By Tom Murphy: The Energy Trap (we all scream for ice cream)

The Energy Trap

A friend reminded me of this 2011 essay written by the brilliant physicist Tom Murphy.

I read it when Murphy first published it but I had forgotten how good it was so I’ve dusted it off in the hope that it sees more daylight.

https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/10/the-energy-trap/

Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.

In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!

 

In the parallel world of economics, an energy decline likely spells deep recession. The substantial financial investment needed to carry out an energy replacement crash program will be hard to scrape together in tough times, especially given that we are unlikely to converge on the “right” solution into which we sink our bucks.

Politically, the Energy Trap is a killer. In my lifetime, I have not witnessed in our political system the adult behavior that would be needed to buckle down for a long-term goal involving short-term sacrifice.  Or at least any brief bouts of such maturity have not been politically rewarded.  I’m not blaming the politicians. We all scream for ice cream. Politicians simply cater to our demands. We tend to vote for the candidate who promises a bigger, better tomorrow—even if such a path is untenable.

The only way out of the political trap is for a substantial fraction of our population to understand the dimensions of the problem: to understand that we’ve been spoiled by the surplus energy available through fossil fuels, and that we will have to make decade-level sacrifices to put ourselves on a new track. The only way to accomplish this is through sober education, which is what Do the Math is all about. It’s a trap! Spread the word!

 

Tom Murphy stopped writing in 2013 after (I think) he realized that no amount of education will change the behavior of the majority.

On Sexual Selection and Extinction

Peacock

Here is a very interesting interview of biologist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Prum by Rob Reid on sexual selection and the evolution of beauty.

One of the fundamental reasons birds are so beautiful is that most of them do not have penises and this creates an opportunity for female freedom of choice.

After-On Podcast Episode 33: Richard Prum – The Evolution of Beauty

Bird of Paradise

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.

Donald and Melania Trump

On Meta-Denial

There's No I In Denial

Meta-denial is a common and unique human behavior where reality denial is seen and discussed without acknowledging the existence of reality denial.

The scientific foundation for meta-denial is explained by Varki’s MORT theory which states that a brain which evolves the power to understand complex reality must simultaneously evolve reality denial to exist. The probability of these two otherwise maladaptive behaviors emerging simultaneously and fixing in the gene pool to create a new highly adaptive capability is low and has apparently occurred only once on this planet.

MORT explains how a species can be smart enough to visit the moon and yet not be able to understand something as obvious as its own overshoot and imminent collapse.

Meta-denial is essentially denial of denial and is the strongest form of realty denial because acknowledgement of reality denial would collapse the house of cards our brains construct to keep us motivated to replicate.

If you look you will see meta-denial everywhere. For example:

  • Environmentalists that lament the denial of ecosystem destruction yet support green growth and reject population control.
  • Climate scientists that lament the denial of climate change while themselves denying the relationship between wealth and carbon energy and their own desire for more wealth.
  • Social activists that lament the widening wealth gap while denying the decline of energy quality that drives it and the austerity required in their own life to reverse the trend.
  • Many other examples here.

Here we have a recent example of meta-denial. The entire article is about the insanity of climate change denial and yet it does not once mention reality denial nor ask what could possibly be causing this bizarre and destructive behavior.

https://www.sciencealert.com/us-heatwave-burning-up-media-climate-change

The US Is Burning Up, But No One Wants to Talk About The Elephant in The Room

Shhh don’t mention it.

It’s hot. Too hot. And climate scientists agree that it’s only going to get hotter. Yet despite the record-breaking heat wave impacting millions of Americans right now, barely anyone in the mainstream media is talking about the elephant in the room.

A new and distressing report from Media Matters reveals that most major broadcast TV networks are completely ignoring the link between unprecedented heat waves and climate change.

By Respect Silence: Why “Saving the Planet” is a Misleading, Lost Cause

Overpopulation Denial

Nice rant.

Even in darker moods, most people are still worrying about things far more trivial than the 24/7 destruction of their only means of life. Denial is the default programming.

If people were seriously planning to stop the destruction of nature it would be echoed in the things they do and say on a daily basis, but most social chatter is about making money (from depletion) feeling good and staying entertained. Watch and listen to your neighbors and co-workers. Most are ego-driven and the rare ones who dwell on the common good are seen as less than “successful” by bling standards. There’s little evidence that enough people care about the true source of life to protect it from money-hungry urban banality. Let’s stop pretending the planet can be saved from us, by us. Benevolent aliens won’t do it either.

https://evilnoisypeople.wordpress.com/2018/06/24/why-saving-the-planet-is-a-lost-cause/

By Ajit Varki: Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience?

Here is the latest talk by Dr. Ajit Varki on his MORT theory given April 18, 2018 at a conference on The Evolutionary Perspectives on Death held at Oakland University.

This talk repeats some content presented in previous talks, but also adds some important new ideas. There is evidence here that Varki, despite a large important unrelated day job, is still thinking about and developing his theory. That’s great news because, as I’ve said many times, MORT is the most important new idea since Darwin.

This slide depicts the emergence of the unique behaviorally modern human mind.

Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT)

 

This slide shows that most behaviors unique to humans no longer exist (grayed out) if you remove the adaptations for an extended theory of mind and reality denial.

Unique Human Cognittive Features

 

This slide explains the implications of the Mind Over Reality Transition theory.

Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) Implications

Varki introduces a new idea that incomplete suppression of mortality salience may explain the need for Terror Management.  I wonder if Varki might be trying to get Sheldon Solomon, who has to date been juveniley dismissive of MORT, on board?

Mortality Salience Incomplete Supression

I found this slide on ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny interesting because I’m reading Michael Pollan’s new book on psychedelics in which the human brain’s Default Mode Network is explained to be the seat of self and theory of mind, and which is suppressed by psychedelic drugs thus re-creating what may be the tripping mind of a baby. I wonder if our adaptations for an extended theory of mind and reality denial somehow affected or created the Default Mode Network? I’m hoping a neuroscience expert will weigh in here.

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

 

This new idea from Varki on sex differences resulting from MORT is, I suspect, important, but I need to digest it more before commenting.

MORT Gender Phenotype

 

At the 23 minute mark Varki addresses climate change with a quote from his co-author Danny Brower which is a very nice summary of why I created this blog. If we do not acknowledge and manage our tendency to deny reality we are doomed as a species.

Brower on Denial of Climate Change

Aside 1: The video at 15:15 that Varki took on traffic from the window of his hotel room in India is hilarious.

Aside 2: The Q&A begins at 25:00 and I observe that, as with previous talks, no one in the audience seems to get the profundity of his theory.

Aside 3: I observe that the most important new idea in science, and the idea whose broad awareness may offer the only hope for our species, has 12 views on YouTube. Apparently, the only topic more unpleasant than human overshoot is our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities.

 

 

 

By Nate Hagens: Where are We Going?

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens followed up his recent talk with a very nice essay in which he explains our predicament using his rare and broad understanding of the issues.

The possible outcomes for our near-term future fall on a curve of probabilities ranging from an optimistic gentle decline to a pessimistic zombie apocalypse collapse.

Nate leans to the optimistic side of the curve and makes a good case for it here. His most persuasive argument, for me, is that we use much more energy and materials than we need to have pleasant lives, and so a 30% haircut, which Nate thinks will happen soon, need not be cause for undo concern.

I lean more to the pessimistic side because of the instability we have created by using extreme debt to kick the can, the Seneca Effect on resource depletion, accelerating decline of our ecosystem (especially but not limited to climate change), nasty human nature in times of scarcity, and our evolved tendency to deny unpleasant realities and thus near certainty we will blame the wrong actors.

I hope Nate’s right but I would not put money on it.

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-05-08/where-are-we-going/

We cannot know the future, but we have reasonable confidence of what it will not be.  The peak in fossil sunlight flow rates and resultant higher costs will mean major changes in our lifetimes. We can be reasonably sure the average energy/material throughput for Americans – and global citizens, particularly in advanced economies, will decline in coming decades.  It’s important to point out that a 30% drop in material wealth per capita (for those in the United States and Canada) though sounding draconian, brings us back to 1993 levels – a 50% drop would bring us back to 1977 levels– both periods nobody considers economically challenging.  How we respond to this energy descent as individuals and as a culture will be a deciding moment in our history.

All the ‘cultural’ and ‘individual’ observations above coalesce to a fine point: we are capable of much more, but are unlikely to alter our current trajectory until we have to. And when we add in the economy and environmental points: we will soon have to.  Recognizing this, the next step is urgently discussing and cataloguing what initiatives might be worked on by small groups using intelligent foresight nationwide.

Given we have ~100:1 exosomatic surplus buffer, there remain a great deal of benign, and even excellent futures still on the table.  But they won’t arrive without effort.  The world isn’t irretrievably broken, the Great Simplification has barely started, and there are quite a few people who are discovering exactly the shape of our predicaments, and the nature of the things which could substantially change them.

NB: While I believe education itself is insufficient for major change, it is still a necessary first step so that pro-social engaged citizens work towards feasible and desirable goals and react to events in more rational ways. My own goal with this content is threefold:

  • Educate and inspire would-be catalysts and small groups working on better futures to integrate a more systemic view of reality
  • Empower individuals to make better personal choices on navigating and thriving during the Great Simplification coming our way
  • Change what is accepted in our cultural conversation to be more reality based

 

By Tom Murphy: The Future Needs an Attitude Adjustment

Peak Oil

I’m resurrecting a 2011 essay by one of my favorite minds on the planet.

Tom Murphy is a brilliant physicist with an impressive catalog of essays on energy related issues. If you prefer to watch rather than read, then this video is a favorite of mine.

After searching for a solution to our energy predicament and concluding that we are in serious trouble, and that we are being extremely unwise by not planning for a world with less, Tom Murphy went quiet. As have many other great minds. A worrying sign.

https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/12/the-future-needs-an-attitude-adjustment/

Here are a few excerpts but the whole thing is worth a read.

Over the years, my diligent observation of people has led me to a deep insight: people want stuff. I know—bear with me as I support my argument. Donald Trump. Okay, I think I’ve covered it. No, it’s true. On the whole, we don’t seem to be satiable creatures. Imagine the counter-examples: “No thanks, boss. I really don’t need a raise.” “I’m done with this money—anybody want it?” “Where should I invest my money to guarantee 0% return?” (Answer: anywhere, lately.) I’m not saying that the world lacks generosity/charity. But how many examples do we have of someone making $500,000/yr (in whatever form) and donating $400,000 per year to those in need, figuring $100,000/yr is plenty to live comfortably? I want names (and actually hope there are some examples).

This basic desire for more has meshed beautifully with a growth-based economic model and a planet offering up its stored resources. The last few hundred years is when things really broke loose. And it’s not because we suddenly got smarter. Sure, we have a knack for accumulating knowledge, and there is a corresponding ratchet effect as we lock in new understanding. But we have the same biological brains that we did 10,000 years ago—so we haven’t increased our mental horsepower. What happened is that our accumulation of knowledge allowed us to recognize the value of fossil fuels. Since then, we have been on a tear to develop as quickly as we might. It’s working: the average American is responsible for 10 kW of continuous power production, which is somewhat like having 100 energy slaves (humans being 100 W machines). We’re satisfying our innate need for more and more—and the availability of cheap, abundant, self-storing, energy-dense sources of energy have made it all possible.

 

See the Do the Math post on peak oil for particulars on one scenario that has me worried. In brief, a declining petroleum output leads to supply disruptions in many commodities, price spikes, decline of travel/tourism industries, international withholding of oil supplies, possibly resource wars, instability, uncertainty, a sea change in attitudes and hope for the future, loss of confidence in investment and growth in a contracting world, rampant unemployment, electric cars and other renewable dreams out of reach and silly-sounding when keeping ourselves fed is more pressing, an Energy Trap preventing us from large scale meaningful infrastructure replacement, etc.  There can be positive developments as well—especially in demand and in “attitude adjustments.”  And perhaps the market offers more magic than my skeptical mind allows.  But any way you slice it, our transition away from fossil fuels will bring myriad challenges that will require more forethought, cooperation, and maturity than I tend to see in headlines today.

 

People often misinterpret my message that “we risk collapse,” believing me to say instead that “we’re going to collapse.” It’s interesting to me that the concept of collapse is taboo to the point of coming across as an offensive slap in the face. It clearly touches an emotional nerve. I think we should try to understand that. Personally, this reaction scares me. It suggests an irrational faith that we cannot collapse. If I did not think the possibility for collapse was real, I might just find this reaction intellectually intriguing. But when the elements for collapse are in place (unprecedented stresses, energy challenges, resource limitations, possible overshoot of carrying capacity), the aversion to this possible fate leaves me wondering how we can mitigate a problem we cannot even look in the eye.

Note: Varki’s book, which provides a plausible explanation for our inability to discuss, let alone act on, obvious human overshoot, was published after this essay.

 

Others react by an over-use of the word “just.” We just need to get fusion working. We’ll just paint Arizona with solar panels. We’ll just switch to electric cars. We just need to go full-on nuclear, preferably with thorium reactors. We just need to exploit the oil shales in the Rocky Mountain states. We just need to get the environmentalists off our backs so we can drill, baby, drill. This is the technofix approach. I am trying to chip away at this on Do the Math: the numbers often don’t pan out, or the challenges are much bigger than people appreciate. I have looked for solutions to things we can just do to alleviate the pressures on the system. With the exception of just reducing how much we personally demand, I have been disappointed again and again. I’ll come back to personal reduction in the months to come: lots to say here.

 

Aside from the cadets, the message was clear from reactions that growth is a sacred underpinning of our modern life, and that we must not speak of terminating this regime. After all, how could we satisfy our yearning for more without the carrot of growth dangling in front of us? Some argue that we need growth in the developing world in order to bring humanity up to an acceptable standard of living. I am sympathetic to this aim. So let’s voluntarily drop growth in the developed countries of the world and let the underdogs have their day. Did I just blaspheme again? I keep doing that. I perceive this compassion for the poor of the world as a cloak used to justify the base desire of getting more stuff for ourselves. Prove it to yourself by asking people if they would be willing to give up growth in (or even contract) our economy while the third world continues growing for the next half-century. You may get rationalizations of the flavor that without growth in the first world, the engine for growth in the third world would be starved and falter: they need our consumer demand to have a customer base. I’m skeptical. I think people just want stuff—even if they’ve got lots already.

 

Many look to political leaders for, well, leadership. But I’ve come to appreciate that political leaders are actually politicians (another razor-sharp observation), and politicians need votes to occupy their seats. Politicians are therefore cowardly sycophants responding to the whims of the electorate. In other words, they are a reflection of our wants and demands. A child who has just been spanked for throwing a tantrum would probably not re-elect their parent if allowed the choice. We all scream for ice cream. Why would we reward a politician for leading us instead to a plate of vegetables—even if that’s what we really need. Meanwhile we find it all too easy to blame our ills on the politicians. It’s a lot more palatable than blaming ourselves for our own selfish demands that politicians simply try to satisfy.

 

My basic point in all this is that I perceive fundamental human weaknesses that circumvent our making rational, smart, adult decisions about our future. Our expectations tend to be outsized with respect to the physical limitations at hand. We quickly dash up against ideological articles of faith, so that many are unable to acknowledge that there is an energy/resource problem at all. The Spock in me wants to raise an eyebrow and say “fascinating.” The human in me is distressed by the implications to our collective rationality. The adult in me wants less whining, fewer temper tantrums, realistic expectations, a willingness to sacrifice where needed, the maturity to talk of the possibility of collapse and the need to step off the growth train, and adoption of a selfless attitude that we owe future generations a livable world where we can live rich and fulfilling lives with another click of the ratchet.  Otherwise we deserve a spanking—sorry—attitude adjustment.  And nature is happy to oblige.