The laws of thermodynamics govern the universe. Of all our scientific theories, thermodynamics is the least likely to change as we learn more. In other words, thermodynamics is the bedrock of science.
As a consequence, any “sustainable” solution to our overshoot predicament must first be checked to confirm that it does not conflict with the laws of thermodynamics. Unfortunately, most solutions promoted today, like renewable energy, recycling, and a circular economy, do conflict with thermodynamics and therefore are not useful strategies.
We must reduce our population and our consumption. And we will, one way or the other.
Here is a nice essay on the thermodynamics of a circular economy by Paul Mobbs.
There are grand schemes to power the world using renewable energy. The difficulty is that no one has bothered to check to see if the resources are available to produce that energy. Recent research suggests that the resources required to produce that level of capacity cannot currently be supplied.
The crunch point is that while there might be enough indium, gallium, neodymium and other rare metals to manufacture wind turbines or PV panels for the worlds half-a-billion or so affluent consumers (i.e., the people most likely to be reading this), there is not enough to give everyone on the planet that same level of energy consumption – we’d run out long before then.
The ‘circular economy’ is, I my opinion, a ruse to make affluent consumers feel that they can keep consuming without the need to change their habits. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the central reason for that is the necessity for energy to power economic activity.
While the ‘circular economy’ concept admittedly has the right ideas, it detracts from the most important aspects of our ecological crisis today – it is consumption that is the issue, not the simply the use of resources. Though the principle could be made to work for a relatively small proportion of the human population, it could never be a mainstream solution for the whole world because of its reliance on renewable energy technologies to make it function – and the over-riding resource limitations on harvesting renewable energy.
In order to reconcile the circular economy with the Second Law we have to apply not only changes to the way we use materials, but how we consume them. Moreover, that implies such a large reduction in resource use by the most affluent, developed consumers, that in no way does the image of the circular economy, portrayed by its proponents, match up to the reality of making it work for the majority of the world’s population.
In the absence of a proposal that meets both the global energy and resource limitations on the human system, including the limits on renewable energy production, the current portrayal of the ‘circular economy’ is not a viable option. Practically then, it is nothing more than a salve for the conscience of affluent consumers who, deep down, are conscious enough to realize that their life of luxury will soon be over as the related ecological and economic crises bite further up the income scale.
It’s true that climate change is a serious threat. In fact it’s much more serious than most environmental groups acknowledge. We are already locked into a dangerous 2C higher climate with 10m of sea level rise no matter what we do. There are no actions we can take today to solve the climate problem and avoid future suffering. Our choices today are to try to maintain our current lifestyle and increase future suffering, or reduce our population and consumption, and constrain future suffering.
It’s also true that the pipeline will create some new risks for environmental damage, but these risks pale in comparison to the damage the human footprint is already causing. Habitat loss, species extinction, soil depletion, nitrogen imbalance, pollution, deforestation, overfishing, and non-renewable resource depletion are the real threats environmental groups should focus on. As with climate change, nothing can be done about these threats unless we reduce human population and consumption.
In addition, if you want to maintain our current lifestyle, and you are concerned about the risk of oil spills, then there is a good argument to build the pipeline.
With regard to First Nations rights, all 7.6 billion humans descended from one small tribe in Africa about 100,000 years ago, meaning we’re all basically the same. Environmentalists should focus on the rights of all future generations, including First Nations.
Our standard of living is completely dependent on the burning of fossil energy, especially oil. We have already burned most of the cleaner and cheaper oil. That’s why we are mining dirty expensive oil sands, and fracking. To reduce our use of fossil energy we must reduce our standard living and our population.
Put another way, new pipelines will be built for another decade or so, until even the dirty oil is gone, unless we reduce our consumption of oil, and the only way to accomplish that is to shrink our economy, standard of living, and population.
If environmental groups want to make a difference on the issues that matter, as well as lesser issues like preventing new pipelines, they must:
set good examples in their personal lives (no more than one child, no long distance travel, reduced consumption of everything);
advocate for a global one child policy;
advocate for austerity, conservation, and a smaller economy (the simplest and most effective way to accomplish this would be to implement a higher interest rate).
It’s true that our choices are unpalatable, but they are reality, and there is a key point that must be understood when weighing what to do. The remaining affordable fossil energy is depleting quickly. Extraction will, in a decade or so, become too expensive for us to afford, meaning fossil energy will be gone for all intents and purposes. When this happens, our lifestyles and population will collapse, thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, no matter what we choose to do.
The advantages of choosing to voluntarily contract today are threefold. First, we would constrain future suffering caused by climate change. Second, we could use some of our remaining wealth to prepare a softer landing zone and to orchestrate a fairer and more humane descent. Third, we might leave some oil in the ground for our grandchildren so they can enjoy some of the comforts we take for granted. The alternative of doing nothing until thermodynamics forces the issue is chaos, war, and much more suffering for all species, including humans.
This article today suggests that environmental groups may have succeeded in preventing construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline:
Kinder Morgan said it would halt nearly all work on a pipeline project that is crucial to the entire Canadian oil sands industry, representing a huge blow to Alberta’s efforts to move oil to market.
Here is what I predict will happen:
Environmentalists will continue to deny reality and focus on the wrong things.
We will not voluntarily contract the economy.
We will not implement a one child policy.
The Trans Mountain pipeline will be built, provided that our luck persists at avoiding an accidental crash caused by the instability we have created by using extreme debt to maintain an illusion of economic growth.
Let’s check back in a year to see if I am correct.
Here is my crude attempt to paraphrase Varki’s letter in simpler language:
Behaviorally modern humans successfully bred, in more than one geographic location, with our close relatives the Denisovans and Neanderthals. All of our cousins subsequently went extinct and we, the 7.6 billion offspring from interbreeding, have retained a relatively small number of genes from our cousins, mostly related, if I recall correctly, to disease immunity. The interesting fact is that no full hybrid species persisted.
This strongly suggests that there was some unique and complex combination of genes that gave behaviorally modern humans a strong cognitive advantage over their cousins.
Here is the original text:
The tour-de-force report of Sawyer et al. (1) on genomes of two Denisovans and the accompanying editorial and figure (2) support the notion of “a web of now-extinct populations linked by limited, but intermittent…gene flow” (3): involving multiple hominin lineages for thousands of years, before the mysterious disappearance of all taxa other than us “behaviorally modern humans” (BMHs). Although attention focuses on rare introgressions of non-BMH alleles facilitating adaptation of invading BMHs to ecological challenges, there is a bigger elephant in the room.
Current genomic and archaeological data indicate that BMHs arose in Africa ∼100,000–200,000 y ago and spread across the planet (including the rest of Africa), encountering other extant hominins like Neanderthals, Denisovans, archaic African hominins, and possibly other lineages from earlier diasporas of Homo erectus. Although genomic evidence indicates interbreeding, the number of functional genes incorporated is limited, resulting in a “leaky replacement” (3), without persistence of true hybrids. Thus, our single BMH (sub)species was the “winner” in every contact/replacement event, spanning tens of thousands of years. I cannot find any other example wherein a single (sub)species from one geographic origin completely replaced all extant cross-fertile (sub)species in every planetary location, with limited introgression of functional genetic material from replaced taxa, and leaving no hybrid species. Typically, one instead finds multiple cross-fertile (sub)species, with hybrid zones in between.
Although this apparent one-of-a-kind phenomenon could have occurred by chance, the singularity allows one to posit a uniquely complex genetic/biological/cultural transition of BMHs. As Pääbo suggested (3), adaptive accumulation of an “explosive constellation” of genetic variants (alleles) could have endowed BMHs with an unparalleled combination of cognitive features, guaranteeing success at every subsequent encounter with other hominins.
Why did hybrid species not persist, at least at the geographical extremes of BMH expansion? Assuming that hundreds of new alleles comprised the BMH genotype, F1hybrids with other hominins would likely lack the complete cognitive package required to compete for mating within BMH groups. Tellingly, 10 of 10 non-BMH mitochondrial sequences are outside the current BMH range (1), suggesting that mating of BMH males with non-BMH females generated progeny that were not included within BMH groups. In contrast, progeny of female BMHs and non-BMH males may have had the opportunity to survive within BMH groups, with sufficient mating success rates to allow transmissions of a few alleles valuable to the newcomers, but related to ecological adaptation, not cognition.
Such “human exceptionalism” is currently frowned upon, as are extraordinary explanations of evolutionary events. However, unless there are other clear examples of such complete replacement of all related taxa by one single (sub)species, BMHs may indeed be a rare exception. Although environmental factors such as climate or infectious disease (4) could have generated the initial African bottleneck, the critical BMH phenotype was likely cognitive. This fits ecocultural models predicting Neanderthal extinction through competition with modern humans (5) and suggests an improbable BMH transition through a long-standing “psychological evolutionary barrier”––possibly involving initially maladaptive features such as reality denial and mortality salience, which conspired to generate the winning combination (6).
Note: Ajit Varki sent me this letter when he published it but I thank reader Derek Peter Carne for reminding me about it.
Tim Garrett is the scientist with the best understanding of the relationship between energy and the economy, which means he has the best understanding of what can and cannot be done to mitigate the climate change threat.
Don’t take my word for this, read his papers and explore his site.
As far as I can tell, Garrett is ignored by all other climate scientists, and everyone that formulates climate change policies.
Think about that for a moment. Our experts ignore the one person they should not ignore.
Now you know why I am so fascinated by the human tendency to deny any reality we do not like. This tendency afflicts almost everyone, including our best and brightest.
I missed this excellent interview with Garrett when it was first broadcast in October 2017 although I have read and listened to almost everything previous he has done.
It is now generally accepted that a 5 degree rise in temperature will collapse civilization. At our current economic growth rate we can expect 5 degrees in 50 or 60 years from now. The only way to avoid this is to collapse civilization now.
I doubt there are solutions but if there are solutions we won’t get at them by imagining fairy tales like improved efficiency and renewable energy.
We need to start thinking now about the most humane way to deal with a collapsing civilization because we know from history that our tendency is to not behave well in such situations.
Interviewer: Why is your work so unknown?
Garrett: Humans have a deep-seated need for optimism and a belief that solutions exist.
“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” ~ Elizabeth Kolbert
Have things improved since I wrote my last essay a year ago for this blog? Have we miraculously transformed our entire energy system into one that does not poison and degrade the natural world? Have we slowed the onslaught of plastic pollution choking the planet’s rivers, lakes, and oceans? Have we done anything meaningful to halt the deterioration of the planet’s biodiversity toward mass extinction? Has this global, hi-tech civilization done anything significant to avert its own demise? Despite a constant flow of warnings from the scientific community and even a letter signed by more than 20,000 scientists, the simple answer is no. We have failed to address the complexity of our rising population and a degrading environment. Yes, we are self-conscious and thus able to recognize the fact that we are destroying the only home we have, but will the end result differ much from a population overshoot of bacteria in a Petri dish? Dependent on a continuous stream of finite resources imported from across the globe, modern megacities contain the seeds of their own destruction and that of all other life forms upon which humanity depends for its survival. The exponential growth of modern civilization ensures that one of the next doubling times will produce an absolute increase in overshoot that tips the world into unavoidable collapse. Enough damage may well have already been done; we’re just waiting for inertia to catch up to the impacts.
While climate models incorporate important climate processes that can be well quantified, they do not include all of the processes that can contribute to feedbacks (Ch. 2), compound extreme events, and abrupt and/or irreversible changes. For this reason, future changes outside the range projected by climate models cannot be ruled out (very high confidence). Moreover, the systematic tendency of climate models to underestimate temperature change during warm paleoclimates suggests that climate models are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate the amount of long-term future change (medium confidence). (Ch. 15)
In a new ominous research finding, the evil twin of climate change(ocean acidification) is threatening the base of the marine food chain by disrupting the production of phytoplankton. This is yet another positive feedback loop increasing the rate of global warming. Climate feedback loops and ice sheet modeling are two weak areas of climate science, which means many unpleasant surprises. This is why researchers are constantly astonished. Adaptation is not a luxury most organisms have at the present rates of change. Techno-fixes are but a pipe dream.
Humans share two behavioral traits with all other species that are critically important to (un)sustainability. Numerous experiments show that unless or until constrained by negative feedback (e.g., disease, starvation, self-pollution) the populations of all species:
• Expand to occupy all accessible habitats.
• Use all available resources.
Like mindless bacteria bent on their own success, humans are victims of their own DNA and ingenuity. Any civilization that develops energy harvesting technologies allowing for rapid population growth will generate entropy which will in turn almost certainly have strong feedback effects on the planet’s habitability. Our exponentially growing economy is on a collision course with an immovable ecosphere.
The end of the world is coming for the naked ape, not by a cabal of bankers or any sort of cockamamie conspiracy tale like chemtrails, but by us –the entire human race– and the economic system we have developed. We have become hostages to complex structures, and ever more intricate specialization, to exploit diminishing resources. Pollution and waste are of little concern for capitalism until they become a significant drain on overall profitability and new frontiers to exploit are exhausted. When profitability on a global scale is finally threatened by climate change, it will be far too late. The response will be militarized and authoritarian.
The crisis of civilization is planet-wide this time. We’ve turned a utopian world of plenty into a dystopian world of fascist-leaning governments, industrial disasters, collapsing ecosystems, and technological addiction. We have a Commander in Chief who tweets bizarre debunked conspiracies at 3 am, gets his intel briefings from right-wing TV shows, dismantles any remaining hindrances to unbridled capitalism, and doesn’t know the difference between weather and climate. Public discourse has been dumbed down to the level of Fox news talking points and tribal groupthink. Those who can discern actual ‘fake news’ from scientific fact are left to watch in horror as mainstream scientific projections continue to prove overly optimistic. Not only are regulations being cut left and right, they are not being enforced. Government science advisors are being purged and replaced with mouthpieces for industrial polluters. In fact, this administrations is actively working to delegitimize and destroy government institutions. A sizable population of low information voters supports such actions, but it’s only to their own detriment. Of course, both major parties are under the sway of corporate power, but Trump and company represent an exceptionally predatory class of people. The Union of Concerned Scientists is monitoring the current administration’s war on science and public health; their latest report is here:
The administration’s one-year record shows an unprecedented level of stalled and disbanded scientific advisory committees, cancelled meetings, and dismissed experts. The consequences for the health and safety of millions of Americans could be profound.
We live in an age of unparalleled technological advancement, while at the same time we turn a blind eye to the disintegrating natural world that gave birth to us, having forgotten that our destiny lies in our relationship with the earth. Like Icarus who, in his exuberance, ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun, modern man with his technology has ascended to great heights without heeding sound advice.
“We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.” ~ Carl Sagan
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
Michael Dowd recently introduced himself in a comment on one of my blog posts. Reviewing his large body of work has been a pleasant surprise because I thought I was aware of most of the thinkers and activists in the overshoot space, and Dowd has some excellent fresh ideas.
We seem to share a few things in common. We were born within 7 days of each other. We have been deeply influenced by many of the same great minds. We have come to similar conclusions about the severity of human overshoot. And we both would like to find some path to making the future less bad.
I’ve long thought there might only be two possible paths to pulling humanity back from the precipice. All of our destructive behaviors were created in the crucible of evolution when daily survival was paramount and overshoot was a distant future problem. Any “solution” must acknowledge the genetic underpinning of our behaviors and find a way to shift those behaviors in a positive direction.
One possible path is to acknowledge the genetic disposition for spirituality in humans, and the power religions have had throughout history to influence behavior, and to create a new religion with an overshoot harm reduction agenda. This is the path it seems Dowd has chosen.
Dowd leads a new religion grounded in science and reality that worships the universe and life, and that acknowledges the special responsibility our species has because of its rare and possibly unique ability to understand how the universe and life were created, and how our behaviors are placing us and other species in peril.
Here are the ten commandments:
This is the third of a three-part series of videos Dowd recommended as an overview of his movement. I think this sermon is excellent and worth your time.
Dowd thinks that religions are stories created by humans to explain the reality they currently live in. Our reality today is much different from the reality 2000 years ago. Today we understand the science of lightning and floods and famine and plagues and life and death. Dowd says we need to update our religious stories to reflect our current understanding of the world. He makes a persuasive case that this new story is much more majestic and inspiring than any of the old stories. An example Dowd gives is that everything in the universe, including amazing brains capable of understanding this paragraph, emerged from a cloud of hydrogen that obeyed a few well understood physical laws.
Dowd thinks the genetic underpinning of religion is the brain’s propensity to give human characteristics to non-human things in our world. I do not disagree with Dowd that the brain has this behavior but I would explain it differently. The human brain is a computing machine that creates models to explain and predict reality. We create new models using fragments of models we already have to explain what we see and to influence what we hope will happen. Some of these models (or stories) have evolved over time into thousands of religions and gods.
So far so good. Where we may disagree is that I think Varki’s MORT theory points to a deeper and more important genetic foundation of religion, denial of mortality. There is much evidence to this claim which I explored here and here. An important point being that if religions were mainly about explanatory stories and not about denial of mortality we would expect to see a few random religions with life after death stories, but not as we observe, a life after death story central to every single one of the thousands of religions, including new religions like Scientology. As a famous comedian/actor whose name we may no longer speak once said, “I don’t want to live on in the minds of my fans, I want to live on in my apartment”.
The reproductive fitness of an intelligent social species is often improved by a more powerful brain. Therefore there is evolutionary pressure in some species to become smarter. As a brain evolves increased computing power it reaches a point at which it can understand its own mortality. The MORT theory rests on the assumption, which I believe to be true, that the human brain is the only brain on our planet that has evolved this level of power. MORT explains that sufficient brain power to understand mortality, on its own, lowers reproductive fitness through reduced risk taking and depression because all complex species have evolved behaviors to avoid injury and death. Thus there is a barrier to increased brain power that can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of mortality. Crossing this barrier requires an improbable evolutionary event, analogous to the energy per gene barrier that blocked complex life for 2 billion years until a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) created the eukaryotic cell.
Humans are the only species, so far, on our planet to have crossed the barrier. Several other intelligent social species like elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and crows may be blocked at the barrier. It seems likely we outcompeted or killed all of our many hominid cousins that were blocked at the barrier for over a million years.
Evolution appears to have implemented denial of mortality in humans by tweaking the fear suppression module in our brain, which resulted in behavior that manifests as broad denial of all unpleasant realities, including mortality.
This then leads to the second promising path for trying to make the future less bad. I believe it is our inherited denial of reality that is the most important obstacle to shifting human behavior in a positive direction.
There are several encouraging examples that suggest broad awareness of a harmful inherited behavior can shift society’s average behavior in a positive direction. I plan to explore these examples in a later essay.
So my chosen path is to try to increase awareness of our strong genetic tendency to deny the behaviors that cause overshoot, and to deny the imminent dangers of overshoot.
I nevertheless applaud Dowd’s chosen path and wish him well. It will be interesting to see if a religion can succeed that conflicts with the underlying goals of our genes, namely to maximize replication by competing for finite resources.
It must have been so much easier 2000 years ago when the message of religions was to go forth, multiply, and exploit the earth’s bounty that God created for the exclusive benefit of his chosen people.
I know from experience that a message of no more than one child, austerity, and conservation is a tough sell.
I recommend you spend some time at Dowd’s site The Great Story. It has a deep library of wisdom from many great minds relevant to our predicament.