On Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons, Lacks Dialogue

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

“The maximum is not the optimum.”

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

“Birth control does not equal population control.”

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

– Garrett Hardin

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

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

Tragedy of the Commons, Pasture and Climate

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

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

Tragedy of the Commons, Drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I summarize Hardin’s position as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the most important and missing third group?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Ugo Bardi: Are We Decoupling?

energygdp2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

2-gs-photo

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the ten commandments:

ten-commandments-one-slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jacob Freydont-Attie: The Cross of the Moment

TheCrossoftheMoment2016260051JF1U_f

This excellent 2015 documentary is a series of bright minds discussing the human predicament from different insightful perspectives.

Most of the big issues like over-population, fossil energy dependence, climate change, and species extinction are discussed with honesty and an absence of denial.

I particularly like how the director Jacob Freydont-Attie set the ominous tone by opening with a discussion of the Fermi Paradox.

A couple of participants made the common uniformed claim that we can easily continue business as usual without emitting carbon, and no one commented on how odd it is for such an intelligent species to deny it’s predicament, but on balance I think this is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen on human overshoot.

Thanks to GailZ for bringing this to my attention.

Here is some information from the home site:

A deep-green, deep-time, highly cerebral discussion of the environmental crisis, The Cross of the Moment attempts to connect the dots between Fermi’s Paradox, climate change, capitalism, and collapse. Interviews with top scientists and public intellectuals are woven together into a narrative that is challenging, exhausting, and often depressing as it refuses to accept the easy answers posited by other overly-simplistic climate change documentaries. No fancy graphics or distracting introductions detract from what is essentially an 80 minute constructed conversation among a group of highly informed experts on the most important topic in human history; will our species survive catastrophic climate change?

The film is divided into seven chapters that start from the widest perspective, why do we appear to be alone in the galaxy, and slowly narrows its focuses through a series of topics including Rare Earth Theory, human impact on the biosphere, potential solutions, structural barriers to implementation, the possibility of the collapse of civilization, and a final call for immediate engagement at all levels of society.

Interviewees are Don Brownlee, Roger Carasso, Robin Hanson, Mark Jacobson, Derrick Jensen, David Klein, Bill McKibben, Guy McPherson, Bill Patzert, Gary Snyder, Jill Stein, Peter Ward, and Josh Willis. Some of these are household names, other are more obscure scientists working in academia or for government institutions such as NASA. What they all share is a pressing concern for the future of our planet. Certainly more demanding on its audience than similar films, there is also present here a layer of humor and, more importantly, a deep sense of humanity. By the end the audience has not just explored our current crisis from a variety of thoughtful perspectives, but also become acquainted with these highly original intellectuals as people seeking truth as we all are.

The film takes its title from a stanza of W. H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, published in 1947.

 

A New International Journalism Standard: Certified 100% Denial-Free™

no_denial_here1

 

Thanks to the millions of people that visit this site every day, awareness of Varki’s revolutionary Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory is exploding.

Many citizens in every country are now aware that most sources of journalism are deeply in denial and incapable of accurately reporting on the reality of world affairs and the human predicament.

Thanks to this growing demand for reality based journalism, we have launched a new international certification standard for journalism: Certified 100% Denial-Free™

Only those organizations that agree to follow our rigorous certification guidelines, and which permit us to conduct regular compliance audits on their employees and publications, may use our trademarked designation Certified 100% Denial-Free™.

Aware citizens may confidently trust content when they see the Certified 100% Denial-Free™ designation.

Aware citizens also know that any content lacking the Certified 100% Denial-Free™ designation should be viewed with suspicion and assumed to deny reality.

Dozens of influential organizations have enrolled in our program and are working hard to achieve certification. We can expect many more organizations to enroll as momentum grows and consumers vote with their wallets.

Please be patient because certification takes time given the rigor and difficulty of compliance, which often involves terminating many executives and employees that have denial genetics too strong to override with re-training.

You are encouraged to pressure your favorite journalism sources to seek or accelerate certification.

We are offering certification as a non-profit public service. Enrollment is free and the only cost is reimbursement for actual certification and auditing expenses.

On Winning the Game

world-leaders-attempting-to-control-world-economy1

Gail Tverberg in her latest essay uses an airplane video game as a nice analogy for the world economy and concludes that there is no way to win the game.

Gail’s implicit definition of “win” is to maintain or improve our standard of living. I agree with Gail there is no possibility of winning this game and our standard of living will fall dramatically in the not too distant future.

Where we might disagree is that I think we should use a different definition of “win”. We are in a severe state of overshoot. Nothing can be done to avoid a permanent economic contraction. Given this reality we should redefine “win” as achieving the best possible outcome for a plane that is running low on fuel.

Criteria for “best possible outcome” should include:

  • Population reduction policies.
  • Austerity and conservation policies designed to manage our descent in a civil and humane manner, rather than resisting the inevitable with debt and money printing that will cause a much worse uncontrolled crash.
  • Taxation policies to ensure the wealth gap does not widen to a level that causes dangerous social unrest or revolution.
  • Programs to use what surplus wealth remains to protect ecosystems and to build infrastructure needed at our destination.
  • Policies to prevent wasting surplus wealth on things that will have no value at our destination.
  • Educating citizens on what is happening to avoid despots, false blame, and war.

How to implement this new definition of “win” is of course the big question.

It is discouraging that even the Green Party is unable to whisper the word overshoot, let alone offer appropriate overshoot policies.

As always, I return to the core issue:

Reality denial enabled the powerful brain that is central to our success;

AND

Reality denial threatens our existence by preventing us from acknowledging and acting on our overshoot predicament.

It is encouraging that by understanding other genetic traits, like our susceptibility to nicotine addiction, and our brain’s inability safely drive while texting, we have made some progress via government policy to reduce these threats.

The first step to redefining “win” must be to increase awareness of Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

With awareness, a portion of the population might be able to override their genetic tendency to deny reality, and to influence elections to redefine “win”.

 

Here are a few excerpts from Gail Tverberg’s essay however it’s worth your time to read in entirety.

By Gail Tverberg: A Video Game Analogy to Our Energy Predicament

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2017/11/28/a-video-game-analogy-to-our-energy-predicament/

The way the world economy is manipulated by world leaders is a little like a giant video game. The object of the game is to keep the world economy growing, without too many adverse consequences to particular members of the world economy. We represent this need for growth of the world economy as being similar to making a jet airplane fly at ever-higher altitudes.

What Happens As Coffin Corner Limits Are Reached in the Economic World?

What do world leaders do, as the world economy hits limits? One temptation is for the world leaders in Figure 1 to take their foot off the throttle that is operated by low interest rates and more debt, because they don’t seem to be providing very much benefit anymore. The leaders fear that if more debt is added at low interest rates, it risks creating “asset bubbles” that are easily disturbed if any little bump to the economy occurs. If a big bubble pops, there is a significant risk that the economy could fall down to a much lower level. This is like stalling the jet at high altitude.

World leaders can also use approaches that create situations more like “making the wings come off” the economy. These approaches involve favoring one group over another. For example, a government can give big tax breaks to businesses, but raise taxes on individual citizens. Businesses will ultimately be harmed by this approach, because they depend on individual citizens for their sales. The result is like tearing the wings off the airplane.

Another approach that would tear the wings off the economy involves actions by a different group of world leaders than those shown in Figure 1, namely the leaders from OPEC and Russia. These leaders have different video game screens and different game controllers. They can manipulate the world economy by reducing the supply of oil they provide. With this approach, they hope to increase the price of oil, and thus obtain a larger share of the world’s goods and services through higher tax revenue.

Raising the oil price would benefit oil exporters, but would make goods and services more expensive for oil importing countries. Ultimately, this approach would lead to recession in oil importing nations. The result would likely be worse than the 2008-2009 recession–another way to make the wings come off the economy.

[5] The real enemies of continued economic growth are (a) diminishing returns with respect to oil and other energy production, (b) continued population growth, and (c) increasing wage and wealth disparity. 

We seem to be playing a video game where the players don’t understand who the real enemies are.

Diminishing returns with respect to oil and other energy production have to do with the cost of energy extraction rising ever-higher, as more resources are extracted. There are a lot of resources that we can “see,” but that we cannot economically extract, unless prices rise to very high levels.

Continued population growth is a problem because it is really “energy per capita” that matters. Each individual needs food, transportation, and housing. All of these things take energy. Many years ago, when most of the workers were farmers, it was necessary to create ever-smaller farms, as population rose. This clearly would lead to lower food production per farmer, unless some sort of technological breakthrough was taking place at the same time. Today, we have a parallel issue.

Increasing wage disparity tends to be associated with the rising use of technology. When most labor is hand labor, workers truly do “pay each other’s wages.” All wages can be fairly equal. With increased technology, some workers have specialized training; others do not. Some workers are supervisors; others are laborers. Unless the overall output of the economy is rising very rapidly, non-elite workers find themselves increasingly unable to afford the output of the economy. It is this falling “demand” (really affordability) that tends to pull an economy downward.

[8] In fact, since 2014, the selling prices of oil, natural gas, and coal have all fallen below the cost of extraction.

It is popular to think that the reason why oil prices are too low is because of overproduction by the United States or Saudi Arabia. When a person stops to realize that essentially the same situation arises for all three fossil fuels, a person begins to understand that there likely is an affordability issue underlying the low prices for all three fuels. The affordability issue, of course, arises because energy supply is not rising quickly enough because (at over $20 per barrel), it is too expensive to be truly affordable. The “atmosphere is too thin” at today’s high cost of energy extraction.

[11] The whole “game” has been confused by a lot of not-quite-correct pronouncements from academic circles.

A lot of well-meaning people have tried to solve our energy problems, but haven’t gotten the story right.

Economists have gotten the story pretty much 100% wrong. Energy is very important for the economy. Furthermore, energy prices don’t rise endlessly.

Peak Oilers have confused matters by talking about oil, coal and natural gas being determined by the amount of technically recoverable resources in the ground. This might be true if energy prices could rise endlessly, but clearly they cannot. By following the wrong views of economists, Peak Oilers have led world leaders to believe that far more resources are available to be extracted than really is the case.

People who call themselves Biophysical Economists haven’t really gotten the story correct either. The Biophysical Economists realized that there was a need for a measure for diminishing returns. They put together a measure which they called Energy Returned on Energy Invested. The measure, unfortunately, only “sort of” works. It gives a lot of wrong answers. It does not suggest that oil prices above $20 per barrel are a problem. It also does not suggest that substitutes for oil that are priced above $20 per barrel are a problem. It tends to give a lot of “false positives” when it comes to the question of whether renewables can be substituted for fossil fuels. It seems to suggest that a particular ratio is important, when it is really the total quantity of an energy product available at a very low price that is important.

I should not pick on the Biophysical Economists. There are many others with academic credentials who produce metrics that really aren’t very helpful. Energy payback time is not a very helpful metric, especially from the point of view of deciding whether or not to use a particular device. It is not the energy that the economy must pay back; it is the full cost of manufacturing the device that needs to be recovered, including human labor costs and taxes. In some applications, the cost of mitigating intermittency may also need to be considered.

Even the standard Levelized Cost of Energy calculations can give misleading indications, if they are used on intermittent renewables without taking into account the cost of mitigating the intermittency.

With all of these issues, it is not surprising that world leaders have difficulty playing the energy and economy game. In fact, it is hard to see any winning strategy.

One of the issues that makes the game impossible to win is the fact that all sides must win. A solution that cuts out the oil exporters is a problem for an economy dependent on oil. Any solution that cuts out the workers is a problem, partly because businesses need workers as consumers, and partly because governments need workers as taxpayers.

The reason I have not included any discussion of renewables is because at this point in time, we do not have any renewables that are sufficiently inexpensive and sufficiently scalable to represent a solution.

Reality Denial Harm Prevention: A Proposal for Screening and Licensing

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All 7 billion humans originated from one small tribe of hominids in Africa about 100,000 years ago. Despite their close relatedness individuals are born with considerable genetic variation in physical and mental characteristics. Examples of genetic variation include height, weight, strength, speed, eyesight, intelligence, aptitudes, demeanour, sexual orientation, dietary tolerance, disease susceptibility, addiction tendency, mental health, and longevity.

The laws and practices of most countries have acknowledged that genetic variation exists and that certain levels of variation can be harmful to society, or may prevent the individual from performing certain tasks. Examples include:

  • Most professions such as engineering, medicine, science, and law implicitly screen candidates for adequate intelligence and aptitude with challenging university entrance and degree requirements, exams, and professional certifications.
  • Airline pilots, air traffic controllers, train engineers, and truck drivers are required to have vision acuity and color vision above a minimum level.
  • Law enforcement, firefighting, and some military roles require adequate strength and agility to perform the work.
  • Many professional sports require a minimum speed, height, weight, or strength.
  • Many employers screen for substance abuse which is known to have a genetic predisposition.

A recent scientific breakthrough by Varki and Brower shows that the behaviorly modern human brain was enabled about 100,000 years ago by a simultaneous mutation for an extended theory of mind and denial of reality.

Denial of reality is therefore central to the behavior of most humans, and is characterized by a tendency to deny the reality of anything unpleasant, regardless of evidence or science. As with other genetic characteristics like color blindness, the level and type of reality denial varies widely in the population from benign to dangerous.

Benign forms of reality denial may benefit or harm the individual, but rarely do serious harm to society, future generations, or other species. Examples of benign reality denial include:

  • Belief in a god that promises life after death.
  • Unhealthy lifestyles and diets.
  • Use of mind altering substances.
  • Wacky beliefs like miracles, fate, luck, conspiracy theories, and UFOs.

Dangerous forms of reality denial, on the other hand, often benefit the individual or society in the short-term, but cause severe mid and long-term harm to society, future generations, and other species. Examples of dangerous reality denial include:

  • Denial of human overshoot.
  • Denial of species decline and extinction, and damage to ecosystems.
  • Denial of climate change severity, actions required to make the future less bad, and personal responsibility.
  • Denial of many limits to growth, including some imminent threats like low-cost oil depletion.
  • Denial of the implications of excessive debt and low interest rates.

Clearly, the risks and potential harm from genetic variation associated with reality denial, which for example could cause the collapse of civilization or extinction of many species, far exceed the risks and potential harm from the already regulated genetic variations, like vision accuracy, which could cause a fatal surgery mistake or a plane to crash.

We should therefore urgently act on the recent discovery of Varki and Brower and pass laws to screen and license people before they are permitted to function in roles inappropriate for certain levels of reality denial.

Upon reaching the legal age of consent, all citizens should be assessed for their inherited level of reality denial using a scale from 0 to 6 as follows:

  • full reality acceptance (0)
  • benign reality denial: low (1), medium (2), high (3)
  • dangerous reality denial: low (4), medium (5), high (6)

The screening process would include a review of activities in the community, social media, interviews with teachers and acquaintances, and a written examination.

The process would focus on assessing the strength of the following beliefs:

  • There are no limits to growth.
  • Green growth is better.
  • Technology is the solution to all problems including energy.
  • There are two sides to the climate change debate.
  • We must increase food production to keep pace with population growth.
  • iPhones, the internet, and Tesla are more important innovations than Haber-Bosch, concrete, and the diesel engine.
  • I’ve already done enough by shopping with a reusable bag.

In the future as brain scanning technologies improve, it is expected that the screening process will be replaced with a quick and inexpensive brain scan that will detect activity in the region of the brain responsible for reality denial.

Upon completion the individual will be issued an official government identification card stating the level of reality denial that they were born with.

Critical occupations and activities in society may not be filled or conducted by anyone exceeding a specified level of reality denial. Examples of maximum allowed levels include:

  • right to vote (3)
  • right to run for elected office (2)
  • right to make political donations (3)
  • senior position in any company (3)
  • senior position in government (2)
  • teachers and professors (1)

Please contact your elected representatives and make them aware of the new science associated with reality denial and lobby for this vital extension to existing harm prevention laws and practices.