Ajit Varki: Our Only Hope is Legitimate Fear-Mongering

OK Now You Can Panic

Dr. Ajit Varki, the scientist who inspired this blog with his book, published a paper for a new book today, which expands on his Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Varki, in the past, has been self-critical of his 2013 book feeling that it did not receive the time and polish that his theory deserved. It is clear that Varki set out to remedy the defects of his book with this paper because it’s beautifully written, concise, logically structured, and well referenced. I encourage you to read the paper in full here, or you can download a pdf here.

What follows are a few excerpts from the paper that I thought were noteworthy, and some new ideas from Varki. I also discuss any points where Varki and I differ.

Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience? A Theory that Can Explain Unusual Features of the Origin and Fate of Our Species

Abstract
Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species––including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants, and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One collection of such related features is our remarkable ability for ignoring or denying reality in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias, and irrational risk-taking behavior (herein collectively called “reality denial”). Such traits should be maladaptive for reproductive success when they first appear as consistent features in individuals of any species. Meanwhile, available data suggest that self-awareness (knowledge of one’s own personhood) and basic theory of mind (ToM, also termed mind-reading, intentionality etc.) have evolved independently several times, particularly in the same kinds of species mentioned above. Despite a long-standing opportunity spanning tens of millions of years, only humans appear to have gone on to evolve an extended ToM (multilevel intentionality), a trait required for optimal expression of many other unusual cognitive attributes of our species, such as advanced linguistic communication and cumulative cooperative culture. The conventional view is that extended ToM emerged gradually in human ancestors, via stepwise positive selection of multiple traits that were each beneficial. A counterintuitive alternate possibility is that establishment of extended ToM has been repeatedly obstructed in all other species with the potential to achieve it, due to a “psychological evolutionary barrier,” that would arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM. Such individuals would observe deaths of conspecifics whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into mortality salience (understanding of personal mortality). The resulting conscious realization and exaggeration of an already existing intrinsic fear of death risk would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals (by favoring personal survival over reproduction). This “psychological evolutionary barrier” would have thus persisted until hominin ancestors broke through, via a rare and unlikely combination of cognitive changes, in which two intrinsically maladaptive traits (reality denial and extended ToM) evolved in the minds of the same individuals, allowing a “mind over reality transition” (MORT) over the proposed barrier. Once some individuals broke through in this manner, conventional natural selection could take over, with further evolution of beneficial aspects of the initial changes. This theory also provides a unifying evolutionary explanation for other unusual features of humans, including our recent emergence as the dominant species on the planet, and replacement of all other closely related evolutionary cousins, with limited interbreeding and no remaining hybrid species. While not directly falsifiable by experiment, the MORT theory fits with numerous facts about humans and human origins, and no known fact appears to strongly militate against it. It is also consistent with most other currently viable theories on related subjects, including terror management theory. Importantly, it has major implications for the human condition, as well as for many serious current issues, ranging all the way from lack of personal health responsibility to ignoring anthropogenic global climate disruption, which now threatens the very existence of our species.

The yaksha asked: “What is the greatest surprise?” Yudhisthira replied: “People die every day, making us aware that men are mortal. Yet we live, work, play, plan, etc., as if assuming we are immortal. What is more surprising than that?”

—The Mahabharata

Perhaps because I’m an electrical engineer who specialized in operating system design, rather than a life sciences practitioner, I’ve never been totally comfortable with MORT’s focus on the evolution of an extended theory of mind (ETOM).  There are many unique properties of the human brain, in addition to ETOM, such as symbolic language and advanced intellectual abilities.

It feels more accurate to speak about a barrier to evolving a brain with higher computing power. We all know that a more powerful desktop computer can do more advanced things like speech recognition and video editing. Ditto for a biological CPU. A more powerful brain can better understand the thoughts of others AND extrapolate its own mortality AND implement complex speech AND read symbolic text AND calculate quantum mechanics AND fly to the moon AND invent technologies to dominate all other species.

This more general way to think about MORT does not change or invalidate Varki’s thesis because it’s the same mortality awareness barrier, but provides a clearer explanation of what probably happened when we broke through the barrier, or at least it does for this cranky old engineer.

I think reality denial unlocked nature’s ability to evolve a more powerful CPU, with the first enhancement being an extended theory of mind, and subsequent enhancements being other uniquely human intellectual capabilities.

In case you doubt that 1-200,000 years is enough time to evolve sufficient computing power to figure out the laws of physics and fly to the moon, recall that we created a Chihuahua from a wolf in about 32,000 years.

I also want to mention that there is another complementary theory for the evolutionary requirement that high brain power co-evolve with reality denial.

All life must obey the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) because life at its core is replicators competing for finite energy.

Any evolved behavior that might tend to override MPP, such as sufficient intelligence to understand Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, with wisdom to constrain offspring and consumption, will be weeded out by selection pressures. Put more succinctly, free will on behaviors relevant to overshoot, cannot exist.

If true, this means it is impossible for high intelligence to exist without reality denial, and MORT is one solution evolution has discovered to implement this. On another planet, evolution by natural selection might discover a different means of unlocking high intelligence with reality denial.

Varki has created several new graphics to help explain his theory. I particularly like this one:

Mind Over Reality Transition Extended View

 

I was pleased to see that Varki now draws a link between his theory and that of Trivers’ theory of self-deception:

It is also noteworthy that the ability to hold false beliefs, self-deception, optimism, and confidence might support a successful mating strategy, especially for males. This suggestion is congruent with Trivers evolutionary theory of self-deception that includes denial of ongoing deception, self-inflation, ego-biased social theory, false narratives of intention, and a conscious mind that operates via denial and projection to create a self-serving world.

Varki makes an interesting case that human physiological ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in that postnatal development mirrors the expected transitions to an extended theory of mind:

Human Psychological Ontogeny Recapitulate Phylogeny

 

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Varki, perhaps due to my encouragement, has drawn a stronger link between religion and his MORT theory:

Depending on the lens through which it is studied, one aspect of religion can also be considered as strong evidence in support of MORT. Most human behaviors exist in other species on a continuum of development, as one would expect from evolution. But religion appears to be a well-established near universal only in human cultures and there are many obvious fitness advantages that have been discussed by others. But most of these advantages should not require a belief in life after death. Nevertheless, almost all religions have at their core some form of such afterlife beliefs, which would serve as another mechanism to blunt the impact of mortality salience. Of course, atheists do not live in constant fear of their mortality, so the underlying reality denial appears to be the primary mechanism.

Not having to worry about farting in a sandbox filled with kids I have to play with every day, I go a step further and assert that MORT created God.

I also make a stronger claim that all religions, not just most religions as stated by Varki, have at their core a belief in life after death.

It is also a theory that appears to fit with all known relevant information, and is not apparently negated by any other facts, but also cannot be definitively falsified at this time by an experiment.

For me, MORT will be be falsified if we can find a single religion anywhere in time or place that does not believe in some form of life after death.

I love that Varki draws a link between MORT and the many peculiar things humans do to distort reality:

…could the well-known human craving for mind-altering substances also be partly due to the need to escape reality? Could the same be true of the positive value of meditation methods that focus on mindfulness of the present, or the shutting out of irksome reality? Conversely, could episodic panic attacks represent a sudden failure of the neural mechanisms of reality denial?

Varki introduces a new and very interesting idea that reality denial first emerged in males and an extended theory of mind in females, and that it took considerable time for the alleles to mix and stabilize:

MORT Gender Features

Assuming that such an evolutionary transition did occur, what might have been the contributions of sex and gender? As illustrated in the very speculative Fig. 8, human males are at greater risk of autism spectrum disorders, more prone to selective reality denial, systematizing, optimism bias, and risk-taking behavior. Conversely, human females are more prone to empathy, cooperation, theory of mind, depressive realism, and major depressive disorder. Considering these sex and gender differences (which are of course on a continuum, and affected by many cultural and genetic factors), could it be that the original evolutionary transition involved mating of males with a complex genotype manifesting as maladaptive reality denial––with females having an equally complex genotype, suffering from mortality salience due to an enhanced theory of mind? Although we cannot know for certain, could such mating have generated an unusual collection of alleles, as an explanation for the origin of humans? Assuming that generating and stabilizing the optimal combination of such alleles were was difficult, perhaps it took a very long time. Perhaps there was a prolonged interim state of recurrent cognitive instability, with ongoing dangers resulting from reality denial and/or existential angst, and possibly even high rates of suicide. Could this difficult transition explain the >100,000-year gap between the genetic origin of modern humans and archeological evidence suggesting our emergence in Africa and then elsewhere?

I personally think it slightly more likely that the 100,000 year gap can be explained by the time it took natural selection to evolve a more powerful CPU once the MORT barrier was breached.

I chuckled at Varki’s awareness of the reality that his theory will not be acknowledged as true in his lifetime, and I admire his self-confidence that it will be acknowledged after he’s dead:

The theory is also consistent with all known facts, compatible with all other related theories, and not negated by any currently known facts. On the other hand, it is not directly testable by experimental reproduction and not directly falsifiable by experimental approaches. Given also the counterintuitive nature and unusual origins of this theory, as well as the lack of expertise of the originators in many relevant disciplines, MORT is very likely to be attacked from many quarters, and resolution is unlikely during the lifetime of this author. Only the passage of time will tell if MORT is as important as plate tectonics or as completely fanciful as “phlogiston” (or something somewhere in between). Fortunately, concern for posthumous legacy is a largely meaningless exercise.

“I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain…..on these grounds I drop my anchor, and believe that the difficulties will slowly disappear.”—Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, shortly after Origin of Species was published.

I’m less confident MORT will ever be acknowledged as true because denial of denial is and must be the strongest form of denial. If denial is ever acknowledged by the herd, the whole house of cards that defines us will collapse. Of course it’s going to collapse eventually regardless, thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. But it’s too bad, tragic in fact, because with MORT awareness we could reduce future suffering, and retain more of our best accomplishments.

It’s also sad because MORT is the most important new idea since Darwin’s evolution by natural selection for explaining the existence of an extraordinarily rare type of life in the universe. Too many people drift through life without ever appreciating how amazing their existence is.

Varki concludes the paper by discussing the implications of his theory, and says that it’s time for legitimate fear-mongering.

I observe with some irony that the existential threats, besides climate change, that Varki lists are insignificant compared to the threats he does not mention, such as human overshoot and the depletion of low-cost non-renewable resources, and other limits to growth, that are currently roiling social unrest around the globe, and creating unsustainable debt growth, zero or negative interest rates, money printing, and a widening wealth gap.

Coda: Relevance to the Current Human Condition and the Future of Our Species.

The 2007 draft of Danny Brower’s incomplete manuscript that I modified and expanded into a co-authored book (Varki & Brower, 2013) included the following prescient observations: “We are polluting the earth and changing the climate in ways that we can’t predict, and likely at some point, can’t easily reverse. If we’re so smart, why do we continue to sow the seeds for our eventual destruction? Because we are saddled with a brain that is designed by selection to cope with the ultimate disaster (death) by denying that it will occur, and so we treat other impending disasters by denying that they will ever happen ……Indeed, it is arguable that we are destined ultimately to destroy ourselves as a species.”

Although many of our follies arising from reality denial can at least theoretically be eventually reversed, there are two that definitely cannot be turned back once they occur: global nuclear holocaust and anthropogenic climate change. Although not an expert on climate, discussions with such individuals lead me to the conclusion that the human-induced climate disruption is already occurring, and that absent major changes in current human behavior and/or human intervention there is a very high probability of irreversible global catastrophic climate disruption before mid-century (Gilding, 2012; Gore, 2007, 2013; Guterl, 2012; Hansen, Sato, & Ruedy, 2012; Mann, 2012; Wallace-Wells, 2019), i.e., a “climate holocaust.”

In other words, we are putting our children on an airplane with a very high probability of a catastrophic crash (McKibben, 2019; Rich, 2019). If this theory regarding the evolutionary origins of human reality denial is true, the first step to reversing the situation would seem to be a full awareness of our genetic tendency to reality denial by the media, and by our scientific and political leaders. Sadly, it is unlikely that rational discussion or scientific details will be sufficient to sway the average human to do what is right for the future of our species, let alone leaders who are focused on near-term political and economic goals.

The only solution then may be “legitimate fear-mongering ”! It is notable that it was such fear-mongering that once brought all the nations of the world together during the Cold War, to minimize the risk of a nuclear holocaust (Caldicott, 2017). The only other hope may be to combine fear with shame and guilt, imposed upon adult humans by adolescent school children, who can better imagine the dire future we are leaving them to face (Kjeldahl & Hendricks, 2019). As the 15-year-old Greta Thunberg said to the elites at Davos: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.” Of course, even if we manage to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, there are the other existential threats to our species that reality denial makes us prone to, such as widespread and indiscriminate applications of artificial intelligence (Müller, 2016) to the generation of “deep fake videos” (Stover, 2018) and other gross distortions of reality at a population-wide level.

If this theory turns out to be the correct explanation for the origin of the species, it might ironically also be now sowing the seeds of our demise.

 

Varki’s last sentence captures the essence of this blog:

un-Denial = unmasking denial: creator and destroyer

 

I am very grateful, and pleasantly surprised, that Varki credited me in his paper despite the fact that this blog will probably be viewed by his colleagues as a cave for doomer whack jobs. 🙂

 

I Want You to Panic

On Boneheads

You Bonehead

Yesterday, the leader of the world’s largest and strongest economy called his central banker a “bonehead” for not lowering interest rates below zero.

Today, the European Central bank (ECB), which according to Trump is not led by a bonehead, reduced interest rates and increased money printing:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-12/ecb-cuts-rates-restarts-qe-to-fight-slowdown-as-draghi-era-ends?srnd=markets-vp

The ECB reduced the deposit rate to minus 0.5% from minus 0.4%, and said it’ll buy debt from Nov. 1 at a pace of 20 billion euros ($22 billion) a month for as long as necessary to hit its inflation goal.

Trump and the ECB correctly understand that lower interest rates are required to stimulate growth, and yet rates are already near zero, which suggests real growth is no longer possible.

A non-bonehead would seek to understand the underlying reason growth is constrained. They might begin by reading today’s essay by Gail Tverberg in which she makes 11 important points:

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2019/09/12/our-energy-and-debt-predicament-in-2019/

[1] Our problem is not just that oil prices that are too low. Prices are too low for practically every type of energy producer, and in many parts of the globe.

[2] The general trend in oil prices has been down since 2008. In fact, a similar trend applies for many other fuels.

[3] The situation of prices being too low for many types of energy producers simultaneously is precisely the problem I found back in December 2008 when I wrote the article Impact of the Credit Crisis on the Energy Industry – Where Are We Now?

[4] In the right circumstances, a rapidly growing supply of cheap energy products can help the world economy grow.

[5] It is striking that the period of rapid energy consumption growth between World War II and 1980 corresponds closely to the long-term rise in US interest rates between the 1940s and 1980 (Figure 6).

[6] Starting about 1980, the US economy began substituting rapidly growing debt for rapidly growing energy supplies. For a while, this substitution seemed to pull the economy forward. Now growth in debt is failing as well.

[7] Since 2001, world economic growth has been pulled forward by China with its growing coal supply and its growing debt. In the future, this stimulus seems likely to disappear.

[8] The world economy needs much more rapidly growing debt if energy prices are to rise to a level that is acceptable to energy producers.

[9] The world economy seems to be running out of truly productive uses for debt. There are investments available, but the rate of return is very low. The lack of investments with adequate return is a significant part of what is preventing the economy from being able to support higher interest rates.

[10] Since 1981, regulators have been able to prop up the economy by reducing interest rates whenever economic growth was faltering. Now we have pretty much run out of this built-in source stimulus.

[11] The total return of the economy seems to be too low now. This seems to be why we have problems of many types, ranging from (a) low interest rates to (b) low profitability for energy producers to (c) too much wage disparity.

Having now learned that economic growth is constrained by the depletion of low cost non-renewable fossil energy, a non-bonehead would then focus on renewable energy to determine what is or is not physically possible, and the implications of trying to substitute fossil with solar and wind energy.

They might begin with this week’s essay by Tim Watkins and would quickly learn that the environmental costs of “green” energy are very high, that “renewable” energy is totally dependent on non-renewable fossil energy, and in any case only produces electricity which does not address the other 80% of fossil energy we depend on.

http://consciousnessofsheep.co.uk/2019/09/09/facing-our-inconvenient-truths/

Having now attained an understanding that there is no possible way to resume economic growth, a non-bonehead would then ask what’s the consequence of attempting to force growth with printed money and negative interest rates? A quick review of history would show there is no free lunch and that monetary shenanigans ultimately destroy currencies which leads to wars and revolutions.

Finally, a non-bonehead would integrate all of the above with an understanding of the ongoing collapse of our planetary ecosystem, including the loss of a climate compatible with civilization. They might begin with this week’s interview with Phillise Todd, who has a good grasp of the big picture, despite her occasional and understandable (as explained by Varki’s MORT theory) lapses into denial.

 

Understanding now the intractable nature of our predicament, and comparing reality with what our culture believes, a non-bonehead would conclude they are a genetic mutant and that most of our species are boneheads.

When challenged with the criticism that all they do is discuss problems without offering solutions, a non-bonehead would respond with a clear plan:

What would a wise society do?

And the boneheads would ignore it.

On the Emergence of Behaviorally Modern Humans: The Denial to Domesticate (DtD) Theory

Bizarro.com on Evolution

In 1953 Watson and Crick wrote a brief letter to the journal Nature to lay claim to being the first to identify the mechanism for replication of genetic information.

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

I’m following Watson and Crick’s example to lay claim to a new idea here on this blog that is read daily by millions of people that are curious to understand the evolutionary origins of a religious fire ape that has used its unique intelligence and behaviors to dominate its planet, while at the same time denying its obvious state of overshoot and the damage it is doing to the ecosystems that sustain it.

About 1 or 2 million years ago our primate ancestors mastered the use of fire to cook food. Cooking increased the energy available from food thus enabling the evolution of a larger brain. These primates used their more powerful brain to cooperate and create technologies like stone tools and weapons that enabled them to prosper and expand their range.

Several hundred thousand years ago the evolution of increased brain power and associated social cooperation bumped up against a barrier. This barrier resulted from a reduction in reproductive fitness when the brain became powerful enough to understand its own mortality. Several different hominid lines were blocked by this barrier. Then about one or two hundred thousand years ago, one small tribe in Africa evolved a mechanism to break through this barrier. The evolutionary trick was to simultaneously evolve an extended theory of mind with a behavior to deny unpleasant realities like mortality. The two otherwise maladaptive features when combined became a powerful adaptive advantage by enabling the evolution of a more powerful brain with an extended theory of mind.

Having broken through the mortality awareness barrier, the tribe became what we now call behaviorally modern humans, with religions rooted in life after death, and exploded out of Africa to populate the entire planet, initially displacing all other hominids, and today is well underway to displacing many other species, including perhaps itself.

The cognitive barrier, and the mechanism for breaking through it, is explained by Ajit Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory. I created this blog to explore and broadcast MORT because it answers many important questions for students of human overshoot.

Varki has shown that an extended theory of mind explains many of the behaviors unique to humans.

What Varki does not explain is why did humans use their extended theory of mind to cooperate more frequently than to fight?

I’ve recently read a new book by Richard Wrangham titled “The Goodness Paradox” in which Wrangham explores the paradox of humans having low reactive violence and high proactive violence.

As an aside, Wrangham is also the originator of the “cooking made us human” theory that I discussed above, and I recommend his earlier book on this topic.

Wrangham argues that the success of behaviorally modern humans is due to social cooperation which enabled more effective resource acquisition, defense, offense, technology advancement, trade, and the specialization of skills that are characteristic of our species.

Wrangham’s novel idea is that social cooperation was enabled by self-domestication. The self-domestication process was accomplished by tribe members ganging up on and killing any overly aggressive males in their tribe. Over time we thus became a kinder gentler species that can walk into a Starbucks filled with strangers and not be at risk of being torn limb from limb as would happen to a chimpanzee in the same situation.

Domestication of a species often results in many non-selected side effects such as neoteny, white patches of fur, and the floppy ears of dogs. Wrangham explores many characteristics of humans that may be side-effects of domestication such as our unique tendency to enter exclusive same-sex relationships.

Wrangham thinks the key enabler for human self-domestication was the evolution of an extended theory of mind that permitted tribe members to conspire and plot against their aggressors.

What Wrangham does not explain is what enabled the evolution of an extended theory of mind?

So here’s my big Watson and Crick like idea that I’m laying claim to for future generations to admire.

It’s called the Denial to Domesticate (DtD)™ theory and is a unifying bridge between the two brilliant theories of Varki and Wrangham.

DtD states that MORT enabled Self-Domestication.

More specifically, mastery of fire for cooking enabled a big brain, which was blocked from being used to its fullness by mortality awareness, which evolved reality denial to enable an extended theory of mind, which enabled individuals to conspire to kill aggressors, which self-domesticated our behaviors, which enabled large groups of humans to cooperate, which enabled us to take over the planet.

Readers of this blog will know that our core enablers, fire (think climate change) and reality denial (think peak oil, species extinction, etc. etc.), do not bode well for our future. We are fire apes that deny reality.

Being an electrical engineer well past his prime, and having completed the important work, I leave it to keen young geneticists to flesh out the details of my revolutionary DtD™ theory.

P.S. I’ll bet you a Starbucks donut that one of the side-effects of DtD will prove to be symbolic language.

P.P.S. 1905 was the big year for Albert Einstein, and 2019 may be my big year. I will of course offer to share the Nobel with Varki and Wrangham because without them I’d be nothing.

P.P.P.S. Note how an engineer can pack so much profound insight into a few words:

Fire to cooking to intelligence to denial to god to plotting to capital punishment to self-domestication to Apollo 11 to 7 billion too many.

Mashup

Keep Calm and Carry On It's Just a Mashup Mix

 

Notice the tight correlation between CO2 emissions per person and standard of living:

That’s not a coincidence as physicist Tim Garrett has explained:

https://un-denial.com/?s=Tim+Garrett%3A

So if we ever decide to do something effective about climate change (assuming it’s not already too late due to self-reinforcing feedback loops) then that solution must include some combination of a lower standard of living and a lower population.

When was the last time you heard a leader or climate scientist speak with such clarity?

Probably never because most are in denial as explained by Ajit Varki’s theory:

https://un-denial.com/denial-2/theory-short/

Unfortunately, reducing our standard of living is not as simple as tightening our belts because of the large amount of debt we use to support our lifestyles and economy.

Contraction means a depression at best, and more likely some form of crash:

https://un-denial.com/2016/01/30/why-we-want-growth-why-we-cant-have-it-and-what-this-means/

So the choice is severe economic hardship from a voluntary contraction, or collapse and possible extinction from climate change.

But it’s not so simple.

Our lifestyle and economy is totally dependent on burning non-renewable fossil carbon and we have already depleted the best low-cost reserves:

https://un-denial.com/2018/02/08/on-burning-carbon/

The best minds predict we will have 50% less oil to burn in 10 years:

https://un-denial.com/2018/07/29/on-oil/

This means our lifestyles and economy will contract soon no matter what we choose to do.

So the real choice is do we want to try to control our decline in a civil and humane manner, or do we want to let nature force an uncivil and inhumane decline?

The correct choice seems obvious:

https://un-denial.com/2016/06/27/what-would-a-wise-society-do/

The correct choice is even more clear when you consider the many other negative side effects of human overshoot besides climate change:

https://un-denial.com/2017/01/06/you-know-you-are-in-trouble-when/

But of course there is no choice because we are collectively unable to acknowledge or discuss our predicament due to the denial of reality behavior that enabled our unique brain:

Which probably explains why we have found no other intelligent life in the universe:

https://un-denial.com/2015/03/25/are-we-experiencing-the-peak-of-what-is-possible-in-the-universe/

It’s also probable that complex multicellular life, like plants and animals, is extremely rare in the universe because it depends on a rare “accident” to create the eukaryotic cell:

https://un-denial.com/2016/03/29/book-review-the-vital-question-energy-evolution-and-the-origins-of-complex-life-by-nick-lane/

Which means our planet really is special.

And you reading and understanding this essay is a miracle, but we don’t need God to explain this miracle, just physics and biology, plus billions of years and trillions of planets to enable several low probability events to occur:

https://un-denial.com/2016/11/14/on-religion-and-denial

To sum all of this up, if you have the rare ability to break through the human tendency to deny reality, then you should be in awe of being alive to witness and understand this rare event in the universe, and you should be grateful for the good food and other comforts we enjoy.

https://un-denial.com/2015/11/12/undenial-manifesto-energy-and-denial/

What if we’re denying something else?

Man in the Mirror

Thanks to a friend for bringing my attention to this recent essay on human nature.

The bad news on human nature, in 10 findings from psychology

https://aeon.co/ideas/the-bad-news-on-human-nature-in-10-findings-from-psychology

It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or are we, deep down, wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers, and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but here we shine some evidence-based light on the matter through 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:

  1. We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human.
  2. We experience Schadenfreude (pleasure at another person’s distress).
  3. We believe in karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate.
  4. We are blinkered and dogmatic.
  5. We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts.
  6. We are vain and overconfident.
  7. We are moral hypocrites.
  8. We are all potential trolls.
  9. We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits.
  10. We are sexually attracted to people with dark personality traits.

The essay concludes with the obligatory happy thoughts that most mainstream journals require today:

Don’t get too down – these findings say nothing of the success that some of us have had in overcoming our baser instincts. In fact, it is arguably by acknowledging and understanding our shortcomings that we can more successfully overcome them, and so cultivate the better angels of our nature.

There’s no reason to dispute the accuracy of this article because it’s written by a respected scientist, is backed by peer-reviewed research, and is consistent with human history.

It’s interesting and diagnostic that this list of behaviors does not include reality denial as explained by Varki’s MORT theory. Perhaps the author was able to discuss our unpleasant behaviors because he denies he shares any of these behaviors as his concluding paragraph suggests.

The lack of reality denial on the list is consistent with my belief that denial of denial is and must be the strongest form of denial. This belief was constructed from much observation of how people (don’t) react to Varki’s MORT theory, and the following thought experiment:

If you believe genes control life, as of course they must, then how could intelligence emerge without denial, and how could an intelligent species function (not be depressed and/or go insane) unless it denies its denial?

This blog has had the following central themes:

  1. We dominate the planet because humans are uniquely intelligent and this intelligence evolved because of an improbable adaptation to deny unpleasant realities.
  2. We are in a severe state of overshoot and our modern civilization will not survive for many more years.
  3. We are increasing the suffering that will occur by denying the reality of our predicament.
  4. We will not act to reduce future suffering until we acknowledge and override our genetic tendency to deny reality.

I’ve assumed to date that we are not acting appropriately, by which I mean optimally, rationally, ethically, and morally, because we deny the severity of our overshoot predicament.

What if I’m wrong?

Perhaps we see our predicament and don’t give a damn if it means we have to sacrifice something for someone else, even our own children.

Maybe the reality we’re denying is our own human nature.

Perhaps this explains why meaningful debate about the dangers of excess debt is now absent from political discourse.

Perhaps this explains why we never discuss saving some precious non-renewable resurces for future generations.

Perhaps this explains why we never discuss population reduction.

Perhaps this explains why 28 years after the first IPCC report, CO2 emmissions are 65% higher and still climbing.

Perhaps this explains why the only thing citizens from both sides of the political spectrum can agree on is to spend an outsized proportion of their collective wealth on weapons of war. 

Eat the rich, save the planet?

Eat the Rich

A cursory look at human history or the genetic behavior of monkeys confirms that it is unwise for societies to permit the wealth gap between the rich and the majority to become too wide. Especially when the standard of living of the majority is falling.

Brexit, Trump, and the yellow vests are examples of increasing social unrest. Anecdotally I’m also seeing a meme emerge on the internet that can be summarized as “eat the rich, save the planet”. This meme is supported by some intellectuals like Kevin Anderson who argue that climate change can be addressed by focusing on reducing CO2 emissions from the rich.

We’ve been warned that to maintain a climate compatible with civilization we have 10 years to cut our CO2 emissions in half and 30 years to reduce them to zero. As Tim Garrett has shown, CO2 emissions are proportional to wealth, so to reduce CO2 emissions we must reduce the total wealth of civilization.

Many other important planks of our ecosystem’s health are sick and getting sicker, primarily due to the high consumption needed to support our collective wealth.

We also know (here and here) that the net return from our energy sources is declining due to the depletion of low-cost non-renewable reserves which means our productivity and thus ability to grow wealth is declining and this decline will accelerate.

Governments have responded to declining economic growth by reducing interest rates and increasing debt. This has deferred the reduction in our standard of living necessary to balance the books, but has also increased the wealth gap because low-interest rates have created a bubble in the value of most assets, and the rich own a disproportionate share of assets.

An individual cares primarily about their own wealth, not the total wealth of civilization. We could in theory keep individuals comfortable and maintain a healthy(er) planet by reducing our population without reducing our per capita wealth. Unfortunately, reproduction is the primary goal of our genes and we therefore don’t even discuss the obviously optimal solution of population reduction. To be fair on its potential effectiveness, we should have reduced our population back in 1970 when we were warned by our experts. It’s never too late to do the right thing but given that even the Green party doesn’t have a population reduction platform it is probable that any population reduction will be involuntary rather than voluntary.

The uniquely powerful human brain exists because it evolved to deny unpleasant realities. Topics don’t become much more unpleasant than overshoot so we collectively have not acknowledged, and do not discuss, and do not act, on any of the issues associated with overshoot.

To summarize:

  • The total wealth of civilization must decrease to maintain a planet compatible with civilization.
  • The total wealth of civilization will decrease due to the depletion of non-renewable resources (especially energy).
  • We are doing everything possible to prevent the decline of total wealth but our actions have increased the wealth gap and social unrest.
  • We do not discuss or act on the only “good” solution, population reduction.
  • We aggressively deny our overshoot predicament.

Governments react to pressure from their citizens, they do not lead their citizens. I sense some bubbling optimism about the yellow vest movement from people who seek fundamental change. A key question then is are movements like the yellow vests good or bad for our future prospects?

Put more succinctly, will eating the rich save the planet?

The answer lies in how we close the wealth gap.

If we close the wealth gap by taxing the rich and redistributing their wealth to the less fortunate we will temporarily reduce social unrest but will worsen our overshoot predicament. This is because the poor will tend to spend the liquidated assets of the rich which will increase the total consumption of energy and other resources.

In addition, the spending of liquidated assets will increase inflation because there are far more paper assets than real assets in our economy, and this inflation will be a new source of social unrest.

While it is true that total wealth will decrease no matter what we do, there are two paths we can take. The first path is deflation which means people have less money but the money is still worth something. The second path is inflation which means people have money but it is worth less. I think inflation is more corrosive to the social fabric than deflation. Inflation caused a modern civilized country to blame and exterminate 6 million members of a minority tribe.

If on the other hand, we close the wealth gap by taxing the rich and paying down public debt, then we benefit everyone, rich and poor, by helping to stabilize the currency in a shrinking economy. This is important because all modern currencies are debt-backed fractional reserve systems that tend to become unstable without growth.

So to answer our question, will eating the rich save the planet, we need to know what the yellow vests marching in the streets want.

Do they want the rich to be pulled down to their level?

Or do they want to be pulled up closer to the rich?

I suspect they want the latter. If true, this means the yellow vests are acting to worsen our overshoot predicament.

What we need is green vests marching in the streets demanding that our governments acknowledge our overshoot predicament and manage the required and inevitable decline in a fair and humane manner.

This of course requires citizens to understand what’s going on.

And that requires us to find some way to break through our tendency to deny reality.

And that requires us to study and communicate Varki’s MORT theory.

 

 

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.