On Burning Carbon: The Case for Renaming GDP to GDB

Burning Carbon

Following is a single sentence description of our predicament that includes a simple proposal for how we might increase awareness and shift behavior in a positive direction.

Given near perfect historic correlation,

and sound physics to expect causation,

between energy consumption and wealth,

more specifically US$1 (1990) = 10 mW;

and given over 85% of energy comes from burning carbon,

including ancient (oil, coal, gas), old (wood), and recent (biomass),

and the remaining 15% of energy requires burning carbon

for materials, construction, maintenance, and energy distribution,

for example, cement from natural gas, steel from coal, and diesel

machines to mine and transport the concrete, steel, and uranium,

required to build and operate hydroelectric dams and nuclear plants;

and given wind and solar can’t scale up to replace 18 TW of burning carbon,

which, for comparison, is 300 billion 60 watt bulbs, about 40 per person,

because of low power density, intermittency, and high storage cost,

and because wind and solar requires burning carbon

for materials, construction, maintenance, and energy distribution,

for example, concrete, steel, copper, glass, silicon, and composites,

and diesel trucks to transport, install, and maintain the equipment,

and diesel machines to build and maintain the access roads,

and because wind and solar equipment wears out and must be replaced

after 25 years, when there will be little remaining oil to do so;

and given that most do not understand the tight dependencies between:

burning carbon to create the wealth we enjoy and want more of, nor

burning carbon to make the nitrogen fertilizer our food requires, nor

burning carbon to pump the water we drink and irrigate crops with, nor

burning carbon for tractors and combines that permit us to specialize, nor

burning carbon to transport everything we depend on to survive, nor

burning carbon to make the concrete, steel, and glass we live in, nor

burning carbon for the vacations, recreation, and internet we enjoy, nor

burning carbon and population growth from 1 to 8 billion, nor

burning carbon and climate change that threatens our children, nor

burning carbon and sea level rise that threatens many cities, nor

burning carbon and aerosols that mask 0.5+C additional warming, nor

burning carbon and ocean acidification that is killing coral reefs etc., nor

burning carbon and the sixth great extinction, nor

burning carbon and the collapse of fisheries, nor

burning carbon and rising ground level ozone that is killing trees;

and given that most are not aware of, or preparing for,

the coming shitstorm, caused by

an energy price high enough to cover extraction costs,

that are rising 10+% per year due to depleting low-cost reserves,

is an energy price too high to permit economic growth,

and without growth, debt defaults causing a depression;

so we conjure growth with new money,

created out of thin air by increasing debt,

which is a useful trick when real growth is possible,

but a deadly trick when there are limits to growth,

because it is equivalent to eating seed corn;

and this debt is exploding to unprecedented levels worldwide,

because it now takes more than $3 of debt for $1 of growth,

with total debt about US$300 trillion, triple that in 2000,

forcing central banks to print money to keep interest rates low,

0% interest is not normal, as all grown-ups know;

and this free money has created an illusion of oil abundance,

because fracking companies can operate despite losing money,

meaning much oil will disappear when interest rates rise;

and this free money has created bubbles of unprecedented size,

in stocks, bonds, real estate, education, healthcare, etc.,

that must eventually burst and revert through their mean,

hurting even the innocents who did not participate;

thus printing money will someday cause suffering and social unrest,

via a deflationary or hyperinflationary monetary collapse,

depending on how politicians respond,

from a much higher and harmful elevation than it needed to be,

because there is no such thing as a free lunch,

and we chose not to acknowledge limits and to live within our means,

despite being warned of the dangers since at least 1972,

even though our means compared to most of history are excellent,

for example, a poor Canadian lives better than a pharaoh;

with our real wealth of net energy per person falling,

so falls our productivity,

because everything we do uses energy,

for example, 1 barrel of oil does 4.5 years of manual labor,

so $80 of oil replaces $120,000 of minimum wages,

and we burn about 33 billion barrels of oil per year,

meaning each of our 7 billion is helped by 20 energy slaves,

plus a similar number from coal, gas, hydro, and nuclear;

and because we’ve already captured most efficiencies,

so falls our real incomes,

for all except the upper 1%, which profit from money printing;

and in addition to using debt,

we further masked declining real incomes,

by lowering the cost and price of manufactured items,

by consolidating shopping at Walmart and Amazon,

and by moving good paying manufacturing jobs to poorer countries,

which made us more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions,

because everything we need is now made elsewhere,

and because trucks, trains, and ships all burn diesel oil,

and cannot practically be made to run on anything else;

and this loss of good jobs further lowered incomes,

making citizens angry, for example, Brexit and Trump;

and if citizens continue to not understand the cause of decline,

nor the plentiful reasons to be thankful,

they may someday support a despot, like Hitler,

who was supported because of harm from Weimar money printing,

and who blamed other tribes and promised war for gain;

but unlike past wars that rewarded victors with booty,

for example, the US empire and its reserve currency,

the next war will return few rewards to the victor,

because we’ve already burned most of the good booty,

and we’ll burn a lot more waging war,

and we’ll risk annihilation with nuclear weapons,

that a desperate country without oil and hope may use;

so it’s therefore a really good idea for citizens to understand,

that geology, biology, and thermodynamics caused our predicament;

so citizens can’t be persuaded to blame another person or tribe;

and so citizens see the blessing for their children of burning less carbon,

because a 1C rise caused the climate problems we’ve already experienced,

and another 1C rise is baked in no matter what we do,

because CO2 passed 400 ppm, and is still rising,

meaning our great, great, great, great, grandchildren

already have to contend with at least 10 meters of sea level rise,

and we’re on a catastrophic path to another 2C rise, or more,

meaning most humans in a few generations will not survive,

unless we soon mostly stop burning carbon,

which depletion will force anyway, unfortunately too late;

and so citizens see the wisdom of using some remaining carbon wealth,

to build a softer landing zone,

in preparation for a world with local food and local economies,

and much less energy, wealth, complexity, and population;

and given that our culture, leaders, and news,

focus almost exclusively on GDP growth,

which, as we’ve seen, is actually growth in burning carbon;

and given our need for constant reinforcement,

to fight our human tendency to deny unpleasant realities,

which blocks awareness, discussion, and action,

on every issue that matters, for example,

climate change, peak oil, and over-population,

all symptoms of overshoot,

which the Green Party doesn’t even mention;

we should seize a simple public education opportunity,

by renaming

GDP (Gross Domestic Product)

to

GDB¹ (Gross Domestic Burn);

so every time we discuss the economy we worship,

we are reminded how fortunate we are to be alive,

on an extraordinarily rare and beautiful planet,

with extraordinarily rare and beautiful eukaryotic life,

with an extraordinarily rare and intelligent brain,

during the brief 100 year period, out of 4 billion,

with abundant burning carbon,

and the many reasons for

thankfulness and temperance².

 

¹I first heard the term “GDB” in a presentation by Nate Hagens.

²tem·per·ance /ˈtemp(ə)rəns/ (noun): moderation or self-restraint in action, consumption, statement, etc.

A good place to go next is You know you are in trouble when…

 

Learn Not to Burn

 

Or, if you prefer to read as a paragraph…

Given near perfect historic correlation, and sound physics to expect causation, between energy consumption and wealth, more specifically US$1 (1990) = 10 mW; and given over 85% of energy comes from burning carbon, including ancient (oil, coal, gas), old (wood), and recent (biomass), and the remaining 15% of energy requires burning carbon for materials, construction, maintenance, and energy distribution, for example, cement from natural gas, steel from coal, and diesel machines to mine and transport the concrete, steel, and uranium, required to build and operate hydroelectric dams and nuclear plants; and given wind and solar can’t scale up to replace 18 TW of burning carbon, which, for comparison, is 300 billion 60 watt bulbs, about 40 per person, because of low power density, intermittency, and high storage cost, and because wind and solar requires burning carbon for materials, construction, maintenance, and energy distribution, for example, concrete, steel, copper, glass, silicon, and composites, and diesel trucks to transport, install, and maintain the equipment, and diesel machines to build and maintain the access roads, and because wind and solar equipment wears out and must be replaced after 25 years, when there will be little remaining oil to do so; and given that most do not understand the tight dependencies between: burning carbon to create the wealth we enjoy and want more of, nor burning carbon to make the nitrogen fertilizer our food requires, nor burning carbon to pump the water we drink and irrigate crops with, nor burning carbon for tractors and combines that permit us to specialize, nor burning carbon to transport everything we depend on to survive, nor burning carbon to make the concrete, steel, and glass we live in, nor burning carbon for the vacations, recreation, and internet we enjoy, nor burning carbon and population growth from 1 to 8 billion, nor burning carbon and climate change that threatens our children, nor burning carbon and sea level rise that threatens many cities, nor burning carbon and aerosols that mask 0.5+C additional warming, nor burning carbon and ocean acidification that is killing coral reefs etc., nor burning carbon and the sixth great extinction, nor burning carbon and the collapse of fisheries, nor burning carbon and rising ground level ozone that is killing trees; and given that most are not aware of, or preparing for, the coming shitstorm, caused by an energy price high enough to cover extraction costs, that are rising 10+% per year due to depleting low-cost reserves, is an energy price too high to permit economic growth, and without growth, debt defaults causing a depression; so we conjure growth with new money, created out of thin air by increasing debt, which is a useful trick when real growth is possible, but a deadly trick when there are limits to growth, because it is equivalent to eating seed corn; and this debt is exploding to unprecedented levels worldwide, because it now takes more than $3 of debt for $1 of growth, with total debt about US$300 trillion, triple that in 2000, forcing central banks to print money to keep interest rates low, 0% interest is not normal, as all grown-ups know; and this free money has created an illusion of oil abundance, because fracking companies can operate despite losing money, meaning much oil will disappear when interest rates rise; and this free money has created bubbles of unprecedented size, in stocks, bonds, real estate, education, healthcare, etc., that must eventually burst and revert through their mean, hurting even the innocents who did not participate; thus printing money will someday cause suffering and social unrest, via a deflationary or hyperinflationary monetary collapse, depending on how politicians respond, from a much higher and harmful elevation than it needed to be, because there is no such thing as a free lunch, and we chose not to acknowledge limits and to live within our means, despite being warned of the dangers since at least 1972, even though our means compared to most of history are excellent, for example, a poor Canadian lives better than a pharaoh; with our real wealth of net energy per person falling, so falls our productivity, because everything we do uses energy, for example, 1 barrel of oil does 4.5 years of manual labor, so $80 of oil replaces $120,000 of minimum wages, and we burn about 33 billion barrels of oil per year, meaning each of our 7 billion is helped by 20 energy slaves, plus a similar number from coal, gas, hydro, and nuclear; and because we’ve already captured most efficiencies, so falls our real incomes, for all except the upper 1%, which profit from money printing; and in addition to using debt, we further masked declining real incomes, by lowering the cost and price of manufactured items, by consolidating shopping at Walmart and Amazon, and by moving good paying manufacturing jobs to poorer countries, which made us more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions, because everything we need is now made elsewhere, and because trucks, trains, and ships all burn diesel oil, and cannot practically be made to run on anything else; and this loss of good jobs further lowered incomes, making citizens angry, for example, Brexit and Trump; and if citizens continue to not understand the cause of decline, nor the plentiful reasons to be thankful, they may someday support a despot, like Hitler, who was supported because of harm from Weimar money printing, and who blamed other tribes and promised war for gain; but unlike past wars that rewarded victors with booty, for example, the US empire and its reserve currency, the next war will return few rewards to the victor, because we’ve already burned most of the good booty, and we’ll burn a lot more waging war, and we’ll risk annihilation with nuclear weapons, that a desperate country without oil and hope may use; so it’s therefore a really good idea for citizens to understand, that geology, biology, and thermodynamics caused our predicament; so citizens can’t be persuaded to blame another person or tribe; and so citizens see the blessing for their children of burning less carbon, because a 1C rise caused the climate problems we’ve already experienced, and another 1C rise is baked in no matter what we do, because CO2 passed 400 ppm, and is still rising, meaning our great, great, great, great, grandchildren already have to contend with at least 10 meters of sea level rise, and we’re on a catastrophic path to another 2C rise, or more, meaning most humans in a few generations will not survive, unless we soon mostly stop burning carbon, which depletion will force anyway, unfortunately too late; and so citizens see the wisdom of using some remaining carbon wealth, to build a softer landing zone, in preparation for a world with local food and local economies, and much less energy, wealth, complexity, and population; and given that our culture, leaders, and news, focus almost exclusively on GDP growth, which, as we’ve seen, is actually growth in burning carbon; and given our need for constant reinforcement, to fight our human tendency to deny unpleasant realities, which blocks awareness, discussion, and action, on every issue that matters, for example, climate change, peak oil, and over-population, all symptoms of overshoot, which the Green Party doesn’t even mention; we should seize a simple public education opportunity, by renaming GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to GDB¹ (Gross Domestic Burn); so every time we discuss the economy we worship, we are reminded how fortunate we are to be alive, on an extraordinarily rare and beautiful planet, with extraordinarily rare and beautiful eukaryotic life, with an extraordinarily rare and intelligent brain, during the brief 100 year period, out of 4 billion, with abundant burning carbon, and the many reasons for thankfulness and temperance².

 

By Raúl Ilargi Meijer: 10 Years Automatic Earth

central-bank-balance-sheet
Chart by Charles Hugh Smith @ https://www.oftwominds.com/blogjan18/CB-conflict1-18.html

Here is a nice 10 year recap on the work of Nicole Foss and Raúl Ilargi Meijer, with a refresher on where we are today, and why almost everything you read in the popular media today is pure fantasy.

Note that belief in fantasy is yet another way to describe denial of reality.

The 20 trillion (that’s 20 thousand billion) dollars Meijer refers to is the amount of new debt (aka. printed money) that central banks worldwide have created since we “recovered” from the 2008 financial crisis. That’s a really really big number that should worry anyone with a functioning brain.  And it’s also a pretty good proxy for how much we’ve increased human overshoot since 2008.

https://www.theautomaticearth.com/2018/01/10-years-automatic-earth/

What has changed, and increased, a lot over the past decade is the media. They have moved, more than before, into a kind of la la land where narratives are invented and presented with the express intention of keeping people feeling good about themselves in the face of all the distortion and disasters they face.

The big move in energy is not so much peak oil, but a meme of moving away from oil. ‘Renewable energy’ is all the fad, and it works, because it holds the promise that we can maintain our levels of energy consumption, and our lifestyles in general, pretty much up to some undefined moment in the future. For all you know, a seamless transition.

It’s a nonsense narrative, which originates not just in wishful thinking, but much more than that in widespread ignorance about what energy actually is and does, and what qualities oil and gas bring to the table that no other energy source can.

We must have written a hundred articles about such themes as energy return on energy invested (EROEI), and that the EROEI on renewables doesn’t allow for our present complex societies to continue as they are. Renewables are not useless by any means, but switching to them from oil will mean a huge simplification from our present lives. More than anything, probably, we have to ask if that would be such a bad thing.

But that is a question we avoid at all costs, because it is a threatening one. It implies we may have to do with less, and that’s not what we’re hardwired to do. Like any other species, we always want more. This is so ingrained in our world that our economies depend squarely on a perpetual need to strive for more tomorrow than we have today. Not as individuals, perhaps, but certainly as a group.

More trinkets, more gadgets, more energy. And for a -relatively- long time, more people. Relatively, because population growth is a recent phenomenon. It started at the very moment we began to have sources of ‘free’ or ‘surplus’ energy. Give any species a source of ‘surplus’ energy, and it will use it up as fast as it can, and proliferate to achieve that, until the surplus is gone. We are no different.

Of course, as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics holds, the use of energy produces waste. More energy use produces more waste. One source may be slightly less polluting than another, but it’s thermodynamics that dictates the limits here. No energy source is fully renewable, and clean energy is just an advertizing term. And with an energy return too low to run complex societies on, those are hard limits. The only way out is to use less energy, but our economic models are geared towards the opposite, as are our brains.

Meanwhile, we’re saddling our children with the consequences of our prolific use of energy. Species extinction runs a hundred or a thousand times faster than is ‘natural’, ever more of our arable land is too polluted or wasted to produce food, and the grand mass of plastics in our oceans exceeds that of the living creatures that fed us for a very long time, taking the numbers of these creatures down so fast our grandchildren will have to eat jellyfish.

Ironically (and there’s lots of irony in the story of our tragic species), we produce more food per capita today than ever before, but its distribution is so warped that one group of us throw away more than we consume, while another goes hungry. And to top it off, much of what we eat lacks nutrition, and is often even downright toxic for us; it makes us fat and it makes us sick.

Then again, our entire environment is also fast becoming toxic. We’re a bloated, obese, asthmatic, allergic and cancer-riddled species, and yet we call ourselves a success. It’s all about the narrative.

But as Nicole and I said 10 years ago, and still do, it’s finance that will be the first crisis to hit. It will hit so hard it’ll make any other crises, environment and energy, feel like an afterthought. Pension plans across the board will prove to be a Ponzi, housing will collapse, shares will crumble, scores of people will lose all their savings and their jobs, their homes.

This is because, in an ostensible effort to ‘save’ our societies and economies, our -central- bankers and politicians decided to put everything on red, and loaded another $20 trillion into the upper shelf of the financial world, the very shelf that was most rotten to begin with in more than one sense of the word. And they’re not the ones paying the heftiest price for this stupidest bet of all times, you are.

All in all, the only possible conclusion we can draw is that in the past 10 years, things have indeed changed. Thing is, they have changed for the worse. Much worse. And the recovery narrative can’t and won’t hold. Question is who realizes this, and what they are planning to do with the knowledge.

On Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons, Lacks Dialogue

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

“The maximum is not the optimum.”

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

“Birth control does not equal population control.”

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

– Garrett Hardin

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

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

Tragedy of the Commons, Pasture and Climate

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

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

Tragedy of the Commons, Drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I summarize Hardin’s position as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the most important and missing third group?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catch-22: On New Year’s Resolutions

quote-there-was-only-one-catch-and-that-was-catch-22-orr-would-be-crazy-to-fly-more-missions-and-sane-if-joseph-heller-82622

Question:  How serious is climate change and other aspects of human overshoot?
Answer:  Far worse than most can imagine. Your grandchildren and maybe your children are at risk. The evidence is obvious and everywhere, if you care to look.

Question:  What should we do?
Answer:  There is no “solution” to our predicament. But we can and should take action to reduce future suffering. Any effective response must include population reduction and reduced per capita consumption.

Question:  How many of earth’s 7,600,000,000 people have a New Year’s resolution to reduce their lifestyle and promote a one child policy?
Answer:  Almost zero. Most want a larger lifestyle.

Question:  How is this possible?
Answer:  The MORT theory explains that humans evolved to deny reality.

Question:  That’s profoundly important. How come almost no one discusses denial of reality?
Answer:  The behavior prevents us from acknowledging the behavior.

Question: I’m skeptical about the MORT theory.  What first principles support it?
Answer:

Life is chemical replicators competing for finite resources to maximize replication.

Therefore all life obeys the Maximum Power Principle (MPP).

Therefore all life will go into overshoot if it evolves the means or discovers a windfall resource like fossil energy.

Any intelligence capable of understanding and mitigating its own overshoot would conflict with the MPP.

Therefore intelligence cannot (initially?) exist without denial of overshoot.

MORT is one mechanism evolution discovered to resolve this Catch-22.

Question:  Is it possible that everyone is acting rationally because they know someone else will consume whatever they give up?
Answer:  No. If this was true we would see elections where the Green Party says “We are in overshoot and need to put on the brakes, impose austerity and conservation fairly on everyone, and prepare a soft landing zone.”, and the Business As Usual Party says “We agree we are in overshoot but the best strategy is to maximize growth so we are the last country standing”.  The reality we observe is no debate, no discussion, and no mention of the word overshoot in elections, or anywhere else that matters.

Question:  If you’re right, what are the implications?
Answer:  Intelligence is probably rare and fleeting in the universe.

Question:  I understand. I must be a mutant.  What should I do?
Answer:  Savor every day you are alive and able to understand what you observe, and try to increase public awareness of our inherited denial of reality.

D051-928
Seal Bay park, December 30, 2017.

By Ugo Bardi: Are We Decoupling?

energygdp2017

http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.ca/2017/12/are-we-decoupling-not-really-but-happy.html

When driving at speed towards a brick wall should you accelerate or brake? The laws of physics prevent you from going through the brick wall, but you can influence the condition of your health at the brick wall.

This essay by Ugo Bardi shows that our standard of living is totally dependent on non-renewable resources that emit carbon. If we continue with monetary strategies to maintain business as usual we will experience a brick wall at speed when debt accumulates to a level that makes it ineffective at supporting the extraction of high cost fossil energy, and prior to the crash, we will continue to push the climate from an already unsafe state to something worse.

A wise society would acknowledge its denial of a dire predicament, set a goal to maximize well-being at the brick wall, and step on the brake to manage a fair and civil contraction of the economy via population reduction, austerity, and conservation.

Decoupling looks like an obvious idea, isn’t it? After all, isn’t that true that we are becoming more efficient? Think of a modern LED light compared with an old lamp powered by a whale oil. We are now hundreds of times more efficient than we were and we also saved the whales (but, wait, did we…..?). So, if we can do the same things with much less energy, then we could grow the economy without using more energy, solving the climate problem and also the depletion problem. It is part of the concept of “dematerialization” of the economy. Then we paint everything in green and all will be well in the best of worlds.
But there has to be something wrong with this idea, because it is just not happening, at least at the global scale. Just take a look at the above image.
In the end, society needs energy to function and the idea that we can do more with less with the help of better technologies seems to be just an illusion. If we reduce energy consumption, we’ll most likely enter a phase of economic decline. Which might not be a bad thing if we were able to manage it well. Maybe. Calling this “a challenge” seems to be a true euphemism, if ever there was one. But, who knows? Happy 2018, everybody!

By Tim Morgan: The Way Ahead

Perfect Storm

Tim Morgan, author of the seminal report Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance and the End of Growth, from which I extracted the above image, just published a nice year end essay.

I’ve highlighted in red Morgan’s references to denial, although I don’t think he is yet aware of Varki’s MORT theory.

https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/116-the-way-ahead/

What we know

Based on the SEEDS platform, and helped enormously by reader input, we’ve reached a point at which our understanding of issues is very comprehensive, and can be considered leading-edge in providing interpretations unavailable to conventional methodologies. The system has proved itself a very effective predictor – so much so that some very general projections are made later in this discussion.

First, though, it’s well worth reminding ourselves quite how much we now know.

We know that the economy is an energy system, with a parallel financial economy attached to it in a subservient role. Most of us had long suspected that this might be the state of affairs, but we have now gone a long way towards demonstrating it. We can claim that our ability to predict has become superior to that of conventional thinking. The much-vaunted V-shaped recovery after 2008 hasn’t happened, and massive stimulus hasn’t restored robust growth. The surplus energy perspective always suggested that neither of these consensus expectations was likely to be proved right.

We have known for some time that, in the developed economies of the West, prosperity is deteriorating, something about which the consensus view is still in deep denial. Some of the consequences of waning prosperity have already become apparent, most notably in politics, where events such as “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump were wholly predictable on the basis of adverse trends in prosperity. Some other logical consequences, in business and finance as well as in politics, are eminently predictable, even though they still lie in the future.

Energy-based analysis, and recognition of the proxy nature of the financial system, have enabled us to understand policy, and its failures, over an extended period. We know that real or “organic” growth began to fade after 2000, and, because we understand energy dynamics, we know why this happened.

We can identify two phases in a process of denial-response to this basic reality. The first was the period of credit adventurism, a policy of unfettered and irresponsible debt creation between 2000 and 2008.

The second, beginning in 2008-09 and still ongoing, is monetary adventurism, and comprises the addition of the recklessness of ‘cheap money’ to the debt recklessness of the earlier chapter.

Just as credit adventurism led to the 2008 banking crash, monetary adventurism is highly likely to create a second and an even more serious (and potentially existential) financial crisis, this time extending far beyond banking, and into the fiat currency system. We know that this must have political and social as well as economic and financial consequences, and we know that the destruction of pension viability – a direct consequence of the crushing of returns on capital – will play a big part as this unfolds. Just as importantly, the conventional thinking which didn’t see 2008 coming is now in blissful ignorance about what is likely to happen next. This ignorance isn’t simply hubris or blinkered thinking. It reflects the breakdown of established paradigms.

Finally – for now – we know that the case for “sustainable development”, as it is generally understood, lacks demonstrated viability, and is a matter of assumption rather than analysis. In short, it is wishful thinking. We know this because energy-based economics, with its distinction between the real and the purely financial, requires us to understand the dynamics of credit, money and “growth”. This process strips away the claims made for growth upon which, in turn, are predicated assumptions about climate change.

 

Looking ahead

From this body of understanding, backed up by statistics, we are able to make some projections with high levels confidence about predictive accuracy. This article isn’t the place for detailed predictions, but there are a number of broad outlines which are worth noting.

Critically, prosperity in the developed economies will continue to deteriorate. This trend appears irreversible and, in some countries, is being exacerbated by mistaken policies. ‘Prosperity’, in this context, means average discretionary incomes – that is, the spending power of individuals and households, after the cost of essentials has been deducted from their resources.

We also know that this waning prosperity will be accompanied by further balance sheet deterioration, meaning that debt will continue to increase faster than economic output, and that provision for the future (most obviously, pensions) will continue to be undermined. The “global pension time-bomb”, for example, cannot be defused without the adoption of policies which would have crippling near-term effects. It seems highly likely that the public will, sooner rather than later, come to understand that their chances of enjoying a comfortable retirement are being destroyed. This recognition is likely to become a political factor of immense importance.

In a political climate characterised by deteriorating prosperity, worsening insecurity and growing resentment over perceived unfairness, the centre-right can expect to get the blame, and it can only make its defeat all the more comprehensive if it argues for more, rather than less, of failed policies like privatisation and deregulation. “Popular” or “populist” politicians can expect to make further gains, though this does not mean that their policies will always be implemented. Donald Trump’s budget, and the growing likelihood of “BINO” – meaning “Brexit In Name Only” – illustrate the determination of the elites to frustrate popular demands. These are promising conditions for the political Left, once it has purged its ranks of the “new” or “centrist” wings perceived by activists to have “sold out” to “liberal” economics in the recent past.

All of this has profound implications for business and finance. The established model, which remains built around the promotion of volume expansion despite deteriorating consumer circumstances, is going to come under increasing pressure. Any business whose strategy is founded on low wages, reduced security of employment, globalisation or the deregulation of consumer and employee protections is in urgent need of a “plan B”. Meanwhile, the near-certainty of a second financial crisis requires a rethink from financial institutions, whose assumptions about another taxpayer bail-out are, very probably, dangerously complacent.

Finally, public tolerance of wealth and income inequalities seems certain to deteriorate still further. Sooner rather than later, either Left or “populist” leaders are going to start asking quite how much money any individual actually needs. The ultra-wealthy might need to dust-off those plans for flight, though it seems increasingly likely that they can forget about New Zealand as a bolt-hole.

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

2-gs-photo

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the ten commandments:

ten-commandments-one-slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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