It’s rare to encounter a new and constructive idea for addressing human overshoot that is not fatally flawed by a lack of understanding of either thermodynamic and geophysical constraints, or the strong genetic behavior to deny unpleasant realities that enabled the human species to emerge and dominate the planet.
For anyone still looking for technically feasible solutions that have a non-zero probability of success for reducing harms from human overshoot I recommend the most recent Planet: Critical podcast in which Rachel Donald interviews Joseph Merz.
There are no easy solutions to the climate crisis—most governments admit their hope lies in technology which doesn’t even exist yet. Science and “visionaries” propose increasingly mad ideas, like refreezing the Arctic, or sending humans to live in Space. But given the urgency of the situation, would we be mad not to consider these mad ideas?
Joseph Merz thinks we’ve run out of time to ask questions. He founded the Merz Institute to combat the climate crisis, gathering some of the world’s best scientists to establish what is going wrong and how to fix it. He says the answer is behavioural change—and they’re developing a programme that would manipulate mass behaviour on a subconscious level.
How? Well, using the same techniques as the advertising industry.
Key points made include:
It is too late to avoid suffering caused by human overshoot.
There may still be time to make the future less bad.
All actions we might take to reduce future suffering require changes in human behavior to consume less and have fewer children.
Information and education to date have proven completely ineffective at changing human behavior in a positive direction, and we are out of time to try new methods of education.
The advertising industry has developed technologies that are very effective at manipulating people to desire and acquire things they do not need to be happy, and in many cases cannot afford.
Merz proposes to redeploy these proven marketing technologies to manipulate people to desire happiness associated with lower consumption and fewer children.
Neither Rachel Donald or Joseph Merz appear aware of Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory but I’m thinking that Merz’s proposal might sidestep the fatal flaw in most other overshoot harm reduction proposals that require humans to first acknowledge the reality of their predicament, which appears to be impossible because of MORT.
The beauty of Merz’s plan is that it does not require reality awareness because it will manipulate humans at a subconscious level.
It will be interesting to see if the marketing technologies are powerful enough to override the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) which is another powerful genetic behavior that pushes us in an overshoot direction. I’m thinking (without any evidence or data) that it might be possible to override the MPP because we are such a strong social species.
Godspeed to Merz and screw the ethics.
P.S. I doubt it is true, but I observe that if you assume the WEF Great Reset has good intentions grounded in overshoot awareness, it is possible they are thinking along the same lines as Merz with their “you will own nothing and be happy” campaign. The WEF campaign does seem rather clumsy compared to say associating happiness with a Corona beer on a high-carbon long distance vacation. I think it is more likely the WEF is trying to prepare citizens for a Minsky moment in which much asset ownership will transfer to the state.
P.P.S. It’s fascinating that so many overshoot aware people are active in the small country of New Zealand.
I think the reaction to COVID-19 is part of how a self-organizing system works. People were looking for a reason to cut back/shut down. The illness provided this.
I do not believe in most conspiracy theories, but I do believe that crises are frequently used to implement plans that would be impossible without a crisis. The responses to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, 9/11, and the 2008 GFC are good modern examples.
Perhaps the virus has provided (mostly subconscious) cover for:
citizens tired of commuting 2 hours a day to a stressful job so they could keep up with their neighbor’s latest unnecessary status symbol purchase
citizens who intuited they should reduce discretionary spending and pay down credit card debt, which interestingly declined in 2020, rather than increasing as it did during the 2008 GFC
leaders that sensed we should voluntarily throttle back, because we’d soon be forced by limits to growth
leaders that understood we needed to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions, and the only way to achieve this is by contracting the economy
leaders that needed an excuse to restrict freedoms to maintain civil order in preparation for a significant contraction of our energy/economic system
central banks that understood we had hit limits to growth and that needed an excuse for massive corporate bailouts to prevent a catastrophic economic collapse, and for MMT to keep citizens fed
Perhaps this helps to explain why our responses to the virus have not been intelligent or optimal:
effective means of containing the spread were ignored or procrastinated in the crucial early days
existing cheap and effective preventative measures are ignored and not promoted; new preventative measures are not researched
promising cheap and effective treatments are ignored and/or aggressively undermined
some lock-down measures lack logic or good judgement
the source of the virus is not being aggressively investigated to better understand appropriate responses, and to prevent a reoccurrence
To be clear, I am not suggesting a conspiracy to release a virus. I think the most probable explanation is that the virus was engineered in a lab with good intentions, and that it escaped by accident, as explained here:
I am suggesting that people at all levels of our society appear to be using the virus as an excuse to make changes that were impossible to make prior to the crisis. Some of these plans may have been well thought out and sitting on a shelf waiting for the right circumstances, like for example MMT, and other responses, like for example citizens paying down credit card debt, may be an instinctual response to anticipated scarcity.
Jay Hanson, who died in 2018, was one of the greatest thinkers about human overshoot. I wrote more about Hanson here:
Hanson concluded that civilization was doomed due to genetic human behaviors that were unlikely to change, and that it would probably end with a nuclear war, as discussed in this 2008 interview with Jason Bradford:
In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses. — Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762
(What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive description of a new society, but only presents some conceptual ideas for consideration.)
MY KEY DEFINITIONS
GLOBAL PROBLEMATIC (after The Club of Rome, 1972): Global tragedy of the commons because people are genetically programmed to more-than-reproduce themselves and make the best use of their environments.
COMMONS: “A commons is any resource treated as though it belongs to all. When anyone can claim a resource simply on the grounds that he wants or needs to use it, one has a commons.” 
NEEDS: Human “needs” have a scientific basis which is defined by human biology. 35,000 years ago, three million hunter-gatherers “needed” community, shelter, health care, clean water, clean air, and about 3,000 calories a day of nutritious food. Today, people still “need” the same things that hunter-gatherers “needed” then (except fewer calories).
eMergy: eMergy (with an “M”) is the solar energy used directly and indirectly to make a service or product. In other words, eMergy is the “cost” of a service or a product in units of solar energy. Why eMergy? In reality, the economy is nothing but a monstrous, energy-gulping Rube Goldberg machine to deliver “needs” to people. But each of those three million hunter-gatherers was the energy-using counterpart of a common dolphin, whereas each of today’s 280 million Americans matches the energy use of a sperm whale. Obviously, the “economy” is incredibly inefficient at delivering “needs” to people. No doubt my statement will stick in the economist’s craw, because after all, isn’t “efficiency” what economics is all about? The problem with “economic efficiency” is that “money” is not a measure of anything in the real world (like, say, BTUs). Money is power because money “empowers” people to buy and do the things they want — including buying and doing other people (politics). Thus, “economic efficiency” is properly seen as a “political” concept that was designed to preserve political power for those who have it. For over a century, theorists have sought ways of integrating economics and environmental accounting, often using energy as a common measure. But these efforts met with limited success because different kinds of available energy are not equivalent. The measure of “eMergy” allows us to compare commodities, services and environmental work of different types. “Transformity” – the eMergy per unit energy – allows us to compare different kinds of available of energy. So we need to totally junk the present economic system and replace it with a new one that minimizes eMergy costs (not money costs ) and delivers basic needs (not Cadillacs) to everyone in a sustainable way.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Sustainable development both improves quality of life and retains continuity with physical conditions; it requires that social systems be equitable and physical systems circular (industrial outputs become industrial inputs).
AUTHORITY: Goals (or ideals) are not produced by a consensus of the governed, rather a qualified authority determines goals. For example, physical goals for sustainable development must come from “scientific” authority — because no one else knows what they must be. All contemporary political systems are “authoritarian” with the moneyed class ruling the pseudo democracies.
COERCION (politics): To “coerce” is to compel one to act in a certain way — either by promise of reward or threat of punishment. Two obvious examples of coercion are our system of laws and paychecks.
THE ONE-AND-ONLY HUMANE SOLUTION: “Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”  A global system of coercion — laws, police, punishments and rewards. In principle, the global commons can only be managed at the global level by people who understand the physical systems involved: scientists. Global coercion can be seen in the worldwide reactions to ozone depletion and global warming. Remarkably, even economists find that authoritarian coercion can make them “better off”:
A group of economists had gathered at my house for dinner. While we were waiting for the food in the oven to finish cooking, I brought a large bowl of cashew nuts into the living room where people were having cocktails. In a few minutes, half the bowl of nuts was gone, and I could see that our appetites were in danger. Quickly, I seized the bowl of nuts and put it back in the kitchen (eating a few more nuts along the way, of course). When I returned, my fellow economists generally applauded my quick action, but then we followed our natural inclinations which was to try to analyze the situation to death. The burning question was: how could removing an option possibly have made us better off? After all, if we wanted to stop eating cashews, we could have done that at any time. 
Besides laws and paychecks, coercion can take many forms:
It is not necessary to construct a theory of intentional cultural control. In truth, the strength of the control process rests in its apparent absence. The desired systemic result is achieved ordinarily by a loose though effective institutional process. It utilizes the education of journalists and other media professionals, built-in penalties and rewards for doing what is expected, norms presented as objective rules, and the occasional but telling direct intrusion from above. The main lever is the internalization of values. 
Step one would be to establish a global government of some sort with the authority to protect the global commons — our life-support system — as well as protecting universal human rights. This government would also oversee the “clean” manufacturing of “repairable” and “reusable” energy-efficient appliances and transportation systems. It would also insure the sustainable production of staples like wheat, rice, oats, and fish.
Does this new global government sound repressive or restrictive? Not at all. A great deal of freedom is possible — in fact, far more than we have now.
eMERGY CERTIFICATES Step two would be to replace the organizing principle of “avarice” with the principle of “sloth”; break out of the money-market-advertising-consumption death trap. The Society of Sloth would not be based on money because that would be inherently unsustainable. Instead, it would be based on “eMergy Certificates”. 
Global government would determine the “needs” of the public, set industrial production accordingly, and calculate the amount of eMergy used to meet these needs. Government would then distribute purchasing power in the form of eMergy certificates, the amount issued to each person being equivalent to his pro rata share of the eMergy cost of the consumer goods and services.
eMergy certificates bear the identification of the person to whom issued and are non-negotiable. They resemble a bank check in that they bear no face denomination, this being entered at the time of spending. They are surrendered upon the purchase of goods or services at any center of distribution and are permanently canceled, becoming entries in a uniform accounting system. Being non-negotiable they cannot be lost, stolen, gambled, or given away because they are invalid in the hands of any person other than the one to whom issued.
Lost eMergy certificates would be easily replaced. Certificates can not be saved because they become void at the termination of the two-year period for which they are issued. They can only be spent.
Insecurity of old age is abolished and both saving and insurance become unnecessary and impossible. eMergy Certificates would put absolute limits on consumption and provide people with a guaranteed stream of “needs” for life.
With modern technology, probably less than 5% of the population could produce all the goods we really “need”. A certain number of “producers” could be drafted and trained by society to produce for two years. The rest can stay home and sleep, sing, dance, paint, read, write, pray, play, do minor repairs, work in the garden, and practice birth control.
SELF-DETERMINATION Any number of cultural, ethnic or religious communities could be established by popular vote. Religious communities could have public prayer in their schools, prohibit booze, allow no television to corrupt their kids, wear uniforms, whatever. Communities of writers or painters could be established in which bad taste would be against the law. Ethnic communities could be established to preserve language and customs. If someone didn’t like the rules in a particular community, they could move to another religious, cultural, or ethnic community of their choosing.
In short, the one big freedom that individuals would have to give up would be the freedom to destroy the commons (in its broadest sense) — the freedom to kill. And in return, they would be given a guaranteed income for life and the freedom to live almost any way they choose.”
I recently purchased a 6 piece queen sheet set for my bed and marveled at how something so useful, and so difficult to make myself, could be so inexpensive, costing only $30, or about 2 hours of my labor at minimum wage.
I did a little digging and found this video on how fabric was made before fossil energy:
And this video on how fabric is made today with fossil energy:
A podcast I monitor serendipitously had an episode today on the history of fabric making.
Author and journalist Virginia Postrel talks about her book The Fabric of Civilization and How Textiles Made the World with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Postrel tells the fascinating story behind the clothes we wear and everything that goes into producing them throughout history. The history of textiles, Postrel argues, is a good way of understanding the history of the world.
For those who prefer video:
For those who prefer audio:
Postrel described the process required to make fabric products:
grow plants or breed sheep
harvest plants or sheer sheep
transport fiber to spinner
spin fiber into thread
stretch and twist
transport thread to weaver
weave fiber into fabric
set up warp threads
pass weft thread through alternate warp threads
cut and hem edges
transport fabric to manufacturer
manufacture final product
transport product to consumer
Postrel also provided some interesting data:
A single pair of jeans requires 10 Km of thread.
The fastest pre-fossil energy manual spinners in the world could produce 100m of thread per hour taking 13 x 8 hour days to produce enough thread for one pair of jeans.
A modern fossil energy spinning plant can produce 10 Km of thread in a few seconds.
Postrel did not provide data on how long it took to manually weave thread into denim for a pair of jeans, but the video above gives a pretty good idea.
A pair of jeans today costs me $15 or about 1 hour of my labor at minimum wage.
A basic twin sheet requires 46 Km of thread or 59 x 8 hour days for a fast pre-fossil manual spinner.
Again, no data on the weaving time.
Linen was, until the industrial revolution, a valuable family asset.
I can’t write a post without drawing a connection to reality denial.
In this case, Russ Roberts, a relative rocket scientist as far as mainstream economists go, never once in the interview drew a connection with non-renewable rapidly depleting fossil energy.
There was a long discussion on the economics of applying “technology” to textile production. But zero awareness of the link between technology and non-renewable energy.
Roberts did draw a connection between food and textiles in that he observed only 2% of the population are now farmers. Again, no apparent awareness of the centrality of natural gas for fertilizer and diesel for tractors and combines.
I’ve added Russ Roberts to my list of famous polymaths in denial, although I probably should have added instead “all economists except Steve Keen”.
It’s my all time favorite lecture series and I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times. You can listen to it here.
Last month Wright launched the 15th anniversary edition of his book and was interviewed by CBC Radio which you can listen to here.
“I almost don’t want to say what I really think.”
Wright also wrote an essay last month updating our “progress” in the 15 years since his book was published.
Wright’s understanding of the gravity and historical precedents of our predicament is excellent. What to do about it, not so much, as he is an archeologist and not an engineer or physicist. Nevertheless, Wright is a brilliant writer with a superb command of history.
In the 2004 Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, I wrote about the fall of past civilizations and what we might learn from them to avoid a similar fate. Societies that failed were seduced and undone by what I called a progress trap: a chain of successes which, upon reaching a certain scale, leads to disaster. The dangers are seldom seen before it’s too late. The jaws of a trap open slowly and invitingly, then snap closed fast.
The first trap was hunting, the main way of life for about two million years in Palaeolithic times. As Stone Age people perfected the art of hunting, they began to kill the game more quickly than it could breed. They lived high for a while, then starved.
Most survivors of that progress trap became farmers — a largely unconscious revolution during which all the staple foods we eat today were developed from wild roots and seeds (yes, all: no new staples have been produced from scratch since prehistoric times). Farming brought dense human populations and centralized control, the defining ingredients of full-blown civilization for the last five thousand years. Yet there were still many traps along the way. In what is now Iraq, the Sumerian civilization (one of the world’s first) withered and died as the irrigation systems it invented turned the fields into salty desert. Some two thousand years later, in the Mediterranean basin, chronic soil erosion steadily undermined the Classical World: first the Greeks, then the Romans at the height of their power. And a few centuries after Rome’s fall, the Classic Maya, one of only two high civilizations to thrive in tropical rainforest (the other being the Khmer), eventually wore out nature’s welcome at the heart of Central America.
In the deep past these setbacks were local. The overall experiment of civilization kept going, often by moving from an exhausted ecology to one with untapped potential. Human numbers were still quite small. At the height of the Roman Empire there are thought to have been only 200 million people on Earth. Compare that with the height of the British Empire a century ago, when there were two billion. And with today, when there are nearly eight. Clearly, things have moved very quickly since the Industrial Revolution took hold around the world. In A Short History of Progress, I suggested that worldwide civilization was our greatest experiment; and I asked whether this might also prove to be the greatest progress trap. That was 15 years ago.
What has happened — and not happened — since then to alarm or reassure us?
First, our numbers have risen by 1.4 billion, nearly a hundred million per year. In other words, we’ve added another China or 40 more Canadas to the world. The growth rate has fallen slightly, but consumption of resources — from fossil fuel to water, from rare earths to good earth — has risen twice as steeply, roughly doubling our impact on nature. This outrunning of population by economic growth has lifted perhaps a billion of the poorest into the outskirts of the working class, mainly in China and India. Yet those in extreme poverty and hunger still number at least a billion.
Meanwhile, the wealthiest billion — to which most North Americans and Europeans and many Asians now belong — devour an ever-growing share of natural capital. The commanding heights of this group, the billionaires’ club, has more than 2,200 members with a combined known worth nearing $10 trillion; this super-elite not only consumes at a rate never seen before but also deploys its wealth to influence government policy, media content, and key elections. Such, in a few words, is the shape of the human pyramid today.
The 2008 crash triggered by banking fraud was staved off by money-printing and record debt. This primed a short-run recovery, which has in turn revived illusions we can borrow from nature and the future indefinitely — illusions fed by corporate think-tanks, irresponsible politicians, and Panglossian cherrypickers such as Steven Pinker. But what about the long run? In 1923 the great economist John Maynard Keynes famously answered, “In the long run we are all dead.” By that he meant, let’s deal with the problems we see now and leave the unforeseeable to those who come later. Fair enough in the 1920s, when there was only one person on Earth for every four today and the future seemed to have room for endless outcomes, good or bad. Nearly a century later, Keynes’s quip sounds more like dire prophecy, as short-term thinking lures us ever deeper into very difficult problems that science can not only observe but foresee. Predicted consequences of global warming — blighted coral reefs, melting glaciers, spreading deserts, and extreme weather — are already upon us.
One of the sad ironies of our time is that we have become very good at studying nature just as it begins to sicken and die under our weight. “Weight” is no mere metaphor: of all land mammals and birds alive today, humans and their livestock make up 96 per cent of the biomass; wildlife has dwindled to four per cent. This has no precedent. Not so far back in history the proportions were the other way round. As recently as 1970, humans were only half and wildlife more than twice their present numbers. These closely linked figures are milestones along our rush towards a trashed and looted planet, stripped of diversity, wildness, and resilience; strewn with waste. Such is the measure of our success.
The archaeologists who dig us up will need to wear hazmat suits. Humankind will leave a telltale layer in the fossil record composed of everything we produce, from mounds of chicken bones, wet-wipes, tires, mattresses and other household waste, to metals, concrete, plastics, industrial chemicals, and the nuclear residue of power plants and weaponry. We are cheating our children, handing them tawdry luxuries and addictive gadgets while we take away what’s left of the wealth, wonder, and possibility of the pristine Earth.
Calculations of humanity’s footprint suggest we have been in “ecological deficit,” taking more than Earth’s biological systems can withstand, for at least 30 years. Topsoil is being lost far faster than nature can replenish it; 30 per cent of arable land has been exhausted since the mid-20th century.
We have financed this monstrous debt by colonizing both past and future, drawing energy, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides from the planet’s fossil carbon, and throwing the consequences onto coming generations of our species and all others. Some of those species have already been bankrupted: they are extinct.
Others will follow. Whether we are triggering an extinction as severe as that which killed the dinosaurs, when three-quarters of all species were wiped out, is still to be seen. By the time the answer is clear, there could be nobody left to know it. The lesson of fallen societies is that civilization is a vulnerable organism, especially when it seems almighty. We are the world’s top predator, and predators crash suddenly when they outgrow their prey. If the resulting chaos unleashes nuclear war, it could bring mass extinction in a heartbeat, with Homo sapiens among the noted dead.
Awareness of our predicament is spreading, if slowly and with mixed results. The warnings of science are growing more urgent and precise, gaining wider attention and sparking grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the schoolchildren’s strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. People are beginning to see the world dying before their eyes. The dwindling of birdlife in their gardens and bugs on their windshields backs up the scientists’ alarm that falling insect numbers threaten a “catastrophic collapse” of natural systems.
Effective reform will take political will at world level. Yet the very idea of international cooperation is under attack — just when it is needed most. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in its October 2018 report, keeping global warming below 1.5 C “is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics” but will require “unprecedented changes” before 2030.
Conservation and environmentalism have had some success, a few species have been pulled back from the brink, a few Green politicians have been elected, a few promising fixes (renewable energy, electric cars, etc.) are being developed. Yet at this writing, the momentum of extraction, consumption, and destruction is still gathering speed, driven by the delusion of endless growth, and the willingness of corporations to set financial profit above life itself. Even if fossil energy were replaced at once by clean sources, our other problems — overpopulation, overconsumption, erosion, deforestation, and accumulating waste — would still persist.
The failure of democratic governments to stand up for the greater good over the long run is fuelling disillusionment with democracy itself. There is something badly wrong with an economic regime in which 26 individuals own as much as half the world’s population. Such extreme disparity has never been seen before. Inequality is the main driver behind rising population and consumption. The highest birthrates are in the poorest places, mainly Africa and the Indian subcontinent. At the other end of the seesaw, obscene wealth — the kind which owns mansions around the world and gigantic yachts with helicopter pads — has a colossal footprint, while its undue influence amounts to a dark tyranny.
Back in Classical Greece, Plato suggested that in a just society there should be no more than a 5:1 spread in income between richest and poorest. That was a hard sell then, and still would be. But what might be reasonable today? Where should the balance be struck to help the weakest while still rewarding effort and achievement? Given the seriousness of what we face, this is a conversation we must have. The wealth already wrenched from nature might just be enough to buy us a lasting future if it were shared, managed, and ploughed into solutions.
Of one thing we can be sure: if we fail to act, nature will do so with the rough justice she has always served on those who are too many and who take too much.
I’m a long-time admirer of the intellect and work of Gail Zawacki, the self-described Diva of Doom. You can find some of my favorites by Gail that I’ve posted here, and all of Gail’s work at her blog Wit’s End.
Here in a new 60 minute interview with Sam Mitchell, Gail provides an articulate description of the what and why of our overshoot predicament, and concludes with some wise advice on what to do about it:
Step aside all you established peak oil and climate change pontificators. There’s a new badass in town and he’s an engineer who specializes in energy and climate which means you don’t stand a chance. 🙂
It’s very rare to find someone who can articulately explain in one hour, without hyperbole or bullshit, everything important going on in the world, including the underlying causes, what the future holds, and what we should do in response. Jean-Marc Jancovici is one of those rare gems.
Jancovici’s native language is French so English works by him are scarce. I’ve already posted the only other recent English talk that I’m aware of here.
Today’s interview with Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock is a treat. After investing an hour here you will understand much more about the issues that matter than 99% of the people in the world.
Alex Smith wrote a very nice summary of his interview here:
Following are a few quotes from the interview that I thought were noteworthy. Notice how close Jancovici comes to discussing denial of reality on several occasions.
Tell me how much energy you use and I will tell you how you live.
Governments are not guided by [wise] advisors. They respond to external pressure.
The present standard of living cannot be sustained without the help of fossil fuels for physical reasons.
Two centuries ago the world was fully renewable and consisted of 1 billion peasants with a life expectancy of 30 years. [We therefore] know of at least one option available to us.
Every time you hear the words “energy consumption”, replace them with “fleet of machines” .
A future with no growth is considered unthinkable by so many people, including Nobel prize-winning economists, that nobody thinks about what to do if it happens for real.
Q: What do you think is the greatest soonest threat: peak oil or climate change?
A: I place my bets on the likelihood that nobody will understand what is happening with either of these threats.
No government understands that energy equals machines, and if machines work less, GDP goes down.
No political leader understands that climate change is already putting refugees on the road.
Think of peak oil and climate change as opposing scissor blades squeezing your finger. Asking which is worse does not make any sense.
You must wait over 10,000 years for surplus CO2 to evacuate from the atmosphere. There is no such thing as a reset button for climate change. The only thing we are sure of is the day that consequences become unbearable, it will become worse later on.
A huge misunderstanding is that energy is a sector of the economy rather than the blood of the economy.
Sexual selection is not a form of natural selection as most biologists currently believe.
Sexual selection and natural selection are distinct evolutionary forces, as originally envisioned by Charles Darwin.
It’s possible for sexual selection to work in the opposite direction of natural selection which can lead to the extinction of a species. Some interesting examples are given for birds.
I’m thinking about how human females tend to be indifferent to male IQ, but strongly prefer high status males that contribute the most to overshoot and CO2 via mansions, yachts, long distance vacations, and Veblan goods.
Human male preferences tend to be benign as it’s unlikely extinction will be caused by big boobs, which Prum points out, are not an honest signal of fertility.
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks to Bart Ehrman about his experience of being a born-again Christian, his academic training in New Testament scholarship, his loss of faith, the most convincing argument in defense of Christianity, the status of miracles, the composition of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, the nature of heaven and hell, the book of Revelation, the End Times, self-contradictions in the Bible, the concept of a messiah, whether Jesus actually existed, Christianity as a cult of human sacrifice, the conversion of Constantine, and other topics.
Bart D. Ehrman is the author or editor of more than thirty books, including the New York Times bestsellers Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity. He has been featured in Time, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, and has appeared on NBC, CNN, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The History Channel, National Geographic, BBC, major NPR shows, and other top print and broadcast media outlets. His most recent book is The Triumph of Christianity.
Alpert’s devoted much of his life to diagnosing and prescribing remedies for the human overshoot predicament.
This interview by James Howard Kunstler provides a nice summary of Alpert’s work and includes a “solution” that would minimize suffering as fossil energy depletes and that would create a sustainable civilization of about 50 million people with comfortable lives that could continue to make progress in science, technology, and the arts.
The catch is that 3 billion people have to understand the nature of our predicament and vote to drastically constrain personal freedoms, especially the right to breed. We of course would be lucky to find 3 hundred such people, let alone 3 billion.
As a consequence, Alpert concludes that the best case scenario we can hope for over the next 75 years is a painful involuntary reduction of population, mostly due to starvation, from 7.6 billion to about 600 million subsistence farmers, with little preservation of science, technology, and the arts.
That’s a pretty big price to pay for personal “freedom”, and a tragedy given how rare intelligent life probably is in the universe.
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.
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:
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.