On Jordan Peterson


I recently started paying attention to Jordan Peterson.

This Canadian professor of psychology has built a huge international following, and his YouTube videos have millions of views.

Peterson is filling a hole in our culture about the importance of individuals taking personal responsibility for living an ethical life, and how this is the only path to a fulfilling life, and a healthy society, despite the reality that life is filled with malevolence and suffering.

Although Peterson is highly intelligent and well read, he appears unaware of overshoot and its many imminent threats.

Peterson also appears unaware of Varki’s MORT theory, which I suspect he would find interesting because Peterson is a dot connector and seeker of deep truth.

Nevertheless, Peterson offers fresh, inspiring, and wise advice useful for people, and especially young people, trying to navigate the coming storms.

I am reading Peterson’s new book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos“, and may have more to say when done.

I so wish wise intellectual leaders like Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Nick Lane, and Noam Chomsky were overshoot aware. Their intellect and influence could then be applied to the issues that matter.

The fact that most of the smartest people in the world are not overshoot aware, despite obvious elephants in the room, provides strong support in favor of Varki’s MORT theory.

This recent interview with Peterson is an excellent introduction to his work.


By Nate Hagens: Energy, Money and Technology: From the Lens of the Superorganism

Nate Hagens gives the best big picture talks, hands down.

What differentiates Nate is his wide and deep understanding of the economy, energy, ecology, and human behavior that he weaves into a coherent realty based description of our predicament.

Nate also does an admirable job of illuminating positive aspects of, and constructive personal responses to, the coming much smaller and less complex world we will all experience in the not too distant future.

Here is his latest talk, a keynote give January 23, 2018, at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

This talk is a refinement of similar talks by Nate I have previously posted. In addition to being more succinct and polished, this version benefits from high quality professional recording.

I’m looking forward to reading Nate’s new book which he said here will be published and made available for free in the next month or two.

Here are some comments Nate posted on his Facebook page.

Back from Saudi Arabia -was a short and great trip – the new King Abdullah University for Science and Technology is one of the richest schools in the world (something approaching $40 billion in endowment and as of yet only 1,000 students). My first trip to Middle East reasserted my belief that people the world over are pretty much the same (duh – we come from same place) – there are crazies and assholes in every country but most people are kind, warm, and pro-social. I had great conversations with taxi drivers, students, janitors, store clerks etc. I met a guy from Tunisia at airport and we laughed about all the world problems and what a time it was to be alive. Most humans just want to spend quality time w family and friends, tell stories and listen to music, play with their dog, do meaningful interesting work, and be free. It gives me hope that despite being African, Asian, European or American, despite being Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or Atheist, there is a growing group that transcends these tribal boundaries towards thinking about and working on the future transition. (another of a handful of silver linings facing some serious global storm clouds)

Below is the video of the keynote I gave – I finally condensed the relevant aspects of what we face into less than an hour, but had to speak pretty fast to do it. If you haven’t watched one of my talks for a while this would be the best one to watch (plus their technology was amazing, 5 cameras, etc.) (the 2nd talk The 40 Flawed Assumptions Underpinning Modern Civilization, was in a different venue and not filmed)



An interview with Nate was also recorded at the conference. I really like the thoughtful questions and responses, as well as it’s unhurried pace.

On Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons, Lacks Dialogue

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

“The maximum is not the optimum.”

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

“Birth control does not equal population control.”

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

– Garrett Hardin

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

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

Tragedy of the Commons, Pasture and Climate

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

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

Tragedy of the Commons, Drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I summarize Hardin’s position as follows:

  • Failure to control population growth will result in ruin.
  • Population control via appeal to reason or conscience, or threat of shame, will not work, and will in fact make the situation worse. Population can only be effectively controlled by coercion, that is, laws with penalties for overbreeding.
  • The key to passing population control laws is to educate citizens on the reality that if they do not relinquish the freedom to breed they will lose all of their freedoms, including eventually the freedom to breed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the most important and missing third group?

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

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

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

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

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

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Story (A Reality Based Religion led by Michael Dowd)


Michael Dowd recently introduced himself in a comment on one of my blog posts. Reviewing his large body of work has been a pleasant surprise because I thought I was aware of most of the thinkers and activists in the overshoot space, and Dowd has some excellent fresh ideas.

We seem to share a few things in common. We were born within 7 days of each other. We have been deeply influenced by many of the same great minds. We have come to similar conclusions about the severity of human overshoot. And we both would like to find some path to making the future less bad.

I’ve long thought there might only be two possible paths to pulling humanity back from the precipice. All of our destructive behaviors were created in the crucible of evolution when daily survival was paramount and overshoot was a distant future problem. Any “solution” must acknowledge the genetic underpinning of our behaviors and find a way to shift those behaviors in a positive direction.

One possible path is to acknowledge the genetic disposition for spirituality in humans, and the power religions have had throughout history to influence behavior, and to create a new religion with an overshoot harm reduction agenda. This is the path it seems Dowd has chosen.

Dowd leads a new religion grounded in science and reality that worships the universe and life, and that acknowledges the special responsibility our species has because of its rare and possibly unique ability to understand how the universe and life were created, and how our behaviors are placing us and other species in peril.

Here are the ten commandments:


This is the third of a three-part series of videos Dowd recommended as an overview of his movement. I think this sermon is excellent and worth your time.

Dowd thinks that religions are stories created by humans to explain the reality they currently live in. Our reality today is much different from the reality 2000 years ago. Today we understand the science of lightning and floods and famine and plagues and life and death. Dowd says we need to update our religious stories to reflect our current understanding of the world. He makes a persuasive case that this new story is much more majestic and inspiring than any of the old stories. An example Dowd gives is that everything in the universe, including amazing brains capable of understanding this paragraph, emerged from a cloud of hydrogen that obeyed a few well understood physical laws.

Dowd thinks the genetic underpinning of religion is the brain’s propensity to give human characteristics to non-human things in our world. I do not disagree with Dowd that the brain has this behavior but I would explain it differently. The human brain is a computing machine that creates models to explain and predict reality. We create new models using fragments of models we already have to explain what we see and to influence what we hope will happen. Some of these models (or stories) have evolved over time into thousands of religions and gods.

So far so good. Where we may disagree is that I think Varki’s MORT theory points to a deeper and more important genetic foundation of religion, denial of mortality. There is much evidence to this claim which I explored here and here. An important point being that if religions were mainly about explanatory stories and not about denial of mortality we would expect to see a few random religions with life after death stories, but not as we observe, a life after death story central to every single one of the thousands of religions, including new religions like Scientology. As a famous comedian/actor whose name we may no longer speak once said, “I don’t want to live on in the minds of my fans, I want to live on in my apartment”.

The reproductive fitness of an intelligent social species is often improved by a more powerful brain. Therefore there is evolutionary pressure in some species to become smarter. As a brain evolves increased computing power it reaches a point at which it can understand its own mortality. The MORT theory rests on the assumption, which I believe to be true, that the human brain is the only brain on our planet that has evolved this level of power. MORT explains that sufficient brain power to understand mortality, on its own, lowers reproductive fitness through reduced risk taking and depression because all complex species have evolved behaviors to avoid injury and death. Thus there is a barrier to increased brain power that can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of mortality. Crossing this barrier requires an improbable evolutionary event, analogous to the energy per gene barrier that blocked complex life for 2 billion years until a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) created the eukaryotic cell.

Humans are the only species, so far, on our planet to have crossed the barrier. Several other intelligent social species like elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and crows may be blocked at the barrier. It seems likely we outcompeted or killed all of our many hominid cousins that were blocked at the barrier for over a million years.

Evolution appears to have implemented denial of mortality in humans by tweaking the fear suppression module in our brain, which resulted in behavior that manifests as broad denial of all unpleasant realities, including mortality.

This then leads to the second promising path for trying to make the future less bad.  I believe it is our inherited denial of reality that is the most important obstacle to shifting human behavior in a positive direction.

There are several encouraging examples that suggest broad awareness of a harmful inherited behavior can shift society’s average behavior in a positive direction. I plan to explore these examples in a later essay.

So my chosen path is to try to increase awareness of our strong genetic tendency to deny the behaviors that cause overshoot, and to deny the imminent dangers of overshoot.

I nevertheless applaud Dowd’s chosen path and wish him well. It will be interesting to see if a religion can succeed that conflicts with the underlying goals of our genes, namely to maximize replication by competing for finite resources.

It must have been so much easier 2000 years ago when the message of religions was to go forth, multiply, and exploit the earth’s bounty that God created for the exclusive benefit of his chosen people.

I know from experience that a message of no more than one child, austerity, and conservation is a tough sell.

I recommend you spend some time at Dowd’s site The Great Story. It has a deep library of wisdom from many great minds relevant to our predicament.

Dowd has invested a large amount of time creating audio versions of important books and documents. I’m currently re-reading his audiobook version of William R. Catton, Jr.’s seminal 1980 book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.

By Nate Hagens & DJ White: GDP, Jobs, and Fossil Largesse

Certified 100% Denial-Free™.

Thanks to Ugo Bardi for posting this excellent essay by Nate Hagens and DJ White.


Here is some information on EarthTrust’s Bottleneck Foundation that White and Hagens lead.


Nate Hagens continues to produce the best and most accurate big picture explanations of our predicament. You will find many other excellent videos and essays by Nate here.



First, some review of relevant points:


1. Fossil carbon compounds are incredibly energy dense, as their formation and processing was done by geologic forces over deep time. One barrel of oil contains about 1700 kWh of work potential.Compared to an average human work day where 0.6kWh is generated, one barrel of oil, currently costing under than $50 to global citizens, contains about 10.5 years of human labor equivalence (4.5 years after conversion losses).

2. As such, these ‘fossil slaves’ are thousands of times cheaper than human labor. Applying large amounts of these ‘workers’ to tasks humans used to do manually or with animals has generated a gargantuan invisible labor force subsidizing humanity – building the scale and complexity of our industry, complexity, population, wages, profits, etc.

3. GDP – what nations aspire to – is a measure of finished goods and services generated in an economy. It is strongly correlated with energy use, and given that almost 90% of our primary energy use is fossil fuels, with their combustion. ‘Burning stuff’ (measuring how much primary energy is consumed) is a reasonable first approximation for GDP globally.

4. Regionally and nationally this relationship can decouple if the ‘heavy lifting’ of industrialization is done elsewhere, and the goods (and embodied energy) imported. (e.g. China). The relationship between global energy use (which is ~87% fossil fuel based) and GDP remains tightly linked.


5. The common political mantra that higher GDP creates social benefits by lifting all boats has become suspect since the 2008 recession and ‘recovery.’ For the first time in the history of the USA, we now have more bartenders and waitresses than manufacturing jobs. In order to maximize dollar profits, it often makes more sense for corporations to mechanize and hire ‘fossil slaves’ than to hire ‘real workers.’ Real income peaked in the USA around 1970 for the bottom 50% of wage earners.

6. GDP only measures the ‘goods’ and doesn’t measure the ‘bads’ (externalities, social malaise, extinctions, pollution). Actually, natural disasters like oil spills and hurricanes are ostensibly great for GDP** because we have to build and burn more stuff to replace the damaged areas. (**Note, only to a point – once a country – e.g. Haiti or the Philippines – cannot afford to replace what was lost, then natural disasters become a sharp negative to GDP as infrastructure underpinning future GDP is lost and can’t be rebuilt)

7. On an ‘empty planet,’ pursuing GDP in order to gainfully employ people (and distribute money so they could buy needs and wants) seemed to make sense. However, on an ecologically full planet pursuing GDP with no other long-term plan is using up precious natural capital stocks just to maintain momentum and provide people brain-pleasing neurotransmitters.

8. There are numerous alternative measures to GDP that incorporate well-being and happiness and subtract environmental ills. But it won’t be easy to switch objectives from GDP to e.g. G.P.I. (Genuine Progress or Happiness) because the present creditors will expect to be paid back in real GDP ($) rather than happiness certificates. Still, over time, strict metrics of success based on consumption alone are likely to change.

9. There will likely be a growing disparity between ‘jobs’ (occupations that provide income and contribute to the global human heat engine) and ‘work’ (those tasks that need to be accomplished by individuals and society to procure and maintain basic needs). However, at 2015 USA wage rates, moving from $20 per barrel (the long-run average cost for oil), to $150 per barrel, the army of energy slaves declines from 22,000 per barrel to under 3,000 – meaning the economy shrinks and therefore much more work needs to be accomplished via efficiency improvements, real humans, or making do with less.

10. Our institutions and financial systems are based on expectations of continued GDP growth perpetually into the future. No serious government or institution entity forecasts the end of growth this century (at least not publicly).


Okay. Let’s unpack all of this a bit.

Often in the news today, you’ll hear people talking about job growth and job creation like it’s a good thing. Everybody wants a good job, right? The more jobs we have to do, the better off we are!

Yet if you kick open an anthill or a beehive, the insects will not be grateful for the sudden boost in job creation, and they will effectively utilize the cross-species language of biting and stinging to inform you of this opinion. From this we may infer that insects don’t understand economics.

Alternately, it could it be that ants – having honed their behaviors for 130 million years and having attained a total biomass we have only recently (and temporarily) matched – might be in tune with some deep realities about jobs, energy, and the embodied cost of building complexity.

Since this is Reality 101, let’s ask some basic questions. What ARE jobs, really? How do they relate to energy and wealth? How do we keep track of whether we’re richer or poorer? We all kinda feel like we know. And (as a general rule) whenever “we kinda feel that we know” is the case, we should probably take a closer look.

To do so, we’ll first need to add a few things to our story about ants. We need to revisit our invisible energy slaves, discover what “freaks out” capuchin monkeys, and think about what wealth actually is.

Energy Slaves again

As you recall – and as we’ll discuss in greater detail as the course goes on – every American has over 500 invisible energy slaves working 24/7 for them. That is, the labor equivalent of 500 human workers, 24/7, every day of the year, mostly derived from burning fossil carbon and hydrocarbons.

Every American thus has a veritable army of invisible servants, which is why even those below the official poverty line live, for the most part, lives far more comfortable and lavish with respect to energy and stuff than kings and queens of old (but obviously not as high in social status). Being long dead and pulled from the ground – and thus a bit zombie-esque – these energy slaves don’t complain, don’t sleep, and don’t need to be fed. However, as we are increasingly learning, they do inhale, exhale, and leave behind waste. Since they’re invisible, we don’t think about these fossil helpers any more than we think about nitrogen (which happens to be 78% of what we breathe in, but hey, it’s just “there”, so why think about it?) Same with our 500 energy helpers. The extent we think about them is when we fill up at the pump or pay our electric bill – and then only as an outlay of our limited dollars.

We use the “slave” metaphor because it’s really a very good one, despite its pejorative label. Energy slaves do exactly the sort of things that human slaves and domestic animals previously did: things that fulfilled their masters’ needs and whims. And they do them faster. And cheaper. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a big coincidence that the world (and the USA) got around to freeing most of its human slaves only once industrialization started offering cheaper fossil-slave replacements.

The things we value are created with a combination of human and energy-slave work combined with natural capital (minerals and ores, soils and forests, etc.). There are huge amounts of embedded energy in the creation and operation of something like an iPad and the infrastructure which makes it work. When we tap our screen to view a kittycat picture, the image is pulled from a furiously spinning hard drive which may be halfway around the planet, propelled by some fossil slaves, and routed through data centers which are likewise fueled. The internet uses over a tenth of the world’s electricity – that’s a lot of energy slaves. The infrastructure itself has taken decades to build, and requires constantly increasing energy to maintain. But we don’t think much about that either.

So the internet is infrastructure we have invested energy in, just like a built anthill has been invested in with ant labor. If the internet (or an anthill) was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt, that situation would certainly create jobs. But it would also require a lot of energy, raw materials and work. Ants don’t have energy slaves, so they don’t want more work to do. They are dealing with finite energy inputs in their ecosystem. If more energy (ant-labor) is devoted to rebuilding the anthill, less energy is then left to care for the larvae, forage for food, and defend the hive.

Energy slaves don’t care either way about job creation. (Being zombies and all). But why do we?

Everybody wants a good job.

Remember this, because it’ll come up again and again in Reality101: evolution works with what it’s got. It’s a stepwise process, and each step is based on what was available in the step before. This is true both for biological and social evolution. That’s why there are no animals on the Serengeti with wheels: there’s no viable path to evolve wheels from feet, because even if there was a way of designing animals that had wheels, there are no viable intermediate stages. Hold that thought…

Now in times past, a human’s career, their societal function, was largely about their own individual labor and skills. A blacksmith worked with metal. A cooper made barrels. A shoemaker made shoes.

Others made furniture, cloth, or other valuable commodities. Farmers created food. Preachers preached. Others did simpler labor like digging ditches or cutting down trees. The relative value of their labor was roughly set by how much other humans valued the end product of such labor, so a skilled blacksmith might be able to trade his services for more status and better accommodations than a ditch digger. Thus, it became an integral part of human culture that the products of some work were considered more valuable than others. It became a mark of social status and pride to have such a career. Hold that thought too, we’ll be coming right back to it.

Cue the Screaming Monkeys.

“Equal Pay for Equal Work” is currently the slogan for those opposed to sexual discrimination, which is usually characterized by women getting paid less than men. And it’s a sentiment which has deep roots in the ape and even simian mind.

If you give capuchin monkeys the “job” of doing a nonsense task in exchange for a reward, they will happily do it all day long as long as they keep getting a reward – cucumber slices. But if a capuchin sees the monkey in the next cage get a (better tasting so higher value) grape while it still gets a cucumber slice, it’ll go ape, throwing the cucumber slice in the face of the experimenter in a rage. It gets the same cucumber slice it has been happy to work for before, but it no longer wants it, because it no longer feels fair in comparison to its cage mate’s effort and reward. Instead, it wants the experimenter and the other monkey to be punished for this inequity (we watched this video of Frans de Waals experiment in class).

Think for a moment how central this monkey reaction is to the human world around you. We’ll come back to it later in the course, and will refer to the term “capuchin fairness” because a similar mechanism turns out to be behind a great deal of human behavior. We’re outraged at the notion of somebody getting more reward than we do for doing the same thing. Indeed, many large-scale human institutions now stress perceived fairness of process over quality of end results. (A prominent example might be the US Congress). Moreover, this monkey-business also reiterates the concept of relative wealth being more important to a monkey mind (and a human mind, it turns out) than absolute wealth, which is kind of nuts, but that’s monkeys for you.

It turns out that our brains are simultaneously trying to optimize two different, and somewhat incompatible pursuits, both of which have deep evolutionary roots in our social species. One is energy gathering and wealth creation: obtaining food, procuring clothing and shelter – basically optimal foraging theory applied to the human biological organism. The other is equitable social distribution and transparency of process. A tribe of hunter-gatherers needed to cooperate as a mini super-organism to get food and defend territory and stand together against competitors. But within the tribe, an individual’s success depended on it getting a reasonable share of what the tribe had. We’re descended from tribe-members who insisted on at least their fair share, as is every living capuchin, so it’s not surprising it’s such a strong feeling. But when both of these instincts are operating simultaneously, in an era where our species happened upon a buried treasure of fossil pixie dust, some interesting practices emerged…

Ok. Ants. Monkeys. Energy Slaves. So where did “jobs” come from?

A funny thing happened on the way to the Anthropocene. To an ever-increasing degree over the last two centuries, wealth has been created more by fossil slaves than by human labor, significantly more – and it’s at its all-time peak about now. (you’ll have the information to derive this yourself by the end of this course).

If you don’t believe that, try hiring a bunch of people to push you and your SUV around hundreds of miles per week with their own muscles and see what it costs you, and then see how little it costs you to buy the same work in a tank of gasoline. In fact, the vast majority of the tasks and stuff that used to be done by human labor is now done by fossil slaves and the infrastructure they have enabled. The slaves have also made shipping nearly free, so any actual human labor we need can also be hired in the cheapest places on earth (under essentially slave labor conditions), and shipped to us by planes, trains, ships and trucks for next to nothing. So rather than buying furniture from local artisans, we make local firms compete with furniture made halfway across the world which is cheaply shipped to a local store. To a good first approximation, the USA doesn’t make anything anymore (well, movies…).

We have amassed a huge amount of wealth, even if much of it is dumb stuff like plastic toys and salad shooters and things that quickly break. There are so many things we think we want, so we get them. We eat salads with fresh veggies which may be grown 5000 miles away and air-flown to our stores by energy slaves running the planes, refrigerators, trucks, and stores. The average dinner travels over 1400 miles to get to your plate in USA.

We increasingly buy disposable everything – used once and tossed away. Most everything is short-life these days; when your authors were young if you bought a fan, you expected it to last 20+ years. Now if it lasts 2-3 before you toss it, that’s about par for the course. Planned obsolescence exists because it’s “good for GDP.” A new dishwasher now lasts 6-8 years when it used to last 12-16, because they now have integrated cheaper electronics that fail. Our GDP has become tethered to rapid product-replacement cycles keyed to our short attention spans and our enjoyment at buying new things. This creates “jobs” for car salesmen, advertising executives, etc., but has tilted the scales in favor of “useless GDP” rather than real societal utility. We know how to make things with high quality that last, but due to time bias and the financialization of the human experience, such an objective is relatively unimportant in our current culture. Many people get a new phone every 18 months with their cell plan, and perfectly functional ones wind up in the landfills.

But how should we distribute the largesse of the energy slaves? Does everyone get equal shares? Do we take the total number of dollars (which is the way we count such things) created by energy-slave work and divide them equally among the population?

Heavens no. We haven’t even acknowledged that the energy slaves are responsible. Rather, with a bit of help from opportunism, social evolution co-opted the pre-existing “work for pay” concept into an uneven distribution system that “felt” fair.

These days there are a lot of jobs in the USA, which keep us very busy not making much of anything of long term value. We do advertising, hairstyling, consulting, writing, and a lot of supervising of the things our fossil slaves do. We don’t care all that much what we’re doing as long as we feel we’re getting paid at least as well for the same task as the other capuchins – er… people – around us, and that with our compensation we can buy things that give us pleasing brain-reward experiences. These days in this culture, a “good job” is defined by how much it pays, not by what it accomplishes. Many people would consider it an optimum situation, a great job, to sit in a room for 40 hours per week and make $100,000 per year, just pulling a lever the way a capuchin does for a cucumber slice. You know they would (would you? Think about it. Now think about how that compares to the career you’re currently planning).

And that’s where the perceived equality is: the equality of inconvenience. The 40-hour work week is a social threshold of inconvenience endured, which is now what we keep primary social track of rather than the productive output of a person’s activity. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that wealth would increase 600% in the next century (which is only 15 years away) and because of this wealth, people would only need to work 15 hours per week. He was right about our wealth increase, but paradoxically, we are working longer hours than ever! Because socially, everyone who isn’t a criminal is supposed to have a job and endure roughly equivalent inconvenience. Any segment of society which went to a 15-hour work week would be treated as mooching freeloaders, and be pelted by cucumber slices and worse.

In a society in which we’re all basically idle royalty being catered to by fossil slaves, why do we place such a value on “jobs”? Well, partly because it’s how the allocation mechanism evolved, but there also exists considerable resentment against those who don’t work. Think of the vitriol with which people talk about “freeloaders” on society who don’t work a 40-hour week and who take food stamps. The fact is, that most of us are freeloaders when it comes down to it, but if we endure 40 hours of inconvenience per week, we meet the social criteria of having earned our banana pellets even if what we’re doing is stupid and useless, and realized to be stupid and useless. Indeed, a job that’s stupid and useless but pays a lot is highly prized.

So “jobs” per se aren’t intrinsically useful at all, which is why ants don’t want more of them. They’re mostly a co-opted, socially-evolved mechanism for wealth distribution and are very little about societal wealth creation. And they function to keep us busy and distract us from huge wealth disparity. We’re too busy making sure our co-workers don’t get grapes to do something as radical as call out and lynch the bankers. Keeping a population distracted may well be necessary to hold a modern nation together.

And since most of our wealth comes from invisible, mute slaves we don’t even think about, it isn’t clear to us that what we’re actually doing in current economies is distributing the wealth they create.

That means we can now have wild disparities in pay, as long as it “feels like” others are doing something qualitatively different. The amount paid to a wall street vice president is hugely greater than that paid to a college professor, which in turn is greater than that paid to an environmental campaigner. This has pretty much nothing to do with the relative worth of each function to society, and everything to do with how well-connected such jobs are to the flow of energy-slave-created wealth. Yet if higher pay is received by someone in another “tribe” who we don’t directly interact with, we don’t feel the urge to scream and throw our paycheck. We just wish we had a “better” job.

If we reflect on the possibility that we have en-masse simply accepted the premise that the job is somehow paid what it’s worth, we arrive at some disturbing conclusions. Is a teacher, farmer, or fireman really of less value to society than a real-estate flipper? The amounts paid for jobs have been allowed to float freely, detached from actual societal value as the degree of political connectedness of those with such jobs varies. The vast majority of our wealth comes from primary natural capital in tandem with fossil slaves and from the fruit of empire; jobs are mostly an ad-hoc mechanism for distributing this wealth unequally in a way which effectively conveys the illusion of egalitarian process.

For now, are most of us just idle princes and princesses in a fossil-slave kingdom, none of us really at huge risk, and mostly doing things which have little net value? And what happens when our fossil slaves grow wings and fly away into the atmosphere? What will the princes and princesses do then?

That’s just Gross.

This leads us to the story of how we keep track of our wealth and productivity and success. How DO we keep track of that collective wealth anyways?

Well for real wealth, mostly we don’t. The value of a healthy ecosystem, clean air, seas full of fish, fresh drinkable water… love, joy, happiness and fulfillment… all these things our market system considers to be of essentially zero value. Armadillos, dolphins, hummingbirds, rainforests… you get the idea.

But our economists have a metric called “gross domestic product” GDP which is what our society uses to roughly keep track of our ‘success’. It represents the dollar value of all finished goods and services produced in a time period (typically, a year) within a nation’s borders. Since that other stuff- you know, the natural world- doesn’t consist of finished goods and services, it isn’t counted (now if you kill the hummingbirds and make them into ornaments for hats, or turn armadillos into ashtrays, they then can be added to GDP because they’re now products which are “finished”!).

The fact that parts of the environment which have been “finished” are considered more valuable than parts which are “unfinished” is one way in which GDP sets a fairly screwy default value in our current world. It’s a tacit societal value system: anything without a transacted money value isn’t part of GDP. So a nation which chops down all its trees to sell to another country for firewood has a better GDP than one which leaves its trees standing. It’s a funny way to figure wealth, but it’s what we’ve got. And oh, by the way, we’re betting everything on it.

GDP is based on money transaction (money is, roughly speaking, a claim on future energy), and since most current wealth is created by our fossil energy slaves, GDP is directly tied to the energy burned by society. Indeed, it has recently been shown that GDP is tied to fossil fuel energy, and thus CO2, in a way which may be described very simply by treating human society as essentially a giant heat engine. In other words, a very simple model which treats human civilization as an essentially mindless consumptive system – a thermodynamic amoeba in search of energy – suffices to match the GDP with the quantity of energy burned.

And over the last 100 years, our burning of energy, and thus our world GDP, has gone through the roof. The number of dollars representing the wealth created from the burning has also increased, and exponentially so in the last 50 years, and since the 2008 crisis, even faster.

It may be reasonable to reflect that during this same period, sometimes called The Great Acceleration, the planet has been largely laid to waste, a mass extinction has accelerated, the seas have been depopulated of most fish, and the systems which sustain large complex life on earth have been progressively compromised. Yet we continue to grow the scale of the heat engine to accomplish the primary objective of the modern human economy: to maximize dollars and jobs.

Bear in mind that what we’re doing – if we get right down to it – is converting trillions of watts of fossil-slave energy into a few watts of pleasing stimulation inside our brains. (alternately: tiny amounts of brain-reward chemicals) And the side-effect of this process is all around us. Mountains of waste, acidified oceans, altered climates, pollution, mass extinctions, and mischief. Here we use “mischief” as the general term for things humans do en-route to pleasing themselves, which may include building racetracks, using disposable diapers, making wastebaskets out of elephant feet, overbuilding fishing fleets, throwing out our electronics every two years to replace them with new ones, etc. It doesn’t “feel like” waste at the time. But if you ask someone in 200 years what percent of fossil magic was wasted, they will likely say “all of it,” because not much useful fossil fuel (or anything previously built with it) will likely remain.

The ubiquity of fossil slavery during our lifetimes has caused us to conflate wants and needs. Most of what we “feel like” we need these days is nothing we evolved to need. Consumerism is driven largely by social competitiveness. Most capuchins – er…, people – find it more important to have a bigger house than their neighbors, than to have an even bigger house in a neighborhood where it’s the smallest one. Relative wealth – it’s not just for monkeys (we and the monkeys like fairness, but it feels more fair if we’ve got stuff at least as good as the people we interact with).

And this signaling of status is important socially and sexually. A lot of the things we feel we need are just for show.

And do you remember the “hedonic ratchet” effect from earlier discussions on bias, heuristics, fallacies and delusion? To get the same mental stimulation we got yesterday, we require the expectations of ever-increasing reward. That means more money and more energy slaves. Or at least the expectation of same.

Happiness is not correlated with wealth beyond having the basics of life covered. Most of the things which actually make us happy, joyful, and fulfilled are in our virtual mental worlds, and not in the physical world at all. A Filipino may have only a small percent of the number of energy slaves as an American, but be every bit as happy, and surveys have shown that to be true.57 It’s quite possible to be “poor” and happy. Equally, it’s quite possible to be rich and miserable. Our brains are even primed for it, seemingly.

So where does this leave us?

Well, you already know that our amoeba-like heat-engine of an economy is wrecking the earth, acidifying the seas, melting the polar caps, causing what could become the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years, and throwing our future into doubt.

But at least we have our good ol’ energy slaves to continue creating GDP. Right?


Thing is, the energy slaves will soon be going away forever. In the last 30 years we’ve burned a third of all fossil energy that has been used since it was discovered thousands of years ago. Since your authors have been alive, humans have used more energy than in the entire 200,000 year history of homo sapiens.

We are just now passing through the all-time peak of liquid hydrocarbon availability, which is the chief driver of our economies due to its special attributes.

Each year, basically from now on, most of us will have fewer fossil energy slaves marching behind us. You’d think this wouldn’t make much difference, right? Since they’re invisible anyhow? But in fact it’ll make a great deal of difference, because we’re heading back into times – either gradually or suddenly, but inexorably – in which human labor makes up an increasing percentage of the total energy we have available. One day human (and perhaps animal) labor will again be the majority of the work done in human societies – just like it is in an anthill.

And this will happen in the context of a more used-up natural world. Rather than being able to catch dinner by throwing a hook in the nearby ocean, the nearest healthy schools of fish may be ten thousand miles away in Antarctica, and hard to get to without dirt-cheap energy slaves to make giant refrigerated ships to pursue and move them around for us. The copper mines will be mostly used up. The inorganic phosphate deposits we used to make fertilizer, mostly gone. And so on.

Or rather than “gone,” let’s use the more accurate term energetically remote. That is, there will still be loads of “stuff” underground, but it won’t be the very pure ores of yesteryear. It’ll be stuff that requires digging up a huge amount of rock for a tiny amount of whatever we’re after. Because (remember the Easter candy story) we always use the best stuff first. Yet we’ll be going after worse and worse ore with fewer and fewer slaves. And the heavy breathing of the fossil slaves will have pulled our seas and climate back towards conditions in which they were born – a hellish primordial world of toxicity.

This all raises the question – or at least should – of whether it might not be a good idea to set the fossil slaves free and let them rest, since they’re going away soon anyhow and when they do we will really need a livable planet. They don’t need jobs, and we don’t need dollars for happiness. Yet this flies in the face of capuchin entitlement and evolved mechanisms for brain reward, which – in effect – take our current societal arrangements for granted. As our fossil slaves eventually retire – childless –we might have to rediscover the difference between jobs and work, just like the ants.

On GDP, Stone Heads and Babies

“Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?” Al Bartlett

So other than using up non-renewable resources and degrading the natural world, what other consequences can there be when maximizing GDP is our plan for the future?

Well, for one thing, it can lead us to really screwy societal choices.

For instance in the infamous Easter island culture, there was an organizing belief in belief that all food, resources, and other good things came from their dead ancestors, and that the way to make your dead ancestors happy was to build giant statues for them. This was actually not that different an organizing concept from GDP, in that both exhibit a near-hallucinatory level of disconnect from physical reality and ecology.

As ecological changes on Easter island worsened due to rats cutting into food supplies, it “made sense” to vastly ramp up the production of giant stone statues, making them ever-bigger (and hence presumably more pleasing to the dead ancestors… “too big to fail”, perhaps…). This was a colossal undertaking for a stone-age people using human muscle power, and required a lot of wood for rollers and leverage. So they cut the trees down, which caused erosion to begin washing away their productive farmland.

The worse things got, the harder they worked making stone giants. The final generation of stone giants never left the quarries – they were too big to move. As a part of this process, eventually the last large tree was cut down, which made sense based on their organizing beliefs, but was in retrospect not a good plan. It not only meant their fertile soil washed away, but meant they could no longer make boats to go fishing. So they starved, fought, and suffered a lot as their populations crashed.

For the Easter Islanders, erecting these stone monuments was an example of “jobs” masquerading as “work” – basically tasks done for social-obligation reasons that did not provide actual biological or group-fitness benefits. (do you think there may be modern-day equivalents?)

Today it’s easy to joke about these islanders and their “giant stone heads” as a high point in the history of human doofus-ness. Yet our adherence to GDP is a similarly skewed metric, equally detached from the realities of ecology, from human happiness, and from the potential for future generations with decent life quality. On a much larger scale, we too are eroding farm land (which these days is largely a dead medium used to hold the seeds in place and receive industrially-produced fertilizer and pesticides), destroying the ability to get fish (by wiping out fisheries), and, because of our numbers, mucking things up to a degree the Easter Islanders never reached.

We’ve already mentioned that – due to being blind to the energy slaves who do nearly everything for us – we now tend to conflate “jobs” with “work”, where “jobs” are just a social distribution mechanism for energy-slave largesse – an entitlement entwined with social status – and “work” is what is necessary to temporarily improves an individual, tribe, nation, or species’ circumstances.

We’ve also noted that we have folded “planned obsolescence” into most built consumer devices, so they break more quickly and require replacement, tuning their life-cycle to human whims and brain rewards rather than to real utility. Mostly we don’t really even want or expect gadgets to last as long as they used to; as long as we can afford it, we want the newer, cooler, stuff. And advertising helps keep our culture primed for it.

The fact is, we have designed a social system that requires growth. Money –really a claim on future energy and resources – comes into existence irrespective of whether such future energy and resources will be available. Each year we need growth in a household/city/state/nation/world to service and pay off monetary loans that were created previously. No serious government or institutional body has plans for anything other than continued growth into the future. Growth requires resource access and affordability but starts first with population.

So, right as our energy slaves are about to start going away forever, leaving 7-10 billion humans without the things they have come to take for granted, our nations have decided the answer is to make more babies! Yep, to raise GDP you need more demand for toys, diapers, teachers, etc… more jobs, because more jobs means more transactions which means more GDP! More GDP means “growth” so growth is good! China has just reversed its 1-child policy, which prevented massive starvations and slowed the horrendous assault on China’s environment. Many other nations, such as Japan, Germany, and Sweden, are now offering bonuses for getting pregnant. In Denmark advertising firms are encouraging couples to have more babies for the good of the economy via sexy commercials.61

Paradoxically, as traditional drivers of GDP growth – development of virgin land, credit expansion, low cost fossil fuels, and groundbreaking innovation- wane in their impact, there may be renewed incentives proposed not to shrink our population as ecology would advise, but instead to grow it! Currently we are having (as a species) over 120 million babies per year. This works out to over 335,000 human babies born every day – compared to a total extant population of all the other Great Apes (bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas) of about ~200,000! Since ‘demand” is considered a quasi-magical force in current economic theory, babies are considered to be good for business (yet children brought into the world now for GDP reasons will face some real challenges in their lives. Nate and DJ decided not to do that for a host of reasons).

China is building massive empty cities now. No kidding. Cities with nobody in them, ready to be moved into by the bonus babies to grow GDP. That’s edging perilously close to building giant stone heads.

When you get right down to Reality101 and the intermediate human future, this is actually worse than building giant stone heads, because stone heads don’t suffer, reproduce, or require further degradation of the ecology to provide for. In many real ways, the world and human species would be far better off if we immediately moved from GDP to “giant stone heads” as a metric for success (and say, doesn’t that imply to you that we might even do better than giant stone heads, if we put our minds to it?).

GDP sets a money value on everything in the natural world and in human experience, and the most important things are currently valued at or near “zero.” Yet as we’ve seen, GDP is currently tied to the work of fossil slaves, who will be gradually flying away. There’s no way, even in principle, for “growth” such as we’ve recently seen to continue indefinitely, and considerable data points to it ending quite soon. GDP will begin a long decline because it’s tied to finite realities in the physical world.

The good news, of course, is that GDP is an insane metric for success, just as “giant stone heads” was (though to give the Easter islanders their just due, at the time they had no evidence their belief was nuts, while in 2016 we have demonstrable proof that the conclusions of neoclassical economics are refuted by basic science). If we decide that we value happiness, quality of life, and a healthy planet with uncounted thousands of human generations left, we could in principle jettison GDP and do things differently.

It won’t be easy, only necessary. It’ll be easier to fail than succeed, for the societal inertia of a raging amoeba hungry for growth is a hard thing to change. Nothing much depends upon it other than the human destiny and the fate of complex life on the planet.

Learn to see the giant stone heads around you, and think about them.

By Nate Hagens: Blindspots and Superheroes

Here is this year’s Earth Day talk by Nate Hagens.

I used to preface Nate’s talks by saying he provides the best big picture view of our predicament available anywhere.

While still true, I think Nate may now be the only person discussing these issues in public forums.

Everyone else seems to have retired to their bunkers and gone quiet.

If you only have an hour this year to devote to understanding the human predicament and what needs to be done, this may be the best way to spend it.