Is Covid-19 providing cover for Jay Hanson’s Society of Sloth?

Gail Tverberg made a comment today that rings true and motivated me to write about something I’ve been mulling for a while…

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2020/12/23/2020-the-year-things-started-going-badly-wrong/comment-page-24/#comment-274042

I think the reaction to COVID-19 is part of how a self-organizing system works. People were looking for a reason to cut back/shut down. The illness provided this.

I do not believe in most conspiracy theories, but I do believe that crises are frequently used to implement plans that would be impossible without a crisis. The responses to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, 9/11, and the 2008 GFC are good modern examples.

Perhaps the virus has provided (mostly subconscious) cover for:

  • citizens tired of commuting 2 hours a day to a stressful job so they could keep up with their neighbor’s latest unnecessary status symbol purchase
  • citizens who intuited they should reduce discretionary spending and pay down credit card debt, which interestingly declined in 2020, rather than increasing as it did during the 2008 GFC
  • leaders that sensed we should voluntarily throttle back, because we’d soon be forced by limits to growth
  • leaders that understood we needed to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions, and the only way to achieve this is by contracting the economy
  • leaders that needed an excuse to restrict freedoms to maintain civil order in preparation for a significant contraction of our energy/economic system
  • central banks that understood we had hit limits to growth and that needed an excuse for massive corporate bailouts to prevent a catastrophic economic collapse, and for MMT to keep citizens fed

Perhaps this helps to explain why our responses to the virus have not been intelligent or optimal:

  • effective means of containing the spread were ignored or procrastinated in the crucial early days
  • existing cheap and effective preventative measures are ignored and not promoted; new preventative measures are not researched
  • promising cheap and effective treatments are ignored and/or aggressively undermined
  • some lock-down measures lack logic or good judgement
  • the source of the virus is not being aggressively investigated to better understand appropriate responses, and to prevent a reoccurrence

To be clear, I am not suggesting a conspiracy to release a virus. I think the most probable explanation is that the virus was engineered in a lab with good intentions, and that it escaped by accident, as explained here:

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/article/coronavirus-lab-escape-theory.html

I am suggesting that people at all levels of our society appear to be using the virus as an excuse to make changes that were impossible to make prior to the crisis. Some of these plans may have been well thought out and sitting on a shelf waiting for the right circumstances, like for example MMT, and other responses, like for example citizens paying down credit card debt, may be an instinctual response to anticipated scarcity.

Jay Hanson, who died in 2018, was one of the greatest thinkers about human overshoot. I wrote more about Hanson here:

https://un-denial.com/2018/03/26/by-jay-hanson-reality-report-interview-november-3-2008/

Hanson concluded that civilization was doomed due to genetic human behaviors that were unlikely to change, and that it would probably end with a nuclear war, as discussed in this 2008 interview with Jason Bradford:

right click save as to download

Hanson did however describe one path that was thermodynamically feasible, and that might avoid some of the worst suffering.

Perhaps we have (mostly subconsciously) decided to implement some of Jay Hanson’s ideas.

https://dieoff.com/page168.htm

<begin extract from Hanson’s essay>

SOCIETY OF SLOTH

In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.
— Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762

(What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive description of a new society, but only presents some conceptual ideas for consideration.)

MY KEY DEFINITIONS

  • GLOBAL PROBLEMATIC (after The Club of Rome, 1972): Global tragedy of the commons because people are genetically programmed to more-than-reproduce themselves and make the best use of their environments.
  • COMMONS: “A commons is any resource treated as though it belongs to all. When anyone can claim a resource simply on the grounds that he wants or needs to use it, one has a commons.” [32]
  • NEEDS: Human “needs” have a scientific basis which is defined by human biology. 35,000 years ago, three million hunter-gatherers “needed” community, shelter, health care, clean water, clean air, and about 3,000 calories a day of nutritious food. Today, people still “need” the same things that hunter-gatherers “needed” then (except fewer calories).
  • eMergy: [33] eMergy (with an “M”) is the solar energy used directly and indirectly to make a service or product. In other words, eMergy is the “cost” of a service or a product in units of solar energy.
        Why eMergy? In reality, the economy is nothing but a monstrous, energy-gulping Rube Goldberg machine to deliver “needs” to people. But each of those three million hunter-gatherers was the energy-using counterpart of a common dolphin, whereas each of today’s 280 million Americans matches the energy use of a sperm whale. Obviously, the “economy” is incredibly inefficient at delivering “needs” to people.
        No doubt my statement will stick in the economist’s craw, because after all, isn’t “efficiency” what economics is all about? The problem with “economic efficiency” is that “money” is not a measure of anything in the real world (like, say, BTUs). Money is power because money “empowers” people to buy and do the things they want — including buying and doing other people (politics). Thus, “economic efficiency” is properly seen as a “political” concept that was designed to preserve political power for those who have it.
        For over a century, theorists have sought ways of integrating economics and environmental accounting, often using energy as a common measure. But these efforts met with limited success because different kinds of available energy are not equivalent. The measure of “eMergy” allows us to compare commodities, services and environmental work of different types. “Transformity” – the eMergy per unit energy – allows us to compare different kinds of available of energy.
        So we need to totally junk the present economic system and replace it with a new one that minimizes eMergy costs (not money costs ) and delivers basic needs (not Cadillacs) to everyone in a sustainable way.
  • SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Sustainable development both improves quality of life and retains continuity with physical conditions; it requires that social systems be equitable and physical systems circular (industrial outputs become industrial inputs).
  • AUTHORITY: Goals (or ideals) are not produced by a consensus of the governed, rather a qualified authority determines goals. For example, physical goals for sustainable development must come from “scientific” authority — because no one else knows what they must be. All contemporary political systems are “authoritarian” with the moneyed class ruling the pseudo democracies.
  • COERCION (politics): To “coerce” is to compel one to act in a certain way — either by promise of reward or threat of punishment. Two obvious examples of coercion are our system of laws and paychecks.
  • THE ONE-AND-ONLY HUMANE SOLUTION: “Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” [34] A global system of coercion — laws, police, punishments and rewards. In principle, the global commons can only be managed at the global level by people who understand the physical systems involved: scientists. Global coercion can be seen in the worldwide reactions to ozone depletion and global warming. Remarkably, even economists find that authoritarian coercion can make them “better off”:

A group of economists had gathered at my house for dinner. While we were waiting for the food in the oven to finish cooking, I brought a large bowl of cashew nuts into the living room where people were having cocktails. In a few minutes, half the bowl of nuts was gone, and I could see that our appetites were in danger. Quickly, I seized the bowl of nuts and put it back in the kitchen (eating a few more nuts along the way, of course). When I returned, my fellow economists generally applauded my quick action, but then we followed our natural inclinations which was to try to analyze the situation to death. The burning question was: how could removing an option possibly have made us better off? After all, if we wanted to stop eating cashews, we could have done that at any time. [35]

Besides laws and paychecks, coercion can take many forms:

It is not necessary to construct a theory of intentional cultural control. In truth, the strength of the control process rests in its apparent absence. The desired systemic result is achieved ordinarily by a loose though effective institutional process. It utilizes the education of journalists and other media professionals, built-in penalties and rewards for doing what is expected, norms presented as objective rules, and the occasional but telling direct intrusion from above. The main lever is the internalization of values. [36]

Step one would be to establish a global government of some sort with the authority to protect the global commons — our life-support system — as well as protecting universal human rights. This government would also oversee the “clean” manufacturing of “repairable” and “reusable” energy-efficient appliances and transportation systems. It would also insure the sustainable production of staples like wheat, rice, oats, and fish.

Does this new global government sound repressive or restrictive? Not at all. A great deal of freedom is possible — in fact, far more than we have now.

eMERGY CERTIFICATES
Step two would be to replace the organizing principle of “avarice” with the principle of “sloth”; break out of the money-market-advertising-consumption death trap. The Society of Sloth would not be based on money because that would be inherently unsustainable. Instead, it would be based on “eMergy Certificates”. [37]

Global government would determine the “needs” of the public, set industrial production accordingly, and calculate the amount of eMergy used to meet these needs. Government would then distribute purchasing power in the form of eMergy certificates, the amount issued to each person being equivalent to his pro rata share of the eMergy cost of the consumer goods and services.

eMergy certificates bear the identification of the person to whom issued and are non-negotiable. They resemble a bank check in that they bear no face denomination, this being entered at the time of spending. They are surrendered upon the purchase of goods or services at any center of distribution and are permanently canceled, becoming entries in a uniform accounting system. Being non-negotiable they cannot be lost, stolen, gambled, or given away because they are invalid in the hands of any person other than the one to whom issued.

Lost eMergy certificates would be easily replaced. Certificates can not be saved because they become void at the termination of the two-year period for which they are issued. They can only be spent.

Insecurity of old age is abolished and both saving and insurance become unnecessary and impossible. eMergy Certificates would put absolute limits on consumption and provide people with a guaranteed stream of “needs” for life.

With modern technology, probably less than 5% of the population could produce all the goods we really “need”. A certain number of “producers” could be drafted and trained by society to produce for two years. The rest can stay home and sleep, sing, dance, paint, read, write, pray, play, do minor repairs, work in the garden, and practice birth control.

SELF-DETERMINATION
Any number of cultural, ethnic or religious communities could be established by popular vote. Religious communities could have public prayer in their schools, prohibit booze, allow no television to corrupt their kids, wear uniforms, whatever. Communities of writers or painters could be established in which bad taste would be against the law. Ethnic communities could be established to preserve language and customs. If someone didn’t like the rules in a particular community, they could move to another religious, cultural, or ethnic community of their choosing.

In short, the one big freedom that individuals would have to give up would be the freedom to destroy the commons (in its broadest sense) — the freedom to kill. And in return, they would be given a guaranteed income for life and the freedom to live almost any way they choose.”

<end extract from Hanson’s essay>

preptip: Save Your Sole

Bedwell Trail, Strathcona Park, British Columbia, July 2020

Walking in nature is one of the best things to do,

because our genetic memory makes it very enjoyable,

and it’s good for your body’s respiration and motility,

and it calms your soul in times of stress,

and it requires little money, fossil energy, or equipment,

except a good pair of boots,

and assuming your food and shelter needs are met,

you can continue to enjoy walking in nature,

long after SHTF,

and after you’re too old for other activities,

so you can depend on walking in nature,

provided you have a good pair of boots,

and in addition,

after fossil energy is scarce,

and when you need to earn a little money,

doing physical labor,

because that’s the only work that will pay,

or you need to grow a little food,

because you need to eat,

you can use those same boots to help,

and given the mind boggling complexity required,

to manufacture and deliver a pair of boots,

they will never be better quality or more available than today,

and given the trillions of dollars being printed,

to pretend and extend the impossible,

they will never be less expensive than today,

and given they don’t go bad,

and will be valuable to trade for other necessities,

there is no good reason not to have a few spares,

of my personal favorites,

sitting at the sweet spot of price, utility, comfort, and durability,

for everyday walking,

the Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX,

and for overnight hikes with heavy loads,

the Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX,

both of which are among the most popular boots in Canada,

and which almost never go on sale,

except today,

perhaps because the virus is hurting suppliers,

and they need to juice their year-end revenue,

when I noticed they are 25% off at some retailers,

like Valhalla Pure Outfitters,

which is why I wrote this preptip.

Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX
Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX

The un-Denial Decision Tree

This post was inspired by a comment from reader Kira. She asked if denying climate change was the same as denying death. I answered as follows:

“I suspect there are 2 main groups of people:

One group is the 95% of the population that doesn’t really understand the science or the severity of the problem. They see bad things happening with the weather, but they also hear on the news that countries have signed an agreement to prevent the temperature from rising more than 2 degrees, and they see neighbors buying solar panels and electric cars, which they’re told by experts are solutions to climate change, so their optimism bias that comes from genetic reality denial leads them to conclude that the climate problem is being addressed, and they put it out of mind.

The other group is the 5% that does understand the science and the severity of climate change. These people have enough intelligence and education to conclude that we are already screwed regardless of what we do, and that any effective mitigation effort must involve a rapid decrease in population and/or per capita consumption. It is within this group that genetic denial of unpleasant realities is operating in full force. Most of these experts genuinely believe that climate change can be safely constrained, and economic growth can continue, by replacing fossil energy with solar/wind energy and by using machines to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. These beliefs are so absurd, and so contrary to basic high school level science, that there can be no other explanation than genetic realty denial. In this group, maybe it is death that is the main thing being denied.”

Kira said she agreed and then suggested it might be better to let people, and especially young people, remain in blissful ignorance so that they do not become depressed and lose a sense of purpose.

I thought about it and created the following decision tree of possible paths to answer her question.

  1. Humans are in serious trouble
    1. Disagree (I believe in God or Steven Pinker)
      • path: Carry on and oppose anything that threatens your beliefs and lifestyle
    2. Agree (I believe my eyes)
      1. It’s too late to do anything useful (nature’s forces now dominate human forces)
        1. Agree (a reasonable position given the data, but only if you think other species don’t matter, and 8 billion suffering humans is no worse than 8 billion minus 1 suffering humans)
          • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
        2. Disagree (there’s still time to make the future less bad, even if all we do is reduce harm to other species and/or total human suffering)
          1. Humans can’t or won’t change their behavior in time
            1. Agree (most of history says we only change when forced, and the coming debt/energy/climate collapse will be too severe for any good to come of it)
              • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
            2. Disagree (I believe Sapolsky that behavior is plastic and we have enough energy left to build a softer landing zone)
              1. Genetic reality denial blocks any useful change
                1. Disagree (I deny that I deny reality)
                  • path: Make yourself feel good by recycling your garbage, shopping with reusable bags, buying an electric car, and voting Green
                2. Agree (it’s not possible to act optimally without understanding reality)
                  1. Awareness of genetic realty denial will increase awareness of reality
                    1. Disagree (most people just want to pay their bills and watch TV)
                      • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
                    2. Agree (most people want to learn)
                      1. Awareness of reality will cause positive behavior changes
                        1. Disagree (if the majority understood reality it would be Mad Max)
                          • path: Try not to think about it and enjoy the good days that remain and/or do some prepping to extend your good days
                        2. Agree (most people want to do the right thing, especially if pain is shared fairly)

This tree of (usually subconscious) decisions a person must make to decide which path to take about human overshoot results in 7 possible paths.

Six of the paths do not improve the outcome. One of the paths might improve the outcome, but has a very low probability of success because it’s currently occupied by a single old uncharismatic antisocial engineer.

Most people who really understand our overshoot predicament would probably discard my complicated decision tree and focus on a single issue: humans can’t or won’t change.

This view was recently voiced by reader Apneaman in a comment:

But can’t/wont. Have not.

Why? Like Sabine says…………

Now, some have tried to define free will by the “ability to have done otherwise”. But that’s just empty words. If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.

No plan, no matter how spiffy & technically feasible, or logical argument can convince me that the humans are capable of collective change. I’ll need to see it to believe it. Same as God. Only Jesus floating down from the firmament & performing 10 miracles that are so spectacular they would make illusionist David Copperfield blush could convince me of the supernatural.

While true that it’s difficult to cause people to collectively do things they find unpleasant, or that conflict with the MPP objectives of their genes, it’s not impossible and not without precedent. I gave the following examples:

When the Canadian government says to its citizens:

  • Everyone must pay about 50% of their income as tax to operate the country.
    • Most citizens comply, and those that don’t are usually caught and forced to pay an extra penalty.
  • Germany has attacked our friend and we need our young men to risk their lives by fighting a war on a different continent.
    • Most eligible young men volunteered.
  • A virus threatens to overrun our healthcare system and we need citizens to stay at home except for essential activities which must be conducted with a mask.
    • Most citizens will comply.

Now if the Canadian government said to its citizens the combined threats of climate change and diesel depletion threaten our food security within 10 years, so we are putting in place incentives to encourage local food production and processing, and to decrease food imports, I think most citizens would support the plan.

If then after a couple years of further study and communication on the threat, the government said we don’t think there will be enough food to support our population in 10 years so we are stopping immigration and requiring families to have no more than one child, I think most citizens would comply.

The issue of course is that the Canadian government is not going to acknowledge or act on our overshoot threat in this manner.

Why?

I think it’s due to our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities, whenever we can get away with it.

Taxes, war, and viruses are very unpleasant, but they’re in your face and impossible to deny.

Food shortages 10 years out are easy to deny.

How do we change this?

It has to start with discussing and trying to understand our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities. Hence the path I’ve personally chosen in the above tree.

On Garrett Hardin’s Denial and the Gift of History

Three years ago I wrote about Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” here. The gist of it is that the collective effect of individuals making independent, well-intentioned, rational decisions regarding the use of a shared resource, such as livestock pastures in the past, and our entire planet today, leads to the degradation of the resource such that it can no longer support the individuals that depend upon it.

I was impressed with Hardin’s clear and direct thinking about over-population: 

To couple the concept of freedom to breed (in a welfare state) with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience.

I summarized Hardin’s position on population control as follows:

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

I concluded that since Hardin wrote his paper 50 years ago the accessible evidence for severe overshoot is overwhelming and proves that Hardin was wrong in that education alone is not sufficient to pass the necessary population control laws.

I asked, how can a majority emerge to support a contentious law to control breeding when the vast majority of 7.6 billion people deny human overshoot?

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

There was a hint in Hardin’s paper that he may have understood the centrality of reality denial to our predicament:

… natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.

Hardin did not elaborate further on reality denial but did reference another paper he wrote titled “Denial and the Gift of History” published in a 1964 book edited by himself titled “Population, Evolution, and Birth Control”.

I was unable to obtain this book and 3 years ago asked readers to help me find it. A kind reader named “V” recently found it and I thank him/her very much.

You can download the book here.

It appears to be an important book that will be of interest to students of human overshoot. Here is an enticing summary I created from the best bits of the 1st and 2nd edition back covers:

Population, Evolution, and Birth Control: A Collage of Controversial Ideas

Assembled by Garrett Hardin, University of California, Santa Barbara

“Every year Malthus is proven wrong and is buried—only to spring to life again before the year is out. If he is so wrong, why can’t we forget him? If he is right, how does he happen to be so fertile a subject for criticism?”

“The emerging history of population is a story of disaster and denial—disaster foreseen, but disaster psychologically denied in our innermost being. How can one believe in something—particularly an unpleasant something—that has never happened before?”

With these questions Professor Hardin introduces this unique collection of readings on what is perhaps the most important social problem besetting mankind—the population problem.

For the past twenty years Garrett Hardin has focused his interests on the social implications of biology. He has drawn together here what he considers the most effective published statements made in support of, and in opposition to, the questions at issue. Arranged to show the historical development of major ideas, the more than 100 articles, reviews, and criticisms serve to clarify the points of controversy. Editorial comments accompany the readings, but the reader is urged to draw his own conclusions.

Among the selections are writings dating from Old Testament times to the present. They include extracts from Malthus’ first essay, from Margaret Sanger’s autobiography, from the book Famine—1975! by William and Paul Paddock, which despite its startling and unpopular conclusions, may prove to be a turning point in population literature, and a recent essay by Roman Catholic Dr. Frederick E. Flynn that presents the startling new interpretation of “natural law” that Dr. John Rock used in his book, The Time Has Come, to argue that progesterone oral contraceptive is theologically acceptable to the Catholic Church.

Other important readings include J. H. Fremlin’s “How Many People Can the World Support?”, Paul Ehrlich’s “Paying the Piper”, Kingsley Davis’ “Population Policy: Will Current Programs Succeed?”, and Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”.

Each article was selected in the light of its proved effectiveness in stimulating classroom discussion. The collection provides excellent collateral reading for any course of study that deals with the social impact of science—whether taught in departments of biology, anthropology, economics, sociology, geography, or others.

GARRETT HARDIN studied at the University of Chicago and at Stanford University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1941. He has been associated with the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford University, and the California Institute of Technology; and he is now professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written a popular introductory textbook, “Biology, Its Principles and Implications”, and a general work, “Nature and Man’s Fate”. The present collection of readings was a natural product of his experience in developing discussion classes in universities and in adult education programs.

My initial reaction was, OMG, we’re definitely not becoming wiser. Over 50 years look how far we’ve fallen in public discourse and university teaching of important matters.

So far I’ve only studied the one essay “Denial and the Gift of History”, which I extracted in full below, and the remainder of this post discusses it. A quick scan of the book suggests it contains many more essays worthy of future time and discussion.

I summarize Hardin’s “Denial and the Gift of History” as follows:

  • Denial of death is a widely recognized human behavior.
  • Humans have also denied unpleasant realities throughout history.
  • Due to denial’s ubiquity, a biologist must conclude it is at least in part genetic.
  • Denial in moderation is more advantageous to the survival of an individual than extreme denial, or the absence of denial, hence denial’s ubiquity in humans.
  • While advantageous to an individual, denial is a grave threat to society, because the rate of change of overshoot threats is slow relative to a single lifetime, and thus are easy to deny.
  • “The Gift of History” is that studying prior collapses of ecosystems and civilizations can teach us to overcome our denial of current events.

My conclusions about Hardin on denial:

  • Hardin got a lot right:
    • denial is ubiquitous in humans
    • denial is genetic
    • denial of overshoot is a key threat to the species
  • Hardin missed a lot:
    • denial is not an interesting oddity of human behavior, denial is central to the emergence of behaviorally modern humans
    • the need for denial of death with an extended theory of mind drove the evolution of the more generic denial of unpleasant realities – in other words, denial of death is central, denial of everything unpleasant is an artifact
  • Hardin was wrong on the solution to overshoot:
    • 50 years of history has proven that knowledge and education will not overcome our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities like overshoot

Here’s the complete essay:

Denial and the Gift of History by Garrett Hardin

“None believes in his own death,” said Sigmund Freud. “In the unconscious everyone is convinced of his own immortality.” He was not the first to say this. The poet Edward Young, more than two centuries earlier, wrote: “All men think all men mortal but themselves.” Very likely others, even before Young, recognized this power of denial in man’s life.

The operation of denial is evident in all literature, particularly heroic literature, which is the visible monument of this psychological process. “A thousand shall fall at thy right hand, ten thousand at thy left, but it [i.e., death] shall not come nigh thee,” said the Psalmist. How our breast swells with confidence at these words! Religion must surely be good if it can instill in man this most useful confidence in his powers! So says the apologist for religion, after giving up the defense of its verity. It is a powerful apology. It is no doubt the cornerstone of the philosophy of life of both geniuses and habitual criminals. Arthur Koestler has reminded us that during the days when pickpockets were executed in England, the day of a hanging was a day of great profit for other pickpockets who circulated through the tense and orgasmic crowd. Statistics gathered from the early nineteenth century showed that out of 250 men hanged, 170 had, themselves, witnessed an execution. Denial plays havoc with the deterrence theory of punishment.

“Nothing can happen to me,” said Freud’s poor Hans, the road mender. Great kings are no wiser. When Croesus contemplated waging war against the Persians he consulted the oracle at Delphi, who replied, with her characteristic ambiguity: “If Croesus should send an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire.” Delighted with the reply, Croesus attacked, and the prophecy was fulfilled: a great empire was indeed destroyed—his.

Are we less the victims of denial now, two and a half millennia later? Consider an article published in the Wall Street Journal discussing the dangers of thermonuclear war. More than four columns were devoted to a glowing description of how our stockpiles made us capable of destroying the Soviet Union “in several ways and several times over.” But, as Jerome Frank has pointed out, the article included just two slight references to what the USSR could do to us. The oracle of Wall Street has spoken: “If we wage thermonuclear war, a great nation will be destroyed.” Nothing could be clearer.

But perhaps it is only men of great affairs, practical men, who are the victims of the impulse of denial? Hardly; the biographies of scientists and scholars are replete with accounts of behavior that denies the implications of knowledge. Herbert Conn, a pioneer in the public hygiene movement, did not hesitate to use the public drinking cup himself; and though he warned that the housefly was a carrier of typhoid he did not bother to close his own screen doors. And Freud, who declared that children should receive sex instruction from their parents, left his own children to learn the facts of life “from the gutter,” like everyone else.

How are we to explain the persistence and ubiquity of denial? As biologists we adhere to the working hypothesis that every trait has both genetic and environmental components. As evolutionists we ask, what is the selective advantage of the trait that the hereditary component should so persist through centuries and millennia? Does nonrealistic thinking have a survival value? Is denial superior to truth? These are unpleasant surmises. The problem is a difficult one, and it cannot be said that any man has the answer. But biologists know of a suggestive model—the sickle-cell trait. It is caused by genes.

In malarious regions of Africa the human population is genetically diverse with respect to this trait, and the diversity is stable (so long as we don’t drain the swamps to kill mosquitoes or introduce atabrine to destroy the malarial parasites). The sickle-cell gene causes the red blood cells of the body, normally disc shaped, to become sickle shaped. Only the disc-shaped cells support the life of the parasite. But sickle cells are bad for the human; if a person has only sickle genes, he suffers from anemia, and usually dies young. In a malarious environment it is best to be a hybrid; such individuals are resistant to malaria, but do not suffer from anemia. Individuals having completely normal cells are not anemic, but suffer from malaria. To be hybrid is (individually) best, but a hybrid population is not stable; it constantly throws off some offspring having only genes for normal cells (these are eliminated by malaria) and some having only sickle-shaped cells (who are eliminated by anemia). Only some (50 percent) of the offspring are hybrid.

Is this perhaps the analogical model we need to explain the persistence of denial among humans? The purest deniers live in a world of magic; its lack of congruence with the real world causes the statistical early death of this group. Among these magicians we must number early aeronauts, men who go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, gold prospectors, and indeed all compulsive gamblers. At the other extreme are men of so realistic and cautious a disposition that they are left behind so long as there remains a frontier where rewards are great. A world made up only of such men of pure sensibleness would never invent the submarine or the airplane, never discover the New World. Denial, dangerous though it is, does have some survival value.

The power of denial, valuable though it may be to the individual competitive man of action, is a grave danger to society as a whole. The time scale of historical change, extending as it does over many human generations, makes denial easy and plausible. We tend to assume that as things are now, they have always been, and there’s nothing to worry about in the future. The tourist of the Mediterranean lands naturally assumes that the picturesque and poverty striken countrysides of Spain, Italy, Greece, and Lebanon looked always thus, not realizing that these deserts and near deserts are the work of unconscious man. Plato, in his Critias, says:

“There are mountains in Attica which can now keep nothing but bees, but which were clothed, not so very long ago, with fine trees producing timber suitable for roofing the largest buildings, and roofs hewn from this timber are still in existence. There were also many lofty cultivated trees.

The annual supply of rainfall was not lost, as it is at present, through being allowed to flow over a denuded surface to the sea, but was received by the country, in all its abundance—stored in impervious potter’s earth—and so was able to discharge the drainage of the heights into the hollows in the form of springs and rivers with an abundant volume and wide territorial distribution. The shrines that survive to the present day on the sites of extinct water supplies are evidence for the correctness of my present hypothesis.”

Every move today to preserve the beauty of the forests, the purity of the air, the limpidity of the streams, and the wildness of the seashore is opposed by practical and powerful men. The reasons they give are various, and are (of course) couched in the noblest terms. Freely translated, the voice of the practical man is that of Hans the Road Mender: It can’t happen to me. Other Edens have become deserts, other empires have fallen, other peoples have perished—but not us. We deny the evidence of logic and our senses. As La Fontaine said, “We believe no evil till the evil’s done.”

The gift that history has to give us is freedom from denial. Historical decay takes longer than the efflorescence and decay of a single life, and so it is not easily perceived as a real process and a real danger. But the study of history, if it is to have any real worth, must convince us of the reality of processes that extend over more than a single life span. To achieve this goal we must explicitly state the therapeutic function of history, which is this: to reveal and neutralize the process of denial in the individual. If we fail in this our fate will be that which Santayana described: “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Maximizing Power with Fewer Children

Most people who are expert on our overshoot predicament and the behaviors that enabled it believe two things:

  1. The Maximum Power Principle (MPP) governs our behavior.
  2. We have no free will.

These beliefs lead to the following conclusions:

  1. Our overshoot predicament was inevitable.
  2. There is nothing that can be done to improve the outcome.

A recent comment by Apneaman here is a good example of this belief.

Overpopulation is baked in and so is the remedy (die-back).

I don’t see breeding less as a choice. Survival & reproduction are what life does. Evolution & the MPP are non negotiable.

I don’t think it’s possible to study how life works and not come to the conclusion that we are governed by the MPP and have no free will. I accept these as facts.

I also know that we are the only species with sufficient intelligence to understand the reality of our overshoot predicament, its implications, and to calculate the best course of action.

Most paths are blocked by powerful constraints:

  1. We can’t grow out of our predicament (finite planet)
  2. New technology won’t help (energy depletion)

The best path given the constraints is voluntary rapid population reduction because every overshoot related problem we face improves with fewer people, and because reducing the population will minimize suffering.

So the key question becomes, is it possible to voluntarily reduce the population without violating the MPP?

I’m not an expert on the MPP, and so acknowledge risk of being proven wrong here, but I’m thinking there is some evidence that we could voluntarily reduce the population and not violate the MPP.

It seems there are conditions where max power requires fewer children. For example, families choose to have fewer children when some combination of the following conditions exist:

  • no dependence on children for survival in old age (low risk power will go to zero too soon)
  • not dependent on children for labor (power maximized with fossil energy)
  • success (max power) requires expensive education & income is sufficient to educate few children
  • childcare expenses are high (too many children risks all failing with suboptimal total power)
  • mothers are educated with careers (too many children reduces mother’s power)

This evidence hints that the MPP could be leveraged by awareness of our overshoot predicament to drive down population. One possible scenario follows.

While it’s true that population control is an unpopular topic and is rarely discussed, it’s also true that a political party seeking election has never clearly told the voters that the economy will soon collapse due to resource depletion and environmental damage, and that new born children will have a low probability of survival until we reduce the population.

That party could offer policies suitable for maximizing power in a collapsing economy. For example, a birth lottery where applicants are randomly awarded a permit to have a a child and those children will be heavily supported by the state assuring max power for the lucky family. Childless couples will also maximize their power because they won’t waste resources on children that die. Couples who have a child without a permit will be subject to expensive fines thus reducing their power.

It’s worth a try. If they’re not elected we’ll be no worse off, and we might even be better off since some couples will go childless after listening to the debate.

We need a principled small party that has a low probability of being elected anyway, like for example the Green Party, to step up.

This scenario unfortunately depends on party members breaking through their genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities and accepting our overshoot predicament and its implications.

Thus we’ve come full circle to a prerequisite for a broader understanding Varki’s MORT, which is why I talk about it so much.

MORT awareness is not happening, and it probably never will happen, because denial of denial is the strongest form of denial.

But I’ll probably keep talking about MORT, hoping that some people join me in spreading the word, because there is no alternative except darkness.

By Jack Alpert: How the World Works

This latest video from Jack Alpert is very good.

Alpert explains why on our current default trajectory most of the global population that lives after 2050 will experience starvation and that by about 2100 our 8 billion will be reduced to about 600 million serfs leading a medieval lifestyle on a sick planet.

Alpert then describes an alternate trajectory via voluntary rapid population reduction that avoids unnecessary suffering and preserves a modern human civilization of 50 million living on a healthy planet.

Alpert remains the only person that I’m aware of with a thermodynamically feasible plan for maintaining a modern human civilization as fossil energy depletes.

His plan does require us to break through our evolved tendency to deny unpleasant realities. A few, such as the readers of this blog, have demonstrated this is possible but scaling to the majority remains in serious doubt.

You can find other work I’ve posted by Jack Alpert here.

By Nate Hagens: Earth Day 2020 – The State of the Species

Every year Nate Hagens gives a talk on Earth Day. I missed the announcement of his talk a month ago, perhaps because I killed my social media accounts, but better late than never.

Nate’s presentation as usual is excellent, and this year he provides thoughts on how the virus may influence our overshoot predicament.

Here are a few of Nate’s predictions and ideas I thought were noteworthy:

  • The virus gave our economy a heart attack, although it was already sick.
  • The Great Simplification has begun: a GDP decline of 12-20% is likely this year.
  • Global peak oil was, with no uncertainty, October 2018.
  • Diesel availability is at risk because of surplus gasoline (my note: big problem because diesel powers everything we need to survive: tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships).
  • The financial system has been nationalized: central banks are now both the lender AND buyer of last resort.
  • Global debt/GDP, which was before the virus already unsustainable at 350%, will now rocket to 450+%, which sets us up for another more acute crisis in the not too distant future.
  • Poverty will increase in all countries.
  • Renewable energy is in trouble.
  • 25+% of higher education institutions will go bankrupt.
  • The experts don’t have answers: they do not understand energy or how our system works.
  • We need humans to have better bullshit filters: if we don’t use science to help us going forward we have no hope.
  • We should nationalize the oil industry and drain America last.

Nate concludes with many constructive and positive ideas on how we might respond to our predicament.

Unfortunately Nate did not mention the most important response needed: rapid population reduction. Yes I know that reality denial and the Maximum Power Principle, which govern our behavior, make voluntary population reduction highly improbable, but so do they make improbable all of Nate’s suggestions.

I’m thinking that since it’s unlikely we’ll do anything except react to crises as they unfold we might as well focus on the one and only action that would improve everything: population reduction. It simplifies the conversation, and makes it (theoretically) effective. Much better than talking about many things that we also probably won’t do, but even if we did wouldn’t address the core issue: overshoot.

Imagine this political platform: “We only need to do one thing, and there’s only one thing we need to do, don’t have children unless you win the lottery, so there can be future generations.”

You can find other excellent work by Nate that I’ve posted in the past here.

Gail Tverberg on what to expect…

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Gail Tverberg is one of my favorite thinkers and has been writing about our overshoot predicament for years. In today’s essay she makes the most specific predictions I’ve seen on the probable outcomes of the economic deceleration caused by the Wuhan virus.

I suspect most of her predictions will happen, but I’m not confident on the timeline. It’s possible money printing will buy us a few more years, or maybe not.

I think we should hope for the best, and plan for the worst.

Regardless, time is running out to make preparations.

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2020/04/21/covid-19-and-oil-at-1-is-there-a-way-forward/

Here are a few excerpts from her full essay.

COVID-19 and oil at $1: Is there a way forward?

Our basic problem is a finite world problem. World population has outgrown its resource base.

In this post, I suggest the possibility that some core parts of the world economy might temporarily be saved if they can be made to operate fairly independently of each other.

The COVID-19 actions taken to date, together with the poor condition the economy was in previously, lead me to believe that the world economy is headed for a major reset.

A reset world economy will likely end up with “pieces” of today’s economy surviving, but within a very different framework.

There are clearly parts of the world economy that are not working:

  • The financial system is way too large. There is too much debt, and asset prices are inflated based on very low interest rates.
  • World population is way too high, relative to resources.
  • Wage and wealth disparity is too great.
  • Too much of income is going to the financial system, healthcare, education, entertainment, and travel.
  • All of the connectivity of today’s world is leading to epidemics of many kinds traveling around the world.

Even with these problems, there may still be some core parts of the world economy that perhaps can be made to work. Each would have a smaller population than today. They would function much more independently than today, like mostly separate economic pumps. The nature of these economies will be different in different parts of the world.

In a less connected world, what we think of today as assets will likely have much less value. High rise buildings will be worth next to nothing, for example, because of their ability to transfer pathogens around. Public transportation will lose value for the same reason. Manufacturing that depends upon supply lines around the world will no longer work either. This means that manufacturing of computers, phones and today’s cars will likely no longer be possible. Products built locally will need to depend almost exclusively on local resources.

Pretty much everything that is debt today can be expected to default. Shares of stock will have little value. To try to save parts of the system, governments will need to take over assets that seem to have value such as farm land, mines, oil and gas wells, and electricity transmission lines. They will also likely need to take over banks, insurance companies and pension plans.

If oil products are available, governments may also need to make certain that farms, trucking companies and other essential users are able to get the fuel they need so that people can be fed. Water and sanitation are other systems that may need assistance so that they can continue to operate.

I expect that eventually, each separate economy will have its own currency. In nearly all cases, the currency will not be the same as today’s currency. The currency will be paid only to current workers in the economy, and it will only be usable for purchasing a limited range of goods made by the local economy.

These are a few of my ideas regarding what might be ahead:

(a) There will be a shake-out of governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations. Most intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and European Union, will disappear. Many governments of countries may disappear, as well. Some may be overthrown. Others may collapse, in a manner similar to the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991. Governmental organizations take energy; if energy is scarce, they are dispensable.

(b) Some countries seem to have a sufficient range of resources that at least the core portion of them may be able to go forward, for a while, in a fairly modern state:

  • United States
  • Canada
  • Russia
  • China
  • Iran

Big cities will likely become problematic in each of these locations, and populations will fall. Alaska and other very cold places may not be able to continue as part of the core, either.

(c) Countries, or even smaller units, will want to continue to limit trade and travel to other areas, for fear of contracting illnesses.

(d) Europe, especially, looks ripe for a big step back. Its fossil fuel resources tend to be depleted. There may be parts that can continue with the use of animal labor, if such animal labor can be found. Big protests and failing debt are likely by this summer in some areas, including Italy.

(e) Governments of the Middle Eastern countries and of Venezuela cannot continue long with very low oil prices. These countries are likely to see their governments overthrown, with a concurrent reduction in exports. Population will also fall, perhaps to the level before oil exploration.

(f) The making of physical goods will experience a major setback, starting immediately. Many supply chains are already broken. Medicines made in India and China are likely to start disappearing. Automobile manufacturing will depend on individual countries setting up their own manufacturing supply chains if the making of automobiles is to continue.

(g) The medical system will suffer a major setback from COVID-19 because no one will want to come to see their regular physician any more, for fear of catching the disease. Education will likely become primarily the responsibility of families, with television or the internet perhaps providing some support. Universities will wither away. Music may continue, but drama (on television or elsewhere) will tend to disappear. Restaurants will never regain their popularity.

(h) It is possible that Quantitative Easing by many countries can temporarily prop up the prices of shares of stock and homes for several months, but eventually physical shortages of many goods can be expected. Food in particular is likely to be in short supply by spring a year from now. India and Africa may start seeing starvation much sooner, perhaps within weeks.

(i) History shows that when energy resources are not growing rapidly (see discussion of Figure 3), there tend to be wars and other conflicts. We should not be surprised if this happens again.

Conclusion

We seem to be reaching the limit of making our current global economic system work any longer. The only hope of partial salvation would seem to be if core parts of the world economy can be made to work in a more separate fashion for at least a few more years. In fact, oil and other fossil fuel production may continue, but for each country’s own use, with very limited trade.

There are likely to be big differences among economies around the world. For example, hunter-gathering may work for a few people, with the right skills, in some parts of the world. At the same time, more modern economies may exist elsewhere.

The new economy will have far fewer people and far less complexity. Each country can be expected to have its own currency, but this currency will likely be used only on a limited range of locally produced goods. Speculation in asset prices will no longer be a source of wealth.

It will be a very different world!

By Nate Hagens: Reality 101 Short Courses

 

Reality Check Ahead

Today Nate Hagens released a new series of short courses on the human predicament created for the University of Minnesota NEXUS ONE freshman program.

More information on Nate’s educational initiatives can be found at the Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future (ISEOF).

You can also find another excellent Reality 101 course by Nate here.

 

Reality 101 Short Course #1: Metacognition in the Anthropocene

 

Reality 101 Short Course #2: The Fossils that Power the Global Economy

 

Reality 101 Short Course #3: The Real Stock Market

 

Reality 101 Short Course #4: Finding Resilience in an Age of Turbulence

By Geoffrey Chia: Open Letter to Extinction Rebellion

Who Wants Change

Extinction Rebellion is the most promising new global organization dedicated to forcing action on our ecological and climate emergency.

Their #1 demand is for governments to stop denying reality:

Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.

Dr. Geoffrey Chia, in an open letter to Extinction Rebellion, commends them on their good intentions but points out that they are as deeply in denial as the governments they criticize.

http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2019/06/29/open-letter-to-extinction-rebellion/

h/t James

One of your demands is that official bodies tell the Truth and declare a climate emergency. You were told by the IPCC last year that humanity had 12 years before it would be too late to do anything. That was a LIE. The fact is that it was and is already far too late to prevent global catastrophe. There is NO carbon budget left. These realities were apparent even back in 2013 following the IPCC fifth assessment report, when the only scenarios the IPCC could imagine where disaster could be avoided required time travel into the past or technologies which did not exist and certainly could not be scaled up even if they did exist (as expressed by climate scientists Dr Kevin Anderson and Dr Hugh Hunt). The science based facts behind these assertions are summarised here: 6.

Truth is determined by careful and comprehensive collection of accurate data, by hard objective scientific scrutiny using the principles of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, including mathematical analyses, which must not be polluted by political or economic vested interests. The IPCC processes had long been watered down by political interference, which seriously underestimated the magnitude and speed of global warming, in order to justify foot dragging by national so-called “leaders”.

The reason we have not yet experienced the full horrific consequences of 415ppm CO2 (in reality, there is a much higher CO2 equivalent, around 500ppm) is because of time lag due to thermal inertia. Atmospheric temperature rises have been buffered by the cool oceans and the melting ice masses. Those buffers are being exceeded, they are being overwhelmed, as every second passes. If you think the unprecedented shocking weather extremes over the past 15 years were disastrous at barely 1 degree Celsius atmospheric global average temperature rise, there is far more and far worse to come. More than 4 degrees rise is irreversibly baked into the cake based on EXISTING greenhouse gas concentrations. That is as certain as the law of gravity. Hell is coming no matter what. The best thing you can do is get ready for it. But time is short and you must act NOW before the imminent global economic collapse steals away all your options.

Let us consider the absolute best imaginable outcomes for your group. What will happen if you are immediately 100% effective today in achieving all your social and policy goals?

  • Even if all carbon emissions cease today, the world is still committed to more than 4 degrees Celsius eventual global average temperature rise which will render large scale agriculture impossible. This means civilisation, the hallmark of which is the existence of cities, will no longer be possible. Small scale agriculture in a few selected climate resilient pockets may still be possible.
  • Large scale carbon sequestration is a fantasy and will never be undertaken because our bogus economic system will not allow for it and even if we can develop those technologies, we will not have the energy resources to do it. Geoengineering insanity will cause more problems than they address.
  • Immediate cessation of emissions will also mean immediate curtailment of global food production which is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. This will cause billions to starve. In the medical management of patients, knowingly inflicting harm is not an option. However allowing nature to take its course (in some cases – such as untreatable terminal cancer) is acceptable, indeed unavoidable. As a matter of course, billions will die this century due to oil/resource depletion, ecosystem collapse and climate catastrophe and the consequences thereof (warfare, epidemics etc). Inevitable near term economic collapse is also absolutely certain due to institutional fraud and impending energy collapse.  It is those events which will most effectively and drastically curtail carbon emissions, not your activism.

There is absolutely nothing you can do about the looming general die-off. You can however take steps to reduce the likelihood that you and your family and friends will die horribly in the next few decades. Please note that nobody’s survival is guaranteed. All anyone can do is increase the probability of their survival.

The remainder of Chia’s letter is a little too over the top with hyperbole for my taste but the gist of his advice to extinction rebellion members is probably correct: It’s too late to save civilization, focus on saving your members.

Here is another post by Geoffrey Chia that I thought was pretty good.

By Geoffrey Chia: What you should not say in public…