we don’t have
we should tax pollution and use the funds to improve the grid and to pay farmers to sequester carbon
we will not be able to re-order our system until it crashes, but if we wait until we crash we’ll be too poor to fight climate change – it’ll be like asking Somalia to fight climate change
the final scene has the son arguing that we’re not facing reality; and the father arguing that we can use our democracy to solve the problems, fade to “The End?”
there is no one driving the bus, our leaders don’t have a plan
no mention of population reduction or peak oil, not even a whisper
P.S. Ugo Bardi is featured in a couple clips discussing the collapse of the Roman empire, how we may be starting down a Seneca cliff, and the viability of renewable energy.
P.P.S. My favorite central banker, Canadian Mark Carney, has a clip in which he says the main role of central banks is to pull wealth from the future into the present.
P.P.P.S The cost of insurance for the small farm I assist more than doubled this year to over $6,000, I suspect due to climate change. We have to sell a lot of lettuce to earn $6,000. 😦
With wit, satire, and historical context, Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, General Wesley Clark and his son Wes Clark Jr. take us on a journey through the financial circulatory system connecting farmers, homeowners, bankers, academics, and business professionals in a tale that explains the knot of economic forces that can lead to collapse and how to untie it.
SYNOPSIS Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, General Wesley Clark and his son Wes Clark Jr. take us on a journey through the complicated realities of our financial system and its profound exposure to climate change. Hot Money outs the whole game, the whole charade, the whole crapshoot of the money system with all the humor and intelligence of a New Yorker cartoon. Combined with the wisdom of international business experts and academics, Hot Money is rich with historical context. It severs the knot of economic and political forces that may lead to societal collapse.
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT I met General Clark and his son Wes Jr. while filming Living In the Future’s Past, then met the General again at a speaking engagement two years later and the kernel of a film planted itself in my mind – a conversation between a father and son on how climate change will affect our financial system. It seemed logical to follow up to the introspective Living In The Future’s Past with a nuts and bolts view of how the machinery of our money system contributes and reacts to climate change. We lined up a broad and diverse cast of experts who’ve spent their lives doing the work. What we could see emerging was an easy to understand story whose depth is masked by its light-hearted breeziness. The Covid 19 pandemic cut short our filming and I turned to a New Yorker cartoonist to visualize concepts so somebody like me, who doesn’t have an MBA or ever worked in finance, can be simultaneously entertained and enlightened about one of the prime forces driving our world – debt.
Hot Money is an important film for right now as America stands on the brink of conflict. Many people lack context interpreting the world and this documentary delivers it. Conversations taped more than a year ago about wildfires making homes impossible to insure and the ripple effect that will roar through the financial system seem as startlingly prescient as the scenes describing populist breakdown in a country like Venezuela and how it can happen here. Hot Money offers a glimpse into our future and a chance to avoid the dangerous course we are on. To solve a problem we have to understand it.
Thanks to friend and retired blogger Gail Zawacki at Wit’s End for bringing this excellent new talk by professor William Rees to my attention.
Rees discusses our severe state of ecological overshoot and the behaviors that prevent us from taking any useful action to make the future less bad.
Rees thinks there are two key behaviors responsible for our predicament:
Base nature, which we share with all other species, to use all available resources. Most people call this the Maximum Power Principle.
Creative nurture. Our learned culture defines our reality and we live this constructed reality as if it were real. “When faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information” – Wexler.
I don’t disagree with Rees on the existence or role of these behaviors, but we also need Varki’s MORT theory to explain how denial of unpleasant realties evolved and is symbiotic with our uniquely powerful intelligence, and other unique human behaviors, such as our belief in gods and life after death.
Some interesting points made by Rees:
The 2017 human eco-footprint exceeds biocapacity by 73%.
Half the fossil fuels and many other resources ever used by humans have been consumed in just the past 30 years.
Efficiency enables more consumption.
The past 7 years are the warmest 7 years on record.
Wild populations of birds, fish, mammals, and amphibians have declined 60% since 1970. Populations of many insects are down about 50%.
The biomass of humans and their livestock make up 95-99% of all vertebrate biomass on the planet.
Human population planning has declined from being the dominant policy lever in 1969 to the least researched in 2018.
The annual growth in wind and solar energy is about half the total annual growth in energy. In others words, “renewable” energy is not replacing fossil energy, it’s not even keeping up.
The recent expansion of the human enterprise resembles the “plague phase” of a one-off boom/bust population cycle.
50 years, 34 climate conferences, a half dozen major international climate agreements, and various scientists’ warnings have not reduced atmospheric carbon concentrations.
We are tracking to the Limit to Growth study’s standard model and should expect major systemic crashes in the next 40 to 50 years.
This is the new “age of unreason”: science denial and magical thinking.
Climate change is a serious problem but a mere symptom of the greater disease.
I think the reaction to COVID-19 is part of how a self-organizing system works. People were looking for a reason to cut back/shut down. The illness provided this.
I do not believe in most conspiracy theories, but I do believe that crises are frequently used to implement plans that would be impossible without a crisis. The responses to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, 9/11, and the 2008 GFC are good modern examples.
Perhaps the virus has provided (mostly subconscious) cover for:
citizens tired of commuting 2 hours a day to a stressful job so they could keep up with their neighbor’s latest unnecessary status symbol purchase
citizens who intuited they should reduce discretionary spending and pay down credit card debt, which interestingly declined in 2020, rather than increasing as it did during the 2008 GFC
leaders that sensed we should voluntarily throttle back, because we’d soon be forced by limits to growth
leaders that understood we needed to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions, and the only way to achieve this is by contracting the economy
leaders that needed an excuse to restrict freedoms to maintain civil order in preparation for a significant contraction of our energy/economic system
central banks that understood we had hit limits to growth and that needed an excuse for massive corporate bailouts to prevent a catastrophic economic collapse, and for MMT to keep citizens fed
Perhaps this helps to explain why our responses to the virus have not been intelligent or optimal:
effective means of containing the spread were ignored or procrastinated in the crucial early days
existing cheap and effective preventative measures are ignored and not promoted; new preventative measures are not researched
promising cheap and effective treatments are ignored and/or aggressively undermined
some lock-down measures lack logic or good judgement
the source of the virus is not being aggressively investigated to better understand appropriate responses, and to prevent a reoccurrence
To be clear, I am not suggesting a conspiracy to release a virus. I think the most probable explanation is that the virus was engineered in a lab with good intentions, and that it escaped by accident, as explained here:
I am suggesting that people at all levels of our society appear to be using the virus as an excuse to make changes that were impossible to make prior to the crisis. Some of these plans may have been well thought out and sitting on a shelf waiting for the right circumstances, like for example MMT, and other responses, like for example citizens paying down credit card debt, may be an instinctual response to anticipated scarcity.
Jay Hanson, who died in 2018, was one of the greatest thinkers about human overshoot. I wrote more about Hanson here:
Hanson concluded that civilization was doomed due to genetic human behaviors that were unlikely to change, and that it would probably end with a nuclear war, as discussed in this 2008 interview with Jason Bradford:
In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses. — Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762
(What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive description of a new society, but only presents some conceptual ideas for consideration.)
MY KEY DEFINITIONS
GLOBAL PROBLEMATIC (after The Club of Rome, 1972): Global tragedy of the commons because people are genetically programmed to more-than-reproduce themselves and make the best use of their environments.
COMMONS: “A commons is any resource treated as though it belongs to all. When anyone can claim a resource simply on the grounds that he wants or needs to use it, one has a commons.” 
NEEDS: Human “needs” have a scientific basis which is defined by human biology. 35,000 years ago, three million hunter-gatherers “needed” community, shelter, health care, clean water, clean air, and about 3,000 calories a day of nutritious food. Today, people still “need” the same things that hunter-gatherers “needed” then (except fewer calories).
eMergy: eMergy (with an “M”) is the solar energy used directly and indirectly to make a service or product. In other words, eMergy is the “cost” of a service or a product in units of solar energy. Why eMergy? In reality, the economy is nothing but a monstrous, energy-gulping Rube Goldberg machine to deliver “needs” to people. But each of those three million hunter-gatherers was the energy-using counterpart of a common dolphin, whereas each of today’s 280 million Americans matches the energy use of a sperm whale. Obviously, the “economy” is incredibly inefficient at delivering “needs” to people. No doubt my statement will stick in the economist’s craw, because after all, isn’t “efficiency” what economics is all about? The problem with “economic efficiency” is that “money” is not a measure of anything in the real world (like, say, BTUs). Money is power because money “empowers” people to buy and do the things they want — including buying and doing other people (politics). Thus, “economic efficiency” is properly seen as a “political” concept that was designed to preserve political power for those who have it. For over a century, theorists have sought ways of integrating economics and environmental accounting, often using energy as a common measure. But these efforts met with limited success because different kinds of available energy are not equivalent. The measure of “eMergy” allows us to compare commodities, services and environmental work of different types. “Transformity” – the eMergy per unit energy – allows us to compare different kinds of available of energy. So we need to totally junk the present economic system and replace it with a new one that minimizes eMergy costs (not money costs ) and delivers basic needs (not Cadillacs) to everyone in a sustainable way.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Sustainable development both improves quality of life and retains continuity with physical conditions; it requires that social systems be equitable and physical systems circular (industrial outputs become industrial inputs).
AUTHORITY: Goals (or ideals) are not produced by a consensus of the governed, rather a qualified authority determines goals. For example, physical goals for sustainable development must come from “scientific” authority — because no one else knows what they must be. All contemporary political systems are “authoritarian” with the moneyed class ruling the pseudo democracies.
COERCION (politics): To “coerce” is to compel one to act in a certain way — either by promise of reward or threat of punishment. Two obvious examples of coercion are our system of laws and paychecks.
THE ONE-AND-ONLY HUMANE SOLUTION: “Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”  A global system of coercion — laws, police, punishments and rewards. In principle, the global commons can only be managed at the global level by people who understand the physical systems involved: scientists. Global coercion can be seen in the worldwide reactions to ozone depletion and global warming. Remarkably, even economists find that authoritarian coercion can make them “better off”:
A group of economists had gathered at my house for dinner. While we were waiting for the food in the oven to finish cooking, I brought a large bowl of cashew nuts into the living room where people were having cocktails. In a few minutes, half the bowl of nuts was gone, and I could see that our appetites were in danger. Quickly, I seized the bowl of nuts and put it back in the kitchen (eating a few more nuts along the way, of course). When I returned, my fellow economists generally applauded my quick action, but then we followed our natural inclinations which was to try to analyze the situation to death. The burning question was: how could removing an option possibly have made us better off? After all, if we wanted to stop eating cashews, we could have done that at any time. 
Besides laws and paychecks, coercion can take many forms:
It is not necessary to construct a theory of intentional cultural control. In truth, the strength of the control process rests in its apparent absence. The desired systemic result is achieved ordinarily by a loose though effective institutional process. It utilizes the education of journalists and other media professionals, built-in penalties and rewards for doing what is expected, norms presented as objective rules, and the occasional but telling direct intrusion from above. The main lever is the internalization of values. 
Step one would be to establish a global government of some sort with the authority to protect the global commons — our life-support system — as well as protecting universal human rights. This government would also oversee the “clean” manufacturing of “repairable” and “reusable” energy-efficient appliances and transportation systems. It would also insure the sustainable production of staples like wheat, rice, oats, and fish.
Does this new global government sound repressive or restrictive? Not at all. A great deal of freedom is possible — in fact, far more than we have now.
eMERGY CERTIFICATES Step two would be to replace the organizing principle of “avarice” with the principle of “sloth”; break out of the money-market-advertising-consumption death trap. The Society of Sloth would not be based on money because that would be inherently unsustainable. Instead, it would be based on “eMergy Certificates”. 
Global government would determine the “needs” of the public, set industrial production accordingly, and calculate the amount of eMergy used to meet these needs. Government would then distribute purchasing power in the form of eMergy certificates, the amount issued to each person being equivalent to his pro rata share of the eMergy cost of the consumer goods and services.
eMergy certificates bear the identification of the person to whom issued and are non-negotiable. They resemble a bank check in that they bear no face denomination, this being entered at the time of spending. They are surrendered upon the purchase of goods or services at any center of distribution and are permanently canceled, becoming entries in a uniform accounting system. Being non-negotiable they cannot be lost, stolen, gambled, or given away because they are invalid in the hands of any person other than the one to whom issued.
Lost eMergy certificates would be easily replaced. Certificates can not be saved because they become void at the termination of the two-year period for which they are issued. They can only be spent.
Insecurity of old age is abolished and both saving and insurance become unnecessary and impossible. eMergy Certificates would put absolute limits on consumption and provide people with a guaranteed stream of “needs” for life.
With modern technology, probably less than 5% of the population could produce all the goods we really “need”. A certain number of “producers” could be drafted and trained by society to produce for two years. The rest can stay home and sleep, sing, dance, paint, read, write, pray, play, do minor repairs, work in the garden, and practice birth control.
SELF-DETERMINATION Any number of cultural, ethnic or religious communities could be established by popular vote. Religious communities could have public prayer in their schools, prohibit booze, allow no television to corrupt their kids, wear uniforms, whatever. Communities of writers or painters could be established in which bad taste would be against the law. Ethnic communities could be established to preserve language and customs. If someone didn’t like the rules in a particular community, they could move to another religious, cultural, or ethnic community of their choosing.
In short, the one big freedom that individuals would have to give up would be the freedom to destroy the commons (in its broadest sense) — the freedom to kill. And in return, they would be given a guaranteed income for life and the freedom to live almost any way they choose.”