On Oil

Oil

JTRoberts recently made an important and insightful observation which I paraphrase and elaborate here.

Oil is a non-renewable resource that we extract from the earth. Oil companies are motivated by profit so they start with low-cost reservoirs and as those deplete they move to increasingly higher cost sources like water injection, offshore, tar sands, and fracking.

All economic activity depends on energy, as the laws of thermodynamics explain, and as the near perfect correlation between wealth and energy consumption confirms.

Oil is the keystone energy because oil is required to extract or capture all other forms of energy including food, coal, natural gas, wood, solar, wind, nuclear, and hydroelectric energy.

The cost of oil can be viewed as a tax on economic activity. Our economy is configured to operate profitably on about $20 per barrel oil. We have already captured most feasible energy efficiency gains making it difficult for our economy to operate profitably on oil over $20.

Thus, as the cost of extraction due to depletion of low-cost reserves pushes the price of oil above $20, the difference must be made up with debt.

At today’s $70 oil, which we burn about 96 million barrels per day, that works out to 96 * 365 * ($70-$20) = $1.8 trillion, which as predicted, is about the rate that global debt is increasing.

If you believe we have many years of oil left, then you must also believe that debt can continue to increase much faster than our income for many years without consequence on the value of money.

Money has value because we have confidence that the debt which creates our money will be repaid with interest, which can only occur when the economy grows, which can only occur when the quantity of energy we burn grows, which due to continually increasing extraction costs, can only occur when debt grows faster than the economy, which at some point will erode our confidence, which will reduce the value of money, which will reduce the amount of energy we can afford to burn, which will reduce economic activity, which will further erode our confidence in the value of money.

Do you see our energy and climate predicament?

Do you see why our leaders deny we have a problem?

Do you see why the longer we deny the problem the worse the outcome will be?

Additional Thoughts (30-Jul-2018)

Most people do not think we have an imminent oil problem because they’ve read in the news that there is 50 years or more of unconventional oil left to extract. While probably true, this fact is misleading.

What does it mean to say oil is depleted?

Depleted does not mean that all the oil is gone. Depleted means that all the oil we can afford to extract and purchase is gone. Big difference.

To be a little more precise, depleted is the point at which the cost to extract oil exceeds the price that our economy can pay and still grow.

Today we are paying the price and achieving a little growth, but it is taking a lot of debt at a very low interest rate to do so, and each year it takes more debt.

The ability of our global debt-backed fractional reserve monetary system to function (i.e. not collapse), and the high standard of living we enjoy, and the high capital things we invest in like modern infrastructure and technology, all fundamentally depend on economic growth. If growth stops our system will collapse, and our monetary system will have to be replaced with a different design, such as an asset-backed full reserve system, which will mean much lower standards of living, and much less availability of many things we currently take for granted.

I wrote an essay on economic growth which I recommend you read because many people think they know why we want economic growth but in fact don’t know the main and much more important reason.

So what evidence exists that oil is getting close to being depleted?

  1. Our economy in aggregate is losing money. Debt is growing much faster than the economy. It now takes over $3 of debt to generate $1 of growth. This is not sustainable. A sustainable economy invests $1 of debt to create more than $1 of growth, as we did prior to 1970.  It’s important to note that this state of affairs exists despite the interest rate (i.e. the cost of money) being historically low (in some cases zero). It’s also important to note that this is a global phenomenon. So we can’t blame bad leaders, or the political system, or the culture. Every country in the world is growing their debt in an unsustainable manner, or wants to. The common denominator is energy which is the most important thing that drives every economy in the world. And the price of energy has been trending up for 5 decades simultaneous with our debt.
  2. The US central bank is starting to increase interest rates for their money that the world uses to buy oil. There are many different ways to interpret this action. My own speculation is they are worried about confidence in their money and want to maintain or strengthen its purchasing power for oil. Looking through the other side of the lens, this is the same as saying the Fed wants to lower the price of oil because they are worried about inflation since oil is required to make almost everything. If the price of oil drops, the supply of oil will drop.
  3. Most companies that extract high-cost oil are struggling. For example, the majority of US fracking companies are losing money.
  4. Countries that are highly dependent on profits from their high-cost oil reserves are struggling. For example, Venezuela with the largest unconventional oil reserves in the word seems to be collapsing.
  5. Countries with large low-cost reserves are behaving oddly for countries that used to be fantastically wealthy. For example, Saudi Arabia has implemented aggressive austerity and wanted to sell a portion of their state oil company to raise money. They’ve recently backed off from this sale, possibly because it would have required them to submit to an independent audit of their remaining reserves, which some smart people speculate are much lower than stated.
  6. War-like behavior is increasing towards countries that have large low-cost oil reserves and that are not viewed as close friends. For example, Russia and Iran.
  7. Weak countries that lack the ability to borrow US$ needed to buy oil are struggling.
  8. Our central banks, economists, and politicians appear to have no clue about what is causing our persistent global economic problems. I speculate this is a combination of the fact that they’ve never needed to understand thermodynamics until now, and the fact that they deny unpleasant realities as explained by Varki’s MORT theory. I do find it very telling that not one senior leader anywhere in the world has spoken publicly about this issue. A few must understand our predicament and they must be terrified.

 

I Remember…

Orcas

This article on the decline of Orcas is close to home and painful.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/09/science/orcas-whales-endangered.html

Orcas of the Pacific Northwest Are Starving and Disappearing

For the last three years, not one calf has been born to the dwindling pods of black-and-white killer whales spouting geysers of mist off the coast in the Pacific Northwest.

Normally four or five calves would be born each year among this fairly unique urban population of whales — pods named J, K and L. But most recently, the number of orcas here has dwindled to just 75, a 30-year-low in what seems to be an inexorable, perplexing decline.

The biggest contributing factor may be the disappearance of big king salmon — fish more than 40 inches long. “They are Chinook salmon specialists,” said Brad Hanson, team leader for research at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center here, part of NOAA. “If they could, they would eat Chinook salmon 24/7.” Orcas gobble 30 a day. Hunting enough smaller prey requires a lot more energy.

 

I live on a beach with a reef at Kye Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island. I began regular visits here as a child in 1960 and have witnessed a steady decline of its ecosystem.

I remember abundant kelp, seagrass, barnacles, oysters, clams, geoducks, dungeness crabs, kelp crabs, hermit crabs, shore crabs, shrimp, sand dollars, sand collars, snails, starfish, flatfish, bullheads, dogfish, and more. Every single species on that list is mostly gone. Like a desert, sand and rocks remain.

I remember many small fish and crabs being trapped in pools waiting for the tide to come back in. Now there is only sand.

I remember after a summer storm seaweed and kelp would wash in and fill the bay to a depth of several feet, then rot and stink keeping the damn tourists away for a few weeks. Now it is uncommon to see a few inches of seaweed washing in.

I remember picking oysters from the reef with everyone else which no doubt contributed to their decline.

I remember large flocks of shorebirds. For several years I assisted someone who has conducted shorebird counts here for over 40 years. She showed me her notebooks with clear evidence that almost every species of shorebird is in severe decline.

I remember sitting out at dusk and watching the bats fly overhead. The bats are gone.

I remember abundant grasshoppers, June beetles, butterflies, moths, sand wasps, and other insects. Most are gone.

I remember when the dwellings that line the bay were small summer cabins set in amongst large fir trees. Now most of the trees have been felled and the cabins razed to build large year-round homes.

I remember my hometown Campbell River 50km north of here being called the salmon capital of the world because anyone with a boat could easily catch their limit of salmon. And they did until they couldn’t. Now fisherman must drive 2 hours and boat another 1 hour to the west coast of Vancouver Island for fishing that is still decent but in rapid decline.

I remember when fish were bigger. Much bigger.

I remember when dogfish were treated like a pest species. Now you never see them.

I remember when it was common to have a killer whale surface next to the boat you were fishing in.

I remember abundant sea lions on the rocks of the west coast. The sea lions are mostly gone now because fisherman shoot them because they compete for dwindling salmon stocks.

I remember political parties that promised to close the fish farming industry because of harm they do to wild fish stocks and when elected change their mind because the economy is more important than ecology.

I remember being optimistic. I visited the local fisheries office to ask if there was anything residents could do to restore the keystone kelp beds. They were not helpful and more or less said it was a waste of time because human pressure and climate change will continue to degrade ocean health.

I remember when we used to discuss over-population. The population of this valley has grown by more than 3 times (300%) since we had those conversations.

I remember being in denial like most people.

On Superior Pattern Processing, Magical Thinking, and Human Success

Cerebral Cortex

A friend brought to my attention an interesting paper by Mark P. Mattson titled “Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain“. It discusses the uniquely powerful capabilities of the human brain, and provides a partial theory for why these capabilities evolved.

Here is summary of what I consider to be the paper’s key points:

  • Humans have a uniquely powerful brain.
  • The human brain has the same structure and components as the brains of other mammals; what distinguishes the human brain is a higher quantity of neurons and synapses that enable superior pattern processing (SPP).
  • SPP is sufficient to explain unique human capabilities such as creativity, imagination, language, and magical thinking.
  • The human brain began to enlarge about 5-8 million years ago via a self-reinforcing feedback loop created by the synergy of increased brain power in a social species with an upright posture able to forage longer distances.
  • Human survival depended on social cooperation which created another self-reinforcing relationship between social interactions and SPP ability, and which led to an extended theory of mind with which humans understand that others have thoughts and emotions very similar to their own.
  • SPP led to language emerging about 100,000 years ago, and language is likely a major reason for the current dominance of Homo sapiens.
  • The ability to draw came after language about 30,000 years ago and enhanced the ability to communicate important spatial information like maps.
  • SPP enabled human imagination and invention which enhanced the success of humans via tool making, but also created a human tendency for magical thinking such as religious beliefs.
  • Gods were fabricated as explanations for phenomena that were not understood. As those phenomena were later explained by science those Gods were abandoned. With one exception, there is exceptional resistance to the science of human evolution and magical thinking persists on the origin of humans.
  • Psychiatric disorders result from abnormal SPP that blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination.
  • Homo sapiens is the only hominid to survive from an original pool of from 8 to 27 species. This suggests that only Homo sapiens evolved superior pattern processing which it used to outcompete its cousins.

So far so good, but then Mattson veers off into what feels like just so stories for his SPP theory:

  • Mattson thinks differences in SPP between populations today explains why some groups prosper and others struggle. For example, Africans must have a low SPP because they are poor, and Americans, Europeans, and Asians must have high SPP because they are affluent. Mattson might be right here, but I think it more likely that the self-reinforcing relationship between early access to low-cost energy, wealth creation, and wealth multiplication via growth enabled debt is a more likely explanation.
  • Mattson thinks differences in SPP between groups today is likely explained by epigenetics. For (my) example, malnourished mothers may have babies will less powerful brains.
  • Mattson concludes with a cheery prediction that humans will continue to evolve SPP which they will use to make better decisions and to invent technologies that eliminate suffering and ensure long-term survival. This sounds to me like a grade 12 valedictorian speech.
  • Mattson also concludes that we should educate everyone about how SPP works so that we can once and for all end our silly beliefs in god and the suffering this causes.  Here he seems almost as delusional as my earlier hope that awareness of genetic reality deny might help mitigate our impending overshoot collapse.
  • Finally he suggests further research into SPP might help us design better AI computers.

Setting aside Mattson’s concluding unicorns and rainbows, I agree with his earlier points. Unfortunately he spends a lot of time discussing the obvious bits and ignores the interesting bits:

  • After 8 million years of slowly improving brain power in many hominids species, there was a dramatic jump about 100,000 years ago in one of the species that enabled language and enhanced tools making, and that species used its unique skills to outcompete all the others.  That species also simultaneously began to believe in life after death which was later elaborated into religions, something no other species does. Using Mattson’s reasoning, brain power should have simultaneously improved for all hominids with no unusual discontinuity.
  • Mattson is mistaken about the adaptive value of religion. He thinks that the magical thinking associated with religion has some adaptive value. I think the evidence is clear that humans apply magical thinking to many aspects of their lives, including religion. The adaptive value of religions is not magical thinking, rather it is that religions serve to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain tribes, and (especially in times of scarcity) define outside tribes as enemies. In other words, religions improve survival via enhanced social cooperation.
  • Mattson acknowledges that magical thinking about human divinity is a unique and fascinating persistent behavior but does not offer an explanation. I think the explanation is clear. Given the human brain’s tendency for magical thinking we should expect religious beliefs to include every conceivable wacky story, as they do, and we should statistically expect a few of those wacky stories to involve life after death, but they don’t, instead every one of the thousands of human religions has a life after death story which suggests there must be a separate genetic reason for the universal belief in life after death.
  • Mattson thinks the primary cause of anxiety disorders and depression is defective SPP resulting in a blurring of reality, self-doubt, and hopelessness. While no doubt true in some cases, Mattson does not consider that a defective ability to deny unpleasant realities can be the cause of mental illness. For example, fully accepting the science of human overshoot, climate change, and net energy decline coupled with an understanding that an individual cannot influence the outcome is a plenty strong reason for depression. In other words, magical thinking likely improves mental health.

All of these interesting bits, and more, are explained by Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Following are a few excerpts from Mattson’s paper that highlight ideas I thought were noteworthy, but I recommend you read the entire paper for proper context.

The cognitive repertoire of humans far exceeds that of all other animals, and understanding the neurobiological basis of this superiority is therefore of interest not only to scientists, but also to society. As humans evolved from their anthropoid ancestors, and the size of their cerebral cortex expanded, novel pattern processing capabilities emerged.

The main purposes of the present article are to describe the superior pattern processing (SPP) capabilities of the human brain, to forward the hypothesis that SPP is the neurobiological foundation of human sociocultural evolution, and to describe the roles of aberrant SPP in some major neurological disorders.

The types of pattern processing that appear to occur robustly, if not uniquely in the human brain and are therefore considered as SPP include:

  1. Creativity and invention, which have resulted in the development of tools, processes and protocols for solving problems and saving time, and the arts (Goel, 2014; Orban and Caruana, 2014; Zaidel, 2014). Examples include all aspects of agriculture, transportation, science, commerce defense/security, and music;
  2. Spoken and written languages that enable rapid communication of highly specific information about all aspects of the physical universe and human experiences;
  3. Reasoning and rapid decision-making;
  4. Imagination and mental time travel which enables the formulation and rehearsal of potential future scenarios; and
  5. Magical thinking/fantasy, cognitive process that involves beliefs in entities and processes that defy accepted laws of causality including telepathy, spirits, and gods (Einstein and Menzies, 2004).

A major purpose of the present article is to forward the proposal that not only is pattern processing necessary for higher brain functions of humans, but SPP is sufficient to explain many such higher brain functions including creativity, imagination, language, and magical thinking.

 

The human brain has retained many features of brain structure and cellular organization of the brains of birds and lower mammals, but has greatly elaborated upon them by developing more robust cortical neuronal networks involved in the processing of visual and auditory patterns. As in lower mammals, being aware of one’s position in the environment, and remembering the locations of resources (food, shelter, etc.) and hazards (predators, cliffs, etc.) is of fundamental importance for the survival of humans. However, the encoding of visual inputs into “cognitive maps” of spatial relationships between objects in the environment (spatial pattern separation), and the encoding of auditory inputs, is necessary but not sufficient for the advanced pattern processing  abilities of humans including imagination, invention, and pattern transfer (language). The evidence suggests that expansion of the visual cortex, prefrontal cortex, and parietal—temporal—occipital (PTO) association area enabled the SPP that defines the human intellect capacity and all of its manifestations, including consciousness, language and mental fabrication and time travel. The remainder of this article describes some of the salient evidence for SPP as the basis of most, if not all, higher cortical functions in humans.

 

Thus, findings from neuroscience research has confirmed the general conclusion of Charles Darwin who proposed in The Descent of Man that the minds of humans and related species are fundamentally similar (Darwin, 1871).

Neuroanatomical and neurochemical considerations… section suggest that the superior intellectual capabilities of humans are solely or largely the result of the increase in the number of neurons and synapses that mediate enhanced encoding, integration and inter-individual transfer of patterns. There is little or no uniqueness in the structural or functional properties of the neuronal circuits that mediate intelligence in humans. Moreover, the intellectual capability of any individual requires the integrated function of pattern-processing networks distributed throughout the cerebral cortex, indicating that there is no single brain structure responsible for the mental superiority of humans.

 

One prominent phenotypic change that is believed to have occurred during the evolutionary transition from the Genus Pan (chimpanzees) to the Genus Homo (approximately 5–8 million years ago), was the acquisition of an upright bipedal endurance/distance runner phenotype (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004; Lieberman and Bramble, 2007; Mattson, 2012). Bipedalism also enabled the evolution of the shoulder in ways that allowed humans to throw objects accurately at a high velocity, greatly improving their ability as hunters (Roach et al., 2013). This was also the period in the evolution of our species when the size of the cerebral cortex increased relatively rapidly, which suggests that the expansion of the territory covered by individuals and groups of humans (enabled by endurance running) played a role in the expansion of the cerebral cortex. Coverage of a larger territory during the great human expansion (Henn et al., 2012) would have provided the opportunity to access more resources (food, water, and shelter), and required a greater pattern processing capacity to remember details of the location and nature of the resources. Importantly, humans evolved the ability to transfer the information acquired and processed in their brains during their journeys to other individuals via gestures, map drawing, and language. Visual and auditory patterns were likely the most commonly processed and transferred because of the ability to readily and accurately reproduce sights and sounds. Accordingly, the regions of the brain that expanded in humans are mostly involved in pattern processing of sights and sounds, and their codification as written and spoken languages. Very interestingly, specialized motor training (sports) enhances language understanding by a mechanism involving recruitment of the left dorsal lateral premotor cortex, suggesting that the language system is functionally connected to motor skill-related areas outside of the core language networks (Beilock et al., 2008). The latter findings suggest that the language SPP capabilities of the human brain co-evolved with development of organized “teamwork,” which may have bolstered functional interactions between brain regions involved in language and those responsible for specialized sensory-motor skills.

 

Emotions such as fear, anger, pleasure, and love are elevated states of arousal that enhance memory and recall of the events occurring during those emotional states (Bergado et al., 2011; Maren et al., 2013). This is a major, if not singular, function of emotions. Emotions evolved to reinforce memories of patterns of particular significance vis-à-vis survival and reproduction. Remembering the details of the events of an attack by a predator or intra-species rival will increase the probability of avoidance of such potentially deadly encounters in the future. Memories of the pleasurable experience of intercourse with fertile individuals of the opposite sex provides motivation for additional bouts of intercourse, and so increases the probability of passing one’s genes on to future generations.

….

Humans have evolved as highly social animals (Chang et al., 2013) with close emotional ties to mates, offspring, parents and close friends that enhance their survival and reproductive success (Damasio and Carvalho, 2013). As with other emotions, those associated with social interactions may have evolved to enhance SPP. In this view, there is a self-amplifying reciprocal relationship between social interactions and SPP ability. Thus, advanced PP abilities enable the development of social bonds and networks and, conversely, social interactions stimulate SPP. Success in social interactions requires that one recognize others, remember their past experiences with those individuals, and communicate their intentions. Dunbar’s social brain hypothesis of evolution of the primate brain includes the possible role of emotional attachments to mates and friends in complex social networks in the expansion of the cerebral cortex during anthropoid evolution (Dunbar, 2009; Sutcliffe et al., 2012). Because the memories of specific patterns (faces, places, conversations, etc.) can be reinforced or even embellished by emotions (Holland and Kensinger, 2010), it is reasonable to consider that evolution of the social brain was bolstered by emotional relationships. In addition to their use of complex language (see next Section), humans have added another dimension to social interactions—they are aware that others have thoughts and emotions very similar to their own. Humans therefore not only encode and process patterns representing their own experiences, but also the experiences of their family, friends and workmates. Social interactions require processing of information regarding the histories, behaviors and thoughts of many other individuals. Whether family members, employees or competitors, there are clear advantages to being able to know what others have done in the past, and to predict their future behaviors. Thus, inter-personal SPP is critical for success in most aspects of life, including acquiring and retaining friends, a job and a mate. Emotions reinforce inter-personal SPP, such that interactions involving anger, pleasure, sadness, etc. are retained, recalled and processed more thoroughly than interactions occurring in a neutral emotional context.

 

Language is the quintessential example of the evolved SPP capabilities of the human brain as it involves (once learned) the instantaneous conversion of sounds to visual symbols, and vice-versa. Language is a complex behavior in which auditory and/or visual patterns learned from other individuals or perceived in the environment are encoded, processed and modified for the purpose of transfer of information to other individuals. Language involves the use of patterns (symbols, words, and sounds) to code for objects and events encountered either via direct experience or communication from other individuals. Language-related SPP can create new patterns (stories, paintings, songs, etc.) of “things” that may (reality) or may not (fiction) exist. Language-mediated encoding and transfer of auditory and visual patterns enabled the rapid evolution of the human brain and is likely a major reason for the current dominance of Homo sapiens. (Aboitiz et al., 2006; Berwick et al., 2013).

 

While birds and non-human primates exhibit auditory communication, their vocalizations convey general information such as danger, rather than detailed instructions. It has been proposed by Tomasello (2008) that the kinds of gestures used by great apes is an evolutionary precursor of language. Studies of infant humans further support the notion that pointing and gestures are an ontogenic precursor to language (Goldin-Meadow, 2007; Liszkowski et al., 2009). Languages involving complex vocabularies and written symbols and words are believed to have arisen in Homo sapiens beginning approximately 100,000 years ago (Berwick et al., 2013). The rapid evolution of language skills, and the underlying neural circuits that mediate language processes, is fully consistent with its fundamental role in the rapid advancement of human societies. Language provides powerful reproductive and survival advantages. A man who engages a woman in stimulating conversation is more likely to attract her as a mate than is an inarticulate man. An army whose soldiers use detailed maps and advanced communication skills is more likely to win a battle than is an army that charges forward “blindly.”

 

The importance of imagination and invention for the rapid advancement of the human species cannot be overstated. The invention of tools and technologies have dominated the recent development of civilizations throughout the world. The earliest evidence for the invention of tools by our human ancestors dates to approximately 2.5 million years ago in Ethiopia and Kenya where stones were fashioned into cutting tools (Plummer, 2004). At that time hominid brains were about the same size as those of apes (approximately 500 grams), whereas the brain of modern humans is nearly three times larger.

 

A fascinating aspect of human SPP is the ability to fabricate mental entities that do not exist in the real world, including magical thinking. Magical thinking can be defined as “beliefs that defy culturally accepted laws of causality. In Western culture magical thinking refers to beliefs in, among other things, clairvoyance, astrology, spirit influences, and telepathy.” (Einstein and Menzies, 2004). Superstitions and rituals are examples of types of magical thinking. The cognitive fabrication of imaginary patterns is prominently illustrated in religious beliefs which have presumably provided an adaptive advantage to many societies. Magical thinking is at the core of all major religions wherein specific life events are believed to be controlled by “God,” and the “believers” behavior is designed to please “God” and avoid “his” wrath (Bloom, 2012). Figure 3 illustrates how a type of SPP, magical thinking, has had a major influence on cultural evolution. A recent functional MRI study suggests that religious belief involves neural networks that process information regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics and imagery (Kapogiannis et al., 2009a). Transcranial magnetic stimulation focused on the left lateral temporal lobe, but not the right lateral temporal lobe or vertex, reduced magical thinking (Bell et al., 2007) providing further insight into the neural networks involved in magical thinking. Interestingly, structural differences between religious and non-religious subjects have been demonstrated including increased volume of right middle temporal cortex and reduced volumes of left precuneus and orbitofrontal cortex in religious subjects (Kapogiannis et al., 2009b). These findings are consistent with psychological theories of the evolution of religious belief which posit adaptive cognitive functions of such magical thinking (Culotta, 2009).

 

In general, psychiatric disorders result from an abnormal skewing of SPP in ways that dissolve the neural circuit-based boundaries between reality and imagination, between the realms of possibilities and probabilities. There are likely evolution-based reasons that anxiety and depression, and “paranoia spectrum disorders” are so common. Everyone experiences anxiety transiently in situations that involve real threats to oneself or loved ones; this heightened state of arousal is an adaptive response that provides motivation toward actions that can mitigate the danger. However, individuals with an anxiety disorder react to perceived threats that either do not in fact exist or are highly unlikely to occur. Depression is a state of self-doubt and hopelessness that often follows a period of chronic anxiety or a catastrophic life event. It involves a pervasive distortion of reality and an unrealistic catastrophic view of the future.

 

If SPP has played a fundamental role in the evolution of the human brain, then this should be evident in both the historical record and trajectories of different human populations throughout the world. The SPP theory predicts that populations that more rapidly develop SPP capabilities will experience accelerated accrual of resources and prosperity. The examples of major SPP abilities acquired during human evolution that were considered above (language, invention, imagination, reasoning, and planning for the future) should have each provided a survival and resource-accumulating advantage. The SPP theory therefore predicts that populations that did not develop each of these SPP capabilities would have been outcompeted by those populations with brains that did acquire, through evolution, those SPP capabilities. This prediction is supported by the fact that all surviving populations of H. sapiens use language, invent tools and exhibit imagination and complex reasoning. Hominin populations lacking, or with relatively poorer, SPP capabilities presumably failed to compete successfully, and so no longer exist.

 

The SPP theory predicts that variability in SPP capabilities among current human populations will be associated with variations in resources, health and welfare (indicators of fitness) of the different populations. Studies have documented positive associations of brain size with greater intelligence, faster decision making and greater cultural achievements between and within genetically differentiated populations of modern humans (Rushton and Jensen, 2008). This suggests that variability in SPP among existing groups of humans may be sufficiently robust to influence their relative fitness and so the future evolution of the human brain. The differential SPP-mediated development of technologies to improve transportation, manufacturing, scientific discovery and health care have resulted in the advancement of some populations above others. Individuals in populations that have most heavily utilized the SPP capabilities of their brains currently enjoy the greatest levels of prosperity, better health and longer lives. The disparities between and within countries are in some cases quite striking, with African countries exhibiting considerably less propensity for SPP, as reflected in poverty, low levels of education, high infant mortality and short lifespans. In contrast, the United States, and many countries in Europe and Asia are experiencing economic growth that is arguably resulting, in large part, from development of SPP-based technologies, with computer-based systems being a prominent example of a human invention that enables processing of information at rates many orders of magnitude beyond the capability of the human brain. Clearly, humans have recognized the central importance of SPP for their advancement as a species.

 

Finally, the SPP theory predicts that human evolution will continue to involve expansion of the prefrontal cortex and functionally associated brain regions, with resulting improvements in the brain’s ability to rapidly process information and make (good) decisions. The specific outcomes of advanced SPP for future generations remain to be determined, but may (hopefully) include the invention of technologies that eliminate suffering and help ensure the long-term survival of our species.

On Apollo: The Most Impressive Human Achievement

How Apollo Flew to the Moon

I’m an electrical engineer that specialized in operating system design. I built my first computer in 1981 before the IBM PC was available. I designed an integrated circuit in 1983 for my Masters thesis. I managed large R&D groups for most of my 25 year career. I continue to be a technology geek in my personal life. As a consequence, I have a pretty good sense of what is impressive, and what is not, from an engineering perspective.

As readers probably know, I think net energy constraints have placed us at, or passed, the peak of all forms of complexity, including technology. I see evidence everywhere of peak technology.

The highlights of human engineering accomplishments for me include: steel, concrete, glass, Haber-Bosch fertilizer, diesel engines, turbine engines, turbine electricity generators, electric motors, electromagnetic communications, hydraulics, heat pumps, Panama canal, Golden Gate bridge, Chunnel, Concorde, Apollo, Hubble, Voyager, nuclear submarines, skyscrapers, deep-sea oil rigs, integrated circuits, microprocessors, magnetic storage, lasers, LED lights, internet, lithium-ion batteries, robotics, and DNA sequencing.

Notice that everything on this list is over 20 years old.  I can’t think of anything of equal importance that was invented in the last 20 years.

Gasoline and turbine engine efficiency gains have stalled. Diesel engine efficiency is going backwards due to new pollution regulations. Air travel speed plateaued many years ago.  The promise of too cheap to meter nuclear electricity appears certain to remain a dream. Battery performance barely creeps forward despite a hundred years of promises. My 3 year old smart phone works fine with no compelling reason to upgrade. Cameras were good enough many years ago. Household appliances are getting smarter, but their core functions are not improving, and they don’t last as long due to cost reduction pressures. TV resolution is increasing but few need it. LED lights are getting cheaper, but the technology was invented many years ago. Popular Mechanics magazine no longer writes about jet packs and flying cars.

It’s been 6 years since I built my current desktop computer. There’s still no compelling reason to upgrade it. If I spend the thousand dollars required to upgrade it, I will gain 25% performance. That’s nothing compared to the gains we saw 20 years ago.

I can see how a non-engineer might think otherwise. A computer in your pocket with a wireless connection to the internet feels like magic, but advances in the technologies used to build smart phones began to level off years ago. It’s not advances in fundamental technology that’s creating today’s magic. It’s thousands of small innovative apps, plus a few monster apps that leverage a 25 year old internet to connect us with friends and businesses, that creates the illusion of magic. Apps are software, and software is not new. There’s just a lot more software variety available to supply a much larger market created by everyone having a networked computer camera in their pocket.

For a long time I’ve felt our most impressive technology accomplishment occurred 50 years ago when we visited the moon. I vividly remember as an 11 year boy going outside at night and looking up in awe at Armstrong on the moon.

Over the years I’ve read and watched much about the Apollo program but never encountered anything that got into the details of Apollo’s engineering. I intuitively suspected there was a lot of impressive technology depth to Apollo, but never had the facts to back up my intuition.

I’ve just finished the book How Apollo Flew to the Moon by W. David Woods and now I have the facts to confirm my intuition. The book covers all of the technical details for every phase of the mission from launch to splashdown. I love the clear, concise, and engaging writing style of the author.

What those 400,000 people 50 years ago accomplished over 10 years is breath-taking. Every step of the mission involved staggering engineering challenges and trade-offs.  Lives were at stake on prime time television. The scale is hard to fathom. For example, the power produced by the Saturn V first stage was equivalent to the entire electricity consumption of the UK. More recent engineering accomplishments are not even in the same league.

Wood’s book answered all of my questions plus many I had not thought of:

  • how did the engines work?
  • how did they navigate?
  • how did they steer?
  • how did the stages separate?
  • how do you move from an earth orbit to a lunar orbit and back?
  • how did the lunar module land?
  • how did the lunar module take off, find, and rendezvous with the command module?
  • how did mission control track location and monitor systems?
  • what did the computers do?
  • what were the emergency contingency plans?

If you prefer to listen than read, here are some excellent podcasts with W. David Woods discussing the Apollo program:

Omega Tau 083 – How Apollo Flew to the Moon (December 15, 2011)

Omega Tau 097 – How Apollo Explored the Moon (June 18, 2012)

Omega Tau 176 – The Gemini Programme (July 18, 2015)

Omega Tau 239 – The Saturn V Launch Vehicle (March 12, 2017)

If you prefer to watch than read, here is a video presentation by W. David Woods in which the production quality is mediocre, but the content is strong.

 

If you are wondering why we have not accomplished anything even close to the Apollo program in the intervening 50 years, it’s because per capita net energy peaked around 1970, and has been declining ever since. In other words, our most complex achievement coincided with the peak of per capita net energy, as students of thermodynamics should expect.

I predict that the Apollo program will remain in perpetuity the most impressive achievement of the human species.

 

Per Capita Net Energy

http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2013/09/what-might-the-dynamics-of-net-energy-per-capita-look-like.html

 

On the Trans Mountain Pipeline

Trans Mountain pipeline

Many environmental groups in my province of B.C. oppose construction of a new pipeline from Alberta to the west coast. The motives of these groups include:

  • preventing dirty oil from contributing to climate change;
  • preventing environmental damage from pipeline and oil tanker spills;
  • concern for First Nation rights.

While these motives are admirable, all of the groups lack an understanding of, and/or deny, the laws of thermodynamics that govern our economy, and our overshoot predicament.

It’s true that climate change is a serious threat. In fact it’s much more serious than most environmental groups acknowledge. We are already locked into a dangerous 2C higher climate with 10m of sea level rise no matter what we do. There are no actions we can take today to solve the climate problem and avoid future suffering. Our choices today are to try to maintain our current lifestyle and increase future suffering, or reduce our population and consumption, and constrain future suffering.

It’s also true that the pipeline will create some new risks for environmental damage, but these risks pale in comparison to the damage the human footprint is already causing. Habitat loss, species extinction, soil depletion, nitrogen imbalance, pollution, deforestation, overfishing, and non-renewable resource depletion are the real threats environmental groups should focus on. As with climate change, nothing can be done about these threats unless we reduce human population and consumption.

In addition, if you want to maintain our current lifestyle, and you are concerned about the risk of oil spills, then there is a good argument to build the pipeline.

With regard to First Nations rights, all 7.6 billion humans descended from one small tribe in Africa about 100,000 years ago, meaning we’re all basically the same. Environmentalists should focus on the rights of all future generations, including First Nations.

Our standard of living is completely dependent on the burning of fossil energy, especially oil. We have already burned most of the cleaner and cheaper oil. That’s why we are mining dirty expensive oil sands, and fracking. To reduce our use of fossil energy we must reduce our standard living and our population.

Put another way, new pipelines will be built for another decade or so, until even the dirty oil is gone, unless we reduce our consumption of oil, and the only way to accomplish that is to shrink our economy, standard of living, and population.

If environmental groups want to make a difference on the issues that matter, as well as lesser issues like preventing new pipelines, they must:

  • set good examples in their personal lives (no more than one child, no long distance travel, reduced consumption of everything);
  • advocate for a global one child policy;
  • advocate for austerity, conservation, and a smaller economy (the simplest and most effective way to accomplish this would be to implement a higher interest rate).

It’s true that our choices are unpalatable, but they are reality, and there is a key point that must be understood when weighing what to do. The remaining affordable fossil energy is depleting quickly. Extraction will, in a decade or so, become too expensive for us to afford, meaning fossil energy will be gone for all intents and purposes. When this happens, our lifestyles and population will collapse, thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, no matter what we choose to do.

The advantages of choosing to voluntarily contract today are threefold. First, we would constrain future suffering caused by climate change. Second, we could use some of our remaining wealth to prepare a softer landing zone and to orchestrate a fairer and more humane descent. Third, we might leave some oil in the ground for our grandchildren so they can enjoy some of the comforts we take for granted. The alternative of doing nothing until thermodynamics forces the issue is chaos, war, and much more suffering for all species, including humans.

This article today suggests that environmental groups may have succeeded in preventing construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline:

https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/Disaster-Hits-Canadas-Oil-Sands.html

Kinder Morgan said it would halt nearly all work on a pipeline project that is crucial to the entire Canadian oil sands industry, representing a huge blow to Alberta’s efforts to move oil to market.

Here is what I predict will happen:

  1. Environmentalists will continue to deny reality and focus on the wrong things.
  2. We will not voluntarily contract the economy.
  3. We will not implement a one child policy.
  4. The Trans Mountain pipeline will be built, provided that our luck persists at avoiding an accidental crash caused by the instability we have created by using extreme debt to maintain an illusion of economic growth.

Let’s check back in a year to see if I am correct.

On Burning Carbon: The Case for Renaming GDP to GDB

Burning Carbon

Following is a single sentence description of our predicament that includes a simple proposal for how we might increase awareness and shift behavior in a positive direction.

Given near perfect historic correlation,

and sound physics to expect causation,

between energy consumption and wealth,

more specifically US$1 (1990) = 10 mW;

and given over 85% of energy comes from burning carbon,

including ancient (oil, coal, gas), old (wood), and recent (biomass),

and the remaining 15% of energy requires burning carbon

for materials, construction, maintenance, and energy distribution,

for example, cement from natural gas, steel from coal, and diesel

machines to mine and transport the concrete, steel, and uranium,

required to build and operate hydroelectric dams and nuclear plants;

and given wind and solar can’t scale up to replace 18 TW of burning carbon,

which, for comparison, is 300 billion 60 watt bulbs, about 40 per person,

because of low power density, intermittency, and high storage cost,

and because wind and solar requires burning carbon

for materials, construction, maintenance, and energy distribution,

for example, concrete, steel, copper, glass, silicon, and composites,

and diesel trucks to transport, install, and maintain the equipment,

and diesel machines to build and maintain the access roads,

and because wind and solar equipment wears out and must be replaced

after 25 years, when there will be little remaining oil to do so;

and given that most do not understand the tight dependencies between:

burning carbon to create the wealth we enjoy and want more of, nor

burning carbon to make the nitrogen fertilizer our food requires, nor

burning carbon to pump the water we drink and irrigate crops with, nor

burning carbon for tractors and combines that permit us to specialize, nor

burning carbon to transport everything we depend on to survive, nor

burning carbon to make the concrete, steel, and glass we live in, nor

burning carbon for the vacations, recreation, and internet we enjoy, nor

burning carbon and population growth from 1 to 8 billion, nor

burning carbon and climate change that threatens our children, nor

burning carbon and sea level rise that threatens many cities, nor

burning carbon and aerosols that mask 0.5+C additional warming, nor

burning carbon and ocean acidification that is killing coral reefs etc., nor

burning carbon and the sixth great extinction, nor

burning carbon and the collapse of fisheries, nor

burning carbon and rising ground level ozone that is killing trees;

and given that most are not aware of, or preparing for,

the coming shitstorm, caused by

an energy price high enough to cover extraction costs,

that are rising 10+% per year due to depleting low-cost reserves,

is an energy price too high to permit economic growth,

and without growth, debt defaults causing a depression;

so we conjure growth with new money,

created out of thin air by increasing debt,

which is a useful trick when real growth is possible,

but a deadly trick when there are limits to growth,

because it is equivalent to eating seed corn;

and this debt is exploding to unprecedented levels worldwide,

because it now takes more than $3 of debt for $1 of growth,

with total debt about US$300 trillion, triple that in 2000,

forcing central banks to print money to keep interest rates low,

0% interest is not normal, as all grown-ups know;

and this free money has created an illusion of oil abundance,

because fracking companies can operate despite losing money,

meaning much oil will disappear when interest rates rise;

and this free money has created bubbles of unprecedented size,

in stocks, bonds, real estate, education, healthcare, etc.,

that must eventually burst and revert through their mean,

hurting even the innocents who did not participate;

thus printing money will someday cause suffering and social unrest,

via a deflationary or hyperinflationary monetary collapse,

depending on how politicians respond,

from a much higher and harmful elevation than it needed to be,

because there is no such thing as a free lunch,

and we chose not to acknowledge limits and to live within our means,

despite being warned of the dangers since at least 1972,

even though our means compared to most of history are excellent,

for example, a poor Canadian lives better than a pharaoh;

with our real wealth of net energy per person falling,

so falls our productivity,

because everything we do uses energy,

for example, 1 barrel of oil does 4.5 years of manual labor,

so $80 of oil replaces $120,000 of minimum wages,

and we burn about 33 billion barrels of oil per year,

meaning each of our 7 billion is helped by 20 energy slaves,

plus a similar number from coal, gas, hydro, and nuclear;

and because we’ve already captured most efficiencies,

so falls our real incomes,

for all except the upper 1%, which profit from money printing;

and in addition to using debt,

we further masked declining real incomes,

by lowering the cost and price of manufactured items,

by consolidating shopping at Walmart and Amazon,

and by moving good paying manufacturing jobs to poorer countries,

which made us more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions,

because everything we need is now made elsewhere,

and because trucks, trains, and ships all burn diesel oil,

and cannot practically be made to run on anything else;

and this loss of good jobs further lowered incomes,

making citizens angry, for example, Brexit and Trump;

and if citizens continue to not understand the cause of decline,

nor the plentiful reasons to be thankful,

they may someday support a despot, like Hitler,

who was supported because of harm from Weimar money printing,

and who blamed other tribes and promised war for gain;

but unlike past wars that rewarded victors with booty,

for example, the US empire and its reserve currency,

the next war will return few rewards to the victor,

because we’ve already burned most of the good booty,

and we’ll burn a lot more waging war,

and we’ll risk annihilation with nuclear weapons,

that a desperate country without oil and hope may use;

so it’s therefore a really good idea for citizens to understand,

that geology, biology, and thermodynamics caused our predicament;

so citizens can’t be persuaded to blame another person or tribe;

and so citizens see the blessing for their children of burning less carbon,

because a 1C rise caused the climate problems we’ve already experienced,

and another 1C rise is baked in no matter what we do,

because CO2 passed 400 ppm, and is still rising,

meaning our great, great, great, great, grandchildren

already have to contend with at least 10 meters of sea level rise,

and we’re on a catastrophic path to another 2C rise, or more,

meaning most humans in a few generations will not survive,

unless we soon mostly stop burning carbon,

which depletion will force anyway, unfortunately too late;

and so citizens see the wisdom of using some remaining carbon wealth,

to build a softer landing zone,

in preparation for a world with local food and local economies,

and much less energy, wealth, complexity, and population;

and given that our culture, leaders, and news,

focus almost exclusively on GDP growth,

which, as we’ve seen, is actually growth in burning carbon;

and given our need for constant reinforcement,

to fight our human tendency to deny unpleasant realities,

which blocks awareness, discussion, and action,

on every issue that matters, for example,

climate change, peak oil, and over-population,

all symptoms of overshoot,

which the Green Party doesn’t even mention;

we should seize a simple public education opportunity,

by renaming

GDP (Gross Domestic Product)

to

GDB¹ (Gross Domestic Burn);

so every time we discuss the economy we worship,

we are reminded how fortunate we are to be alive,

on an extraordinarily rare and beautiful planet,

with extraordinarily rare and beautiful eukaryotic life,

with an extraordinarily rare and intelligent brain,

during the brief 100 year period, out of 4 billion,

with abundant burning carbon,

and the many reasons for

thankfulness and temperance².

 

¹I first heard the term “GDB” in a presentation by Nate Hagens.

²tem·per·ance /ˈtemp(ə)rəns/ (noun): moderation or self-restraint in action, consumption, statement, etc.

A good place to go next is You know you are in trouble when…

 

Learn Not to Burn

 

Or, if you prefer to read as a paragraph…

Given near perfect historic correlation, and sound physics to expect causation, between energy consumption and wealth, more specifically US$1 (1990) = 10 mW; and given over 85% of energy comes from burning carbon, including ancient (oil, coal, gas), old (wood), and recent (biomass), and the remaining 15% of energy requires burning carbon for materials, construction, maintenance, and energy distribution, for example, cement from natural gas, steel from coal, and diesel machines to mine and transport the concrete, steel, and uranium, required to build and operate hydroelectric dams and nuclear plants; and given wind and solar can’t scale up to replace 18 TW of burning carbon, which, for comparison, is 300 billion 60 watt bulbs, about 40 per person, because of low power density, intermittency, and high storage cost, and because wind and solar requires burning carbon for materials, construction, maintenance, and energy distribution, for example, concrete, steel, copper, glass, silicon, and composites, and diesel trucks to transport, install, and maintain the equipment, and diesel machines to build and maintain the access roads, and because wind and solar equipment wears out and must be replaced after 25 years, when there will be little remaining oil to do so; and given that most do not understand the tight dependencies between: burning carbon to create the wealth we enjoy and want more of, nor burning carbon to make the nitrogen fertilizer our food requires, nor burning carbon to pump the water we drink and irrigate crops with, nor burning carbon for tractors and combines that permit us to specialize, nor burning carbon to transport everything we depend on to survive, nor burning carbon to make the concrete, steel, and glass we live in, nor burning carbon for the vacations, recreation, and internet we enjoy, nor burning carbon and population growth from 1 to 8 billion, nor burning carbon and climate change that threatens our children, nor burning carbon and sea level rise that threatens many cities, nor burning carbon and aerosols that mask 0.5+C additional warming, nor burning carbon and ocean acidification that is killing coral reefs etc., nor burning carbon and the sixth great extinction, nor burning carbon and the collapse of fisheries, nor burning carbon and rising ground level ozone that is killing trees; and given that most are not aware of, or preparing for, the coming shitstorm, caused by an energy price high enough to cover extraction costs, that are rising 10+% per year due to depleting low-cost reserves, is an energy price too high to permit economic growth, and without growth, debt defaults causing a depression; so we conjure growth with new money, created out of thin air by increasing debt, which is a useful trick when real growth is possible, but a deadly trick when there are limits to growth, because it is equivalent to eating seed corn; and this debt is exploding to unprecedented levels worldwide, because it now takes more than $3 of debt for $1 of growth, with total debt about US$300 trillion, triple that in 2000, forcing central banks to print money to keep interest rates low, 0% interest is not normal, as all grown-ups know; and this free money has created an illusion of oil abundance, because fracking companies can operate despite losing money, meaning much oil will disappear when interest rates rise; and this free money has created bubbles of unprecedented size, in stocks, bonds, real estate, education, healthcare, etc., that must eventually burst and revert through their mean, hurting even the innocents who did not participate; thus printing money will someday cause suffering and social unrest, via a deflationary or hyperinflationary monetary collapse, depending on how politicians respond, from a much higher and harmful elevation than it needed to be, because there is no such thing as a free lunch, and we chose not to acknowledge limits and to live within our means, despite being warned of the dangers since at least 1972, even though our means compared to most of history are excellent, for example, a poor Canadian lives better than a pharaoh; with our real wealth of net energy per person falling, so falls our productivity, because everything we do uses energy, for example, 1 barrel of oil does 4.5 years of manual labor, so $80 of oil replaces $120,000 of minimum wages, and we burn about 33 billion barrels of oil per year, meaning each of our 7 billion is helped by 20 energy slaves, plus a similar number from coal, gas, hydro, and nuclear; and because we’ve already captured most efficiencies, so falls our real incomes, for all except the upper 1%, which profit from money printing; and in addition to using debt, we further masked declining real incomes, by lowering the cost and price of manufactured items, by consolidating shopping at Walmart and Amazon, and by moving good paying manufacturing jobs to poorer countries, which made us more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions, because everything we need is now made elsewhere, and because trucks, trains, and ships all burn diesel oil, and cannot practically be made to run on anything else; and this loss of good jobs further lowered incomes, making citizens angry, for example, Brexit and Trump; and if citizens continue to not understand the cause of decline, nor the plentiful reasons to be thankful, they may someday support a despot, like Hitler, who was supported because of harm from Weimar money printing, and who blamed other tribes and promised war for gain; but unlike past wars that rewarded victors with booty, for example, the US empire and its reserve currency, the next war will return few rewards to the victor, because we’ve already burned most of the good booty, and we’ll burn a lot more waging war, and we’ll risk annihilation with nuclear weapons, that a desperate country without oil and hope may use; so it’s therefore a really good idea for citizens to understand, that geology, biology, and thermodynamics caused our predicament; so citizens can’t be persuaded to blame another person or tribe; and so citizens see the blessing for their children of burning less carbon, because a 1C rise caused the climate problems we’ve already experienced, and another 1C rise is baked in no matter what we do, because CO2 passed 400 ppm, and is still rising, meaning our great, great, great, great, grandchildren already have to contend with at least 10 meters of sea level rise, and we’re on a catastrophic path to another 2C rise, or more, meaning most humans in a few generations will not survive, unless we soon mostly stop burning carbon, which depletion will force anyway, unfortunately too late; and so citizens see the wisdom of using some remaining carbon wealth, to build a softer landing zone, in preparation for a world with local food and local economies, and much less energy, wealth, complexity, and population; and given that our culture, leaders, and news, focus almost exclusively on GDP growth, which, as we’ve seen, is actually growth in burning carbon; and given our need for constant reinforcement, to fight our human tendency to deny unpleasant realities, which blocks awareness, discussion, and action, on every issue that matters, for example, climate change, peak oil, and over-population, all symptoms of overshoot, which the Green Party doesn’t even mention; we should seize a simple public education opportunity, by renaming GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to GDB¹ (Gross Domestic Burn); so every time we discuss the economy we worship, we are reminded how fortunate we are to be alive, on an extraordinarily rare and beautiful planet, with extraordinarily rare and beautiful eukaryotic life, with an extraordinarily rare and intelligent brain, during the brief 100 year period, out of 4 billion, with abundant burning carbon, and the many reasons for thankfulness and temperance².

 

On Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons, Lacks Dialogue

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

“The maximum is not the optimum.”

“We can’t cure a shortage by increasing the supply.”

“Birth control does not equal population control.”

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

– Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was a respected ecologist and philosopher who warned on the dangers of overpopulation. He wrote a famous 1968 paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” which you can download or view in full here.  More information on Garrett’s accomplishments and beliefs can be found at the Garrett Hardin Society site.

The central idea of the tragedy of the commons is that the collective effect of individuals making independent, well-intentioned, rational decisions regarding the use of a shared resource, leads to the degradation of the resource such that it can no longer support the individuals that depend upon it.

Tragedy of the Commons, Pasture and Climate

The classic example, and one we have repeated many times since we came to depend on agriculture 10,000 year ago, is the overgrazing of a pasture shared by herdsman.

A more modern example is someone who emits large quantities of CO2 into the atmospheric commons by flying long distances on a regular basis to spend quality time with family members whose lives will soon be harmed by climate change.

Tragedy of the Commons, Drivers

I was familiar with the concept of the tragedy of the commons but I was not aware that Garrett Hardin was the first modern scientist to write on the topic until a friend recently brought his paper to my attention. I read the paper, learned quite a bit, and recommend it to others.

I was particularly impressed with Hardin’s clear and direct thinking on the threat of over-population and what must be done to prevent it. Here are a few noteworthy excerpts from his essay.

The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely by the principle of “dog eat dog”–if indeed there ever was such a world–how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds. But men are not birds, and have not acted like them for millenniums, at least.

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations. In late 1967, some 30 nations agreed to the following:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, who denied the reality of witches in the 17th century. At the present time, in liberal quarters, something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of the United Nations. There is a feeling that the United Nations is “our last and best hope,” that we shouldn’t find fault with it; we shouldn’t play into the hands of the archconservatives. However, let us not forget what Robert Louis Stevenson said: “The truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy.” If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it is promoted by the United Nations.

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather’s great book. The argument is straightforward and Darwinian.

People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others. Those who have more children will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more susceptible consciences. The difference will be accentuated, generation by generation.

In C. G. Darwin’s words: “It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus”.

Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man’s population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

I summarize Hardin’s position 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.

Garrett Hardin was a wise and prescient man who attempted to warn his fellow citizens of a serious threat to their well being, and most importantly, told them what they needed to do and why.  Other great people have attempted to do the same, for example, Dennis Meadows and his collaborators on the 1972 Limits to Growth study.

Hardin’s essay was written 50 years ago when the world’s population was 3.5 billion, a level already far in excess of what can be sustained without abundant, affordable, non-renewable, finite, and depleting fossil energy.

Over the last 50 years the population more than doubled to 7.6 billion and many new overshoot threats backed by solid scientific understanding have emerged like climate change, net energy decline, and ground level ozone.

There’s been plenty of information and (opportunity for) education. We can therefore conclude that Hardin’s assumption that education is the key to preventing overshoot is wrong.

As readers of this blog know, I think the key impediment to changing human behavior in a positive direction is the fact that humans evolved to denial reality, as explained by Varki’s MORT theory.

How can a majority emerge to support a contentious law to control breeding when the vast majority of the 7.6 billion people on the planet deny the existence of overshoot?

Much has been written by many people on the tragedy of the commons. Commentators typically fall into one of two groups:

The first group appreciates the centrality of the commons problem to human existence and spends much energy arguing how best to address the problem with the usual divisive, inconclusive, and unproductive positions of right vs. left, private vs. public, capitalism vs. socialism, libertarian vs. autocratic , etc.

The second group denies a commons problem exists, or thinks innovation and technology will solve any problems.

Where is the most important and missing third group?

That would be the group searching for an understanding of how an otherwise uniquely intelligent species can deny its obvious predicament. Brief reflection leads to the obvious conclusion that until we understand the genetic basis for our ability, on the one hand, to understand highly complex topics, like the laws of  physics that explain the creation of the universe and life, and on the other hand, to selectively deny much simpler and plainly obvious facts, like human overshoot and our own mortality, we have no hope of addressing the tragedy of the commons, or any of the other behaviors that threaten our species.

A few people have achieved some insight into our tendency to deny reality but I observe that they usually soon thereafter drop their pursuit of understanding.  I find this very curious because if you have a deep understanding of the human predicament there is nothing more import to understand and to raise awareness of than reality denial.

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

There is an exciting (for me) passage in Hardin’s essay that hints he may have  understood or anticipated at least a portion of the MORT theory.

…the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…  But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). 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.

Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

Hardin demonstrated a flash of denial insight by correctly identifying the key issue, but then neglected to explore further in his tragedy of the commons essay.  Unfortunately the reference for his comment on denial is the book “Population, Evolution, and Birth Control“, which is a collection of essays by different authors that Hardin published in 1964, in which Hardin himself contributed an essay titled “Denial and the Gift of History”, and is not available on the internet. I would be grateful if a reader has a hard copy of this book and would be kind enough to provide a summary of his essay.

My expectation is that Hardin did not elaborate on denial of reality because there was ample opportunity for him to do so in his other books, papers, and interviews that I downloaded and searched.

I did find this one excerpt from an interview but it is not very insightful and he clearly thinks the solution is more education:

RUSSELL: Okay. The idea of statistics and the population–I have no reason to really go over that. The other one, of denial and the gift of history, which was a fascinating idea. Our view of working at it, our immortality.

HARDIN: Yes. Well, I think everybody, as he grows older and accumulates more experience and more observation of other people–of himself, too–is impressed with how often we try to fool ourselves. It’s an inescapable human tendency. This is part of original sin, trying to fool ourselves, and always to make things look better than they are. The question is, since we’re so ingenious at pulling the wool over our own eyes, what contrary measures can be taken? It seemed to me that this is one of the great apologies for teaching history: when you see other people in the past, people with whom you have no connection, making the same mistakes, then you can, I think, be more objective about yourself, and say, “Well, maybe I’m just repeating what this guy did two- or three-hundred years ago.” And this, I think, is one of the great gifts of history. It gives us long arms for holding instructive examples far enough from our eyes.

A search also suggested that no one else in 50 years thought Hardin’s comment on reality denial was worth discussing. Many people saw and see merit in Hardin’s work, but all seem to have missed his most important point, including perhaps Hardin himself.

I also note that Ajit Varki, the only surviving author of the MORT theory, is no longer researching, or attempting to spread awareness of his theory. Varki is instead leading some research on Glycobiology, which with time, will prove to be insignificant compared to MORT.

Because we understand the dangers, we do not permit alcoholics, or epileptics, or schizophrenics, or blind people to fly our planes.

If we understood our genetic tendency to deny reality, we might not permit reality deniers, which by the way are very easy to detect, to run for elected office.

Many impressive scientists and leaders are working hard to shift the needle on human overshoot. All have failed, and all will continue to fail, if they do not embrace the MORT theory.

We need some scientists and leaders of stature to step up and push awareness of the MORT theory.

A cranky old retired electrical engineer writing a blog doesn’t cut it.

It is too late to avoid a lot of suffering, but with awareness of our predicament we could reduce future suffering, and we might avoid harmful emotional reactions like nuclear war or revolutions.

If we have a hope, MORT awareness might be our only hope.