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/

By Nate Hagens: Reality 101: What every student (and citizen) should know

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens just released a new video course titled “Reality 101” that he produced for honors freshman at the University of Minnesota where he teaches.

The course is backed by 15 years of research by Nate into our overshoot predicament created by the interaction of human behavior, energy, economy, and ecology, and distills his 45 hour university course of the same name into 4 hours of video.

I’ve followed Nate for many years and have posted some of his work here.  Nate is a rare multidisciplinary dot connector, and has one of the best big picture understandings of our predicament.

Nate differs from others doing similar research in that he retains hope and offers positive advice to young people for how they might help make the future a more desirable place to live.

I suspect this new video course will become a go-to resource for people seeking enlightenment on vitally important topics that are usually ignored, and when occasionally broached, are almost always misunderstood or denied by most educators, leaders, and news sources.

Nate can be found on both Twitter and Facebook.

Nate’s Facebook announcement of the video course:

I’ll be putting the entire Reality 101 course content (two 500 page books co-written w DJ White plus related content and videos) online for free this spring. In the meantime, the Honors Program at U of Minnesota asked for a ‘hologram’ of that material that could be watched in 4-5 hours (instead of ~150 hours of the course) for the Nexus One experience for all freshmen. They’ll watch this in 3 pieces: 1) Brain/behavior 2) Energy/economy and 3) Ecology/Earth systems/what to do/how to live during these times. The Energy videos (link below) are ‘finished’ (with a bunch of small errors to fix when I get time), The 12 videos are 1 hour 45 minutes total – as usual both too long for most peoples attn spans but too short to really get into some important nuances. Our culture is energy blind. This new choreography outlines the story of humans, growth, energy and the future in the most comprehensive way I could envision for a short(ish) summary. (thanks to Katie Fischer and Keegan L Robinson for tireless help and suggestions and to Katie for doing great work on the tech side)

Reality 101 full course description:

How is the economy like a hurricane? Where does money come from? Will economic growth last forever? What is wealth? How many hours would it take you to generate the same amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline? Why are you so confident in your own beliefs? Why do you spend so much time on social media? Why do we want “more” than our neighbors? What do all of these questions have to do with the environment? With your future? And what if our most popular societal beliefs about these issues turn out to be myths?

Reality 101 will delve into these questions and unify them as they apply to the major challenges humanity faces this century, among them: slow economic growth, poverty, inequality, addiction, pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and war. The seminar will provide students with broad exposure to the foundational principles central to addressing these interrelated issues. The readings and lectures will cover literature in systems ecology, energy and natural resources, thermodynamics, history, anthropology, human behavior, neuroscience, environmental science, sociology, economics, globalization/trade, and finance/debt with an overarching goal to give students a general understanding of how our human ecosystem functions as a whole. Such a systems overview is necessary to view the opportunities and constraints relevant to our future from a realistic starting point. Though the hard science relating to sustainability will be surveyed, few answers will be presented and it is hoped that creativity and group dialogue will lead to emergent ideas on how these big themes fit together. While the class material is daunting and intense (reflecting our world situation), the course itself will be enlightening and deeply informative, with an open, engaging, and entertaining class atmosphere.

Dr. Nathan John Hagens worked on Wall Street at Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers and closed his own hedge fund in 2003 to pursue interdisciplinary knowledge about the bigger picture of modern society. Nate was the lead editor of the online web portal theoildrum.com, and is currently President of the Bottleneck Foundation and on the Boards of the Post Carbon Institute, Institute for Energy and Our Future, and IIER.

 

 Section 1 – Brain & Behavior

Click here to play all 10 parts in sequence.

Part 1: Evolution, Natural Selection, and the Agenda of the Gene

 

Part 2: Sexual Selection and Social Status

 

Part 3: Dopamine, Supernormal Stimuli and Consumerism, Part 1

 

Part 4: Dopamine, Supernormal Stimuli and Consumerism, Part 2

 

Part 5: Our Social Natures, Part 1 (Groups and Tribes)

 

Part 6: Our Social Natures, Part 2 (The Superorganism and Culture)

 

Part 7: Self-Blindness, Part 1 (Cognitive Biases)

 

Part 8: Self-Blindness, Part 2 (Cognitive Biases)

 

Part 9: Time Biases

 

Part 10: From Self Blindness to Self Awareness

 

Section 2 – Energy & Economy

Click here to play all 16 parts in sequence.

Part 1: Energy Blindness

 

Part 2: Energy Surplus

 

3 – Energy Benefits

 

Part 4: Energy Scale

 

Part 5: Energy Impacts

 

Part 6: Energy Primacy, Part 1

 

Part 7: Energy Primacy, Part 2

 

Part 8: Energy Primacy, Part 3

 

Part 9: Energy Primacy, Part 4

 

Part 10: Energy Primacy, Part 5

 

Part 11: Energy Remoteness

 

Part 12: Energy Depletion

 

Part 13: Energy Fungibility

 

Part 14: Energy Transitions

 

Part 15: Energy and Happiness

 

Part 16: Energy and Our Future

 

Section 3 – The Big Picture

Click here to play all 8 parts in sequence.

Part 1: Intro

 

Part 2: Ecology and Systems

 

Part 3: Externalities, Part 1: Intro

 

Part 4: Externalities, Part 2: Heating and Oceans

 

Part 5: Externalities, Part 3: The Web of Life

 

Part 6: The Superorganism (short version)

 

Part 7: 8 Great Questions for our Time

 

Part 8: What to Do? (short list)

By Michael Mills: How to Avoid Population Overshoot and Collapse

Dr. Michael Mills

Thanks to James at Megacancer for bringing my attention to this 2011 essay by Dr. Michael Mills, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles California. The interests of Dr. Mills include the evolutionary psychology of peak oil.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-how-and-why-sex-differences/201111/how-avoid-population-overshoot-and-collapse

In this essay Mills demonstrates an excellent understanding of human overshoot, and uses his expertise in evolutionary psychology to offer strategies for shifting human behavior in a more sustainable direction.

 

As shown in the graph below, this is an example of a general phenomenon.  All species suffer population collapse or species extinction if they overshoot and degrade the carrying capacity of their ecology.

Carrying Capacity & Overshoot

This is also the fate that awaits bacteria growing in a Petri dish, as you might remember from your high school biology course.  Imagine a Petri dish with enough nutrients to support a growing bacteria culture until the dish is completely full of them.  One bacterium is placed inside the dish at 11:00am, and the population of bacteria doubles every minute — such that the Petri dish will be full by noon.

At what time will the Petri dish be half full of bacteria?

Most people reply incorrectly that the Petri dish will be half full at 11:30am, because we are more familiar with linear, rather  than with exponential, rates of growth.  The correct answer is 11:59am — which seems rather unintuitive. However, because the rate of growth is exponential (doubling every minute)  the time at which the Petri dish is half full is 11:59am.   With just one more doubling, in the next minute, the Petri dish is completely full, at noon.

Anyone who perceives a linear rate of growth, but who is actually up against an exponential rate of growth, is likely to be very surprised at how the end comes very quickly and seemingly out of nowhere. They will be completely blindsided.

 

Generally it is healthy to be optimistic, but optimism can be deadly if it produces a Pollyannaish denial of real problems. We should not ignore ecological problems by assuming “someone else” will take care of it, or that “the free market” or “technological breakthroughs” will always come to the rescue in time. Solutions may not come in time, and we may get quite a rude Malthusian smack down later.

 

One example of resource depletion is the gradual depletion of fossil fuels, especially oil.  The amount of oil produced by a particular oil field, or a region, shows a regular pattern: first oil production increases, then it reaches a peak, and, finally, as the oil field begins to dry up, oil production starts to  decline.   World “peak oil” is when world oil production peaks, and then starts an inexorable decline as oil fields start to dry up.  Many experts believe that world oil production has already peaked, or that it will occur within the next few years. This presents us with a problem:  as of now, no combination of renewable energy sources can scale up quickly enough, or provide anywhere near the energy equivalent of oil.   We can anticipate that the world is about to enter a severe, worldwide energy shortage. Since food production is so dependent on energy production, following an energy famine will be a food famine.  Many poor people, especially in developing countries, will literally starve to death as oil energy depletes.

 

Optimists will be quick to rebut that shale oil has pushed oil production to record highs since Mills wrote this. I would remind those optimists that it took unprecedented zero percent interest rates, many trillions of unrepayable debt to force growth equal to only 25% of the debt, investors willing to pour money into unprofitable fracking companies, and a socially destabilizing increase in the wealth gap to achieve this increase in oil production.

 

The 1972 book Limits to Growth  also made some pretty frightening predictions back in 1972, as did the follow-up book in 2004  Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update.  Using computer simulations, they predicted a world peak population around mid-century, followed by population decline.

Given that these predictions are now approaching 40 years old, how accurate were they?  Are they still on track today?

The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features… [of the Limits to Growth] ‘standard run’ scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century.”  To prevent this scenario, the Limits to Growth authors suggested that we must achieve ecological sustainability by 2022 to avoid serious ecological overshoot and population collapse.

Limits to Growth Predictions

 

Mills then gets to the meat of his essay:

Can evolutionary psychology provide insights to aid in our survival?

Can humans be “smarter than yeast?” Can we be the only species that can successfully anticipate and avoid ecological overshoot and collapse?  Issues of sustainability are psychological problems.  Are we sufficiently psychologically sophisticated to manage our own collective behavior to achieve sustainability on a finite planet?

One sobering answer provided by evolutionary psychology is that we, like all other species,  have no evolved psychological adaptations designed specifically to perceive, anticipate and avoid ecological overshoot. In fact, we have just the opposite.

One problem is that inclusive fitness, the “designer” of psychological adaptations, is always relative to others; it is not absolute.  That is, nature doesn’t “say,” “Have two kids (or help 4 full sibs), and then you can stop. Good job! You did your genetic duty, you avoided contributing to ecological overshoot, and you may pass along now…” Instead, nature “says” (relative inclusive fitness): “Out-reproduce your competitors. Your competitors are all of the genes in your species’ gene pool that you do not share. If the average inclusive fitness score is four, then you go for five… “In other words, our psychological adaptations are designed to not just “keep up with the Joneses” but to “do better than the Joneses.” This is in whatever means that may have generally helped to increase inclusive fitness, such as status, conspicuous consumption, and resource acquisition and control.

If we are to have a fighting chance to be “smarter than yeast,” we have to out-smart our own psychological adaptations; we have to “fool Mother Nature.” Garrett Harden recognized that the problem of ecological overshoot is the tragedy of the commons writ large.  He suggested that the way to solve the tragedy of the commons was “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.”  That is, we must consent, collectively, to use our knowledge of our psychological adaptations to tweak them in the service of sustainability.

For example, we can use such knowledge to manipulate our own perceptions of status so that we actually compete to reduce our consumption of finite resources, such that we compete to “keep down with the Joneses.”

 

Mills thinks we can hack our behavior with psychological tricks if the majority of citizens understand our overshoot predicament and consent to being manipulated.

He then provides some examples of psychological techniques that have been, or could be, successful at changing human behaviors:

  • Foster competition (and status) for being more sustainable than your neighbors.
  • Manipulate women to prefer men with more sustainable lifestyles.
  • Use virtual reality to trick ourselves into treating all humans as if they belonged to our tribe.
  • Create psychological illusions that cause us to treat ecological issues as personal issues, and the entire planet as our tribal territory.
  • Use Public Service Announcements (PSAs) to change behaviors, like the successful campaign to promote seat belt use.

 

Mills concludes by saying we need a new sustainability movement that makes being a “consumerist” as toxic as being a “racist” or “sexist”.

A new social movement is needed – a sustainability movement.  This is particularly important for anyone who plans to live in the future. A grass-roots movement of the magnitude of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, is needed. Today no one wants to be called a racist or a sexist (but being called a “consumerist” does not yet sting). Those movements had clearly defined out-groups to vilify as the “enemy” — and that may have helped to mobilize and motivate activists.

But who is the enemy now?  There is no out-group. The enemy is us. We are fighting against ourselves — our base psychological adaptations to compete for relative status, mates and resources.  Evolutionary psychology can help by identifying which of our “psychological buttons” might be manipulated to promote sustainability.  But we must collectively agree to manipulate our psychological adaptations to attempt to “transcend” our self-ecocidal nature.  If we succeed, there may be a glimmer of hope of mitigating our own ecological overshoot, and the potential Malthusian nightmares of the future.

 

I like the creative ideas offered here by Mills and wish we would try them. Unfortunately it seems we must first find a way to break through our denial of overshoot reality before we can obtain the consent of citizens to be manipulated.

On the other hand, we allow ourselves to be manipulated every day without consent by the commercial advertisements and agenda driven media messages that crowd our daily lives. There’s a clear precedent here to proceed without consent.

Perhaps all we need is a wise government to get on with hacking our behavior to have fewer children and consume less.

But then we’d need a government that was not in denial, which means we’d have to elect genetic mutants, which I’ve proposed in the past.

Which brings us full circle to the core problem discussed many times on this blog:

Finding a way to pick our genetic reality denial lock is the key to any progress, and possibly the survival of our species. This is a hard lock to pick because denial of denial is the strongest form of denial.

I wish Mills would study Varki’s MORT theory and write another essay.

As an aside, check out the comments left by the readers of Mill’s essay. They offer a nice snapshot of the human belief system. Several intelligent people attempt to poke holes in Mill’s thesis, and Mills then calmly and rationally responds with the facts on why they are wrong. Not one reader changes their views. Not one reader stands up and says “great ideas, let’s try them”.

WASF

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. 

By Tim Watkins: Climbing Everest in High Heels (aka “It’s the overshoot, stupid”)

It's the economy, stupid

Tim Watkins today published a superb essay on our overshoot predicament. It’s enough to temporarily restore one’s faith in humanity to find someone who thinks and writes as clearly as Watkins.

http://consciousnessofsheep.co.uk/2018/12/11/climbing-everest-in-high-heels/

Britain has – apparently – been thrown into crisis overnight.  Meanwhile across the channel, French president Macron is desperately trying to extinguish the flames of another weekend of mass protests that have now spread to Belgium and Holland.  In Eastern Europe the hard-right are gaining support; even undermining the previously untouchable Angela Merkel’s power base in the former East Germany.  Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the lines between deranged Democrats and MAGA nationalists are being drawn in readiness for America’s second civil war.  We are surely living through the greatest crisis in modern history.

Well, yes indeed we are.  But everything set out in the first paragraph is no more than the froth on the beer.  These political spasms are merely the outward manifestation of a human catastrophe that has been decades in the making.

 

The use of the term “climate change” to describe these catastrophes is deceptive.  If we were looking at our predicament in totality, we would include these crises alongside climate change as a series of (often interacting) sub-sets of a much greater problem… let’s call it the “human impact crisis.”

Crucially, by focussing solely on a changing climate, we can exercise a form of psychological denial in which human civilisation is able to continue chasing infinite growth on a finite planet while yet-to-be-invented technologies are deployed to magically heal the damage that our over-consumptive lifestyles are having on the human habitat.

The focus on climate change also permits us to avoid any examination of those human activities that increasingly stand in the way of the bright green technological future we keep promising ourselves.  Shortages in a range of key resources, including several rare earths, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, gold and silver are very likely to materialise in the next decade if Western countries get anywhere close to their targets for switching to renewable electricity and electric cars (even though even these are just a fraction of what would be required to decarbonise the global economy).

Energy is an even bigger problem.  For the first time since the dark ages, humanity is switching from high-density energy sources (nuclear, coal, gas and oil) to ultra-low density energy sources (tide, wind, wave and solar).  We are – allegedly – choosing to do this.  However, because we have depleted fossil fuels on a low-hanging fruit basis, it is costing us more in both energy and money to maintain the energy needed to power the global economy.  As more of our energy has to be channelled into energy production (e.g. the hugely expensive Canadian bitumen sands and the US fracking industry) ever less energy is available to power the wider economy. This has forced us into a crisis I refer to as “Schrodinger’s renewables,” in which the technologies being deployed supposedly to wean us off fossil fuels end up merely being added in order to maintain sufficient economic growth to prevent the entire civilisation collapsing.

 

This, of course, brings us back to the increasingly heated debates in the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the streets of 100 French towns and cities.  Economic growth is the fantasy that almost everyone is buying into as a solution to our predicament.  Sure, some call it “green growth,” but it isn’t.  In reality it is, and always was central bank growth.  Why?  Because every unit of currency in circulation in the West was created with interest attached.  In such a system, we either grow the economy or we inflate the value currency back to something more in line with the real economy.  The former is impossible and the latter is devastating… which is why central bankers around the world have been quietly panicking for the best part of a decade.

 

The broader problem, however, is that the proposed solutions from the populists are no more likely to result in another round of economic growth simply because western civilisation is already well past the point of overshoot.  China – the place where most of the jobs went and where most of the stuff we consume is made – already consumes half of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel and aluminium.  It also consumes nearly two-thirds of the world’s concrete.  To grow at just 3.5 percent would require that China consume all of the world’s reserves of those resources by 2038 – at which point it would also be consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and uranium and half of the world’s grain harvest.  The impossibility of this is what people mean when they use the word “unsustainable” to describe our situation.

Nevertheless, even supposedly green parties cling to the promotion of economic growth as an electoral strategy.  Rather than admit the impossibility of further growth, however, they reach instead for some mythical “green growth” that will supposedly follow the industrial scale deployment of non-renewable renewable energy harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels that require fossil fuels in their manufacture , and for which the planet lacks sufficient material reserves.  Promising de-growth is, however, politically toxic in the current climate.

 

Politics matter, of course.  In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution.  That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.

For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain.  Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those.  For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced.  If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.

By Hugh Montgomery: Are Humans Like a Virus on Planet Earth?

Hugh Montgomery is a respected physician and scientist who discovered the first gene related to fitness. His side interests apparently include running 100 km ultra marathons, authoring children’s books, and climate change activism.

In this 40 minute talk he provides a superb big picture summary of the human overshoot predicament.

This was my first exposure to Montgomery and I’m really impressed. He’s intelligent, articulate, and refreshingly direct.

I’ve already posted this talk on my Facebook page which I use for interesting but less important content, however after watching this talk a second time, I decided it is so good, and so unique, that it deserves to be posted here as well.

One of his many insightful comments stood out for me:

Without climate change we are in terrible terrible trouble.

If you add in climate change our situation becomes absolutely desperate.

But wait, there’s more.

Montgomery does not mention the depletion of affordable oil, nor our (related) rapidly growing debt bomb.

So I’m wondering, what adjective comes after “absolutely desperate”?

Perhaps WASF.

In the Q&A session Montgomery confides that he thinks civilization is done and laments that we are not fighting to survive.

I observe that only 3000 people have watched this talk.

Where are the adults?