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


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

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

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

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

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

Here are the ten commandments:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By JT Roberts: On Resources and How the World Really Works

I don’t know who JT Roberts is but he is very bright and is an excellent writer. I stumbled on some comments she made in a recent post by Tim Morgan and I thought they were so good I’ve copied them here.

In the 70s just as US domestic oil production peaked Nixon made some unusual but very interesting moves.

  • Opened China for trade
  • Established the EPA
  • Created a Petro-Dollar deal with Saudi’s
  • Took the Dollar off Gold

I have a very difficult time believing that he, or his cabinet, or congress had any clue of the significance of those particular moves. I think that in particular they would not have understood the Limits to Growth reality, since they decided not to give ear to the findings by Meadows and Forester. US wealth had been built on abundant easily accessible energy and mineral resources. The US was the manufacturer to the world up until 1970 not because of innovation but because the world couldn’t compete on price. ( The Battle of Somme was the effective killing machine it was because of the cheap steel rails that had been supplied by the US, these latter became the light gauge system in the UK ) No other country had the combination of resources at the volumes that the US had. As these became depleted it hampered growth because of affordability. Had it only been a matter of raising the price to meet increased cost of production why didn’t that happen? Affordability is the real driver of growth not supply and demand.

By opening China it gave the US access to offshore its energy intensive industries like steel production, and mining. As well as labor intensive industries like clothing. ( A population living on rice is far less costly in energy terms then one living on hamburgers) Establishing the EPA created additional pressure to move manufacturing elsewhere. The suspension of Dollar-Gold convertibility was a necessity as there wasn’t enough gold to cover the dollars in circulation. It also hampered the ability to create currency. The risk was that dollar demand would collapse but that was countered with the Petro-Dollar arraignment effectively giving the currency a place to go rather than returning to the US to be inflated away. That move calmed the markets, because they felt that at least their dollars could now be converted to oil, which is of higher value than Gold.

Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi threatened the stability of that system. Saddam had boycotted sales of crude to the US in 2002 and started selling his oil in Euros. For 30 days he stopped all exports in a show of force that he had control of their national petroleum system. What he didn’t understand was he was threatening to limit access to what the US needs most, energy and resources. The war was the answer to that threat. Now Iraqi oil is safely in the control of the international oil majors. Qaddafi had made a similar error since his interest wasn’t to allow the state owned system to be controlled by the oil majors. He also threatened the the Petro-Dollar by creating a competing gold currency that was being used in Africa. The French were particularly at risk as it was replacing the Franc still in use in there former colonies.

If we look closely at NAFTA we see that much of it revolves around access to resources. In exchange for easier economic trade with the US, both Canada and Mexico have agreed to unlimited access to their oil and other resources. When the USSR fell we saw the same pattern. Anglo-US corporations rushed in to gain access to whatever resources they could. Putin the patriot didn’t play ball like Yeltsin. So now he is vilified. Canada and Mexico have peaked in oil production, and now NAFTA is at risk. The UK joined the EU just as it had oil to sell and promptly left when it didn’t.

What we see is a common pattern that is larger then any political system.

Capitalism is a dissipative system out of equilibrium, as all dissipative system are. Like hurricanes Capitalism requires energy input to exist, anything that threatens that will collapse the system. It must grow or die. Within the structure, like hurricanes, there can be self organized subsystems. Tornado’s, Micro-bursts, and other elements that feed off the core. With Capitalism these are corporations and governments. In order for the core to survive the entire system must grow in aggregate. As the net energy driving the system declines the structure weakens, like a hurricane on land or cold water.

Not only is it impossible to return to a local agricultural existence. It is also impossible to decouple the elements of the system. We see that with Trump. His platform was isolation, and now its war. He has no choice he’ll make similar moves as Nixon did, but it can’t work because there is no more sweet spots to exploit.

Just as the shale play is a high cost desperate act of a dying industry. (Shale was well know in the 70s but as uneconomical as it remains today) The US will attempt to turn back time with it’s military machine as it has in the past. The problem is they can’t return affordability so the system will simply grind to a halt.

I guess Adam Smith was right about an Invisible Hand.


Without energy to drive real growth all you have left is moving money around. I think most mistake the symptom for the cause. The lax regulations are needed to increase debt which increases money supply. So strangely the corruption is part of the system.

For example it has been documented that the primary money laundering economies are US and U.K. So for all their show as the bastions of freedom and democracy the reality is they benefit from corrupt dictators that stuff their ill gotten gains in the western banking and real estate system.

With Trump it’s just irrelevant he’s neither good or bad. He is no different then any other elected president. He is limited to the resources at his disposal and won’t accomplish anything beyond that. Basically a symptom not a cause.

The Appolo success if we so call it really needs to be considered in context. If you compare the energy production of the US with the USSR it becomes clear that technology wasn’t the key to the space race. In actuality the Soviet rocket engines were 20% more efficient and more powerful. They dared to pipe oxygen rich exhaust from the turbos into the primary engine. But it was done because of necessity they couldn’t afford to waste the fuel. It also constrained their ability to test run the engines. Instead they choose to test them at launch.

The arrow all points in the same direction. Without the resources that the US had access to the USSR could not compete. But it had nothing to do with technology because they were winners with technology.

AK 47 is another example.

I sum it up this way. If you have wood you cook with wood. If you have coal you cook with coal. If you have oil you cook with oil. If you have gas you cook with gas. If you have a lot of it you have trains, planes, and automobiles. I might add rockets. With a little of it you cook.

Technology is a function of abundance not the cause of it.

It’s interesting to note the Roman Empire grew in wealth through military conquest. Then it started developing schools of higher learning in imitation of the Greeks.

Education has never preceded empire. So the thought that education or technology are the source of wealth is false. It has always been resources. It will always be. So in that regard it is no coincidence that the US military is larger then the next 10 militaries combined. So the military industrial complex was also a necessity.

Ironically the competitive economic system, communism thought that they could only find success within a highly educated society. Lenin targeted Germany for that reason. But educated people make poor soldiers. Ignorant religious zealots make far better soldiers. Which system promoted religious freedom and zealotry? For God and Country. God save the Queen. In God we trust. One nation under God.

So in many places Americans are hated because of their ignorance. But perhaps their ignorance has been their strength all along. In this regard we might want to watch closely the current US administration.

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

By Richard Heinberg: Energy and Authoritarianism

Arab Spring, Greece, Brexit, Trump, Venezuela, and many more to follow.

Pay attention to what our leaders and experts say. Not one has a clue what is going on.

Hidden from view = No Clue = Denial


It is highly likely that, as events unfold, the causal criticality of energy decline will be hidden from the view of most observers, whose attention will be fixed instead on shocking but comparatively superficial and secondary political and social events. A more widespread understanding of the role of energy in society, and of the likely limits to future energy supplies, could be extremely beneficial in helping the general populace adapt to scarcity and avoid needless scapegoating and violence. Perhaps this essay can help in some small way to deepen that understanding.


One important wild card is the role of debt: it enables us to consume now while promising to pay later. Debt can therefore push consumption forward in time and (for a while, at least) make up for declining energy productivity. It would appear that the “fracking” boom of the past decade, which probably delayed the world oil production peak by about a decade, depended on the power of debt. But when debt defaults cascade, an economy may decline much faster than would otherwise be the case (default-led financial crashes have occurred repeatedly in modern history). And debt defaults can cripple the financial and thus the economic system of a nation with plenty of energy resources (as happened in the U.S. in the 1930s).


By Vaclav Smil: Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl

Vaclav Smil is an intelligent, wise, and knowledgeable expert on a wide range of scientific and social topics related to energy. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a respected author of many books.

In this September 2015 talk at McGill University he touches on many important topics including:

  • We are a fossil fuel civilization and will remain so for a long time.
  • Over the last 25 years we have reduced our dependence on fossil energy by only 3%.
  • Power density is critical when comparing energy alternatives.
  • Renewable energy is not renewable and does not have the density to replace fossil energy.
  • Green products are not green.
  • Nuclear energy is dead. What’s left is being developed in the wrong places.
  • CO2 capture is not a solution for climate change.
  • Developed countries do not use energy rationally. Canada (and the U.S.) are the worst offenders in the world.
  • Food and energy have never been cheaper and we should expect to pay a lot more in the future.
  • The solution to reducing waste and energy consumption is higher prices.
  • Innovation is an overvalued and exaggerated topic. All of the critical technologies civilization depends on were invented over 100 years ago.
  • There are more important issues to worry about than peak oil including water scarcity, money printing, low interest rates, and high youth unemployment.
  • Most big events in history were unexpected. We can expect surprises in the future.
  • Reasons for hope include the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, and the fact that we can have comfortable lives at a much lower level of consumption.

I agree with almost all of Smil’s points except:

  • Smil believes we are unable to accurately predict the effect of rising CO2 and therefore he is not worried about climate change. I’ve done enough reading of climate science to be confident we should be very worried.  While we are not able to precisely predict the outcome, the probable outcome of our current path ranges from dangerous to catastrophic.
  • Smil believes that with fracking and other technology improvements we will have plentiful oil for at least a hundred years. I think we will have energy shortages within 10 years. Our different views are probably rooted in different assumptions about the link between energy and the economy. Smil thinks any oil shortages will increase the price of oil thus enabling new and more expensive sources. I think rising oil prices will reduce worker productivity and incomes which will make more expensive oil unaffordable and therefore supply will reduce in an escalating feedback loop as inexpensive oil is depleted. I also think that oil depletion and consequent rising production costs are the main cause of rising debt, money printing, and low interest rates that Smil worries about.

This lecture is a must watch for people seeking to understand the issues that really matter to our experiment with civilization.

video review: Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil by Richard Smith


I’ve watched a lot of good documentaries but this one produced in 2007 by Richard Smith for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is among the very best.

Usually, the more important a non-fiction work is, the more scientific disciplines the author integrates into a coherent story. In this case, Richard Smith does a remarkable job of weaving geology, chemistry, biology, thermodynamics, climate, history, and economics into a fascinating story that follows a carbon atom as it moves about the planet over the last 200 million years.

I often marvel at, and wonder how we were blessed with such a large quantity of crude oil which we have used to build an amazing civilization. This documentary does a very nice job of explaining how crude oil was formed 160 million years ago on a hot greenhouse planet with near dead and toxic oceans. The photosynthetic bacteria that converted CO2 and sunlight into the carbohydrates that later became crude oil acted to remove CO2 from the atmosphere thus cooling the planet and returning it to a healthy environment for complex oxygen breathing life like ourselves.

Humans are now reversing this process by burning fossil carbon and returning the CO2 to the atmosphere which may return the planet to an environment incompatible with civilization. Unless, ironically, we run out of oil first, which will also cause our civilization to collapse.

What’s different this time is that humans are doing in a hundred years what took geology thousands or millions of years in the past. This speed makes the outcome more difficult to predict but common sense suggests it’s unlikely to be good.

Given that 10 years have elapsed since the documentary was produced it’s a credit to Richard Smith that it’s still relevant and accurate, although it’s a concern to see how far we have unraveled in 10 years with melting poles, record temperatures, stalled economic growth, zero interest rates, money printing, failing oil companies, and global social unrest.

It’s also a concern, but expected in light of Varki’s theory on denial, that we collectively have not yet acknowledged our predicament, let alone taken any steps to make the future less bad.

Highly recommended!

If you’d like a higher quality version than what’s available on YouTube it has been recently ripped in HD and available as a torrent here.



By Kurt Andersen: How America Lost Its Mind (On the History of Denial)

This is an interesting (and lengthy) article on the recent history of denial of reality.

In summary, we’ve always denied reality, but lately it’s getting much worse.

I observe that the author does not understand the genetic basis of denial and therefore is like a fish explaining the history of swimming without being aware of water.

And, of course, after pages of facts showing the trend and likely outcomes are very bad, the author supports Varki’s theory by ending on an optimistic note that everything will work out ok in the end.



Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.


Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

We believe that the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous and shocking truths from us, concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of aids, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

And this was all true before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.


How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.


People see our shocking Trump moment—this post-truth, “alternative facts” moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. But what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history.


The Christian takeover happened gradually, but then quickly in the end, like a phase change from liquid to gas. In 2008, three-quarters of the major GOP presidential candidates said they believed in evolution, but in 2012 it was down to a third, and then in 2016, just one did. That one, Jeb Bush, was careful to say that evolutionary biology was only his truth, that “it does not need to be in the curriculum” of public schools, and that if it is, it could be accompanied by creationist teaching. A two-to-one majority of Republicans say they “support establishing Christianity as the national religion,” according to Public Policy Polling.


Trump doesn’t like experts, because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts.


Not all lies are fantasies and not all fantasies are lies; people who believe untrue things can pass lie-detector tests. For instance, Trump probably really believed that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years,” the total falsehood he told leaders of the National Sheriffs’ Association at the White House in early February. The fact-checking website PolitiFact looked at more than 400 of his statements as a candidate and as president and found that almost 50 percent were false and another 20 percent were mostly false.

By Nate Hagens: Blindspots and Superheroes

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

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

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

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

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