Nate Hagens has published a new book on the predicament that fossil energy consumption and depletion, and our denial of this reality, have created for life on this planet.
A skim suggests the book will be excellent and I hope to write a review after reading it.
I observe there is no mention of Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory which is sad because MORT provides an evolutionary foundation for the denial that Nate discusses, and explains why only one species has emerged with the intelligence to exploit fossil energy.
Denial of our genetic tendency to deny reality is apparently the strongest form of denial, even among the few of us that are aware of the human predicament.
You can read Nate’s book for free and purchase a copy here:
A bestselling author, neuroscientist, and computer engineer unveils a theory of intelligence that will revolutionize our understanding of the brain and the future of AI.
For all of neuroscience’s advances, we’ve made little progress on its biggest question: How do simple cells in the brain create intelligence?
Jeff Hawkins and his team discovered that the brain uses maplike structures to build a model of the world-not just one model, but hundreds of thousands of models of everything we know. This discovery allows Hawkins to answer important questions about how we perceive the world, why we have a sense of self, and the origin of high-level thought.
A Thousand Brains heralds a revolution in the understanding of intelligence. It is a big-think book, in every sense of the word.
I’ve followed Hawkins for many years and he’s one of my favorite neuroscience researchers. He started as an electrical engineer and created in 1996 the groundbreaking handheld PalmPilot (which I owned 🙂 ), and then switched careers to his passion of figuring out how the brain works.
In his book he proposes a new theoretical framework for how intelligence works. I think he’s on to something important. So does Richard Dawkins who wrote the forward and compares the book to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
I see an opportunity to build on Hawkins’ intelligence framework to push Varki’s MORT theory forward by refining why and what we deny, and how denial is implemented in the brain. Some of my still rough ideas are presented at the end of this essay.
There’s a second aspect of Hawkins’ book that is also interesting.
After presenting his new theory on intelligence, Hawkins spends the last half of the book explaining how our old brain behaviors and false beliefs (aka denial) threaten the survival of our species, and he proposes several ways we might avoid these threats.
He’s clearly worried and knows we are in trouble.
Yet when discussing the threats to our species he is blind to the biggest, imminent, and certain threat we face: fossil energy depletion. Hawkins, like most polymaths, can’t see that the technology he loves, was created by, and totally depends on, rapidly depleting non-renewable resources.
So we have a world expert on how and why our brain creates false beliefs, that can’t see his own false beliefs.
We could ask for no better evidence that MORT is true!
But wait, there’s more.
In the last chapters Hawkins obsesses over inventing a lasting means for our species to signal to other life in the universe that human intelligence once existed. As I was reading this I kept thinking, what the hell are you going on about? The odds are extremely low that other intelligent life will ever see our signaling satellites, and who the hell cares if they do? Then a light went on. His signal is a high tech version of an Egyptian pyramid, and is his brain’s mechanism for denying death.
So how could it get any better?
a well written enjoyable book
with an important new theory
on the most interesting aspect of a unique species
that may push forward Varki’s MORT theory on why we exist
by a brilliant polymath
that is blinded by the same denial that created his species
Following is a brief recapitulation of Hawkins’ cortical column framework for intelligence integrated with my musings on how it might be used to clarify and focus Varki’s MORT theory.
This hypothesis will be revised, possibly substantially, after I complete a 2nd more careful reading of Hawkins’ book and published papers, which I’ve just started. I’m also hoping to incorporate criticism from Dr. Varki which may improve or kill my ideas.
Downvoting the Cortical Column Death Model to Breach the Extended Theory of Mind Barrier
Version 1.2, April 17, 2021
Note: For the sake of brevity, every occurrence of “not die” should be read as “not die until viable offspring are produced”.
Genes evolve and collaborate to create bodies.
Bodies exist to replicate genes.
A body must not die to achieve its purpose of replicating genes.
The brain exists to help the body by choosing the best action to not die for a given set of sensory inputs.
The old brain uses simple static models to directly cause actions to not die.
The neocortex uses more complex learned models to indirectly cause actions to not die by requesting the old brain to execute actions.
Learning is moving: the neocortex learns by moving senses around the subject to create (up to about 1000) reference frame models.
Thinking is moving: concepts without physical form, like mathematics, are learned by moving between models to create new reference frame models.
Models have redundancy which makes knowledge more resilient and repurposable.
Models are stored in cortical columns.
The neocortex is composed of many nearly identical cortical columns.
Senses (and outputs from other models) are evaluated for matches by models.
Models collaborate by voting to decide our conscious reality.
The agreed reality is used by other models to select the best action to not die.
Evolution increases the number of cortical columns in species that benefit from more intelligence to not die.
Social species have the most cortical columns because modeling social relationships is hard.
The human neocortex has about 150,000 cortical columns.
There are two important thresholds on the continuum of increasing social intelligence.
“Theory of mind” is the threshold where a brain learns a model of another brain, and that model includes an understanding that the other brain can die.
“Extended theory of mind” is the threshold where a brain learns that its model of another brain also models itself, and that it can also die.
The extended theory of mind threshold may be difficult for evolution to cross, because it has happened only once on this planet.
A model that predicts possible death from injury and certain death from old age results in fewer actions to not die.
Fewer actions to not die is called depression.
Genes for an extended theory of mind thus do not persist.
To break through the barrier, evolution requires a mechanism to prevent the learned death model from evaluating true.
A mechanism consistent with the archeological record was to learn a model for life after death (aka God) which downvotes the death model thus continuing the actions to not die.
Modern Implications of the Death Model
Climate change acceptance combined with the common false belief that renewable energy can replace depleting non-renewable fossil energy, and the common false belief that technology can remove sufficient CO2 from the atmosphere, does not trigger the death model, and the false beliefs cause our species to take actions that worsen our overshoot predicament.
Awareness of human overshoot and its implications are present in less than 0.01% of humans, including most highly educated polymaths, because it triggers the death model. Most people deny overshoot with false beliefs that non-renewable resources are abundant.
Physicist Tom Murphy is one of the brightest and most articulate people in the overshoot awareness space.
A decade ago Murphy wrote frequently for a few years on his blog “Do the Math” where he explored the energy opportunities and constraints for powering our civilization. Then, having said what he wanted to say, he went silent.
Here is some of Murphy’s work that I’ve posted in the past which includes my all time favorite talk on limits to growth:
After a long hiatus from teaching the general education energy course at UCSD—due mostly to a heavy administrative role for five years—I picked it up again for Winter quarter 2020. I had always been discontented when it came to textbook choices: my sense was that they tended to play it safe to avoid the risk of being provocative. But provocative may be what our situation calls for! I had been inspired by David MacKay’s fabulous and quantitatively rich Sustainability: Without the Hot Air, but its focus on the UK and not-quite-textbook format kept me from adopting it for the classroom.
So I set out to capture key elements of Do the Math in a textbook for the Winter 2020 class, following a somewhat similar trajectory: growth limits; fossil fuels and climate change; alternative energy capabilities and pros/cons; concluding with a dose of human factors and personal adaptation strategies.
Where is humanity going? How realistic is a future of fusion and space colonies? What constraints are imposed by physics, by resource availability, and by human psychology? Are default expectations grounded in reality?
This textbook, written for a general-education audience, aims to address these questions without either the hype or the indifference typical of many books. The message throughout is that humanity faces a broad sweep of foundational problems as we inevitably transition away from fossil fuels and confront planetary limits in a host of unprecedented ways—a shift whose scale and probable rapidity offers little historical guidance.
Salvaging a decent future requires keen awareness, quantitative assessment, deliberate preventive action, and—above all—recognition that prevailing assumptions about human identity and destiny have been cruelly misshapen by the profoundly unsustainable trajectory of the last 150 years. The goal is to shake off unfounded and unexamined expectations, while elucidating the relevant physics and encouraging greater facility in quantitative reasoning.
After addressing limits to growth, population dynamics, uncooperative space environments, and the current fossil underpinnings of modern civilization, various sources of alternative energy are considered in detail— assessing how they stack up against each other, and which show the greatest potential. Following this is an exploration of systemic human impediments to effective and timely responses, capped by guidelines for individual adaptations resulting in reduced energy and material demands on the planet’s groaning capacity. Appendices provide refreshers on math and chemistry, as well as supplementary material of potential interest relating to cosmology, electric transportation, and an evolutionary perspective on humanity’s place in nature.
I skimmed the book to assess its tone. Murphy is trying to strike a balance between being honest about the difficulties we face, while not saying that civilization collapse is a certainty, and offers some constructive suggestions for how his young students might respond. It’s a similar (and understandable) strategy that Nate Hagens, another well known overshoot teacher has taken.
Here are a few excerpts filled with wise words from Murphy’s book:
19.1 No Master Plan
The “adults” of this world have not established a global plan for peace and prosperity. This has perhaps worked okay so far: a plan hasn’t been necessary. But as the world changes from an “empty” state in which humans were a small part of the planet with little influence to a new “full” regime where human impacts are many and global in scale, perhaps the “no plan” approach is the wrong framework going forward.
19.2 No Prospects for a Plan
Not only do we lack a plan for how to live within planetary limits, we may not even have the capacity to arrive at a consensus long-term plan. Even within a country, it can be hard to converge on a plan for alternative energy, a different economic model, a conservation plan for natural resources, and possibly even different political structures. These can represent extremely big changes. Political polarization leaves little room for united political action. The powerful and wealthy have little interest in substantial structural changes that may imperil their current status. And given peoples’ reluctance to embrace austerity and take personal responsibility for their actions, it is hard to understand why a politician in a democracy would feel much political pressure to make long-term decisions that may result in short-term hardship—real or perceived.
Globally, the prospects may be even worse: competition between countries stymies collective decision-making. The leaders of a country are charged with optimizing the prosperity of their own country—not that of the whole world, and even less Earth’s ecosystems. If a number of countries did act in the global interest, perhaps by voluntarily reducing their fossil fuel purchases in an effort to reduce global fossil fuel use, it stands to reason that other countries may take advantage of the resulting price drops to acquire more fossil fuels than they would have otherwise—defeating the original purpose. Then the participating countries will feel that they self-penalized for no good reason. Unless all relevant nations are on board and execute a plan, it will be hard to succeed at global initiatives. The great human experiment has never before faced this daunting a set of global, inter-related problems. The lack of a global authority to whom countries must answer may make global challenges almost impossible to mitigate. Right now, it is a free-for-all, sort-of like 200 kids lacking any adult supervision.
How many people do you know who are concerned about a legitimate threat of collapse of our civilization? It is an extreme outcome, and one without modern precedent. It seems like a fringe, alarmist position that is uncomfortable to even talk about in respectable company. Yet the evidence on the ground points to many real concerns:
1. The earth has never had to accommodate 8 billion people at this level of resource demand;
2. Humankind has never run out of a resource as vital as fossil fuels;
3. Humans have never until now altered the atmosphere to the point of changing the planet’s thermal equilibrium;
4. We have never before witnessed species extinction at this rate, or seen such dramatic changes to wild spaces and to the ocean.
20.3.1 Overall Framing
In the absence of a major shift in public attitudes toward energy and resource usage, motivated individuals can control their own footprints via personal decisions. This can be a fraught landscape, as some people may try to out-woke each other and others will resist any notion of giving up freedoms or comforts—only exacerbated by a sense of righteous alienation from the “do-gooders.”
Some basic guidelines on effective adaptation:
1. Choose actions based on some analysis of impact: don’t bother with superficial stuff, even if it’s trendy.
2. Don’t simply follow a list of actions or impart a list on others: choose a more personalized adventure based on quantitative assessment.
3. Avoid showing off. It is almost better to treat personal actions as secrets. Others may simply notice those choices and ask about them, rather than you bringing them up.
4. Resist the impulse to ask: “what should I buy to signal that I’m environmentally responsible?” Consumerism and conspicuous consumption are a large part of the problem. Buying new stuff is perhaps counterproductive and may not be the best path.
5. Be flexible. Allow deviations. Rigid adherence makes life more difficult and might inconvenience others, which can be an unwelcome imposition. Such behavior makes your choices less palatable to others, and therefore less likely to be adopted or replicated.
6. Somewhat related to the last point, chill out a bit. Every corner of your life does not have to be perfect. We live in a deeply imperfect world, so that exercising a 30% footprint compared to average is pretty darned good, and not that much different than a “more perfect” 25%. Doing a few big things means more than doing a lot of little things that may drive you (and others) crazy.
7. In the end, it has to matter to you what you’re doing and why. It’s not for the benefit of others.
20.4 Values Shifts
In the end, a bold reformulation of the human approach to living on this planet will only succeed if societal values change from where they are now. Imagine if the following activities were frowned upon—found distasteful and against social norms:
1. keeping a house warm enough in winter to wear shorts inside;
2. keeping a house so cool in summer that people’s feet get cold;
3. having 5 cars in an oversized garage;
4. accumulating enough air miles to be in a special “elite” club;
5. taking frequent, long, hot showers;
6. using a clothes dryer during a non-rainy period;
7. having a constant stream of delivery vehicles arrive at the door;
8. a full waste bin each week marking high consumption;
9. having a high-energy-demand diet (frequent meat consumption);
10. upgrading a serviceable appliance, disposing of the old;
11. wasteful lighting.
At present, many of these activities connote success and are part of a culture of “conspicuous consumption.” If such things ran counter to the sensibilities of the community, the behaviors would no longer carry social value and would be abandoned. The social norms in some Scandinavian countries praise egalitarianism and find public displays of being “better” or of having more money/stuff to be in poor taste. Abandonment of consumerist norms could possibly work, but only if it stems from a genuine understanding of the negative consequences. If curtailment of resource-heavy activities is imposed by some authority or is otherwise reluctantly adopted, it will not be as likely to transform societal values.
20.6 Upshot on Strategies
No one can know what fate awaits us, or control the timing of whatever unfolds. But individuals can take matters into their own hands and adopt practices that are more likely to be compatible with a future defined by reduced resource availability. We can learn to communicate future concerns constructively, with out being required to paint an artificial picture of hope. Our actions and choices, even if not showcased, can serve as inspiration for others—or at least can be personally rewarding as an impactful adventure. Quantitative assessment of energy and resource demands empowers individuals to make personal choices carrying large impacts. Reductions of factors of 2 and 3 and 4 are not out of reach. Maybe the world does not need 18 TW to be happy. Maybe we don’t have to work so hard to maintain a peaceful and rewarding lifestyle once growth is not the driver. Maybe we can re-learn how to adapt to the seasons and be fulfilled by a more intimate connection with nature. The value of psychological preparedness should not underestimated. By staring unblinking into the abyss, we are ready to cope with disruption, should it come. And if it never does in our lifetimes, what loss do we really suffer if we have chosen our adventure and lived our personal values?
In this sense, the best adaptation comes in the form of a mental shift. Letting go of humanity’s self-image as a growth juggernaut, and finding an “off-ramp” to a more rewarding lifestyle in close partnership with nature is the main goal. Continuing the freeway metaphor, the current path has us hurtling forward to certain involuntary termination of growth (a dead end, or cliff, or brick wall), very probably resulting in overshoot and/or crash.
The guidelines provided in this chapter for quantifying and reducing resource demands then simply become the initial outward expressions of this fresh vision. Ignore the potentially counterproductive allure of fusion, teleportation, and warp drive. Embrace instead a humbler, slower, more feasible future that stresses natural harmony over conquest and celebrates life in all forms—while preserving and advancing the knowledge and understanding of the universe we have worked so hard to achieve. Picture a future citizen of this happier world looking back at the present age as embarrassingly misguided and inexplicably delusional. Earth is a partner, not a possession to be exploited. Figuratively throwing Earth under the bus precludes our own chances for long-term success. A common phrasing of this sentiment is that humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Let’s not lose the path in a flight of fossil-fueled fantasy.
March 22, 2021 Update: Tom Murphy wrote a post highlighting the ideas from his book that will be new for Do the Math readers, and asking for our help to promote his free book.
Last week, in the first Do the Math post in years, I kept the post brief, only pointing out the new textbook: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, and giving a brief account of the backstory.
In this post, I take a bit more time to introduce new elements in the book that Do the Math readers have not seen represented in some form in earlier posts. In other words: what new insights or calculations lurk within the book?
The following is organized into three sections. The first takes a brief tour of the book, pointing out large, new blocks that are not already covered by Do the Math in some form. The second highlights the results of new calculations or figures that bring new context to our understanding. Finally, I summarize some of the new big-picture framing that emerges in the book.
Rather than laboriously inserting associated graphics into this post, my intent is that you treat this as a companion to be used side-by-side with the downloadable PDF of the book. References are to sections, figures, boxes, etc. rather than page numbers, which vary between electronic and print forms. So go ahead and get a version of the PDF up, and let’s jump in…
Brief Tour of New Content
The Preface may be worth reading for overall framing and motivation. The middle part about student learning and approach to mathematics/problems might not be as worthwhile, but the beginning and end are likely of interest.
The first four chapters attempt to lay out constraints on growth, initially hewing closely to the first two Do the Math posts on Galactic Scale Energy and Can Economic Growth Last. Chapter 3 on population echoes some points in The Real Population Problem, but adds substantial analysis of the demographic transition. I felt this was an important addition because many academics look to this mechanism to “solve” the population problem. What I point out is that the transition is a double-whammy for planetary resources: even though the result is zero-growth, the road to that point involves a population surge and increasing resource usage per capita. More people multiplied by a higher per-capita resource use is bad news for resource constraints. The dream, therefore, has a nightmarish element that might be neglected by many because demographic transitions of the past were not constrained in this way and seemed to be very positive, on balance. A recurring message: the highly abnormal recent past offers poor guidance to the future. Finally, Chapter 4 echoes the popular Why Not Space post, closing off this exit—or at least prompting the invested believers to cast the book aside and waste their time in a manner more to their liking.
Chapter 5 is a dry one on units, and does not exist on Do the Math except in a static page called Useful Energy Relations. Chapter 6 consolidates several posts on thermal energy and heat pumps. Chapter 7 is basically new, as a snapshot of U.S. and global energy and plots of recent trends.
Elements of Chapter 8 on fossil fuels can be found among the Do the Math posts—especially those on peak oil. But no overview of fossil fuels really existed on the blog. Chapter 9 on climate change is similar to the Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps, but is considerably expanded to detail the expected impact on temperature, explore limiting-case scenarios for the future, and delve into the thermal requirements for heating the ocean and melting ice.
Chapter 10 provides an overview of Earth’s energy budget and introduces the alternative and renewable energy options. This short chapter has no direct analog in Do the Math.
The heart of the book covers topics that do not change much over time: technologies for harnessing alternative energy. Prices might change, but the fundamentals tend not to. Thus, Chapters 11 through 16 largely echo Do the Math content. Note that the writing itself is new, and has benefited from extensive student feedback to improve clarity and accessibility. So it’s not a cut-and-paste job, but the overall take-aways are going to be familiar to Do the Math readers. Chapter 17 is the book’s version of The Alternative Energy Matrix, and is the closest thing to cut-and-paste in the book, being billed as a slightly edited reproduction of an existing chapter in the State of the World 2013 book.
The two main changes in the alternative energy chapters have to do with solar prices going down (now at under $3/Watt for residential and $1/Watt for utility-scale installations; the panels themselves being $0.50/Watt) and new recommendations for wind-farm turbine spacing, lowering the estimated power per land area available. I also added state-by-state maps for hydroelectricity, wind, and solar photovoltaic utilization in the U.S., for four different attributes (total power, power per area, power per person, and capacity factor).
The last three chapters depart the most from Do the Math content, although containing familiar elements like an exploration of personality types and a description of the Energy Trap. Chapter 20 bears some resemblance to posts on household energy and dietary choices. But the packaging may be different enough that it does not feel like repetition of Do the Math.
The Epilogue is completely new, and likely of interest to Do the Math readers.
Appendix D is the most thoughtful Appendix. Of greatest interest will be D.3 on electric transportation, D.5 on the long view of human success, and D.6 on an evolutionary perspective regarding human intelligence and how that may or may not mesh well in the natural world.
Highlights of New Results
The following tidbits are arranged in chronological order, and for the sake of brevity only represent the more thought-provoking additions.
In Chapter 2, Figure 2.3 on lighting efficiency progress surprised me in that the same 2.3% growth rate adopted for Chapters 1 and 2 on growth of energy fits the lighting history rather well. If the trend continues, we reach theoretical limits well before century’s end.
Chapter 3 has one new development and one new presentation of interest. The development is the recognition that the population surge associated with a demographic transition is proportional to the exponential of the change in birth/death rate times the lag between declining death rate and declining birth rate (Figure 3.16). The factor can easily more than double the pre-transition population. The new presentation is in Figure 3.17, exposing how preposterous the “dream” scenario looks of advancing a growing population to “western” energy standards by the year 2100. Substances that facilitate such delusions are usually illegal.
The only thing I’ll say about Chapter 4 here is that I planted an (accurate) Easter egg in Figure 4.2—only applicable to the electronic version.
I was surprised by Figure 7.9, showing the U.S. as a literal super-power (as measured in Watts) in the mid-twentieth century—using more than 80% of global natural gas and over 70% of global petroleum. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some Americans long to return to these “glory” years (not at all glorious for less privileged individuals, it should be noted). The mistake is thinking that it’s a matter of choice. America’s dominant role in the world had a resource foundation, and that ship has sailed. It’s not a matter of politics: it’s physics, and anger won’t solve it.
Figure 8.8 made an impression on me as well. A simple calculation based on discovery and consumption of conventional oil, as presented in Figure 8.7, provides a measure of how many years appear to remain in the resource. Simply dividing unconsumed reserves by current consumption gives a timescale, and this can be tracked as a function of time as new discoveries accumulate and consumption rate increases. The startling result is that the predicted endpoint has not budged from around the year 2050 for about four decades! I caution readers not to take this literally to mean that oil runs out in 2050. First, the plot only applies to conventional oil reserves. Second, reduced consumption rate due to scarcity, prices, policy directives, or suitable substitutes will mean a tapering beyond 2050 rather than abrupt termination. Still, it’s a relevant and alarming data point: conventional oil is unlikely to persist in its present dominance for even three more decades! I think that’s big news, people. How many decades old are you?
A number of new results accompany Chapter 9 on climate change. Most rewardingly, I “took it up a notch” from the previous calculations of annual and cumulative CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and used annual data on fossil fuel use to produce a graphs of emissions from the three fossil fuels across time (Figure 9.3). Doing so shows coal’s prominence as the king of CO2 emitters—now and throughout the past. Since we still have more coal than any other fossil fuel, it may just be the gift that keeps on giving. But most remarkable was the exercise of plotting the predicted emission on top of measurements in Figure 9.4. Prior to this, I was satisfied by getting the annual and cumulative emission numbers to match measurements. But to see it graphically: faithfully following the curvature and lying right atop the measurements brought a smile of despair to my face. The same approach lends itself well to exploring CO2 emissions scenarios for fossil fuel expenditures going forward: what happens if we cease growth in consumption; if we replace all coal with natural gas; or if we taper off entirely by 2100 or 2050. Only the last, draconian option limits the ultimate temperature rise to 2.0°C, according to my math.
I also had some “fun” in Chapter 9 stepping through the process by which a radiative imbalance equilibrates (Figure 9.15), and computing the timescales for melting ice and heating up the ocean (section 9.4.2).
Box 13.3 in Chapter 13 looks at solar-powered transportation. Why had I never before computed that a Boeing 737 could only get 4% of its cruise power from direct solar power? It’s an important demonstration of physical limitations.
Box 14.3 computes the thickness of all life on the planet, if squashed to a uniform layer surrounding the globe. It’s 4 mm thick! Or should I say 4 mm thin? That’s precious thin: a fragile wafer. It’s what makes this planet special, and our own lives possible. That’s the ultimate treasure of the planet, and deserves every protection we can offer.
Figures 15.14 and 15.15 are my attempt to explain the origin of nuclear waste, and why the neutron-rich daughter nuclei are radioactive hazards. This resurfaces in Figure 15.19 on nuclear waste radiated power, which I derived from probabilities and decay energies found in the Chart of the Nuclides. On another front, a quick-and-dirty financial assessment for both fission and fusion does not put them in a favorable light against (also expensive) solar, while solar is much safer.
The only good part about Chapter 16 is the fish duo in Figure 16.2.
Box 17.1 is a bit of a follow-up to Box 13.3 on solar transportation, exploring electric (battery-powered) passenger airplanes, concluding that for the same “fuel” load, range would be cut by a factor of 20 (to about 200 km), making them sort-of useless.
Chapter 17 also introduces an alternative scoring of the Matrix, based on student weights for the ten attributes of each source. I was interested to see if the fossil fuel gap persists (it does), and if the rankings change (mostly, they don’t).
Box 19.1 takes a stab at quantifying the dollar value of Earth. It’s a crude approach, and not entirely defensible. But even under dubious assumptions, the resulting price is so preposterously large that the point is fairly robust: Earth is far more valuable than our global annual economy, by as much as a factor of a million. Decisions based on money (i.e., most decisions) are therefore woefully misguided. Earth and its ecosystems should come first in societal decisions. Sorry if capitalism gets hurt in the process. Money ceases to have meaning without a life-bearing planet. Priorities!
Chapter 20 works to frame individual adaptation and quantitative assessment of energy footprints. The biggest new piece is the quantitative toolset developed in Section 20.3.4 for assessing dietary energy impact. I think this kind of analysis has the potential to meaningfully reshape our habits and expectations around food choices.
Section D.3 in the Appendices represents a first attempt on my part to nail down the implications of electrified transport for shipping as well as personal transport. Part of the work was already done for Box 17.1 (airplanes), but I had never put pencil to paper on cargo ships or long-haul trucking. The results address the “why can’t we just…” musings on electrifying all transportation. It’s hard. Table D.2 is still new enough to me that I need to study it more and internalize it.
Okay—that takes care of the nuts-and-bolts additions. What larger messages might emerge from the textbook that may not have been apparent in previous Do the Math content?
Life is Precious
Much of the focus of this blog, and of the textbook, is on energy and resources. But a consistent undercurrent advocates prioritizing nature above ourselves. See, for instance, the reference to Box 14.3 in the section above. Also, Box 19.1—in computing the monetary value of the planet—stresses the backwards way we assess value. We put the flea (economy) in charge of the dog (Earth), ignoring the important fact that the flea can’t live without the dog. An upcoming post will illustrate this theme in an absurd yet compelling manner.
In the end, as the Epilogue wraps up, I try to encapsulate this in a message to the future (but not too soon to adopt the message now!!): Treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves. It’s a partnership, and the health of the former is a prerequisite to the health of the latter.
Focus on the Long Term
Chapters 18 and 19 discuss the limitations of short-term focus in the face of our challenges. Democracy and business interests tend to have a very short focus, making us vulnerable to the Energy Trap.
But Section D.5 in the Appendix takes this to an expansive vista. It starts with the observation that civilization (cities, agriculture) began roughly 10,000 years ago. Lest we be nearer our end than the beginning, we should be thinking about practices consistent with another 10,000 years on this planet, at least. Maintaining uninterrupted civilization (preserving knowledge without a catastrophic reset) for this long is what we will call successful. Failure to do so is, well, failure.
What would it take to achieve success? As spelled out in section D.5, almost nothing we do today contributes to ultimate success. Therefore most of our actions today only make failure more likely. To me, that is sad to contemplate. Each passing day that we do not prioritize the natural world makes ultimate success a more distant prospect.
Section D.6 follows this up with musings on the role of human intelligence in an evolutionary context. My conclusion is that evolution tinkers, and is capable of producing a being that is too smart to succeed. We have the power to create our own failure, and take many species down with us. It’s time to “ask not” what we can do with our power, but what we should do to best ensure a long, rewarding existence in partnership with the rest of nature.
This Moment is Abnormal
Perhaps the most important message the new textbook can convey is that the abnormality of the last few centuries has turned us into the worst judges of future possibilities. Several times in the book, I compare the present era to a fireworks show: dazzling, awe inspiring, and a short-lived exception to “normal” activity. At least we can appreciate the aberration that a fireworks display represents by comparing it to a longer baseline: we have a broader context. Yet for those born and raised entirely within the fireworks show, it is easy to understand how their world view would be badly distorted.
Margin note 12 in Chapter 2 and the one below it points out our tendency to extrapolate, and think that just because we got “lucky” once (finding and learning to exploit fossil fuels) does not mean the trend will continue indefinitely. People often process the abnormality of our time in a dangerous way: because people 200 years ago could not possibly have predicted the amazing life of today, we are equally ill-equipped to fathom the miracles of tomorrow. I appreciate the bigness of thought that it takes to conceive of this. It’s a fair and alluring point. But it also ignores data and context: physical limits; a “full” earth; exhaustion of one-time resources; climate change perils; systemic collapses in ecosystems around the globe. Please work harder to incorporate these “wrinkles” into an otherwise grand notion.
Somewhat relatedly, margin note 24 in Chapter 2 and note 11 in the Epilogue make reference to the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” parable. This is a story told by adults to caution kids against raising false alarms, as setting up a reflexive dismissal of “fake news” can have damaging consequences. But consider two overlooked aspects of this story: first, a wolf did eventually appear and wreak havoc; and second, shouldn’t the adults bear responsibility for not protecting the town? Is the child really to blame? What idiots would put the responsibility of town protection on a child? I say that the failure rests mostly on the adults. They should recognize that children are prone to false alarms, and admonish them for knowingly creating disruption—after checking on the possibility of a real threat, for goodness sake! They utterly dropped the ball, and paid the price.
I came to think as I put finishing touches on the textbook that if asked to pick one message to communicate with this book it would be that the recent highly anomalous past has cruelly misshapen our perception of future possibilities. I put this into the abstract (and the back cover of the paperback), and sprinkled it into the text as an afterthought (search the word fireworks for some instances). As important as this point is, its presence throughout is implicit. I will likely try to more directly integrate the thought into a future edition.
A grounded understanding that our time is grossly abnormal in the long view is, I think, a necessary first step in snapping out of our current mindset, shaking off fantastical dreams, and getting to work defining and implementing a future that can actually work. It’s time to break the spell.
HELP SPREAD THE WORD
I am too close/biased to judge whether this book has enough intrinsic merit and appeal to “catch on” and reach a broad audience. But people will not give it a chance and instructors won’t adopt it for classrooms if too few people even know about it. Because I intentionally bypassed a for-profit publisher to make the book freely available, I lose the benefit of any publicity apparatus a publishing company might provide. So it’s down to “the people” to let others know of its existence. Fortunately, social media channels are well suited to this. Please consider sharing this book with others (reference the link to the book, not this “inside baseball” post). I hope the book is written in a way that can draw people in and then inspire them to keep turning pages. If recommending to friends and family, perhaps think about targeting a section or two to avoid their feeling overwhelmed by a textbook-sized reading assignment. If you can think of a personal connection to make it more directly relevant to them, all the better.
I don’t think I have ever asked for this sort of favor, and am not wholly comfortable with the appearance that I am shamelessly self-promoting here. But since I receive no financial benefit (even from the printed book) or prospect of job promotion as a result, I can convince myself that it’s out of a hope that the book might have some power to change minds and play some small role in setting us onto a more successful path. Call it optimism, bias, over-confidence, or whatever, but if the book can gain significant traction, then perhaps it deserves every chance and advantage. If months or years go by, this “old news” textbook will no longer have the shiny luster of newness, and will be less likely to spark a flame equal to the task ahead of us. The book may flop on its own (lack of) merits; then it flops—so be it. But let’s at least be able to say that it wasn’t for lack of trying to make people aware of its presence.
Apneaman wrote a song to celebrate the return of Tom Murphy:
Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back
He went away and hopium hung around And bothered me, every night And when I wouldn’t buy into it You said things that weren’t very nice My Physicist’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) You see him comin’ better SHUT UP on the double (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) You been spreading lies that collapse was untrue (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) So look out now ’cause his math foretells doom He’s been gone for such a long time (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) Now he’s back to prove we’re out of time (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) We’ll all be sorry we were ever born (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) ‘Cause his brain’s kinda big and his math’s da bomb (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) (You’re a Green dreamer now but he’ll cut you down to size (Wait and see) My Physicist’s back he’s gonna prove our damnation (Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back) If I were you I’d pray for endtimes salvation (Hey-la, hey-la, my Physicist’s back) Yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Look out now, yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) I could see him comin’ so you better get a runnin’ alright now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) My Physicist’s back now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back) Know he’s comin’ after you because he knows I’ve been true to doom (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)
Three years ago I wrote about Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” here. The gist of it is that the collective effect of individuals making independent, well-intentioned, rational decisions regarding the use of a shared resource, such as livestock pastures in the past, and our entire planet today, leads to the degradation of the resource such that it can no longer support the individuals that depend upon it.
I was impressed with Hardin’s clear and direct thinking about over-population:
To couple the concept of freedom to breed (in a welfare state) with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.
It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience.
I summarized Hardin’s position on population control 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.
I concluded that since Hardin wrote his paper 50 years ago the accessible evidence for severe overshoot is overwhelming and proves that Hardin was wrong in that education alone is not sufficient to pass the necessary population control laws.
I asked, how can a majority emerge to support a contentious law to control breeding when the vast majority of 7.6 billion people deny human overshoot?
If you deny the existence or implications of overshoot, then it is logical to embrace one or more of the many arguments against population control, austerity, and conservation. On the other hand, if you embrace the reality of overshoot, then population control, austerity, and conservation not only become perfectly reasonable, they become the most important, ethical, moral, and rational things we must do.
There was a hint in Hardin’s paper that he may have understood the centrality of reality denial to our predicament:
… natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. 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.
Hardin did not elaborate further on reality denial but did reference another paper he wrote titled “Denial and the Gift of History” published in a 1964 book edited by himself titled “Population, Evolution, and Birth Control”.
I was unable to obtain this book and 3 years ago asked readers to help me find it. A kind reader named “V” recently found it and I thank him/her very much.
It appears to be an important book that will be of interest to students of human overshoot. Here is an enticing summary I created from the best bits of the 1st and 2nd edition back covers:
Population, Evolution, and Birth Control: A Collage of Controversial Ideas
Assembled by Garrett Hardin, University of California, Santa Barbara
“Every year Malthus is proven wrong and is buried—only to spring to life again before the year is out. If he is so wrong, why can’t we forget him? If he is right, how does he happen to be so fertile a subject for criticism?”
“The emerging history of population is a story of disaster and denial—disaster foreseen, but disaster psychologically denied in our innermost being. How can one believe in something—particularly an unpleasant something—that has never happened before?”
With these questions Professor Hardin introduces this unique collection of readings on what is perhaps the most important social problem besetting mankind—the population problem.
For the past twenty years Garrett Hardin has focused his interests on the social implications of biology. He has drawn together here what he considers the most effective published statements made in support of, and in opposition to, the questions at issue. Arranged to show the historical development of major ideas, the more than 100 articles, reviews, and criticisms serve to clarify the points of controversy. Editorial comments accompany the readings, but the reader is urged to draw his own conclusions.
Among the selections are writings dating from Old Testament times to the present. They include extracts from Malthus’ first essay, from Margaret Sanger’s autobiography, from the book Famine—1975! by William and Paul Paddock, which despite its startling and unpopular conclusions, may prove to be a turning point in population literature, and a recent essay by Roman Catholic Dr. Frederick E. Flynn that presents the startling new interpretation of “natural law” that Dr. John Rock used in his book, The Time Has Come, to argue that progesterone oral contraceptive is theologically acceptable to the Catholic Church.
Other important readings include J. H. Fremlin’s “How Many People Can the World Support?”, Paul Ehrlich’s “Paying the Piper”, Kingsley Davis’ “Population Policy: Will Current Programs Succeed?”, and Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”.
Each article was selected in the light of its proved effectiveness in stimulating classroom discussion. The collection provides excellent collateral reading for any course of study that deals with the social impact of science—whether taught in departments of biology, anthropology, economics, sociology, geography, or others.
GARRETT HARDIN studied at the University of Chicago and at Stanford University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1941. He has been associated with the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford University, and the California Institute of Technology; and he is now professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written a popular introductory textbook, “Biology, Its Principles and Implications”, and a general work, “Nature and Man’s Fate”. The present collection of readings was a natural product of his experience in developing discussion classes in universities and in adult education programs.
My initial reaction was, OMG, we’re definitely not becoming wiser. Over 50 years look how far we’ve fallen in public discourse and university teaching of important matters.
So far I’ve only studied the one essay “Denial and the Gift of History”, which I extracted in full below, and the remainder of this post discusses it. A quick scan of the book suggests it contains many more essays worthy of future time and discussion.
I summarize Hardin’s “Denial and the Gift of History” as follows:
Denial of death is a widely recognized human behavior.
Humans have also denied unpleasant realities throughout history.
Due to denial’s ubiquity, a biologist must conclude it is at least in part genetic.
Denial in moderation is more advantageous to the survival of an individual than extreme denial, or the absence of denial, hence denial’s ubiquity in humans.
While advantageous to an individual, denial is a grave threat to society, because the rate of change of overshoot threats is slow relative to a single lifetime, and thus are easy to deny.
“The Gift of History” is that studying prior collapses of ecosystems and civilizations can teach us to overcome our denial of current events.
My conclusions about Hardin on denial:
Hardin got a lot right:
denial is ubiquitous in humans
denial is genetic
denial of overshoot is a key threat to the species
Hardin missed a lot:
denial is not an interesting oddity of human behavior, denial is central to the emergence of behaviorally modern humans
the need for denial of death with an extended theory of mind drove the evolution of the more generic denial of unpleasant realities – in other words, denial of death is central, denial of everything unpleasant is an artifact
Hardin was wrong on the solution to overshoot:
50 years of history has proven that knowledge and education will not overcome our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities like overshoot
Here’s the complete essay:
Denial and the Gift of History by Garrett Hardin
“None believes in his own death,” said Sigmund Freud. “In the unconscious everyone is convinced of his own immortality.” He was not the first to say this. The poet Edward Young, more than two centuries earlier, wrote: “All men think all men mortal but themselves.” Very likely others, even before Young, recognized this power of denial in man’s life.
The operation of denial is evident in all literature, particularly heroic literature, which is the visible monument of this psychological process. “A thousand shall fall at thy right hand, ten thousand at thy left, but it [i.e., death] shall not come nigh thee,” said the Psalmist. How our breast swells with confidence at these words! Religion must surely be good if it can instill in man this most useful confidence in his powers! So says the apologist for religion, after giving up the defense of its verity. It is a powerful apology. It is no doubt the cornerstone of the philosophy of life of both geniuses and habitual criminals. Arthur Koestler has reminded us that during the days when pickpockets were executed in England, the day of a hanging was a day of great profit for other pickpockets who circulated through the tense and orgasmic crowd. Statistics gathered from the early nineteenth century showed that out of 250 men hanged, 170 had, themselves, witnessed an execution. Denial plays havoc with the deterrence theory of punishment.
“Nothing can happen to me,” said Freud’s poor Hans, the road mender. Great kings are no wiser. When Croesus contemplated waging war against the Persians he consulted the oracle at Delphi, who replied, with her characteristic ambiguity: “If Croesus should send an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire.” Delighted with the reply, Croesus attacked, and the prophecy was fulfilled: a great empire was indeed destroyed—his.
Are we less the victims of denial now, two and a half millennia later? Consider an article published in the Wall Street Journal discussing the dangers of thermonuclear war. More than four columns were devoted to a glowing description of how our stockpiles made us capable of destroying the Soviet Union “in several ways and several times over.” But, as Jerome Frank has pointed out, the article included just two slight references to what the USSR could do to us. The oracle of Wall Street has spoken: “If we wage thermonuclear war, a great nation will be destroyed.” Nothing could be clearer.
But perhaps it is only men of great affairs, practical men, who are the victims of the impulse of denial? Hardly; the biographies of scientists and scholars are replete with accounts of behavior that denies the implications of knowledge. Herbert Conn, a pioneer in the public hygiene movement, did not hesitate to use the public drinking cup himself; and though he warned that the housefly was a carrier of typhoid he did not bother to close his own screen doors. And Freud, who declared that children should receive sex instruction from their parents, left his own children to learn the facts of life “from the gutter,” like everyone else.
How are we to explain the persistence and ubiquity of denial? As biologists we adhere to the working hypothesis that every trait has both genetic and environmental components. As evolutionists we ask, what is the selective advantage of the trait that the hereditary component should so persist through centuries and millennia? Does nonrealistic thinking have a survival value? Is denial superior to truth? These are unpleasant surmises. The problem is a difficult one, and it cannot be said that any man has the answer. But biologists know of a suggestive model—the sickle-cell trait. It is caused by genes.
In malarious regions of Africa the human population is genetically diverse with respect to this trait, and the diversity is stable (so long as we don’t drain the swamps to kill mosquitoes or introduce atabrine to destroy the malarial parasites). The sickle-cell gene causes the red blood cells of the body, normally disc shaped, to become sickle shaped. Only the disc-shaped cells support the life of the parasite. But sickle cells are bad for the human; if a person has only sickle genes, he suffers from anemia, and usually dies young. In a malarious environment it is best to be a hybrid; such individuals are resistant to malaria, but do not suffer from anemia. Individuals having completely normal cells are not anemic, but suffer from malaria. To be hybrid is (individually) best, but a hybrid population is not stable; it constantly throws off some offspring having only genes for normal cells (these are eliminated by malaria) and some having only sickle-shaped cells (who are eliminated by anemia). Only some (50 percent) of the offspring are hybrid.
Is this perhaps the analogical model we need to explain the persistence of denial among humans? The purest deniers live in a world of magic; its lack of congruence with the real world causes the statistical early death of this group. Among these magicians we must number early aeronauts, men who go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, gold prospectors, and indeed all compulsive gamblers. At the other extreme are men of so realistic and cautious a disposition that they are left behind so long as there remains a frontier where rewards are great. A world made up only of such men of pure sensibleness would never invent the submarine or the airplane, never discover the New World. Denial, dangerous though it is, does have some survival value.
The power of denial, valuable though it may be to the individual competitive man of action, is a grave danger to society as a whole. The time scale of historical change, extending as it does over many human generations, makes denial easy and plausible. We tend to assume that as things are now, they have always been, and there’s nothing to worry about in the future. The tourist of the Mediterranean lands naturally assumes that the picturesque and poverty striken countrysides of Spain, Italy, Greece, and Lebanon looked always thus, not realizing that these deserts and near deserts are the work of unconscious man. Plato, in his Critias, says:
“There are mountains in Attica which can now keep nothing but bees, but which were clothed, not so very long ago, with fine trees producing timber suitable for roofing the largest buildings, and roofs hewn from this timber are still in existence. There were also many lofty cultivated trees.
The annual supply of rainfall was not lost, as it is at present, through being allowed to flow over a denuded surface to the sea, but was received by the country, in all its abundance—stored in impervious potter’s earth—and so was able to discharge the drainage of the heights into the hollows in the form of springs and rivers with an abundant volume and wide territorial distribution. The shrines that survive to the present day on the sites of extinct water supplies are evidence for the correctness of my present hypothesis.”
Every move today to preserve the beauty of the forests, the purity of the air, the limpidity of the streams, and the wildness of the seashore is opposed by practical and powerful men. The reasons they give are various, and are (of course) couched in the noblest terms. Freely translated, the voice of the practical man is that of Hans the Road Mender: It can’t happen to me. Other Edens have become deserts, other empires have fallen, other peoples have perished—but not us. We deny the evidence of logic and our senses. As La Fontaine said, “We believe no evil till the evil’s done.”
The gift that history has to give us is freedom from denial. Historical decay takes longer than the efflorescence and decay of a single life, and so it is not easily perceived as a real process and a real danger. But the study of history, if it is to have any real worth, must convince us of the reality of processes that extend over more than a single life span. To achieve this goal we must explicitly state the therapeutic function of history, which is this: to reveal and neutralize the process of denial in the individual. If we fail in this our fate will be that which Santayana described: “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All
Michael Shellenberger has been fighting for a greener planet for decades. He helped save the world’s last unprotected redwoods. He co-created the predecessor to today’s Green New Deal. And he led a successful effort by climate scientists and activists to keep nuclear plants operating, preventing a spike of emissions.
But in 2019, as some claimed “billions of people are going to die,” contributing to rising anxiety, including among adolescents, Shellenberger decided that, as a lifelong environmental activist, leading energy expert, and father of a teenage daughter, he needed to speak out to separate science from fiction.
Despite decades of news media attention, many remain ignorant of basic facts. Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas.
Curiously, the people who are the most alarmist about the problems also tend to oppose the obvious solutions.
What’s really behind the rise of apocalyptic environmentalism? There are powerful financial interests. There are desires for status and power. But most of all there is a desire among supposedly secular people for transcendence. This spiritual impulse can be natural and healthy. But in preaching fear without love, and guilt without redemption, the new religion is failing to satisfy our deepest psychological and existential need.
Key points from the interview:
It’s unhelpful, unscientific, and depressing to describe our problems in apocalyptic terms.
Doomers are angry depressed people who want the world to collapse.
Environmentalism fills a spiritual need within atheists. When you’re living a life of prosperity and you stop believing in god and think you’ll become worm food after you die, you ask yourself what’s the purpose of life?
There is no 6th mass extinction underway. We are only causing 0.001% of species to go extinct each year. It is a problem that we’ve reduced wild animals by 50% since 1970 but the solution is to end poverty.
People are overreacting to Amazon deforestation.
CO2 emissions in advanced countries have been falling for years.
Nobel price winning economist William Nordhaus has shown that 4 degrees temperature rise is optimal considering the benefits of burning fossil energy and the costs of climate change; it’s a good thing we’re only going to experience 3 degrees rise thanks to us switching from coal to clean and amazingly abundant natural gas.
Nothing bad is going to happen at 3 or 4 degrees temperature rise, nor will it remove the flood control system that protects my house in Berkeley. The only bad thing that might happen at 4 degrees is we grow less food, but that can be solved by providing tractors, irrigation and fertilizer to farmers in poor countries.
The Netherlands has proven that sea level rise is not a problem for rich countries.
Eating less meat will not help climate change nor improve your health. We evolved to eat meat and CAFO’s have reduced our use of land for livestock by an area equivalent to Alaska.
People wanting to lower their impact should drive a used car and fly less.
Cheap abundant energy is the source of our well being.
Renewable energy has too low power density to support our lifestyle. If you want to reduce climate change you should support nuclear energy.
Using more energy is good for people and nature because it reduces the consumption of materials.
The solution to environmental problems is to bring poor people up to our standard of living.
To summarize what I think is Shellenberger’s message:
A modern affluent lifestyle is good for the environment and is enabled by abundant low cost energy.
Renewable energy does not have sufficient power density, we need fossil and nuclear energy.
There are serious environmental problems but helping poor countries achieve a similar lifestyle to ours will solve many of them, and if we’re wealthy we can cope with the remaining problems.
I think Shellenberger is intelligent and is correct on many of his points. Unfortunately the points he’s wrong on are fatal:
Affordable fossil energy will deplete much quicker than he assumes. Our economic problems of the last 12 years are evidence that power down is underway.
If I’m wrong on the depletion rate of affordable fossil energy, our economic growth will be constrained by other non-renewable resources.
Nuclear energy was once a good idea, but not now that fossil energy depletion is weakening economies and governments thus making good governance a too risky bet. Nuclear also doesn’t solve our dependency on diesel for tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships.
The consequences of our current 1 degree temperature rise are already dire due to the loss of ice. The 3 degrees Shellenberger is comfortable with will create a planet incompatible with modern civilization due to the impact on food production and sea level rise. Even if I’m wrong, we won’t have the wealth to cope.
People like Michael Shellenberger, Eric Weinstein, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari demonstrate that regardless of how intelligent or well educated you are, if you deny the reality of energy depletion, then most of your beliefs are probably wrong, because pretty much everything depends on energy.
Perhaps this is why Nate Hagens once likened discussing peak oil to eating a bad oyster.
I just finished the book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel L. Everett. Thank you to Perran for recommending it.
A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.
Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977–with his wife and three young children–intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding: The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live–so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them.
Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.
I read the book hoping to find some evidence either supporting or contradicting Ajit Varki’s MORT theory. It was an enjoyable and very interesting read. The author is smart, articulate, and an engaging expert on languages and anthropology.
Everett describes in detail the Pirahã (pronounced Pita-hah) which is (was?) a rare tribe whose culture has (had?) not yet been significantly modified or subsumed by contact with modern industrial civilization.
The Pirahã are unusual in that they have no origin myths or well defined religion, although they do believe in spirits, but Everett was very vague on how these spirits influence their culture. The Pirahã have no interest in, and resist conversion to, other religions like Christianity.
I was most interested to learn whether the Pirahã believe in life after death because this is central to Varki’s MORT theory. I found it very odd that the author, a former Christian missionary, would discuss almost everything about their culture except their belief, or lack thereof, in life after death. Everett did say the Pirahã bury their dead with the few valuable items they own, which to me suggests they do believe in life after death, otherwise why not keep the wealth for the living?
I found it difficult to identify Pirahã behaviors that suggested they do or do not deny unpleasant realities. Perhaps this is a side effect of them living in the moment and therefore having many fewer unpleasant things to deny.
In summary then, with respect to support for or against Varki’s MORT theory, I’d say there was evidence for denial of death, but not much else.
The book offered, as a pleasant surprise, some genuine inspiration on how to lead a happier and more sustainable life.
The behavior of the Pirahã suggests that the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) may not be a primary driver in all human cultures, as I had previously assumed. The Pirahã work hard to acquire enough resources to survive, and will fight to protect those resources if necessary, but do not acquire nor desire more resources than required to survive.
The Pirahã live in and enjoy the moment. They do not obsess about bad events in the past. They do not worry about the future. They forgive quickly. They laugh, tell stories, and dance. They are proud of their way of life. Everyone is expected and does contribute to the tribe, unless they are physically unable, in which case the tribe looks after them.
I very much like stories with happy endings and this book delivered. Everett began his work as a devout missionary trying to convert the Pirahã to Christianity. Over time his scientific training that required evidence based reasoning, and the obvious fact that the Pirahã led happy fulfilling lives without Jesus, caused Everett to abandon Christianity and become an atheist. Hallelujah!
I wish the Pirahã would turn the table and send out missionaries to convert the 8 billion lost souls that need salvation.
P.S. Everett did a nice take-down of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, which I enjoyed, because Chomsky irritates me as yet another famous polymath who knows a lot about everything, except what matters.
Whether pondering black holes or predicting discoveries at CERN, physicists believe the best theories are beautiful, natural, and elegant, and this standard separates popular theories from disposable ones. This is why, Sabine Hossenfelder argues, we have not seen a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics for more than four decades.
The belief in beauty has become so dogmatic that it now conflicts with scientific objectivity: observation has been unable to confirm mindboggling theories, like supersymmetry or grand unification, invented by physicists based on aesthetic criteria. Worse, these “too good to not be true” theories are actually untestable and they have left the field in a cul-de-sac. To escape, physicists must rethink their methods. Only by embracing reality as it is can science discover the truth.
My review is brief but accurate:
Not in denial.
Most of the physics Hossenfelder discussed was over my head but it makes me happy to be reminded of what the brain of our species is capable of achieving.
I also very much enjoyed watching a great intellect take down other great intellects that are denying reality.
I’m pretty sure Hossenfelder’s a denial mutant. I wish she would read and discuss Varki’s MORT theory.
I will read her book again soon.
Hossenfelder blogs here, and makes physics videos here.
Here is a must watch 7 minute synopsis of the book by the author.
Her most recent video took down Trump using quantum mechanics.
Hossenfelder also makes music videos here and here. These are a couple of my favorites.
After watching this book sit near the top of popular book lists for several years I thought I should re-read it to see if I missed something. I posted the following refreshed review on Goodreads.
Another fine example of Panglossian cognitive dissonance in the tradition of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Ridley’s Rational Optimist.
Harari gets everything right except what matters: human overshoot and the total dependence of everything he admires about humans on rapidly depleting non-renewable resources.
Harari does seem to get the fact we’re trashing other species and the planet but then leaves that thought unfinished and shifts to an abundant future with genetically engineered humans and artificial intelligence.
By pandering to and reinforcing the human tendency to deny unpleasant realities it’s no wonder his book is popular.
Despite being very well read he’s just another idiot monkey in denial.
Dr. Ajit Varki, the scientist who inspired this blog with his book, published a paper for a new book today, which expands on his Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.
Varki, in the past, has been self-critical of his 2013 book feeling that it did not receive the time and polish that his theory deserved. It is clear that Varki set out to remedy the defects of his book with this paper because it’s beautifully written, concise, logically structured, and well referenced. I encourage you to read the paper in full here, or you can download a pdf here.
What follows are a few excerpts from the paper that I thought were noteworthy, and some new ideas from Varki. I also discuss any points where Varki and I differ.
Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience? A Theory that Can Explain Unusual Features of the Origin and Fate of Our Species
Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species––including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants, and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One collection of such related features is our remarkable ability for ignoring or denying reality in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias, and irrational risk-taking behavior (herein collectively called “reality denial”). Such traits should be maladaptive for reproductive success when they first appear as consistent features in individuals of any species. Meanwhile, available data suggest that self-awareness (knowledge of one’s own personhood) and basic theory of mind (ToM, also termed mind-reading, intentionality etc.) have evolved independently several times, particularly in the same kinds of species mentioned above. Despite a long-standing opportunity spanning tens of millions of years, only humans appear to have gone on to evolve an extended ToM (multilevel intentionality), a trait required for optimal expression of many other unusual cognitive attributes of our species, such as advanced linguistic communication and cumulative cooperative culture. The conventional view is that extended ToM emerged gradually in human ancestors, via stepwise positive selection of multiple traits that were each beneficial. A counterintuitive alternate possibility is that establishment of extended ToM has been repeatedly obstructed in all other species with the potential to achieve it, due to a “psychological evolutionary barrier,” that would arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM. Such individuals would observe deaths of conspecifics whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into mortality salience (understanding of personal mortality). The resulting conscious realization and exaggeration of an already existing intrinsic fear of death risk would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals (by favoring personal survival over reproduction). This “psychological evolutionary barrier” would have thus persisted until hominin ancestors broke through, via a rare and unlikely combination of cognitive changes, in which two intrinsically maladaptive traits (reality denial and extended ToM) evolved in the minds of the same individuals, allowing a “mind over reality transition” (MORT) over the proposed barrier. Once some individuals broke through in this manner, conventional natural selection could take over, with further evolution of beneficial aspects of the initial changes. This theory also provides a unifying evolutionary explanation for other unusual features of humans, including our recent emergence as the dominant species on the planet, and replacement of all other closely related evolutionary cousins, with limited interbreeding and no remaining hybrid species. While not directly falsifiable by experiment, the MORT theory fits with numerous facts about humans and human origins, and no known fact appears to strongly militate against it. It is also consistent with most other currently viable theories on related subjects, including terror management theory. Importantly, it has major implications for the human condition, as well as for many serious current issues, ranging all the way from lack of personal health responsibility to ignoring anthropogenic global climate disruption, which now threatens the very existence of our species.
The yaksha asked: “What is the greatest surprise?” Yudhisthira replied: “People die every day, making us aware that men are mortal. Yet we live, work, play, plan, etc., as if assuming we are immortal. What is more surprising than that?”
Perhaps because I’m an electrical engineer who specialized in operating system design, rather than a life sciences practitioner, I’ve never been totally comfortable with MORT’s focus on the evolution of an extended theory of mind (ETOM). There are many unique properties of the human brain, in addition to ETOM, such as symbolic language and advanced intellectual abilities.
It feels more accurate to speak about a barrier to evolving a brain with higher computing power. We all know that a more powerful desktop computer can do more advanced things like speech recognition and video editing. Ditto for a biological CPU. A more powerful brain can better understand the thoughts of others AND extrapolate its own mortality AND implement complex speech AND read symbolic text AND calculate quantum mechanics AND fly to the moon AND invent technologies to dominate all other species.
This more general way to think about MORT does not change or invalidate Varki’s thesis because it’s the same mortality awareness barrier, but provides a clearer explanation of what probably happened when we broke through the barrier, or at least it does for this cranky old engineer.
I think reality denial unlocked nature’s ability to evolve a more powerful CPU, with the first enhancement being an extended theory of mind, and subsequent enhancements being other uniquely human intellectual capabilities.
In case you doubt that 1-200,000 years is enough time to evolve sufficient computing power to figure out the laws of physics and fly to the moon, recall that we created a Chihuahua from a wolf in about 32,000 years.
I also want to mention that there is another complementary theory for the evolutionary requirement that high brain power co-evolve with reality denial.
Any evolved behavior that might tend to override MPP, such as sufficient intelligence to understand Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, with wisdom to constrain offspring and consumption, will be weeded out by selection pressures. Put more succinctly, free will on behaviors relevant to overshoot, cannot exist.
If true, this means it is impossible for high intelligence to exist without reality denial, and MORT is one solution evolution has discovered to implement this. On another planet, evolution by natural selection might discover a different means of unlocking high intelligence with reality denial.
Varki has created several new graphics to help explain his theory. I particularly like this one:
I was pleased to see that Varki now draws a link between his theory and that of Trivers’ theory of self-deception:
It is also noteworthy that the ability to hold false beliefs, self-deception, optimism, and confidence might support a successful mating strategy, especially for males. This suggestion is congruent with Trivers evolutionary theory of self-deception that includes denial of ongoing deception, self-inflation, ego-biased social theory, false narratives of intention, and a conscious mind that operates via denial and projection to create a self-serving world.
Varki makes an interesting case that human physiological ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in that postnatal development mirrors the expected transitions to an extended theory of mind:
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Varki, perhaps due to my encouragement, has drawn a stronger link between religion and his MORT theory:
Depending on the lens through which it is studied, one aspect of religion can also be considered as strong evidence in support of MORT. Most human behaviors exist in other species on a continuum of development, as one would expect from evolution. But religion appears to be a well-established near universal only in human cultures and there are many obvious fitness advantages that have been discussed by others. But most of these advantages should not require a belief in life after death. Nevertheless, almost all religions have at their core some form of such afterlife beliefs, which would serve as another mechanism to blunt the impact of mortality salience. Of course, atheists do not live in constant fear of their mortality, so the underlying reality denial appears to be the primary mechanism.
Not having to worry about farting in a sandbox filled with kids I have to play with every day, I go a step further and assert that MORT created God.
I also make a stronger claim that all religions, not just most religions as stated by Varki, have at their core a belief in life after death.
It is also a theory that appears to fit with all known relevant information, and is not apparently negated by any other facts, but also cannot be definitively falsified at this time by an experiment.
For me, MORT will be be falsified if we can find a single religion anywhere in time or place that does not believe in some form of life after death.
I love that Varki draws a link between MORT and the many peculiar things humans do to distort reality:
…could the well-known human craving for mind-altering substances also be partly due to the need to escape reality? Could the same be true of the positive value of meditation methods that focus on mindfulness of the present, or the shutting out of irksome reality? Conversely, could episodic panic attacks represent a sudden failure of the neural mechanisms of reality denial?
Varki introduces a new and very interesting idea that reality denial first emerged in males and an extended theory of mind in females, and that it took considerable time for the alleles to mix and stabilize:
Assuming that such an evolutionary transition did occur, what might have been the contributions of sex and gender? As illustrated in the very speculative Fig. 8, human males are at greater risk of autism spectrum disorders, more prone to selective reality denial, systematizing, optimism bias, and risk-taking behavior. Conversely, human females are more prone to empathy, cooperation, theory of mind, depressive realism, and major depressive disorder. Considering these sex and gender differences (which are of course on a continuum, and affected by many cultural and genetic factors), could it be that the original evolutionary transition involved mating of males with a complex genotype manifesting as maladaptive reality denial––with females having an equally complex genotype, suffering from mortality salience due to an enhanced theory of mind? Although we cannot know for certain, could such mating have generated an unusual collection of alleles, as an explanation for the origin of humans? Assuming that generating and stabilizing the optimal combination of such alleles were was difficult, perhaps it took a very long time. Perhaps there was a prolonged interim state of recurrent cognitive instability, with ongoing dangers resulting from reality denial and/or existential angst, and possibly even high rates of suicide. Could this difficult transition explain the >100,000-year gap between the genetic origin of modern humans and archeological evidence suggesting our emergence in Africa and then elsewhere?
I personally think it slightly more likely that the 100,000 year gap can be explained by the time it took natural selection to evolve a more powerful CPU once the MORT barrier was breached.
I chuckled at Varki’s awareness of the reality that his theory will not be acknowledged as true in his lifetime, and I admire his self-confidence that it will be acknowledged after he’s dead:
The theory is also consistent with all known facts, compatible with all other related theories, and not negated by any currently known facts. On the other hand, it is not directly testable by experimental reproduction and not directly falsifiable by experimental approaches. Given also the counterintuitive nature and unusual origins of this theory, as well as the lack of expertise of the originators in many relevant disciplines, MORT is very likely to be attacked from many quarters, and resolution is unlikely during the lifetime of this author. Only the passage of time will tell if MORT is as important as plate tectonics or as completely fanciful as “phlogiston” (or something somewhere in between). Fortunately, concern for posthumous legacy is a largely meaningless exercise.
“I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain…..on these grounds I drop my anchor, and believe that the difficulties will slowly disappear.”—Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, shortly after Origin of Species was published.
I’m less confident MORT will ever be acknowledged as true because denial of denial is and must be the strongest form of denial. If denial is ever acknowledged by the herd, the whole house of cards that defines us will collapse. Of course it’s going to collapse eventually regardless, thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. But it’s too bad, tragic in fact, because with MORT awareness we could reduce future suffering, and retain more of our best accomplishments.
Varki concludes the paper by discussing the implications of his theory, and says that it’s time for legitimate fear-mongering.
I observe with some irony that the existential threats, besides climate change, that Varki lists are insignificant compared to the threats he does not mention, such as human overshoot and the depletion of low-cost non-renewable resources, and other limits to growth, that are currently roiling social unrest around the globe, and creating unsustainable debt growth, zero or negative interest rates, money printing, and a widening wealth gap.
Coda: Relevance to the Current Human Condition and the Future of Our Species.
The 2007 draft of Danny Brower’s incomplete manuscript that I modified and expanded into a co-authored book (Varki & Brower, 2013) included the following prescient observations: “We are polluting the earth and changing the climate in ways that we can’t predict, and likely at some point, can’t easily reverse. If we’re so smart, why do we continue to sow the seeds for our eventual destruction? Because we are saddled with a brain that is designed by selection to cope with the ultimate disaster (death) by denying that it will occur, and so we treat other impending disasters by denying that they will ever happen ……Indeed, it is arguable that we are destined ultimately to destroy ourselves as a species.”
Although many of our follies arising from reality denial can at least theoretically be eventually reversed, there are two that definitely cannot be turned back once they occur: global nuclear holocaust and anthropogenic climate change. Although not an expert on climate, discussions with such individuals lead me to the conclusion that the human-induced climate disruption is already occurring, and that absent major changes in current human behavior and/or human intervention there is a very high probability of irreversible global catastrophic climate disruption before mid-century (Gilding, 2012; Gore, 2007, 2013; Guterl, 2012; Hansen, Sato, & Ruedy, 2012; Mann, 2012; Wallace-Wells, 2019), i.e., a “climate holocaust.”
In other words, we are putting our children on an airplane with a very high probability of a catastrophic crash (McKibben, 2019; Rich, 2019). If this theory regarding the evolutionary origins of human reality denial is true, the first step to reversing the situation would seem to be a full awareness of our genetic tendency to reality denial by the media, and by our scientific and political leaders. Sadly, it is unlikely that rational discussion or scientific details will be sufficient to sway the average human to do what is right for the future of our species, let alone leaders who are focused on near-term political and economic goals.
The only solution then may be “legitimate fear-mongering ”! It is notable that it was such fear-mongering that once brought all the nations of the world together during the Cold War, to minimize the risk of a nuclear holocaust (Caldicott, 2017). The only other hope may be to combine fear with shame and guilt, imposed upon adult humans by adolescent school children, who can better imagine the dire future we are leaving them to face (Kjeldahl & Hendricks, 2019). As the 15-year-old Greta Thunberg said to the elites at Davos: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.” Of course, even if we manage to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, there are the other existential threats to our species that reality denial makes us prone to, such as widespread and indiscriminate applications of artificial intelligence (Müller, 2016) to the generation of “deep fake videos” (Stover, 2018) and other gross distortions of reality at a population-wide level.
If this theory turns out to be the correct explanation for the origin of the species, it might ironically also be now sowing the seeds of our demise.
Varki’s last sentence captures the essence of this blog:
un-Denial = unmasking denial: creator and destroyer
I am very grateful, and pleasantly surprised, that Varki credited me in his paper despite the fact that this blog will probably be viewed by his colleagues as a cave for doomer whack jobs. 🙂
In 1953 Watson and Crick wrote a brief letter to the journal Nature to lay claim to being the first to identify the mechanism for replication of genetic information.
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
I’m following Watson and Crick’s example to lay claim to a new idea here on this blog that is read daily by millions of people that are curious to understand the evolutionary origins of a religious fire ape that has used its unique intelligence and behaviors to dominate its planet, while at the same time denying its obvious state of overshoot and the damage it is doing to the ecosystems that sustain it.
About 1 or 2 million years ago our primate ancestors mastered the use of fire to cook food. Cooking increased the energy available from food thus enabling the evolution of a larger brain. These primates used their more powerful brain to cooperate and create technologies like stone tools and weapons that enabled them to prosper and expand their range.
Several hundred thousand years ago the evolution of increased brain power and associated social cooperation bumped up against a barrier. This barrier resulted from a reduction in reproductive fitness when the brain became powerful enough to understand its own mortality. Several different hominid lines were blocked by this barrier. Then about one or two hundred thousand years ago, one small tribe in Africa evolved a mechanism to break through this barrier. The evolutionary trick was to simultaneously evolve an extended theory of mind with a behavior to deny unpleasant realities like mortality. The two otherwise maladaptive features when combined became a powerful adaptive advantage by enabling the evolution of a more powerful brain with an extended theory of mind.
Having broken through the mortality awareness barrier, the tribe became what we now call behaviorally modern humans, with religions rooted in life after death, and exploded out of Africa to populate the entire planet, initially displacing all other hominids, and today is well underway to displacing many other species, including perhaps itself.
What Varki does not explain is why did humans use their extended theory of mind to cooperate more frequently than to fight?
I’ve recently read a new book by Richard Wrangham titled “The Goodness Paradox” in which Wrangham explores the paradox of humans having low reactive violence and high proactive violence.
As an aside, Wrangham is also the originator of the “cooking made us human” theory that I discussed above, and I recommend his earlier book on this topic.
Wrangham argues that the success of behaviorally modern humans is due to social cooperation which enabled more effective resource acquisition, defense, offense, technology advancement, trade, and the specialization of skills that are characteristic of our species.
Wrangham’s novel idea is that social cooperation was enabled by self-domestication. The self-domestication process was accomplished by tribe members ganging up on and killing any overly aggressive males in their tribe. Over time we thus became a kinder gentler species that can walk into a Starbucks filled with strangers and not be at risk of being torn limb from limb as would happen to a chimpanzee in the same situation.
Domestication of a species often results in many non-selected side effects such as neoteny, white patches of fur, and the floppy ears of dogs. Wrangham explores many characteristics of humans that may be side-effects of domestication such as our unique tendency to enter exclusive same-sex relationships.
Wrangham thinks the key enabler for human self-domestication was the evolution of an extended theory of mind that permitted tribe members to conspire and plot against their aggressors.
What Wrangham does not explain is what enabled the evolution of an extended theory of mind?
So here’s my big Watson and Crick like idea that I’m laying claim to for future generations to admire.
It’s called the Denial to Domesticate (DtD)™ theory and is a unifying bridge between the two brilliant theories of Varki and Wrangham.
DtD states that MORT enabled Self-Domestication.
More specifically, mastery of fire for cooking enabled a big brain, which was blocked from being used to its fullness by mortality awareness, which evolved reality denial to enable an extended theory of mind, which enabled individuals to conspire to kill aggressors, which self-domesticated our behaviors, which enabled large groups of humans to cooperate, which enabled us to take over the planet.
Readers of this blog will know that our core enablers, fire (think climate change) and reality denial (think peak oil, species extinction, etc. etc.), do not bode well for our future. We are fire apes that deny reality.
Being an electrical engineer well past his prime, and having completed the important work, I leave it to keen young geneticists to flesh out the details of my revolutionary DtD™ theory.
P.S. I’ll bet you a Starbucks donut that one of the side-effects of DtD will prove to be symbolic language.
P.P.S. 1905 was the big year for Albert Einstein, and 2019 may be my big year. I will of course offer to share the Nobel with Varki and Wrangham because without them I’d be nothing.
P.P.P.S. Note how an engineer can pack so much profound insight into a few words:
Fire to cooking to intelligence to denial to god to plotting to capital punishment to self-domestication to Apollo 11 to 7 billion too many.